Wednesday, August 30, 2006

UN Troops to occupy Grammar Zone

As fighting continues in the disputed Grammar Zone of Aukland, the UN Security Council last night passed a motion to install a peace-keeping force in the troubled region.

The long-running conflict began when Auckland Grammar School annexed the Zone, a measure it claims was necessary to prevent further incursions by parents who live outside the region. Fighting intensified last week as various groups of parents launched legal actions against the School. Auckland Grammar responded by conducting house-to-house searches in Epsom and Remuera, an action it claims was necessary to identify properties used as safe houses by parents to infiltrate boys into the the School.

Forces loyal to Auckland Grammar have also mounted road-blocks, stopping and searching SUVs entering the Zone. A spokesman for the School claims these tactics have been successful, revealing several boys who were being smuggled into the area. The School is now beginning work on a three-metre high fence to be built along the perimeter of the Zone, an action which local real estate firms claim violates previous peace agreements.

The main news agency in the region, The Bays and Remuera Times, has received statements from parents claiming that daily incursions into the zone are continuing successfully, despite the School's actions. Parents are also seeking support from the powerful Ministry of Education, which is known to have fully-equipped Inspectors and large stocks of policy guidelines.

The United Nations peace-keeping force is likely to comprise troops from Israel, Serbia and Sierra Leone.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Hasta la vista

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Leaked memo reveals truth about Herald on Sunday

The Herald on Sunday has been rocked by scandal following the leaking of an internal memo which reveals that many of the people in its celebrity photographs section are nobodies.

The paper has gained widespread acceptance for its insightful photographs of people standing around at parties, some of whom are known celebrities but many who are only vaguely recognisable, if at all. With the release of the memo comes the shocking truth that they are not remotely famous.

The memo was written to Herald senior management by sub-editor Justine de Vlaminck, whom sources say was known as Debbie Smith when working in her first job on the Porirua Gazette. It details the strategies behind the making of the celebrity photos section: "really there are not that many real celebrities in Auckland and there are not that many places where they congregate. It can be a hard job filling three pages with photographs. "

"We have a bad time finding places to go to photograph people who are even mildly well-known. Theatre openings and art gallery viewings would seem the obvious choices but real A-list celebs are mostly pretty stupid and try to avoid people who talk in complete sentences. The folk who do hang out at these events are generally old, ugly and badly-dressed, even if they are the intellectual capital of the knowledge economy. Besides, our readers wouldn't have a clue who they are. Our readers are morons.

"So, once we have taken the week's snaps of Charlotte Dawson and Marc Ellis, we look around for people who are tolerably recognisable. Usually, there is not much in choices of location: the opening of yet another Parnell restaurant, some party at a posh car dealership, the unveiling of the first collection by this week's breathtaking new fashion talent. It is all pretty humdrum. There are few pickings when it comes to star quality either: what genuine paparazzi-bait would bother going out on a wet Tuesday night to a piss-up at a hairdressing salon?"

"What we do is find anyone who looks hot and could pass for a bit-part player in Shortland Street. It's not that difficult for the photographers: most of them only picked up a camera in the first place so they could ogle girls' boobies without being arrested. At this kind of bash there will usually be a bunch of Dio girls who would do pretty much anything for a Strawberry Vodkatini. As for men, we can always find a few foppish boys who look as if they might be heirs to vast manufacturing fortunes, even if they came on the bus from Avondale.

"We then top off the evening by taking a picture of any bald guy with no neck who happens to be passing. The mid-life crisis blokes all try to look like former All-Blacks when they are dangling their BMW keyrings in front of nail-technicians at Sponge Bar; if it fools those floozies, it will fool our readership. Actually, those floozies are our readership: ask the marketing department."

"When we crawl back to the office the next morning, we are usually too hung-over to remember who we photographed or where, so we just make stuff up. That's why everyone in the photographs has such silly names, like Clint Rutgers or Pollyanna Carboose. Most of the events are just as fictitious. A lot of them are just staff parties; sometimes we don't even have to leave the building to get a photo shoot."

"It might all seem just a tad ethically challenged, but what does it matter? Nobody's going to win a Qantas doing this sort of work and Robert Fisk isn't going to come looking for a story about us. It doesn't matter to the readers anyway. Down the line in Waiwhatever, they think anybody in the big city who dies her hair blonde and cultivates an eating disorder must be famous."

No spokesman for the Herald on Sunday was available for comment.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Sensible Sentencing Trust Calls for Arming of Shop Workers

Following the shooting of an assailant by a gun store owner, the Sensible Sentencing Trust has called for the arming of shop workers.

Commenting on the incident at SAI Guns and Ammo in Penrose, Trust Spokesman Garth McVicar observed, "this time a tragedy was averted. Mr Carvell, the store owner, had a ready supply of high-quality precision firearms, as you would expect in a gun store. The next time a machete-wielding thug goes on a crime spree, the shop he enters could be Baker's Delight or Paper Plus. The staff would not be able to defend themselves with baguettes or A4 lever-arch files."

"Retail staff are in the front-line of the war against violent crime, yet they are ill-equipped to protect themselves and their stock. Providing them with handguns is the only way to prevent disaster," he continued. "The Government should be required to provide shop owners with weapons and training programmes for their staff."

Predicting further incidents of this kind, Mr McVicar said "we have commissioned independent research which shows that 89% of teenage males take drugs, play ultra-violent computer games and get 'pumped-up' on what they call 'gangsta rap' and 'death metal.' This is a dangerous cocktail of anti-social influences which, sooner rather than later, will erupt into a tsunami of violent crime. It is just a time-bomb waiting to explode."

"Guns are not cheap, but neither is the cost of crime. Providing staff with handguns, pump-action shotguns and maybe semiautomatic weapons is the answer. Of course, we would not advocate giving every shop assistant a 9mm Heckler and Koch P2000 with ambidextrous slide locks and magazine release. This sort of arsenal should only be made available to staff who have shown themselves to be mature, responsible members of the community. We would not want to see firearms being issued to those slovenly, ill-kempt youths who work part-time in many stores just to buy mag wheels for their souped-up cars."

Concluding his prepared statement, Mr McVicar told reporters, "the Warehouse is where everyone gets a bargain but, in future, it will be where P-crazed hoodlums who break the law get filled with lead."

Thursday, May 18, 2006

A chance to Act

Immigration is the ultimate ball for politicians to pick up and sprint with. On the whole immigrants are a very vulnerable bunch, at the mercy of our immigration system: to be accepted, or not to be accepted. Refugees even more so.
New Zealand’s immigration legislation has been reviewed by the government, and their discussion paper is available for public comment. No Right Turn has given the whole document a fairly good going over, Tze Ming Mok has her points here, and my recent article on Scoop canvasses the opinions of some people in the know.

The most dramatic proposition in the discussion paper is the idea to introduce classified information into the immigration decision making process. A person could be declined entry on the basis of secret evidence – and that’s an incredibly difficult situation to defend oneself against.
In my research for the Scoop article, Paul Buchanan gave a good example as to why we should be concerned about political manipulation in the security intelligence sector. Remember those Iraqis, allegedly members of Saddam Hussien’s former government, who Winston Peters railed about in parliament last year? They’re now facing deportation. Buchanan has a point when he says that we should be worried about the two possible explanations for this: either the security services had no idea who these guys were when they first entered the country, or they’re facing deportation for political motivations – pandering to Peters. Neither possibility looks good.

Public submissions are due on the proposal on 30 June. Put in your two cents about the future of New Zealand. Do it!

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Well, didn't expect THAT one...

Who would have thought?

UFO study finds no sign of aliens

So many falsehoods, so little time. I'll move onto something else soon

Rick decided to take issue with my analysis of his recent 'fisking' (could we please come up with another name? Naming an argumentative tactic after the most unreadable modern liberal becomes incredibly grating). He had promised a refutation of my analysis, and while I can see some holes in my original argument, he fails to raise any of them.

Let's have a look at what Rick says, and why he fails, again, to miss his target...

"Yah,As I said, it's not ad hominum[sic] if I'm arguing the issue. The success of Kate is the issue- she put it on the table herself."

Let's analyse the claims Rick made about Kate, the claims that Kate made about herself and whether or not Rick's original "fisking" is indeed ad hominem taken from the comments box of my original post.

