Individuality

In my previous post about curiosity, I discussed some of the reasons why curious kids sometimes choose to avoid academia as a career path. Although seemingly a counter-intuitive statement at first, academia is not always best-equipped to accommodate people’s curiosity.

Besides all of the reasons I listed previously, there is one more fundamental one, which I hinted at, but never quite identified explicitly — academia is often way too specialized. In other words, the kind of curiosity academia tends to reward is one of wanting to know a few things in depths i.e. down to the smallest available detail. Research then is frequently about filling in the gaps left behind by our predecessors. 

Of course, such an approach in itself does not preclude making fundamental discoveries, but it certainly limits their scope. Curiosity tends to disrespect and break limits whereas the departmental and funding structure of academia tends to respect them (you are either a mathematician, a physicists, a chemist, an economist, etc.) Naturally, cross-disciplinary research still happens (increasingly so — at some point, it is inevitable), but academics are certainly incentivized to become specialists instead of generalists. (this is yet another reason why I hesitated about doing a PhD; I like exploring many topics in some longer period of time, not just one forever — something Freeman Dyson talks about too).

The obvious argument for why that is the case is a simple and quite an understandable one: specialists are what is required to make an advance in a subject. Yet, time and time again the same ideas get reinvented independently across different subjects as the world’s interconnectivity and fractal-like structure become clearer and clearer. Such a state of affairs is probably great for the academics who can win prestige by doing what’s already been done in a different field, but I am not certain if it is that great for humanity at large. In any case, I always wonder if becoming a part of the academic system will not lead to an ever greater chance of wasted curiosity (in the sense of rediscovering what’s already been discovered just because you were artificially forced to stay within the boundaries of your own field)

But enough with academia already… what else is out there? Continue reading Where do all the Curious Kids Go? An exploration (Part 2)

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This is a series of posts about curiosity and what happens to curios kids as they grow up. In other words, how good are our institutions at welcoming, enabling and utilizing curiosity. This post is part one, in which I mainly talk about academia — it is after all, the obvious candidate for a place at which many curious kids go.

It might admittedly sound rather strange at first, but in the last few days, I have been obsessively watching physics lectures on youtube. For me, this was the culmination of a years-long desire to understand the physical universe a tiny bit better after years of frustration with the incomprehensible maths and jargon that used to block my comprehension in the past. Thankfully, an Oxford maths degree later, I am now finally able to begin understanding the language of modern physics. 

If I have to be honest, making even a small amount of progress towards a long awaited goal has been quite unexpectedly rewarding and even enlivening experience. It has brought back memories of my high school days when I used to religiously play and meditate on autotuned science-themed songs made from scientific documentary clips (these videos introduced me to scientists and personalities I still love to this day — Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman being prominent examples, for instance). 

Of course, I loved the videos not because of the “music” as much as the message and the sense of wonder they conveyed. Moreover, there was a sense of a community of people interested in science which I came to embrace. Overall, this early teenage experience served to make me reaffirm my commitment to studying maths and science so I could truly know more.

Today, I feel even an greater curiosity and a sense of wonder. It is amazing how watching a few physics lectures could reignite a burning child-like passion for knowledge and how it could recast a large dose of university-accumulated fear of inadequacy as merely an inconsequential and harmful obstacle to learning. In other words, in the last few days, I wanted to learn physics and I could care less if I was good at it or not — as long as I kept learning I was happy with myself. At least for a few hours in the day, time seemed to stop.

Eventually, however, reality came back to the picture. No matter how interested I was in physics, I had to face the fact that curiosity is expensive. This is what this post is about.

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Now, if one had to formulate the state of most young people in their early 20s, a few words would undoubtedly come up: confusion, uncertainty, relative ignorance, change. Of course, there are the occasional exceptions who have long ago showed a sense of direction and are well on a settled lifelong path. But most of us are not in this group. Most of us are still exploring what is out there.

