Wednesday, August 31, 2016

"The Science Isn't Settled", While True, is a Very Shady Thing to Say

Stock photo of two scientists. Image source.
So here's a very misleading post on ADF's website: New Report Shows that Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Claims Not Supported by Scientific Evidence. ADF (the Alliance Defending Freedom) is a Christian legal group that fights against LGBT rights and spreads lies that demonize LGBT people, you know, like Jesus would do. (They also advocate for other conservative Christian political positions, like "religious freedom" and "the sanctity of life.")

The post at that link is about a scientific study which, supposedly, tells us that claims made by LGBT advocates "are not actually supported by scientific evidence." Then there's a video introducing this new scientific report, where one of the authors says, "Science is never settled", which raises a huge red flag for me.

See, this is how Christian apologetics works. You take that openness to questioning and doubting- a necessary part of the scientific method- and use it to claim that, hey, maybe those mainstream scientists are wrong about EVERYTHING and we're right instead. ADF's audience is going to read "the science isn't settled" and think it means "hey, it's totally possible we can 'cure' gay people by praying for them enough! and being transgender isn't a real thing! and all the other ignorant claims we made in our efforts to deny LGBT people equal rights have a good chance of being true!"

I read the report. It says no such thing. Let me tell you what it really says.

Here's the link to the report. It's published in The New Atlantis, which, according to Wikipedia, is "a quarterly journal about the social, ethical, political, and policy dimensions of modern science and technology" published by "the social conservative advocacy group the Ethics and Public Policy Center." Okay, so it's got a conservative slant to it, but I read the report and I think it's very good. It summarizes a lot of studies about LGBT people, focusing on what exactly has been shown scientifically and what hasn't. It talks about areas where further research is needed, and flaws that some of the studies had.

And no, it does not say anything like what ADF's audience will think when they hear "the science is not settled." Let's take a look.

Part One is about sexual orientation. First the report talks about how the concept of sexual orientation is very difficult to define in a scientific sense. For science, you need a very very clear definition so you know exactly what you're talking about. Some studies on LGB people define sexual orientation in terms of people's attractions and fantasies. Some define it in terms of behavior- have you had any same-sex sexual partners in the past year? Some define it by self-identification- participants say whether they identify as gay, bisexual, heterosexual with occasional same-sex attractions, etc. When you compare the results of different studies, you have to make sure you know what definitions they were using.

Yes, I totally agree. Sexual orientation is difficult to define. When you listen to people telling the story of "how I figured out I was bisexual", for example, you'll find that each story is unique, and people often take a long time to figure out what label fits. There's no objective set of criteria everybody can easily measure themselves against. Terms like "gay", "bisexual", etc do have meanings, but in a scientific sense it's impossible to define them in a clear enough way that you can say exactly who is in and who is out.

I found this part in particular very interesting:
We can imagine, for example, a sixteen-year-old boy who becomes infatuated with a young man in his twenties, developing fantasies centered around the other’s body and build, or perhaps on some of his character traits or strengths. Perhaps one night at a party the two engage in physical intimacy, catalyzed by alcohol and by the general mood of the party. This young man then begins an anguished process of introspection and self-exploration aimed at finding the answer to the enigmatic question, “Does this mean I’m gay?”

Current research from the biological, psychological, and social sciences suggests that this question, at least as it is framed, makes little sense. As far as science can tell us, there is nothing “there” for this young man to discover — no fact of nature to uncover or to find buried within himself. What his fantasies, or his one-time liaison, “really mean” is subject to any number of interpretations: that he finds the male figure beautiful, that he was lonely and feeling rejected the night of the party and responded to his peer’s attentions and affections, that he was intoxicated and influenced by the loud music and strobe lights, that he does have a deep-seated sexual or romantic attraction to other men, and so on.
Asking the question "Does this mean I'm gay?" assumes that one's sexual orientation is an objective reality inside them that they must discover. I don't necessarily think that's true (and the writers of that report also question that assumption). The words we use- "gay", "bisexual", "asexual", etc- are an attempt to conceptualize the complex spectrum of sexuality in a way that we can easily classify and discuss. These words are the ones that our culture finds most useful at the present time, but they're not the only way to describe sexuality. When Matthew Vines talks about Romans 1, he says, "In the ancient world, homosexuality was widely considered, not to be a different sexual orientation or something inherent in a small minority of people, but to be an excess of lust or passion that anyone could be prone to if they let themselves go too much." Today, we see sexual orientation as a key part of a person's identity, but it's possible to use a different framework that sees it in a different way, and neither is necessarily right or wrong.

BUT the important thing is, in modern US culture right now, sexual orientation is seen as a key part of a person's identity. That's the way it is in our culture, and it doesn't help anything when Christian groups like ADF come along and try to explain to LGB people why it's wrong to identify that way. This is who we are, this is the culture we live in, you can't change that. And in the context of this culture, it is literally violent to tell LGB people that it's wrong for them to see sexual orientation as part of their identity.

Here's my opinion on the definitions and labels: When you're trying to determine your own sexual orientation, it's helpful to think of it as an objective reality inside you that you can discover, or perhaps as a search for which label feels the best. In this situation, clear definitions like "gay means you are attracted exclusively to the same gender" are essential. But when it's somebody else's sexuality, you just have to accept the label they've chosen for themselves. In other words, "gay means a person who says they are gay"- though you might think they don't fit the objective "dictionary definition." It's their life, they've thought about it way more than you have.

The weakness of my point of view is you can imagine a hypothetical situation where somebody says "I'm a woman, I've only ever been attracted to men, I've only dated men, I only want to date men, I've never been attracted to women. And I'm gay." And then you're like, no, this person is not gay. But are you allowed to say someone is wrong about their own sexual orientation? If you say this person is wrong, then that means some policing of labels is okay- but where do you draw the line? Personally, I would say the chances of this hypothetical occurring are small enough that I'm willing to let such a person claim whatever label they want. Appointing ourselves as judges of others' labels is too tricky and morally questionable. (Readers, what do you think?)

But yeah, definitely not clear enough for scientific research purposes. Totally agree with the writers there. Even if we define "gay" as "people who claim they are gay" (a very clear-cut definition), people's understanding of terms like "gay" varies across cultures and time periods. It would be impossible to compare the results of different studies, or look for trends over time. You'd be unable to account for the variable of "in what circumstances do people choose to identify as gay?"

For science, the definitions aren't clear enough. But in terms of culture and social interactions, these words do have certain meanings and they are very important and useful.

The next part of the report talks about problems with the "born this way" theory. They cite a bunch of studies of identical twins where one or both was gay, bisexual, etc. This is pretty interesting stuff which, yes, we should definitely be researching. Their conclusion is that there is some evidence for a genetic cause behind same-sex attraction, but it can't account for everything, and there are other factors too. For example, there is correlation between child sexual abuse and identifying as LGB.

First of all, I'll say I'm not a fan of the whole "born this way" thing. The idea behind arguing that gay people are "born this way" seems to be "obviously being straight is better than being gay, but you have to let us be gay because we didn't have a choice, we were born this way, there's nothing we can do about it." This sort of argument can be helpful for conservative Christians who are just starting down the path to LGB acceptance- I mean real acceptance, not "hate the sin, love the sinner"- but it is absolutely not okay to stay there.

