Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces

triggersThe recent statement from The University of Chicago is long overdue:

“In a welcome letter to the incoming Class of 2020, Dean of Students John Ellison gives students the truth: there will be no quarter from controversial ideas on campus. U of C has made an ironclad commitment to the First Amendment, and will not abide safe spaces, trigger warnings, and other kinds of limitations on what is considered acceptable discourse:

‘Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.’

Ellison pulls no punches. ‘Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn, without fear of censorship,’ he writes. ‘At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.’ “

Plain common sense, and this isn’t just a reaction to extreme cases like the Yale and Mizzou protests last year (over “insensitive” Halloween costumes and other ridiculous furies). It’s embarrassing that we live in a time when courageous thinkers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Bill Maher are petitioned to have their speaking invitations cancelled because they are deemed bigots by students who have a poor understanding of the term. Or when genuinely funny comedians won’t bother performing at college campuses because humor can’t offend as it should. Even in my undergrad days at Lewis & Clark (’89-’91), I was cognizant of the growing narratives on liberal arts campuses which made “everything” offensive. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are very real problems, and those issues are trivialized by the hyper-sensitive who protest infringements on their “safe spaces” and misguided narratives. Grow up.

Whether material might offend or trigger trauma isn’t for college instructors to worry about in any case, beyond the common sense used in prefacing their courses. For examples:

  • In both my Hebrew Bible and New Testament classes in ’90-’91, my professor (Richard Rohrbaugh) outlined historical criticism and the kind of thinking we would be expected to engage in, and warned us that as long as he had been teaching intro bible classes, there are always some students who become very upset throughout the coursework (confronted by sudden chasms separating what the bible meant and what it means to believers today). He said, “My answer to that is tough rocks; let the chips fall where they may; I’m not here to offend anyone, but some of you will naturally be offended.” Again, common sense, and this is a perfect heads-up warning to quit the class on day one if you don’t think you can handle it.
  • Over a decade ago a friend of mine took a film class and one of the required films to watch was Irreversible, which depicts an extremely long and upsetting rape scene. Again, on the first day of class, the professor warned about transgressive content like this in some of the films. Now, at the other end of the spectrum, a rape scene like that in Pulp Fiction is universally seen as hilarious, though it could potentially upset a rape victim. But we can’t police the species and worry about every possible trigger. That’s up to the student. As someone on Facebook put it the other day, college professors aren’t counselors and it’s not their responsibility to pander to recovery needs.

So whether we’re dealing with material that may be offensive to some or triggering trauma in others, that is adequately covered in a first-day preface, which has been the professorial norm for ages. Students shouldn’t be mollycoddled beyond this. It’s not serving them at all, and it’s certainly not preparing them for the real world, which is the goal of an institution of higher learning.

“Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.”

quote-i-speak-spanish-to-god-italian-to-women-french-to-men-and-german-to-my-horse-charles-v-holy-roman-emperor-35181Charles V doubtfully said it like this, though it would have a been a clever hat-tip to his domains — Spanish piety, Germanic martial culture, French the aristocratic common tongue. This blogger chronicles the 400-year evolution of the saying.

Italian seems originally to have been held in oratory esteem rather than a feminine one. “German to my horse” seems less than respectful. The earliest sources don’t mention a horse, and German is singled out for being relatively foul. For example, “If to threaten someone or to speak harshly to them, [I speak] in German, for their entire language is threatening, rough and vehement.”

I thought of the saying as I was rereading one of my favorite historical novels, Captain from Castile, in which Charles V appears as a character. He doesn’t speak or think the saying anywhere in the novel, but I can see where the “Spanish to God” part comes from. The scenes involving the Spanish Inquisition are powerful, and the general feel of 16th-century Catholic piety is chilling. The Spaniards may not have been as reprehensible as the Aztecs (Captain from Castile is refreshingly politically-incorrect, and true to history), but the worst elements of Spanish Catholicism at this time were certainly as bad as Aztec sacrifice, and it warms my heart when the Inquisitor gets his just deserts — roasted alive on the pyre of Xiuhtecuhtli (god of fire), a fitting payback to all those he burned at the stake (if the Aztecs only knew) back home.

