Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.


Bad news: Parliament voted down measures to make sex and relationship education required in British schools. Instead of comprehensive, rounded and LGBT-inclusive, British schools can continue to teach a minimal battery of reproductive biology combined with a tissue of religiously-inspired propaganda and call it education in order to satisfy the concerns of “faith communities”. In Britain not offending religious people is apparently a more important public policy outcome than teaching students that gay people are human, how to negotiate sexual consent and how to not get sexually transmitted diseases.

For some, Black Mirror seems to be a HOWTO guide. I guess if you are going to use sexual shame to make money, Britain is the best place to target.

Of flibanserin, pharma and patient groups

BBC Radio 4’s excellent series The Report has a very interesting show this week investigating the controversy around the approval and use of flibanserin (now sold in the United States under the trade name Addyi, and often referred to as the “female viagra”). Flibanserin is used to treat hypoactive sexual desire disorder.

Unlike viagra, which simply stimulates blood flow to help one maintain an erection, flibanserin is supposed to increase a woman’s desire for sex. It originally was developed as an antidepressant and then was put forward as a treatment for hypoactive sexual desire disorder.

As is the way of such things, and as the documentary pointed out, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) has since changed and through the waving of the American Psychiatric Association’s magical wand, hypoactive sexual desire disorder vanished and has been replaced in the fifth edition of the DSM with two new disorders: male hypoactive sexual desire disorder and female sexual interest/arousal disorder.

Before I get into the meat of the post, a quick aside: the asexual community have pointed out rather an interesting thing about hypoactive sexual desire disorder (and its spinoff conditions) is that not feeling sexual desire shouldn’t automatically be pathologised—doing so kind of puts asexuals in the same place gay people were when homosexuality was considered by psychiatrists to be a disorder. Given the long and rather sad history of attempts by the medical profession to pathologise sexual minorities—the legions of gay men zapped, drugged and generally tortured for the crime of loving other men is testament to the extreme folly of that approach—we should hope that the current generation of medics faced with the messy complexity of human sexuality deal with it in a more caring, open and tolerant way than they did in the past.

Anyway, back to The Report. In the programme, Melanie Abbott examines the gender politics around the approval of flibanserin. The producer of the drug, Sprout Pharmaceuticals, were supported in their bid for FDA approval by a campaign called Even the Score, an umbrella campaign supported by a whole host of different organisations including the feminist campaigning group, the National Organization for Women (NOW). The Report points out that both Even the Score and critics of the approval of flibanserin ended up using the rhetoric of equality: Even the Score talks about “women’s sexual health equity”. Before the approval of flibanserin, Even the Score’s website noted that the “FDA has approved 26 drugs marketed for the treatment of male sexual dysfunctions, compared to zero [now one] to address the most common form of female sexual dysfunction”.

A critic of the approval of flibanserin quoted on the programme called Even the Score an “astroturf” campaign funded by Sprout Pharmaceuticals. An astroturf campaign from a pharmaceutical company? Whatever next? Next you might suggest that a pharmaceutical company might manipulate the patent system for profit or that they might drastically ramp up the prices of drugs in order to profiteer off patients who have no choice but to buy their products or die a grisly death? Or, slightly less drastically, that they might engage in manipulation of data, hiding of trial results, selective statistical fiddling and an overly friendly (one might even say incestuous) relationship with regulators. You’d have to be some sort of loon to believe that, obviously.

Anyway, The Report spoke to the CEO of Sprout Pharmaceuticals, Cindy Whitehead, and asked her a pretty simple question which, if answered clearly, would show how not-astroturf-ish Even the Score was:

How much money did Sprout put into Even the Score?

Her answer?

We don’t disclose any of our financial investments to coalition efforts, medical societies, or any of the other groups we work with on education.

Abbott follows up:

Wouldn’t it be fairer for people watching this story for them to know how much?

Good question.

It’s a very interesting perspective that people seem so particularly interested in this—in this patient advocacy movement when I don’t see that same level of interest in advocacy movements for conditions like diabetes or breast cancer.

Well, that’s a fair point. And I mean nobody bangs on endlessly about the transparency and behaviour of, say, breast cancer awareness groups for slightly dodgy relationships with big companies, or for excessive and expensive trademark enforcement against other charities.1

Here Whitehead reveals exactly why transparency is needed throughout the pharmaceutical industry. Perhaps Even the Score is a perfectly legitimate grassroots organisation. There are surely women who suffer from sexual desire problems and there may even be a case that women’s sexual healthcare is treated as an afterthought compared to men’s sexual healthcare. Female sexual and reproductive health is certainly demonised, mythologised and judged a whole lot more often than male sexual health is.

