Category Archives: Culture

Publishing the identities of minors . . . who bully rape victims

On the Media has an amazing interview with Matt DiRienzo, editor of the Connecticut Register Citizen newspaper, about yet another victim-blaming sexual assault case out of Torrington, CT. This time the victim is 13, the defendants 18. And still, local kids are tweeting hate at the victim, calling her a whore, blaming her for her sexual assualt, and calling for her to be punished, rather than the alleged rapists.

DiRienzo and his team decided to post screen captures of the hateful tweets, including the full Twitter handle and image from each kid. And in the interview, he’s totally unapologetic about it. When asked if this makes him an “advocacy journalist,” he says he is more than happy to be seen advocating against 13 year old sexual assault victims being called whores in the public square.

Give it a listen – it’s just  a few minutes! And while you’re at it, you might check out the entire show from this weekend, where they discuss Steubenville and rape culture in a very measured, thought-provoking way.

Mom, do you believe in God?

These conversations always happen in the car. I think it helps because she knows I won’t be making eye contact and I can be easily distracted if she’s done talking about whatever dread subject she’s raised.

“Hey Mom, do you believe in God?”
“No, I don’t believe in any gods. I’ve never seen enough evidence to convince me there’s anything supernatural.”
“I think most of the kids at school are Christians or something, and they said if you’re an atheist you live a terrible life.”

At this point I was half rolling my eyes, half mad. I don’t remember the next bit very well, but I think Chloe opined that this didn’t make sense to her, using me as her sample. So that was flattering as well as reassuring. She also wanted to confirm, “We’re atheists, right?”

Dawkins would be proud of me – I told her Dad and I don’t believe in any gods, but that doesn’t dictate what she believes. She said, “Well, I want to be an atheist.” Just goes to show no matter how you try to inculcate skepticism and freethought, while letting your children have freedom of conscience, they have very strong labeling and tribalist inclinations!

Turns out she doesn’t believe in any particular god, but she really likes reading myths and legends about gods, so she wasn’t sure if that would put her in the theist category. I assured her that in fact, many atheists started as believers, but when they got into myths and legends, it eroded their faith. It’s perfectly consistent not to believe in gods but to like stories about them.

I asked, “When they said ‘lead a terrible life,’ did they mean you’ll be unhappy and miserable, or you’ll do terrible things?”

She replied she wasn’t sure, so I noted that our family was pretty happy and healthy, and that we also tend to do good things for each other, our friends, and our community, so it certainly didn’t seem to be true. I also mentioned that if they mean atheists do bad things, she could tell them that in prison populations, there are hardly any atheists, but there are lots of Christians.

At this she seemed very interested. In fact, a bit too close to gleeful. I think I’ll have to have a discussion about diplomacy on this subject matter post haste. But at least it gave her a concrete example, beyond the bounds of our little family, that atheism doesn’t make you evil.

And so it begins. It’s going to be interesting as the kids all get older. I’m hopeful they can be educated into more acceptance. I’m pretty sure these children were unaware that they actually know atheists. And if anyone can be a good ambassador for atheism, it’s my sweet, generous, funny, intelligent, friendly daughter.

Breastfeeding harassment, the YMCA, and progress

Chloe at 4 months – how could anyone be mean to this baby?

I was reading Best for Babes’ recent post about moms being hassled or ejected from various venues for breastfeeding.  They mention an incident at a Charlotte YMCA, and go on to note that through the years different Ys throughout the country have put the kibosh on nursing in public.  It vividly reminded me of my own incident at a Y, which still makes me a little angry after all these years, but which also illustrates how much progress we’ve made.

In 2003, I joined the Y near my house in Durham.  My daughter was just shy of four months old, and of course I wound up nursing her when we were there.  I described what happened in a letter I wrote to the Executive Director at the time:

As a new member of the Lakewood YMCA and a breastfeeding mother, I would like to know whether your organization has an explicit policy supporting breastfeeding.

I ask this question because of an unfortunate incident during one of my recent visits to the Lakewood facility.  I was nursing my daughter in the lobby area when a staff member approached me and asked me to “do that somewhere else.”  She expressed particular concern that the high school students would see us, and specifically said it would only be acceptable for me to feed my baby where “no one can see you.”  She suggested the locker room.  To me, this directive displayed a hostile and fearful attitude toward breastfeeding, treating it as though it were something dirty or perverse, something children shouldn’t be exposed to.