The logical fallacy behind argumentum ad hominem is this:

1. Person A makes claim X.
2. There is something objectionable about Person A.
3. Therefore claim X is false.

Rick argues the following

1. Kate claims she is successful
2. Kate is a local body politician, and a "paracite"
3. Thefore Kate's claim she is successful is false.

At its most simple level then, this is a logically fallacious ad hominem argument. However, it goes even further than that, because the first two propositions of Rick's themselves are either untrue or do not logically follow.

As to point 1, during her speech, Kate stated:

"I was invited to speak because I am a successful woman. I must say that this is very flattering, as I do not yet feel successful."

Ergo, Kate is implying that she does not perceive herself to be successful. As a result, Kate did not "put it on the table" that she was successful. In fact, Kate makes no claim either way as to whether or not she is successful.

As to point 2, Rick states that:

"There is a name for what she is, and logical arguments to justify my calling her by that name. Politicians and beurocrats[sic] opperating[sic] outside their briefs are paracites[sic]. No apoligies[sic] for saying so."

Of course, Rick doesn't elucidate these 'logical' arguments as to why (a) politicians and bureaucrats operating outside their briefs are parasites, and (b) why Kate is acting outside her brief to appear in the AUSA Quad to speak about womens issues, and is therefore a parasite. It is just assumed and asserted and, therefore, rhetorically useless. As such, even the construction of Rick's ad hominem argument is shaky, let alone the fact that, were the points correct, it would still be a logical fallacy.

"As for Kate's lesson about unnamed abstract women who are supposed to put us on a guilt trip...useless. Maybe you, X, and you, Kate, had something in mind but the speech says nothing of it. There is no substance, just the assumption that someone somewhere is hurting and it's our fault. All X has done is to try to enter new issues that might have helped Kate's case had she thought to include them herself. Which she didn't."

This is a strawman argument on the part of Rick. If one were to read Kate's speech, one would understand from the statement that the intent of the speech is not to make the listener feel guilty. The intent of the point about the situation of women overseas was to inform the listener that women's issues are not unique to this country. Further, because Kate did not bring up any specific named examples of these instances overseas does not ipso facto prove that they are incorrect. Indeed, given that I subsequently gave numerous examples of said discrimination and abuses, proving that they are not an abstraction, Rick's point is moot. The examples that I raised were not new issues, they were simply an instance of having to state the obvious, to make it blindingly clear. Kate's biggest mistake here was assuming most people had some grip on, or knowledge of what is going on in the world. It's quite clear that they don't.

"Now another fact is that men and woman fit themselves, and are fit by nature, for differnet[sic] tasks. In a free society each individual will find their way within the limits of their will, but consciousness of gender choice will colour that. Right? Thus the lives of men and woman will be as distinct as their respective observation of sexual dimorphism. Taking to this natural state of affairs a socialist meat-cleaver and carving up a 50/50 split will please no one- except perhaps she who seeks to weild such a knife over us all".

As a student of biology and anthropology, I strongly refute much of this paragraph. In my original reply to Rick I made it clear that his and others' discussions of the 'natural' gender and societal roles of men and women within society were made on two fatally flawed assumptions: that biological sex = gender identity = gender role; and that this meta-variable was biological determined. Rick provides no evidence to support these assumptions, and attempts to support his 'point' by simply restating it. Let us make it clear: gender roles and scripts are not, let me repeat NOT entirely biologically determined. It is a simple 'just so story' to say, to assert, that it is the natural order of things that men earn more, that men have a higher proportion of leadership roles in the public and private sectors, because nature made it that way. There is no empirical evidence to suggest that these are the results of our evolutionary histories. As a result, such lines of reasoning HAVE NO PLACE in a gender equality discourse.

I am glad that Rick has recognised the value of 'the consciousness of gender choice', but I still do not accept, and he has failed to show, why those disparate gender roles are justified. Sexual dimorphism, that is the physical differences in primary and secondary sexual characteristics between biological males and females is not sufficient to cause, explain or justify the imposition of an imbalance in societal gender roles between gendered males and females. It is not a 'natural' state of affairs, as I have shown, there is very little evidence to suggest that socio-cultural imbalance of power between genders has any basis in evolutionary mechanisms.

"And why not equalise male/female ratio in all industries? Why just the high-paying flashy desirable ones and not freezing worker and criminal ones? X says that would be silly, and it is. But it's as silly for these latter things as well as the former."

Rick failed to see my original point. It is silly to call for equality in criminal statistics, by trying to increase female participation in the criminal sector (I can't believe I just wrote that, but that's essentially what Rick called for). We should be trying to decrease all participation, irrespective of gender, in that particular 'sector'.

As for the comment regarding freezing workers, well, yes, women should be able to be freezing workers without being hindered on the basis of their gender identity. I would like to see women being able to enter any field of their choice without facing barriers because society sees them as having breasts and therefore 'naturally unsuited' to such tasks. It just so happens, however, that it is the higher paying 'flashy' jobs that women generally find the greatest barriers to participating in. Men also find themselves facing discrimination in certain sectors: childcare, teaching are two well known examples, along with, until quite recently, nursing. These are also societal impositions, assumptions about the 'roles' of gender and equating them to the 'natural inability' of men to perform such roles. They are just as flawed, and just as unfair.

"Men and woman must have equal rights, but they are not equal. X wants men and woman to be equal sexually? Let that be his personal bedroom fantasy. Men and woman are different creatures and most of the rest of us rather enjoy that fact."

Rick fails to see my point. As a predominantly androphilic queer person, I can assure Rick that I hold no sexual fantasies about biological women, whether biological men are involved or not. On a gender level, I choose not to operate from a 'male'/'female' dichotomy, and I do not identify as either a gendered male or female, so comments about my sexual behaviour from such a space are irrelevant. But I digress! Rights are about power: who holds it, who exercises it, who bows to it. Men and women should be sexually equal; Women should have the right to have intercourse with someone without being labelled a slut, where, in the same situation, a man is hailed as a "stud". When such double standards exist, women and men are not sexually equal. When women are expected to act as the sexual gate keeper to men, women and men are not sexually equal. When men impose restrictions and barriers to a woman's control of her reproductive life, men and women are not sexually equal. Sexual power goes beyond the actual act of sex, which Rick seems to be preoccupied with in his response. Men and women are biologically sexually different, as Rick correctly points out. That doesn't, however, justify a disparate power dynamic that revolves around male and female sexuality.

"Gender is a determinent[sic] of what one can do and of what can be done to one. If not then it would be a non-concept, lacking all identity- it wouldn't even be a word but just a sound. But in our age, and in our society, we choose genders- we like it, benifit[sic] from it. We have it. Deal with it."

Actually, no, gender is not a determinant of what one can do and of what can be done to one, just as ethnicity, cultural identity, religious affiliation or sexual orientatation aren't either: these are aspects of identity that range from the purely chosen to the blindly determined. And none of them are acceptable as determinants of 'what can be done to one'. Identity reflects whakapapa, as well as turangawaewae, where one acknowledges one has come from, as well as how one chooses to live ones own life. They are not tools for, or justifiers of, societal impositions, predetermined roles or restraints on individuals or identity groups. This brings us to the argument previously presented by Rick, but which fails to stand up to scrutiny. If women chose, as part of their identity as women, to avoid leadership roles in the public and private sector, then there would be very little to worry about. However, there is no evidence to support that the lack of women participation in the public and private sector is the result of an 'identity choice', and more evidence to suggest that such statistics are a manifestation of a culture that actively discourages the advancement of women in these areas: women who do find themselves in leadership roles overwhelmingly describe experiences of having to surrender aspects of their female identity, in order to 'make it', not because those aspects of their identity make them 'unsuited' to perform the tasks at hand, but because the culture they find themselves in is hostile to the expression of that identity.

We often don't choose many aspects of our gender, despite our ability to do so. In part the identity of being of the 'male' or 'female' gender is innately correlated with being biologically male or female. Further yet, the identity of 'male' or 'female' is reinforced (or rejected, in the case of transgendered individuals) by how society reacts to our genitalia, and later, secondary sexual characteristics. Further still, our gender roles (relatively distinct from gender identity) how men and women are supposed to act, the roles they are supposed to fulfill within society are most definitely not chosen. It is these predetermined assumptions about the 'roles' of 'men' and 'women' in society that form the basis of gender inequality and gender power imbalance.

