Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Sad Stories of Hoover and Lotto

Ten years ago, a young man of my acquaintance made an interesting decision. Well, two interesting decisions. The first was to experimentally apply a vacuum cleaner for the purposes of sexual release. The second was to tell all his high school buddies about it.

It must have come as a big surprise to this young man that his friends didn't think his idea to be as clever and revolutionary as he did. Rather than congratulating his creativity, they merely pissed themselves laughing, dubbed him "Hoover", and continued to call him that until the end of high school.

My Very Clever Polyamorous Friend notes a similar situation which arose in his single-sex boarding school. Apparently a young man was overheard telling an unknown party on his mobile phone that; "I've had a look around, and I'm pretty sure I've got the biggest one in year 9". The unfortunate youth was evermore known as "Lotto" (The Big One).

High school was riddled with bizarre and cruel nomenclature, which prompts me to wonder; what would you do if the world at large knew your high school nickname? Could Hoover, an attorney nowadays, still hold up his head at the office if his colleagues knew?

Here are a few other examples which might be difficult to explain:

- Clever Sister's friend "Babs" (thus named for looking "like he works in a kebab shop")

- Clever Bitch's ex-boyfriend "Scrotum" (so named, ironically, by a peer support leader who looked down on the shivering year 7 and guffawed; "Hey, this kid looks like a scrotum!").

- Clever Bitch's friend "Bald Eagle" (a word to the wise - never let your friends see your junk until there's some grass on the pitch).

Luckily, Babs had a shave and Eagle grew some pubes. Scrotum still looks a little like one, but is a financial adviser nowadays. Still, I wonder if any of them live in vague unrest, fearing the day that someone finds out their high-school nicknames. Those things stuck for five years - if you let them back in now, they could be for life.

What are the worst nicknames you recall from your high school?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"Straight Preferred"

The advertisement hanging at my local cafe was one of those handmade types with little tear-off phone number tabs at the bottom. Someone was looking for a new flatmate, and specified some important information for potential applicants; price, location, and "preferred criteria" for the new roomie. He or she should speak English, hold a professional job, have no pets, and only smoke outside. And then, my mouth fell open. Did that really say "straight"?

It did. Someone had, apparently without shame, publicly stated their unwillingness to consider a gay person as a flatmate. Not content with simply meeting some applicants and having a chat, the advertiser was so uncomfortable with or afraid of homosexuality that he felt the need to deter gay applicants at the first opportunity.

To some minds, this is fair enough, as the advertiser has a right to choose their new flatmate, and that they might as well get their prejudices out in the open in order to spare any potential gay applicants the time and trouble.* To me, it feels like plain old discrimination. Let's not forget that we have laws against this type of thing; if the advertiser had have been looking for an employee rather than a flatmate, his eligibility criteria would have gotten him into a lot of trouble. However it appears that whilst his prejudice would not be tolerated in a professional context, it is entirely acceptable in his personal life. And the fact that he didn't hesitate to post a discriminatory advertisement in an inner-city coffee shop speaks volumes about the attitudes towards homosexuality in our society.

The elephant in the room here is that discrimination against homosexuals has in recent years become far more socially acceptable than the old-school bastions of racism or sexism. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Opinion pages of the broadsheet newspapers. Whereas no respectable paper would dream of publishing a radical treatise on why women are inferior to men, or white people smarter than black people, it is all too common to flick the papers open and find a long-winded article or letter defining homosexuality as a sin, linking it to paedophilia, or declaring it a mental illness. Despite our legislation, it seems that gays are an easy target, particularly when you invoke your religion as an excuse for your prejudice.

Unfortunately, there isn't much we can do about the kind of person who has a blanket opposition to gays, or any other minority group other than tolerate them in the way that they refuse to tolerate others.
Or maybe just scribble "Hate Criminal!" at the bottom of their advertisement.

* The situation is similar at my university, where international students commonly advertise for flatmates, specifying "Asian preferred" on the posters. If this is defensible, it is so on the basis that people may feel more comfortable living with people who are from culturally similar backgrounds, however I somehow doubt that this argument would save me from being called racist if I had posted an advertisement stating "white preferred".