In my opinon, pro-gay advocates who insist on "born this way" are missing the point. When we talk about rights and equality and society-wide policies, it doesn't matter how people "become" gay or the reasons they want to pursue same-sex relationships. They should have the right to do that. "Born this way" and "it's not a choice" ideology is particularly bad for bisexual people. Bisexual people are able to experience attraction to people of an opposite gender; they do have a choice about which gender to pursue relationships with. Does that mean that, since it's possible for them to choose an opposite-gender partner, they have to? Are people only allowed to be in same-sex relationships if it's completely impossible for them to be attracted to an opposite gender? Only if "they don't have a choice"?

(Okay, I'm aware that I'm sort of conflating sexual orientation with behavior here. Sexual orientation is not a choice, behavior is. Still, I really don't think "it's not a choice, I was born this way" is a hill worth dying on, because it implies that if you did have a choice, it wouldn't be okay to choose certain orientations; they are inferior or morally questionable. Which is a belief rooted in LGB-hate.)

All right, back to that report from The New Atlantis. So it talks about studies with twins and studies about prenatal hormones (which test the "born this way" theory), and says there is evidence that sexual orientation is influenced by genes and prenatal hormones, but that can't account for all of it. Science doesn't support the idea that sexual orientation is already determined at birth.

Then there's the part about childhood abuse. There is a correlation between abuse and identifying as LGB (several studies are cited that show this correlation). The writers tell us there are (at least) 3 possible explanations for this correlation:
1. Abuse might contribute to the development of non-heterosexual orientation.

2. Children with (signs of future) non-heterosexual tendencies might attract abusers, placing them at elevated risk.

3. Certain factors might contribute to both childhood sexual abuse and non-heterosexual tendencies (for instance, a dysfunctional family or an alcoholic parent).
All right, as an ex-evangelical, I'm very very suspicious of arguments linking LGB identity to past trauma. But we have to talk about it- getting more facts can help us better understand and support LGB people. But we have to separate out the politics from the scientific facts.

Here's the problem. In their attempts to argue that same-sex attraction is a problem that can be cured with prayer and therapy, evangelicals really like the theory that says people become gay because they were sexually abused or didn't receive the correct amount of affection from their mother or father. This is how we get reparative therapy- which is abusive and doesn't work. This is how we get good parents blaming themselves for ruining their kid by not loving them the correct amount. And really, when Christians make the argument that non-heterosexual orientations are the result of abuse, what they're really saying is "see, it's a problem that should be fixed- not a normal part of someone's identity, not a minority demographic that deserves full equal rights." It's not an attempt to actually understand LGB people better, to learn what their needs are and how best to help them- no, it's an excuse to argue against their rights.

And when you have this kind of situation, where people are debating about reparative therapy and whether gay people can become straight, it's easy to see why the pro-gay side would latch on to "born this way, can't change it, it's not a choice" and the anti-gay side would take "it's caused by abuse, it's not normal or healthy, they need therapy to cure them." But let's try to get away from that. Let's first establish that it's NOT OKAY to tell someone that their sexual orientation- their identity- is wrong and they need to change. That is abusive and violent, and it's not possible to force someone to change, or for people to change their own attractions by "praying hard" or whatever other method you try.

If we start with "your sexual orientation is valid and no one's going to force you to change", then we can honestly research the causes without fearing the political implications that may result. Like I said, in terms of the law and equal rights, it doesn't matter why people are gay or bi or whatever orientation. They all deserve 100% equal rights. No question about that. Maybe it is true that childhood abuse can be a factor that sometimes contributes to developing a non-heterosexual orientation. We don't have to be afraid of that truth. (And keep in mind, even if there is a correlation, it's definitely NOT true that all LGB people experienced abuse. In the studies cited, the percentages are all over the place, but most of them reported that under 50% of LGB people experienced abuse. Still higher than the rate among heterosexuals, but nothing like the idea, common in reparative therapy, that there MUST HAVE BEEN some traumatic event that CAUSED someone to become LGB.)

Next, Part Two of the report. It's about health issues for LGBT people. They are at a much much higher risk for depression, anxiety, suicide, and related mental health issues (with trans people at an even higher risk than LGB people). There are even some studies that showed a higher risk of drug abuse, physical health problems, and intimate partner violence for LGBT people. The writers of the report say it's very very important to understand the causes of these problems because they're really serious. Especially the research on suicide.

The report says the most commonly accepted explanation is the "social stress model." "This model posits that discrimination, stigmatization, and other similar stresses contribute to poor mental health outcomes among sexual minorities. An implication of the social stress model is that reducing these stresses would ameliorate the mental health problems experienced by sexual minorities." They talk about studies on hate crimes, discrimination in the workplace which results in lower salaries for gay men (though non-heterosexual women have higher average salaries than heterosexual women, maybe because they are less likely to interrupt their careers to have children?), and the stress that comes from hiding an aspect of one's identity.

There are studies that show stress, anxiety, trauma, and other mental health effects of these problems. But the question is, is there evidence that societal prejudice is the main reason for poor mental health in the LGBT community? In my opinion, it's impossible to test this. You would need some kind of control group which consisted of LGBT people who lived in a society with absolutely no anti-LGBT discrimination or stigma. Ha. Yeah, that society doesn't exist.

But the report did mention a few studies on LGBT people in states that passed laws banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and laws that defined marriage as one-man-one-woman. There was some correlation between LGBT mental health and the passing of such laws- but it was only a few studies, and one used convenience sampling which probably biased the results by selecting LGBT people who had strong feelings about politics. Not enough evidence yet to really say that "social stress" is the main reason for mental health problems. (And in my opinion, passing laws is important, but there are other factors that have a far bigger effect. Experiencing rejection from family/friends/random strangers is much more likely to cause trauma/stress/depression than abstract laws which may or may not actually affect your life.)

In other words, there haven't been any scientific studies that show societal stigma and discrimination account for most of the mental health risks that LGBT people face. (As I said, I don't see how you really could create a study to show that.) I think it's probably true though. (Anecdotally, you can find a lot of stories from LGBT people about how their lives got so much better when they found people who truly accepted them.) I also think the writers' own biases come out in the way they keep emphasizing how there's not enough research to make a good case for the social stress model. Everything they say is true, but to a conservative Christian audience, the implications are very shady. It's too easy to take their statements and spin them as "science hasn't proven the social stress model, but our evil, godless society keeps talking like it has, don't believe them and their claims about how we need to be more accepting and have equal rights. Probably we should do what anti-LGBT politicians say instead."

Then Part Three is about gender identity. First, definitions. Biological sex is clearly defined by what type of reproductive organs you have (except in the case of intersex people- we'll talk about them in a minute). But what is gender? It's much more difficult to define. The report describes several cases where a certain gender identity was forced on a child. First, David Reimer, who was biologically male but raised as a girl after a botched circumcision. Yeah, gender doesn't work that way- "he self-identified as a boy, and eventually, at the age of 14, his psychiatrist recommended to his parents that they tell him the truth. David then began the difficult process of reversing the hormonal and surgical interventions that had been performed to feminize his body. But he continued to be tormented by his childhood ordeal, and took his own life in 2004, at the age of 38." They also mention intersex children and children with deformed genitals being assigned male or female (usually female), and how sometimes the child identifies as a different gender than what was assigned. In other words, gender is something internal- you can't just take a biological male and tell them they're a girl and expect everything to go just fine. Gender identity isn't something that can be completely controlled by socialization and environment.

