On building a culture of consent

It’s predictable. That’s the most infuriating thing about it: it’s so goddamn dreadfully predictable.

If it were a surprise, we could at least say that it was surprising because we didn’t expect it. If we didn’t expect it, that means we were expecting something else. But god damn if it isn’t dreary in its monotonous predictability.

Five and a half years ago, I wrote a blog post called Assault and Consent in the BDSM Community. It concerned a person I know who’d been raped by a well-known leader in the Portland BDSM scene1. When she came forward about the assault, the BDSM scene closed ranks behind him and against her. It wasn’t until many more women stepped forward to say that he had raped them, too, that he was eventually run out of the scene…but it took a long time. And during that time, the predictable and monotonous drumbeat of minimization and victim-blaming and “well I never had a problem with him” bullshit (newsflash: you never had a problem with him because you’re not in his preferred victim demographic, duh) was all you could hear in the local community.

I’ve talked about this before, of course. It, and a succession of similar events like it with that same old same old unwillingness to deal with abuse in the community, was the reason I left the BDSM scene. I am still kinky, and I still consider other kinky folks to be my people, but god damn so many of the organized BDSM communities are dysfunctional when it comes to consent.

Ironically, given all the lip service it pays to consent.

None of this is news, at least to anyone paying attention. We live in a society where access to other people’s bodies, particularly women’s bodies, is considered as much a right as free speech and the right to bear arms. I mean, hell, access to other people’s bodies is a goddamn advertising campaign, as this photo I took of a sign in a storefront in California quite plainly illustrates.

You know she was asking for it.

And here’s the thing: It’s not just about sex.

Access to, and entitlement to, other people is so pervasive, so intimately woven into the fabric of Western society, that it’s the backdrop against which our lives are played out.

Not just access to other people’s bodies, though there is that, but access to other people. Access to other people’s time, other people’s attention, other people’s creativity, other people’s expression.

If you’re a woman, you know this already. If you’re at all creative, or if you’re someone who’s even moderately famous, you know this already. If you’re a woman who’s well-known or even moderately famous, you know this so thoroughly you probably don’t even need to read the rest of this blog post to know what’s coming.

I wrote recently about a storm brewing in the Italian poly scene over the Italian language version of More Than Two. It’s something Eve has also written about.

And before I go any further, I want to say that no, I’m not claiming what’s happening with the book is in any way comparable to rape. If that’s the idea you come away from this essay with, you’re not paying attention.

Instead, what I want to say is that the casual entitlement to other people, the offhand attitude that suggests that person A has, by right, an expectation to access to person B, and should B object to this access, A can be expected not only to trot out the same old tired objections we’ve heard a hundred times, but A’s friends F, U, C, and K can be expected to do the same, is the common thread that unites many different forms of consent violation.

That’s the thing. That’s the maddening, infuriating, and painfully mundane thing about this. People who feel an entitlement to access to other people can be counted on to justify that entitlement in the same exact ways, and it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about physical assault, emotional labor, control over another person’s choices, or any other kind of forced intimacy. The same tools–victim-blaming, gaslighting, feigned “neutrality,” cries of “oh, but I’ve never had a problem with him!”–get use against any kind of non-consensual access to other people, sexual or not.

And it’s so predictable we barely even notice. Might I point out how fucked up that is?

Eve recently shared her blog post in a 2,500-member Italian polyamory Facebook group, one of two major groups in Italy. By then there was already a roiling, seething mass of innuendo, speculation, storytelling, and weird narrative growing around the problems with the Italian version of More Than Two, which is what typically happens in the absence of information; we are a storytelling species, and we make up stories to explain the world, without even knowing we’re doing it.

So she posted. And the result was…well, it was indistinguishable from what happened five and a half years ago, around a different issue in a different community halfway around the world.

We don’t like it when people we admire do something wrong, and we are, as a species, quite predictable in the ways we will hold on to the idea that folks we personally like are Pure And Noble, and folks who tell us inconveniently unpleasant things about them are Bad And Wrong.

Different situation, different crime, same disregard for consent, same rationalizations and reactions.

Fuck me if it’s not as monotonous as clockwork.

On each rotation of the center gear, someone says “But she’s overreacting!”

So let’s cut to the chase.

If someone writes a book and you like it, that’s cool.

If someone writes a book and you want to see it published where you live, that’s cool.

If someone writes a book and you work with the publisher to attach a foreword to the book that you wrote without talking to the authors about first, and then you fight back when they want it removed, that’s not, and never will be, cool. That’s the sort of pervasive attitude of entitlement to other people I’m talking about.

If someone writes a book and you go to the publisher misrepresenting yourself as speaking on behalf of the authors, that’s not only not cool, it’s creepy.

If someone writes a book, and you do these things, and the authors complain, and then you begin a campaign of throwing anyone who you think publicly or privately supports the authors out of groups and events and leadership roles, that’s…that’s…

Sadly, that’s as predictable as the rotation of a gear.

Because that’s how entitlement works. That’s what entitlement is. It’s the belief that that access to another person, be it physical or emotional or psychological or whatever, belongs to you, it’s yours by right, and anyone who tries to take it away is depriving you of what’s rightfully yours.

And the victim blaming, closing ranks behind the consent violator, “oh it was all in her head” stuff? That’s also part of how entitlement works, because entitlement isn’t just some random guy who thinks he has the right to have access to you, entitlement is a system. It’s a pattern of beliefs. It’s the water in which we swim.

It’s the advertising message we see hanging in a store window while we’re walking down the street.

This idea, that entitlement is not just a personal failure of boundaries but a toxic environment in which we live, is central to the whole idea of consent culture. And it distresses me when people who represent themselves as part of a community built on a culture of consent behave this way.

I quit the BDSM community because by the time I left it had not succeeded, even after decades, in building a meaningful culture of consent.

I see the poly community headed the same way, and it’s heartbreaking. This is not okay. Let’s do better.

1 Last I heard, he’d moved to Seattle and was gaining a reputation as a rapist in the BDSM scene there, too. Funny thing, though. In all of US history, as near as I can tell, there has never once been a successful rape prosecution against a rapist who was in a kink relationship with their victim. Not one. If you want a 100% guaranteed free ride to rape with total, irrevocable legal immunity, join the kink scene. Now you know.