Is it reasonable to specify your preference for a particular racial group or sexual orientation when advertising for flatmates, or is it just discrimination?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Sex and the Cereal

Straight from the annals of weird history, this story is sure to make your breakfast taste less good.

Dr John Harvey Kellogg (born 1852) was a man of peculiar fixations. A man of his day, he warned his patients against novel-reading, the waltz, honeymoons, and the consumption of meat or alcohol in order to protect against sexual excitation and its most deplorable handmaiden - masturbation. His particular obsession was eradicating the scourge of female masturbation, which would apparently destroy both body and mind. He made a twelve-point list of symptoms which would denote a young woman's descent into this "vicious habit", including everything from a marked change in disposition, to a fondness for spices and vinegars, to nail-biting, languor and lassitude, heart palpitations, ulcerated hands and nails - and, my personal favourites; "unnatural baldness", "loose or easy manner in company with boys", and "a blank, dull, expressionless eye surrounded by a dark ring".

Kellogg's obsession with preventing "self-abuse" led him to prescribe some pretty interesting preventions and cures. Mothers were urged to "instruct their daughters respecting the importance of regularly relieving the bowels and bladder at a certain time each day", as failing to do so would lead to the organs becoming "irritable" and would induce "abnormal excitement". He urged vegetarianism and vigorous exercise coupled with Bible reading, and occasionally cool enemas or salt baths. When these failed, he urged (and often carried out) a clitoridectomy.

At some point, Kellogg must have realised that there wasn't time for him to excise the sexual organs of every masturbating woman in America, and produced the brainchild which the world best remembers - a bland and inoffensive breakfast cereal which would help patients keep their hands from straying below the belt; Cornflakes.

And here's the kicker. If a patient doesn't want to actually eat them, they can also be administered in enema form.

Thankfully, most of Kellogg's recommendations for female sexuality followed him to his grave, but we may have to suspect that he was onto something about cornflakes and exercise. John Kellogg died at age 91. Now - who wants breakfast?

-- All direct quotations from History Laid Bare by Richard Zacks.

Any thoughts on masturbation, quack cures, or breakfast cereals?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Wax On, Wax Off

Clever Bitch had a nasty cold the last few days, and spent some time recuperating in front of re-runs of Sex and the City. Leaving aside the question of what a feminist is doing watching that particular show, there's a moment in the second season where Samantha, having recently trimmed her hedges, wonders aloud just what is so appealing to men about women with no hair "down there". Miranda, ever the cynic, responds acidly; "Because they want little girls."

I've never had a Brazilian, less on moral grounds than due to the triple deterrents of pain, expense, and humiliation (think getting down on all fours so that a stranger can rip hairs out of your arse-crack - then paying for the privilege). However, a girl I know (let's called her "Christine") marches into the beauty salon every fourth Tuesday and parts with forty-five dollars to have her pubic hair ripped out with hot wax. I've met Christine a few times after emerging from her ordeal - wiping her eyes, muttering in a horrified tone of the expense and wincing in recollection of the pain. Yet, Christine insists, she has the Brazilian for herself. I've never been brave enough to point out to her that she never used to wax "for herself", until she started dating Angry Restauranteur.

So, why precisely do both women and men want to wipe Tassie off the map? It's not a modern phenomenon- ancient Greek women depilated their entire bodies, including pubic hair, and various cultures have been doing the same ever since. It's as popular in high art as low-grade porn, with solicitors and strippers, with mothers and maidens. The artist John Ruskin never consummated his marriage with his first wife due to a general disgust with her body, and in particular her pubic hair. In all his years examining art, he had never seen such a thing depicted in a statue or painting and found it repulsive on his wedding-night. From these fascinations spring an entire industry to groom women's pubes into submission - but why?

