Are We Counting on Kim Kardashian to Fix Criminal Justice?

She's doing great and important work, but what does that say about our justice system?

the Independent

Over the past two years, Kim Kardashian West has made her brand synonymous with criminal justice reform.

Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that she has subsumed the criminal justice cause into her brand. Her colossal celebrity status has already proven its power by elevating her entire family to the height of reality TV royalty—even providing the springboard for the world's youngest "self-made" billionaire. Combine that with her legal ambitions and husband Kanye West's strange position as the most prominent black celebrity to join the MAGA cause, and she is suddenly positioned perfectly to work as an advocate fighting wrongful convictions and excessive sentencing.

Beginning with convincing Donald Trump to pardon Alice Johnson—who was serving a life sentence for non-violent drug offenses in the 1990s—Kardashian West has had a string of high-profile successes in her advocacy. She was instrumental in getting President Trump to negotiate A$AP Rocky's release from a Swedish prison, and helped secure early release for Momolu Stewart. She is starring in a forthcoming documentary with Oxygen called Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project, has partnered with Lyft in a program to provide former inmates with free rides to job interviews, and according to MiAngel Cody—lead counsel of the Decarceration Project—was involved in freeing 17 inmates from prison over a three month period. So perhaps it's no wonder that Kardashian West was present at the pivotal moment in another high-profile case this week.

At the center of the case, Rodney Reed, a man sentenced to death for the rape and murder of Stacey Stites. He was scheduled to be executed this Wednesday in Texas, despite multiple witnesses coming forward with testimony against the victim's then-fiancé—Jimmy Fennel, a former cop who has since been convicted of rape in a separate case—and despite the fact that no DNA tests were ever performed on the murder weapon. The case has prompted a massive online movement and several petitions for Governor Greg Abbott to grant Reed a stay of execution. Is it a coincidence then, that when that stay of execution finally came through, Reed was meeting with none other than Kim Kardashian West?

Kim Kardashian in prison jumpsuit

It very well might be, but considering the monolithic force that Donald Trump represents within the modern Republican Party—and the amount of sway that Kim and Kanye seem to have over Trump—it's not hard to imagine that a Republican governor could give such a case some extra consideration when Kardashian West is involved. At the very least, the timing is curious, but if we're going to believe that Kim Kardashian West is in some way responsible for the governor's sudden moral turn, we have to consider what that means for our criminal justice system.

Was a petition signed by nearly three million concerned citizens not compelling enough for Governor Abbott to give the evidence another look? As Kim herself put it "you had everyone from Ted Cruz to Shaun King on this case," yet it wasn't until she was meeting with Reed that his stay came through. More to the point, in a state that executes more prisoners than any other, shouldn't the governor give thorough consideration to each of these lives, regardless of public outcry? Shouldn't the entire justice system be willing to reexamine its past decision to eliminate bias and use the best evidentiary standards available today? If we are going to spend billions of dollars each year keeping people locked away from their former lives, shouldn't we be willing to spend the money to ensure that those people are guilty of the crimes they're being punished for?

Kim Kardashian taking selfie with inmates

The work that Kardashian West has been doing for criminal justice is genuinely amazing. For someone who, not that long ago, seemed like a purely vapid symbol of the disease of celebrity worship, she has managed to channel her status into an immense amount of positive change in a very short time. I would never want to say anything to discourage her from continuing—or other celebrities from following suit—but it still feels important to point out that this is not the way criminal justice is supposed to work.

kim kardashian what to say gif

The difference between a person's freedom and imprisonment should not be subject to the attention of someone with 100 million followers on Instagram. Justice should not be as fickle as fashion trends. We can't rely on Gigi Hadid to get woke so we can end the carceral state. I don't have a better solution. I don't have the Kardashian-level status to even propose one seriously. I just think it's important for us to all take a moment, before we go back to praising Kim's work, to just acknowledge that this is f*cked up.


The Drug of Escapism: Why Gamers Can't Stop Watching Porn

Porn videos games and video game themed porn are suddenly on the rise.