Next, they talk about gender dysphoria. "According to the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), gender dysphoria is marked by 'incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender,' as well as 'clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.'" They say there are still many questions about dysphoria that require researching. I agree, let's research them.

Sometimes being transgender is described as "a boy mind in a girl body" but studies of the brains of trans people haven't really shown that that's the case. Some studies have found similarities between trans people's brain structure and the brains of cis people of the gender they identify with, but the report tells us that most of these studies were too small, or that it's not clear if the brain structure caused the gender identity or vice versa, or the correlation isn't strong enough to actual make useful predictions.

In other words, gender identity is hard to define in a scientific sense, and there is no biological indicator that's been found that can tell us if a person is transgender or not. We don't know what causes it. (But I'm sure some very shady Christians will spin this and pretend it means there's no evidence that trans people exist, or something ridiculous like that.)

Next they talk about treatment for people who identify as transgender. They discuss studies that looked at children and at adults. Some have shown there is improvement in quality of life after transitioning. Several studies compared trans people who had gone through sex reassignment surgery to a control group of cis people, and found that the trans subjects had a lower quality of life and more mental health problems- including a scary high risk of suicide. The weakness of these studies is that they didn't have a control group of trans people who wanted surgery but didn't get it. (Ideally, as far as science is concerned, you would assign surgery randomly among your trans test subjects.) So based on the results, it's impossible to say whether they would have been better off with or without the surgery. The studies weren't designed to measure that.

Their conclusion is that not enough studies have been done to show that transitioning is a good way to treat gender dysphoria. Again, I think that, while it might be technically true, this is a very shady thing to say. You have conservative Christians who, no matter what the evidence says, no matter how many people are hurt by their bigoted theology, will insist that "the bible says" trans people don't exist [note: the bible doesn't say that]. They're so sure that transitioning is always a bad idea that goes against "God's design" or some crap like that. They would be happy to read this report and declare "see? the science isn't settled! this means we're totally right to fight against trans people's rights and spread dehumanizing lies about them!" (To be clear: the report says gender dysphoria definitely does exist. The question is whether there is enough scientific research on how best to treat it.)

(Zinnia Jones, a trans woman, has talked about scientific studies that show transitioning improves trans people's lives. Yeah go read her post, she knows way more than I do about this.)

I agree that we need information on gender identity and how to know if transition is a good idea. For children who identify as a gender opposite their assigned sex, is it typically a "phase" they "grow out of"? Is it helpful for them to take medications that delay puberty? How often do people regret their decision after they transition? BUT. THE MOST IMPORTANT THING is we have to ask these questions from a position of "we need to give people good information so they can make the choice that's right for them." NOT "God says that being trans is a sin, let's try to find evidence that it's bad so we can convince people not to transition."

In the conclusion to their report, the writers say it's "especially troubling" when children are advised to transition. Is it true that doctors and scientists are advising this so recklessly? To me, it feels like an example of the writers' bias coming through. I really hope no one's being pressured into identifying as transgender. At the same time, no one should think that it's "erring on the side of caution" to not let children transition until they reach adulthood. Going through puberty for the wrong gender is horrible, from what I hear.

This report cited a ton of studies and made good points about how sexual orientation is very hard to define in a scientific sense, and how the "born this way" theory can't fully account for sexual orientation or gender identity. They also talk about the alarming rate of mental health problems among LGBT people, and about how the causes need to be better understood in order to help them, but their claim that there's not enough evidence for the social stress model can very easily be used as a weapon by people who definitely do NOT want to help LGBT people. They also had insightful things to say about how gender identity is hard to define yet it definitely is a real thing separate from biological sex, but again, it is way too easy for their conservative Christian audience to use this report to claim transition doesn't work and being trans isn't even a real thing. The report itself says no such thing, but I am very alarmed at the way ADF summarized it by saying "the science isn't settled" and that claims about sexual orientation and gender identity "are not actually supported by scientific evidence."

Oh, come on. Nothing in this report suggests that the work ADF does fighting against LGBT equality is in any way helpful. There are questions that science does not have answers to, but we know enough to say "oppose LGBT rights" is definitely not the answer.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

I Am Not One Bit Surprised By the Claim "Sex Is Like a Microwave"

A microwave oven. Image source.
Over at Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta shows us a page from a teen study bible which addresses the question, "If God made sex for people to enjoy, why do some people get AIDS and other STDs?" The following answer is given:
Did you ever get a present and have to read the instructions before you used it? When microwaves were first available, a woman used one to warm her cat. It did warm the pet, but it cooked its organs and killed the cat. The oven was wonderful, but its owner didn’t read the instructions on how to use it and how not to use it. Does that mean microwave ovens are too dangerous or that you shouldn’t use them? No, but you need to follow the instructions in order to enjoy them without getting hurt.

The urge to have sex can be very powerful as well as very dangerous. You need to know and follow God's instructions for this wonderful gift. God knew marriage would be a difficult, lifelong commitment. So he gave husbands and wives a special gift, a way to bond together. Sex in marriage helps a man and woman stay close in body and soul.

When people who aren’t married to each other have sex, it’s sort of like putting a pet in a microwave. Someone could be burned, damaged, or killed (Proverbs 6:26-28). Having sex before marriage can bring an unwanted pregnancy or STDs (sexually transmitted diseases), many of which have no cure, some of which are fatal. And did you know promiscuous sex is also linked with serious depression? Why take the chance? It is much better to follow God's instructions and enjoy this precious gift only after you are married, just as God intended.
Apparently, Mehta posted this because, to him and his readers, this analogy is shocking and laughably ridiculous. He only adds a few sentences of his own because the absurdity of that study bible's "answer" speaks for itself.


Yeah... to me, it sounds completely normal. I grew up in purity culture. I always knew that having sex outside of marriage was bad and dangerous. Analogies like this were given to show us just how dangerous it was. "Sex is like a microwave" does not sound one bit weird to me. I don't believe that anymore. I now believe there's nothing intrinsically bad or sinful about premarital sex. But my response to reading it is not "hey guys look at what this study bible said, can you believe how ridiculous it is?" but more like "yes, I used to believe this, and let me go through and break it all down logically and explain in detail what's wrong with it, because for people raised in that culture, there's nothing self-evidently wrong about this at all."

I've never heard an analogy about microwaves, but there were other analogies given to make the point "sex is a very very powerful tool, and if you use it in the right way it's awesome, but if you use it the wrong way it's INCREDIBLY DANGEROUS. Oh and by 'right way' we mean marriage. Yep. That piece of paper suddenly makes everything okay." (Generally this sort of argument is used when Christians realize they've gone too far in making sex sound dirty and bad, and that causes problems when people get married and are "allowed to" have sex but still feel dirty and bad. So now Christians want to emphasize that sex is good, but only when it's done in the "right way".) I heard that sex was like a really really nice racecar that you can only drive on a special track. Cars like that, you can't take them out on normal roads. And you can't just let any random guy test-drive it. Or, sex is like a Christmas present. It's a wonderful, valuable thing, but you can't open it yet. Or, you received a huge amount of money at birth, and sex is like giving ALL OF IT to one person. Don't do that til you're married- what if they run off and you end up with no money left?

