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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Obama Jumps the Gun on Ft. Hood

I was disappointed this morning to hear a portion of President Obama's speech at Ft. Hood, in which he condemned the "twisted motive" behind the mass murder there. He made very clear that he assumed this motive was religious. This was extremely premature in my view.

The only evidence I've seen for this assumption is that the alleged shooter was in contact with a fundamentalist cleric, but authorities who looked at this earlier were satisfied that it was consistent with his official functions. Just on its face, it's perfectly comprehensible that someone charged with treating the victims of violence carried out in the name of a religious ideology would seek to understand the perpetrators' possible motivation -- especially if he's a psychiatrist.

One might consider his actions fully explicable in terms of the "pincer action" of two factors not normally found together: on the one hand, he was repeatedly exposed to the psychic pain of those who'd seen combat in the especially stressful context of occupations resisted by largely native insurgencies. On the other, he couldn't share this burden with fellow soldiers, because of the perception that they saw him only as a Muslim and not as a comrade. This may have led to unbearable feelings of isolation and frustration, and ultimately resentment and anger toward a community whose emotional burden he was obliged to share, but to whom he couldn't himself turn to help him bear it. Given his reported dread of pending deployment, it may also be that in the back of his head was the thought that acting out his rage would prevent that deployment, and that court-martial here was preferable to combat there.

Of course this is speculation -- and I've appropriately labeled it as such. What is not appropriate is to assume that we can do any more than speculate about the motivation at this point. Unfortunately, that is what President Obama did in his speech.

Eric Hamell

Savage Gets Too Savage

I know better than to expect Dan Savage to be consistently bland and uncontroversial. Nonetheless, his response last week to A Caring Loving Uncle went decidedly overboard. Given my own past experience with sexual intimidation, I had to respond:

Dan, I must strongly object to part of your advice to ACLU. I don't think it is ever beneficial to threaten physical violence other than as self-defense against same. Further, such a threat will surely make it less likely that the 14-year-old will trust ACLU, regardless of any promise of confidentiality he may have made.

The most important form of instruction from adults to the young is always modeling — demonstrating by example how a caring, responsible person acts. If you are trying to offer a queer role model to someone who hasn't yet had one, setting the right example becomes even more important. There is also every reason to believe that this will be sufficient.

On the other hand, threatening physical violence to someone who isn't yet comfortable with his sexuality can have devastating effects. I was injured, in terms of great anxiety around the opposite sex, merely by being ostracized for expressing my sexual feelings at age 17 (I was in a cult at the time). How much worse for a 14-year-old to be threatened physically? Especially for a kid who's probably not the least bit macho, and quite possibly is a "boyfriend" only because the girl went after him.

I must also take issue with the way you characterize "teen pregnancy." It is true that, at present, our social arrangements are not very supportive of girls who become pregnant in their early reproductive years. But it is actually the most natural thing in the world and, until the past couple centuries, most societies throughout history — patriarchal and matriarchal alike — have accepted it as such. Many of the problems currently attributed to it are properly ascribed to the effects of the stigma and lack of social support for those involved. The most familiar aspect of this is the shaming of the girls but, as your response to ACLU illustrates, another is emotional abuse of the boys. Even so, insofar as current conditions argue for delaying pregnancy, modeling responsibility and not propensities to violence is the way to encourage that. Not to mention emphasizing that sex can be fun in more than one way: pointing out how using a condom can actually be turned into a shared erotic act, for instance, is a more reliable way of encouraging it than making pregnancy prevention a subject he doesn't even want to think about because of scary associations. That only increases the risk of hasty, furtive, ill-thought-out coupling.

Eric Hamell
Philadelphia, PA
(48yo bisexual man)

Sunday, November 01, 2009

I've passed a tipping point.

Starting a few months ago, with the prodding of a therapist, I've been struggling to make a regular habit of going out to clubs and trying to meet people. It was a struggle chiefly because of the social anxiety disorder I've been coping with since early adolescence. I was extremely apprehensive about approaching strangers and trying to start conversations, especially with a sexual object in mind. A few years ago I did discover a technique for temporarily abolishing this approach anxiety, a sort of self-hypnosis, but I employed artificial-feeling conversation starters like, "Hi! My name is Eric. What's yours?" which were chosen not for their likelihood of leading anywhere, but simply to provide an immediate objective the achievement of which proved to me that I was capable of making approaches. They accomplished that, but didn't motivate me to turn this into a regular habit, and I only tried it on a few occasions.

While seeing Dr. Ross I came to appreciate the importance of being comfortable with small talk, which I'd long thought of as "stupid," and I started practicing it in casual situations such as elevators and subway stops. But it was still a struggle to get myself to a club and, when I got there, to talk to anyone; precisely because it seemed like a more "serious" setting for sexual possibilities, it was more intimidating. I'd managed to do it a couple times when my covered number of therapy visits ran out about a month ago.

For the next couple weeks I seemed to be backsliding, finding ways to avoid going out. But week before last I managed to do it again. Unfortunately the bands never showed up, possibly because it was the night of the game that put the Phillies in the World Series. But I did manage to make a little conversation, including with an attractive woman who turned out to be an office employee of the club. (I also got my cover charge back before leaving.) So it wasn't a total waste.