In a sense, that is what a curious person would do. After all, kids don’t have full access or knowledge of the world so as they enter into early adulthood, there are still many areas to explore and to recognize as truly one’s own. Kids might dream to be policemen or astronauts (because that’s what they can see), but they cannot dream of being a life coach, a political campaign lead or a marketing expert (or one of the many other professions which require a sense of how the world works and are not immediately obvious; one can also include any profession which touches on sex, love and other experiences which children clearly don’t understand at all) Although a valid expression for everyone, it is precisely these grown curious kids that embrace and live out the full meaning of “finding oneself”. Incidentally, this process is not always conscious. Sometimes it is forcefully kickstarted by a rejection or the first major obstacle along a carefully preplanned way ahead. At other times, it is a continuation of the sense of wonder before the complexity of the world. In both cases, however, the result is the same: the realization of the vastness of the human world and the millions of different opportunities around.

Naturally, such great choice creates anxiety and often indecisiveness. The inner result might be confusion, but the outer is going along society’s expectations. If you’re confused and frankly have no idea what you want to do with your life, the path of least resistance is to simply do that which you will never be asked to defend (because you have no way of defending any choice you’ve made yet). In reality, this means going to college, getting a job or something like this — in Oxford, for example, for half of the mathematicians in my year it meant doing a PhD just so they could buy time and figure their life out. 

To be honest, there is much value in following the status-quo and social expectations. You get questioned less, there are more funding opportunities available and more interest in what you do. You are much more often to be recognized for doing a good job if you’re doing a job that people are recognizing as useful. Nonetheless, there are downsides as well. The main reason for them is this: curiosity is not always about utility. In other words, in any domain, to be curious is not always the same as to be useful. For instance, in science, not every research done today will find a practical use. Hell, not every research will find theoretical use either! And the same dynamic plays out in the business world (not every business idea will succeed, quite the contrary — it will most likely fail!), the government world (not every policy proposed will be implemented and even if it was, it may or may not work), etc. Crucially, the same dynamic plays out in the personal world of each of us — what is interesting and what we are curious about is not necessarily what is going to be useful. For example, if you’re an accountant, then learning how to play the guitar will likely make little difference to your career (you won’t suddenly become a musician and music won’t magically make you better at accounting). And yet, you might be dying of curiosity to know music…

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I mentioned above that quite a few of my friends chose to do a PhD. Why didn’t I? It’s a deep question with many layers of answers to it. 

Firstly, academia is not simply an abstract space for the curious. It’s not ideology-free. Academia, from what I directly witnessed at Oxford and indirectly saw  elsewhere, is not on the whole the sort of open and welcoming place that I imagined. For one, there is the gnawing sense that ideology often takes precedence to truth in the humanities. As a result, the humanities have often struck me as less like a genuine forum for ideas and more like an ideological monolith with an agenda. Of course, tenure is the hypothetical solution to such problems, but I’ve become skeptical of its efficiency. To be blunt about it: the more ideology permeates the humanities (and increasingly beyond them as well), the more the academic system will select not for original thinkers, but rather for ideological conformists. The result will be that tenure will not protect the heterodox, but precisely the ones that are best at mouthing off the prevailing orthodoxy. Of course, some dissenters on a tenure track who still hold an idealistic view of academia will remain undetected by this ideological screening (or will be the lucky few in a bubble that actively tries to avoid it). Maybe some will get a tenure eventually. But how many of them will suddenly voice their year-long concerns, especially If future career progress is at stake? Likely not many — after all, for all their dissent, these are people that have found the system tolerable enough for years! And besides, being a curios person does not (and should not have to) mean being in the position to wage an ideological war. Temperament, social skills and time limitations all come into play here. As long as the overwhelming cultural forces in academia tend to favor one ideology (whatever that is at a given time) at the cost of curiosity, there will be a natural movement of people out of the academic institutions.

