Trigger Warnings Do Politicize Mental Illness. So What?
For a certain kind of centrist liberal who is hypervigilant about the re-emergence of ’90s-era “political correctness,” the phrase trigger warning can be a little triggering. In theory, trigger warnings are merely little content notes for those who need a little more mental preparation for emotionally taxing material. But for some the phrase induces flashbacks and cold sweats, as if the P.C. police were about to forcibly convert you to spelling women as womyn.
Jeet Heer of the New Republic has an interesting rejoinder to those who are triggered every time a professor entertains the possibility of using trigger warnings in class. Trigger warnings, Heer argues, are less a product of “radical freaks” dominating academia and social media and more the result of “a thriving vernacular therapeutic culture, where ordinary citizens borrow concepts from psychology and use them as tools of self-improvement, often, in the process, forming distinct political and social identities.” Specifically, Heer argues, it's not knee-jerk political correctness but the widespread popular understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder that's at the root of this new enthusiasm for content warnings and safe spaces.
PTSD first emerged with veterans suffering from recurrent flashbacks to war trauma. The diagnosis has expanded as scientific evidence on memory has backed up the idea that “for certain people the memory of a trauma always exists, lying just below the surface of consciousness, ready to be triggered.” There's also a growing belief—which surely needs more research—that even people who don't have PTSD diagnoses can still be “triggered” into unnecessary emotional suffering when unpleasant memories are dredged up.
Trigger warnings, while imperfect, are usually attempts to reduce the chances of causing unnecessary pain to people with mental health issues. Many of the defenses of trigger warnings are persuasive. If your goal is for people to engage thoughtfully with emotionally challenging material, and that material causes a panic reaction, the lack of a trigger warning might actually be counterproductive to the ostensible goal of free discourse. Giving people a little mental space to prepare can make it easier for them to engage.
But while most of trigger warnings' proponents mean well, there's no scientific evidence to suggest that these warnings can prevent panic attacks or other manifestations of PTSD. As practiced in the real world, the trigger warning is less about preventive mental health care and more about social signaling of liberal credentials. You often see them being deployed online in feminist blog posts directly under a headline that has already told you what kind of material you're dealing with. (In fact, the headline itself may have needed its own trigger warning.) Telling your audience twice only serves to let them know you're a member of the trigger-warning tribe.
There is no doubt that the concept of trauma and triggers is being weaponized by some censorious lefties trying to score points. Everything from the Cancel Colbert dust-up to attempts to remove a silly statue from the Wellesley campus to the recent inchoate rage at Game of Thrones show that certain left-wingers will resort to insinuations of mass trauma if we don't give into their demands.
On the other hand, none of it worked. Colbert got promoted. The Wellesley statue remains. Game of Thrones will continue to make bank for HBO. The P.C. police might irritate you, but they can't parlay trigger warnings into a serious threat of censorship. When cautioning others not to be oversensitive, make sure to check yourself first.
What Was the Worst State for Women This Week?
While the Internet debates the gender politics of Westeros, real-life state legislatures continue a war on women. Third place in DoubleX's latest Worst State of the Week honors goes to Pennsylvania, where Republican legislators backed a resolution to honor John Patrick Stanton for his many years of obsessively harassing women trying to enter abortion clinics. The resolution calls Stanton, who died in January, a “humanitarian, activist and founder of the pro-life movement in this Commonwealth.”
Most people who had to deal with him regularly held a different opinion. Sari Stevens, executive director of Planned Parenthood in Pennsylvania, sent a letter to lawmakers detailing Stanton's “humanitarian” harassment techniques. “He would use terms like ‘faggot’ and racial slurs—towards patients, staff, partners and even Rep. Brian Sims,” she explained, adding that he would wave “graphic, medically incorrect, and often racist signs around the facility targeting patients and staff.” His decades of hounding women “resulted in lawsuits, charges of harassment and trespassing, arrests and at least one incarceration,” Philly.com noted. Sounds like a real prince, Pennsylvania!
Frequent nominee Texas gets second place, for adapting voter suppression techniques into strategies to keep abortion out of the hands of young and low-income women. The Texas House approved a bill that requires women seeking abortions to present valid government ID. The ostensible reason is to shut out underage girls from accessing abortion. (And by the way, why do conservatives treat abortion like it's an adult treat like booze or R-rated movies?) Undocumented immigrants would be most obviously affected, but as we see when it comes to voter ID laws, these restrictions shut out young adults and low-income women who move a lot or struggle to keep their driver's licenses up to date.