One of the biggest things that sets Millenials and Gen Z apart from previous generations is their relationship with technology, a common critique being that video games have replaced real life for many young people, particularly young men.

It's true that many 20-and-30-somethings began playing video games when their brains were still malleable.This was before psychologists began raising concerns about the effect it may have on the brain, concerns that are now backed by a mountain of evidence. Frequent video game playing has been connected to a myriad of issues, including decreased life satisfaction, loneliness, decreased social competence, poorer academic achievement, increased impulsivity, increased aggression, and increased depression and anxiety.

These concerns have only been further highlighted in cultural conversation by the sheer number of people who play video games: 67% of Americans, to be exact, a number that has grown exponentially in recent years. Perhaps even more startling, according to Pew Research Center, 72% of men younger than 30 report playing games often. Scariest of all, Douglas Gentile, a psychologist who's been studying the effect of video games on the brain for decades, estimates that roughly 8.5% percent of young people who play video games in the United States are addicted — not including the number of people who are inevitably underreporting how much time they spend playing.

video game addicts

There's also plenty of evidence that video games can be a positive thing for brain development. According to Psychology Today, playing video games can help children develop "perception, attention, memory, and decision-making," as well as "logical, literary, executive, and even social skills."

But regardless of what side of the evidence you choose to believe, there's a new factor to consider in the conversation about video games' psychological effects: their relationship to porn. Most notably, according to a study by Laura Stockdale and Sarah M.Coyneif, playing an excessive amount of video games greatly raises your chances of becoming addicted to porn, and, likely, vice versa. This is because both sources of stimulus, primarily visual and aural, affect the same pleasure center in the brain, specifically the ventral striatum which helps elicit the good feelings you get when you do something good, can be done in the same environment (alone, in a technologically connected room), and are both sources of immediate satisfaction and escapism.

Prominent Stanford University psychologist, Phillip Zimbardo, conducted an in-depth study into 20,000 young men's relationships with video games and pornography. He said of the experiment: "Our focus is on young men who play video games to excess, and do it in social isolation - they are alone in their room. Now, with freely available pornography, which is unique in history, they are combining playing video games, and as a break, watching on average, two hours of pornography a week." He goes on to say, "It begins to change brain function. It begins to change the reward centre of the brain and produces a kind of excitement and addiction. Young men -- who play video games and use porn the most -- are being digitally rewired in a totally new way that demands constant stimulation. And those delicate, developing brains are being catered to by video games and porn-on-demand, with a click of the mouse, in endless variety."

As these commingled addictions develop, they soon (similarly to drug addictions) require greater and greater degrees of stimulation to get that same chemical release. But since these two addictions seem to affect similar demographics and often coincide with one another disproportionately, there's something that sets them apart from other forms of addiction. According to Zimbardo, porn and video game addictions are "arousal addictions," which differ from drug and gambling addictions in that the attraction is in "the novelty, the variety or the surprise factor of the content." So while drug addicts need increasing amounts of a substance to get high, they still crave the same substance over and over, while arousal addicts need an increasing intensity and variety of stimuli, as well as more and more.

This leads to a desire for increasingly intense stimuli, leading addicts to more violent and bizarre video games and porn in pursuit of novelty. Fascinatingly, and perhaps disturbingly, while these addictions are interwoven, they used to require separate stimuli to satiate — but even that's changing. In an inevitable progression, the two addictions have begun to seamlessly merge in the form of pornographic video games and video game-themed porn, allowing an addict to satiate both needs simultaneously, setting off a veritable fireworks display of dopamine responses — at least until the viewer becomes desensitized. For example, Fortnite-inspired porn is apparently so widely consumed that "Fortnite" was one of the top 20 most-searched terms on Pornhub in 2018, and in 2016, when Overwatch rose to popularity, searches for Overwatch porn jumped by 817% in a matter of months.

porn video games

Perhaps even more distressing is the advent of porn video games, where players take an active role in the plot of the explicit content they're viewing, perfectly intermingling the already connected addictions. While some of these games show consensual sexual intercourse, many do not. For example, RapeLay, produced in Japan, is a game where a player plays as a disembodied penis to simulate rape of a woman and her child daughters over and over again. There was a massive outcry against the game when it was released, ultimately causing Amazon to stop selling it — but not before millions and millions of people purchased the game.

