The Danger of Believing That People Are “Genuinely Good”

Here’s what I was thinking as I watched Twitter thoroughly critique Peeple, a new app that promises to let people “rate” other people like restaurants on Yelp without any option to opt-out: If only all of us were still able to be so naive.

Personally, I’m far from the only person who thinks that Peeple sounds like Regina George’s Burn Book in digital form:

But Peeple’s founders have such rosy ideas about how their app is likely to be used that it’s making me wish I could hide under whatever rock they’ve been hiding under. You don’t even have to have faced online abuse to figure out that people are going to use an app like Peeple to make each other’s lives a living hell (and no, not deservedly). If you aren’t already familiar with how terrible this app is, Ana Mardoll did an excellent summary on Twitter starting here.

In the typical condescending and difficult-to-parse style of their social media posts, the founders claimed that “People are genuinely good even though Yelp has over 47 million reviews and all the users are anonymous and in that 47 million reviews there are 79% positive reviews.” Since it’s apparently not obvious, here’s the difference: most people have little incentive to trash a business on Yelp unless they really did have a pretty bad experience there. Even if they do trash a business on Yelp with no justification, though, it’s probably not going to be that big a deal. The business may lose some potential customers, which does suck, but chances are the unfair review will be overshadowed by more reasonable ones anyway.

When you’re rating people and not businesses, things change. First of all, it gets personal. People want to get back at their exes, abusers want to abuse, stalkers want to stalk. Second, one “bad review” on someone’s Peeple page can be enough to cost them their job, their family (if they get outed, for instance), their friends (if they get falsely accused of abuse by their actual abuser, which is a thing that abusers do). Women, people of color, and marginalized groups will inevitably get targeted by MRAs, Stormfront, or whatever the creepy stalker-y death threat-y regressive group du jour is. Bad reviews of businesses have typically gone viral because those businesses have acted in discriminatory or otherwise unfair ways, but people have gone viral for things as innocuous (and irrelevant to normal people who have shit to do besides stalking people they don’t like) as speaking at a feminist rally, being a bad date, or simply existing. I’m not going to link to examples, because that would perpetuate that abuse. Do some Googling if you don’t believe me.

The Peeple founders don’t seem to see it that way. Based on their posts, they seem to envision the app’s users as good citizen types who primarily want to use the app to bolster the reputations of people they like. Sometimes, of course, there may be bad reviews, but those are surely deserved, and if you think you don’t deserve your bad review, well, you can always just defend yourself in the court of public opinion, and certainly whoever is Objectively Right will prevail in the end. In another one of their bizarre Facebook posts, they write:

We have come so far as a society but in a digital world we are becoming so disconnected and lonely. You deserve better and to have more abundance, joy, and real authentic connections. You deserve to make better decisions with more information to protect your children and your biggest assets. You have worked so hard to get the reputation you have among the people that know you. As innovators we want to make your life better and have the opportunity to prove how great it feels to be loved by so many in a public space. We are a positivity app launching in November 2015. Whether you love us or our concept or not; we still welcome everyone to explore this online village of love and abundance for all.

A “positivity app”? In what universe? Not the one I’m living in.

I do, actually, believe that most people are generally trying to do the right thing. I get asked all the time how I could possibly believe that given what I see and what I write about, but I do and that’s a whole other article. But I also know that it only takes a few people with bad intentions to cause serious damage to others and to the world in general, and I also know how cognitive bias works. Maybe the disconnect between people like me and people like the ones who founded this app is that they think it would take some Hitler type to go on there and intentionally ruin someone’s life, but it really wouldn’t. All it takes is a man raised to believe that women owe him sexual access, or a jilted ex who doesn’t want anyone else to go through what they had to go through, or someone who’s under the mistaken impression that a coworker who messed up and caused the team’s project to fail deserves to never work in the field again. Someone who gets angry and says some things they later regret, only now it’s been screencapped and posted on 4chan along with the target’s credit card number and home address. Someone who believes that they’re saving countless unborn lives when they slander an abortion provider. Someone who thinks that feminists are so dangerous to the very fabric of society that they’d be justified to use any means, no matter how dishonest, to stop them.