But even besides the ideological problems and the thought and speech police, there are other structural factors that put me off academia. Put simply: smart people tend to be arrogant. Of course, arrogance is in some sense a human universal (I am often guilty of it too), but academia has never struck me as trying to limit the damage of arrogance. At least at Oxford, the academic culture was almost always one of almost incessant argumentation and rarely one of honest conversation. In fact, most of the time conversations were non-argumentative, it was because people simply formed cliques that already agreed with each other. At least in my experience, it was difficult to find genuinely curious people willing to discuss all ideas in their best light. And all of this was at an undergraduate level where academic pressures are least prominent. As academia is (at least in theory) based on intelligence, the whole academic culture often devolves into one-upmanship and signaling, of everyone trying to prove to everybody else that they know more. After all, intelligence is, to a first approximation, the whole measure of worth in the academic world. As a consequence, the whole culture of academia is not one of curiosity and exploration, but one of belligerence and constant argumentation — if everything you say is going to be argued with, no wonder some say there is no truth!

Unfortunately, this culture of belligerence and the resulting self-segregation across disciplines and positions sometimes infects research too. Academia is supposed to be a battleground for ideas, but it often turns into vain intelligence and popularity contests, name-calling and elitism. The question for me is why be a part of a system which even if you do everything right might still disrespect you? (a phenomenon much more prominent in the humanities where empirical tests and strict logical proofs are unavailable as fair arbiters of dispute and where there is just as much if not more status competition and envy). Moreover, in the more realistic case, why join a system in which even if I do my best to further human knowledge, the reward I get will be at best uncertain? 

What I mean is this: if a curios kid fascinated by science / philosophy / art grows up and starts doing a PhD, there is little guarantee that academia will recognize their work as useful. It is important to say that here I am not talking about the top students — the nobel laureates and their equivalents. If the academic system failed to respect those people, it would be completely useless. I am talking about the rest of scientists whose names you won’t ever hear about, but who are in their labs and offices everyday working and whose discoveries pave the way for some next nobel laureate to come along. What is in academia for them? Besides a few conference visits and the occasional citations, there is the uncertainty of funding, the constant competition with others for grants, the frustration with the academic bureaucracy and, depending on the perceived quality of your work, the envy / hostility / dismissal by others around. Combine all of this with ideological considerations mentioned above as well as the over-saturation of the academic market and the resulting picture of academia becomes less and less attractive. (to the point where it’s unclear if academia serves the curiosity instinct as well as it’s supposed to)

In fact, academia is especially unattractive because the internal market forces (supply of tenure-track positions vs demand for them, available grants and governmental funding, etc.) often create incentives that are not necessarily aligned with a curious exploration of the world. What often results from this mismatch is a high pressure to publish and publish regularly. That is probably my biggest philosophical concern with the academic world as it stands. 

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Artists often complain that market forces destroy their creativity and corrupt art. After all, an artists can only truly dedicate him/herself to one pursuit — of art or money. The image of the starving artist is a popular depiction of what often happens when a person chooses to pursue artistic exploration to the exclusion of market forces. Simply said, sometimes art takes too much time to be profitable (and hence justifiable to the market). Moreover, creativity suffers when individual expression is subjugated to the demands of others (after all, the market is a proxy for society at large and prices are an expression of society’s current values). Furthermore, good art requires tangential exploration into seemingly unrelated domains in search of great under-appreciated ideas. The combination of producing great works fast and without too much additional research often kills the dreams of many an artist. Some pull it off (eventually, after much wandering around and a successful accumulation of ideas). But some don’t. There is a misalignment of incentives. 

Of course, art is not special in this regard. Some would go as far as arguing that most if not all human activities are completely misaligned with the market. I don’t know about this — it’s an awfully strong statement. But what I do know is that curiosity is much like the artistic drive. It needs to wander and explore, often without a specific aim or a deadline. In fact, having a specific goal or a deadline can often be blinding — after all, to transcend the conventional state of thinking, one has to be able to also transcend the way it defines its goals too. Both art and science depend fundamentally on creativity and creativity is like looking for the way while walking in the dark — it requires hitting a wall or two multiple times and going down paths that most likely will end up as dead-ends. And even if some research is just a matter of straightforward implementation, much other isn’t. In fact, the most important research — the one that has even the best minds confused and helpless — is the one that most requires that sort of creative wandering. And that sort of wandering (e.g. sabbaticals, hobbies, etc) sometimes takes researchers away from their field of expertise. It enables an inter-subject cross-pollination of ideas. 

