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An allegedly polyamorous poster

A Toronto school board recently put up posters proclaiming "Love Has No Gender" as a way of promoting LGBT tolerance. I find the image they chose to illustrate this point very interesting.

image description in text of post

The posters depict a series of overlapping hearts on which various bathroom-sign-symbol couples are depicted, mixing same-sex and opposite-sex pairings. The main controversy over the posters has centered on two hearts which depict three people -- one a man flanked by two women, the other a woman flanked by two men. Parents and other community members were outraged at this apparent endorsement of polyamory. Whether that was the original intention of the sign's makers is not clear. They have not given a definite statement, and some people hypothesize that the threesomes were meant to illustrate bisexuality. This raises several issues:

1. The conflation of polyamory with the LGBT movement. Many LGBT people are quick to condemn polyamory, both for its own sake and as a defense maneuver against attempts to use "slippery slope to polygamy" arguments to deny LGBT rights. At the same time, it's very common for polyamorists -- of all orientations -- to try to draw parallels between themselves and LGBT people, and to appropriate LGBT analyses and concepts for pro-poly uses. The proper relationship between the polyamory movement and the LGBT rights movement is still a very contentious question even among people who support both. (My own position is that polyamory is not in and of itself a form of queerness, nor should straight polyamorists appropriate LGBT ideas and analysis for their own situation, but I'm also not in a position to tell LGBT poly people that they can't see these parts of their lives and identities as inseparably connected.)

2. The visual representation of bisexuality. It has become a cultural commonplace to represent heterosexuality with a picture of a stick man and a stick woman, and thus to represent gay and lesbian relationships as two stick men or two stick women respectively. This framework leaves us with two basic choices for representing bisexuality. On the one hand, since a bisexual monogamous partnered person will be in either a same-sex relationship or an opposite-sex relationship at a given time, they are covered by representations of both of those relationships -- at the cost of erasing any explicit acknowledgement that their orientation is broader than their current specific partner. On the other hand, one could (as some speculate the Toronto poster was trying to do) show a person in two relationships with partners of different sexes. This surely highlights their bisexuality, but in doing so it risks feeding a biphobic narrative that says bisexual people can't make up their minds, or can't be monogamous because they need "one of each" to be satisfied.

But beyond the question of the sign's (alleged) pro-polyamory message, I notice several other issues with the way it represents relationships:

3. The use of bathroom stick figures. The stick man and woman are widely recognizable symbols of maleness and femaleness. But they're also problematic. First, they establish a clear gender binary -- you're either a man or a woman, with no other shades or flavors of gender available. This effectively excludes non-binary people from representation in the very tolerance campaign that ought to be supporting them. The stick figures used in this poster also reinforce the idea of male as an unmarked norm -- the unadorned, basic stick figure is the male, while the modified stick figure (with a dress on) is the female. Men are thus framed as the default or standard human, while women are a variation on the model.

4. "Handicapped" is apparently a gender now. Several of the hearts show a standard male or female figure paired with a stick figure in a wheelchair. This is perhaps understandable as a way of trying to promote diversity, but it ends up backfiring. For one thing, disability is the only other axis of difference that is inserted into the picture -- race is entirely absent, for example, as is class. By making the wheelchair symbol the third type of person in the picture, it separates people with disabilities from the gender system. This is particularly problematic because there are cultural narratives about disabled people being non-sexual and falling short of gender ideals.

Why would we grant a rape exception to an abortion ban?

Republicans are falling all over themselves to say stupid things about whether they would allow an exception to an abortion ban in the case of pregnancies resulting from rape. But the idea of a "rape exception" strikes me as largely incoherent.

Let's take the pro-life side at their word that their overriding concern is the protection of human life, and that in their judgment the fetus's right to life outweighs the mother's interest in not having it. Given such premises I think it makes absolute sense to say, as a number of prominent Republicans have, that a person's right to life is not contingent on the circumstances of their conception. After all, after the child is born -- when pro-choicers would agree that the child has a right to life that trumps the mother's interests -- we would not condone infanticide if the child was a result of rape. "It sucks that you got raped, but don't punish the child for that" seems to be the only coherent position for someone who puts a fetal right to life above all else.

But of course the point of bringing up the rape exception is to push people to question whether a fetal right to life should trump everything else. Imagining the horror of being forced to carry your rapist's baby ought to lead a person to think that the mother's interests should sometimes override whatever rights or interests the fetus has. The "problem" here is that once you start down this road of emphasizing the mother's interests, there's no good reason to stop at just allowing an exception for rape. There are lots of non-rape pregnancies that can be just as traumatic, difficult, and negatively-life-altering as a rape pregnancy. It seems exceedingly unlikely that the moral weight of the various interests are so perfectly balanced to make rape, and only rape, the case where the mother's interests take precedence. This line of thinking on its own does not necessarily lead all the way to a policy of publicly-funded abortions for anyone anytime for any reason*, but it certainly takes us to a much more liberal place than just a narrow rape exception. In this light, support for a rape exception starts to look like a political ploy to cut off the effectiveness of this line of pro-choice logic, rather than a principled position on what abortions are acceptable.

Moreover, even if rape were the only situation in which the mother's interests took precedence, establishing that as a rule would backfire. The point of a rape exception is to spare the mother the trauma of carrying a child conceived through rape. Since people desperate enough for an abortion to resort to unsafe methods like coathangers would also surely be desperate enough to lie about having been raped, you would need a system to verify that an abortion-seeker had actually been raped. This system would necessarily exacerbate the trauma of rape -- forcing the victim to recount her story to an unsympathetic and stereotype-bound justice system. There are good reasons that many rape victims are reluctant to go to the police, after all. A more liberal abortion policy would spare rape victims this additional burden.

