Fancy Schmancy Website

I feel sort of depressed after writing out that whole last post about scary difficult scary scary difficult things, and didn’t want to end the posting day on that note, so:

I am writing a really pretty website and it is really pretty and I am super impressed with myself about how awesome the parts of it that I am finished with look and how awesome the rest of it will probably look when I’m done and I just want everyone to know that I am super amazing at designing websites and you should all be envious of my fantastic talent and skill and… talent. And skill.

Also Wellbutrin seems to be being fairly helpful for me this time around, which means that as long as I can find ways to manage the insomnia side effect, I have found an antidepressant that actually works for my depression.

So anyway some things about my life are pretty cool. Also I do not believe it is an understatement to say that when I finish with this website it will probably be the single most aesthetically pleasing thing produced by a human being since the dawn of time. Dawn. Of. Time.

By ResearchToBeDone Posted in other

What If I Can’t Help But Be Something That Is Just Too Much Work for Other People?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about choosing names and pronouns lately. How do I pick things that make me feel comfortable in my own skin?

It feels like a complicated decision with both pronouns and names, because though there are gender-neutral options for both, the degree to which my gender varies from day-to-day means that I’m having a lot of trouble coming up with names or pronouns that feel comfortable and right to me on all days. If something feels pretty comfortable for when I am feeling more male-ish, then it feels uncomfortable when I am feeling more female-ish, and vice versa. I haven’t figured this out yet.

It occurred to me that I could just pick more than one of each and switch between them based on when they felt comfortable. This brings us to the heart of the issue, and what I think is one of the principal worries a lot of people who don’t identify with binary genders.

What if I can’t find a single name or set of pronouns that I always feel comfortable with? What if picking more than one and using them when they feel right to me is the only way I can feel comfortable?

What if the only way that I can feel comfortable in my own skin is more work than anyone is willing to do?

Learning to use different pronouns and call people by different names takes work. It would take even more work if those names and pronouns didn’t stay constant over time. I know that. I am acutely aware of it both from my own experience and general intuition. Most people already have lives that require a fair amount of work from them, often more than it’s reasonable to ask any person to handle, and probably most people don’t have a good understanding of why taking on different names and pronouns is important to the people who need to do it.

I get it. I get it and it’s scary to get it, because every time I have to ask myself, “What if the only way I can feel comfortable is to do this thing that is even more unusual, awkward, and weird to most people than the things I’m already doing? What if that’s more than people can deal with? What if that’s more than people can deal with but it’s what I have to do and I have to spend my life in this space where I can never feel comfortable not doing what I’m doing and at the same time can’t feel comfortable asking or needing people to learn and respect these things along with me?”.

I feel proud of myself for the ways that I talked about pronouns and gender when I was comfortable identifying as a cis guy. When people would talk about how they felt like all this pronoun stuff was getting out of hand, my response when I gave it was that people who use nonstandard gender pronouns know that other people think it’s difficult and complicated and sometimes “out of hand” or ridiculous. They know it and they have to confront that truth every time they ask someone to use different pronouns because you can’t live in this culture without having an acute awareness of the attitudes it takes toward differences it doesn’t understand. They know that and every time they ask someone to use their pronouns they have to get over all of that cultural weight and ask anyway, and no person would make themselves do that unless they felt that this was so fundamentally vital to who they were that they had no other option.

No one would force themselves to face all this cultural bullshit around pronouns unless they had to. No one would ask you to use their pronouns unless it was harder for them to go without them than it is for you to have to learn them.

I was right. At least, my own experiences have been matching up with that analysis incredibly well. I know how much work all of this stuff can be to learn for other people, and having that knowledge feeds the discomfort I feel in doing my own explorations within it. It feeds that discomfort especially much when I wonder if choosing a single new name and set of pronouns won’t be sufficient for me to feel like myself.

That’s the scary question of the center of all of this exploration: what if who I am, who I have to be, is just too much work to exist in the rest of the world?