Horror Movies and Rape Fantasies

I’ve wondered why horror-movie fans like myself enjoy being disturbed, and in researching the subject I was drawn to the somewhat related study of rape fantasies. Interestingly enough, research on rape fantasies and horror movie consumption, done independently of each other, point to similar conclusions.

Rape fantasies are common, but intuitively make no sense. How does one get pleasure from imagining a degrading assault on oneself? Most fantasies depicting something bad happening to the fantasizer are no more pleasant to imagine than to experience in reality. If I imagine getting in a car accident, it’s an unpleasant fantasy. If I imagine getting cancer, it’s unpleasant. If I imagine getting mugged at gunpoint, it’s certainly not arousing. But if I imagine getting raped (whether by a man or woman, given my flexible orientation), that can be a pleasant fantasy, even in the knowledge that it would be repugnant — or emotionally traumatizing — if it actually happened as imagined. Why is this the case?

Joseph Critelli and Jenny Bivona have outlined different theories which attempt to explain heterosexual female rape fantasies — that is, women who daydream, masturbate, or have sex with a partner while fantasizing being raped by a man. The gender/orientation bias is limiting, though some of these findings would seem to translate into other combinations (men fantasizing being raped by men, women by women, men by women) easily enough. As many as 20 studies conducted over the last 30 years show that between 31-57% of women enjoy rape fantasies (between 9-17% say rape is their favorite fantasy), so again the phenomenon is a common one.

Before considering the theories, it’s worth noting two kinds of rape fantasies distinguished by specialists: erotic and aversive. Erotic fantasies involve an attractive and aggressive male whom the woman resists, but he overpowers and rapes her with minimal violence. Aversive fantasies involve a male who is usually older and unattractive, and who uses coercive and painful violence to terrify the woman — typically throwing her to the ground and ripping off her clothes while she fights desperately and futilely to prevent the rape. There is often overlap between aversive and erotic fantasies (9% of reported rape fantasies are aversive, 45% are erotic, and 46% are on a continuum somewhere between aversive-erotic). One might question making the distinction at all, since rape is rape, and real-life victims of “erotic” rapes are just as easily left traumatized as those of “aversive” rapes. But the distinction can be useful depending on which theory is being advocated to account for fantasies.

Here are the eight theories considered by Critelli and Bivona, plus another (#6) which they omit. I list them roughly in ascending order of explanatory power (worst first, best last), not necessarily shared by the authors of the article, and the numerical ratings on a scale of 0-5 are my own.

(1) Masochism. Rape fantasies are an expression of a woman’s innate desire for suffering and pain. The weakest theory on this list, (unless one is honestly prepared to claim that 31-57% of women are masochists), relying on dated psychoanalysis which assumes that rape fantasies are pathological. At best the theory accounts for fantasies of true masochists, who are few and far between. Explanatory power: 1/5.

(2) Male Rape Culture. Rape fantasies are a manifestation of male-dominated culture. Another weak theory. The idea is that women are conditioned by society to believe (or find attractive the idea) that they are unable to resist the advances of an aggressive male and should display vulnerability. Promoted in the ’70s by feminist Susan Brownmiller (see halfway down this post), who believes that rape fantasies are pathological. The glaring problem with it is that it ignores many strong-willed feminists who have rape fantasies (not to mention men who have fantasies of being raped by either men or women). Gender roles have changed dramatically since the ’70s, but rape fantasies remain consistent. Rape culture is real (especially in honor-shame societies), but it doesn’t explain fantasies like it does real-world rape. Explanatory power: 1/5.

(3) Blame Avoidance. Rape fantasies allow women to avoid blame or responsibility for expressing their sexuality. The most frequently cited theory. It states that women who are raised in sexually repressive environments and feel guilty about sex are prone to fantasize being taken against their will, thus absolving them of blame. Not only does the empirical data show no correlation between repression and rape fantasies, the theory has an Achilles’ heel: most women who have rape fantasies have just as many consensual fantasies, reducing the likelihood that they’re trying to “avoid blame” for expressing sexuality. This theory may have wide intuitive appeal, and is a politically correct way of explaining a controversial phenomenon, but like the above two needs to be removed from the literature as an explanation for rape fantasies. Explanatory power: 1/5.