The revolution is Nigh…Impossible

As part of the ongoing development of the bionic cock project I’m working on, I’m in the process of teaching myself 3D modeling and 3D printing. We’re using 3D printing to make positives for molding silicone prototypes.

3D printing is amazing. It offers incredible potential for people everywhere to be able to make whatever they want on demand, as long as “people everywhere” means “people with access to computers and the Internet and 3D printers and spools of plastic, and the cognitive ability to be able to design things and operate the equipment.” So not really people everywhere, but no matter, right?

3D printing is also incredibly stupid. The state of the art is so appalling. The software is deplorable–a throwback to the bad old days of obtuse design usable only by the select few.

The first time I tried to make a print, I was horrified by what passes for design in the world of 3D printing. It’s a case study in why Linux has never made significant inroads into the desktop, despite being free. Open source software is still software made by developers for developers, with no thought (or sometimes, with active contempt) for users who either don’t want to or don’t have the time to learn every small detail of the way their systems work.

By way of comparison, if color inkjet software worked the way 3D printer software works, every time you hit the Print command on your computer, you’d be confronted by something like this (click to embiggen):

A twisty maze of confusing ad indecipherable options poorly laid out

This…is why we can’t have nice things. The open source community isn’t democratic; it’s elitist.

…not just a river in Egypt

Some while back, someone on Quora (a question and answer site on which I’m quite active) asked a question about encounters with racism and white privilege.

I told the story of something that happened to Eve and me at a Walmart in Florida. We were standing in a checkout line with about five people in front of us, when the cashier pulled us out of line. We thought she was opening a new register, but instead, she just brought us to the front of the line and rang us up. It was a little confusing, and it took a few minutes to register: we were the only white people in line.

This is, I think, a fairly typical example of everyday racism. There’s nothing particularly weird or unusual about it; it’s just part of the background institutional racism of life in the United States, one of the many small acts of racism that normalize racism on a larger scale.

What I didn’t expect, and did find deeply weird, was the way people reacted to this story.

This, I think, is very strange. It’s also very telling.

There are lessons in both the event and the responses to it, I think. Both Eve and I didn’t recognize what was going on at the time it happened. As she wrote,

It was crowded and noisy. It happened really fast. We were stressed and distracted. Have you ever had someone pull you out of line because they were opening a new register? At first we thought that was what was happening. […] We weren’t even sure if everyone standing around us was actually in line. There was a lot of information to take in and respond to at once.

It was only after we checked out and were halfway to the exit that we looked around and realized that she was the only cashier open in her area and that the people around us had in fact all been in line – and were still there.

I mean yeah. We felt like idiots afterward for not realizing sooner what was going on. I certainly hope the experience will help us be more aware in the future if we encounter this shit again.

Neither of us recognized what was happening at the time, but we’re now more aware of this kind of thing, and we’re not likely to be taken by surprise in the future.

So that’s the first lesson: sometimes, white privilege means being completely unaware of casual acts of everyday racism even when you’re right in the middle of them.

The second lesson, though, is more interesting: it has become very, very common for people who are confronted with something uncomfortable to deny that it exists. And that’s troubling.

To be fair, this is not limited only to racism. The same thing happened whenever people talk about any kind of topic where there’s likely to be disagreement. I’ve written on this blog and elsewhere about the hysteria around GM food and how the machinery of fear of GM food is totally devoid of empirical evidence, and as sure as night follows day, every time I do, someone will reach into the attic of argumentative fallacy and haul out the tired old “you don’t believe that, you’re just being paid to say it” trope. It’s happened both on Quora and, when a blog post about GM food made it to Reddit, on Reddit:

It hasn’t always been this way. This reflexive, instantaneous denial–“You had an experience that makes me uncomfortable; I will refuse to believe it occurred,” “You hold an idea I disagree with; you do not really believe what you’re saying”–is new (at least to me).

Denial as an argumentative tactic isn’t new, of course, but the fact that so many people reach for it as the very first response is.

This happens in politics (“You support Hillary, that’s the only reason you’re saying Jill Stein is pandering to pseudoscience”), in technology, in everything. It’s pervasive. And it’s gaslighting. It’s built on the assumption that a person can tell you what your experiences were, what you believe or don’t believe, all because he doesn’t much like what you’re saying. (I say “he” because with only one exception, all the responses I’ve screen captured above were from men.)

But when it comes to experiences of racism, it seems particularly deeply rooted.

I’m not sure if that’s white discomfort at the idea of their own privilege, or if it comes from the fact that so many Americans truly want to believe that the election of a black President means we’re living in a post-racial society, or what it is, but it’s bizarre. What happened to Eve and me in Walmart isn’t even that egregious an example. It’s not like, just to use a random hypothetical that of course would never happen in real life, an unarmed black man was shot dead by police for doing nothing in particular.

Yet people really, really want to believe that it simply never happened–that it would not happen. They seem incredibly invested in that belief.

I would like to think that, had I been waiting in that line and seen what happened, I would raise a stink about that.

But here’s the thing: I am white. I was born into a system that privileged me. I have never been on the receiving end of structural racism. If someone were to be brought in front of me in line, of course I would raise a stink about it; being able to raise a stink is part of my privilege. Many folks on Quora expressed surprise that none of the people in the line spoke up, but that’s part of the problem. Being allowed to speak up about racism is not a privilege that those on the receiving end are permitted.

On Quora, several folks made exactly this point:

Talking about privilege is difficult, because a lot of folks who hold some kind of privilege (white privilege, male privilege, whatever) take the conversation as an affront. It’s not always clear what we’re supposed to do with the knowledge that we have these social privileges we didn’t ask for, whether we want them or not.

I’ve heard folks become defensive and say things like “are you telling me I should feel guilty for being white?” or “are you telling me I didn’t work for the things I have?”

And the answer is no, of course not. That’s not the point at all. The point is to recognize these structures, so that you can point them out and you can help level the playing field for everyone.

Had someone in that line objected, he probably would have been seen as just another angry black person. Had we objected, that would have been a whole different ball o’ wax. This video illustrates this nicely:

The right thing to do, had we recognized what was happening, would be to say “Excuse me, these people were in line first, why are you bringing us to the front?”