I hope that this is not reflective of the YMCA’s official position on breastfeeding.  As you may be aware, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that mothers breastfeed their babies during the first year of life, for optimum health and development.  As an organization that promotes health and family closeness, I hope that the YMCA would encourage and support breastfeeding to the greatest extent possible.

If no such supportive policy is in place, I urge you to implement one.  If, on the other hand, my recent experience is indicative of your current policy, I ask that you reconsider your position.  Breastfeeding mothers are doing the best thing for their babies, and they need sympathy and encouragement.  Breastfeeding can be a big challenge, and the last thing nursing mothers need is an implicit message that their behavior is somehow deviant and not fit to be seen in public.

Thank you for your attention.  I look forward to hearing from you regarding this issue.

Guess what I heard back – bupkis.  I never got any kind of response.  And in those days, that was it.  It never occurred to me to try to stage a nurse-in.  That wasn’t even a thing yet, as far as I know!  Nor did it come to mind to contact local media.  No one cared enough for this to be news.  I was just one mom, on my own.  Today, as I read about the immediate community response to the Charlotte incident, and how that prompted the Y to listen and change its policies, I actually got a little misty, thinking of how much that would have meant to me at the time. 

No matter how confident, sassy, and assertive a person you are, I think when someone criticizes and evicts you over breastfeeding, you tend to feel extremely vulnerable.  I’m so immensely proud and gladdened that breastfeeding mothers and their supporters have come together and lent their collective power to every mom who is harassed and shamed by the ignorant.  Because of all of us making some noise about these things, it has even become a news event when a business kicks out a nursing mom.  Things are getting better.  Moms and babies are more protected.  All of you out there standing up for mothers and babies, for nursing being normal, are making real progress.  I just want to celebrate this, and remind everyone to keep up the good fight.

Time’s poor science reporting on AP sleep habits

Would you be surprised to learn that Time Magazine published an article criticizing bed sharing and staying with a baby or toddler until he’s asleep?  Me neither.  Would you be surprised that the “science reporting” involved was pathetic?  Me neither.  How about the fact that the story is framed in an inflammatory, accusing manner?  Not a shock, huh?

This was back in 2008.  Time put out an online article with the headline How not to Get Baby to Sleep.  The article reports on two different areas of study, but discusses them in tandem to make its point: If you’re present when your baby falls asleep, or bring them into your bed, you will cause significant sleep problems.  This in turn is “associated with an increased risk of being overweight and having emotional and behavioral difficulties in adolescence and adulthood.”

The referenced study discusses parents being present when the child falls asleep, taking the child into the parental bed, and giving food and drink upon night waking, and describes these actions as “maladaptive parental behaviors” . (I don’t know if the study authors are just presumptuous, judgmental jerks about cosleeping, or if “maladaptive parental behavior” is an actual, defined term of art in this field.  Regardless, I felt like I needed a barf bag nearby for use every time I read it.)  Of course, the first two “maladaptive” behaviors are common practices of attachment parenting.  According to Time, these behaviors “led to disrupted sleep — bad dreams, short sleep time and delays in falling asleep — in children of preschool age.”

The clear message of the Time article is, “If you cosleep, you’re causing your child’s sleep problems and probably dooming them to a fat, stupid, anti-social adulthood.”

The problem is, the cited study actually comes to almost the opposite conclusion:

Findings support the hypothesis that maladaptive parental behaviors develop in reaction to preexisting sleep difficulties. Further, early sleep difficulties are more predictive than parental behaviors in explaining [bad dreams] and foreshortened [total sleep time] beginning at age 50 months. Results are interpreted in light of early emotive/physiological self-regulation problems. . . .

When controlling for early sleep factors, most parental behaviors no longer predict future sleep disturbances ([bad dreams], [total sleep time]) or remain predictors only in interaction with prior [sleep onset] difficulties.

The study found that it first appeared that cosleeping and staying while a child falls asleep might be causing sleep disturbances, but when they controlled for early sleep difficulties, it showed that parent behaviors had almost no effect on sleep problems.  The one effect that remained was that taking a child into the parental bed upon night waking was associated with a sleep onset time of more than 15 minutes.  So if you’re really concerned that it might take your toddler 16 minutes to fall asleep instead of 14 minutes, you might want to worry about that.