For a few days it looked like I was procrastinating again, but toward the end of last week my self-confidence revived. I think I can at least partially credit this to a song. I'd heard it before but only really noticed the lyrics a couple weeks ago, and found them very relevant to what I was struggling with. The song is "Somebody's Baby," recorded by Jackson Browne. If you listen closely you realize that the object of the narrator's desire is definitely not somebody's baby, because he, along with all "the guys on the corner," is intimidated by her beauty. They rationalize their approach anxiety by telling themselves that she must already be taken. But he overhears her saying something that demonstrates that this isn't the case; what the song seems to be suggesting is that she's alone precisely because her great beauty intimidates those who desire her.

From what I understand, this isn't a particularly common scenario. Most beautiful women get plenty of approaches; the problem is that the quality of those approaches rarely suggests that they have anything to gain by encouraging them. But leaving this quibble aside, the point for me was that the song casts the situation in a decidedly moral framework, where the narrator is in a sense failing both of them until he develops the understanding that the situation calls for his initiative, and the resolve to act on it. There have been a couple earlier instances in which a song somehow captured a similar sense of moral mission that briefly motivated me to do something courageous. Perhaps I just wasn't sufficiently prepared to make intelligent use of it then, but perhaps it also makes a difference that in this case the lyrics were very specifically relevant, unlike in the previous cases. (I've posted comments on them at both SongMeanings and SongFacts.)

In any case, by Friday I was eager to get out again, and went to a Halloween-themed "karaoke gong show." I'd been to one karaoke event before, last New Year's Eve. This time I wanted to sing "Somebody's Baby," but since it wasn't in the book, I fell back on "Imagine," written by John Lennon, which I'd sung the previous time. I think I'd gotten through the second verse before I was gonged. I stayed maybe another 45 minutes, having made conversation with several people of both sexes before and after my performance. I had a pretty good time.

Although I might have considered myself to have "filled my quota" for the week, I decided to go out again last night, partly because I wanted to do a more regular club scene. This was a hard rock show, but before it started and made conversation difficult, I made quite a lot with several women and men, including a good deal of playful repartee. Most of them also called my Halloween costume "awesome," but I think I'll keep it a trade secret.

The most remarkable part of the whole weekend was that, as I was going home last night, I realized that, after going out two nights in a row and coming home late, I wanted to do it again! Bare months since I could barely drag myself to -- er, "make time for" -- a night out, now I wished I could do it every night! What a change -- and a much happier kind of problem to have!

For most of my life I've called myself an introvert. Early last year, when I went off Paxil after taking it for 23 months and experienced no backsliding, I felt a surge of confidence at this proof that the improvement it had enabled had "taken" and become permanent. I started to suspect that I'm not naturally an introvert at all, even that I'm an extrovert whose natural propensity has merely been masked by my disorder. After all, I recalled, I had casually initiated many conversations with strangers as late as age ten. (In fact this had been the inspiration for my self-hypnosis technique, which used certain behavioral tricks to put myself in a "little kid" state of mind.)

That surge of euphoria after going off Paxil only lasted a few weeks, but I was reminded of those thoughts a couple months ago by a conversation with an old friend and fellow member of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society. She'd previously mentioned that she isn't really the extrovert she might seem; as a child she'd had great trouble socializing, and had to learn to do it by a lot of practice. But she went further into it this time, explaining that even today, after a lot of socializing she's worn out and needs a couple days to herself. A light went on in my head: that wasn't me at all! I've never needed to be away from people; I've never wanted to be. I learned to get on OK without other people because I had to -- I felt intimidated by social situations. But I didn't want to be alone; I wanted to be comfortable with people.

So that's what a real introvert is like, I thought -- and it's not what I am! What I'd started to suspect last year was now confirmed. And what's happened this weekend has finally brought that inner extrovert out again, eclipsing the anxiety that had kept him hidden so long, even from me.

Just Say No to South Carolina AG's Shamelessly Punitive Prudery

The recent multiple scandals exposing sexual hypocrisy on the part of South Carolina's politicians seem to have done nothing to diminish their repressive impulses. The latest example involves an assistant deputy attorney general named Roland Corning who was found by a police officer spending his lunch break in his car with a stripper. The officer himself acknowledged that no illegal activity was occurring; as far as I can tell from the news story, the man isn't married, so it's not even a case of infidelity. Nor is it hypocrisy on Corning's part, at least in his present life as a prosecutor (he was previously a state legislator), since he worked on securities cases. Nonetheless, he was fired the same day by Attorney General Henry McMaster.

The AP story willingly repeats a number of details that may have added fuel to the puritanical fires, and which you can read there if you're so inclined. The bottom line, however, is that nothing illegal, non-consensual, or even unsafe appears to have been going on, yet Corning has lost his job over it.

I've sent McMaster an email expressing my disgust at his action, and also written him a letter. The contact information as it appears on his website is:

The Honorable [sic] Henry McMaster
P.O. Box 11549
Columbia, SC 29211

My thanks to my friend John Kirkland for forwarding the link to this story to his facebook page.

Eric Hamell