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Aunt Pythia’s advice

January 3, 2015

Didja miss Aunt Pythia? Because Auntie P sure as heck missed you all, over there in Utrecht, Holland, where all the food was fried and all the time was family time.

But! But! Aunt Pythia did not fritter away opportunities to do ground-breaking sex columnist research for your benefit. Oh no, absolutely not. In fact, Aunt Pythia has three – count them, three! – important things to share with you.

First, a book. It’s called How To Build A Girl, and everyone reading this should stop what they’re doing and go buy it and read it right now. Honestly, it’s one of the funniest coming of age stories I’ve ever read, and it’s about a girl! So exciting! Aunt Pythia lovers in particular will love it, because there’s lots of masturbation in it. Not enough, in my personal opinion, but a fabulous start. Hopefully the new trend in feminist autobiographies.

Second, this list of things that turn women on. Summary: almost everything except flaccid penises and Axe Body Spray. It’s not really a good list, but I get turned on by lists of things that turn people on, so I just threw it in anyway.

Third and finally, the most amazing technological invention ever, especially considering my addiction to Candy Crush! Namely, a combination kegel exercise machine, vibrator, and video game controller:

Ladies, it's time to do your kegels. OK you can stop now. No, really.

Ladies, it’s time to do your kegels. OK you can stop now. No, really.

Not really sure how this wasn’t invented as soon as people understood batteries, but whatevs, we’ve got it now.

OK, so are you ready for some amazing advice? Aunt Pythia is prepared to give legendary advice today, so buckle up tight. And don’t forget to

ask Aunt Pythia a question at the bottom of the page!

By the way, if you don’t know what the hell Aunt Pythia is talking about, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

So I’ve been reading a math blog online, and like every other math blog I read, it provides fun descriptions of cool math, targeted at math people, without needless symbols or jargon. This is awesome.

Anyway, the author of this blog posted a picture of herself in one of the posts; it turns out, the author was an African-American female. When I saw the picture, I was pretty surprised. After I realized I was surprised, I was immediately ashamed. Why should it be a surprise that an African-American female runs a math blog post? By being surprised, I felt that I was contributing to the implicit white-male bias in math. (By the way, I’m society’s image of “normal”: a cisgender hetero white male.)

But that’s the thing; I’m *not* prejudiced, and I’ve thought about this. Having attended Mathpath, HCSSiM (2011), and Canada/USA Mathcamp, I’m totally used to there being extremely competent and smart women and members of racial minorities in mathematics. (I’m writing a letter to one such person!) In my undergraduate experience, the women in my classes have been just as competent as men. I have thought about how I behave, and I don’t talk down to female professors or nonwhite students. Partly nature, but also partly because of my high school experience.

I understand that there’s a problem with a lack of mathematicians who are not white males, and I understand that I probably assumed that the author of this blog (from above) was a white male simply because statistically, there’s an extremely high probability that being a math person, they were a white male. In my head, this makes that feeling of surprise seem like a symptom of the problem, rather than a part of its cause.

But I still keep thinking to myself that maybe I’m secretly prejudiced and I’m contributing to the problem. I can’t really shake that feeling, despite knowing in my head what’s really the case, as described above. And I’m kinda scared about that. What should I do?

Anxious Math Junior

Dear AMJ,

Yes, you are prejudiced! We all are! I am too! It’s an important part of growing up, admitting such things. We are flawed, and we are contributing to the problems of our culture. Fact.

Now, as to what you should do, I’m thinking the first step is admitting that you’re prejudiced. You’ve come almost all the way on this one, but it’s clearly difficult for you to step firmly up to the plate. Go for it! And keep in mind that you’re joining a whole bunch of well-meaning people once you do.

Next, make sure that other people join you on that plate. Talk about this experience you’ve had, and how it made you acknowledge a part of you you’d rather not exist, but out of sheer decency and self-reflection you have to admit does. Get other young men and women in STEM to talk about all the fine and competent people in math and how great math – or indeed, any intellectual endeavor – could be if people were just taken as they are, people learning and arguing and exchanging ideas and making discoveries.