I don’t know, there’s not really an answer, but part of the reason I wanted to express this in the first place is because people who identify within the gender binary and get annoyed with the proliferation of identities and pronouns often don’t seem to be able to get that we all already know this. We all already know this and it makes existing outside of binary identifications harder every day and every moment that we have to spend gearing up to explain how we identify to the next person who may or may not think that who we are is just asking too much of them and maybe it would be better if we all just decided to pretend everything was fine and binary in order to avoid the culturally ingrained sensation that asking to be identified and referred to in ways that make you feel comfortable and accepted is entitled and impertinent. We can all feel that collective cultural sense of “Oh, for fuck’s sake!” that happens when we talk about the non-culturally-accepted ways we identify, and no one would decide to confront that every time they introduced themselves to a new person unless they absolutely felt they had no other choice.

Pick a Topic and Stick with It

Every now and then I tell someone about my blog and they ask what it’s about, and my answer is “Hold on, let me see if I can remember the entire list of things…”.

Now there are even more things.

Pretty much every “how to have a successful blog” advice piece I have ever read says “pick a topic and stick with it”, and I basically started out failing at that and have increasingly added even greater degrees of failing at it over time.

Welcome to my blog, it is about like twelve very specific things I hope you like the same twelve things I do!

By ResearchToBeDone Posted in other

On the Gender Binary and the Word Bisexual

Greta Christina has just made a post talking about her thoughts on whether to identify as bisexual or pansexual or something else, and one commenter linked to a post by Julia Serano that defends the word bisexual as not reinforcing the gender binary. I ended up writing a pretty long response, and thought I would repost it here in case other people were curious or wanted to share thoughts on the issue:

 


That post is an interesting read, and a lot of the history and it is stuff I didn’t know, but I think her defense of the term bisexual as not reinforcing a binary is incredibly weak. In terms of a discussion of different possible interpretations of the language itself, this seems to be her key point:

“Here is another potential interpretation of the word bisexual: The prefix “bi” can mean “two,” but it can also mean “twice” (e.g., as in bimonthly). So while monosexual people limit their potential partners to members of only one sex, bisexual/BMNOPPQ folks challenge the hetero/homo binary by not limiting our attraction in this way, and are thereby open to roughly twice as many potential partners. My main point here is that the prefix “bi” has more than one meaning, and can have more than one referent. So claiming that people who use the term bisexual must be touting a rigid binary view of gender, or denying the existence of gender variant people, is as presumptuous as assuming that people who use the term “bicoastal” must be claiming that a continent can only ever have two coasts, or that they are somehow denying the existence of all interior, landlocked regions of that continent.”

And okay, fair enough, it is entirely possible to interpret the prefix as meaning “two” and not “both”, but if that’s the interpretation, then, first, it should make just as much sense for someone to identify as bisexual because they are attracted to both male and neutrois individuals, for example, and I have never in my entire life seen anyone of any identification use it for that. She, herself, in the very beginning of the essay describes her own sexuality in terms that make it clear that interpretation would be just as apparently inaccurate interpreted to mean “two” as interpreted to mean “both”.

“Since some people paint bisexual-identified folks out to be “binarist” in our partner preferences, I will mention for the record that I date and am sexual with folks who are female and male, trans and cis, and non-binary- and binary-identified.”

I do agree with her that bisexual isn’t the only term that reinforces the gender binary, and that we ought to pay attention to the others as well, but I don’t think that means that it’s reasonable to ignore the implications of the word bisexual until we’ve dealt with the others. The word bisexual is a perfectly reasonable word for people to use if they are actually attracted to two different genders, but the problem is that that isn’t what anyone, including the author, uses it to mean. Bisexual is never used to describe someone who is attracted to two and only two genders unless those two genders are female and male. There are other “discrete” gender categories (to the extent that any gender category is actually discrete, anyway) that are taken to never apply under the bracket of genders that the word bisexual could imply attraction to, so either it is a word that implies attraction to two genders and oh by the way we all know that those two genders are THE two genders of male and female because we never use it to imply attraction to any other pair of genders, or it is used, as it is being used in the author’s case, to identify as attracted to male, female, and other genders as well, but with a word that implies attraction to only two genders, and since we all know which two genders are implied by that, because we are all comfortable automatically assuming that bisexual means AT LEAST attracted to men and to women, I don’t think there’s anyway to read it as not erasing the other genders that enter the equation.