It’s not like these things aren’t already happening. This would just make it even easier. And none of the safeguards that the Peeple founders are claiming to be implementing actually seem like they’d make much of a difference. For instance, they say that negative reviews won’t appear unless you claim your profile and thus allow them to show up, but someone could always just give you 10/10 stars and then write a bunch of shit about you. (And they don’t seem to understand that even positive reviews from total strangers, that you did not consent to have sent to your phone, can be ridiculously boundary-crossing and unwelcome. Haven’t either of them ever experienced street harassment?) They say that you have verify that you’re over 21, but nowhere do they say that you have to verify that your target is over 21. You can use this website to bully a child. They say that you have to use your Facebook profile to review people, as if that’s some sort of reassurance. I’ve seen rape threats from people whose full names were attached. They’re not afraid; they have institutional power behind them.

And that’s why I say it must be nice to be as naive as the Peeple founders apparently are. To not know this shit is going on? To not have to try every day to reconcile that with your belief that everyone has some good in them. To not live in fear of the day you piss off the wrong white man with an internet connection and plenty of spare time.

If Peeple is really going to be so “positive,” then why shouldn’t it be an opt-in service? Why wouldn’t everyone want to create a profile so that they can receive these wonderful compliments from their friends and lovers and that one random neighbor they talked to on the sidewalk once? I think on some level, the founders realize that they wouldn’t. They can’t make the app opt-in because then it’d never work. Most of us who’ve been around the online block have reacted to the whole thing with horror and revulsion. The only way the app’s creators can get it to work is by violating people’s consent and essentially forcing them to participate. I fail to see the “positivity” in that.

I get the urge to develop technological solutions to the problem of people being assholes. I really do. It would be great if we could never again date someone who sucks in bed, or hire a babysitter who plops the kids in front of the TV and then spends the rest of the night on Facebook, or befriend someone who will spill our secrets or take us for granted, or live with a roommate who never does their dishes. These things are at best annoyances and at worst serious life-fucking sorts of things.

But more surveillance of each other is not the solution. Heed the warnings of people who know what it is to be surveilled. Read 1984 if that’s what floats your boat. These tools will inevitably be used for abuse, and that’s not worth making sure that your next partner is good in bed.


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A Boy and His Droid

[CN: apocalypse, starvation, mentions of violence and cannibalism]

Recently my friend Michael Nam posted this drawing he’d made in Other Worlds: A SF/F Community, a group we’re both in, as a writing prompt. After just a brief look at it, a story wrote itself in my head. Here it is.

A drawing of a boy with a large gorilla-shaped robot.

I was alone, completely alone, in the wasteland. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen a human being, but it must’ve been months ago. In the few years since the world fell apart, I had only met a few other people. Most had either tried to kill me for my body and my food, or they had been too weak and close to death to attempt it.

I didn’t have to fight them, though. Atlas, my droid bodyguard, took care of that for me. Atlas was built like the gorillas I had seen in my school texts–big, powerful animals that had lived long ago. He usually walked on his arms and legs, but could raise himself up to swing his massive arms at anyone who tried to hurt me or take my things. Yet his gaze, when he turned it towards me, was gentle and kind. His peaceful presence protected my spirit just as his strength and willingness to use it protected my body.

Before, anyone who could afford it had had a bodyguard like mine. It was the only way to stay alive and whole as our society had teetered, jerking and thrashing, towards its inevitable collapse.

Even though our homes were sealed and protected, hackers always found ways through our security systems. Children were kidnapped and ransomed, adults were more often robbed and killed outright. The smarter hackers figured out how to disable people’s bodyguards. The ones who weren’t so smart tried to fight and destroy them.

Sometimes, though, they succeeded. Desperation is what leads a frail, starving person to attack a 700-pound mass of steel programmed to defend its charge. It can also be what leads them to win.

I wasn’t much interested in other people back then. When I wasn’t attending my virtual classes or doing my homework, I was usually immersed in some game or novel on my headset. In those games I was always a loner, too, exploring a nuclear desert or fighting aliens on a spaceship with no crew. As bad as the world outside of virtual reality got, I never thought it would become so much like my games.