Finally, be on the lookout for behavior or practices that expose, continue, or expand stupid prejudices. Call people on such behavior. Be outspoken and cool. Send your young friends to HCSSiM and other places that you think are good places to learn how to be thoughtful about this stuff.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia.

A while back, you wrote about how you say and/or feel that you have crush on someone very often, and how this is something fun and playful for you. So maybe you can help me.

My problem is that I fall in love with practically every man that I like and that seems to like me back. For this reason, I have zero male friends. When I start to like a guy, notice that I get a long well with him, I always also have a reaction of weak knees/getting nervous around them etc., which at some point I also realize they notice, at least on a subliminal level, which leads to some kind of “flirting” behaviour (I put it in quotation marks because I am really not flirting on purpose, I just behave a bit awkwardly and sometimes guys behave back in the same kind of awkward way and so the situation feels charged. It is hard to describe but maybe you know what I mean).

I am in a long-term relationship that I enjoy and that I do not want to give up, so it is not that I am actually looking for a new love. I would however really like to have male friends because I would sometimes like to hear a male viewpoint regarding things I think about which is not my boyfriend’s or father’s.

But the only options I seem to have is either (i) avoid the guy and thus (again) contribute to the sad fact that I have zero male friends or (ii) get to know him better and risk some form of emotional chaos that scares me, like developing a more serious crush.

Of course, I would never choose option (i) if the guy is single and seems interested as I do not want to lead somebody on. But if the guy is also in a relationship, and has not expressed romantic interest in me, but just general interest (maybe in a friendship with me — but maybe also for something else, hard to say often), what do I do then? Is there a chance to develop a crush into a friendship? How do you do that?

It feels morally ambiguous to me to try to seek this guy’s company in those cases, like sitting next to him when I have the option, and so I don’t do it and the potential friendship cannot develop. 

I feel like you might know how to deal with this problem, so that is why I am asking you, and unfortunately I cannot discuss this problem with my female friends (I have tried once or twice but nobody seems to have any idea what the hell I am talking about, since they claim to fall in love so rarely that it happens once or twice in their life.)

Of course, another idea would also be that maybe my boyfriend and I have a serious problem, otherwise those crushes wouldn’t happen to me, but I don’t think so.

Thoughts? How can I break this pattern?

Many thanks! (Sorry for the bad acronym and the long text! :))

Cannot Remain Unemotional — So Hide?

Dear CRUSH,

First thing’s first, great sign-off. I do NOT mind a bit of tortured punctuation in the name of appropriate acronyms! Nobody would ever accuse me of that!!

OK, now on to your fantastic question. I love it, and I honestly have an immediate crush on you for being so honest about it. I do have a bunch of advice for you as well.

First, listen to emo music. Seriously, there is sanctuary in emotional music. My favorite band for such purposes is Bright Eyes, Fevers and Mirrors (obv), as many of my closest friends will attest to. I listened to it non-stop for an entire year when I first discovered Bright Eyes, and this was in 2002, when I was pregnant with my second kid. So don’t think this stuff ever goes away, either, you will need coping mechanisms your entire life, so get started!

And if Bright Eyes doesn’t suit you – which would be weird – then go ahead and find something else. But definitely have a place to retreat to when things get super emotional.

OK, next piece of advice, which I think you’re anticipating: go ahead and have the crush. It won’t kill you. In fact it will (eventually) make you stronger, even if it takes a few months of pining and incredibly amounts of emo music to deal with.

Because here’s the thing, you’ve got to be brave. You’ve got to live your life fully, and engage in the things that attract you, and trust yourself not to lose it entirely. You’ve really got no other options. Otherwise you’re retreating away from the only thing you really have, which is this one life. Fuck that! Go ahead and take some risks, and sit next to that man or woman who might temporarily throw you for an emotional loop with their perfect wit and amazing smile.

And no, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re just wired differently from other people (but not me, I’m just like you). You fall in love with everyone, all the time, and that means you experience more. It’s cool! We’re lucky! And eventually you will of course become friends with people who you originally crushed out on, and sometimes you won’t, but it’s worth a try.