"You say we're not quite there yet, when it comes to fighting for womens rights? Well to the extent to which you're right about this libertarians have your back. It is our main occupation- defending rights. But that ain't what Kate's talking about."

Kate is talking about the fact that gender identity should have no bearing on the level that society allows an individual to participate. I would assume that this was totally compatible with libertarianism, or any ideology that placed a premium on individual liberty.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Is that all they could come up with, or: Fisking a so-called Fisking

Kate Sutton's speech during AUSA's Womensfest caused quite a stir over at Red Confectionery, attracting a substantial amount of comments from those who took issue with the modernist feminist undertones. Unsurprisingly, there wasn't a great deal of effort that went into truly analysing what was in the speech, but rather attacking the messenger herself...

I don't understand this. I honestly don't see how grown men can feel so viscerally threatened by this speech, or more tellingly, the person who delivered it. It is unfortunate that Mr Graham Watson, who so often rails like Moses to the Israelites from the moral high ground about the folly of ad hominem attacks (remember, it's two words), is so quick to use them, as the comment below illustrates:

"What an idiot to have to use hyperbole to attemt[sic] to create sensation out of nothing. The same woman who [sic] I am told there now exists documentary[sic] testimony of her making false rape claims against people. I am also told court papers are being prepared by her victim, to call her to account for her vivid imagination, so well expressed here again in her speech.

Honestly, Graham. Ian Wishart himself couldn't have pulled off these kinds of faux conspiratorial undertones. Rather than calling to account the actual problems that Mr Watson has with Kate's points, he spends bandwidth attempting to mar Kate's character with hints and innuendo about hypothetical future legal action against her. If there truly are such allegations, they should be argued in court, not brought into a discussion about feminist issues by a man who is obviously having difficulty elucidating the problems he has with Kate's speech. The arguments just come across as hysterical and irrelevant.

As usual, questioning gender inequality leads some to conclude that it's just a fact, a biological fact of life, that men do the work and women stay at home looking after the kids. Rick attempted to explain this with the term 'sexual dimorphism', a common biological term used to describe biological differences between sexes. Of course, this contains two implicit and flawed assumptions about the relationship between sex (which goolies you have), gender identity (whether you identify as male or female, both or neither, both and neither) and gender roles (what males and females are supposed to do within their respective societies). Those assumptions are that Sex = Gender Identity = Gender Roles, that is that the constructs are somehow interchangeable, and that Sex/Gender Identity/Gender Roles are somehow blindly biologically determined - that those who are born with vaginas must identify as females and further that the traits they exhibit, their 'femininity' and all that that entails, is somehow an immutable biological artefact.

Gender Theory is a complex one, and there isn't space to go into a great deal here, but suffice to say that, while there is substantial evidence that gender identity has a strong biological correlation with sex, it is not an absolute relationship. Otherwise, we wouldn't have transgendered individuals. Even more dubious, and central to the discussion of gender equality, is the supposed relationship between sex and gender roles, or even gender identity and gender roles. While the tragic experiments of John Money/David Reimer have shown us that biology is a powerful force in these processes, we need to remember that societal norms, cultural mores and the need of those in power (whomever they may be) to justify, perpetuate and protect the status quo, has played and continues to play a significant role in defining what people will do and how people will act.

Unsurprisingly, those wishing to justify the poor participation rates of women leading in the private and indeed public sector, trot out the pseudo-scientific arguments of 'hormones', or as one commenter amusingly put it 'hormonal flux'. Of course! Elevated levels of progesterone and oestrogen means that women are incapable of interpreting statutes (judges), undertaking peer review (professors) or co-ordinating aquisitions (Chief Executives), while testosterone means that men can't use dictaphones (secretaries), or change nappies (child care).

This is a laughable fallacy. There is simply no empirical evidence to suggest that the subtle behavioural effects of sex-hormones is the reason that men are 'better' in leadership roles, while women are 'better' in support and administrative roles. Some evolutionary psychologists have attempted to explain (justify?) these disparitiess through reference to our evolutionary history and the division of labour among males and females in early hominid groups. However, like much of what evolutionary psychologists propose, there are very few data to support it. It's almost as if the proponents see a correlation that (a) women are in lower paid jobs (b) women have eostrogen and therefore that (a) and (b) somehow have some causative link. Utter. Bollocks.

As well as being a logical and empirical fallacy, these arguments are incredibly dishonest. By claiming 'hormones', proponents of this point of view have no responsibility to justify what is essentially their own prejudice:

"Hey! Don't look at me; it's not my fault that women are stuck in hormonal flux. I'm all for equality, but you know, biology means that women just can't cut it in the corporate world. They don't have the constitution. It's not their fault, it's just the hormones. We shouldn't set them up to fail."

But I digress! What I really wanted to do was have a look at a so-called fisking produced by Rick Giles. I like a good fisking, almost as much as I like a good frisking, and much more than I like a good fisting. Needless to say, I was a little underwhelmed by what transpired on Rick's blog. Rather than a good fisking, Rick's piece was short on substance, and devoid of any good refutation. It was, in fact, a nasty piece of work. Since I'm feeling cheated of a good fisking, I thought I would have a look at what Rick said; hey it's a veritable menage a trois a la fisk (Kate in Blue, Rick in Red, My own thoughts in black):

"I shall now quickly fisk Kate Sutton's Womensfest speech to The Quad at AU a few days ago.

Of course it would have been better to be there, because it was a speech and not a piece of literature. These are just speech notes released on Red Confectionery. The hook, the catch, and the swearing make more sense as a speech. However, the non-facts can be shot down here on equal terms weather
[sic] they be spoken or penned. So,-"

"I was invited to speak because I am a successful woman. I must say that this is very flattering, as I do not yet feel successful."

"You're not a successful woman. Success is reward for dealing in values but political power is a reward for penalising, for dealing in fear. You are a successful paracite,
[sic] if successful at all, but not a successful woman."

What kind of argument is that? Barely into the first paragraph, and already Rick starts the name calling complete with novel approach to spelling. How could Rick possibly judge whether Kate is a successful woman or not? I would consider a 24 year old, first time election to a community board, highest majority in the ward for those elections, now chair of that board to be at least to some extent successful. Call me crazy, but hey, just maybe. "Political power is a reward for penalising, for dealing in fear". What on earth is that supposed to mean, and how is it relevant to the discussion at hand? Would Rick then claim that Abraham Lincoln and Gandhi gained political power as a reward for penalising, dealing in fear? Very Odd.

Ad hominem, inconsistent and irrelevant.

"When told this I started to think about what success is – Sure I do many things. I am a former president of this student union, a current University of Auckland councillor, I am the chairperson of the Tamaki community board and I am a project manager for a charitable trust in South Auckland as well as sitting on about 4/5 other boards and committees."

"I rest my case."

Again: ad hominem, and irrelevant.

"I wanted to speak about women overseas and their plight – the feminisation of poverty and how vital it is for us to understand what is happening overseas,"

"Note the abstract reference to women outside New Zealand and some kind of plight. What women? Where? What's their boggle? If it's vital for us to understand why is it left to the imagination? Are you talking about Australian woman? Who? What? Where?"

I was disappointed that Kate didn't talk further on this, as we've had many personal discussions about it, and it something that I am keenly interested in. However, for Rick's benefit, let us look at the very real plight of women overseas. In Kenya, male legislators vote against rape laws, because in their culture, when a woman means no, she actually means yes. In the Dafur region, pro-government militias systematically use rape to control and intimidate non-Arab Sudanese communities. In India, 10 million female foetuses and babies have been killed over the last 20 years, because boys are better. Not to mention Pakistan (and India), where women are routinely murdered by family members for bringing dishonour to their families by being raped.

"the HIV/AIDS epidemic which affects mainly heterosexual females and their children."

"So do hickups! So does getting hair in your soup and forgetting where you put your shoes! Some vast patriarchal conspiracy, Kate? No. It's just that most members of every population are hetrosexual[sic] females and their children. Think about it, you're talking crap."