Desmond Morris, the author of The Naked Ape and The Naked Woman amongst others, writes that women's bodies have evolved to be more neotonous - that is, resembling their childlike forms - than men's. Women's bodies are softer and rounder, our body hair finer, sparser, and paler in colour. Because males are instinctively protective towards children, they are suckers for women who look like children. Most women and men have even played this card consciously - women love men's clothes both for the comfort and also because they point out to the man just how little we are in comparison to them - just how vulnerable and cute - the little woman drowning in the giant track-pants.

So what about pubic hair? Morris also dispels the myth that pubic hair serves a protective or hygienic function. In fact, he states that pubic hair is entirely useless to a woman - it is there solely as a "flag" to indicate sexual maturity to males, much as the man's beard indicates maturity to females.

So, here we find ourselves at an impasse - men love women who look like children, but use pubic hair as a marker that they're not in fact children and can be approached in a sexual manner. Women want to look neotonous, so they shave their legs and underarms, and wax off their maturity flag. Bringing us back to Miranda's question - is the net result of all the pain, effort and trouble anything other than to look like a little girl?

Ladies and gentlemen - what do you think about Brazilians? What are your reasons for getting one or not getting one?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Jim and the Indians

Picture this: your name is Jim, and you're a botanist exploring the South American jungles. You get horribly lost, spend days walking around in circles, and finally emerge into a tiny village, where you are horrified to see a group of twenty indigenous villagers tied up and facing a firing squad of guerilla soldiers. Then, the soldiers spot you.

You're afraid for your life, but soon it becomes evident that the head guerilla, Paco, has taken a shine to you. He likes you, he says. He likes scientists. He likes foreigners. And he's in a good mood today. So, he'll cut you a deal. He was about to summarily shoot these twenty locals as a warning to the rest of the population, who he claims have been a bit hard to control during the guerilla takeover. But, and here he hands you a pistol - if YOU would like to shoot one, you know, to show your support for the cause, he'll let the rest of them go as a show of goodwill. You look at Paco, then the terrified villagers, and then the gun in your hand. What do you do?

I first came across a version of this classic ethics vignette some years ago, in an undergraduate philosophy class. And it genuinely seemed a no-brainer. I'd shoot one of the Indians to save the other nineteen. I would have thought that almost everyone would agree with me on the point that it was unacceptable to let nineteen people die, just to keep your hands clean. How wrong I was.

A couple of girls from the Campus Bible Study group countered me that killing a person, any person, under any circumstances was murder, against the ten commandments, against God, and merited eternal suffering in hell. Other people, who didn't invoke the will of God, said that they would not be able to live with themselves after killing a person - however they seemed to have no problem with their inaction leading to nineteen further deaths. Jim would apparently show a great deal of moral backbone by refusing to lend ideological support, and watch twenty Indians be shot to death rather than only one.

It largely comes down to how you weigh up sins of commission vs. sins of omission - whether you weigh up things you didn't do as being as morally weighty as the things you did. For me, the consequences of commission were less than the consequences of omission, so I could not fail to act. For others, the actual action of firing the gun made them murderers in a way that walking away and leaving twenty people to die could never make them.

My consistent standpoint that I would shoot one of the Indians led to further questions. Which Indian I would shoot? The nearest one? The oldest one? The one who looked the bravest? And then, the question of whether the remaining Indians would view me as a saviour or a murderer. Would they understand that I committed an awful crime to prevent further awful crimes, or pillion me as a guerilla sympathiser?

This vignette is strikingly similar to one that is often posed to vegetarians; namely, would you eat a chicken if it would save the lives of five other chickens? I once posed both vignettes to a vegetarian flatmate, who paradoxically put it to me that he would shoot a person to save the other nineteen, but would never, ever, under any circumstances consider eating an animal. He preferred blood on his hands, as it were, to blood in his mouth.

Each person has their own feelings about sins of omission, but in my view, no matter what Jim does, he is complicit in murder. His choice is whether the screams of one person keep him awake at night, or the screams of twenty.

What would you do in Jim's place and why?

(And, for the vegetarians out there, would you eat a chicken to save another chicken's life?)