Here’s a little secret that a very good friend told me: almost nobody gets sexier when you get to know them better. People are at their very sexiest when you know about 10 minutes about them, scattered over a few weeks or months. They put on the charm, they seem to listen and laugh at your jokes. It’s after 10 years of real conversations that you get to know people really well, well enough to see into their inner zits.

Which is to say, by getting to know these people more, by sitting next to that yummy guy when you have the chance, the problems you are dealing with will generally fade, not increase. And for those very rare few who actually become sexier when you get to know them better, well they deserve your crush so it’s all good.

Ha! I made it sounds pretty good, right? Remember, when you’re an emo, it’s all about enjoying the pain. I’m not called the Queen of Yearning for nothing.

As for your relationship, I don’t think you’re more likely to fuck it up by letting these crushes happen than by trying to suppress them. Suppression does weird things. I also don’t think you’re more likely to fuck up your relationship than people who only fall in love rarely. Personally I re-fall in love with my husband pretty much weekly, which might bore him but it’s absolutely awesome for me.

Good luck!!

Auntie P

p.s. May I suggest that you just go ahead and actively, deliberately flirt? First of all because it’s fun to flirt, and secondly because it might give you a sense of control of the situation, which you don’t currently have?

p.p.s. Also, here’s a suggestion for how you can do everything I’ve suggested all at once: you sit down next to that yummy guy and you say, “How’s about we flirt for a while, to acknowledge the sexual tension between us, and then after a memorably conversation, we lay down the foundations of a lasting friendship? I’ll start. You look amazing in that sweater.” I have found that being incredibly honest about my intentions sometimes helps. Also sometimes backfires, but whatevs! It’s a crazy mixed-up world!!

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

Has anyone accused you of being a sex tourist for visiting Haiti? I’m just curious because as a single male there is practically nowhere that I could go by myself or with a buddy without accusations of sex tourism, especially Hispaniola. Nobody seems to care when women go to Haiti or Jamaica despite those places being well known for catering to ALL of a woman’s needs. This double standard reeks of cartel tactics. I personally believe that prostitution should be legal but regulated.

Globetrotter

Dear Globetrotter,

Nobody has. Most white women in Haiti are there for charity or on religious missions. I’m sure there is sex tourism there but it’s not on a huge scale.

Question for you: who accuses you of being a sex tourist? How does that come up?

Also, in terms of legalized prostitution, I don’t agree. I like that Dutch prostitutes have a union, but in places like Haiti I think legalized prostitution is one step away from paying people for their body parts. It’s not really a “chosen profession” if you are forced by dire need to do it. My two cents.

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear AP,

Should women compete in men’s sports? I’m thinking of games that are highly skill and determination driven (so there doesn’t seem an inherent bias for taller or stronger players) but where top female players are at a lower standard to the top male players.

Is it better or worse for women to have segregated leagues and competitions in these sports?

Always Separate but Equal?

Dear ASbE,

What sports are we talking about exactly? Most sports I know about have huge biases for strength. Even darts, which I watched copious amounts of in Utrecht (2014 World Darts Championship! Fuck yeah Michael van Gerwen!!), seems to favor huge men, maybe not for their strength per se but for their balance and inertia. Or maybe it’s all that time spent in pubs drinking beer.

I also watched an amazing round of the Dutch version of WipeOut, which was brilliantly combined with a blind date TV show, and I was amazed by how much easier it seems to be to jump from one floating disc to another if you’re a tall Dutch man than if you’re a tall Dutch woman. The winning couple was a charming pair named “Hippy” and “Hoppy”. They won because Hippy was willing to use his body as a prop to help out his partner. All the other couples had the men springing ahead and leaving their female partners behind. Let that be a lesson to all you non-hippies out there. Be more of a Hippy.

Not sure I’m answering your question, ASbE, but let me throw in one more unrelated opinion because I’m on a roll. Namely, American football is quickly becoming a sport to which poor minority men sacrifice their bodies. Richer and more educated parents don’t let their kids play the sport, and as we now know it’s incredibly traumatic for the players. We might as well just admit it’s a modern day Gladiator Contest, used to maintain a culture of violence for a people convinced they must be warriors, or at least that others should be. Instead of letting women play football, let’s just stop anyone at all from playing it, at least as it is currently being played.