As an article on the topic in Men's Health points out, this trend of combining two similar and symbiotic addictions is understandable as video games already often feature hyper-sexualized characters, porn is being watched more and more on video game consoles, and animated porn allows for a level of fantasy live-action porn can't reach. If your brain is lighting up in a similar way when you play video games and when you watch porn, of course you'll begin associating the two. Throw in the feeling of power that comes with having control over the results of the stimuli, as a player does in porn video games, and you have a perfect chemical spider web, one that ensnares young men in an endless and isolating cycle of escape.

There are legitimate physical issues that can result from addictions of this kind. There's evidence that it can lead to debilitating sexual dysfunction in young men, called porn-induced erectile dysfunction (PIED), a term coined by Dr. Abraham Morgentaler, an associate clinical professor of urology at Harvard Medical School — an affliction that can get worse as a video game addiction feeds off a porn addiction in a vicious cycle of dopamine release. Many doctors are reporting that more young men than ever before are coming to them with ED, and they think the cause is, at least in part, because of this rise in virtual escapism in young men. "I have absolutely seen a pretty drastic increase in ED rates among young men, especially in the last two, three years," says sex therapist Vanessa Marin. "My average client base is starting to get younger and younger."

man on phone during sex

Even more troublingly, Zimbardo concludes that the effects go even deeper, and that this toxic combination creates a "generation of risk-averse guys who are unable (and unwilling) to navigate the complexities and risks inherent to real-life relationships, school and employment." Of course, this estimation doesn't take into account countless other factors at play in the lives of young men, not to mention the risk that comes with shaming people for sexual exploration. As Dr. Marin goes on to say, "We're not having any conversations about what are healthy ways to engage in porn. So no one has a general sense of what's healthy and unhealthy when it comes to porn. And of course it's not black and white either, but I do see a lot of younger men engaging in porn in ways that aren't healthy, in ways that make it more difficult for them to connect with partners and make it more difficult to engage in their own healthy sexuality."

Perhaps the same can be said of video games, that are treated dismissively by parents, as a quirk of young men that should be, for the most part, discouraged until outgrown. Perhaps, the culturally polarized narrative surrounding video games and porn is part of the problem, and the conversation we need to be having is how young men can indulge in video games and explore their sexuality, without the shame that can often foster addiction — and without letting it consume their lives.


In Defense of Stanning Serial Killers: Twitter's #TedBundy vs. #CharlesManson Is a Symptom of Post-Irony

In online post-irony media, empathy gets lost in our nihilism, and we mock the idea of a moral world by stanning serial killers.

Thanks to Investigation Discovery, the murder channel where any struggling actor has a chance to die in a grainy reenactment, #TedBundy was trending once again.

The ID documentary, Ted Bundy: Mind of a Monster, aired on Sunday night as the first segment of a new true crime anthology in which each episode "explores the inner workings of America's most infamous serial killers." People on Twitter were predictably mad, condemning the media's obsessive coverage of Ted Bundy. Indeed, he's been treated like an American outlaw and anti-hero rather than a rapist, pedophile, and necrophiliac who confessed to murdering over 30 women throughout the 1970s. But while many oppose pop culture's glamorization of mass murderers, certain niche communities on Twitter, namely self-proclaimed serial killer "stans," took issue with something else entirely: Who's more glam, Ted Bundy or Charles Manson?

Yes, it appeared that Manson fans and Bundy fans feuded over which of their favorite homicidal all-stars was the baddest bitch around. One of the earliest Tweets to mobilize murder "stans" came from a K-Pop fan account for the girl group BlackPink. Later, the user scoffed at people taking their trolling so seriously, but the damage was done. The notion that "Charles Manson walked so that Ted Bundy could run bitch sit down," brought "Ted Nation" (no, we're not kidding) out to battle.

Granted, some opted to mix reason and logic into their trolling, declaring their love for Hannibal Lecter, the "supreme FICTIONAL serial killer, who has the superior courtroom fancam."

