Sex Metaphors, Ooo Yeah

Sex Metaphors, Ooo Yeah

I always thought of metaphors as literary devices, and also as very important things to be able to identify (according to every standardized test). Then I read Metaphors We Live By George Lakoff and it blew my mind. Turns out we all use hundreds of metaphors a day, without even trying. It goes deep, people.

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Metaphors are a powerful way of mapping a familiar situation onto an unfamiliar situation, and then presto – we just get it.

For example, I’ve been thinking about my “Got Consent?” shirt lately. Whenever I wear it, I mentally prepare myself for random people to ask me questions about consent… and then they almost never do. I’m sure there are a lot of reasons for that, but the one that sticks in my mind is that the word “consent” just doesn’t evoke much. Maybe people are pretty sure it’s about not raping people, but what else?

It actually represents a huge big deal. A total shift in thinking.

Old: No means No
New: Yes means Yes

The difference is VAST. And it can take a lot of words to explain fully.

But lucky us, we have metaphors to use as a shortcut! Here are two that I love:

Metaphor #1: Sex as a Cup of Tea

Recommended Use: When someone says “but it seems like a gray area”

This metaphor, created by rockstar dinosaur pirate princess in March, is so good. It gets even better the more it expands, so even though it’s kind of long, I’m just going to paste it here and let it speak for itself:

…just imagine instead of initiating sex, you’re making them a cup of tea.

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You say “hey, would you like a cup of tea?” and they go “omg fuck yes, I would fucking LOVE a cup of tea! Thank you!” then you know they want a cup of tea.

If you say “hey, would you like a cup of tea?” and they um and ahh and say, “I’m not really sure…” then you can make them a cup of tea or not, but be aware that they might not drink it, and if they don’t drink it then – this is the important bit –  don’t make them drink it. You can’t blame them for you going to the effort of making the tea on the off-chance they wanted it; you just have to deal with them not drinking it. Just because you made it doesn’t mean you are entitled to watch them drink it.

If they say “No thank you” then don’t make them tea. At all. Don’t make them tea, don’t make them drink tea, don’t get annoyed at them for not wanting tea. They just don’t want tea, ok?

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They might say “Yes please, that’s kind of you” and then when the tea arrives they actually don’t want the tea at all. Sure, that’s kind of annoying as you’ve gone to the effort of making the tea, but they remain under no obligation to drink the tea. They did want tea, now they don’t. Sometimes people change their mind in the time it takes to boil that kettle, brew the tea and add the milk. And it’s ok for people to change their mind, and you are still not entitled to watch them drink it even though you went to the trouble of making it.

If they are unconscious, don’t make them tea. Unconscious people don’t want tea and can’t answer the question “do you want tea” because they are unconscious.

Ok, maybe they were conscious when you asked them if they wanted tea, and they said yes, but in the time it took you to boil that kettle, brew the tea and add the milk they are now unconscious. You should just put the tea down, make sure the unconscious person is safe, and  – this is the important bit – don’t make them drink the tea. They said yes then, sure, but unconscious people don’t want tea.

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If someone said yes to tea, started drinking it, and then passed out before they’d finished it, don’t keep on pouring it down their throat. Take the tea away and make sure they are safe. Because unconscious people don’t want tea. Trust me on this.

If someone said “yes” to tea around your house last saturday, that doesn’t mean that they want you to make them tea all the time. They don’t want you to come around unexpectedly to their place and make them tea and force them to drink it going “BUT YOU WANTED TEA LAST WEEK”, or to wake up to find you pouring tea down their throat going “BUT YOU WANTED TEA LAST NIGHT”.

Do you think this is a stupid analogy? Yes, you all know this already  – of course you wouldn’t force feed someone tea because they said yes to a cup last week. Of COURSE you wouldn’t pour tea down the throat of an unconscious person because they said yes to tea 5 minutes ago when they were conscious. But if you can understand how completely ludicrous it is to force people to have tea when they don’t want tea, and you are able to understand when people don’t want tea, then how hard is it to understand when it comes to sex?