This week's winner is Louisiana, whose legislature gave into pressure from the National Rifle Association to water down a bill meant to keep convicted domestic abusers from getting guns. Under the NRA-approved version of the bill, you can beat up a woman you're dating and still procure firearms so long as you're not living with your victim. According to the Times-Picayune, gun-rights supporters worried that the original version of the bill could have applied "to someone who has been on a single date." God forbid that a man who attacks a woman on a first date be denied access to a gun!
Keeping a loophole that allows men to terrorize dating partners with legal guns is particularly disturbing when you consider that, according to a report by Everytown for Gun Safety, the number of domestic homicides committed by dating partners now exceeds those committed by spouses.
The bill also excluded stalking as a crime serious enough to lose you your gun rights, even though a history of stalking behavior is reported in nine out of every 10 attempted domestic murders. But for creepy dudes who resort to stalking if women reject them after one date, don't worry. Louisiana has your back.
Emma Sulkowicz Carries a Mattress at Columbia’s Graduation
Columbia student and performance artist Emma Sulkowicz added one more chapter to her now internationally famous piece “Carry That Weight” when she and a group of four friends lugged a mattress across the stage during Columbia’s commencement on Tuesday. The piece, described by art critic Jerry Saltz as “clear, to the point, insistent, adamant,” involved Sulkowicz carrying a mattress around campus every day to protest how Columbia handled her rape accusations against a fellow student, who was cleared of the charges. (Other students also complained about his abusive behavior.) Sulkowicz promised to shlep the mattress until her accused rapist was no longer a student at Columbia, so it makes sense that their graduation ceremony would be the grand finale of her piece.
As with much of performance art, it helps to actually see it with your own eyes before passing judgment. Luckily, the Columbia Spectator has video. As viewers can see, this performance isn't morose but triumphant. The audience applauds as Sulkowicz and her friends turn to them with nervous but winning smiles.
Sulkowicz may not have persuaded Columbia to boot her alleged rapist off campus, but this piece has grown far beyond her case. Sadly, our culture is still saddled with the myth that being a rape victim somehow means you are weak or lacking agency, but Sulkowicz's performance powerfully rebuts that notion. It may have started as a piece protesting a perceived injustice, but it ended as a piece celebrating women's strength.
Cannes Reportedly Turned Women Away for Not Wearing Heels
ScreenDaily reports that some female attendees at the Cannes Film Festival are being denied entrance to screenings because they were wearing, heaven forbid, flat shoes:
Multiple guests, some older with medical conditions, were denied access to the anticipated world-premiere screening for wearing rhinestone flats.
The festival declined to comment on the matter, but did confirm that it is obligatory for all women to wear high-heels to red-carpet screenings.
Documentary director Asif Kapadia tweeted to confirm the reports:
Although ScreenDaily reports that the festival dress code does require heels, Cannes director Thierry Fremaux tweeted that these reports are “unfounded.”
Regardless of what exactly happened at Cannes, the story reveals how much sky-high heels have become standardized as the only appropriate footwear for women who want to look dressed up. The reporting from Cannes treats flat shoes as if they are medical devices instead of perfectly normal footwear. ScreenDaily quotes a festivalgoer: “I’ve heard this happening several times now, even to older women who can’t wear heels for medical reasons. It’s bulls***.”
Women shouldn't feel like they need a doctor's note to wear shoes that don't make them want to chop off their feet in agony by the end of the night. This isn't like requiring men to wear ties or requiring everyone generally to wear formal clothing. Even if you don't have a medical condition, high heels might give you one. I like the look of high heels as well as anyone who has grown up in our culture, but just because they look cool doesn't justify making women imperil their health by wearing them. Smoking looks cool, too, but we would balk if Cannes required everyone to smoke to make the pictures look more French and glamorous.
High heels are orthopedic nightmares. At best, they should be opt-in and not opt-out. Ideally, they would go the way of corseting or petticoats. It's totally possible to make a shoe that looks dressed up without killing your feet. Just take the shoes women are already wearing, chop the heels off, and there you go. As far as oppressive social customs go, this one is maybe the easiest of all to fix.
Exclusive: The Performance Review that Decided One D.C.-Area Man’s “Husband Bonus”
A recent New York Times piece took an anthropological look at an exotic species known as the “glamorous stay-at-home mom” (Glam SAHM), whose perks include the “wife bonus,” distributed according to such criteria as “how well she managed the home budget [and] whether the kids got into a ‘good’ school.” But what about the husband bonus? DoubleX has exclusively obtained the annual performance review determining the bonus of one Washington, D.C.–based husband; the review is reprinted in full below.