Besides reading and gaming, I spent a lot of time back then tinkering with Atlas. That’s probably what saved my life more than anything. I learned his code, made him smarter and more perceptive. I tried to teach him to think more like a human and less like a machine, to make choices that made rational sense rather than logical sense. I also gave him solar panels, which is how he gets his power now. That’s why he’s the only droid bodyguard left. The rest ran out of juice long ago. He scavenges their parts, now.

Most other children in our community didn’t care much about their bodyguards. They treated the droids as objects that were just there, like any other security system, like a locked door or a set of armor. I don’t think any of them ever learned how to program them. They all called the droids “it,” never gave them names.

The children in my virtual classes ridiculed me constantly for referring to Atlas as “they” rather than “it.” I didn’t understand what was so funny. “They” was the standard pronoun we used for someone who hadn’t told us their gender, and Atlas hadn’t told me his yet. So how else would I refer to him?

Later, one day not long after the collapse, I asked Atlas if he had preferred pronouns. It was evening. Like many evenings, we were spending it sitting quietly in the remains of a building we’d found, trying to conserve our limited and precious energy. Despite the darkness, it was warm. I didn’t know what season it was supposed to be, but it’s always warm now. Atlas and I sat face to face, me with legs crossed and him with legs folded underneath him so he could leap to his feet and defend us at a moment’s notice.

I said, “Do you have pronouns that you like to use for yourself?”

“I have never really thought about that,” he said in the calm, gentle voice he uses when addressing me.

“But aren’t you thinking about it now?”

“Yes, I am now.”

I paused, even though I know that he thinks faster than any human being and had probably finished thinking about it before I’d even asked the second question.

“I will use the pronoun he,” he said after a moment.

And so he became he, to me.

Before the collapse he was a benevolent protector that I valued; after the collapse he became a companion. Once I no longer had the option of talking to other people, I started to want to, desperately. I spoke to Atlas for hours on end about the books I’d read, about the classmates I’d envied, about my parents that I’d respected and feared but never really loved, and now missed wretchedly.

Atlas rarely responded, but he listened. He always looked at me when I spoke to him, his bright blue eyes deeper and more soulful than a piece of machinery should ever be. Although I knew his code well, I understood then that knowing how words translate from one language into another isn’t the same as truly knowing that other language. I couldn’t know what was actually going on inside his processor, what his experience was like, how he felt. I felt silly for even thinking of it in those terms, but I had little else to think about besides my own survival. It took my mind off of things.

The most fundamental piece of a droid bodyguard’s programming is that they will protect their charge and their charge’s belongings. A droid bodyguard will seek to protect the person they’ve been assigned to while causing minimal harm to others, but they will injure, maim, and kill when necessary. A droid bodyguard treats their charge’s belongings as an extension of their charge’s body; they would no more allow someone to take their charge’s belongings than they would allow them to amputate and steal a part of their charge’s body.

If that sounds like an odd analogy, believe me, these things have happened.

They were programmed that way because, as food and water became scarce, defending what belonged to you became equivalent to defending your own life. It’s even more true now than it was before the collapse. If Atlas allowed someone to steal even part of my food, that could make the difference between surviving long enough to find more food, or not.

That’s the part of his programming I’ve never been able to alter, not that I would want to. Humans are not like droids that way. I have seen humans abandon all of their beliefs, all of their most sacred values, when the situation called for it.

Atlas and I spent most of our time walking or resting. There was no sense in staying in the same place once we’d found all the preserved food we were going to find. Sometimes we hunted and killed whatever small rodents managed to survive on whatever limp grass still grew.

I knew that some survivors had scavenged human bodies. I had not done that, not yet. Not because I was disgusted at the thought; I’ve been hungry enough that my disgust had dried up like the last stuttering streams and rivers. I was afraid of the possibility of dying in agony of whatever had killed them.

But with the passing years we were finding less and less food. There wasn’t much to begin with, and what was still left after the collapse had probably been found and consumed by people who were long dead of the diseases and poisons–natural and humanmade–that had consumed them in turn.

I held on, though, and Atlas was still able to get some sunlight despite the smogs. It was always a tradeoff: save energy but go hungry, or spend energy and risk wasting it on a fruitless search.