Have we become so desensitized to chaotic violence (with more mass shootings so far in 2019 than there have been days in the year), so immersed in doomsday thinking (what with the "existential threat" of climate change looming over us until 2050), and so acclimated to daily human rights abuses and obfuscation of truth that human decency is a social construct now, and murder is sexy?!

No, not really. We've always been this gross, but now we have the Internet.

Executed by electric chair on January 24, 1989, Ted Bundy has been resurrected in the public eye by this year's Netflix documentary, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, and a feature film starring Zac Efron, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Accordingly, there's been a resurgence of Bundy-shaped hybristophilia, a sexual paraphilia and cultural phenomenon in which an individual derives sexual arousal and pleasure from having a sexual partner who is known to have "committed an outrage or crime, such as rape, murder, or armed robbery." They are, by and large, female (like Carol Ann Boone, who fell in love with and conceived Bundy's child while he was on death row), and they're commonly referred to as "prison groupies," "serial killer groupies," and now: serial killer stans.

And let's not forget Quentin Tarantino's recent revisionist history take on the Manson Family's murder of Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, projected to become his highest-grossing film. Manson is also featured in season 2 of Netflix's crime drama Mindhunter, in which Damon Herriman plays the cult leader as a captivating madman.

But Twitter's collective recoil at young women expressing attraction to serial killers also fuels trolls, who love to goad people into outrage––this time, by posing as Ted Bundy and Charles Manson "stan" accounts.

"Ted Nation" coming for Manson stans began as an inside joke. As one Bundy stan told Rolling Stone (anonymously, of course): "Basically, me and a small group of friends had a long running inside joke over who would win in a fight: Ted Bundy or Charles Manson. It was all 100% ironic and it was about six people in the group the first day." Allegedly, the origin was just a group chat among friends, but then, he says, "Random people obviously found out and made more accounts, a lot of them being actually serious, which I found out this morning when I deactivated my Ted account." The unnamed source added, "A lot of people called us disgusting and told us to get raped or kill ourselves. But we kinda justified this by telling ourselves 'Well, we know we don't actually stan him' and knowing we were just parodies."

But in the age of online irony poisoning and millennial angst-induced nihilism, parody of a real phenomenon is tantamount to the real deal. #TedBundy soon became dominated by people expressing their outrage and disgust over people turning serial killers into lawless, cowboy-esque cultural icons, "parody" or not. Many posts are similar to this one: "Just so we're clear, this man was not a hero. Ted Bundy wasn't someone who was kind or special. He was a misogynist who enjoyed murdering women. He wasn't some playful scamp, so please consider his victims."

Others pointedly re-directed conversations about serial killers' "legacies" to the remembrance of their victims.

"Stanning" serial killers is both a real neurosis and a script with which to act out the glitchy psychology of modern life. On the one hand, it's a deeply unsettling phenomenon that has occurred time and time again when violent men become spectacles of psychosis and societal antipathy. At the same time, bored social scientists have long pointed out that intense celebrity fan worship is correlated with mental health, as "individuals with high levels of celebrity worship are more likely to have poorer mental health as well as clinical symptoms of depression, anxiety, and social dysfunction."

But with the Internet's labyrinthine folds of irony, cynicism, alienation, and our underlying need to make sense of chaos and disorder, we pretty much trust nothing. Why not make a mockery of worship by pretending to worship the darkest sides of humanity? Or mock the idea of a just, moral world by elevating immorality? Everything we've traditionally worshiped as a society, from government to religion, has seemed to fail us, so why not invest your time in boy bands and beauty gurus, conspiracy theories and real-life boogeymen?

Surely, the answers have something to do with respecting victims' memories and their surviving family members, with not glorifying abject violence as not to encourage unhinged individuals to act on their impulses. But amidst tribalist political divides and human rights becoming a social construct, empathy seems to be a sacrifice of the post-irony, modern glitch. Giving into it and joining (or even laughing at) the joke might make us complicit in all the problems we're supposedly fed up with, but then again, it's Twitter: Some people are just assh*oles.