The wrong thing for us to do (which was what we did) was to be so unaware of what was happening that we simply allowed it to happen. The wrong thing for other people to do was to tell us that it never happened at all.

Of course, all this happens because racism is still a real and genuine thing, openly embraced by far more people than we are comfortable admitting (including, it must be said, a certain current Presidential candidate). Not everyone on Quora denied our experience. At least one person celebrated it. I’ll leave you with this gem:

Psychic Litter: Chrome and phone menu trees

In 1995, writer David Joiner coined a phrase that I think has not received nearly enough attention: “psychic litter.” In an issue of Wired magazine, Joiner defines it this way:

“Psychic Litter” is a term I coined to mean acts of immorality so small as to be below the level of consciousness. One example is wasting small amounts of the time of many people. Bruce Tognazzini, the user interface guru, once opined that by creating a product that wastes a half hour of time for each of 4 million users, you waste 900 work-years of human productivity. That works out to about 12 complete lives.

It seems appropriate that his 1995 example involved user interfaces, as the most glaring examples of psychic litter I’ve personally ever encountered invariably come from tech firms.

Consider this: Last night, I spent some hours combing through my hard drive with a fine-toothed comb in search of some missing gigabytes that, by all rights, ought to have been there. Imagine my surprise when I peeked into my Applications folder and saw this:

Yes, that’s Chrome, the Google Web browser. Yes, it is twenty gigabytes(!) in size. No, that’s not a disk directory error.

Chrome updates itself more or less constantly, all completely silently and in the background, without user notification. That’s fine, but it turns out that every time it updates itself, Chrome (the Mac version, anyway) keeps the old version stashed within itself.

On the Mac, applications are actually “bundles,” special directories that contain the executable code plus all its required libraries. That’s how the Mac has made itself immune to Windows DLL Hell and Linux dependency hell; apps are self-contained.

You can look inside an application bundle by right-clicking it and choosing Show Package Contents from the popup menu.

When you do that on Chrome, you will see a folder called Versions. This folder contains a complete copy of every single version of Chrome that has ever been updated on that computer.

Google Chrome is about 200 MB in size. When it updates, it eats another 200 MB of hard disk space. When it updates again, there’s another 200 MB gone. And another. And another. And another.

In my case, I’d been using Chrome since 2012, and those updates had swallowed up 20 GB of space.

This shows a profound contempt and disregard for the user’s hard drive space.

Right now, by default, a brand-new Macbook comes with 256 GB of Flash storage; an 11-inch Macbook Air, 128 GB. That means my copy of Chrome would devour 15% of a Macbook Air’s standard storage.

By way of comparison, the current Mac operating system takes about 8 GB of hard drive space. That means my copy of Chrome was more than twice the size of my operating system on disk.

The simplest solution is to periodically delete Chrome and download it again, which means you’re swapping prodigious waste of your hard disk space for slightly less prodigious waste of bandwidth. The real solution is for Silicon Valley to become more conscious of the impact of their behavior on their users.

It’s not just Silicon Valley, of course. Yesterday, I had to call Services Canada about getting a social insurance number. The phone number for Services Canada took me to a voice menu tree that had six minutes of talking before the menu options were presented, and did not permit me to skip that six minutes by pressing the right number even though I knew what it was. Worse, hitting the key to repeat the menu choices caused the system to recite all six minutes of recording before offering the menu prompts again.

The design of voice menu systems is a frequent source of psychic litter. The people who record these systems rarely think about how they will be used, and often show contempt for the time of those who use them.

Sometimes, this is deliberate. Cell phone carriers have made voicemail messages longer to increase the the number of minutes of airtime used. More often, it’s careless. It stems from indifference to other people and lack of concern about the effects of our actions.

I would like to propose a radical idea: Let us all, every day, consider the implications of all our actions on other people, even the actions that we normally don’t think about. We all often find ourselves doing things that touch large numbers of other people. Even small acts of indifference, when multiplied many times, add up. We can all seek to be more considerate of other people in small ways as well as large.

“I trust my girlfriend. I just don’t trust other guys.”

It’s a comment I see scattered far and wide across the Internetverse. In almost any conversation where some guy is complaining about his wife or girlfriend having male friends, inevitably someone else will ask, “don’t you trust her?” And inevitably, as sure as night follows day, he will say “Oh, I trust her, I just don’t trust other guys.”

Which, as near as I can tell, translates into English as “I don’t trust my girlfriend.” Because the only alternative reading I can see is far more horrifying.

First things first. Let’s call this what it is: an endorsement of the belief that what women want doesn’t matter.

“I trust my girlfriend.” I think my girlfriend wants to be faithful to me, wants to support me, wants to be with me. “I just don’t trust other guys.” Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what she wants. She’s not a man. It only matters what those other guys want.

There are a couple of ways to read this, one of them pretty messed up, the other one even more so.

The first, messed-up reading: My girlfriend wants to be with me and be faithful to me, but other guys don’t want her to be. Other guys will trick, persuade, cajole, or convince her to cheat on me. You know, because they’re guys and she’s a woman. Women are weak of will, incapable of holding out when faced with a determined guy who wants to seduce her.

The second, even more messed-up reading: My girlfriend wants to be with me and be faithful to me, but other guys don’t want her to be. They’ll just rape her. Because, you know, they’re guys, and that’s what guys do.

Regardless of the reading, the conclusion remains the same: Ergo, the thing I must do is prevent my woman from hanging out with other guys. Charmers or rapists, it doesn’t make any difference if she wants to be faithful to me; they want her, so they’re going to fuck her.

And that’s a whole world of messed up right there, it is.

Disempowering and infantilizing on the one hand, or implicitly supportive of rape culture on the other—there’s no interpretation that makes this idea smell any less bad.

So, I would like to have a word with all you men out there who have ever used this reasoning, thought about using this reasoning, or nodded in sympathetic agreement when someone else has this reasoning. I will try to put this as delicately as possible:

Cut it out. It’s bullshit.

“I trust you, but…” is just a way of saying “I don’t trust you.”

Look, I get it. It’s scary to trust someone else. When you do, you’re putting your heart in their hands and giving them a chance to let it shatter on the floor. You’re hoping they won’t drop it, knowing it will hurt if they do. I totally understand how scary that is.

But you can’t have it both ways.