As specified by marriage contract dated July 20, 1997, entered into by “Wife” and “Husband,” there shall be an annual review of Husband’s performance. Pursuant to a motion agreed by both parties, and in consideration of the mutual covenants and promises outlined herein, “Husband” shall receive an annual performance-based “Husband Bonus” on meeting or exceeding metrics laid out below.
The performance measure will use the agreed-upon rating scale:
“Husband” has maintained a regular schedule of boot camp and gym attendance. He has additionally declared himself a “freak for the five-minute workout.” Weight has inched up this 12-month period, but given recent cultural vogue of the dad bod, any softness in the abdominal area can be considered a plus. Continues to cultivate adequate self-hatred over excessive dessert. Beard maintenance has been erratic, ranging from barely boardroom-acceptable to food-specked. Attire acceptable, discounting a recent public appearance in a moth-eaten shirt.
GRADE: Needs Improvement
Enhancement and Support of Wife’s Work
“Husband” has exhibited considerable moral support but has failed to properly entertain wife’s colleagues or professional peers at several cocktail parties and dinners. In one case, yawned repeatedly at dinner with wife’s superior; in another, sneaked upstairs to read hypermasculine novel; in a third, planned to be “out of town” during gathering.
Contribution to Household Income
“Husband” has resigned from editorship of prestigious online magazine to “follow his dreams.” This has resulted in a much smaller-than-usual annual contribution. Also, “husband” spends his time interviewing other people about working and calls it working.
GRADE: Needs Improvement
Home Budget Management
“Husband” continues to pay all household bills and exclusively meet with accountant.
Child Maintenance, Basic
Children continue to attend middling local public schools, and only one of three bathes with any regularity.
GRADE: Needs Improvement
Child Maintenance, Additional
Attempts to teach smallest child how to ride a bike only marginally successful. Coaching of soccer team decidedly half-assed, although general enthusiasm for soccer excellent. Ditto for watching golf on TV. Children, at present, play neither lacrosse nor water polo nor baseball, despite stated goal to boost level of household athleticism. Boxes ordered from Evil Mad Scientist sit unopened in basement. Newly purchased skateboard lies under a pile of coats. Various Harry Potter books missing chunks of pages. Science project involved ketchup. Most ambitious extracurricular outing so far: Pitch Perfect 2.
GRADE: Needs Improvement
Husband fails to maintain outreach with neighbors or organize school events, although he served as a masterful auctioneer at the annual school auction.
“Husband” always willing and reciprocal. Any deficiencies in this category must be blamed on “Wife.”
Based on aforementioned criteria, “Husband’s” year-end shall be assessed at 17.3 percent of “Wife’s” annual salary, the amount of which “Wife” will keep hidden from “Husband” unless she deems it necessary for him to know.
What’s Wrong With “Wife Bonuses”?
Over the weekend, Wednesday Martin, the author of the upcoming memoir Primates of Park Avenue, published a piece in the New York Times that deftly deconstructed the past decade's ongoing romanticization of “opting out” and “feminist housewives” and whatever other trendy terms have been used to spin the continuing practice of really rich men having wives with expensive educations but no employment outside the home. This isn't a new trend, Martin explains, but just a continuation of the way things were done in the pre-feminist era.
Betty Francis might have been at death's door by the Mad Men finale, but her real-life counterparts are alive and well in what Martin calls the “glittering, moneyed backwater” of the Upper East Side, where “30-somethings with advanced degrees from prestigious universities” put all their intelligence and ambition into pleasing wealthy husbands; they “exercised themselves to a razor’s edge, wore expensive and exquisite outfits to school drop-off and looked a decade younger than they were.” Theirs is a gender-segregated world reminiscent of the lives of Victorian aristocrats, where the men go off into one room to talk business while the women stay in another for female-only socializing.
But the detail that seemed to grab readers' attention the most (judging by the comments and by social-media chatter) is the existence of “wife bonuses.” Martin explains:
I was thunderstruck when I heard mention of a “bonus” over coffee. Later I overheard someone who didn’t work say she would buy a table at an event once her bonus was set. A woman with a business degree but no job mentioned waiting for her “year-end” to shop for clothing. Further probing revealed that the annual wife bonus was not an uncommon practice in this tribe.
A wife bonus, I was told, might be hammered out in a pre-nup or post-nup, and distributed on the basis of not only how well her husband’s fund had done but her own performance — how well she managed the home budget, whether the kids got into a “good” school — the same way their husbands were rewarded at investment banks. In turn these bonuses were a ticket to a modicum of financial independence and participation in a social sphere where you don’t just go to lunch, you buy a $10,000 table at the benefit luncheon a friend is hosting.