What Rick fails to understand from Kate's point is that heterosexual women are mainly affected by HIV/AIDS, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, because they do not have the ability or the power to prevent it. In these areas, women do not control any aspect of the sexuality: it's easy for us to say that women should just say no, but many, indeed most, simply can't, despite the fact that their communities demand that they remain virgins until marriage. Not only are most women in these African communities forced to surrender control of their sexuality to males, but they are traditionally blamed as the root of sexual evil, promiscuity and 'looseness', despite the fact that, particularly in South Africa, the spread of HIV is predominatly the result of a highly mobile, sexually careless mobile labour (male) workforce; it is these men who then return to their villages, and infect their wives. It is women who co-ordinate the care for HIV positive AIDS Orphans. It is HIV positive women that are shunned from their villages and communities, and HIV positive women who experience barriers to receiving retroviral drugs, even to condoms. And it is these women who are taking the power back. It is these sisterhoods that will help stem the spread of HIV among Africa's poorest and most disempowered.

"it is not an equal or fair world for women overseas in our poorer countries who are raped, mutilated, tortured and without homes – they are victims not perpetrators."

"Ohhhh, they're victims not perpetrators? Thanks for the correction, as if we needed to be corrected for thinking your poor abstract mutilated mystery women you haven't identified were guilty for being homeless and tortured. Shame on us. You really got us good with that one, Kate."

I don't understand what Rick is trying to prove with this point. Yes, they are the victims. The majority of discrimination, rape and mutilation is directed towards women by men. That is something that we should be concerned about; we're supposed to believe in equality, which means in an equality in the right not to live in fear. The mutilated Woman is not an abstraction, Rick: she's very real.

"ask most women if they are discriminated against and most pakeha women will say no. The problem is that the statistics tell a different story 24.2% of judges, 19.2% of newspaper editors, 17.2% of legal partnerships, 18.9% of mayors are women."

"What is this fascination with making men and woman homogenous in all industries?

People find their own place in the world without some Stalin conforming every pocket of society into a microcosmic duplicate of the national statistics. If 50% of New Zealanders are woman does it really follow that 50% of magazine editors need to be men? Does the number of percentage points by which we fall short of this really measure sexist discrimination as Kate suggests?"

If women are being barred from entry into those industries on the basis of their gender, then yes. It's quite simple. And here we witness the massive inconsistency in Rick's argument. Rick comes from a libertarian background that says we shouldn't discriminate on the basis of gender: every individual is equal, and should be judged on their merits. If that were so, then that null hypothesis should lead us to a prediction: The probability of finding a person of a certain gender in specific job, given that the null hypothesis of gender equality is correct, should be close 50%. However, we see that this prediction simply doesn't play out. Ergo Individuals are not equal for some reason on the basis of gender. Rick attempts to justify this by saying that there are innate gender role differences between men and women which are manifested in these differences: that across the board, men are found in leadership roles because they prefer them and women don't AND that men are innately better suited (hormonally, of course), to leadership roles while women are innatelybetter suited to support roles. He illustrates this with his response to Kate below:

"Why is it that 17% of professors and associate professors are women? But it that over 50% of general staff are women – its because there is still a hierarchy of jobs and there is a still a system where women have choices to move ahead - the boys network still exists in this university."

"Sexual dimorphism exists, celebrate it Sutton! Maybe "most pakeha women" don't wish they were judges, newspaper editors, and politicians? Men and woman have different abilities and tastes that don't happen to conform to what your numerical model demands they should be.

You just want to change the world into one giant game of Sutton Says."

So, the hypothesis proposed by Rick is that women would innately prefer to be lawyers, not judges; that women innately prefer to be teachers, not prinicipals; that women innately prefer to be general staff and not academics. This hypothesis presents a prediction: If we were to go out and survey University of Auckland students, female law students would probably on average indicate more than male ones that they would want to be a low-level lawyer than a Partner, or a Judge, or similar predictions in Medicine, or similar predictions in Education. It hasn't been done, but I doubt that in a controlled study these predictions would hold up. Anecdotally at least, evidence suggests that women are just as keen, on average, about taking up senior or leadership roles as men. Given that we've had to reject that hypothesis, what are we left with as an explanatory model for these gender disparities that we observe? There is only one alternative, as unpalatable as it may sound: systemic discrimination against women in leadership roles (incorporating also the possible propensity of many women to accept the social norms and gender roles that have been prescribed to and imposed on them)

"I am passionate about good governance and directorship and I am trying to break the mold of these statistics and bring my sisters with me, but it’s a long slow battle."

"I always ask people who produce this bullshit if they would also like to apply their golden median to the crime statistics. Is it also a problem for you, Kate, that insufficient violent offenders are females? Not enough drink drivers? Not enough white collar crime comming
[sic] from skirts? Should we try to equalise those statistics too for the same reason you have for equalising it in the legal workforce? A television campaign or schools programme to get more little girls to go crooked? Well why not? Or could it be that there are other considerations to the desirability of this kind of equality you have neglected to include in your stupid inferences? Hmmm."

That's just silly. Who would in their right mind, propose attempting to increase the number of female inmates? Kate's point referred to the lack of women in senior or leadership roles in the public and private sectors. That doesn't ipso facto imply that males are never discriminated against: it is perfectly reasonable to suspect that our current education system is not providing the educational quality to groups of boys that it does to some girls, or to consider that our health system is not geared towards the prevention of sex-specific cancers in men (prostate, testicular) as it is in women (breast, cervical, uterine, etc). Or that our Family Court may be biased towards mothers. Or that men are overrepresented in crime statistics. But that doesn't mean that there isn't discrimination towards women that needs addressing.

"Date rape, gang rape, sexual violence are all a norm here – it’s a joke because men make it so and they are the blokes, the boys club and they are putting us down and taking our jobs."

"Well you've got us there. But for a man to get to the bins where Craccum is kept you have to sometimes push girls out of the way, and down a flight of stairs. And as for gang rape, what else is there to do while waiting in those huge queues at the cafe? It's the norm, what can I say?

But, hey. I say again- they're not *your* jobs, Stalinette.

So the stats look bad, the story is still bad - what do we do?

Cut cafe queue times and hand out Craccum magazine to those who are kept waiting. Then I wont have any excuse for all this normalised raping I've been doing all the time and you wont have to think twice before going to luch."

Why is it that the vast majority of rapes, sexual assaults, batteries and violations directed by men towards women? Of course men get raped by women, and such cases are deserving of equally punitive measures. But if we were all equal, if there was no discrimination, if the power dynamic was balanced, then you would expect that there were equal numbers of people being raped of either gender. This is not the case; women are predominantly, though not exclusively, the victims of rape. We must all ask the question: WHY? Kate is not saying that all men are rapists. What Kate is showing is that the culture of rape goes deeper than just the actual act; it goes to the paradigm of unequal power relationships; rape is not about sexual desire, rape is about power, and the use of sex and physical force, predominantly by men, to exercise that power. Women need to take the power back, and men must be willing to share it. The question is whether or not either gender is playing their part in doing that. When you hear this joke:

Q: What's Black and Blue and doesn't like sex?
A: A rape victim

Spoken by men, and not challenged by either men or women, you have to think that we've both got a long way to go.

I am not a rapist, but as a man I do benefit from rape, as much as I don't wish to: I can walk down the street at night and feel completely safe, without the fear that I will be raped by a woman. A woman doesn't have that ability, but she has that right. It goes further than just saying that rape is unacceptable, which we all do, or even that joking about rape is not acceptable, which I suspect that the majority of us also do. It means looking at the power structures that exist that result in the majority of sexual assaults and rapes being directed at women. Looking at the power structures that allow the majority of rape victims to be women.

"We must encourage a culture of diversity and this starts with accepting women as equal in our society by providing them with equitable opportunity"

"Well they're not equal, unless you mean politically equal but you do not. "Equitable oppertunity"
[sic] means whatever you want it to mean, which is clearly that girl% is supposed to go up and boy% down so we're all nice and symmetrical like."

Well, yes, women should be equal, in every sense of the word: sexually, socially, politically, educationally. How could one justify otherwise? Because an individual has lactiferous mammaries, or a uterus, they are somehow not equals? By equals we don't mean identical, we don't mean homogenous, as feminists we mean equal to mean not having any rights, opportunities or potential hindered because of either genitalia or gender identity.

"You all have an obligation to wake the fuck up and realise how every thing that you have now, all the rights to be free to earn money to marry when you want, to gain an education, to control your sexuality and bear children when you want – all of these rights have been fought for by women and they can be taken away"

"Well that's it right there, isn't it Kate? You think you're Kate Sheppard and it's the 1800s, or that you're Betty Friedan and it's the 1960s. These were times for a'changin', for pushing the system the way you're still pushing now. But guess what Kate? It worked.