But while the relationship between pharmaceutical companies and patient advocacy groups (and medical societies, and charities) remains both cosy and extremely shady, cynics have every right to look askance at any campaign group whose interests align with that of a pharmaceutical company sponsor. Patient advocacy groups will speak very loudly about NICE not approving drugs but keep eerily silent about the high prices charged by the manufacturers. One must not bite the hand that feeds.

Back in 2013, a leaked email that was originally sent between drug companies showed that they planned to use patient groups as a key part in fighting against campaigns to require them to open up trial data, even though such transparency will allow doctors to better inspect data, spot anomalies, do unplanned group analysis, and better find side effects. This demonstrates the kind of relationship that exists between drug companies and patient advocacy groups. Without clear disclosure of the money given to patient advocacy groups, one must be somewhat skeptical of them.

The Report also mentioned that Cindy Whitehead used to run marketing at Slate Pharmaceuticals while her husband Robert was Slate’s CEO (before Cindy took over as CEO of Sprout, can you guess who was running Sprout?), they were marketing Testopel, a testosterone pellet for in men with hypogonadism. They received a massive dressing down from the FDA for their marketing materials, which included suggestions that it could be used as part of treatment for a whole variety of things that the FDA hadn’t been given evidence for including erectile dysfunction, type II diabetes, HIV, depression and even just as a way to improve sexual and athletic performance. The FDA also stated that Slate’s website for Testopel contained misleading and unsubstantiated claims regarding the cost of the medication, pain and side effects.

If you are looking for more of the tell-tale signs of pharma industry fun and games, have a read of this piece in The Atlantic. It notes how flibanserin’s clinical trial processes have changed over the years, going from asking patients about the desire they felt every day, to asking them about the desire they’ve felt over the last four weeks. A cynical person might suggest that changing your way of measuring outcome over time when you find out it gives you more promising results isn’t exactly kosher. But, as Cindy Whitehead said, why just pick on flibanserin? Fiddling outcome metrics and jumping between primary outcome measures when they give you pesky inconvenient data is just routine, just as rather uncomfortable funding arrangements with supposed patient advocacy groups is. We shouldn’t necessarily pick on Sprout or flibanserin—the problems of the pharmaceutical industry are systemic and widespread, and the pharmaceutical industry is keen on ensuring reform efforts (like AllTrials) is kept slow and watered down if it can’t be killed off entirely.

Anyway, if you are interested in the interplay between politics, healthcare, sexuality and the pharmaceutical industry, it is well worth listening to this week’s episode of The Report.

  1. In honour of the Komen Foundation, I’ll soon be organising Cynics For The Cure, a charity fun run to cure grumpy bastards like me of our perpetual miserableness.

With allies like this...

I read someone who identifies as a “straight ally” the other day say something very similar to the following:

The reason gay men are promiscuous is as a result of homophobia and oppression. When societal homophobia decreases, gay men will be less promiscuous and more responsible.

Let me put this in a way that you might understand.


How about understanding the radical idea that sex is actually quite good fun and people can enjoy whatever type and frequency of sex they want without goddamn “allies” saying that it’s all due to us all being such pathetic wimpy little poofs that we can’t make informed decisions about sex and relationships for ourselves?

How about not peddling your puritanical sexual morality as a sincere attempt at opposing discrimination and bigotry? How about not projecting your bullshit sexphobia on people who aren’t similarly afflicted?

Do you like the fact that you have basically adopted the sexual morality of the Pope and Pat Robertson while at the same talking on behalf of a movement for sexuality-based freedom and liberation? Does that cause you as much intellectual or political discomfort as it does to me? Are we supposed to be grateful for your bullshit concern when you are feeding into the same rhetorical power dynamic of the people who so vehemently oppose the right to have informed, consensual, shame-free sexuality?

Do you buy into nonsense like “sex addiction” too?

Does it concern you that the same shitbags who hate LGBT people1 also hate straight people’s sexuality—especially female sexuality, hence the consistent attempts by theocratic fuckwits to obliterate access to birth control and contraception and impose ridiculous fundamentalist nonsense on them too? And that maybe the answer to that is to embrace and defend the positive and life-affirming value of sex and sexuality—gay, straight, vanilla, kinky, monogamous or not, lifelong or fleeting—rather than make it into a pathology?

If you want to defend and help sexual minorities, defend our right to enjoy the sex we want and desire (so long as it is consensual and safe etc., obviously) or you aren’t actually helping and you certainly aren’t being an “ally”.

  1. Oh, wait, no, they hate our sin. They love us. And if you believe that horseshit, I’ll happily sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.

Denying Elliott Rodger was a misogynist makes you as dumb as a creationist

I’ve managed to mostly hold my tongue in the last week regarding the murder spree conducted by Elliott Rodger in California. But I need to say something now.