(And actually, given that the study relied on questionnaires filled out by parents, how reliable is this?  How do parents who aren’t present at sleep onset determining the time until sleep onset?  I think the results would be better summarized as “When parents are absent at sleep onset, they assume their kid fell asleep faster.”  Who would have thought that it seems shorter when you’re downstairs watching Game of Thrones than when you’re in the dark, singing “Toora Loora Looral” for the twelfth time in a row!)

But it’s not good marketing to write an article that says some kids are born worse sleepers, and that parents wind up lulling them to sleep or cosleeping more often, but that there’s nothing you can really do about it.  People want to have directions on how to fix infant and toddler sleep problems, and the ammunition to judge those smug, freaky AP parents who don’t let their babies cry themselves to sleep.  Subtle, equivocal results just aren’t sexy.

And this speaks to the larger issue of the diminishing quality of science reporting.  In a recent episode of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, Steven Novella pointed out that every major news article got the “Did dinosaur flatulence warm the Earth?” study totally backwards, no doubt because it’s a more charming, clickable headline if dinosaurs farted themselves to death, regardless of what the science actually says.  He also mentions being interviewed and having reporters feed him quotes.  They didn’t care what their expert source actually thought or what the evidence showed – they just wanted a ventriloquist’s dummy with some letters after his name to mouth their preconceived angle on the story.

Luckily, Emily at Double X Science has a good checklist to run down when you see a showy “science” headline: The Double X Double-Take Checklist for Reading Science News is a great list of suggestions that will help you avoid being taken in when science journalism goes to the dark side.

I suggest you keep that checklist (and possibly that barf bag) handy whenever Time addresses attachment parenting.

Mothers breastfeeding “for their own gratification”

“There’s an admittedly fine line between the beautiful bond between mother and infant and the weird gratification some women get from breast-feeding in inappropriate and exhibitionistic ways.”

“A kid who can write her own name shouldn’t be nursing. If you like your nipples sucked, let your husband do it.”

“It’s not being used as a form of birth control; it’s being done for the sole satisfaction of the parent.”

“I think that most of this is for the mother’s benefit. I personally know of one instance of this, and in that case it was the mother who was unable to let it go…”

“She must be nursing for her own gratification.”

Those are all genuine quotes about nursing an older child.  And I hear and read all the time about people saying “Oh she’s just doing it for her own gratification,” or “at that age, it’s not for the child – the mother is doing it for her own purposes.”  I have two, related, problems with this sentiment.

First, it’s very silly.  Imagine if people said stuff like:

“There’s an admittedly fine line between the beautiful bond between mother and infant and the weird gratification some women get from cuddling a baby in inappropriate and exhibitionistic ways.”

“A kid who can write her own name shouldn’t be read to anymore.”

“At that age, lullabies are not needed to put a child to sleep; it’s being done for the sole satisfaction of the parent.”

“I think that kissing a booboo for a preschooler is really for the mother’s benefit – these mothers are just unable to let it go…”

“By now she must be brushing her child’s hair for her own gratification.”

If anyone shared the above opinions publicly, people would think they were nuts.  Children have needs and wants.  Some continue in one form or another from birth through the school years.  No one would seriously argue that parents shouldn’t hug their children once the children can ask for it, or that a parent shouldn’t do anything for a child that she can arguably do for herself, or that a pleasant parenting routine must cease once it is not strictly necessary for the child’s physical health.  We all understand that parents frequently do”babyish” things with their older children because it pleases the child, it helps accomplish the parents’ goals, it provides emotional support, or it’s more convenient.  Yet somehow when it comes to breastfeeding, this understanding is forgotten.  And I think it must be because of my second issue –

So frequently, critics of sustained nursing bring a sexually perverted perspective to the conversation.  Mothers and babies do not find anything sexual in nursing.  It’s the people loudly complaining who seem to find breastfeeding sexually charged.  Look at the way people criticized sustained nursing when that Time issue came out:



“If you like your nipples sucked, let your husband do it”

“When your kid starts noticeably sporting wood at meals, it might be time to wean.”

“Sorry, this looks like a circus midget having the time of his life.”