Nevertheless, I think there are two ways of looking at the abortion issue that do provide a foundation for a rape exception. Unfortunately, neither is a particularly attractive philosophy to espouse in public (though there are people who do).

First, if restricting abortion is about punishing sluts, then a rape exception makes sense. Abortion is wrong, in this view, because having sex outside of married heterosexual procreation is wrong, and it's women's responsibility to put the brakes on. So illicit sex ought to carry a risk of pregnancy, and someone who has illicit sex ought to suffer the consequences. Rape is an exception because a rape victim did not choose to have the pregnancy-causing sex. This exception has to be limited to a small category of "legitimate" (Akin) or "forcible" (Ryan) rapes, since many alleged rapes are held to be products of the victim's own sluttiness and thus her own fault. But in the abstract, a rape exception makes sense as a way of not punishing those who truly aren't responsible for the illicit sex they had.

Second, if restricting abortion is about control over other people's uteruses, then a rape exception makes sense. In this way of thinking, a uterus doesn't really belong to the person whose body it resides in, it belongs to society as a whole, and specifically to the dominant male class of that society. To get an abortion, in this view, is to exercise your own selfish control over a public uterus -- a sort of insubordination. But rape is also insubordination, this time by the rapist, who is claiming access to a uterus "out of turn," in contravention to the prevailing social order's rules. (Again, this logic is limited to "legitimate" or "forcible" rapes that fit this acting-out-against-the-hierarchy model.) A rape exception allows this insubordination to be wiped away.

In summary, a pro-lifer who genuinely thinks the fetus's right to life is paramount has to bite the bullet and hold that the mother's interests are trumped even in the case of rape. Someone who wants to give real consideration to the mother's interests has to allow abortion much more broadly than just in the case of rape. But people who want to punish sluts and control uteruses can make a case for a rape exception.

*"Publicly-funded abortions for anyone anytime for any reason" pretty well describes my own position on the issue.


Own your non-vegan desserts

A friend recently sent me a link to this short article about Vegan Divas, a vegan dessert company. While Vegan Divas' wares look delicious, I want to push back on the way they're framed in the article. The title describes the desserts as being able to "fool your non-vegan friends," and the text describes veganism as "pretty much murder on your sweet tooth" -- but luckily Vegan Divas can supply sweets that "don't taste vegan at all" (italics of amazement in the original!)

I don't agree that vegan desserts are especially difficult to make or especially bad-tasting. My baking skills are merely passable, yet I've been able to easily find and execute vegan recipes, from chocolate chip cookies to tres leches cake*, that receive rave reviews from hardcore omnivores. None of them require specialized ingredients out of reach for an ordinary middle-class US person** -- any store that has eggs also has applesauce, and almond milk is in pretty much every full-scale grocery store.

The myth of the difficult vegan dessert is a comforting one. Veganism is threatening to many people -- witness the immediate vocal reaction of ridicule and warnings not to be preachy that so often follow a mere mention of veganism. People are lazy and want to take things for granted. Veganism asks you to think about what you're eating, forcing you to defend (if only in your own conscience) your choice of foods. Believing that vegan food is gross and difficult to make gives you an escape clause. You can say "well, even if vegans are right that it's better not to eat animal products, a vegan diet is a difficult challenge. More power to you if you want to be a saint, but ordinary people can't be expected to bear that cross."

My overarching philosophy lately has been "own your shit." That is, be aware of what you're doing and what its consequences are, and be willing to take responsibility for that. You can't give a friend or partner what they want in your relationship? Fine, just be honest about that and don't make it their problem to solve. You want to watch a TV show that's got lots of stuff in it that's sexist or racist or whatever? Fine, but be honest that that stuff is there. And you want to eat non-vegan food? Fine, but do it because you think raising animals for food is OK, not because vegan food is supposedly too difficult.

*Tres freaking leches. It has milk right in the title, so if you can veganize that then you have no more excuses.

**I don't want to minimize the difficulties faced by genuinely poor people living in food deserts -- but they're probably not going to be able to order from Vegan Divas either. And the limited selection available in food deserts is as much a product of wider cultural assumptions about what are basic foods as it is a product of pure economic considerations.


Neoliberal tweeting

I find it interesting the way "neoliberal" has become a term of disparagement in much of academia. It is true that "neoliberal" can be a useful term in organizing our understanding of the economic trends underway in higher education and the wider world. And I agree that many of the changes driven by neoliberalism are worrisome at best. But once we have made this clear identification of neoliberalism with bad stuff, it becomes easy to trash other behaviors or ideas by labeling them neoliberal.

Consider the issue of live-tweeting academic conferences. Tamara Nopper, a critic of conference tweeting, is quoted in the above-linked story as saying "we need to consider how live-tweeting at conferences is a form of neoliberalism, with scholars employing social media to increase name recognition in and outside of the academy in hopes of getting more paid opportunities."

Certainly live-tweeting can be done in a self-promotional way, which is a useful strategy for success in a neoliberal environment. But we could just as easily flip it around and show how restricting live-tweeting has parallels in neoliberalism. After all, one of the notable features of neoliberalism is how a variety of things -- resources, genes, skills, etc -- are taken out of the "commons" and turned into exclusive, patented property so that they can be controlled and commodified. Conference tweeting is a technologically mediated version of the discussion of ideas that has long been a sort of "commons" that academics could draw on. Restricting such discussion serves to keep a presenter's ideas more completely under their own control (for example, so as not to get "scooped" and thus deprived of the professional profit from them). This comes to resemble the heavy-handed use of copyright and patents by multinational companies in a neoliberal environment, squashing such things as traditional use of now-patented species, or fanfic and other sorts of media that work with copyrighted characters.