Despite everything, I kept tinkering with Atlas. It helped me feel like I could still leave my mark on this broken world. Atlas would endure far longer than I would. He didn’t need food, he was immune to sickness, and he could repair himself most of the time. Maybe one day there would be people again, and maybe Atlas would be alive to teach them about us and our mistakes.

Would he miss me?

Over time, Atlas started to speak more, sometimes without my prompting. He often pointed out what he saw as beauty in the world: a surviving dragonfly, a jagged cliff, a pink and purple sunset. Before I had treated the landscape around me as my enemy, as something that I had to defeat anew each day in order to survive. Atlas taught me to see it differently.

He started to tell me stories, too–stories of his time in the factory before he came to me, stories of other droids he had known. I wondered how much of these stories and the emotions in them was something he invented for my benefit; I’d put the code in him, after all. Or maybe he had always held these thoughts, but had been unable to speak them until I gave him the language to do it. I couldn’t know.

But the day I truly knew he had changed into something different was the day we found the person.

It was hot, so hot, although that barely registered anymore. That day there were almost no smogs, and the sun beat down on us as we crossed a wide expanse of dry, dusty earth with the faltering hopes that we’d find something on the other side. We were almost out of food. I hadn’t eaten in three days.

The only reason I believed I might live was because we had found a small pond the day before, and gathered water in plastic bags that we sealed and carried with us now. With water, we might yet make it.

Then I saw something dark a few hundred feet before us. I might have written it off as a log, had there been any trees anywhere near. There weren’t.

I walked faster, Atlas matching my pace with little effort. For me it was excruciating, but I had to see.

As I approached, the shape resolved itself into a small person, no bigger than me, lying on their side on the cracked earth. They were probably about my age, 12 or 13, with dark skin. Their short hair and tattered clothing were dark, too, though the clothes had clearly once been another color. They lay still, but I could see them breathing slowly.

For so long I had dreamed of seeing another person, but now I felt rooted to the ground like a dead tree, unsure of what to do. Should I wake them? Were they sick? Could I help? Would they attack?

I wasn’t sure I could bear the sight of Atlas killing yet another person.

But then Atlas did something I will never forget, not for as long as I live–short as that may be. He reached into my backpack and took out a can of chicken noodle soup, one of our last. He peeled the top off of the can. He slowly extended the can to the crumpled form in front of us, nudging the person gently with the can.

The person on the ground shifted and groaned. They raised themselves up on their arms and looked up. Finally noticing the can, they moved with a speed I hadn’t known they had, snatching the can from Atlas and drinking the soup until it was gone.

I glanced at Atlas. He looked back at me, blue eyes searching, questioning. Did I do the right thing? he seemed to be asking, although he did not speak. How had he done it? How had he taken from me to give to another?

The person on the ground was sitting with the empty can, staring at the two of us. They slowly brought themselves to their feet and closed the small distance between us. They took my hands in theirs and looked down on them as if to reassure themselves that my hands are real, that I am real.

They finally spoke: “I can’t believe I found you. I’ve been looking for you for so long.”

I understood what they meant. I felt such a warmth, then; such relief, such love. I withdrew my hands from the person’s grasp to throw them around their neck in embrace. They wrapped their arms around my waist and we held each other.

How long we stood that way, I could not tell you. But the sun started to fade and fall, and we needed to find shelter from the windstorms that would come. And so we set off together, Atlas’ lumbering form shielding us from the back. I felt a hope that I knew could not be fully rational, but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t alone anymore. I had found people.

Two of them.

Is Passion Necessary?

Lately I’ve been finding the idea that your work should be your passion about as oppressive as the idea that work should be boring well-paid drudgery or that you should pick your career based on what your father and his father and his father’s father did for a living.

I’m not even talking about the fact that only certain fortunate people even have the privilege of being able to choose to do something they love, although that’s also something that the Do What You Love crowd ignores.

I’m talking about the fact that when we accept the idea of your work being your passion, we accept unfair treatment of workers as a reasonable price to pay.

Whenever I mention (in some relevant context) that my field is underpaid, the response is often, “But at least you get to do What You Really Love!” They’ll sigh, and add, “I wish my work actually made a real difference. Instead I just sit in an office and move people’s money around.”