She does list some other possible interpretations of the word as well, but the problem is that while those other interpretations are hypothetically reasonable, the fact is that that’s not what she means by them, and as far as I know that’s not what anyone who has ever identified as bisexual means by them. As long as it is a completely safe to assume that anyone who identifies as bisexual is definitely attracted to men and definitely attracted to women, we all know what is referred to by the “bi” prefix, and we all know that it is going to be used frequently to describe people who are attracted to men and women and no other genders and to people who are attracted to men and women and also other genders. As long as that is the case, I don’t think there’s any getting around the fact that using the word bisexual as an identifier that specifies attraction to both men and women, and does not differentiate between whether someone is attracted to other genders or not implies that the only attractions that are important to specify are those to men or women.


 

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Brief Thought: Gender Identity and Self-doubt

Originally posted on Valprehension:

i_amI’ve been thinking a lot lately about the apparently common experience of trans* people (of binary and non-binary varieties) doubting their genders, or whether they are “really” trans. To some extent, I think that this is something people can be afraid to talk about, because unless you fit the story of knowing since you were a child that you were in the “wrong body” you run the risk of having all the cis people in your life doubt, and thus feel like they can disrespect, your identity, or ignore your transition of stated preferences around your name and pronouns. If you’re not sure, how can anyone else be?

But I actually think that one of the roots of this doubt is very simple. Trans people have lived their entire lives surrounded by people and embedded in a society that is heavily invested in gaslighting them about their gender. Our entire…

View original 400 more words

By ResearchToBeDone Posted in other

On Solving the World’s Problems In Decreasing Order of Badness

Alex lives in an average, everyday medieval fantasy town, Hypothetica, which is at present being threatened by an enormous evil dragon. The dragon burns buildings and kills people and sometimes makes offhand, hurtful comments that people can’t stop thinking about for days afterward. If it isn’t stopped, it will destroy the town, kill everyone in it, and hurt a lot of people’s feelings.

Fortunately, several dragonslayers live in Hypothetica. Unfortunately, the week before, when the town was being threatened by an equally powerful and dangerous enemy in the form of an evil sorcerer who performed dark magic (and made disparaging remarks about several people’s shoes), a spell was cast on the dragonslayers that put them into a deep, year-long sleep. Thankfully, Hypothetica is also home to several sorcerers who, together, should be able to undo the spell and wake the dragonslayers.

Alex goes to the sorcerers’ tower and tells the sorcerers to begin the counter spell that will awaken the dragonslayers. As Alex is leaving, however, another Hypothetican citizen, Sam, walks up to the sorcerers and starts yelling at them for focusing on breaking the sleep spell instead of killing the dragon.

“Who cares if a few people are asleep or not when there is a dragon to be dealt with?!”, Sam shrieks.

Exasperated, Alex tries to talk some sense into Sam.

“Spells have barely any effect on dragons,”, Alex explains, “and the dragonslayers have the tools and experience we need to kill it.”

“The dragon is the biggest problem we have right now!”, yells Sam. “Sleeping people come second to killing dragons!”

“But if we wake them up, they will be able to help us kill the dragon!”

“We can’t put any energy into waking people up until we have dealt with the dragon, though. Don’t you care about the dragon? Don’t you think killing the dragon is MAYBE A LITTLE MORE IMPORTANT RIGHT NOW THAN A FEW PEOPLE OVERSLEEPING?!”

 

Alright, I am going to go out on a limb here and presume that we all agree that Sam is the irrational one in this story. The thing is, Sam-like people take a lot of different forms, some more obvious than others. There seems to be an obsession among certain groups of people with telling other people what they should and should not care about. Why focus on sexism in the geek and scientific communities when in other places there are problems like female genital mutilation? Why focus on people being mean to other people on the Internet when “people are starving in Africa”?

I can’t find the post, but I believe it was Greta Christina who I read saying that by this line of thinking, one could conclude that the only problem any of us should be focusing on at any time is global warming, given that a strong case can be made that it is the biggest problem facing our species right now.

