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Have you heard the one about Neotrogla? Neotrogla is an interesting cave insect discovered Brazil; instead of being blind or transparent or having other neat cave-specific adaptations, Neotrogla mixes things up with sex. In specific, Neotrogla females have a penis, while the males have an internal cavity that receives the penis. A great summary of the science can be found at Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of not-great science communication attempts out there with Neotrogla, and Annalee Newitz took aim at them over at io9. Unfortunately, Newitz got it wrong, too.

In particular, the issue with Newitz’s piece is it’s also conflating issues, mixing human gender-related issues with the more technical biology and anatomy of sex. She says

almost every news outlet covered the story by describing the insects as “females with penises.” This isn’t just painfully wrong — it’s bad for science.

and then goes on to support her assertion that this isn’t a penis, but a new structure (citing the also-incorrect Jason Goldman’s post for io9 on Neotrogla).

Newitz asks if we’ve ever heard of a penis inflating, or having barbs, or of marathon mating sessions, and the answer to all of those things is yes. NeotrogOctoIllustration A penis can have barbs and spines (cats), inflate (dogs), and mating can happen for a period of time humans consider long (moths). But as Professor Diane Kelly notes, a penis is, technically/biologically, an appendage that transfers reproductive material between mating creatures–which is why octopus have them, even if they’re weird little hentai-inspiring arm things. So yes, Neotrogla has a penis.

That said, Newitz is absolutely right that there has a lot of offensive coverage on the topic, and that? That should be called out. I saw the play on “chicks with dicks” she refers to, I saw “gender-bending insects!”, I saw articles referring to “the tranny bug” and other charmingly awful things. (Note: after thought, I decided not to link to any of the offensive articles. They don’t deserve the clicks. If you want to see them, Newitz had a good running list in her io9 post.) That sort of writing needs to be called out for what it is: offensive and wrong. The lazy writing that, as a whole, the science communication community should be ashamed of, is conflating issues of biological sex and gender for crude humour that requires the butt of a joke to be someone whose gender and biological sex don’t “match,” and we as a community should be better than “Crying Game cave insect” jokes.

But the thing is, naming and shaming those who want to use transgender, intersex, and other issues of identity and biological non-conformity is separate from an actual discussion of the biological structure of Neotrogla. Ultimately, noting that there is a female insect with a penis does do exactly what Newitz wants: emphasizes the awe-inspiring diversity of science. Because Neotrogla‘s female is female–she just happens to have a penis, too. Which means that how people want to define gender (as the rigid representation of biological structure, ie “men have penises, women do not”) is continuing to crumble. And that? That’s a good thing.

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I have been online a long time. I have a digital trail that sometimes feels like it’s a mile wide, where I benefit more from the fact that a lot of content from the early days of the world wide web weren’t archived before servers went down than anything else. I’ve been anonymous, pseudonymous, known by my married name and my given one. TalkCityMissingIt gives me at least a little bit of perspective over the current debate over identity online, and it makes me uncomfortable to see me mentioned, even in passing, as a good “open identity” idea to emulate.

I, truth be told, never gave much thought to what it meant to be visible online before my editor, reading an article I’d handed in for my third op-ed, asked me if I was sure I wanted to publish it. Had I really thought about what I was saying, and was I okay putting it online? She closed the file and told me to think about it for a day before making my decision.

I did think it over. I thought about what I was saying, but I also thought about what I had already said over the last 18 months of courses and teaching and work and outreach, and realized I wasn’t saying anything I hadn’t already said elsewhere. I was okay putting it online. After all, I was writing an op-ed for a university paper; how many people really read those, anyhow?

A few weeks later, another column ended up, along with my headshot, on the dartboard outside the offices of a department at that university, and I realized that at least people on campus were reading what I wrote. Honestly? I laughed when I heard that, I was delighted over the hate mail my editor received, and I felt like I was doing something right.

I moved on from there to graduate school, which came along with writing for higher profile blogs on both bio and broader medical ethics. The idea of not writing under my given name was never even broached; I was developing an academic presence in a field known for controversy–and I admit that I relished the attention controversial posts received. (I sometimes think bioethicists seek validation in decibels, or at least in the number of opposition papers aimed at you.)

And then things collapsed around me; when I applied to other graduate schools, I was told, in confidence and by several different people at several different schools, that I would never work in bioethics again. My name and my record were too linked to things that had nothing to do with me, but would taint me via association.