“I think the biggest deal is that he’s still walking up to her boobs. If you wanna breastfeed until your kid is a teenager, then fine…do your thing. But pump the damn milk!”

“Borderline child porn.”

“At this age what is the difference in this and a father making his daughter touch his private parts?”

For people who relate to these comments, please try to get some perspective.  Breastfeeding is not inherently sexual.  Breasts are not inherently sexual.  Yes, our current culture in America treats breasts almost exclusively as sex organs.  Yes, many people assume that it’s a basic biological fact that breasts are sexual.  They forget that people once felt the same way about women’s calves.  That many people today feel the same way about a woman’s bare face or exposed hair.  Throughout human history, different cultures have “known” that certain female body parts are so sexually stimulating they must be hidden, and that they could never be viewed as just a normal body part.

Families who are used to sustained nursing view a breast just like you view a woman’s leg.  Sure, in some situations, to some people, it might be something sexy, but it’s not perverse or abusive to let your preschooler sit on your lap.  Try to adjust, and realize your discomfort is a perception, not a fact.  It’s OK if you feel uncomfortable.  You can’t necessarily control that.  But do please engage your rationality and recognize that you feel uncomfortable for the same reason that imams feel uncomfortable with they see Western women wearing pants.

To sum up, it’s silly to think that a benign, useful parenting behavior becomes wrong if it’s no longer strictly necessary, or the child can request it, or do it for herself.  Nursing is no different – there’s no time when it magically becomes illicit and sexual.  If you see a mother nursing an older child and it seems sexually perverse to you, you are the only one of the three people who is having sexual thoughts.

Why conservatives should vote against Amendment One

Obviously, if you believe that homosexual people deserve equal rights, you’re going to vote against Amendment One.  But there are very good reasons to vote against it even if you believe homosexuality is sinful, especially if you consider yourself politically and economically conservative.

1. Amendment One will cost North Carolina taxpayers a lot of money, while delivering absolutely no benefit.  It’s virtually certain that a same-sex couple will challenge this provision in court, and the litigation will cost immense amounts of money.  Money that will come out of our paychecks.  In the meantime, Amendment One doesn’t make same-sex marriage any more illegal in NC than it already is.

2. It is unconstitutional.  The Constitution of the United States supersedes all state constitutions.  And under the US Constitution, this amendment is illegal for two reasons.  First, it imposes religious rules through the government.  (And if you think that’s OK, or it’s all right as long as there’s no explicit reference to religion, ask yourself how you’d feel if a group of Muslim legislators proposed an amendment that requires women to have their hair covered in public.)  Second, it denies equal protection of the laws to all citizens.  Thus, Amendment One violates the first and fourteenth amendments to the US Constitution.

3. It could have terrible unintended consequences for children, women, and for our economy.  The amendment is worded in a terribly broad way.  It doesn’t say “Marriage is defined as a union between one man and one woman,” or “No one may marry someone of the same sex.”  It says “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.”  That language entails the prohibition on state agencies, and possibly even private companies, to recognize any domestic legal partnership other than straight marriage.

Sure, it is possible that in the end, some courts will eventually interpret the amendment as still allowing domestic violence protection, child health insurance, and other rights unmarried partners have now (whether gay or straight).  But legal battles take lots of time and money.  Is it really OK with you that a battered woman might have to litigate at the trial level, the appellate level, and finally the Supreme Court of NC before getting a restraining order from her violent live-in boyfriend?  Is it worth it, for the sake of simply reiterating how much we hate gay marriage, to give health insurance companies a convenient excuse for denying the claims of children whose parents aren’t married?  Is it a good, conservative decision to give companies a reason to avoid NC because the status of their employees’ benefits would be uncertain?

Remember that in every legal case, in every health care coverage dispute, in every child custody hearing, there are two sides who will use every legal tool at their disposal.  Sure, you as an individual may be able to interpret Amendment One and conclude that it’s not intended to disrupt domestic violence protections and so on.  But in each legal battle that involves these issues, the defense lawyer for the abusive partner, the lawyer for the insurance company, the absentee parent who suddenly decides to uproot a child from the only family she’s ever known, they will all brandish Amendment One for their side, and they will drag the case through every level of the court system they can.  Even if, finally, the sane side prevails, there will be terrible misery, chaos, and expense in the meantime.