I read Rodger’s manifesto last weekend. It makes very interesting reading, although it’s pretty terrible writing. The public debate about Rodger’s views and motivations has played out exactly as stupidly as I expected it to.

First up, there’s the gun fanatics. Every time there’s a killing spree or some prick goes and shoots up a school, they always try and find a way to say that easy access to guns really is no big deal. Their immediate reaction is to blame it on mental health and be done with it. Ignoring, of course, that it might not be a half bad idea if the US could actually make it so people with serious mental illnesses don’t get the right to own guns. Here in Britain, a family friend’s ex-husband started having serious mental health issues. Within a few days of his doctor diagnosing said problems, his shotgun licence was revoked and the police turned up at his house to take away his gun. Because that’s a sensible thing to do.

The gun-lovers can blame mental illness all they like, but their solution to people with serious mental illnesses having guns is… well, they don’t have a solution. Just lots of stupid fucking slogans like “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” (except like computers or photocopiers or cars, a gun makes the process ruthlessly efficient).

Then there’s another group of idiots: people who reckon that the best explanation for the crime is that, well, Elliott Rodger was a closeted gay man. Some idiot on Fox News gave that startling theory the other day. The evidence in the ‘for’ column seems to be: on YouTube, he is depicted listening to Whitney Houston and George Michael; he uses the word “fabulous” a few times; he is a bit swishy and effeminate in his mannerisms; and he buys expensive designer clothes. I mean, that seals the deal, obviously. He’s one of us. Send him the free toaster and the membership card for Club Queer.

I mean, it’s a great theory if you ignore the fact that his manifesto goes on at length about how he’s desperate for women to have sex with him, that he refers to getting instant erections when seeing hot blondes, that in his version of utopia, women would be disappeared from society, with a few left in chains to reproduce, and the men would be happy because there’d be no women and thus no sex to distract them from, I dunno, playing video games and watching sports.

I mean, it’s a notable thing about being gay: you are really mortified about rejection by women. Like, if you hear that a woman isn’t interested in sleeping with you, that’s terrible and ghastly and haunts you for all of about twenty seconds. It’s as mortifying as a vegetarian finding out that he won’t be getting steak for dinner. I read Rodger’s manifesto and while I can certainly empathise with the loneliness he expresses, it’s just really bloody lazy to equate any feeling of ‘outsiderness’ from sexuality with being gay. Back when I was 18 or 19, I would never have written that I’d seen a hot blonde chick at a shopping mall and I got an instant erection. Because, duh, not a dude. The “he was really gay” theory works great if you ignore the fairly fundamental fact that being gay actually includes being attracted to members of the same rather than the opposite sex.

The final and most significant part of the stupidity around Rodger is this: the complete denial that his actions stem from misogyny. The last week has been a cascade of idiots trying to find ways to avoid saying the bloody obvious: Elliott Rodger hated women, he wanted to destroy women, to get vengeance against women for the harm he believed women had collectively done to him by rejecting him as a sexual partner.

If he had published a manifesto saying that he wanted to kill all black people or all gay people or all Jews, we would have taken him at his word. But he publishes a manifesto calling for the destruction of all women and we collectively hem and haw and find ways to avoid coming to the obvious conclusion: that he was a radical misogynist. His rhetoric is one of complete elimination. That he failed to go through with it, and in fact ended up killing more men than he did women doesn’t change the intention. (Incidentally, David Copeland, the neo-Nazi thug who set off bombs in Brixton, Brick Lane and Soho—targetting London’s black, Asian and LGBT communities respectively—only ended up killing people in the last of his attacks. Thankfully, he didn’t do nearly as much damage and destruction as he possibly could have done. Does that mean that his motivation to start a ‘race war’ by targetting minority groups wasn’t actually his motivation?)

Elliott Rodger was motivated by extreme, violent misogyny. No, that doesn’t make every man a conspirator any more than the KKK being motivated by race makes every white person responsible for their thuggery. There are communities of people where the kind of extreme misogyny that motivated Rodger is bred and spread: Rodger spent a lot of time posting on online fora associated with the seduction community—pickup artists and ‘The Game’. These are real communities of people who spend an enormous amount of time online hating women. I’ve read more posts from such forums than I care to think about. They have blogs, they have forums, they have chatrooms, they have a community, a lingo, a set of shared myths and narratives. It’s right there, you just need to hit up your favourite search engine and take a look.