You are living in the past, still pushing. You still think the right to work, to learn, to invidivual sexuality, to mating and marriage choice are in immanent danger of being snuffed out. But they are not in any such danger, because we fought and won that battle together before you and I were even born.

And why did we fight for those thing? Wasn't it so we could enjoy them? Take your place in the world, woman. Stop squarking. Nobody is trying to make you have babies and steal your jobs, okay? Relax babe. You live in New Zealand in 2006. There are people who love you and could use your help and offer you theirs and share a community with you but if you can tell such people by the shape of their gender you're a better person than I am."

Well, that's a nice ending isn't it? All warm and fuzzy. A compassionate ending, it would seem. We aren't quite there yet, Rick. People assumed that the right to vote, the right to go to work and the right to marry as one pleases meant the end of gender discrimination. The power structures that exist, and their manifestations in earning statistics, statistics relating to sexual violence, to domestic violence, mean that women and men are not equal partners: the opportunities and rights, despite the ideals and the theory, are not equally available. The fact of the matter is, in many communities, people are trying to change that, and we should all embrace it, men and women. Kate's speech called on men to play an active role in trying to deconstruct and reform those power structures so that gender is not a determinant of what you are able to do, or what people are able to do to you. What on earth have we got to be afraid of?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

NZ Listener now to be available as soothing Gel

Following top-level discussions at APN Media, it was today announced that the New Zealand Listener would now be produced in three formats: print, web and gel. Editor Pamela Stirling commented: "our market research shows that readers can find it quite stressful to read about the dangers of botox poisoning, the imminent decline in house values or the worrying trends in garden design. So what better way to relax than with Listener Gel? It rejuvenates the skin, removes unsightly blemishes and calms aching muscles. Best of all, it removes middle-class anxiety in an instant."

Responding to criticism that this new format represents a dumbing down or smoothing out of the long-established literary and political magazine, Stirling commented, "New Zealand Listener readers are not the same demographic as they used to be and our paradigm must achieve synergy with their lifestyle priorities. We like to call our product range New Listener, because we have responded to focus groups just like that nice Mr Blair has done with his New Labour, which of course is not the same as that grumpy old New Labour we once had here."

Warming to her theme, Stirling continued: "our readers enjoy the finer things in life. They are achievers and trend-setters, who want to spend their high disposable incomes on products that make them look good and feel good. They deserve it. They have worked hard and played hard. Now it is time to unwind."

"Since I became Editor," she continued, "we have managed to remove almost all traces of the difficult stuff which used to fill up the old Listener's pages. It really used to be quite hard work reading all that political commentary and those cranky reviews of difficult books that nobody I knew ever bought. I don't think our readers want all those boring, intellectual things cluttering up their aspirational lives. I know our advertisers don't!"

"Still, the Listener is not all about holiday destinations and tasty treats for summer barbecues. Many of our lead articles are very challenging. Some are really quite icky. This could be a problem. The consumers who fit our readership profile like to chill-out after an invigorating pilates session by enjoying a glass of unoaked gewurztraminer and the company of some business friends. We would not like their sparkling conversation to be impaired by the thought that some hair products might cause cancer or that the costs of vein replacement therapy are spiralling out of control. We try to make all our stories about boomers positive and uplifting, but the reality is they still fear their lives are effectively past them and they will die embittered and lonely."

"That's where Listener Gel comes in. Its special compounds, suffused with aloe vera and hand-pressed extra virgin olive oil, simply take away all sense of existential crisis. It removes the worry and makes you feel like a consumer again."

"Best of all, add it to pan-fried snapper on a bed of wilted spinach and it makes a delicious meal for friends and family alike. Listener Gel: it beats thinking every time."

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Insidious Creep of Idiocy

Well, it's official. At least 25% of New Zealand are certified brain dead...

Twenty Five Percent of New Zealanders believe that the earth was created in six days. That's right. 1 in 4 New Zealanders have officially disengaged their neocortex, and are simply running on bible/qu'ran fuelled autopilot. I just want to pull my hair out. The creep of stupidity, commonly known as "Christianity", "Spirituality" or "Religion" is in full force. Ian Wishart and his deluded ilk will no doubt be pleased.

We have assumed too long that the religious idiocy (there's a two word tautology, if I've ever seen one) of the States would never make it here. "Oh! That couldn't happen here", we've smugly asserted. "We're far too liberal and progressive! We have the Civil Union Act and secular education!" But we've seen the warning signs. We've already seen a war started against progress, reason and science. We are not immune to mass stupidity. What makes it even worse is that modern liberals themselves have been part of the problem; we've created the perfect culture for a new Dark Age by developing a world dependent on pluralism, relativism and equal validity of truths.

I went to a seminar a while back by Associate Professor Allan Rodgrigo on the Intelligent Design movement. Afterwards we had a chat about the movement in New Zealand and he expressed a belief that it is something that we should be worried about here. Firstly because we have this culture of equal truth, which intelligent design hacks and charlatans cynically exploit to push their 'teach the controversy' mantra. It is the grossest of ironies that this very group who rally against the relativism of secular liberalism are using that very paradigm in an attempt to destroy it.

Secondly, we should be worried because scientists have spent far too long hiding in the bunkers of academia, and specifically academic language; not through arrogance, but simply through tradition. It is time for scientists to reclaim the language of design. Life is designed - not through any supernatural intelligent force, but through the synergy of chemistry, physics and biology to be the exquisitly adapted world we see around us. It is time that scientists started engaging in a public sphere to show what they do, why they do it and why science is the best thing we have to describe, explain and explore our world. Science is not only for scientists: it is for everyone. It is not difficult, you don't have to be smart to do it. Most scientists are normal people of normal abilities doing what they do.

There is no controversy. We would only need to look to other "explanations" (or should I say, look towards a frontal lobotomy) such as creationism, if evolutionary science was losing its explanatory, predictive and innovative powers. It is not. It has never been a more exciting time for evolutionary science, or any scientific field for that matter, than now. We continue to push the boundaries of our understanding, of our innovation, of our technological abilities; it has never been a better time to be a scientist.

I am angry, incredibly angry. It is time for people with some neurons firing to actually get out and stop it. We've rested on our laurels for too long, smug in a knowledge that the secular world is secure. During that complacency, we've indulged ourselves with the intellectually lazy half-baked idea of the relativity of truth, that two ideas can be equally valid at the same time for their explanations of the world. In the end, it is this that will be our achilles heel. It is this idea that is being exploited by Islamic groups to try and implement Sharia law in otherwise secular democracies such as Canada. It is this idea that has resulted in increasingly vocal calls from hardline religious idiots, both Christian and Muslim, to try and justify homophobia, misogyny, self-righteous hypocrisy about abortion and euthanasia, and of course biblical creationism. It is this idea that is exploited by mysticist Maori to try and justify attitudes towards women, used by some religious Pacific Island leaders to justify beating their children. All the while, the generally tolerant public are lulled into a sense of compliance: those views are ok. They are valid, because all ideas are valid. How fucking postmodern. How fucking wrong. Here's an idea: religion and supernaturalism got it wrong. Not only about how the world works. Not only about how we're supposed to live our lives. Religion got it wrong on everything. You'd think at the height of our 'advancement' as a species, we'd stop acting so primitively. It appears not. No matter how many things we are able to do, know and create because of Science, people still need their witchdoctors and sky fairies.

It would be funny if it wasn't so damn worrying. We've only got ourselves to blame. I don't know how we're supposed to stop it, but we need to start doing it now.

Homosexuality Part III: Pink Sperm and Designer Babies

Final Part of a three part series. Part I and Part II can be read here and here

To what extent does our biological understanding of sexual orientiation now inform our ability to critically assess the issue of gay sperm donation What about the wider issues of queer rights, or whether or not parents could or should choose the sexuality of their children?

From the outset we need to dispel this fallacy inherent in the queer rights movement that the ‘natural’ status of homosexuality, or for that matter transsexuality which I do not deal with here, somehow lends weight to quest for legal and civil rights for queer people. This is inconsistent for three reasons. (1) as we’ve seen, no behaviour is truly ‘natural’ in the deterministic sense of the word; (2) asserting that homosexuality is innate sets up the possibility of falsification, which isn’t helpful for the queer rights movement; and most importantly (3) legal and civil rights are not granted or based on the basis of being natural or unnatural. Our basis for rights in a secular democracy is that of the right of the individual to live his or life has he or she pleases. Religious freedom is not granted on the basis of religion being natural, but rather on the basis that a person has the right to express faith without interference or discrimination. The same argument must apply to sexual orientation, rather than some half baked idea about ‘natural rights’, for our system of rights to be consistent. Sure, use the arguments about the biological basis of homosexuality to broaden the public’s understanding of the issue, but keep it away from the rights argument; it has no justifiable basis there.