If you trust your partner not to betray you, you have to have confidence that she won’t even if she has the opportunity to. And if you try to control her to prevent her from having the opportunity to hurt you, you don’t trust her.

This is not about other guys or what they want. It’s about her.

If you don’t think she can say “no” to a silver-tongued bloke with a huge, massive, throbbing bank account, you don’t trust her. If you trust her, it doesn’t matter what other men’s intentions are.

And if you assume as a given that other men who take an interest in your girlfriend will ignore her ‘no’ and just rape her, there’s a bigger problem than her fidelity. Perhaps it’s time to stand up, you know? And I don’t mean stand up to control your girlfriend. I mean stand up against the notion that it is in any way, shape, or form acceptable to assume that other men will not listen to her ‘no’ and there’s anything normal about that…because there isn’t.

“I trust my girlfriend. I just don’t trust other guys.” Basically, you’re saying your girlfriend’s desires don’t matter.

Is that really what you believe?

My hunch is that it’s not. My hunch is what you’re really saying is you think your girlfriend will choose to cheat, but you don’t want to say it because you understand what it might mean. You don’t trust her, and a healthy relationship can’t function without trust.

If you trust her, it doesn’t matter what other guys want. If you don’t trust her, have the courage to own it. But listen, all you other men out there, enough with the “I trust her, I don’t trust other guys” already.

You aren’t fooling anyone.

Operation Choke Point; or, We Know What’s Best For You

Before I can really go into the things I want to talk about, I’ll need to offer you, dear readers, a bit of back story.

As many folks who’ve read this blog over the years know, I am, among many other things, a game designer. I’ve developed a game called Onyx, which I’ve maintained and sold since the mid-1990s. Onyx is a sex game. It’s designed for multiple players, who move around a virtual “game board” buying properties. When another player lands on your property, that player can pay rent or–ahem–work off the debt.

I sell Onyx on my Web site here. It’s lived there for many years, and for the past thirteen years or so, I’ve accepted credit card payments for the registered version of the game via a merchant account provider called Best Payment Solutions.

This past April, I received notification from Best Payment Solutions that they were terminating my account. They gave no reason, other than they “sometimes terminate accounts for risk reasons.” In the thirteen years I’d been with them, I’d only had one chargeback–a rather remarkable record I doubt few businesses can match. Didn’t matter.

I was told that BPS would no longer work with me, but their parent company, Vantiv, would be happy to give me a merchant account. Vantiv’s underwriters, I was told, had looked at my Web site and had no problem with its contents.

So i did the requisite paperwork, turned it all in, and…nothing. For weeks, during which time I was effectively out of business.

Then, four weeks later, I heard back from Vantiv. We’re so sorry, they said, we thought we could give you a merchant account, but we can’t. When I asked why, the only thing they would say was “risk reasons.”

Thus ensued a mad scramble to find a new merchant account underwriter, a process that’s normally very time-consuming and tedious. I finally found another underwriter, which I will decline to name for reasons that will become obvious once you read the rest of this post, and I’m back up and running again…but not before I was out of business for over a month.

Onyx registrations pay my rent, so as you might imagine, this has been a stressful time for me.

Okay, that’s the backstory. A sad tale of a merchant account underwriter that got cold feet for no clear reason, I thought. Annoying, yes, stressful, you bet. But one of those things that just kind of happens, right? Banks make business decisions all the time. So it goes.

It turns out, though, that I’m not the only one this has happened to. Indeed, it’s happened to lots and lots of people. The same pattern, across different businesses and different merchant account providers: A business receives a sudden notification that their merchant account (or in some cases, their business checking account) is being terminated. When they ask why, no answer beyond “risk reasons” is forthcoming. Porn performers, payday loan services, dating sites, fireworks sellers, porn producers, travel clubs…it’s a very specific list of folks who are having this problem. And, not surprisingly, there’s a reason for it.

The reason is the Department of Justice, which for the past couple of years has undertaken a project they call Operation Choke Point.

The goal of Operation Choke Point is to pressure businesses in morally objectionable fields out of business, by leaning on the banks that provide services to those businesses. If you can’t get banking or credit card services, the reasoning goes, you can’t stay in business. So the DoJ is approaching commercial banks, telling them to close accounts for individuals and businesses in “objectionable” industries.

It should be noted that the businesses being targeted are not breaking the law. Lawful businesses and individuals are losing access to lawful services because the government objects to them on moral grounds.

The banks being pressured to close accounts are reticent about talking about it; however, one business owner, whose instincts were in the right place, apparently managed to get a recording of a phone call in which his merchant account processor (EFT) told him they were pressured by the government to close the account. His recording has made it to a Congressional hearing looking into the program. (Some banks have reported being told that they would be investigated for racketeering if they failed to close accounts belonging to targeted businesses, despite the fact that the targeted businesses are acting lawfully.)

There’s a backlash brewing. Congress is starting to hold hearings about businesses targeted without due process. The DoJ has backtracked. The FDIC, which was involved in pressuring banks to terminate targeted businesses, has reversed course. All that is good. And yet…and yet…

I can’t help but think the backlash isn’t because people really believe the program was wrong, but rather because it included one industry that is considered politically sacrosanct by the Obama administration’s opponents: guns.

In addition to adult businesses, Operation Choke Point targeted small gun and ammo retailers. And there’s a small, cynical voice inside my head that whispers, if they had contented themselves with going after people like me–people who make or sell things related to sex–would anyone have cared? The right-wing blogosphere is filled with angry rants about Operation Choke Point, as well it should be…but none of the angry rants mention adult businesses or porn. They all focus on guns. And I just really can’t make myself believe that the people rising up against the program have my interests at heart. If it were just me, I believe we wouldn’t hear a peep out of them.

Don’t get me wrong–for once in my life, I’m glad the Republicans are taking action about something. But I hold no illusions that next time, they will still have my back.

By the time all was said and done, I lost somewhere around $700 from the problems I had. Not a lot, really, in the scheme of things, though I did have to scramble to make rent this month. It could have been worse.

I know there are a lot of folks in various adult-related businesses who read my blog. I’d really love to hear from you guys. Has this happened to you, or anyone you know? What was the outcome? Let me know!