So the microwave thing sounds totally normal to me. Yes, of course people are saying things like that in order to convince teenagers to "stay pure." I'm surprised that anyone is surprised.

I believed that I had something incredibly powerful, and that using it would feel good but would destroy my life. I was taught that there would be temptation- that most people do end up having sex outside of marriage, because the temptation is so strong- so I would have to fight. I feared that temptation. I feared my own desires. If I ever had a thought like "ooh it would be cool to have sex with that guy", I did my best to squash it down and "take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ." I was so afraid. Because it's all a slippery slope, you know. First it's one tiny thought, and the next thing you know, you're out of control, the temptation got too strong, you've had sex and lost all your purity and ruined EVERYTHING.

I also believed that God was very very concerned with what I did with my genitals. It was very important to the Creator of the universe that I have no sexual experience whatsoever until marriage. When I "struggled with lust", I reminded myself about how much I would hurt God if I "gave in" and sinned. (Note: "gave in" here means letting myself daydream rather than stomping down any and all sex-related desires.)

It was hard, though, putting in so much effort to force myself not to think about attractive boys. And when you do that much work, you have to tell yourself there's a good reason that makes it all worth it. So I piled up more and more fear, told myself there were so many scary unknown consequences and the drop off the slippery slope would be steeper than I could imagine. Told myself over and over how bad it would be to sin against God, how completely hurt God would be, how much of a betrayal it would be to Jesus.

This is what happens when you believe sex is like a microwave. It's so powerful, and you fear it. Furthermore, you're not even allowed any real information, only some vague euphemisms and medical-sounding definitions. No looking at a naked picture, no explicit descriptions, no porn, no masturbating, no looking too closely at your own body. Sex is a big scary, unimaginable thing, and you must make sure you don't ever get near anything marginally related, because who knows what could happen?

(And I won't even get into how this writer's understanding of sex and marriage isn't supported by the bible. People in the bible had a very different concept of marriage than we do now- women didn't have rights so they really needed a husband, polygamy was seen as totally fine, virginity was about making sure your property [ie wife] hadn't been damaged, not about an intimate and romantic connection between two individuals equal in status. The writer takes the Lord's name in vain by claiming that their view of sex is what "God intended.")

At the end of his blog post, Mehta says this about the study bible's advice: "And it doesn’t even answer the question! If you want to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, use some goddamn protection." I'm a little bit confused- what did he mean by "And it doesn't even answer the question"? Nowhere in this excerpt from the study bible was there any question about how to prevent STDs. Did Mehta totally miss the point [which is understandable, it's a pretty weird Christian subculture], or is he trying to say that, instead of that nonsense about microwaves, they should have talked about how to prevent STDs? [ie they should have answered a different question from the one that was asked]

From my point of a view as an ex-purity-culture girl, this crap about microwaves totally did offer an answer to the submitted question. (An answer I now disagree with, obviously, but it did give an answer.) The question was "If God made sex for people to enjoy, why do some people get AIDS and other STDs?" It's purely theoretical. It's about the apparent logical conflict between the risk of STDs and the belief that God made sex to be a good thing. I would never ever expect to find practical advice on preventing STDs in an answer to this question. (Or rather, if there's "practical advice", it's abstinence and nothing else.) And yes, they did answer the question of the apparent conflict between sex being goood and STDs existing- the answer is sex is good in marriage but horribly dangerous outside of marriage. I don't agree with that, but it answers the question.

Of course there are Christians trying to tell you sex is a good and powerful thing that can be dangerous if used incorrectly. (Much like a microwave.) Of course. That's what I was taught, that's what I used to believe, and I lived with the fear of my own thoughts and my own body. It's awful. It's a terrible thing to teach kids. But I'm not one bit shocked.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Boundaries in Dating: Blame

A scene from "A Bug's Life." After Flik shows off his new invention, 3 other ants stare at him with disapproval. Image source.
Chapter 14 of Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships is about blame in a relationship. First the writers say that blame is not always bad:
Blame is not bad in and of itself. It has a good function. Blame separates out who is truly responsible for what in a problem, so that we are able to know how to solve it. ...

However, the blame that kills a good dating relationship is when one person sees herself as blameless and attributes almost all of the problems in the relationship to the other person. This sort of blame is not driven by a desire to ferret out reality in order to come to the truth about a matter. It comes from a much darker place in our hearts. This type of blame is based on a denial of our badness. When we cannot tolerate the reality of our mistakes, or that others might see that reality, we point the finger elsewhere. Blame is one of the gravest problems we face, spiritually and emotionally. It keeps us more concerned about being "good" than about being honest.
Okay, so there's our definition for "blame." In other words, blame is a problem when one partner believes that all the relationship problems are the other partner's fault, and they're unwilling to look at the situation realistically or acknowledge their own problems.

I'd like y'all to take a look at this bit:
Watch children grow in their blaming skills. It is so natural. When they are in trouble, they constantly scan the horizon, seeking someone to blame for their difficulties.
Wow, that line sounds like something that could come straight out of a Michael Pearl book. (Michael Pearl is a Christian leader who is best known for his book "To Train Up a Child" which teaches you God's way to beat your children.) But the writers of "Boundaries in Dating" (Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend) mean this in a COMPLETLEY DIFFERENT WAY than Pearl and all the evangelicals/fundamentalists who talk about children and original sin. Let me give a translation:

Boundaries in Dating: "Blaming is a very natural thing for humans to do- even children do it. Therefore it is TOTALLY UNDERSTANDABLE that the problem of blame would arise in a dating relationship. Don't worry! Here is our advice about how to solve the problem."

Pearl: "Look at the way children blame others for their problems. Wow, so sinful from such a young age. This is proof that the human heart is thoroughly evil. Yeah, totally evil, totally beyond hope, better follow our rules because if you don't, you'll definitely make bad choices and ruin EVERYTHING."

Anyway, I'm totally happy that "Boundaries in Dating" means it in a reasonable and healthy way. Just wanted to show you this because it's interesting how the exact same words can mean different things in different ideologies- both of which are Christian.

All right, back to "Boundaries in Dating." When blame is a problem in a relationship, it is hard for the two partners to open up to each other and be vulnerable, because they worry that their partner will use their weaknesses, mistakes, and sins against them. Or that their partner will keep bringing up things they did wrong in the past, as if the guilty partner will always be defined by that past sin and can never be good enough. Yes, that's a problem. Don't do that.

And then there's this really interesting passage about truth and love:
How does blame operate inside the one receiving it? Basically, it is experienced as truth without love, and that always feels like judgment or condemnation. All of us need to hear the truth about our selfishnss, sin or immaturity. For example, the first few times that Morgan told Travis that his undependability hurt and bothered her, she was helping him grow.