When I talk about the difficulties of living on a low salary and the lack of institutional support for the self-care our employers all patronizingly insist we prioritize, they say, “Well, that’s a small price to pay for getting to Follow Your Passion.”

(Actually, my work isn’t my passion. My passion is reading books and spending time with people I love, but nobody’s monetized that yet.)

I do love and enjoy my work, but I also really get a kick out of being able to pay off my student loan debt, take the occasional vacation, be allowed adequate time off to do all those Adult Things that can only be done during business hours, have my own apartment, and not worry about money all the time. That would really be fulfilling. You could almost say I have a passion for it.

The idea that Your Work Should Be Your Passion seems empowering on the surface. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone could get paid to do something they really love? How great would it be if you could spend most of your day actively making the world a better place, or whatever it is you care about most?

But if your work is your passion, then it won’t matter so much that it doesn’t pay that well…right? If your work is your passion, you might want to miss your kid’s sports game or musical performance so that you could stay a few hours late and keep working. And if you want to, surely it’s not too much to expect you to.

If your work is your passion, but suddenly you’re asking to work remotely or part-time because you just had a baby, maybe you’re just not that into your work anymore and your job should go to someone who’s more passionate.

If your work is your passion, then “attitude” matters more than actual competence. “Passionate” people are more fun to work with and we assume that they’ll be more dedicated to their job, so we hire people who are “a good fit for the company” rather than people who have a proven record of getting shit done.

Which leads into the other way that this emphasis on passion becomes counterproductive and ultimately harmful: the idea that “passion” is ultimately the reason people succeed.

Erik Devaney breaks this myth down in his article about passion and work:

Ultimately, the role passion plays in a person’s success depends on the context of that person’s unique situation.

For some folks, the road to success is smooth and straight, and being smart and hardworking and passionate can help those folks travel down that smooth and straight road even faster.

For others, the road to success is full of hurdles and potholes, and even if they’re just as smart and hardworking and passionate as the folks on the other road, they’ll never be able to catch up.

Life, as we all know, isn’t fair. But that doesn’t mean that the folks with the unfair advantages get to decide how everyone else thinks and feels.

Besides the fact that people with relatively little privilege face roadblocks that no amount of passion can overcome, this idea that passion is what makes for success also masks the often massive amount of practice and skill-building involved. And that, ironically, is easier to do than to force yourself to feel passionate about something you’re just not passionate about. Changing behavior tends to be easier than changing feelings, and pretending that your feelings are other than what they are can be counterproductive. Ferrett writes:

“Look,” I said.  “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to stay in better touch with your friends.  But what you’re doing is this fucked-up equation where you go I miss my friends == I need to use the Internet == I want to use the Internet.  And because you think the only way to do something is to be the sort of person who wants to do it, you’re psyching yourself up to be something you’re not.”

“…this is like the way you hate exercise, isn’t it?”

“Fucking loathe it.  Went for a hard twenty-minute workout on the elliptical this morning.  Hated it every step of the way.  I realize I hate exercise so much I literally have to do it right after I wake up, because if I hold off until my brain comes online I’ll manufacture good excuses why I don’t have to work out all day.   I can only get exercise because I’ve acknowledged that I fucking hate doing it.”

You can, in fact, do things you’re not passionate about–even things you dislike–in order to achieve something you do really care about. You may not be passionate about playing scales on the piano for hours, but you’re passionate about the beautiful music you’ll create as a result. There’s no point in obscuring the fact that becoming a talented pianist requires more than just PASSION, but also a lot of rather boring hard work.

Many people would argue that if you don’t enjoy doing something, you shouldn’t choose it as your job. But that comes from the idea that Work = Passion and that things you’re not passionate about can never be things you’re good at and would be satisfied doing for money so that you can spend that money doing the things you are passionate about. In fact, the entire concept of being satisfied with your job rather than LOVING your job seems all wrong.

But it’s not. I know people who have pretty boring but acceptable jobs, who then go home and enjoy not worrying about putting food on the table. Instead, they do their hobbies, take vacations, spend time with their families, and donate to causes they care about.