Jiffy Lube: Home of the $4,000 Oil Change

Yesterday, my partner zaiah and I drove her car home. This was a major milestone in a saga that began with Jiffy Lube, a tale of mechanical incompetence, corporate irresponsibility, and a four thousand dollar oil change.

Let’s say you saw an offer on TV: Jiffy Lube will change your car’s oil for a mere $3,975 for an oil change! Before you say “no,” wait! With this special offer, the oil change will only take 46 days! You’ll have your car back before you know it!

Of course, they didn’t advertise it that way. They claimed the oil change would only be twenty-nine bucks.

It all started last August. My partner took her Chevy Tracker, an eminently practical car with plenty of room to take the poodles to the dog park, in to Jiffy Lube because you’re supposed to change your oil regularly. We went to the one at at 10227 NE Halsey in Portland, Oregon. It’s an unimpressive-looking place, even by the standards of oil change places:

Doesn’t really look like the city’s epicenter of gross incompetence, does it?

Changing the oil in a car is not an intellectually challenging task. It’s not like they were trying to, say, land a probe on a comet 317,000,000 miles away or anything like that. The procedure is well-documented and almost simple enough for your dog to do it, if your dog had hands and an attention span longer than five minutes. You drain the oil, put more oil in, take off the oil filter (this is the most challenging part of the whole operation), and replace it with a new one. Cooking spaghetti and meatballs is, in all seriousness, a more cognitively challenging task.

They did this, but got a bit hung up on the last step, the bit where you put a new oil filter on. The person1 who performed this entire challenging operation neglected to notice that the gasket wasn’t properly seated on the filter. That, as it turns out, is kind of important.

For the next couple of months, the Tracker stayed in the driveway, rarely being used except to take the dogs to the dog park. All seemed well, until October 19, when zaiah took the car to Washington State, the first long-distance trip she had made since the oil change.

All was good right up until the moment there was a loud “bang!” and the engine stopped turning. Just like that, in the middle of the road in rural Washington. Naturally, because this is often the way of things, there was no town around for miles.

So she called for a tow, because the car sure as hell wasn’t going anywhere under its own power, and had the car hauled to the nearest small town. She stayed in a cheap motel and the next day had the car brought to a mechanic, whereupon she discovered three rather unpleasant things.

First, there was a hole about the size of a fifty-cent piece all the way through the engine block, where a vital bit of the engine’s interior had decided it was tired of its career as a part of the engine’s interior and it wanted to become exterior.

Second, there was no oil in the car, hence the interior bit traveling from the inside of the engine to the outside of the engine with enough vigor to punch right through the engine block.

Third, well…remember the part where I said the gasket wasn’t seated on the oil filter correctly? The reason that turns out to be kind of important is the gasket is the bit that keeps the oil from pouring out of the engine and onto the road under high pressure.

The mechanic looked at the oil filter, and the telltale smear of oil that had flowed out of the filter all over the engine, nodded, and said “yep, here’s your problem.” He took off the filter and pointed to a trail of little tiny bits of metal under the gasket. “Those used to be part of the engine,” he said. “See how the bits of metal are under the gasket? That’s where the oil was leaking. It’s like a trail of cookie crumbs, from the jar to your four-year-old’s bed. Not too hard to figure out what happened.”

Mmm, cookie crumbs. Honey bits o’ engine part.

She ended up spending two more nights in that town, while the mechanic called around for a new engine and put together a jaw-dropping estimate to replace it. Given that the repair was likely to take a week at the least, not counting the time to, you know, find a new engine on account of ’cause the old one had a hole in it, and given that staying in this quaint and no doubt charming but still quite distant little town was apt to create logistical problems re: the entire rest of her life, she rented a U-Haul with a car carrier to bring the car back to Portland.

I’d say that’s when the fun started, but in this tale the fun never starts.

The first thing we did when she got back home was get in touch with Jiffy Lube Corporate, who handed us off to the local Jiffy Lube franchise owner, the dudebro who owns the rather sad-looking commercial establishment pictured above.

The second thing we did was take the car to a Portland mechanic. He looked at the car, looked at the filter, nodded wisely, and said, “yep, here’s your problem, bum oil filter gasket. See all the little slivers of metal under the gasket here? Those are bits of your engine. You can tell the oil was leaking here because–” and we said “trail of cookie crumbs, four-year-old’s bed, yeah, we know.”

He gave us an equally eyewatering estimate to replace the engine. He also told us he sees occasional cars pass through his shop with engines wrecked by improper oil changes from commercial oil-change places, which is something I would not have guessed. Live and learn, I suppose. Apparently, the training, quality control, and meticulous attention to detail that so characterizes the rest of American industry is conspicuous in its absence from the oil-change trade.

Anyway, he started calling around for a replacement engine, and we started talking to the owner of the Jiffy Lube franchise, a bloke named Shawn Corno. Mr. Corno had us jump through a lot of hoops, sending him a written statement from the mechanic as to the cause of the disaster, an itemized estimate of the repair costs, and so on. Now, from one perspective, this all makes sense, I suppose; it’s necessary to keep innocent oil change places from being hit with false bills from, I don’t know, the roving bands of mercenary con-artists who deliberately wreck engines and then charge other people for replacing them or something.

In any event, after several go-rounds with Mr. Corno, he finally sent us this email:

Thank you for providing the documents I requested in regards to this claim, after digging into this a little bit further there’s a few things that just don’t work out, one if the filter was Miss installed the vehicle would’ve had issues far before the amount of miles and time that have gone bye, based on these facts Jiffy Lube is denying liability of your claim.

All spelling and capitalization verbatim.

In Mr. Corno’s world, it seems, defective oil filters all come fitted with a Mission-Impossible style countdown timer featuring a built-in timer that displays how much time is left before they destroy the engine. In this world, an employee who fits an engine with a defective oil filter starts the countdown timer before he closes the hood, so it just stands to reason that if someone calls with a ruined car after the normal time that one might set this countdown timer for, it must not have been ruined by the oil filter!

This is what a defective oil filter looks like, in Jiffy Lube-land.