However, we cannot ingest truth from someone unless we know we are loved. It is too painful. We feel hated or simply that we are bad people. In fact, even when loving people tell us truth it still hurts. A friend of mine (Dr. Townsend's) recently underwent surgery. He had told me about it because he wanted my support. Afterward, he told me, "It hurt me that you didn't call me about how the surgery went." He is a long-term and close friend. He told me this in a straightforward but loving way. And I still felt really bad, in two ways. I felt the sadness and remorse we are supposed to feel when we realize we have wronged someone (2 Corinthians 7:10-11). And I also felt the "I am all bad" feelings that indicated that I am not finished in my ability to receive truth about myself. It only lasted a short while, much shorted than when I began getting involved in spiritual growth. But it was long enough to feel the sting.

The point is, if this is what truth feels like when we are safe and loved, how much worse is it when we are not? We experience deep wrath, either at ourselves or the other person, for that is the essence of what law without grace brings (Romans 4:15). So the only way to hear truth is in an atmosphere of love (Ephesians 4:15); otherwise, the "blamee" is placed in a state of condemnation that he must fight either by lashing out at you or at himself.
Wow. I don't know about you all, but I've never heard this take on "speaking the truth in love."

Let me tell you what it usually means when church people talk about "speaking the truth in love." Christians use this as an excuse to butt into your life and tell you what you're doing wrong, and act like they're doing you a huge favor by teaching you "what the bible says." We have this one verse that says "speak the truth in love" so that means as long as you love the person, as long as you feel like you're doing it to help them, then you're totally allowed to go point out all their sins. As I've said before, the definition of "love" that evangelicals use is pretty suspect. It's the "hate the sin, love the sinner" kind of love, the love that says "I know what's best for you, and love means doing everything I possibly can to push you to do it." You know, the love that won't let gay people just live their lives in peace, we love them so much that we have to keep harassing them until they stop being gay. That's what "speaking the truth in love" usually means. Christians are totally entitled to go point out everyone else's sins, as long as they're not, like, too mean about it.

But look at this sentence from "Boundaries in Dating": "However, we cannot ingest truth from someone unless we know we are loved." Did you catch that? "unless we know we are loved." If you have feelings of love in your heart, and your warped, hellish theology drives you to go around accusing everyone of rebelling against God, that doesn't count as love. Nope, it only counts if people "know [they] are loved." It only counts if it actually comes across as love. And when Christians tell people that what they're experiencing as hate is actually love and they should be grateful, that's gaslighting.

But... wow. When "Boundaries in Dating" talks about "speaking the truth in love", it's in the context of people who actually have a close and loving relationship with each other, and it's "speaking the truth" about an actual real-life problem that caused hurt in the relationship, not some abstract "God's law" that someone is breaking. Wow. It's not like someone is a target of your evangelism and you love them in an abstract, general sense. It's not like you're stealthily building a friendship so that you can bring them to the point where they take you seriously when you spring "the gospel" on them. Wow. It's like, people who are actually your friends. I don't think I've ever heard the idea of "speaking the truth in love" in that context.

Also, let's talk about this bit: "I felt the sadness and remorse we are supposed to feel when we realize we have wronged someone (2 Corinthians 7:10-11). And I also felt the "I am all bad" feelings that indicated that I am not finished in my ability to receive truth about myself." Wait wait wait, stop the presses. [Do people say that nowadays?] In the Christianity I learned, the "'I am all bad' feelings" were a very very important part. We believed that, in the deepest parts of our minds and hearts, we were sinful. Sure, we could act like good people. We could work hard to obey God. But every now and then, the sin nature would break through and reveal who we really were.

The bad was who we truly were; the good was just an act, a disguise. We deserve to go to hell, we deserve no happiness ever. That's what I believed. And every time we talked about Jesus' death, we felt that guilt, the "'I am all bad' feelings"- our sin was the reason he died, and we should feel guilty about it forever.

It's astonishing to me that Dr. Townsend believes you should only feel bad about yourself in a way that's proportional to what you actually did and the real-world hurt that it caused other people. He is saying you shouldn't feel "I am all bad." As if your sin was just a single event that you can address, learn from, and move on from, instead of a sign that all your efforts to obey God are just an act and you can never get away from your real, sinful nature.

Wow. I mean, wow. To be clear, I believe that what "Boundaries in Dating" is saying here is a MUCH HEALTHIER way to view our sins and mistakes. But... wow. Evangelicals would say "Boundaries in Dating" doesn't take sin seriously. To not believe "I am all bad"... wow. That goes completely against the "gospel" I learned in church.

(Okay, to be fair, evangelical Christianity does teach things like "we're not slaves to sin anymore, we have the power of God helping us and we can do anything, we are a new creation in Christ" which goes against the "we should forever feel bad about our role in Jesus' crucifixion" thing. In my experience, though, the "I am all bad" side was emphasized much more.)

Anyway, to sum up what I'm saying about "speaking the truth in love": In "Boundaries in Dating", they're using that term in the context of a friendship or dating relationship where both parties already care about each other, not as a justification to go barging into people's lives and claim you have the right to point out all their sins because you are motivated by "love." And I've never heard "speaking the truth in love" used this way before. This is connected to their larger point about blame- they are saying that when you point out what someone did wrong, the person will only be able to take that criticism in a healthy way if they know that you love them. Let me repeat: only if they KNOW you love them. It's not about your intentions, it's about whether your words and actions are being read as loving.

Since we're talking about blame, we have to touch on the idea of victim-blaming. I'm a feminist, and calling out victim-blaming as not okay is an important part of feminism. This chapter of "Boundaries in Dating" doesn't explicitly mention abuse or victim-blaming, but here's one part that was sort of ... interesting:

[content note for abuse and victim-blaming for this excerpt]
[this section is talking about how people in dating relationships might be quick to blame their partner for problems because they're not committed, they're not married, so it's easy to just end the relationship rather than examining their own role in the problem]

When you do not have to live with someone's faults, you are less prone to do the hard work of seeing your part in triggering them. A wife might notice that her covert withdrawal provokes the rage of her husband. She has seen the dance they do a hundred times, and she knows the only way it will resolve is for her to figure out what she needs to change. But a date can say, "I don't do rage" and exit. This creates more of an opportunity to think it is all him, and none her. This is not to diminish the gravity of the raging man's issue. But it perpetuates the likelihood that she will continue searching for an ideal mate who has no issues, and that she will miss dealing with her own.
Whoa. Whoa whoa whoa. Uhh, "rage"? This could be verbal abuse or emotional abuse. And the idea that the wife's "covert withdrawal provokes the rage of her husband"- so, it's not like the rage is a reasonable response to something she did, it's more like there are certain circumstances where the rage is more or less likely to happen. But the writers are framing it as if the wife is causing it.

This passage really creeps me out. It says "the only way" to fix the problem is for the wife to figure out how to not "provoke" her husband. And it says if she decided to end the relationship and find a partner who didn't rage at her, well she's not dealing with her issues and her expectations are unrealistic. Wow. Y'all. Wanting to find a partner who doesn't abuse you IS NOT AN UNREASONABLE STANDARD. You're never going to find a partner who has no faults, but don't take that to mean you're never going to find a partner who doesn't abuse you. (Hmm this reminds me of how evangelicals like to say "we're all sinners" when some famous Christian does something terrible, as if their crimes are totally normal and we're all the same. I would assume the "Boundaries in Dating" writers don't agree with that view though.)

If she wants to stay in the relationship, then yes, in a practical sense, she would need to figure out how she can change her behavior to help manage the problem. But that is not her only option. And whatever her decision is, nobody should ever suggest that abuse is partly her fault.