The problems endemic in our approach to work were not caused by the idea that passion is mandatory, nor will they be fixed by taking a more reasonable view on passion’s role. (And they won’t be entirely fixed by better vacation policies or workplace discrimination laws, either.) Unfortunately, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

However, it pains me to see progressive folks perpetuating the myth that passion should be central to work. That makes it too easy to disregard unfair, exploitative, or even abusive working conditions. It asks people to accept receiving less than a living wage because getting to do What They Love ought to somehow make up the difference.

Loving my job doesn’t pay the rent. Loving my job won’t help when my job has taken over my life to such an extent that I can’t care for myself. Even if I love my job, it’s not the only thing in the world that I love.


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What We Can Learn From the Reproducibility Project

I have a new piece up at the Daily Dot about the Reproducibility Project and why psychology isn’t doomed.

The Internet loves sharing psychology studies that affirm lived experiences, and even the tiniest ticks of everyday people. But somewhere in the mix of all those articles and listicles about introverts, extroverts, or habits that “make people successful,” a debate still lingers: Is psychology a “real science?” It’s a question that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Last week, the Reproducibility Project, an effort by psychology researchers to redo older studies to see if their findings hold up, discovered that only 36 of the 100 studies it tested reproduced the same results.

Of course, many outlets exaggerated these findings, referring to the re-tested studies (or to psychology in general) as “failed” or “proven wrong.” However, as Benedict Carey explains in the New York Times, the project “found no evidence of fraud or that any original study was definitively false. Rather, it concluded that the evidence for most published findings was not nearly as strong as originally claimed.”

But “many psychology studies are not as strong as originally claimed” isn’t as interesting of a headline. So, what’s really going on with psychology research? Should we be worried? Is psychology a “hopeless case?” It’s true that there’s a problem, but the problem isn’t that psychology is nonscientific or that researchers are designing studies poorly (though some of them probably are). The problem is a combination of two things: Statistical methods that aren’t as strong as we thought and a lack of interest in negative findings.

A negative finding happens when a researcher carries out a study and does not find the effect they expected or hoped to find. For instance, suppose you want to find out whether or not drinking coffee every morning affects one’s overall satisfaction with their life. You predict that it does. You take a group of participants and randomly assign half of them to drink coffee every morning for a month, and the other half to abstain from coffee for a month. At the start and at the end of that month, you give them a questionnaire that assesses how satisfied each participant is with their life.

If you find that drinking coffee every day makes no difference when it comes to one’s life satisfaction, you have a negative result. Your hypothesis was not confirmed.

This result isn’t very interesting, as research goes. It’s much less likely to be published than a study with positive results—one that shows that drinking coffee does impact life satisfaction. Most likely, these results will end up gathering figurative dust on the researcher’s computer, and nobody outside of the lab will ever hear about them. Psychologists call this the file-drawer effect.

Read the rest here.

Asking, Guessing, and Crowdfunding

Periodically the debates about crowdfunding start up in my online space again; right now is one such time. I noticed a disconnect between the two “sides” of the debate that I wanted to address.

To clarify, I’m talking about crowdfunding in terms of individuals who do it for personal reasons–to pay medical bills, to care for a sick pet, to provide for their needs while they search for work, to complete a project they need or want to complete, and so on. I’m not talking about this sort of crowdfunding.

These conversations inevitably get bogged down in arguments over who “deserves” money and who doesn’t, who “really needs” the money and who doesn’t, which things are “legitimate” to ask for money for and which aren’t, etc. I don’t really find that interesting or relevant. I think that people should be honest when stating their reasons for asking for donations. For some people that’s “My baby and I are going to become homeless unless we get money for rent” and for some people it’s “I want to try this cool new thing but don’t want to risk thousands of dollars of my own money on it.” From there, it is each individual’s own responsibility to decide if they think it’s worth donating to this person’s fundraiser or not.

What I do find very interesting is that many people’s objections to this type of fundraiser are couched in language like “imposing” and “being rude.” That suggests that a conflict between ask culture and guess culture may be at play.

A summary:

In some families, you grow up with the expectation that it’s OK to ask for anything at all, but you gotta realize you might get no for an answer. This is Ask Culture.

In Guess Culture, you avoid putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes. Guess Culture depends on a tight net of shared expectations. A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t even have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer. Even then, the offer may be genuine or pro forma; it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept.