There are a lot of reasonable counter arguments to be made in the face of the “We must solve all things in decreasing order of badness* and therefore we should not focus on that problem while this problem still exists.” line of thinking, but there is one in particular I want to focus on right now. That problem is this: problems do not exist in a vacuum. They intersect. They affect each other. Just look at Sam and Alex’s argument: Sam is absolutely 100% right that the dragon is the worst problem facing the town, but is still dead wrong about what to do about it, because the problem of the sleeping dragonslayers has a direct impact on solving the problem of the dragon.

Problems in real life tend to work like this. Why solve sexism in science when we have global climate change to worry about? Well, part of the answer is because brilliant science-minded women are being prevented from working on the climate change problem because of the depth and breadth of the scientific community’s misogyny problems. Why spend time worrying about Stephen Colbert’s satirical racism when there are “real” racism problems like stand your ground laws and the school to prison pipeline? Because casual, offhand racist jokes like that contribute to the perpetuation a culture of acceptance of racist opinions and beliefs that is the driving force behind those “real racism” problems. Why focus on improving education when we have giant corporations decimating the economy, polluting the atmosphere, and destroying net neutrality? Because better education will create a population better equipped to challenge harmful corporations in effective ways that are more likely to bring about real, lasting change.

It sounds childishly obvious when put like this, but: most of society’s problems have to do with each other. Most of them are connected. At the very least, on a basic level, any time you solve a problem affecting one group of people, you free up those people to help solve the rest of the problems we have. At times so much so that you actually solve the “bigger” problems faster than you would have otherwise. See the dragon fable for a hypothetical example of this, and how about Alan Turing for a real one? How many people do you think thought homophobia was a more important problem to address than Hitler was in the middle of the 20th century? How many more lives would have been lost if Turing had died before his contributions to cracking the enigma, and how many brilliant ideas have we lost as a result of him dying when he did?

How many scientific geniuses are we missing out on because of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, able-ism, etc. in the scientific community? How many problems might we have solved years or decades ago if we had addressed those issues sooner? How many people may have suffered and died because someone said “We have bigger issues to deal with than X-ism.”?

Let’s try a new rule: if a group of people thinks something is a problem for them, let’s maybe believe them and let them deal with it and try to help out instead of denigrating their concerns. We should be doing this anyway, because, you know, compassion and stuff. So many people seem to be comfortable with not being compassionate, though, that I figured I would take some time to write this post illustrating why caring about problems you, personally, might see as “small” can be the most rational approach to solving the problems you think are “big”.

 


 

 

*Phrasing borrowed from Cliff at Pervocracy in another post I have failed to locate.

No, Do See Me Differently, Because That’s Important

I’ve been getting a lot of really supportive comments on the gender stuff, which has been really helpful, so thank you everyone.

On that note, I want to make a post to clarify my feelings about a few of the comments I’ve gotten, because it’s hard to explain this concisely in the moment, but it’s an important distinction to explain.

I’ve gotten a few comments along the lines of “I won’t see you any differently.” or “To me, you’ll still be the same person that I know and like.”. While I understand what people are going for by saying things like this, the phrasing makes me feel dysphoric.

I’m not the same person I was. This is a big change for me, possibly the biggest change I have gone through in my entire life, and I will not be the same person I was. Most likely, a lot of things about me will seem constant; I hope to be as thoughtful, compassionate, and selectively ridiculous as I have always tried to be. That said, even the things that could be interpreted as parts of me “staying the same” won’t really be. They won’t be because the context in which they are happening will be a fundamentally different one. The chemical soup of interacting concepts of goodness, thoughtfulness, etc. will no longer be in the same solution with the identities of cis and male, but with the identities of genderqueer and genderfluid.

From here on out, all these things about me are happening in a fundamentally different context, a fundamentally new context, and the idea of “not being seen any differently” comes off to me more as a denial of that than an affirmation of it (though I understand that’s not what’s intended). I don’t want you to see the new me as the same as the old me, and I don’t want you to say that the differences “aren’t important”, even if what you mean by it is that you won’t care any less about me.

The differences are important. If you expect to love, care about, and respect the new person I am becoming just as much as the old one, that is great. But I’m not the same, and the differences are important, because I don’t at all feel like I am the same person, and that’s part of what makes this all so important and difficult and defining.