Now, in real life, as opposed to the weird fairy-tale world of spies and countdown timers inhabited by Mr. Corno, there are many factors that might influence how much time passes between the moment a bad filter is installed on an engine and the moment when the parts inside the engine become the parts outside the engine. Like, say, the fact that the car spends most of its time parked in a driveway. Or the fact that things went kablooey the very first time the car was taken onto the freeway after the oil change.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that there is anything wrong with Mr. Corno’s calculations about how long should elapse between an oil change and the complete destruction of the engine, oh dear me no. I’m sure they are highly advanced and based on careful research, rather than simply being an excuse not to have to pay for the problem he caused. Perish the very thought that he might have been blowing a lot of smoke because he didn’t want to pay for something. There’s never been a time in all human history that someone has lied to get out of paying for some disaster or other they might have caused, and shame on you for thinking otherwise.

We finally got the car back yesterday. The total repair bill looked something like this:

  • New engine, plus labor to replace said: $3,100.
  • Tow from rural Nowherestan to the closest town: $390. (With roadside assistance. The bill without it would have been enough to choke a billygoat at five hundred paces.)
  • Motel, for three nights: $200.
  • U-Haul to tow the car back to Portland: $285.

Total cost: $3,975, not including the initial $29 for the oil change and filter.

Jiffy Lube is proving intractable. Jiffy Lube Corporate has insisted the responsibility lies with the franchise owner, but has invited us to fill out a customer care survey to let them know how they’re doing. (Here’s a hint, guys: YOU’RE DOING A CRAPPY JOB.)

Mr. Corno, the franchise owner, is sticking with his Mission Impossible Oil Filter Countdown Timer Scenario, insisting that if the filter were defective it would have shown up sooner, regardless of how often the car was used.

In the meantime, ended up stuck with $4,000 in bills just before Christmas, something that does to one’s Christmas spirit what a pail of cold water does to one’s mood when one is…well, I’ll leave that to your imagination.

A few days ago, this showed up in the mail:

I’ll get right on that, you gormless muppets.

Happy New Year. Fuck you, Jiffy Lube. Fuck you in your stupid ear with a jagged metal dildo. And barbed wire.

If you want to get your car changed. go somewhere else. Anywhere else. Hire Bruce Willis and Vin Diesel to come change your oil for you. Have your car flown to whatever factory it came from. Either of those options will be cheaper than Jiffy Lube.

1 I’m assuming it was a person, and not a trained dog genetically modified to have hands. I have no evidence this is the case.

Some thoughts on consent

With the state of California passing a new law defining an Affirmative Consent standard for public colleges and universities (and the wonderful commentary about it on the Yes Means Yes blog), the recent firing of radio personality Jian Ghomeshi over his sex life (which he claims is targeting him for participation in BDSM, though several women are alleging that he abused them non-consensually under the guise of BDSM), everyone all over the Internet is talking about consent these days.

And as seems to happen when everyone all over the Internet talks about something, a lot of folks are getting it wrong.

I’d like to think consent is something we all understand. And, in most situations, we do. A lot of folks are flapping their mouth-parts about how we can never really truly get consent for sexual activities because men and women are just so different and don’t understand each other, but seriously, that’s a load of bullshit. Bullshit with extra spicy smell-o-riffic chunks.

If you take sex out of the equation, we all understand consent pretty well. If you invite someone out to dinner and he says “well, you know, I’d love to, but I kinda have this other thing going on that day,” we know he’s said “no,” even though he hasn’t used the word “no.” If we ask someone whether we can use her bike or not and she says “listen, I really don’t know that I feel comfortable with that arrangement,” we know she hasn’t consented. And if she says “The combination on the bike lock is 5678, I need it back before class on Tuesday,” we know that she has, even though she didn’t say the word “yes.”

We get this. It’s part of the most basic, rudimentary socialization.

But for some reason, when it comes to sex, otherwise grown, mature adults start thrashing around, as if they lack the social graces of a reasonably well-socialized 6-year-old.

Some of this might be down to living in a culture that just plain doesn’t teach us about what consent is. I wish I would have understood this stuff better myself, back when I was still sorting out all this interpersonal-relationship stuff.

But a big part of the reason, I suspect, lies in the way we think about sexual consent. We get what consent is outside the world of sex, but when it comes to sex, we act like the purpose of consent is to follow a checklist of procedures designed to let us do what we want without getting in trouble. Otherwise intelligent, reasonable adults, for example, have asked if California’s new law means students on California campuses will need to get written permission to shag. (The short answer is ‘no,’ but folks who so profoundly don’t understand what consent is that the question seems reasonable to them, might want to think about doing just that.) Someone on my Twitter timeline asked ‘what if two people have sex but neither one of them gave affirmative consent–who’s at fault there?’ (The answer is if neither of them gave affirmative consent, then no sex act took place. For a sex act to take place, someone had to initiate the contact of the slippery bits, and that initiation is an act of consent.1) People–again, otherwise intelligent people who appear at least savvy enough to work a computer–have said things like ‘if nobody said no, that’s consent, right?’ (No. We’re conditioned strongly not to say ‘no,’ as in the “well, you know, I’d love to, but I kinda have this other thing going on that day” example above.)

Consent is not a checklist you go through in order to be cleared to do what you want, the way a fighter pilot goes through his checklist before being catapulted off the deck of an aircraft carrier (“Afterburners, check! Flaps, check! Condom, check! Let’s fuck!”). The purpose of consent isn’t to tell you what you can get away with; the purpose of consent is to make sure you and your partners are both on the same page and both enjoying what’s going on.

Consent isn’t something you get once, at the start of the proceedings. It’s ongoing. This is important, because it means the idea of getting written consent up-front to hanky-panky is entirely missing the point. Consent exists in the moment, and it can always be revoked as soon as someone no longer likes what’s happening. Even if I sign a form in triplicate, duly notarized, saying I want to shag you, if we get down to business and I change my mind, I have the right to say ‘stop.’

It’s not hard to get consent, really it isn’t. It simply means paying attention to your partner, checking in. It doesn’t have to ‘spoil the mood’ or ‘interrupt the flow’ or any of those other things the masses of people who don’t understand consent are apt to complain about. Consent doesn’t even have to be verbal. If you go in to kiss someone and she leans back, that’s not consent. If she meets you halfway, it is. We know this. Most of us are really good, in non-sexual contexts, of figuring out the difference between a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ even without hearing those specific words. We just forget, when it comes to sex.