Shortly after that, I ended up on Twitter, mostly as a lark. Some of you likely remember my first icon: one of my cats, not me. I used my first name, but I didn’t have a picture of myself online, and I didn’t closely tie my Twitter handle to my website; I never posted what little blogging I was doing to Twitter.

I don’t recall precisely when I decided to link my blog to Twitter. I was drawn back into blogging about bioethics by Twitter, so I would guess it was probably some time in early 2012. mentoledo_reasonably_smallAs for my face being out there, that came shortly before Science Online 2013, when attendees were asked to have a recognizable icon. (For a while, I seriously thought about bringing a cutout of my cat’s face to wear.) My full name didn’t get added to Twitter until last week, when people were confused about what that last name was, and I realized it wouldn’t hurt to be slightly more clear.

But here’s the thing: I really don’t have anything to lose by being Kelly Hills on Twitter. I don’t have anything to lose being open in criticizing Nature, or telling Science Online where I think they’ve gone wrong, or with anything else. What was of value to me has already been taken away. So Henry Gee can’t really threaten to put me on a hit list or take me out or destroy my career when that’s all already been done to me. In fact, given that I’ve been accused of throwing servers (that were on fire!) off of buildings in some sort of malicious revenge scheme, Gee’d have to do a lot worse to even get me to blink.

This isn’t to say that I haven’t been threatened, but it is to say that I am privileged in a way that most people aren’t, regardless of their race, class, or status: I have nothing, and that makes me a very difficult person to threaten.

I, if nothing, am your cautionary tale. I am the one that should be pointed to when people say be careful, because I am in the place you end up when the narrative spins out of your control and the idea of controlling damage is as laughable as your reputation.

We often talk about privilege as a good place to be, and most of the time it is. But there is privilege from being so far beyond damaged that you no longer have to care, and it’s not a good privilege. morpheus1I am privileged in that I can say what I think, but that’s because there are no longer any consequences for me in the particular places where I use my voice.

I am nothing but sympathetic to those who feel that their lives, their careers, their reputations, require some degree of caution when they are online, and as such choose to write either anonymously or pseudonymously. They’re doing a delicate calculus, attempting to balance incredibly contradictory and competing needs, and I would never presume I know what’s better for those people, and I rail against the idea that I should be held up as any example of good because, if you really want to, you can find out my middle name. If anything, where I am now–that you know who I am–is an act of defiance. It’s a giant “bring it” of bravado in front of “what else do I have?” It’s trying to make the best of a bad situation, and it’s the sort of thing people should be able to choose, rather than face with resignation.

 


This post came about both from discussions happening over Henry Gee, a senior editor for Nature, outing a pseudonymous blogger, discussions of what it means to boycott Nature, and a really excellent series over at Hope Jahren’s blog on real life identity and the internet.

And just for the general record, it’s not all been bad. I’ve made friends and met some amazing people I wouldn’t have met in a million years otherwise, including my fiancé.

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Have you ever had that experience where you’re walking along and someone tries to hand you a religious tract, and you smile politely and say no thank you and try to keep going, but they reach out again and for whatever reason you stop, and then the following conversation happens?

“Can I tell you about Jesus?”
“Thanks, but I’m a Buddhist.”
“But have you heard the word of our lord and saviour?”
“Actually, I was raised Catholic, so–”
“Oh but that’s not a REAL Christian, let me tell you–”

And then you have to break whatever it was that made you stop, feel rude, and just walk away, because you realize that no matter what you say or do, they’re going to keep pressing because no answer but the one they want to hear is good enough?

FP_Contraceptives_225x200I often feel like that about birth control.

Almost inevitably, if the topic of birth control comes up, someone will come along to tell you that there are some really unacceptable risks to whatever birth control you’re talking about, but have you thought about these other, better birth control options? And of course, hopefully the person being this imposing is a friend (but let’s be honest, it generally isn’t) and you smile and say yes, thanks, and go back to your conversation except you’re interrupted again. “But have you tried…” and the well-meaning person goes through every birth control option they find acceptable.

In my case, since I’m utilizing a hormonal birth control (the Mirena IUS), whomever is acting critic will start asking about non-hormonal options. Sometimes, I’m nice and I’ll play along. “Yes, nasty contact dermatitis makes it not fun. Yes, with that, too. No, I don’t really trust options with failure rates that high. Yes, I’m aware of perfect vs real world use, but failure is not an option.”