That is how I would like this to be talked about, and it will likely make all the difference for me in terms of whether a supportive comment feels good or incredibly uncomfortable. You aren’t going to still like “the same person I always was”, you are going to like “the new person I am now”. You aren’t going to “not see me any differently”, you’re going to “get to know the new, different person I am, and like them”.

By ResearchToBeDone Posted in gender

The Hero Sword Fallacy

I was having a conversation with a friend yesterday about gun culture. He told me a story about a gun company called “Savage” whose logo is, naturally, a correspondingly offensive depiction of a Native American Indian. As a fan of guns, himself, he talked about trying to decide what his best course of action was in terms of expressing how offensive he found this. He has decided not to buy their products, and is considering writing a letter to the company explaining why he thinks their name and logo are offensive and incredibly harmful. He wonders, though, whether a letter like that is likely to have any significant impact at all on a company that has demonstrated their lack of awareness and consideration for others so clearly.

This is an incredibly common feeling with respect to pretty much every kind of activism there is. “Sure, I could say something, but I’ll never convince people like that. It will never make enough of an impact to really affect change.”

I think this perspective, while entirely understandable, is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of how most social change happens. I think of it as the hero sword fallacy.

The hero sword fallacy is the idea that your actions don’t really have an impact unless they are the thing that changes someone’s mind, and, correspondingly, that having an impact is about finding the perfect action or argument that will change minds. The way that you slay a dragon is by stabbing it through the heart with the sword of Ultimate Magnificent Dragon-Heart-Piercing Justice, and the way that you slay social injustice is by coming up with the Ultimate Magnificent Argument of Perfect Logos and Pathos.

You see this with newly de-converted atheists all the time. In the excitement of having figured out that deities aren’t real, people think “Now I know the reasons why gods don’t exist, and they’ll talk to other religious people and de-convert them with my fantastic arguments and awareness!”. Reality tends to set in quickly in the form of very few (if any) people being immediately convinced by such arguments. Sometimes people drift toward the mindset of “Well, you just can’t convince People Like That.”.

The thing is, you can. When Greta Christina gives talks, she often does an exercise where she has the audience raise their hands if they used to be religious, and then keep them up if it was an argument that eventually led to them deconverting. There are always a lot of hands left up.

People are convinced by arguments. They are convinced by arguments all the time; many of those people who seem so easy to write off as The Unconvinceables have been convinced by arguments (or emotional appeals, or becoming more familiar with the facts or people they denigrate). This isn’t just the case with religion; it’s the case with antiabortionists, anti-feminists, homophobes and bigots of all types, and believers in psychics and The Secret and The Game. The thing is, we are almost never convinced to change opinions that we are emotionally, socially, or financially invested in the first time someone challenges us on them.

People do get convinced though. It just doesn’t work immediately. Social progress always happens slowly, in a thousand, thousand, thousand steps, big and small, that add up to significant change only in the long run. Landmark court decisions like Brown versus the Board of Education or Roe versus Wade don’t happen in a vacuum. They happen after decades or centuries of proceeding work. Also, as we have seen, they don’t serve as ultimate incontrovertible solutions to the problems they address; racism and abortion rights restrictions are both very alive and well today.

I encouraged this friend of mine to write the letter he is considering writing, but not because I think it will change any minds. Not because I think it’s likely to get a response, or result in any sort of policy change, but because it’s a step. Every time anyone speaks up about social injustices, great or small, it’s a step, and that’s how these things work. There is no Hero Sword Argument or Action that will magically cut through the heart of a given person’s ignorance or bigotry. Changes like that happen to individual people after tens or hundreds of conversations, and to organizations perhaps after hundreds or thousands or millions of appeals by customers or constituents, and to cultures after far more than even that.

The tiny things we do do affect change, it’s just that they only affect major change once they have happened in a volume that is incomprehensibly large when compared to an individual action. There aren’t perfect solutions to the problems we face, and it is incredibly unlikely that any individual thing any of us can do will be the tipping point that changes something, but those individual things do add up, and the tipping points do happen, and progress does get made — only gets made — by people doing what they can and knowing that even if their contributions don’t cause the immediate change they wish for, they help move us in the right direction. They help in pretty much the only way that anything ever does: as a small step toward a big change.