News that gay men can be sperm donors must be welcome to couples requiring assisted reproductive technology. However, evidence is accumulating that sexual orientation is the result of gene-environment interaction; sexual orientation has a heritable component.

Thus, using sperm from gay donors may have the potential of passing the gay gene(s) to the next generation. Patients requiring such service should be informed of such potential.

--Assoc. Prof. Frank Sin, The Press, 13 March 2006.

We can conclude that the Associate Professor Sin’s argument that the sperm of gay donors may somehow result in gay children is, to put it bluntly, crap. Of course, such a mechanism may be technically possible, but there is no reason to assume it is probable or even likely, since thousands of studies have failed to show a paternally based inheritance pattern of sexual orientation.

Given this lack of direct inheritance via sperm, we must question what the purpose or utility is of requiring disclosure of homosexuality on the behalf of sperm donors. If there is no evidence to support that homosexual men produce homosexual children, such a disclosure would be logically unnecessary.

Our knowledge of homosexuality’s biological underpinnings is ridiculously limited, to extent that our ability to predict when it will occur in individuals is close enough to zero to be discarded. The probabilities that we have are either relative to base population rates, (and therefore have no real predictive power), or based on correlations for which we have no real causal mechanisms. As a result, actions taken by parents to avoid conceiving or raising homosexual children are, based on current knowledge, logically fallacious and, on average, likely to fail. They are scientifically flawed.

Are they, however, ethically flawed? Disclosure may be both logically unneccessary and scientifically irrelevant, but that doesn’t ipso facto make it wrong. While I understand and sympathise with While I understand and sympathise with Allan-John Marsh’s (Spokesperson for the Wellington-based Gay Association of Professionals) comments that the implications could be perceived to be insulting, that in itself does also not restrict the parents’ right to know such information. And here we get into the realm of parental rights.

Let’s assume a world in which we could predict, with 99.99% certainty, whether or not a fertilisation will result in a homosexual child. Do parents then have the right to prevent that fertilisation? Do they have the right to prevent the existence of that individual based solely on the fact that the individual will be a homosexual? Do parents have the right to abort a foetus based on the fact that it is going to be a homosexual?

I am personally not very sure. My initial and visceral reaction was no. However is that response rational or consistent with my own personal view of abortion in general, or is it unduly and irrationaly influenced by my views on homosexuality? Much of my unsureness stems from the arguments presented by Aaron Greenberg and J Michael Bailey in their paper Parental Selection of Children’s Sexual Orientation*. In the article, the authors examine and question many of the assumptions and propositions surrounding the arguments put forward by those who oppose such selection. While not necessarily agreeing with all of the conclusions of the paper, it nonetheless presents some compelling arguments about the potentially irrational basis of opposing such rights. It also presents quite compelling rational arguments that, yes, parents do have such rights, irrespective of their motives.

I am a budding biologist. I am not an ethicist, I am not a philosopher, and I am not a logician. With all the arguments surrounding the rights of parents to select the sexual orientation of the children, I am rationally out of my depth, as I suspect the majority of mankind probably is. I am human, though - a queer one at that. This means I don’t have to be rational all the time. I can be logically inconsistent, because my life is informed by more than rationality.

As a queer person, I am happy to be the result of probabilities, genetics, my social experience and my development. I know my parents wouldn’t choose for me or my lesbian sister to be anything other than what we are, and my blood boils at the idea that some parents would. Ideally our parents would let 4 billion years of evolution and the universal dice have their way, rather than choose which box we’re going to fit neatly into before we’re even conceived. Because in the end it shouldn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.

So sure, parents have the right to do choose - absolutely, rationally, logically, empirically. But what I would want to know is this: what would happen to a child who was specifically selected to be a heterosexual, but turned out, by some fluke of nature, to be gay? What would knowing you were, through no fault of your own, exactly what your parents did not want, in fact actively tried to avoid, do to you? What effect would it have on your intrinsic feelings of self-worth, your validity as a human being? Who would love that child? It’s hard enough for many to be gay in a world where parents can’t decide. A world where nature blindly defied that decision on your behalf is one I don’t want to envisage, and one I certainly don’t want to live in.

*Greenberg A and JM Bailey. 2001. Parental Selection of Children's Sexual Orientation. Archives of Sexual Behaviour 30(4):423-437

Disclaimer: This last paper was very controversial, as has been some of the subsequent work of J. Michael Bailey. In 2003, Bailey was investigated for potentially unethical research and reporting practices for his book The Man Who Would Be Queen, about the transgendered community. The complaint was upheld and Dr Bailey resigned his position as Chair of Psychology at Northwestern University. I have considered these factors before referencing his work. I am still of the opinion that the arguments raised by Bailey and Greenberg are valid and worthy of addressing. I have a copy of the journal article and a response to it if readers would like to examine in it for themselves.

Friday, April 07, 2006

A Vision of Britain

London: new Government legislation passed last night by Parliament has sparked controversy among constitutional experts. In a sparsely-attended House of Commons, The Governance of Britain (Emergent Provisions) Bill was given its first, second and third readings, passing through all the legislative hoops in a record twelve-and-a-half minutes. Opposition MPs were said to be 'down the pub' at the time.

The Bill, which was included on the Commons order papers in very small print that appears to be written in Sanskrit, has raised eyebrows among some of the elder statesmen of British political life. At issue in particular is the introductory paragraph, which states:

WHEREAS, Parliament is the Sovereign law-making body of Her Majesty's Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Her Majesty's Government (that's us) holds the following truths to be self-evident:

1. We are in charge.
2. We can do what we like.
3. Blair is bigger than Beckham
4. Democracy is like SO Twentieth-Century
5. We will, we will, rock you.

The Bill proceeds to give sweeping powers to the Executive of a kind that has not been seen in Britain since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Government has abrogated to itself the power to do whatever it wishes, so long as those decisions are "cool" and "geisty." Parliament will no longer have the right to review or amend Government legislation. Instead, Members will be required to listen to focus groups and attend PowerPoint demonstrations given by creative entrepreneurs.

Other measures included in the legislation include a complete interior design package for Parliament, to a concept devised by Anouska Hempel, with installations by Damien Hirst and an ambient sound-loop by Brian Eno. The Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Blair, has created a "cleansing ceremony" based on Tibetan prayer chants that will replace Prime Minister's Question Time. The official colour of Parliament will be Taupe.

Instrumental in devising the legislation is Sir Mark Ellen, the newly-appointed Cabinet Secretary who was formerly Editor of Q Magazine and once a member of the college band Ugly Rumours with Tony Blair. Speaking in a podcast delivered from his fur-lined office in a penthouse high above Whitehall, Sir Mark said, "government just got hip. We have had Brit Art and Brit Pop; now we have Brit Pol. What we are conceptualising here is a new vision for the government of NewBrit. Parliamentary Democracy is fusty, stuffy and dusty. It is OldThink. We have replaced it with NewGov, which is syncretic, synaesthetic and synergetic. And, hey, nobody has to bother voting anymore."

One novel feature of the new Bill is that Prime Minister Tony Blair chose not to use the services of the Parliamentary Counsel, which usually drafts all Government legislation. Instead the task was given to indy-pop icon Miss Sophie Ellis-Bextor, in a move that has been described by media pundits as "post-ironic." She not only wrote the Bill, but made an accompanying collage and an interactive DVD. Her influence can be seen particularly in section 54(i) of the Bill, which states " DJ, gonna burn this goddamn House right down."

No member of the Government was available for comment today, as all Ministers are attending a spiritual encounter workshop hosted by Cherie Blair at an undisclosed location in Cornwall that is noted for its congruence of ley-lines. However, Mr and Mrs Blair's son Euan spoke with waiting reporters, telling them "all your base are belong to us."

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Homosexuality Part II: What is it with gay men and their mothers?