Unfortunately, when you have to publish all the time, creativity tends to suffer. Fewer alleys get explored when there is no time for deviations from the main road. Senior researches might be able to afford the luxury of wandering around, but junior ones less so. One could argue they don’t yet know enough for deviation to even make sense, but curiosity is ultimately just following a hunch and seeing where it leads. It might lead nowhere. But it might lead to a nobel prize. Curiosity is in some deep sense a risky activity. Academia is less and less so. Research proposals and publish pressures and insufficient funding all have the effect of stifling creativity or incentivizing straightforward exploration as opposed to fundamental research.

Of course, the risk-aversion is structurally built-in to the nature of academia. Academia requires regular positive results whose utility is obvious in advance (so that funding can be secured through a sufficiently enticing research proposal). I don’t have / I don’t know if there is any data to back me up on this, but I have the feeling that such an academic system is missing out on important developments that could have been made. Not every research is a matter of doing an experiment known in advance. Not every field has incorporated any and all wanderings into itself (like philosophy and to some extent maths, for example). And curiosity certainly isn’t driven by a need to satisfy an externally imposed need to be useful. (I am always reminded of Andrew Wiles working in secret for years without a guarantee of success — how many such projects are currently made impossible by academia?)

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Before moving off the topic of academia, I have to mention that the misalignment of curiosity and research reality is far from the only reason why academia is not even in principle that attractive to me. There are a whole lot of other issues — mental health risks (I have many friends doing PhDs advising me to never do one myself because it’s allegedly both deeply depressing and a waste of time), opportunity costs (made even worse by the often insufficient science funding), the aforementioned academic politically correct orthodoxy whose radical proponents are opposed to the freedom of speech and expression, etc.. Moreover, academic life is often lonely and comes bundled with a whole set of hidden administrative (and depending on the person, teaching) nuisances.

I’ll explore these and continue with my discussion of curiosity in my next post

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There is a question in my life that keeps consistently coming back to haunt me. That question — always a product of much existential pain — demands a very simple choice from me: shall I talk or shall I fully embrace the solitude of silence?

It’s difficult to paint the full picture of the world — my world! — which keeps me repeatedly wishing to disengage and simply let the world go. But I shall try nonetheless. At the very least, it might help me clarify my feelings better.

The Rancor

Some of the more highly idealist people frequently ask: is it not painfully frustrating how divided the world is? Why can’t we just love each other? Why can’t we all forego our differences?

It is a natural reaction against the conflict in the world. I used to have it too. I wished for some sort of final agreement which would put the rancor to an end and let us love each other.

Then, gradually, I grew up. I matured a bit. In the process, I began to see that disagreement was unavoidable — people’s experiences  and interpretations thereof could never align completely. And there was no need to, anyway. Different perspectives are an asset not a liability.

Yet, I began to see something else too. Even if homogeneity and agreement were impossible and even undesirable, that still didn’t justify the world as it is. The conflict, the wars, the disagreements over politics, religion, and everything else — these were more than mere intellectual disagreements. They were not driven by curiosity. Nor were they pursued in good faith. No one loses friends over curiosity. But I’ve lost friends over politics and ideology… and not in a gradual losing-common-interests kind of way, but in a off-to-the-gulags kind of one . Continue reading Is Speaking Even Worth It Anymore?

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In this (last) post in my series on the is/ought problem (part 1, part 2, neither strictly necessary, but read them anyway for definitions and background on the problem), I wanted to approach problem from a different angle.

Thus, in this post I shall not venture into epistemology, but instead present what I currently see as the best possible defense of holding moral beliefs which are not mere opinions, but also potentially binding for others too. (so you can say to another, “don’t steal” and that has a different feel to it than “don’t make funny faces to strangers” or “don’t order their sushi, but the fried chicken”)

Now, it’s hardly news in the 21st century that without religion and god, the common picture of the world one gets from modern western culture has a significant nihilistic vibe to it. We might speak of morals, but everybody disagrees about them. And the people whose moral convictions seem deepest are precisely the religious people whom western culture has long since proclaimed wrong and out of touch. And if religious morals are shaky, what shall we say about secular ones? A single look at the diversity of the world’s cultures is enough to indicate that there are hardly any sacred moral laws humans all independently agree on.