(4) Openness. Rape fantasies are part of a woman’s generally open and accepting attitude toward sex. The opposite of blame avoidance: instead of being driven by repressed sexuality, other women are driven by libertinism. This one is as correct as blame avoidance is wrong: it’s true that women who engage in multiple sex partners, and/or seek out a variety of sex acts, and/or are bisexual, are more likely to have rape fantasies than other women. But this is descriptive and predictive rather than explanatory. It leaves unanswered the important question: however libertine a woman is, why choose a particular fantasy (rape) that would be repugnant if it happened in real life? Explanatory power: 0/5; descriptive power: 4/5.

(5) Desirability. Rape fantasies are a testament to a woman’s sexual power. The woman envisions herself as so desirable that a man will lose control and break the bounds of moral decency to have her, thus enhancing the woman’s self-esteem. While studies show that the need for desire accounts for some rape fantasies, they show no correlation between self-esteem (or body satisfaction) and rape fantasies. Also, as a general rule desirability seems artificial. Women can just as easily imagine themselves desirable in consensual fantasies. Why not fancy a man relentlessly pursuing her until she finally consents? Why is the fantasy of rape so essential to experiencing desire? Explanatory power: 2/5

(6) Reaction to Trauma. Rape fantasies are a way of gaining control over a real-life traumatic experience. This one isn’t on Critelli & Bivona’s list of eight, but Matthew Huston adds it. Since many masturbatory fantasies are attempts to transform early difficult experiences into pleasure, women who have been raped may attempt to master their trauma by taming the experience. This theory is based on the largest survey of sexual fantasies ever conducted, but also on more general observations about “early difficult experiences”, rape being one possibility. Explanatory power: 2/5.

(7) Biological Predisposition. Rape fantasies reflect a biological need to surrender to male dominance. Male dominance & female surrender is a basic pattern in the animal world, originating from primitive brain regions that have evolved to insure successful mating. This isn’t a predisposition to indiscriminate rape — which would have surely reduced the reproductive success of ancestral human females by making them vulnerable to impregnation by men with inferior genes — but rather to rape by a selected dominant male. This theory has something going for it, particularly for erotic rape fantasies (which involve an attractive male) but as with the male rape culture theory, it doesn’t account for those who have fantasies of being raped by women. Explanatory power: 3/5.

(8) Sympathetic Activation. Rape fantasies are a manifestation of enhanced sexual response owing to fear and anger. Increased blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, and muscle tension prepare the way for genital arousal and vaginal lubrication. As with biological predisposition, this is understandable: ancestral women who didn’t have an automatic vaginal response to rape would have been prone to penetrative injury resulting in illness and infertility, and would have less likely passed on the trait to offspring. For protective reasons, the emotions of fear and anger triggered by a rape can provide a “jump start” for sexual arousal. This is a promising avenue, especially for aversive rape fantasies (which involve high levels of fear), and has been confirmed by real-life rape victims who recount these physical responses, as well as the results of laboratory research showing surges of vaginal blood flow as women listen to descriptions of rape scenes. Explanatory power: 4/5.

(9) Adversary Transformation. Rape fantasies are an effective means of creating dramatic tension in a story that will ultimately have a positive ending. As in trashy romance novels (which account for 40% of paperback sales in the U.S., 54% of them involving the rape of the heroine) the woman/heroine envisions herself winning over her rapist in the end: having him voluntarily make a lifetime commitment to her, and transforming his cruelty into love. The rape is a dangerous piece of excitement and momentary evil that she will prove capable of transcending, analogous perhaps to a man’s fantasy of being temporarily crushed by an evil foe. The theory is plausible, because people love to reinvent themselves in unrealistic fantasies. In this light, consensual fantasies can become mundane and boring, like novels and movies which lack dramatic conflict. Explanatory power: 4/5.