Seriously, this shouldn’t be that hard. The key elements of consent are:

  • Is the other person into what you want to do? Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues. If you don’t know, ask. Don’t focus on what you want the answer to be; focus on what the answer is.
  • Is the other person still into it while you’re doing it? Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues. If you don’t know, ask.
  • Is the other person having fun? Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues. If you don’t know, ask.

There’s a point in here: consent isn’t something you get so you can have fun, consent is about making sure everyone is having fun. If you don’t care whether your partner is having fun, well, then, perhaps one explanation is you’re a terrible person and you oughtn’t be interacting with anyone in any capacity until you learn that other people are actually real. Oh, and by the way, consent is valid only if it’s informed; if you’re withholding information, lying, misleading, or manipulating other folks to get check marks in those ticky-boxes, you’re not really getting consent at all. I shouldn’t have to say this. It pains me that I feel I do.

Now, bad sex happens. It’s a fact of life. Bad sex doesn’t (necessarily) mean consent was violated.2

But it pays–it really, really does–to remember that consent is ongoing. If the person you’re with suddenly goes all withdrawn and unresponsive, and that’s not part of the particular fetish you’re exploring, perhaps it’s a good idea to check in, you know?

There’s a depressing part of all these discussions about consent, and that is the widespread cultural narrative that allegations of coercion, assault, or abuse are likely to be vindictive women making up stories to entrap and punish blameless men.3 It’s so entrenched that it’s hard to see any woman reporting sexual abuse who’s not immediately attacked all over the Internetverse for it…which would seem to fly in the face of all logic and reason. (Because any woman who talks openly about sexual assault is likely to be attacked vigorously and aggressively, it’s difficult to imagine the motivation of someone to invent such a tale. What’s her goal…to see how many people will call her a liar on YouTube?) And while we’re on the subject, “innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t mean “everyone who reports being sexually assaulted is a liar until proven otherwise.” This shouldn’t need to be said, but there it is. (And just for the record: If you’re one of those folks whose first reaction to learning about allegations of sexual abuse is “she’s making it up,” shame on you.)

This seamy dark side to the consent conversation comes, I think, from the notion of consent as a list of ticky-boxes you check off before you get down ‘n’ dirty. If you went through the pre-flight checklist and ticked off all the things on the list, you should be golden, right? So what’s she doing making all this fuss afterward? She consented, right?

This is also something we get when it comes to issues of consent outside the bedroom. If a roommate offers to let us borrow the bike all week, then on Wednesday says “sorry, mate, but my car’s in the shop, I need the bike after all,” we know that she has the right to do this. I can’t help but think if we were to apply exactly the same standards to sexual consent that we apply to consent to borrow a roommate’s bicycle, a whole lot of people would be a whole lot happier. Yes, your roommate might fabricate a story about how you stole her bike…but really, what are the odds? I mean, seriously? And someone reporting bike theft isn’t even subject to the same explosive blowback as someone reporting sexual assault!

Now, I will admit I’ve made some assumptions in all this. I’m assuming that you’re genuinely good-intentioned and you value the idea of consent. There is a group who benefits from making consent seem muddier and more difficult than it is; the same group also benefits from reflexive thoughts of “She’s making it up!” whenever a report of abuse surfaces. I’ll give you three guesses who’s in that group.4

It’s possible to participate in all kinds of sexual activities with all sorts of partners under a wide range of different circumstances and not ever end up being accused of assault. It’s not even that difficult, really. All it takes, at the end of the day, is remembering that there’s more than one person involved, and checking in with the other folks to see how they’re doing. You don’t need to get it in writing. You don’t need to involve lawyers and witnesses. You just need to pay attention. If you’re shagging someone you’ve never shagged before and you aren’t sure how to read their signals and body language, use your words! I promise it’s not hard.5

Far from spoiling the mood, it can even be hot. “You like that, hmm? You like when I touch you there? You want more? Tell me you like it.”

Seriously. Give it a try some time. Keep in mind, it’s not about getting someone else to let you do what you want. It’s about two (or more!) of you doing things you all like to do.

Oh, and if someone comes to you with a story about being sexually assaulted? Here’s a strategy: In absence of clear and compelling evidence to the contrary, believe them.

1 Absent some other form of coercion, anyway. It isn’t consent if someone gives you head to get you to stop beating her. Lookin’ at you here, Mr. Ghomeshi.

2 Though one of the things that separates people who are good at sex from people who are bad at sex, I think, is the former sorts of people pay attention to their partners as a matter of course.

3 It’s a narrative that hurts men too, by the way. Imagine the blowback if you’re a guy who’s reporting being sexually assaulted…and yes, it does happen.

4 And if you need all three, you might be a terrible person.

5 If you can’t use your words about sex, maybe you might benefit from addressing that problem before the next time you have sex, ‘kay?

Some thoughts on listening to patients

A couple weeks ago, before we started the second leg of our book tour promoting More Than Two, I went to the dentist. I had a couple of old-style silver amalgam fillings that were disintegrating (who, I wonder, was the first person to say “Silver and mercury! I know, let’s put that in people’s mouths!”?), so I decided to pay someone to take a small high-speed drill and root around in my mouth for a while.

Now, whenever I go to a new dental practitioner for the first time, there’s a little speech I have to give. It’s my mother’s fault, really. She has some kind of genetic quirk, you see, that makes her for all intents and purposes immune to common local anesthetics in the Novocain/procaine/Lidocaine family. I appear to have inherited a genetic allele from her that gives me a high degree of resistance to these anesthetics, which is, as you might imagine, more than a little inconvenient when facing a trip to the dentist.

Anyway, the little speech. It hasn’t varied much over the past few decades, and it goes something like this:

Before we get started, you should know that I am highly resistant to local anesthetics like Lidocaine. It’s really, really hard to get me numb. It is probably going to take you a lot of work and multiple tries before I’m numb, and it wears off very quickly.

Now, every time I give this little speech–every single time, with only one exception ever (when I went to an oral surgeon to have an impacted wisdom tooth chiseled out with a backhoe, farm equipment and oil-drilling machinery), the result is always the same: “Oh, pish-posh. I won’t have any trouble at all!”

And then the misery starts.