So, is there anything at all one could say about morality? Is it all just arbitrary social convention predicated on power relations and nothing more? Could we really object, in moral terms, to even the seemingly most horrific of acts? Or is it all just emotional biases upon emotional biases that make us feel like certain actions are genuinely evil? Could one person be ever justified in saying another person’s actions are morally wrong? Or is everything a matter of preference and mere disagreement, essentially nothing any different from supporting your favorite sports team? Continue reading Grounding a Sensible Morality Based on What Truly Is

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“How should I act in the world?” — probably the single most important question any one of us faces in our lives. Yet, in the real world, most people don’t really bother thinking too much about it. Quite understandably, one might say. After all, there are bills to pay, kids to feed and billion other small things.

Nonetheless, I still feel like, even amidst the chaos of everyday worries, one can greatly benefit from having a large-scale orientation to their actions. There has to be a method to our day-to-day madness. We cannot simply go aimlessly through life forever. And so, even the most practical of men would find it useful to have at least an inkling of an answer to how they should or ought to act.

Now, because it is so universal and evergreen, the question itself is far from new. Nor are the basic types of answers one can give to it. Religions and ideologies throughout history have all attempted to establish an ethical cornerstone on which one can base one’s life. We all know the important concepts: God, community, humankind, love, compassion, consciousness, equality, freedom, yourself. Depending on where you stand politically and philosophically, you probably believe you should act in accordance with / for the benefit of a quite few of these.

Yet, besides our emotional desires and fascination with these concepts, there are problems lurking in the shadows. 

Superficially, many concepts sounds pretty great. God is all-loving, freedom ensures lack of oppression, equality guarantees lack of discrimination. But as soon as one starts delving deeper into each of these concepts, the whole idea starts to fall apart. The edges become blurry and far from evidently good. Ask a committed atheist if God is good, a left-wing protester about freedom or a right-wing one about equality and you’ll soon be faced with the realization that every single guiding idea we have sucks if taken to an extreme (or, at the very least, is far from obviously good). Most people realize that wisdom is about combining a few basic ideas and adding footnote after footnote, but for the more philosophically minded even this approach remains a bit too unsophisticated. Continue reading Bridging the Is/Ought Divide and Other Simple Questions

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Yesterday, I watched a pretty interesting conversation/debate between Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel. Naturally — at least for a talk starring two tech billionaires — tech, politics and Silicon Valley were all prominent topics of discussion.

To people even mildly familiar with Silicon Valley, it is clear that this discussion was a microcosm of the much larger real-life clash between Silicon Valley orthodoxy (Reid Hoffman) and the inconvenient contrarians (Peter Thiel). I say inconvenient because, were it not for his wealth and prior reputation, Peter would have been ousted from the Valley a long time ago. As lawsuits like the one by James Damore demonstrate, anyone who is considered “non-diverse” enough (or god forbid, conservative-leaning) is to keep silent at the workplace unless they want to know how it felt to be seen a witch back in the day.

This unspoken reality of the US tech scene is what makes it impossible to maintain the illusion that Silicon Valley is dedicated to tech, first and foremost. The result: you can love tech today and still essentially be denied or basically driven out of it if you are found guilty of wrongthink. What is worse, sometimes you don’t even have to think wrong to become an undesirable. It’s enough to look wrong too (for then you lack the life-serum of “diversity”). Continue reading Silicon Valley Hypocrisy

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Here’s an interesting question: can sex help us find ourselves? In other words, besides the external practical knowledge about bodies, their movements and the various different ways to please, does sex also provide us with internal wisdom about who we really are?

In some sense, it wouldn’t be a lie to immediately answer yes and ask back: how could it not? After all, there are nuggets of wisdom in pretty much every conscious human activity. Do something long enough and you’ll learn not only its essence, but also what it is to learn something new, acquire discipline, achieve mastery and find meaning along the (at times inevitably difficult) way.