Also, as a former purity-culture girl, the idea that 'if you have problems in your dating relationship, there's no real commitment, you can just end it and find a new partner' is completely foreign to me. There have been times I spent way way way too long analyzing my own behavior and trying to figure out how to get my boyfriend to be less terrible, because of purity culture and how I was so afraid that breaking up was The Worst Thing Ever. (That was a long time ago, I am with a really great guy now.) Purity-culture girls need to know that it IS a good idea to end a relationship with a partner who doesn't treat you right. You deserve better, and things will get better. Breaking up is really hard and painful, but it can be a very very good thing.

Same thing goes for divorce.

And here's another section in "Boundaries in Dating" which I found very interesting:
Another way that blame can kill a dating realtionship is that the injured person can take on an attitude of moral superiority to her offender. She will be shocked and saddened by his behavior, and think, I would never be capable of the hurt that he has caused. While it may be true that he has hurt her deeply, she doesn't know the dark capabilities of her own heart (Romans 3:10-18).

Blamers are people who tend to take a victim stance. They feel helpless and run over by powerful people, and they do not see themselves as having much say-so in relationships. This is a child position, and therefore brings with it a sense of innocence. The result it that the blamer- who sees herself as an innocent victim- will forever hold the problem over the offender's head.

It is very hard for dating to survive this problem. The offender will try and try to get in his girlfriend's good graces, but will come back feeling one-down and inferior to his innocently hurt date. Though he needs to own what hurt he has caused, it is very difficult to do so with someone who sees themselves as an angel and him as a devil. He will eventually give up trying to do the impossible.

If you tend toward the morally superior position, look at it as something that is working against everything you want in life: mutually adult relationships, personal growth, and freedom. Begin realizing how capable we all are to sin and being hurtful. Actually, it is a relief to get away from a demand to be innocent. Living in reality is less work than living in a fantasy land.
So they think it's not healthy to see yourself as a victim. Actually, my psychologist has said similar things. That seems very different from what feminism says. But yeah, I can see how, from a point of view of helping victims to heal, you don't want them to believe that they're helpless and passive and have no control over their lives. So I'm not totally sure what to think about this. I think that people like to throw around the criticism "you have a victim mentality" to try to get people to shut up and quit demanding justice for the wrongs done to them. As a feminist, I'm not okay with that. On the other hand, I can see why a psychologist might not be excited about a patient defining themself as a victim. So... I guess it depends what the situation is and what the goal is. If anybody has any insight about this, leave a comment.

But the real reason I typed up the above passage- about blame and moral superiority- is that it really reminds me of something from purity culture. Any guesses?

[cue Jeopardy music]

If you guessed "What is 'if you had sex before marriage, then your pure spouse can hold it over your head forever'?" then DING DING DING YOU WIN.

I mean seriously. Every single thing about this description of the "innocently hurt" partner sounds EXACTLY LIKE how purity culture says a marriage between a virgin and non-virgin should go. If you had sex before you ever even met your spouse, well, your marriage will suffer for it FOREVER. Your spouse "saved themself" and therefore they deserve better. Oh, how gracious of them to "forgive" you. They deserve a perfect, pure marriage, and they're never going to have that because of YOU, you just had to go put yourself in a situation with temptation, didn't you? (I definitely internalized the idea that sex is such a horrifying dirty thing- it was unimaginable to me that any guy I would consider as a potential boyfriend would have participated in something so awful.)

In purity culture, there's no such thing as just forgiving and then being fine. No, premarital sex has to haunt you FOREVER- otherwise, how will we scare teenagers into not doing it?

And this line at the end was interesting: "Actually, it is a relief to get away from a demand to be innocent. Living in reality is less work than living in a fantasy land." Because, in the Christianity I learned, we are supposed to try to be "innocent"- completely sinless. Every little tiny sin deserves death and is enough to get Jesus crucified.

The last part of this chapter is about "curing blame." The authors advise us to be honest about our own faults, and to see both the good and bad qualities of our dating partner. Also, we should "set boundaries instead of blaming" which I think is really really important. When someone treats you wrong, you can retaliate by complaining and blaming- but in my experience, this never feels like enough. You feel powerless, like you can never make them feel bad enough to atone for what they did. Meanwhile, the other person feels like it's not fair how you keep bringing it up over and over. Avoid this by setting boundaries. "If you act like this, then I'm not going to be willing to see you for a week." It's not emotional, it's not manipulative, it's just "okay, here are the logical consequences for what you did." And once those consequences are finished, you don't keep bringing it up again and holding it over them.

"Boundaries in Dating" also says we can address the problem of blame by forgiving. They say, "Let go of the offense, and the need for revenge or perfect justice." Their next piece of advice is about grieving. This part is really good:
While forgiveness is objective in nature, grief is its emotional component. When we cancel a debt, we are letting go of the right to demand revenge. That letting go brings loss and a feeling of sadness.
Wow. Wow. In other words, forgiveness doesn't mean you're pretending everything is okay. Forgiveness means you lost something, and it's 100% reasonable and expected that you would have feelings about that loss. It is good and healthy to feel your feelings and allow yourself to be sad about it.

Wow. I don't know if I've ever heard forgiveness and grief tied together like that. In church, I learned that forgiveness is required, that I had no choice, I had to forgive any and all wrongs people committed against me, and I had to do it as fast as possible, because God had already forgiven me. (I now believe that, if someone did something REALLY bad to you, you have every right to NEVER forgive them, and it doesn't make you a bad Christian.) It was sort of unclear what exactly forgiveness was- I heard Christians say forgiveness doesn't mean saying what they did was okay- but I know I NEVER heard anything about "you have the right to be sad after you forgive someone."

All right, that's it for chapter 14. The main message of this chapter is that it's unhealthy to blame your partner for all the relationship problems, or to keep bringing up their past sins or mistakes. Yes, I totally agree. That's really good and heatlhy advice. They also have a shocking and astonishingly healthy take on the concept of "speaking the truth in love." And I love how their warning about blame and moral superiority sounds exactly like a marriage between a virgin and non-virgin in purity culture. However, I'm very creeped out by the bit about how a wife needs to take responsibility for her role in "provoking" her husband's "rage"- that just sounds like blaming abuse victims. (Maybe someone with more insight/experience with abuse could give their opinion in the comment section?) Overall, though, it's a much healthier understanding of sin and forgiveness than what I learned in church.


A blog series reviewing the book Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships (introduction post is here)

Previous post: Know when to give up hope

Next post: Disrespect

Thursday, August 25, 2016


A pillow with a pattern consisting of rows of big-eyed cat faces, along with a real live cat making the exact same face. Image source.
1. Flood Destroys Home Of Hate Group Leader Who Claims God Sends Natural Disasters To Punish Gays (posted August 17) But I'm sure for him it's not punishment, it's a trial that God sent to strengthen his faith.

2. Why do we still not know what causes PMS? (posted August 12) "To put how little research has been done into PMS into context, a search of titles and abstracts on ResearchGate found there are over five times more studies into erectile dysfunction than into premenstrual syndrome. That’s despite the fact that approximately 19 percent of men experience erectile dysfunction over the course of their lifetime, while over 90 percent of women report some symptoms of PMS."