Part II in a three part series on the biological basis of homosexuality. (Part I can be read here or here)

One pattern has emerged that suggests that male and female homosexuality may have very different causes, a pattern that has been replicated and observed across numerous studies: the fraternal birth order effect. If you are a gay male, there is a greater probability that you have older brothers. In fact, each prior born male increases the probability of subsequent males being homosexual by 33%*, according to the most statistically robust studies. The same effect is not observed in boys with older sisters, or in girls at all. One proposed mechanism suggests that each male pregnancy promotes and reinforces a maternal immune response to certain proteins produced by the Y chomosome (the H-Y complex), meaning that later male pregnancies are subjected to stronger immune responses from the maternal system. This potentially disrupts typical foetal development and prenatal hormone action, or upsets the symmetry of body development, which is significantly correlated with the occurence of homosexuality in both males and females...

Again, there are problems here: there have been no studies in humans illustrating the actual mechanism of maternal immune response or its effect on the foetus. Further, there are youngest brothers that are not gay, and older brothers that are. As a result, this is at best one factor that may influence sexuality in only a subset of genetic males. The studies also don't take into account the possible behavioural effects of older brothers on the development of sexual identity in their younger brothers, although recent research has discounted this possible factor. The pattern is nonetheless informative: the fact that no such effect is found in females again underlies that male and female sexual orientation are probably not mirror images of each other, but rather the result of different developmental and social processes.

All in the family?

Recently, genetic studies on sexual orientation have gained some momentum and favour among researchers. This is in part due to the ability of some types of genetic studies to expose patterns of the heritability of sexual orientation, but also due to the rapid advances in genetic and molecular techniques that have produced such comprehensive studies as the Human Genome Project.

The application of genetic study to sexual orientation has proved more contentious than the application of developmental studies, given the shackling of the discipline to the ghosts of eugenics, genetic engineering, cloning and designer babies. Genetic factors are also assumed to be more deterministic, more rigid, than pre- and post-natal environmental influences, a common but frustrating misconception. Indeed, the study of sexual orientation using genetic techniques - family studies, twin studies and molecular studies - has revealed just as much variation, just as many general trends and probabilities, as our developmental approaches.

Studies across and within generations of have shown a moderate but still significant pattern of the behaviour in some families. That is, patterns of homosexuality do tend to run in certain families (contrary to the assertion of Allan-John Marsh), higher than you would expect by chance alone; if you are homosexual, the probability of one of your siblings also being homosexual is higher than if you are heterosexual. There is evidence to suggest that this statistical relationship is stronger between pairs of gay brothers and pairs of gay sisters than between the gay brother/lesbian sister relationship (which this author incidentally falls into), although that particular relationship is still significantly stronger than a straight brother/lesbian sister or gay brother/straight sister relationship. Again, these are just observable trends, not rules.

Twin studies have proved useful because they allow researchers to tease apart the effect of shared environments from genetic effects within families. Fraternal twins, which share identical environments but are only genetically related to each other to the extent of normal siblings, on average exhibit less shared homosexuality than identical twins, which share identical environments and identical genetic makeup. The difference between the rate of shared sexual orientation allows us to estimate how much of the variation in sexual orientation has a heritable component - estimates which from 14% to 76% depending on which study you look at.

Of course, we need to remember that not all identical twin sets share the same sexual orientation; some members of identical twin sets are gay while their twins are not. This means that even when we control for social and genetic factors, some further factor is influencing sexual orientation. We are again, at best, left with a trend, an estimate, a correlation.

All in the genes?

As previously mentioned, there are no ‘gay genes’, just as there are no ‘schizophrenia’ genes, no ‘alcholic genes’, no ‘violence’ genes. However, modern molecular studies combined with family and pedigree analysis allows us to try and narrow down which particular chomosomal locations, termed loci (singular locus), are associated with the occurrence, though not the cause, of homosexuality.

The most interesting discovery in this field was made in 1993 when a group of genetic researchers based at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland** reported on a familial and molecular study of 40 families of gay men. A certain point on the X chromosome, labelled Xq28 was found to be common to 33 pairs of gay brothers within these 40 families. It was the first definitive study which identified a possible genetic marker of homosexuality in males. No such marker was or has since been found in the familial studies of lesbians. Naturally the press had a field day, and the term ‘gay gene’ was born.

The identification of Xq28 in gay familial studies has been subsequently replicated with varying degrees of statistical significance. What needs to be considered is that, in these studies, not all gay men had Xq28 and not all males who possessed Xq28 were gay. More interestingly, there was a significant pattern of maternal male inheritance. That is, the study suggested that if you were gay, it was more probable that your mother’s brother was gay, rather than your father.

In fact, no paternally inherited chromosomal marker has been identified that is associated with homosexuality. Gay fathers do not statistically produce more gay children of either gender than heterosexual fathers. Similarly, lesbian mothers do not statistically produce more gay children of either gender than heterosexual mothers.

So where do we find ourselves at the end of all this, biologically? What do we think we know, what do we know we don’t?

1. Human sexual orientation is correlated with non-social biological factors. These include pre-natal developmental processes and genetic influences.

2. There is evidence that pre-natal testosterone levels play a role in the development of adult sexual orientation, but this differs both between gay males and lesbian females, and within gay male and lesbian female groups themselves.

3. There is evidence that the causative mechanisms of male and female homosexuality, and sexual orientation in general, are fundamentally disparate.

4. There is evidence that fraternal birth order is correlated with occurrence of homosexuality in males, but not in females.

5. There is a higher sharing of homosexuality between siblings than would be predicted by chance alone. Evidence therefore suggests that there is a familial component associated with homosexuality in both gay males and gay females.

6. Identical twins have a higher sharing of homosexuality than fraternal twins. Evidence therefore suggests that there is heritable component of human sexual orientation.

7. One maternally inherited chromosomal marker has been identified that is statisically but not causatively associated with the occurrence of male homosexuality in some individuals in some families.

8. There is no evidence to suggest that parent sexual orientation has any role in determining, or influencing their childen’s sexual orientation.

Finally, and most importantly: There are exceptions to every trend, link, association and relationship that has been identified. As a result, no line of evidence, alone or in conjunction with any other, or in conjunction with environmental factors, is sufficient as a causative model for human homosexuality in either males or females.

That, in a nutshell, is our understanding of the ‘biological’ basis of human sexual orientation. In essence we have nothing more than theories and hypotheses about some of the developmental mechanisms and genetic patterns that may be involved. We have no hard and fast rules, we have no easy answers. We just have a good idea.

We now face the question: Can we approach the social and ethical issues of homosexuality from a position informed by biology, by nature? If we can, how do we make sense of this sensational mess?

Next Week - Part III: Pink Sperm and Designer Babies

*Ellis L and R Blanchard. 2001. Birth order, sibling sex ratio, and maternal miscarriages in homosexual and heterosexual men and women. Personality and Individual Differences 30(4):543-552

**Hamer DH, Hu S, Magnuson VL, Hu N and AML Pattatucci. 1993. A Linkage Between DNA Markers on the X Chromosome and Male Sexual Orientation. Science 261(5119):321-227

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Biological Basis of Boys loving Boys: Part I

Part I of a three part article I've written for GayNZ on homosexuality and biology...

News that gay men can be sperm donors must be welcome to couples requiring assisted reproductive technology. However, evidence is accumulating that sexual orientation is the result of gene-environment interaction; sexual orientation has a heritable component.

Thus, using sperm from gay donors may have the potential of passing the gay gene(s) to the next generation. Patients requiring such service should be informed of such potential.

--Assoc. Prof. Frank Sin, The Press, 13 March 2006.

66 words, two paragraphs. It's hard to imagine that Sin's almost non-existent letter to the editor would have prompted the response that it did. Albeit brief, the ensuing attention in the news media, on talkback radio and its internet equivalent the blogs, seemed surreally disproportionate to what essentially was an innocuous letter...

Of course, the topic itself served merely as a catalyst to open up the ubiquitous can of worms (or indeed several cans) around not only the 'genetic' basis of homosexuality, but also the broader issues of personal liberties, rights to privacy, and the ominous spectre of 'designer babies' and neo-eugenics.

The issue is, naturally, an incredibly complex one. Like all issues that meet at the common vertex of science, ethics and the individual, it paradoxically becomes more complex, more troublesome, as our so-called 'knowledge' increases. As we gradually accumulate what we think we know, the boundaries become fuzzier, the grey areas become greyer, and our ability to make scientifically and ethically sound decisions becomes harder. It's not unique to the homosexuality debate; we see it in the euthanasia and abortion clashes that pop up like clockwork.