Sincerely,

Aunt Pythia

——

Well, you’ve wasted yet another Saturday morning with Aunt Pythia! I hope you’re satisfied! If you could, please ask me a question. And don’t forget to make an amazing sign-off, they make me very very happy.

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Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. fredericln
    January 3, 2015 at 8:47 am

    Thanking AP for this new year post, and CRUSH for her not-so-often-asked question. I often wondered why so much difference in social standards between countries, while human beings are quite the same. In Burkina Faso, if a man and a woman have spent a minute or more alone in a room (including in professional context), the social standard says they flirted, and the man initiated it — or, he must be disabled in some way. In Northern America, well…

    A former colleague of mine in Paris moved then to English-speaking Canada. What she was grieving remembering her years in Paris, was that, there, she was looked on as a woman (elle était regardée comme une femme). By the way, she did not tell that to *me*, and she lives in a conjugal relationship now — just for record 🙂

    Like

  2. DJ
    January 3, 2015 at 9:04 am

    The label “African-American” is prejudicial. It pre-judges nationality. As an American expat, I have to remind myself not to use it, because the people here are (mostly) not American.

    Like

  3. Christina
    January 3, 2015 at 11:27 am

    Dear CRUSH,

    I’m going to give some advice which is incredibly old fashioned but has been very helpful to me and has lead to having tons of friendships with men I find attractive while maintaining a single monogomous relationship. Never go without a chaperone. Pretend it is five centuries ago and your reputation would be destroyed if you were ever alone with a guy. Then start hanging out with the guys and with guys and gals and always in a group.

    I had a pretty strict upbringing where my parents imposed this rule on me and no dating and not even getting in a car with a single guy and had a very happy social life with tons of geek guys in high school. As an adult, I kept the rule for guys I was not dating, and no one really noticed or commented. In fact I’ve discovered those who would actually pressure me to be alone with them, were indeed up to some creepy behavior.

    So anyway, safety in numbers is great because its really only awkward if there is a one on one flirtation and not if you are joking with and teasing a couple guys at once.

    Like

  4. Min
    January 3, 2015 at 1:44 pm

    @CRUSH

    Just to add to the excellent responses you have gotten, let me say that one option is to tell whoever you are attracted to that you find them attractive, but you are in a committed relationship. A lot of guys who are also attracted to you will respect that and can be good, Platonic friends. 🙂

    Like

  5. Auros
    January 3, 2015 at 7:36 pm

    CRUSH could talk to her committed partner about whether he, like her, gets crushes on other people, and if so, they could both just go ahead and flirt, and see if that occasionally leads to whatever experiences they’re craving. Falling for somebody else doesn’t mean you don’t love your long-term partner any less, and doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your relationship. Maybe her partner wouldn’t be into that idea — maybe coping with jealousy about her would be too high a price for whatever benefits he’d get out of such a bargain — but she’s never gonna know if she doesn’t ask.

    Also: Maybe some of those guys she’s crushing on, who are already in committed relationships, actually are closet non-monogamists. Again, she can’t know if she doesn’t ask. And she could ask indirectly, if she’s more comfortable maintaining plausible deniability. Like, she can bring up fictional portrayals, from novels or TV shows or whatever (Jacqueline Carey’s Terre d’Ange books are always good ones for this purpose, or Robert Heinlein if you’re dealing with more of an old-skool nerd). Or she can say she was reading some kah-rrrrazy commenter on an advice column, who had this wild idea, and what does object-of-crush think about that? 🙂

    Like

  6. fredericln
    January 4, 2015 at 6:28 am

    Might I add a question Cathy’s answer to Anxious Math Junior? As follows: should every Bayesian way-of-thinking be qualified as a prejudice? Or, more exactly, should Bayesian prejudice be criticized as flawed?

    As Stanislas Dehaene highlighted in his lessons to Collège de France, our mind starts with bayesianism ( http://www.college-de-france.fr/site/stanislas-dehaene/course-2012-2013.htm ); should we think that “growing up” from babies to adults, implies dropping bayesian way of thinking for classical math stats, or is there a right way to be bayesian (say, prejudiced)?