Because, you see, I have that in my back pocket. Not one trump card, but two. Because even if people find my “yes, well, I was nearly hospitalized for blood loss before I had a Mirena inserted” an unacceptable medical excuse (and there are some who do), I have a final saving grace trump card, the one that says “it is medically advised that I never have children, due to my severe, degenerative nerve damage; having children could leave me permanently disabled and bedridden for life, if not worse.”

Funnily enough, that gets a pass from pretty much everyone except the very worst of the Republican politicians.

The thing is, I shouldn’t have to detail out my medical history in order to get a pass for deciding to use hormonal birth control. No one should have to detail out their medical history in order to show an “acceptable” medical need vs “just” recreational baby prevention; at most, a friend has the right to say “well, I’m concerned about the risks, are you familiar with them?” A “yes” response means drop the conversation, not run through every other birth control option out there. A “no” response means ask if more information is welcome, not immediately launch in to it.

The minute you get into dissecting out what is and is not a medical reason for birth control, you start wandering over into the territory that is labeling the choices and decisions women are making, and for hopefully understandable reasons, that makes little pro-choice, pro-birth control-as-part-of-basic-healthcare me nervous.

Are women making bad choices for themselves out there? Undoubtedly. There are shitty doctors. There are uninformed women. But taking the default position that every woman is uninformed is not the answer. No woman should have to lay out her entire medical history (or that of her partner!) in order to “get a pass” on contraceptive use.

When a woman tells you she’s utilizing birth control, don’t ask her if it’s medicinal or for contraception, don’t tell her she has better options, don’t immediately launch into the laundry list of why her choice is bad for her. We–those of us who are pro-women’s health, pro-choice, pro-birth control–are better than that.

Or, at least, we should be.

 


For a quick overview of contraception options and risks of pregnancy see this Planned Parenthood graphic.

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If you’re on Twitter, you’re probably aware that Grantland EIC Bill Simmons has released an apology for the Dr. V story that’s had the internet upset for the last few days. If you’re not familiar with that story, this is a good summary by Melissa McEwan at Shakesville.

I fired off a couple of quick tweets about not finding Simmons’ apology all that impressive, and have ended up in a bit of a discussion with Tom Levenson and Janet D. Stemwedel about whether or not the apology was “good enough.” I hope someone not me Storifies it, because it’s turning into a good conversation, and my intent here is not to replicate that.

As I wrote up on Friday, there are four steps to an apology: Recognition, Responsibility, Remorse/Regret, Remedy. Apparently I need to add an overall piece of advice to that, which is “conciseness.” And that’s probably the biggest failure of Simmons’ apology: it stretches on for several pages. In fact, as I mentioned to Janet, it might be a “culture of Grantland” issue here: the winding narrative that Simmons attempts to create in his apology is reminiscent of Hannan’s original, winding story, complete with attempting to pivot on an “a-ha gotcha” moment. (While Hannan’s ‘gotcha’ was Dr V being trans, Simmons’ appears to be the admission that 15 people read the story and not one caught any of the numerous ethical and journalistic errors in the piece.)

So rather than walk back through the steps to an apology and show why Simmons failed, I thought I’d illustrate the principles of a good apology another way, and edit Simmons’ apology until it actually fits into the appropriate model of an apology. Because I do think Tom’s right; there are pieces of an apology in here, it’s just that they’re buried under defensiveness, back-patting, and justification.

An edited version of Bill Simmons’ Grantland/Dr. V apology, as done by Kelly Hills, to prove a point.

“How could you guys run that?”

We started hearing that question on Friday afternoon, West Coast time, right as everyone was leaving our Los Angeles office to start the weekend. We kept hearing that question on Friday night, and all day Saturday, and Sunday, too. We heard it repeatedly on Twitter and Facebook. We sifted through dozens of outraged emails from our readers. We read critiques on various blogs and message boards, an onslaught that kept coming and coming. I don’t remember the exact moment when I realized that we definitely screwed up, but it happened sometime between Friday night and Saturday morning. On Sunday, ESPN apologized on our behalf. I am apologizing on our behalf right now.

We made one massive mistake. I have thought about it for nearly three solid days, and I’ve run out of ways to kick myself about it. How did it never occur to any of us? How? How could we ALL blow it? That mistake: Someone familiar with the transgender community should have read Caleb’s final draft. This never occurred to us. Nobody ever brought it up.

To my infinite regret, we never asked anyone knowledgeable enough about transgender issues to help us either (a) improve the piece, or (b) realize that we shouldn’t run it. That’s our mistake — and really, my mistake, since it’s my site. So I want to apologize. I failed.