Again, the explanatory power ratings are my own, based on my understanding of the evidence. Most agree that the first three theories should be discarded for lacking evidence, and for assuming rape fantasies are pathological based on false correlations — that women are psychologically masochistic, socially conditioned to be abused, or sexually repressed. The fourth theory is largely correct, but doesn’t explain rape fantasies. The fifth and sixth theories account for some fantasies but not enough to serve as a general rule. The seventh makes sense but as an evolutionary theory is hard to test. The last two seem to have the best explanatory power, and are compatible with each other. Like the seventh, the eighth addresses biological desire, explaining how women can be inclined to surrender and become angrily aroused. But as William Saletan notes, in real-life that’s the body saying one thing while the brain is saying quite another. What happens in a fantasy that makes the brain agree with the body?

The ninth theory addresses that psychological desire: the need to reinvent ourselves in escapist narratives. Saletan prefers the fifth theory, but desirability doesn’t seem to require a rape scenario as much as adversary transformation.

The last two theories could be subsumed under a more general one: Rape fantasies owe to the paradox of being able to experience negative and positive feelings simultaneously. And this returns us to the subject of horror movies.

Horror movie consumption is almost as puzzling as rape fantasy. Why will people pay for (let alone fantasize about) emotional experiences that involve heavy levels of terror and depravity? Why do people (like myself) enjoy being scared and disturbed by such films? In a recent study, Eduardo Andrade and Joel Cohen provide an answer to this question. They start by addressing two traditional theories:

(1) Intensity. Horror-movie fans are actually not afraid or revolted by the movies they watch, only excited. One person’s terror is another’s excitement, in other words. But while it’s true that people are frightened at different levels and by different things — and can become increasingly desensitized to fear and disgust — experiments don’t confirm that horror fans aren’t generally scared by the films that excite them. (It’s certainly not true of me: I’m genuinely frightened by a good horror film, and the more fright, the more thrill.)

(2) Aftermath. Horror-movie fans are willing to endure terror in order to enjoy a euphoric sense of relief at the end when the horror is alleviated. This sounds plausible, but as experiments demonstrate, the aftermath relief of horror-movie watchers isn’t as great as the relief experienced by people who avoid exposure. “Those who avoid the experience are able to attain the greatest award from it.” (p 36)

Andrade and Cohen suggest, instead, a theory of

(3) Coactivation. Positive and negative feelings can co-occur when people are exposed to aversive stimuli. Intensity and aftermath theories assume this is impossible, but experiments show that people can experience distress and pleasure simultaneously, especially when they feel secure in a safe environment. Horror fans are thus “happy to be unhappy”: the most fearful or repulsive moments of the film are also the most emotionally pleasant.

This squares with my experience. When I saw The Exorcist as a kid I was so frightened I was near traumatized, and yet I wouldn’t have stopped watching it. Recently I had a similar experience with Eden Lake. During parts of it, I got so uncomfortable I wanted to stop the DVD, but I also really wanted to keep going, and one feeling seemed directly related to the other. I can only describe these experiences as simultaneous assaults of terror and exhilaration, but never gave much thought to the science behind it.

As Andrade and Cohen explain, their findings don’t address exactly how the interaction between positive and negative affect comes about, thus leaving unanswered the question of why people are willing to consume negative along with positive feelings. Why not restrict oneself to purely positive feelings? Wouldn’t that be even more satisfying than a mixture of the two? They speculate as follows:

“One possibility is that negative affect represents a reliable source of arousal which can be continuously converted into positive affect, as long as people place themselves within a given protective frame… A second possibility is that coactivation and a certain level of uncertainty within a protective frame provides individuals with an overall more pleasurable experience than, for instance, a pure and predictable positive experience…in other words, experiencing mixed feelings within a protective frame may be more fun.” (pp 38-39)

These possibilities are confirmed by two of the most plausible rape fantasy theories we looked at: sympathetic activation (biological arousal resulting from bad feelings), and adversary transformation (dramatic excitement provided by bad feelings). So independently of each other, studies of rape fantasies and horror-movie consumption suggest similar things, though there is plenty more testing to be done in these areas.

Sympathetic activation and coactivation show the biological dynamics of bad feelings which produce — or convert into, or co-occur with — good ones. Adversary transformation points to the way we crave dramatic excitement in novels and films, and even reinvent ourselves in unrealistic (rape) fictions. And on this last note, let’s not forget David Livingstone Smith’s important lesson that human beings require strong doses of self-deception to stay mentally healthy.