    If one agrees that in 2015, the average face of professional mathematicians (average in the meaning of http://faceresearch.org/demos/average ), would look like the face of a white male, then, the face of the author of an anonymous maths blog would look like that with maximal prior probability. And if the reader discovers the right image of the author’s face, the reader should be more surprised of this face looks like (likely) African-American female, than if it looks like, well, my gravatar — just because the distance to the prior expectation is higher.

    A “classical math stats” point of view might be something like “as this blog is anonymous, I will not make in my mind any image of the author, I will just represent it mentally as AuthorName”. Only when I see a first picture, or first bits of information about the author, will I start assembling the into a model of the author with “maximum likelihood”, i.e. maximal consistency with these bits of information. OK, this way of doing may be consistent with the Ten Commandments, or with muslim or lutheran cultures, which I don’t know.

    From my humble experience, I feel easier to have relevant interactions with a blogger if you imagine a human person with body and soul 😉 , using (even unconsciously) your prior knowledge (of the large proportion of white male mathematicians), than if you restrict your representation to “Author of TextContent, period.”

    Still from my point of view (also a quite European one, maybe), the “prejudice” becomes flawed, or wrong, if the feeling of surprise (when the reader sees an African-American female face) is mixed with some depreciation of the blog or the author, or of oneself a a reader (smthg like “now that I see that face, I wonder if the blog I read was really as relevant as that”). Or if the surprise is mixed with some revaluation in a broader meaning (including “oh, the author looks like an African-American woman, her maths must be especially cute”). Because, as far as I know, there is no common (i.e. prior) knowledge about a correlation between the mathematical knowledge of mathematicians, and their gender or their color.

    I apologize if my expression in English is unprecise — which may be embarrassing on such sensitive issues (we in France say “touchy” issues 🙂 ). Moreover, my understanding of maths and esp. Bayesian stats is very limited, you will fix that easily. I apologize even more if this point of view would hurt someone. I’m interested in getting your comments and learn from other points of view including Northern-American ones 😉

    Like

    • January 4, 2015 at 6:36 am

      I like this perspective, thanks. And I agree that classical discrimination isn’t exposed merely by the “surprise” that the blogger is a black woman, but by the reaction that engenders; if you stop reading the blog because the blogger is a black female, then that is obviously discrimination.

      However, I think it’s educational to think about something else with respect to the surprise. I’m an O’Neil, and my ancestors were Irish immigrants. When they first got to the USA, there was a lot of prejudice against Irishmen, and Catholics in general, by the ruling elite.

      But we don’t get “surprised” anymore to learn that someone’s Irish American. It’s just not important and we don’t take it into account. My point is that the surprise itself only happens because it does matter that a math nerd is a black woman.

      Conclusion: there is inherent prejudice in this surprise. Not a ton, not something to be ashamed of, but definitely something to work on.

      Like

  7. fredericln
    January 4, 2015 at 10:23 am

    “My point is that the surprise itself only happens because it does matter that a math nerd is a black woman.” -> oh, thank you for the point. To stay in the socio/religious field, that looks like what Pope John Paul II called “structures of sin”: i.e., the source of what is bad lies in society more than in individual responsibility (e.g., girls and Afro-American pupils may be insufficiently encouraged (?) to learn maths or computer science); but the result concerns each of us (maybe prejudices about the abilities of African-American women as mathematicians, for example).

    May I add another family anecdote? One of my brothers-in-law is African-American; he got a degree in Accounting before getting his Green Card and emigrating to the USA. The Green Card Lottery requires that you have sufficient academic grades; but these grades are not acknowledged in the USA, you have to resit the corresponding examinations. So he spent some years in a well-known academic institution targeting African-Americans. He was a bit disappointed not to learn much new, but much more amazed by the way examiners looked surprised when he answered correctly to the simplest questions. Well, the anecdote is a bit off the point, but it reminded me that surprise can actually include prejudice 🙂 or maybe I’m the one with some family-related prejudice about my brother-in-law’s abilities!

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