3. Voldemort's Horcruxes Ranked (posted August 18)

4. Did you hear about some beaches in France that are banning the burkini? Or even forcing Muslim women to remove clothes? This is SO not okay. This is policing women's clothing, and I'm literally unable to believe that anyone thinks banning burkinis helps women be liberated in any way at all- the hypocrisy is too glaringly obvious. Libby Anne has this to say: "What I’m trying to get at is this—banning burkinis won’t change what burkini-inclined women wear to the beach, it will just prevent them from going to the beach. It will shut them out of a public space they could otherwise have access to and deprive them of opportunities they might otherwise have had. And for what? To make the local government feel like they’ve struck a blow against repression and “the enslavement of women”? They haven’t."

5. Gothard Explains Why God Allows Child Molestation: Part I (posted August 9) HOLY CRAP. It's literally what the title says. Like, as if we're going to read it and be like "oh that answers all my questions, I totally see why it's a good thing for God to allow child molestation." ALL THE TRIGGER WARNINGS.

6. A Conversation On Affirming Theology #FaithfullyLGBT (posted August 20) "Never in church history until the past 50 years has celibacy been mandated for any group regardless of calling."

Also, Eliel Cruz gives us the biblical definition of sodomy. Hint: politicians who want to bar refugees from entering the US are guilty of it.

7. Why Is the NRA Ignoring This 14-Year-Old Girl Jailed for Shooting Her Abusive Father? (posted August 16) [content note: domestic violence, guns]

8. Women Athletes Gave Up Gonads And More To Continue Olympic Competition (posted August 15) "Would the IAAF ask a man to give up his gonads and remove half of his penis to be allowed to compete, simply because that man naturally produces more testosterone than the average male? The IAAF doesn’t even appear to have pursued the question of relative natural testosterone levels among male athletes."

9. Three things that need to happen before I defend men from Olympic sexism (posted August 16) "1. When sexualised analysis of men’s bodies begins to obscure men’s achievements and negatively affect their careers."

10. 9 Non-Threatening Leadership Strategies for Women (posted August 23) "Type using only one finger." lolololololol

11. Why America Needs a National Lynching Memorial (posted August 23) "In South Africa, important places and landmarks are recognized; there is an apartheid museum. There is a similar effort happening in Rwanda. Most Germans want you to go to Auschwitz and reflect soberly on the legacy of the Holocaust. In this country, we do the opposite. You wouldn't know whether you're in a slave trading space, you wouldn't know whether you're in a place where lynchings took place."

12. That time when a terrorist attack struck the Olympic Games (posted August 18) "As the party’s nominee in the general election, Trump has broadened that proposal, now calling for a ban on immigration 'from areas of the world where there’s a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe or our allies.' No word yet on whether that ban would include places like Florida, Georgia and North Carolina."

13. Why Is Colored Person Hurtful and Person of Color OK? A Theory of Racial Euphemisms. (posted August 24) "The lesson is that when there are negative associations with something or someone, periodic renewal of terminology is not a feint, but something to be expected. Until the thoughts or opinions in question change, we can expect the rust to settle in, the gnats to swarm back on—and the only solution, albeit eternally temporary, is to fashion a new term."

14. Interview With a Woman Who Recently Had an Abortion at 32 Weeks (posted June 15) "It was already so difficult to try and become a parent; you tried so hard, and it didn’t happen, and there are a lot of factors that framed this experience as pure punishment for you when the actual biological fact of it is punishment enough."

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Results From My Cursory Investigation Into the Availability of Tampons in China

So last week, I read this article, which said Chinese people on social media praised Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui for talking about her period. The article included these statements: "Many [Chinese sports fans] said they had not realised it was possible for a woman to swim during her period" and "Eight decades after tampons first went on sale in the United States, a deep-rooted cultural resistance and inadequate sex education in China are blamed for the fact that only 2% of Chinese women use them, according to one recent study."

So, I was like "hmmm I've never tried to buy tampons in China. I've never noticed if stores here have them or not. I NEED TO GO INVESTIGATE."

I promised twitter I would do it, so off I went.

I mostly use pads, and it's no problem at all to buy them in China. There are tons of different lengths, thicknesses, with or without wings, overnight or day, etc. But I very very rarely use tampons- some months I use 1 or 2, some months I don't use any. [Question for other people with a uterus: uhhh is that normal? How many tampons do people typically use every month?] A year or two ago, when I was in the US, I bought a big box of tampons and ended up bringing them to China- not because I was like "oh I really need them and what if I can't get them in China" but because hey, they're perfectly good, I might as well pack them, they're useless to me if I just leave them at my parents' house, right? And I still have some from that box. So I had never asked the question, is it possible to buy tampons in China?

Anyway, I went out to a bunch of different stores- to do research for y'all- and here is what I found.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I am in Shanghai. Shanghai is a very international city- I'm sure whatever I find will be a bigger selection than you see in smaller cities in China. I'm pretty confident you can find ANYTHING in Shanghai. (And if y'all are curious enough, I will totally go and look for tampons next time I travel to a less international Chinese city.)

First: small convenience stores

Lawson 罗森 Image source.
Lawson: This is a little convenience store where you can buy drinks, microwaveable dinners, little snacks, etc. There is also a very very small selection of cleaning products like laundry detergent, and hygiene stuff like pads. Oh and condoms.

Let's take a look at the period supplies in Lawson:

So... that's it? Well it's a tiny convenience store, we weren't expecting a huge, wonderful selection. There are several types of pads, but are there any tampons at all? Oh, what's this?

Look at that, I found 2 [identical] boxes of tampons. (The packaging says they are imported from Germany.) So... Lawson only has 1 option for tampons? We're not off to a good start here. Let's check the next convenience store:

Family Mart 全家 Image source.
Family Mart: Pretty much the same kind of little convenience store as Lawson. At the Family Mart I visited, I found the following selection of pads:

Yeah, that's all. You got your seaweed-flavored snack food (top shelf in the image), you got your pads (2nd and 3rd shelves), and you got your kleenexes and wet wipes (bottom two shelves). There are day pads and night pads, several different lengths, several brands. Pretty good for a convenience store. But no tampons.

7-11 Image source.
7-11: The 7-11 I went to wasn't even like a real store, it was more of a stand inside the subway station. Lots of snacks and drinks you can buy, and a few pads:

That's all for 7-11. Small packages of kleenex, day pads, night pads, pantyliners, no tampons at all.

alldays 好得 Image source.
alldays: Another tiny convenience store. Here's what I found:

Yeah, only one slim little shelf, in a corner, below the packing tape and individually-packaged spoons [???? oh China]. Looks like 4 different options for pads, no tampons.

All right we didn't have high expectations for these little convenience stores anyway, right? Let's move on...

Next category: Chinese grocery store

Lianhua 联华 Image source.
Lianhua: This is a grocery store, but I don't shop there because they just don't have anything remotely like western food. No lunchmeat, no imported section, etc. Anyway, here is the situation for pads:

Lots and lots of pads. Good selection- I bet you could find any length/thickness/whatever of pads you wanted. I did not find any tampons.