My favorite thing about this metaphor is that it puts sex into the same category as every other human interaction. Sex is not a magical, passion-ruled, anything-goes, gray-area thing. It’s a regular thing. Like tea.

Metaphor #2: Sex as a Jam Session

Recommended Use: Sex Ed 101

I read this really great book of essays edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti, called Yes Means Yes (additional proof that it is great: Margaret Cho wrote the foreword) and my favorite chapter was “Toward a Performance Model of Sex” by Thomas Macaulay Millar.

Millar explains that it’s totally normalized to talk about sex as a transaction:

                   She “gives it up”

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                   He “gets some”

Super familiar, right? Millar goes on to say:

“sex is like a ticket;  women have it, and men try to get it. Women may give it away, or trade it for something valuable, but either way it’s a transaction”

Heteronormative? Check. Phallocentric? Check.

Rape apologists adopt this “commodity model” language frequently when trying to cast doubt on rape by calling it “buyer’s remorse” (also known as “regretful sex”).

Think about how the tea model says “if someone said they wanted tea, and then they changed their mind, don’t give them tea.” The transactional model *really* frowns on this kind of “dealbreaking” after a transaction has been initiated.

But what if we talked about sex as a performance?

Miller uses the metaphor of a “jam session.” Pretty similar to the tea metaphor – if the other person doesn’t want to sing or play an instrument, then the jam session isn’t gonna happen. And a jam session is creative, it’s collaborative, pretty exciting all the way around.

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If Janelle or Badoula just stopped singing, the show would be over.

Here’s my favorite way that the performance model smashes the commodity model. The commodity model assumes that when a woman has sex, she loses something of value. So if she has too much sex, she basically becomes worthless. Here’s how the performance model contradicts that:

“a musician’s first halting notes at age 13 in the basement are not something of particular value. She gets better by learning, by playing a lot, by playing with different people who are better than she is. She reaches the height of her powers in the prime of her life, as an experienced musician, confident in her style and conversant in her material.”

YEAH!

It’s time to smash the commodity model, don’t you think?
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I definitely recommend getting the book and reading the full chapter, because it is so much more complicated and interesting than what I’m able to get into here.

Questions? Comments? Amazing metaphors to share? Feel free to comment or drop me a line!

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How the Criminal Justice System is Like Riding a Bike

How the Criminal Justice System is Like Riding a Bike

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Now that policing strategies are squarely in the public eye, criminal justice system reform advocates are encouraging the public to take a step further and see the problems with policing as part of a larger, broken system. This is an area where reframing is going to be key.

What does a bike have to do with it? Charles J. Ogletree Jr. and David J. Harris of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School published an opinion piece in The Boston Globe last month that lays out a new metaphor for thinking about the system:

This system is not only wasteful and deeply harmful, it is also woefully outdated. It is as if we have been riding on an old bike with balloon tires and one speed even though we have far more sophisticated vehicles at our disposal. Imagine a public safety vehicle as a 21-speed bike, with enough flexibility to traverse any terrain.”

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Ogletree and Harris didn’t pick the idea of a bike out of thin air as a creative way to illustrate their point. On the contrary, they were involved in the strategic construction of this metaphor for three years. Formally known as the “Justice Gears” metaphor, it is the product of intensive research by the Frameworks Institute in partnership with the Hamilton Institute, to determine where the gaps in understanding fall between experts’ understanding of the criminal justice system and the general public’s understanding.

Here’s the Justice Gears metaphor in its entirety:

“Right now our justice system is stuck using only one gear – the prison gear. Think about how a bicycle needs to use different gears for different situations to work effectively and efficiently. The criminal justice system is trying to deal with a wide variety of situations using only the prison gear. We need to have other justice gears for people who come into the system, like mental health or juvenile justice services. We need to change the criminal justice system to make sure it has different gears for different purposes and that it can use the right gear in the right situation. If we do use more justice gears, we can improve outcomes and all get where we need to go.”