Denying that misogyny is an actual thing, finding dumb moral equivalences betwen the extreme misogyny of large swathes of the so-called “manosphere” with some long-dead feminist writer who once frustratedly said ‘kill all men’ or somesuch tripe—this is all keeping one’s head in the sand. There are men who actually do hate all women, who want to kill or subjugate all women. Denying this fact in the light of Elliott Rodger’s murders puts you in the same box as creationists or anti-vaxxers or anybody else who is unwilling to see the clear and present reality right in front of them.

That reality is really fucking depressing. Reality often is. Denying that reality won’t make it go away.

Newsflash: sexism in geek communities demeans everybody

There’s been a load of drama about the Boston API Jam. See Hacker News and The Guardian for more.

Let’s remember what Boston API Jam’s advertising said. As one of the features of the event, they listed…

Women: Need another beer? Let one of our friendly (female) event staff get that for you.

When friends told me about it last night, I didn’t quite grok it. I thought they were saying that one of the benefits was for women, that if you were a woman, you could be served beer by other women. Which is a bit odd. But that’s because my friends were reading it out, and I didn’t get the context. Now I do, and it’s… wow. So many things wrong with it.

It’s bad enough in the way it suggests that women are but a mere feature rather than people who might attend an event. When people want to increase diversity at geek events, that doesn’t mean boosting the number of women in the room by having them there to serve drinks to the hyper-intelligent male hackers, it means women being in the room as equal participants.

There’s obviously an implicit sexual side to it. Women are a ‘feature’ not because they are wicked smart awesome hackers who can build interesting and wonderful creative things, but because they are “friendly” and serve drinks. Seriously, the women are friendly? (As opposed to all those mean, horrible women who laughed at you in school for liking Lord of the Rings, presumably?)

So, yeah, the implicit sexual side. Obviously, that presumes a vision of geekdom where the geeks are all men, and all straight men at that. (Yay, let me find my homosexual invisibility cloak!)

But also it presumes that the exclusively male and exclusively straight audience is also rabidly sex-obsessed. And that’s pretty insulting to the attendees.

I mean, really. The people at hackathons and BarCamps have usually finished puberty, and yet the attitude towards women that this kind of advertising conveys is that of schoolboys rather than grown men.

Presuming that the men need some “friendly” women to come and serve them drinks basically turns those men into perverts.1 And I mean the creepy, inappropriate use of the word ‘pervert’, not the nice, happy reappropriated sex-positive fetishist sense.

I’ve been to lots of BarCamps and hack events and they are basically professional spaces, not sexual spaces. A professional space doesn’t have to be a formal space: you don’t have to wear a goddamn suit, and it doesn’t mean you can’t have a few beers and make some jokes in the evening, but it does mean that you have to act professionally and maturely. It isn’t a goddamn singles bar or a strip club or a bathhouse. The point of a hack day isn’t to cop off, it’s to build things.

Hot… but inappropriate.

It’d be just as inappropriate for a bunch of go-go boys to be swanning around a hacker space serving drinks. Hack days and BarCamps are just not that kind of event. Taking geek events down a more sexualized route is to confuse the geek community with the “lad culture”2 that gave us Uni Lad.

The people who attend hacking events are usually smart, intelligent and creative. To suggest that they need to have a bunch of totty around is just such a weird thing to me because it turns something that is supposed to be an event about brains and building cool things quickly into an event about thinking with one’s dick. If I wanted sexual titillation, trust me, there are bars and clubs and websites… I don’t need that at a hack event.

The fact that people feel the need to put on this kind of sexual entertainment debases everyone involved: women should be at hack days and BarCamps because they are empowered and respected members of the community, not as “friendly” totty, and, christ, not as a bunch of goddamn Princess Leia cosplayers either. And men are there for the same reason: because they are creative, interesting human beings; they ought to be treated as such rather than as (implicitly heterosexual) young, dumb cumbuckets who do most of their thinking with their dick.

If we can’t even get past the important but implicit point about why people are there, addressing the bigger issue of resolving the low number of women attending won’t even start to get off the ground.

Women being turned into objects is insulting, the presumption that the audience is all male and all heterosexual is insulting, and turning said straight men into sex maniacs is also insulting. The whole damn thing is insulting to everyone involved. That’s why people get so annoyed.

One of the best things about the geek community is that it doesn’t have idiotic “lad” swagger, it has lots of lovely people who tolerate each other’s differences and learn from each other. It makes me angry that we have to fight to defend that community from this kind of sexist idiocy.

  1. At a previous hack event in London, at about midnight, a couple of “Red Bull girls” started wandering out handing out energy drinks. From a branding perspective, having energy drinks sponsors for hack day events is eminently reasonable. But as a purely pragmatic thing, the sort of people who spend their weekend writing JavaScript don’t need the gender/sex thing beaten over their heads in such a gaudy and unsubtle way.

  2. The word “culture” in “lad culture” always feels misplaced.