It is unfortunate that the public domain is not always well suited to complex debate. Instead of granting space for real discourse, a robust korero, everything is a soundbite, a simplistically absurd reduction of arguments, ideas and narratives to their most basic precepts. Suddenly everyone has an opinion, some more reasonable than others.

Sin didn't do himself any favours. Given he's an expert in genetics, I was surprised that he wrote the letter in the first place. Until of course one considers that Sin's field of expertise is human male infertility. Perhaps he could be forgiven for wanting to flag a warning about something that he perceived could undo the work to which he has devoted much of his research career. The response from Allan-John Marsh of the Wellington based Gay Association of Professionals (GAP) wasn't particularly helpful, or even correct either, implying that homosexuality was innate but neither inherited or heritable.

As could be expected, the mainstream media had a field day, frantically calling whoever they could to milk whatever controversy they could. Much huffing and puffing ensued, redneck opinions were aired, agendas were either pushed or defended, whichever 'side' of the debate you happened to be on. Somewhere in the middle of all this, the potential for the greater public to gain some understanding was lost.

So how then do we approach this topic? It appears that this issue has two distinct components: the biological basis of sexual orientation, and the ethical implications of 'choosing' a child's sexual orientation. Obviously the two are interrelated, but it is a good idea to work out what we think we know, and what we know we don't know about the first part, before trying to understand the basis for the second.

We need to be careful about this term ‘biological’. All too often it is confused with related but distinct terms like ‘genetic’, ‘innate’, or ‘inherited’, but the word biological also encompasses that which is ‘environmental’, ‘learned’ or ‘aquired’. Most, though not all, characteristics that make us human are a combination of many of these factors. When we enter the realm of behaviour, be it social or sexual, these interactions become even more complex and subtle. There are very few behaviours that are either genetic or environmental, innate or learned. Of those that are, it doesn't mean that one is more 'biological' than the other; at its very fundamental level, all behaviour is in some way biological, given that it involves the neurochemical processes of the brain - an essentially biological phenomenon.

A useful analogy is blinking and winking. Blinking is an entirely genetically, neurologically, innately controlled behaviour. It is universal across all human populations; we can all do it from birth without learning how to. Contrast this with winking, which is an entirely learned behaviour; there have been no studies which suggest that certain people have a predisposition to winking. We can often recall the period of our lives when we learned to do it. Winking isn't a human universal: not all cultures wink, and in the ones that do, it has different meanings, different contexts and different social responses. Both blinking and winking, however, are fundamentally biological. Although not innate, winking relies on our ability to learn, our behavioural flexibility, and our responses to environmental (social and cultural) stimuli, factors that do have strong biological, genetic and developmental bases.

Admittedly this is a simplistic analogy, and most behaviours are far more complex than blinking or winking. But it serves its purpose in our understanding of the fallacy of the false 'nature versus nurture' dichotomy which has seriously handicapped our ability to understand what it means to be human. As the author Matt Ridley points out, a more valid phrase would be 'nature via nurture', or possibly even 'nurture = nature'. Remember that in all of these discussions we do not assume any of these biological factors to be in some way immutable or deterministic (except perhaps blinking!). We can only talk, at most, about predispositions, about relative potentials to be inherited, about probabilities and trends. The very fact that there are individuals that break these trends, the fact that we can only work with statistical probabilities, means that these factors, social and non-social, are by their very nature not deterministic.

We must similarly exercise caution about what we mean by the terms 'sexual orientation', 'homosexuality', 'heterosexuality' and 'sexual identity'. The terms are very deeply embedded in our socialised classical Judaeo-Christian ideas and Victorian Protestant moral constructs, with a healthy dollop of modern pyschological, feminist and queer theories, not to mention theories of gender, thrown in for good measure. Everything that we 'learn' about sexual behaviour is constrained by the labels that we come up with, our classification system du jour. Our concepts of 'sexual orientation' are a product of current and historical cultural norms, which means that any 'answers' we gain are contingent on those norms. Our answers may not be very accurate, or even valid, but in this point in time it's the best we've got.

Given the variation we observe in sexual orientation, the hodge podge of behaviours, attractions and identities that we call human sexuality, we ask the question: are there any non-social biological factors that can be identified as playing a role in sexual orientation? The simple answer is yes: there are no 'gay genes', but there are factors, unrelated to social experience, that correlate with sexual orientation. Broadly these factors can be grouped into two categories: pre-natal developmental processes and genetic factors.

Raging hormones

There is substantial evidence that homosexuality is associated with 'atypical' pre-natal hormone levels, resulting in sex-atypical brain formation. We can hypothesise that foetal action of hormones (specifically testosterone) in laying down the brain structures which will play a role in sexual orientation is atypical in homosexuals. Specifically, lesbians are thought to be subjected to higher than average testosterone levels than straight women, while gay men experience lower levels than straight men.

Part of the evidence for this comes from the study of biological females, who through genetic mutation, express either massive or very little amounts of testosterone as foetuses (Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia and Adrenal Insensitivity Syndrome/CAH and AIS respectively). As adult women, CAH individuals show a greater level of attraction towards other women than the population average, despite having received 'corrective' hormonal treatment, being raised as gendered females, and identifying as gendered females. By contrast, AIS individuals show a much lower level of attraction towards other women average. This suggests that the action of sex hormones in the womb is related to adult sexual orientation.

The problems with this are of course numerous. The vast majority of lesbians and gay men of course do not have these specific or identifiable genetic conditions resulting in increased/decreased testosterone levels; a mechanism by which they would be subjected to atypically high or low hormone levels is then unclear. Further, the specific markers which we know are the result of higher or lower testosterone levels, such as brain differentiation patterns, differences in the size of certain brain structures etc, are not consistently correlated with homosexuality in males or females. Some do show trends that we would expect, others do not.

The patterns of sexual orientation differ between males and females: males show a bimodal distribution, with the vast majority identifying as either entirely gay or entirely straight. In women it's the opposite: most identify somewhere in between, although not necessarily in the middle. There are also differences within homosexual groups. Gay men who identify as having 'feminine' childhoods exhibit some different markers than those with more 'masculine' childhoods. But then, is childhood gender non-conformity even a valid characteristic of sexual orientation? Similarly, there are differences between 'butch' and 'femme' lesbians in some of the neurological, hormonal and body markers that indicate differences in pre-natal testosterone levels.

So are we dealing here not only with different mechanistic 'causes' of homosexuality between men and women, but also between different types of homosexual men and women – types we've conveniently thrown together for labelling purposes? And where the hell do bisexual men and women fit into the picture?

Next Week: Part II - What is it with gay men and their mothers?

Monday, March 27, 2006

Use your noggin, Sonic

What is it with developmental biologists?

Most biologists like to name the proteins that they identify in metabolic pathways by their function. For this reason, we have the sensibly named Epidermal Growth Factor, or the Glyceraldehyde-3-Phosphate dehydrogenase, or Phosphofructokinase. Sure, they look complicated, but if you know what the words mean, you can generally figure out what the protein does

Then you have the developmental biologists. These smart arses decided their goal in life wasn't the pursuit of higher knowledge, but rather the thwarting of confused university undergraduates.

There are actually proteins called Hedgehog, Noggin, Goosecoid, Nodal, Dickkopf (german for 'fathead' = stubborn) Sonic Hedgehog, Frazzled, Siamois, Cerberus, Bicoid, Hunchback, Smaug, Swallow, Engrailed and Fushi Taruzu.

Sure. The names are cute. But when you're hunched over a text book trying to remember what protein does what, they are totallly utterly useless.

Take this email 'clarification' from my lecturer to the class:

In lectures, I mentioned that the Siamois protein was expressed in the Niewkoop centre and from there it activates goosecoid in the organiser, which activates organiser-specific genes (Gilbert). Of course, it would be difficult for Siamois (a transcription factor) to directly activate goosecoid if it were not expressed in same cells. In fact, Moon and Kimelman, (1998) describe Siamois expression not only in vegetal cells on the dorsal side, but also in equatorial cells of the dorsal side - presumably the cells that are fated become the organiser.

You are as confused as I am. And I've been doing this for four years.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Winning the war on terror