More importantly, I realized over the weekend that I didn’t know nearly enough about the transgender community – and neither does my staff. I read Caleb’s piece a certain way because of my own experiences in life. That’s not an acceptable excuse; it’s just what happened. In the future, we will be sophisticated enough — at least on this particular topic. We weren’t educated, we failed to ask the right questions, we made mistakes, and we’re going to learn from them. Moving forward, we will learn from what happened.

Is it a perfect apology? No. But it’s an awful lot better than the one that was published. And while I’ve rearranged the content a bit and cleared away much of the detritus, I didn’t add any material to what turns out to have potential to be a good apology, but is being clogged up with an awful lot of content that suggests Simmons doesn’t really get it.

So remember, if you have to apologize for something you did: Keep it short and concise, recognize your mistake, accept responsibility for what you did, express remorse/regret, and offer a remedy.

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While one corner of the internet was up in ire about Nature publishing bad commentary, and another was up in arms over both The Guardian and The New York Times taking out inaccurate attack op-eds on Lisa Adams, a third corner of the internet was poking fun at or flat out criticizing Jezebel for offering $10,000 for unretouched photographs of Lena Dunham’s Vogue cover. Within hours, Jezebel had several of the images, although not the one I admit I’d been hoping to see. (See above right, and click to embiggen. I’m just so curious: what was so offensive about her left arm?)

The general editorial commentary seems to be along the lines of “what was Jezebel hoping to accomplish,” along with a healthy dose of “all Jezebel is doing is shaming Dunham.” (There’s also a lot of commentary about click bait, which is kind of amusing if you think about it for a second, but I digress.) As a whole, the issue seems to be summed up as “it was okay when Jezebel did this in 2007, because they asked for any magazine cover and any woman,” (and got the rather famous Redbook/Faith Hill photoshopping), “but it’s a problem when it’s Dunham because Jezebel is making it about her body.”

With this, I disagree. While it is about Dunham’s body, that’s not Jezebel’s doing. It’s because Lena Dunham has been very outspoken about her body: not only is she fine with her non-model-ideal body, she’s fine showing it naked on television, and if you don’t like it, that’s your problem and you don’t have to look at her. It’s something you even find in the Vogue profile of her; Nathan Heller writes:

For almost as long as Dunham’s work has been in the public eye, she’s spoken openly and often about her body type, pointing out that not every strong and enviable woman on the air must resemble a runway model.

And that’s why seeing what Vogue decided to edit about and from Dunham’s body is important. Because Dunham has, at this point, spent years talking about how much she likes her body as it is, and how comfortable she is in it, and how she’s not interested in changing it to fit the social gaze. Anyone who knows who Dunham is likely has heard at least some variation on that theme at this point.

So when Dunham shows up on the Vogue cover with her neck taken in; shoulders dropped to increase the perceived length of her neck; and her face and jaw narrowed to make her eyes and lips appear larger? Yes, it’s a problem, because it sends a very mixed message: Lena Dunham is proud of and comfortable in her non-stereotypically-Western-ideal-body, so here is her body changed to conform to that stereotypical ideal.

Dunham’s explanation, as I’ve seen it, is this:

A fashion magazine is like a beautiful fantasy. Vogue isn’t the place that we go to look at realistic women, Vogue is the place that we go to look at beautiful clothes and fancy places and escapism

This is all well and good, except it’s pretty divorced from reality. There are, at this point, decades of research to show that looking at thin and ultra-thin representations of women distort self-esteem, that body image takes a hit when exposed to these unrealistic images, and that notions of the real are eventually affected.

What ends up happening is not the cognitive dissonance of “I thought Dunham didn’t have issues with her body, why is Vogue nipping and tucking her?” but one of “oh, that’s who it was implausible for Patrick Wilson’s character to have a tryst with? Guess she’s just Hollywood Homely.”

By changing Lena Dunham–a woman who, as the original unprocessed photos show, is already quite pretty without any Photoshop help–into yet another slender, long-necked, physically impossible image, Vogue manages, in a single stroke, to undermine Dunham’s message and broadcast the idea that the ideal woman is one that quite simply cannot exist.

As Clara Jeffery, the co-editor of Mother Jones notes, a retouched photo is radically different from a Photoshopped photo. When you’re creating and promoting anatomically impossible images of women and passing them off not as fantastical, as Leibovitz does beautifully in her Disney Dream series, but real and actual, then yes, there is a problem, and it’s one that’s highlighted particularly well when Vogue gives a woman who is vocal about loving her body the way it is the fantastical impossible treatment.

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