The point of this new metaphor is to put a concrete go-to picture in people’s heads when they think about the criminal justice system. Currently, most Americans’ automatic thinking around the subject involves a combination of the following:

  • We jump to public safety, thinking about it mostly in terms of front-line responders: police, firefighters, security personnel. We readily acknowledge that some of these individuals are corrupt or lazy.
  • We think crime is caused by individuals who weigh costs/benefits (rational actors), or by “rotten egg” personalities. To a lesser degree, we think of crime as a result of ecological determinants.
  • We trust that the system is “generally” functioning as it should. We don’t usually think critically about whether the system is working to advance society’s goals, or whether it serves the broad public interest.

The Framework Institute’s report gets into much greater nuance, but a central point is that the general population recognizes that there are problems in the system, but tends to attribute them to isolated individuals. Experts, on the other hand, attribute the problems to structural issues within the system.

It is important to note that African-American and Latino groups in the research study, while still demonstrating a predominant focus on the individual, came closest to the expert view on systemic issues around racial inequities within the system, a finding which comes as no surprise.

Here’s why it’s problematic to have a mental model like our current one, that doesn’t take into account systemic issues: because the model in your head naturally determines the solutions you see. If you think rational actors are choosing to commit crimes, the solution you might see is harsher punishments. If you think bad cops are responsible for police brutality, the solution you might see is stricter policies to establish surveillance around and root out those individuals. Same goes for corrupt prosecutors, crooked wardens, etc. If your mental model is focused on individual “agents”, the solutions you see will be tailored towards those agents.

If you instead see the problem in terms of structural issues, like police quotas, overwhelming caseloads, mandatory sentencing, etc., the potential solutions you see will be very different. The “Justice Gears” metaphor is one element of the reframing process that helps us reorient our dominant cognitive model towards something that positions us to consider a different set of solutions. According to the Frameworks Institute, the two other critical elements for reframing are the values and facts that most effectively reinforce the new narrative around the issue.

They tested the effectiveness of these facts:

  • Neutral – describing the impact of the criminal justice system on all adult Americans.
  • International – comparing stats on the US criminal justice system with other countries.
  • Racial Disparities – comparing effects of the system on African Americans/whites.

And these values:

  • Pragmatism emphasizing taking a “common sense” approach to public safety and criminal justice.
  • Fairness – emphasizing equal treatment.
  • Cost Efficiency – emphasizing fiscal responsibility.

The winning combination was the value of Pragmatism plus facts about Racial Disparities. Here’s an example of what messaging aligned with this value/fact combination can look like:

“Managing the criminal justice system more responsibly can address some important problems currently facing our country. For example, we know that communities with high unemployment, underachieving schools and a lack of other resources have high rates of crime. This problem particularly hurts children and young adults who may end up in the system. If we take a commonsense approach to solving our communities’ problems, we can decrease crime and enhance public safety. Specifically, we need to identify practical things we can do to address these and other issues. On the other hand, if we spend resources sending more people to prison instead of using proven alternatives, these problems will remain. A responsible approach to criminal justice will make our country safer and help all Americans. The system we have is not doing this. In 2010, seven out of every 1,000 white men in the United States were in prison. By contrast, 43 out of every 1,000 African American men in the United States were in prison. Clearly, the system is not working, and is taking a toll on our society as a whole and on communities of color in particular. We need to address the places in the system where it is not working to advance the goals of our society.”

The idea is that advocates will be able to start using this messaging as a way to start familiarizing the general public with this new framework.

As you might imagine with such a huge issue, the Frameworks Institute isn’t the only organization working on reframing. The Berkeley Media Studies Group released a report in 2009 around reframing violence among youth that touches on similar points, and also gets into some really interesting research around how to counter the distortions in news coverage of crime that conflate race and violence.

Have you seen any other research out there around reframing or other communications strategies? What do you think about the Framework Institute’s proposed framework? I would love to learn more about other perspectives or ideas. Drop me a line!