The Seven Deadly Sins in Writing

Other bloggers have called attention to Angela Erisman’s list of reading material which can help improve your writing. I’d recommend Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax in particular, for any writing professional who has trouble knowing when to break the rules and when not to.

At one point Hale warns against seven deadly sins in writing (pp 18-29). Let’s look at them:

1. Sloth. “Grabbing the closest shopworn words without so much as a glimmer of guilt, or hastily creating inelegant nouns out of other nouns, or even verbs.” (p 18) And even worse — as I complained about in The Dumbing Down of English Nouns — creating verbs out of nouns. Then there are cliches, which should always be avoided (I would say “avoided like the plague”, but that’s a cliche, right?). I agree with Hale that sloth is the most common and insidious sin among writers.

2. Gluttony. “The gourmandish urge to use five words where one would do.” (p 20) This often leads to the use of roundabout and redundant prepositional phrases instead of straight nouns and verbs. I had a problem with this in college, and learned slowly and painfully that less is more, more often than not. A good mantra to recite when sitting at the keyboard.

3. Fog. “Using vague and woolly words rather than concrete ones. A writer who hasn’t stopped to think about what he or she is trying to say piles up abstract nouns like phenomenon, element, individual, objective.” (pp 20-21) It’s easy to fall into this trap when having a brain cramp, but the remedy is simple: go back, revise, and defog your writing.

4. Pretense. “Resorting to pompous, ponderous, or just imponderable nouns.” (p 22) The worst sinners are academics so preoccupied with their diction that they lose sight of their goal: communicating with an audience (p 23). Insecurity and arrogance lie behind pretentious words like utilize, praxis, pericope, normalcy and colloquy. Drop them in favor of use, practice, passage, normality and conversation — except in the very rare contexts warranting the others.

5. Gobbledygook. An inability to keep things simple. Examples: capitalized cost reductions instead of down payments; a specialist in arms control and security issues instead of a weapons wonk. As with sin #2 (gluttony), less is more.

6. Jargon. Technical lingo. Reveling in the aforesaids, hereofs, hereinbelows, etc. Lawyers and doctors excel in jargon.

7. Euphemism. Describing offensive behavior with inoffensive terms, or sensitive issues with politically-correct language. So in place of firing managers use downsizing, rightsizing, or reshaping. When referring to the bombardment of defenseless villages, the government speaks of pacification. Black people are Afro-Americans; retarded people are mentally challenged. “Euphemisms are for wimps, invented in an attempt to avoid offending others or to pussyfoot around socially prickly subjects. They conceal reality rather than reveal it — which is, after all, what a writer should be doing.” (pp 26-28)

Many would object to these complaints (especially #’s 1, 4, 6, and 7) with the retort that language evolves, and we shouldn’t be linguistic fundamentalists. “To dialogue” may be a slothful way of creating a new word, but for better or worse, the dumbing down of our English nouns has become more acceptable. Academics may sound pretentious, but their vocabulary evolves according to the canons of their professions. But the counter-retort, Hale’s point, is that language doesn’t always evolve for the better. Following conventions and trends doesn’t put you on the road to strong and aesthetic prose anymore than slavishly following the rules does. The trick is knowing when to follow the crowd and not to. For myself, I’ll never warm to “dialogue” as a verb, no matter how many dictionaries acknowledge it.

Who are the good writers of biblical scholarship? There are many, but the following come straight to mind: Donald Akenson, John Meier, Mark Goodacre, and Philip Esler. All have robust and engaging prose, and steer clear of the seven deadly sins. John Dominic Crossan is another story. Some view him as a gifted writer, but he’s one of the most pretentious (sin #4) I’ve ever read. He revels in words like “normalcy”, and loves pompous aphorisms, trying to achieve Schweitzerian heights but failing miserably. (Only a true genius like Schweitzer can write like Schweitzer.) Then there is Ed Sanders, whose landmark ideas have been marred by italic overkill and minor gluttony (sin #2). Mark Nanos has wonderful and important ideas, but he’s where I was in my undergrad years (heavy gluttony, sin #2). I think gluttony results from a subconscious fear that readers will lose your point unless you spell things out every step of the way, in every sentence, with hyper-qualifying phrases and clauses.