(Note: Okay picture me going into these stores, taking pictures of all the pads. I was worried that an employee would come over and ask if they could help me find something- at this point, I hadn't looked up the Chinese word for "tampon" so I would have had to tell them I was looking for "the one that you stuff inside." Fortunately that didn't happen.)

Next category: A store specifically for all kinds of hygiene/beauty products

Watsons 屈臣氏 Image source.
Watsons: This is a store where you can get shampoo, makeup, and all that kind of stuff. Also, condoms.

Pads, pads, pads, so many pads. Really nice selection of pads. Oh, what's this? I found tampons!!!

Fantastic! This is the best store so far. They have 2 brands: o.b. and In-V. o.b. has three different sizes and In-V has two different sizes. (All of them are marked "imported from Germany.") [进口 means imported- you can look for that in my photos.]

However, I later went to a different Watsons and found only o.b.:

So I guess it's kind of hit-and-miss.

Next category: Big grocery store

Carrefour 家乐福 Image source.
Carrefour: This is where I do most of my grocery shopping. And where I buy pads. Take a look at all the pads:

 I really love how they have the sample pads hanging there so you can see exactly how big they are. And on every single product's packaging, it says the exact length in millimeters. Very convenient.

 All right, there are shelves upon shelves upon shelves of pads, disposable underwear, pantyliners, etc. Any tampons?

Oh, what's this? I think I found them!
 Do you see them in that image above? Look on the bottom shelf.
Ha! I found tampons at Carrefour! There is only one brand (o.b.) and only two options available. (Again, the packaging says they're imported from Germany.) And I had to look for a long time to find these. They're down on a bottom shelf, really non-obvious.

All right, that covers all the places that I typically go to. But what about some big, expensive, imported grocery store, the kind of store that makes expats sigh longingly and say to each other "They had cheese. Real cheese. Ohhhh cheese. It was 50 kuai [$7.50], but I bought it... wow cheese." The kind of store I never shop at because everything's so expensive and I might get there and see a can of soup or a muffin mix [oh my god I want a muffin mix] and pay a hundred kuai for it because IT'S JUST LIKE THE ONE FROM HOME.

So here we go...

Next category: Imported grocery store

City Shop 城市超市 Image source.
City Shop: This is one of those international, heavenly grocery stores. Let's see if they have decent options for tampons.

So I walked in to City Shop and the first thing I saw was Mott's applesauce and I WAS SO HAPPY, do you guys know what reverse culture-shock is? OH MY GOODNESS, Mott's applesauce. (Only after moving to China and trying to explain to people what applesauce is did I realize the name is very confusing. It's not sauce. You just eat it by itself.)

Mott's applesauce for 38 kuai [$6]. I managed to control myself and not buy it.

Okay but seriously, do they have tampons? I found the following pads:

Oh hooray, I found tampons:
Only 1 brand of tampons (Wishu) at City Shop, and they are all "mini" size. No other choices. (According to their website, Wishu is a China-based tampon company started by a French couple. I'm not sure if they're importing tampons from Europe or manufacturing them in China. Their site says the tampons are "European quality." The point is, ALL the tampons I've found are imported or at least heavily influenced by Europe. Nothing native to China. Though here's an article that says China will soon launch its first domestic tampon brand. Hooray!)

And then, as I continued my adventure at the international grocery store, I saw chocolate chips- OH MY GOODNESS YOU GUYS, NESTLE CHOCOLATE CHIPS and had another reverse culture-shock moment.
Fun fact: You know how in the US, there's the stereotype that women like to eat chocolate when they have their period? Chinese culture doesn't have that concept at all. I asked a few Chinese female friends about it and they acted like it was the strangest thing they'd ever heard.

Let's sum up. Here is a table showing the results of my field research at different stores in Shanghai:
Store type Store name Number of tampon brands Total tampon choices
Convenience stores
Family Mart
Chinese grocery store Lianhua
Hygiene/beauty store Watsons
Big grocery store Carrefour
Imported grocery store City Shop

Yep. Wow. Watsons is the winner. But wow. That is sparse.

Now, it's tempting to add up that "Total tampon choices" column, but that wouldn't be right, because I saw the exact same products in different stores. So let's make a new table to show the different brands and how many distinct products I actually found:
Brand Available at Number of different products
Bluetex Lawson
Watsons, Carrefour
In-V Watsons
Wishu City Shop
Total 7

Yep. There's the total. In all the stores I went to, I only found 7 different tampon products. Easily found hundreds of types of pads, but only 7 kinds of tampons. And as I said, I'm in Shanghai. If an average person wandering around Shanghai for a day can only find 7 choices for tampons, then there are DEFINITELY small cities in China where you can't find any at all. And if enough readers are interested, I will totally wander around a small Chinese city and tell you what I find. [Note: In China, "small city" means it "only" has 5 million people or so.]

All right that basically covers all the stores- but what about online? It's China, everyone knows you can find anything on Taobao. Let's take a look.

I searched "卫生棉条" (tampon), here's a screenshot of the results:

This is just the first bunch of results. When I scrolled down, there were more and more. Click the image to see a larger version.
Looks like a lot of different brands: Mytex, Tmaxx, o.b., Tampax, Playtex, etc. There are options that ship from Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Xiamen, Wuhan, Nanjing, Dalian- many many cities. Yep, you can find anything on Taobao. (My favorite was this one because it has a [probably NSFW] gif that shows how to use them.)

So probably the best way is to buy them off taobao.

(Also, a quick google search for "where to buy tampons in shanghai" reveals there are TONS of English-speaking women/people with uteruses who are asking this question.)

So. Personally, I have a good thing going with my buy-a-box-in-the-US-every-two-years-and-use-them-rarely strategy. Tampons are really good to have occasionally but I don't use them that much. (Anyone want to talk about purity culture and how it blocked any awareness that my vulva is a real thing that it's possible to stick things in? I'm still getting over that.)

I'd also like to find out more about sex ed in China. I've asked two different Chinese friends about this, and they both said they didn't have sex ed, that it's not really something that exists in China. (One said their parents never talked to them about sex either, so they just kind of figured it out from porn. Ohhhhh dear. Oh by the way, porn is illegal in China. But you can't stop the internet, people will find it anyway. They can block google but they can't stop people from finding porn. Okay.)

On the other hand, until January 2016, China had the one-child policy. (Now it's been changed so Han Chinese couples are allowed to have 2 children. The one-child policy never applied to any minority ethnic groups, only Han Chinese, which make up 92% of the population of China.) Which means the government gives out free condoms. Like, there is a box in our apartment complex where you can just go and get a package of condoms, nobody is watching. In my opinion though, that's not enough- and it seems very backwards to have a one-child policy while not giving people thorough education about contraception. Seems like Chinese society isn't willing to talk about sex though.

ANYWAY the point is, tampons exist in Shanghai. They're not terribly easy to find, but you can find them. You won't have a very big selection though, unless you buy them online. I guess you can debate whether it's more convenient to put in the work of searching for decent tampons here or just bring back a whole bunch whenever you travel internationally. (As for the price: I don't really have a clear idea of how much tampons cost in the US, but it's gotta be more expensive to buy them in China because they're imported and hard to find.) In my opinion, though, this points to a bigger problem: Chinese women aren't given enough education about their own bodies. I'm glad Fu Yuanhui was willing to talk about it.