The question then takes a more refined form: how can one use sex to learn more? Continue reading Sex as a way to Individuality — Using Sex to find out Who You Truly Are

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As someone who’s always carried in his heart a great dose of curiosity and a desire to hear and express new opinions, I have always felt intuitively drawn to the concept of freedom of speech. 

In fact, the political considerations and importance of it only really became clear to me at a later stage in my life. Prior to that, it was my love for ideas that was the source of my commitment to free speech.

Sadly, free speech is increasingly being threatened in the modern world. In fact, to be frank, I am really talking about the U.S. here — most other countries in the world have never quite committed themselves to the principle in the first place. European countries, let alone other non-Western ones, have multiple times shown their willingness to censor speech and shut down minority views. And so my U.S.-centrism in this article is simply the natural result of my beloved First Amendment and the freedoms it protects.

So, this is ultimately why It hurts me greatly to see the onslaught of anti-free-speech arguments circulating in the U.S. intellectual sphere these days. It’s truly a scary thing to witness — how an authoritarian anti-speech ideology is openly advocating for censorship.

The truth is, the arguments given against free speech are not in themselves too surprising. They all basically argue the same thing: free speech is not compatible with comfort, safety or dignity. And historically speaking, this is why virtually all prior and current human societies have always tried to restrict the words people can utter in public. It seems that people are finally realizing that freedom of speech is not a societal free lunch, but rather a nuanced and radical idea. The problem is, many of the radicals today are fast beginning to reject it.

So, what’s so problematic about free speech that people are beginning to question it? Continue reading In Defense of Free Speech

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One of my favorite pastimes has always been exploring my local area. Whether it be on foot, on a bike or with the aid of a vehicle, a boat or a train, seeing what’s out there has never failed to lure me. You could call it wanderlust, but one label could never quite describe it, neither explain the philosophical significance of it.

As I was on one of my regular walks yesterday, the desire for solitary wandering unexpectedly overtook me and I started walking along the railways near my city. Step by step, the city started to fade away and disappear from my surroundings — first on the right and then on the left. It was still afternoon, and, because it’s winter here, quite chilly. Yet I didn’t care. The excitement of walking along a new and unknown path, combined with the necessity to always be on the lookout for giant moving pieces of metal, or trains as we normally call them, naturally heightened my senses. Thus, as soon as the buzz of the city died down, and Nature revealed itself, I was ready to experience it. Continue reading Wanderlust — Integrating Life and the Unknown

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These days it seems ever more trendy to find novel ways of bashing masculinity. The narrative has been so skewed by ideology that any out-in-the-wild masculine behavior is seen as wrong or misguided. Guys are told to be more caring, less aggressive and more vulnerable. They are told they are toxic and that’s the reason why the world is bad as it is.

Frankly, such patronizing talk is quite annoying. Especially so, when no one on the other side seems to consider that there are good reasons why men behave the way they do.

Incidentally, I am far from ecstatic about the term “masculinity” and its use as a prescription of certain male behaviors. Yet, there are certain patterns one cannot help but recognize among most men, the few exceptions to them notwithstanding.

I wanted to write this post because I have spent years trying to understand what it means to be a man and why certain things appeal to me and others don’t. Throughout this journey, I have seen and heard many opinions about masculinity. Sadly, very few of them rang true. At least to a young guy like me, most things said out there about what being a man means seems at best out of touch and at worst a malicious attack on what is construed as an ideologically problematic group of people.

I want to stress this last word: people. It’s a sign of the times that this needs saying, but: men are people too. In other words, we do make mistakes and our views are not always right. But the same applies for women and everyone in general. To single out the bad without acknowledging the good in a person is not only to be biased and unfair, but to demand perfection in a world which has none.

Before I begin, I want to stress out that I understand the topic naturally involves generalizing statements which I’d prefer not to make. But the term masculinity is itself a sort of generalization  which we as men supposedly all possess. And since that is the language of the accusations leveled against men, that will naturally be mine too (even if I’d much rather deal with separate individuals as opposed to abstract groups)

With that said, let’s talk about men. And what better place to start than the much discussed male sexuality. Continue reading Modern Lies about Masculinity

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