One just hopes there isn't a weigh-in every year to help determine your bonus as well.
Disgust was the prevailing reaction to Martin's revelation about wife bonuses, and understandably so—in the wife bonus, income inequality, commodification of love, and the objectification of women all converge at once. As Martin notes, the recipients “usually retreated, demurring when pressed to discuss it further,” suggesting that they may feel some shame about this practice.
But the wife bonus should raise some hard questions. Americans love to emphasize the role of the dependent housewife or the stay-at-home mom as just as much a “real job” as that of any woman who works outside of the home. You often see infographics, articles, and social media memes about how being a stay-at-home-mom is the hardest job that anyone ever worked and how, if it were paid fairly, every housewife would be making all the money.
In theory, then, wife bonuses should fit right into this narrative. If it's a job, then it should be treated like one, with bonuses and promotions based on performance reviews. But of course, the whole “stay-at-home motherhood is a real job” meme was never really about the actual work of housewifery. It's a defensive maneuver, a way to argue that just because a woman is economically dependent on her husband doesn't mean her marriage is sexist or any less equal than a marriage in which both spouses work. Wife bonuses, however, remind us that if stay-at-home motherhood is a job, then that means your husband is your employer. Not very egalitarian at all.
For Once, Game of Thrones Treats Rape With the Gravity It Deserves
Another season of Game of Thrones, another Internet rage-fest over having to witness another major female character suffer a rape. For many fans who were appalled at the horrible scene of Jaime Lannister raping his sister/lover Cersei last season, it felt like the showrunners had only doubled down, putting Sansa Stark into the hands of sadist Ramsay Bolton and, to add insult to injury, making her former foster brother Theon Greyjoy watch. Just as last year, accusations that the show takes sexual violence lightly and declarations of breaking up with Game of Thrones forever populated social media.
But while I agreed with the critics of the Lannister rape scene last year, this time around, I believe that, while it was horrible to witness a beloved and innocent character like Sansa get raped, it didn't feel gratitutous or unserious. Unlike with last year's twincest rape, the director of this episode is quite clear that what we're witnessing is, in fact, a rape. It wasn't played off as rough sex, but as a deliberate act of dominance. For once, rape is being portrayed accurately, as an act of sadism instead of just an overabundance of passion. (It was also, as writer Bryan Cogman explains in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, much worse in the book. Just trust me on this.)
Once Sansa was engaged to Ramsay, it would have been a cop-out to play this storyline any other way. As my co-host Marc Faletti and I discuss in House Slate, our weekly take on the series, the point of Game of Thrones—and A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series this show is based on—is to subvert and complicate the standard tropes and narratives of fantasy fiction. In traditional fantasy, the Stark family would be the conquering heroes, their great honor and love for one another rewarded as they triumph over their corrupt enemies to save the realm. But in this story, the world is not so simple. The honorable family patriarch's honor results in his death. His valiant son dies, unarmed, at the hands of people he believed to be his allies. We are meant to look at the grotesque realities of war lurking underneath the gleaming armor and fancy banners of medieval myth-making.
Sansa Stark's rape was, like Ned's execution and the Red Wedding, not treated lightly, but presented as an act of war against the Stark family. Yes, it was horrible. It was meant to be.
Which State Was the Worst for Women This Week?
The legislative season grinds on, and so do the Worst State of the Week honors, in which DoubleX recognizes the member of the Union showing the most vim and vigor in its assaults on women's basic rights.
Second runner-up is Texas, for reasons of pure hypocrisy. Republicans in the Lone Star state talk a big game about how much they love motherhood—so much so that women should be forced into it for their own good. But when it comes even to the most minor show of actual support for mothers, legislators balk. Republicans in Texas are quietly killing a bill that would guarantee breaks for public school teachers to pump breast milk at work. As Andrea Grimes at RH Reality Check noted, one supposedly "pro-life" opponent of the bill, state senator Lois Kolkhorst, dismissed the struggles of breastfeeding teachers by saying, “I’m a female who actually was a working mom and had the same issues and was able to be able to continue to breastfeed for my children while I was working." If she can do it, anyone can!
First runner-up is Tennessee, for reasons of gluttony. The state constitution's privacy protections barred the legislature from trying to end legal abortion for years, but a ballot measure in November changed all that. Now anti-choicers in that state are like kids in a candy shop, or more accurately, like a bunch of pent-up religious fanatics unleashed on the public, Game of Thrones–style. The governor just signed a bill requiring clinics to meet a bunch of expensive and medically unnecessary building requirements that will no doubt shut many clinics down. Now it looks like he's going to sign another bill attacking patients themselves, making them wait 48 hours for an abortion.