More on Hale’s Sin and Syntax later. This blog has been stalling lately (for various reasons), but I hope to get back on track soon.

UPDATE: Mark Goodacre suggests adding another deadly sin:

8. Polemic. The use of unnecessarily hostile language including overstatement, ridicule, insult and hyperbole. As a general rule, if you are writing in harsh criticism of another scholar, imagine yourself saying it out loud at a conference with the person present in the room, and ask yourself if you are comfortable with your tone.

I should note that this complements sin #7 rather than opposes it. Hale concedes that civility and tact are important and should be cultivated — just not with euphemisms (p 26).

Pedophilia and Ephebophilia

Age of consent laws have been of interest to me since watching the indie revenge thriller Hard Candy, in which 32-year old Jeff tries seducing 14-year old Hayley. This makes Jeff not a pedophile, but an ephebophile, and there’s a big difference between the two. In yesterday’s Times article Carol Sarler upholds the distinction over the protests of one Michele Elliott:

“Terry Grange, the Chief Constable of Dyfed-Powys and spokesman on child protection for the Association of Chief Police Officers, suggested greater clarity in the labelling of sex offenders: it is incorrect to say that those who have sex with underage teenagers are pedophiles — and if we say they are, we risk overestimating the scale of the problem of pedophilia.

“With predictable fury, Michele Elliott, the director of the children’s charity Kidscape, rounded on the policeman’s wish to reclassify those who have sex with youngsters between 13 and 16: ‘He is saying they are not pedophiles and they bloody well are.’

“If Miss Elliott would care to borrow my dictionary, she would discover that they bloody well aren’t. A pedophile is defined as one who is sexually attracted to children; children are defined as those between birth and puberty. What our teen fanciers are, in fact, is ephebophiliacs: adults attracted to postpubescent adolescents.”

There’s obviously a difference, because pedophilia is intrinsically wrong (or at least, most of us believe so), while ephebophilia is conditionally and arbitrarily wrong, depending on what society says about it. As Sarler notes:

“[Pedophilia] goes to the defiance of a law of Nature… [It] is to have sex with somebody who is, if you will, not ‘ready’. By contrast, to have sex with somebody who has passed the age of puberty is merely to defy a law of Man — and a pretty arbitrary law at that. We cannot agree between one border and the next at what age a boy or girl is emotionally developed enough to give informed consent: Malta and The Netherlands think 12, Canada and Italy weigh in at 14, cautious Greece holds out for 15 and the good burghers of Iceland go as high as 17.”

Here’s a site depicting age of consent laws around the world.

Avert: Worldwide Ages of Consent

Obviously what one country or state thinks is fine, another will throw you in jail for. (And there are homophobic biases: ages of consent can vary within country or state depending on orientation/preference.) Sarler says, quite rightly:

“As long as the law is the law, [the ephebophile] deserves a smacked paw if he gives in to his excitement. But he does not deserve the same opprobrium as the [pedophile] — and nor do we deserve that our police forces’ time be needlessly spent in his pursuit rather than that of the far rarer, but far more dangerous, bogeyman proper.”

But back to Hard Candy. What’s amusing about the film is that Jeff is committing an ephebophiliac felony by Californian standards (where the age of consent is 18), but doing nothing wrong by Canadian standards — the irony being that Ellen Page, who plays Hayley, is Canadian. The age of consent in Canada is 14, that of the character Hayley. Canadians who watch Hard Candy might be a bit puzzled at the film’s premise. What exactly is the problem here? What’s wrong with these uptight Californians?

Of course, it does come out in the story that Jeff is also a pedophile, when Hayley stumbles on his stash of kiddie porn. He appears, then, to be a closet pedophile and an active ephebophile. One critic has suggested that the filmmaker’s choice to make Jeff both was gratuitous, in the sense that it plays on exaggerated tendencies of people to associate one with the other, as if ephebophilia is as bad as pedophilia, or as if a person who is sexually drawn to teens is necessarily drawn to children too. Given the incredible reaction of Michele Elliot to Terry Grange, I think the critic has a good point. But I still love the movie.