Which Came First?

“Which came first, the phoenix or the flame?”

“Hmm . . . What do you think, Harry?” said Luna, looking thoughtful.

“What? Isn’t there just a password?”

“Oh no, you’ve got to answer a question,” said Luna.

“What if you get it wrong?”

“Well, you have to wait for somebody who gets it right,” said Luna. “That way you learn, you see?”

“Yeah . . . Trouble is, we can’t really afford to wait for anyone else, Luna.”

“No, I see what you mean,” said Luna seriously. “Well then, I think the answer is that a circle has no beginning.”

“Well reasoned,” said the voice, and the door swung open.”

― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I’ve had several conversations with other genderqueer people over the last few days. It seems I’m not the only one who has had this happen and not even remotely seen it coming. In one conversation in particular, the person I was talking to said that though they hadn’t seen it coming, after they started going through their transition, they realized looking back that there were signs.

I didn’t think this was true for me, and in a lot of ways I still don’t (more on this later), but I had an interesting moment recently.

I’ve been doing my best to jump into this genderqueer thing with both feet, because as much as a lot of me would like to try and pretend things are just like they were before, all of the advice I have gotten, and all of the intuition that I have, says that is an awful idea. I watched a documentary on gender identity recently called “Just Gender” in which one of the trans women interviewed said that if she could do things differently, she would have made the transition to identifying and presenting as female 80 years ago.

I am not going to wait decades to do this only to look back later and wish I hadn’t.

As such, the other day found me looking around online for more feminine clothing options. One of the things I ended up searching for is a little difficult to describe, because I’m not exactly sure if it exists or if it’s just something I have conjured into being in my head. For lack of the ability to be more specific about describing clothing, the best I can do is say that it’s something along the lines of soft, capri-length, wavy pants.

All of a sudden, I realized that this was something I had thought about doing, daydreamed about doing, before. Without realizing it, within a few days of coming out as genderqueer, I was online looking for things that I had wanted to look for before but never had. I’m not sure I could say exactly why I never did it before; I don’t think it was as simple as my deciding not to let myself because I was male-identified, but I am not ruling out my former male identification as being a factor.

That started me thinking back to other things. I thought about how often I’ve wished that the dance spaces I had access to were less gender-normative, so that I could follow as well as lead without feeling uncomfortable. Partly, this was because I find the leading more challenging, and thus occasionally less relaxing. Also partly, though, it was because there were a lot of things I liked about the feeling of the other side of that dynamic.

I thought about the times I’ve fantasized about having experiences on the opposite side of traditional gender dynamics in a lot of different ways. I thought about past conversations.

“I’m attracted to you, which is unusual; I’m not generally attracted to cis guys.”

“Well, in fairness to you, I think I’m one of the least ‘cissy’ cis guys I know.”

I thought about all of the things I just don’t like about traditional male gender roles. I thought about some other retrospectively telltale-seeming things that are for the moment still too personal-feeling to put on the Internet.

I thought about all of these things. All of these things that were true before I started transitioning. I wondered what it meant. The thing is, I’ve asked myself before how I felt about my gender, and until recently the answer was always very comfortably that I was fine being male, and that being male felt like it fit me. The less ‘cissy’ things about me were just ways that traditional male gender roles rubbed me the wrong way. They were ways that I varied from the mean, but always felt like ways that I varied comfortably within my gender identity, rather than ways in which my gender identity didn’t fit.

So what’s different? Not that having or not having the answer to this question makes any of what I’m doing more or less valid, but I’m curious.

I wonder — I certainly don’t know, but I wonder — if maybe some deep part of my brain saw these things that I wanted to be and experience and decided to change something under the hood. It decided that there was so much resistance to being some of the ways that I naturally feel like being within the gender I was assigned at birth that it said “You know what, all of these things that you want, these things that could be important, defining milestones on your journey toward greater self-actualization, they are going to be so much harder as a guy that maybe the best thing for me to do for you is to just flip that switch, and release you from the concepts that confine you.”.