This last go-round, it took my dentist no fewer than six rounds of injections before I was finally ready to have the old filling carved out. Three rounds in, she jabs me with the needle and I’m all like “Ow!” and she’s all like “you can still feel that?” and I’m all like “remember how I said I am resistant to local anesthetics?” and she was all like “wow, you weren’t kidding!” and I was all like “I’ve had this conversation so. Many. Times. Before.”, though that last part was in my head and not out loud, and…


So anyway, about that. It is perhaps not surprising that some folks might greet claims of being resistant to anesthetics with skepticism–genetic resistance is documented, but uncommon1 (thanks, Mom!)–but to just dismiss them outright, and especially for everyone in the profession to dismiss them outright, seems to me to speak to a systemic problem. And that systemic problem is, we train doctors to be good at all the parts of treating patients except listening to patients, which might be argued to be rather an important bit.

Pseudoscience, quackery (“this random thing cures cancer! Big Pharma doesn’t want you to know, which is why you’re finding out about it in a Facebook group!”), and snake oil “medicine” are huge, and deadly, industries. According to an NIH document reported on NBC, alternative “medicines” (which might reasonably be described as anything that hasn’t been shown to work, since the name for things that have been shown to work is just “medicine”), is a $34 billion a year industry. That’s a lot of herbs, acupuncture, and magic water full of mystical energy vibrations but nothing else.

There are lots of reasons why. Anti-intellectualism is a big one, and the fact that anti-intellectualism tends to be joined at the hip to conspiracy nuttery doesn’t help. Rejection of science, distrust of “big corporations” (except the big corporations marketing herbal supplements, naturally), superstition, wishful thinking…all those things play a part.

But some of the problem is, I think, self-inflicted. Too many medical practitioners are at best dismissive of, and at worst hostile to, their patients’ own self-reported information. There are probably a bunch of reasons for that, from fear of drug-seeking behaviors (and the spectacular fuckedupedness of a medical establishment that doesn’t take pain management seriously is worthy of a blog post of its own!) to simple arrogance.

The new flavor of trendy pseudoscientific bullshit is the claim that cavities can be “cured” by minerals and “oil detoxification,” and unsurprisingly, this new brand of bullshit smells pretty much the same as all the old brands.

But dammit, I wish my dentist would listen when I say local anesthetics don’t work very well on me, instead of having to find out through painful (to me, that is, not to her) experience.

1 According to Wikipedia, the genetic allele associated with lidocaine resistance is linked to ADHD as well. Go figure.

Monsanto: The Gigantic Evil Megacorp (that’s actually kinda a pipsqueak)

Among the left-leaning progressives that make up a substantial part of Portland’s general population, there is a profound fear of GMO food that’s becoming an identity belief–a belief that’s held not because it’s supported by evidence, but because it helps define membership in a group.

It’s frustrating to talk to the anti-GMO crowd, in part because these conversations always involve goalposts whipping around so fast I’m afraid someone will poke my eye out. It generally starts with “I don’t like GMOs because food safety,” but when you start talking about how evidence to support that position is as thin on the ground as snowmen in the Philippines, the goalposts quickly move to “I don’t like GMOs because Monsanto.” Monsanto, if you listen to Portland hippies, is a gigantic, evil mega-corporation that controls the government, buys off all the world’s scientists, intimidates farmers, and rules supreme over the media.

So I got to thinking, How big is Monsanto? Because it takes quite a lot of money to do the things Monsanto is accused of doing–when they can be done at all, that is.

And I started Googling. The neat thing about publicly-traded corporations is they have to post all their financials. A quick Google search will reveal just how big any public company really is.

I expected to learn that Monsanto was big. I was surprised.

As big companies go, Monsanto is a runt. In terms of gross revenue, it is almost exactly the same size as Whole Foods and Starbucks. It’s smaller than The Gap, way smaller than 7-11 and UPS, a tiny fraction of the size of Home Depot, and miniscule compared to Verizon and ExxonMobil. That’s it, way down on the left on this graph I made:

You can’t shake a stick in the anti-GMO crowd without hearing a dozen conspiracy theories, almost all of them centered around Monsanto. Lefties like to sneer at conservative conspiracy theories about global warming, but when it comes to GMOs, they haven’t met a conspiracy theory they don’t love to embrace.

Most of these conspiracy theories talk about how Monsanto, that enormous, hulking brute of a magacorporation, has somehow bought off all the world’s scientists, creating a conspiracy to tell us GMOs are safe when they’re not.

Now, hippie lefties usually aren’t scientists. In fact, anyone who’s ever been part of academia can tell you a conspiracy of scientists saying something that isn’t true is only a little bit more likely than a conspiracy of cats saying tuna is evil. As an essay on Slate put it,

Think of your meanest high school mean girl at her most gleefully, underminingly vicious. Now give her a doctorate in your discipline, and a modicum of power over your future. That’s peer review.

Speaking of conspiracies of scientists, let’s get back to conservatives and their “climate change” scientific conspiracy. Look at the left-hand side of the chart up there, then look at the right-hand side. Look at the left side again. Now look at the right side again.

ExxonMobil makes more than 26 times more money than Monsanto, and has a higher net profit margin, too. Combined, the country’s top 5 oil companies have a gross revenue exceeding $1.3 trillion, more than 87 times Monsanto’s revenue, and yet…

…they still can’t get the world’s scientists to say global warming isn’t a thing.

If the oil companies can’t buy a conspiracy of scientists, how can a pipsqueak like Monsanto manage it?

I’m planning a more in-depth blog post about GMOs and anti-GMO activism later. But the “Monsanto buys off scientists” conspiracy nuttiness needed addressing on its own, because it’s so ridiculous.

It’s easy to root for the underdog. One of the cheapest, most manipulative ways to make an argument is to refer to something you don’t like as “Big” (Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big SCAM as I like to think of the Supplemental, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine community). We are culturally wired to love the underdog; a great deal of left identity is wrapped up in being the ones who root for the common man against Big Whatever.

So the ideology of Monsanto as the Big Enemy has emotional resonance. We like to think of the small guy standing up against Big Monsanto, when the reality is Whole Foods, so beloved of hippies everywhere, is basically the same size big corporation as the oft-hated Monsanto, and both of them are tiny in the shadow of far larger companies like 7-11 and Target.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to head down to Starbucks for a pumpkin spice latte and listen to the hippies rant about how much they hate big corporations like Monsanto.