This week's winner, however, is Wisconsin, where Republicans—undeterred by a federal court striking down their most recent law restricting abortion—are at it again with a proposed ban on abortions after 20 weeks. Bans on abortion after 20 weeks are a hot trend in the red states, but Wisconsin's sticks out for its deviousness and sadism. Proponents of the bill claim that there's an exception to the ban in the case of medical emergencies, but if you read the fine print, that turns out not to be true. As Jessie Opoien of the Capital Times explains, even in cases of emergency, doctors are required to perform a procedure "in the manner that, in reasonable medical judgment, provides the best opportunity for the unborn child to survive."
In other words, deliver the baby, even though, at 20 weeks gestation, you're looking at a 100 percent death rate anyway. While this move won't save any fetal lives, it would force women to terminate their pregnancies in the most miserable way possible, then wait while doctors run around trying to save an unsaveable baby, racking up thousands of dollars in unnecessary medical expenses. This is, remember, for women who generally wanted their babies, but had to terminate for medical reasons. No level of cruelty, these days, is too much to put women in their place.
Female Staffers on the Hill Are Being Shut Out Of One-On-One Meetings with Bosses
The National Journal conducted a study of women congressional staffers on the Hill and has been releasing some of the findings in a series of articles. On Thursday, Sarah Mimms highlighted how women are still held back from certain networking and career opportunities. Many staffers, she writes, are "not allowed to spend one-on-one time with their male bosses."
Several female aides reported that they have been barred from staffing their male bosses at evening events, driving alone with their congressman or senator, or even sitting down one-on-one in his office for fear that others would get the wrong impression.
This is what happens when appearances are put ahead of substance. Sexual harassment shouldn't be reduced to the appearance of impropriety. Sexual harassment is an active choice that the harasser makes, and the way to fight it is to hold men who harass accountable, not to act like life on the Hill is taking place within a Victorian novel. Instead, because some powerful men mistreat women, the solution is to deprive women of opportunities for career advancement.
In Missouri this week, state house speaker John Diehl was caught in a "sexually charged" relationship with a college freshman interning in his office; Missouri Southern State University responded by shutting down the internship program. That is punishing people who have little or no power because some middle-aged man allegedly gave in to some teenager's flattering attentions.
You're not taking sexual harassment and abuse of power seriously if your solutions focus on depriving victims and potential victims of job opportunities. These women are willing to run the risk that some gross older man will get grabby with them in order to advance their career; their bosses should meet them halfway by running the risk of "impropriety."
Sorry, Evo Psych Fans. Our Caveman Ancestors Probably Practiced Gender Equality.
It's a sad week for evolutionary psychology buffs. A new paper out in Science, by a group of scientists led by University College London anthropologist Mark Dyble, suggests that despite widespread claims to the contrary, early hunter-gatherer societies likely practiced equality between the sexes.
“The scientists collected genealogical data from two hunter-gatherer populations, one in the Congo and one in the Philippines,” the Guardian reports, “including kinship relations, movement between camps and residence patterns, through hundreds of interviews.” In more sexist societies, “tight hubs of related individuals emerged” as men try to amass as much power and influence as possible through their own families.
More egalitatarian societies, however, spread out a lot more, as women have more control over how they live and who they sleep with. “When only men have influence over who they are living with, the core of any community is a dense network of closely related men with the spouses on the periphery,” Dyble told the Guardian. “If men and women decide, you don’t get groups of four or five brothers living together.”
Because of this, Dyble and his team argue that gender inequality is tied directly to agriculture, when owning land and wielding power over others starts to become a big deal. “It pays more for men to start accumulating resources” in an agricultural system, Dyble explained, “and becomes favourable to form alliances with male kin.”
Guess evolutionary psychology aficionados are going to switch gears and start arguing that our “hard-wired” gender roles evolved during the advent of agriculture and not during our hunter-gatherer days. But evolutionary psychology has always been a conclusion looking for an explantion, the reverse of how science is supposed to work. Goodbye paleo fantasies. Hello, pickup artist manuals that romanticize some ancient dude harvesting wheat.
It might be tempting for feminists to flip the argument around and declare that we're actually hard-wired for equality. That urge should be resisted. What this paper should really do is remind everyone that human beings are incredibly flexible and adapt rapidly to changes in our environment. Under some circumstances, we're more egalitarian; under others, we're more sexist. And because we now have significant power to control our environment, we should choose what's fairest to everyone.