It makes more sense, and in some ways feels more right not to assume that my new gender identity is something that I was and didn’t realize it, but to assume that it is something that I wasn’t before that I am now. That it wasn’t so much that these ways in which I didn’t quite fit were a product of a different underlying gender identity, but that the ways in which I didn’t fit came to a head in a way that resulted in a sudden, fundamental change in my gender identity.

I don’t know if that’s accurate, but at the very least, given all that I’ve learned over the last few years about the brain, I feel pretty comfortable conjecturing that the bits of my brain outside my control are sufficiently powerful to potentially bring about a change like this.

By ResearchToBeDone Posted in gender

Gender, Gender Identity, Pain, and Snakebites

There is a story that I tend to tell whenever I start talking to people about pain science. It is a real personal account from a talk by Lorimer Moseley, Rockstar of Pain Science. I first wrote this story down in an old post, and I’m re-pasting it here:

Lorimer was hiking with some friends one day and felt a mild twinge on his leg, thought nothing of it, and ended up in a hospital having been bitten by an incredibly poisonous snake. One of the effects of snake venom is that it locks nociceptors into an activated position, so the amount of danger signals sent to the brain would have been massive, and yet when those signals got to the brain, the brain had no historical context to indicate such signals were dangerous, and so did not create a correspondingly massive pain experience. In fact, it created almost no sensory experience at all. As a result, Lorimer nearly died. About six months later, however, Lorimer was hiking again and experienced a sudden, massive pain on his leg in the same place as before, and very nearly ended up taking a trip to the hospital until one of his friends took a glance at the leg and discovered that it was only a tiny scratch from a twig.

In both of those cases, the system failed. When the trigger was a snake bite, the brain did not produce a sensory experience that felt anything like a snake bite. Later, when the trigger was only a twig, the brain interpreted it, mistakenly, as incredibly dangerous, presumably because it then had the context of the near-fatal snakebite informing the sensory interpretation.

The moral of this story is that pain is not an input, it is an output. Whether or not you experience pain in response to a stimulus depends on whether or not the context and history through which your brain interprets it suggests that it is dangerous.

I have a dilemma when I tell this story. I have to decide how to say “The snakebite didn’t feel like a snake bite.”. Because here’s the thing: that statement is wrong. It was a snake bite. It felt like a snake bite by definition. The truth is that it didn’t feel like our concept of what a snake bite should feel like.

“Didn’t feel like a snake bite” is more accessible language, but “didn’t feel like our concept of what a snake bite should feel like” is the technically correct way to put it, because the truth is that a snake bite doesn’t feel like any particular sensation. The whole point of the story is that the sensory experience of being bitten by a snake is incredibly variable and depends on the history and context that the brain interprets it through. A snakebite can feel like a twig, or it can feel incredibly painful, or, most likely, it can possibly feel like anything between those two extremes or any number of other varieties of sensation depending on the context in which it occurs.

Raise your hand if you can see how I’m about to connect this to gender.

The thing that I’m realizing as I’m going through this exploration of what my experience of gender and gender identity means to myself, to the people around me, and to society at large, is that there is a near-perfect analogy between the experience of pain and the experience of gender. Technically, there is only one sensible reason to use the phrase “It felt like a snake bite.”, and that is if the experience you’re describing resulted from a snake bite. Any other use of that phrase is implying that the sensory experience of being bitten by a snake is a static, unchanging thing, and science pretty much uniformly and unambiguously says that idea is dead wrong.

Perhaps, technically, there is only one sensible reason to use the phrase “I feel like a woman.”, and that is if you are one. But of course, as being bitten by a snake is an objectively verifiable experience, and being a woman is determined by one’s internal sense of one’s own gender, which is essentially entirely subjective (although of course no less valid for being so), it’s no wonder that thinking about all of this gender stuff is so confusing. Not only is one’s own internal sense of gender and what their gender means for them significantly impacted by both cultural and internal contexts which will vary drastically from person-to-person and culture to culture, but there is no non-subjective externally anchoring concept (one analogous to actually being bitten by a snake in the context of pain experiences) from which to extrapolate about how it works.

So, in conclusion, how, exactly, the fuck, anything?

By ResearchToBeDone Posted in gender