And for what?  What does Amendment One offer to counterbalance these risks?  Nothing.  If everyone votes against Amendment One, gay people still won’t be able to get married in NC.  So why are we willing to risk all these expensive, morally troubling outcomes for it?

Everyone in NC should go vote AGAINST!

Were we unaware that Kirk Cameron is an idiot?

I understand that his statements about gay marriage are ridiculously inaccurate as well as hateful, but why is this news?  Why are people shocked?  Years ago I filed Kirk and his buddy Ray Comfort in the same mental Pendaflex with Time Cube and David Icke.  They’re loony cranks with a tenuous relationship to reality, and I only pay attention to them when I need a laugh.  These are the people who declared that the (heavily selectively bred and cultivated) modern banana was “an atheist’s nightmare” because it so obviously had been intelligently designed by Yahweh for human consumption.  I mean, really, I’m not sure they aren’t just a stealthier satire than Landover Baptist.

And I am sure that Piers Morgan asked the question hoping for furor to attract attention to his show, while Cameron was happy to provide the controversy since it also drives traffic to the new movie he’s promoting.  Everyone wins!  Except fans of reasonable discourse.

It’s a relief to know that soon homophobes will be relegated to the status currently enjoyed by overt racists and sexists.  Society at large will know that they exist, but will generally dismiss them as crackpots stuck in a benighted, outmoded set of beliefs that are irrelevant to our general culture.  I suppose during the death throes of their era of social influence, there will be a lot of arguing and sensationalism over the topic.  But I’m to getting to the point where I just want to ignore them already. (And yes, I recognize there’s a bit of hypocrisy in writing a blog post about someone, asking if we can please ignore him.  I mean of course, let’s ignore him starting . . . now.)

(If you don’t recognize the Holy Watering Can up there, please do check out the brilliant little video here.)

Nutritionism and baby formula

Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Ruth Uchida, left and Haruko Nagahiro, m . . . - NARA - 539478I’m listening to the audiobook of In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan.  I’m on Chapter 1, and I’m already blown away – he’s such a great writer, and his message is so applicable to my life.  One thing that struck me as he began discussing nutritionism (the ideology that food is significant only for its nutrients, and how they promote health) was that the approach was perfectly illustrated by the history of baby formula – we figured out protein, fat, and carbohydrate, and got really excited and obsessed about analyzing foods for those building blocks, and assumed we had it all figured out.  Feed babies a liquid with the same amounts of macronutrients as found in human milk, and babies would thrive even without mother’s milk.  Only we started finding new constituents of breast milk that we’d missed originally, and we saw the babies using the formula develop health problems.  And this continues up to this day!

Well, shut my mouth if Pollan didn’t quickly come to the baby formula issue, saying exactly what I had been thinking.  “The entire history of baby formula has been the history of one overlooked nutrient after another…and still to this day babies fed on the most ‘nutritionally complete’ formula fail to do as well as babies fed human milk.  Even more than margarine, formula stands as the ultimate test product of nutritionism and a fair index of its hubris.”

Maybe what we need to do is stop blaming individual mothers for “choosing” formula (often moms don’t really have viable options), and acknowledge that our whole culture around eating is seriously messed up.  Science is great – you guys know I love science!  But we do tend to get overly enamored of its fruits sometimes.  America especially strikes me as besotted with technology, even when actual science shows us that the technology produces poor outcomes.  We like gadgets, we like control, and we like improving on things.  And we’ve become so used to this approach that we have trouble seeing when we should chuck it.  Margarine turns out to be more evil than butter?  The answer is to take out the trans fats . . . and add fiber to it . . . and also add probiotics.  Never mind eschewing processed food and eating whole foods like our ancestors did.  Baby formula isn’t close enough to breastmilk to protect babies’ health?  The answer must be to add DHA to it . . . and probiotics!  Never mind changing our work life to allow moms to actually feed their babies breastmilk, or making sure pediatricians have extensive knowledge of breastfeeding support.

It’s heavy stuff to ponder – I feel a bit panicky at the prospect of abandoning my nutrient-focused, “food for health” perspective and maybe just eating like people did before Kellogg’s (and Nestle, of course).  But maybe I can do it, if I learned to trust my body to feed my babies properly, and changed my personal culture to ditch nutritionism and trust appetite.