All kinds of problems spring up around the edges. If you’re a Guess Culture person […] then unwelcome requests from Ask Culture people seem presumptuous and out of line, and you’re likely to feel angry, uncomfortable, and manipulated.

If you’re an Ask Culture person, Guess Culture behavior can seem incomprehensible, inconsistent, and rife with passive aggression.

[Obligatory disclaimer that these two “Cultures” are simplifications and opposite ends of a spectrum; most people have some Askiness and some Guessiness to them, depending on context.]

Guessy people see [some] crowdfunding requests as inappropriate and invasive, especially given that many of that person’s friends probably have trouble with their finances as well. It is difficult for them to see a request for donations and not feel obligated to comply with it, and they assume that others are being similarly manipulated.

Asky people don’t understand what the issue is. Anyone is free to ignore the crowdfunding post and keep scrolling, or even unfriend the asker for good measure. Asky people try not to be overly concerned about other people’s finances; that’s their job to manage for themselves. To them, there’s no harm in asking as long as you aren’t manipulative about it and can take no for an answer.

I sympathize with Guessy people here because I know how that feels. When I did not trust myself to be able to set my own boundaries, I constantly saw others’ requests as impositions and wished they would stop making them. Even when I said no and had that no respected, I felt guilty for saying no and wished that others hadn’t put me in this awkward position. It seemed to me that the kind thing to do would be to not make your friends feel bad, and the way to do that would be to not ask them for things unless you’re pretty sure that they’re able and willing to say yes.

But while I sympathize, I don’t want Guess to be the norm, because I’ve also been on the other side. For instance, I went years without asking anyone out on a date because I was terrified that no matter how clear I was that no is an acceptable answer, I would make them feel bad and they would say yes out of guilt. I avoided asking people for help as much as possible. I didn’t pitch my writing to publications or offer myself as a conference speaker or ask anyone if they could listen to me vent for a while. (I still don’t really do the latter, but, I’m working on it.)

And, honestly, that sucked. You don’t get any awards for never making anyone feel even the slightest bit guilty. You also don’t go on a lot of dates, at least not with the people you really wish you were dating.

As important as it is to learn not to feel entitled to other people’s time, attention, help, money, etc., it’s equally important to learn how to see and acknowledge others’ needs without feeling obligated to fulfill them. It is really, really hard to be a person when you can’t do that; I know that from experience. And as this periodic shaming of people who request donations shows, it also sometimes makes it hard to be a person who treats others well. If we tell the people around us that they can’t ask for things because we find that too inconvenient, we perpetuate social norms in which people have to suffer alone.

What about people who ask for money they don’t really need? That’s where it comes back to honesty. People should be honest about why they’re asking for money; otherwise, it’s not a fair request and possibly even a scam. Lying and scamming is bad. But beyond that, I don’t really mind if someone decides that they’d really like a trip to Europe that they can’t afford but don’t exactly need; I will probably decide not to contribute to that fundraiser, then. Others may make a different choice. It’s their money.

In my experience, though, most requests for crowdfunding come from a place of need. Most people I’ve known who have had to ask for money online have thought about it very carefully, and often felt quite a bit of shame. It wasn’t a decision made lightly.

When I work with trauma survivors and people with mental illnesses, I’m struck by the fact that all of them, to a person, say that they feel ashamed of their feelings because others “have it worse.” Sometimes they name specific experiences others have had that are “worse,” and then, unbeknownst to them, a client with that exact “worse” problem tells me that they don’t have the right to be upset because–you guessed it–others have it worse.

I find that the same is true with many people who request money online. No matter how bad their situation is, they worry that others have it worse and maybe those are the people the money should be going to.

That’s why, if someone asked me for advice, I would say not to worry so much about who has it worse and ask for what you need. Someone who believes that solving poverty in Africa is the most/only important issue right now will probably not donate to your fundraiser, and that’s okay. We all have the right to ask, as long as we’re doing so in a way that allows people to say no.

And on the other side, those of us raised with Guessy norms should think critically when we feel that others are imposing. It’s a difficult balance, because boundaries are important, and those of us who have had boundaries crossed by askers in the past might find it especially difficult to find that balance. But the solution cannot be to expect people to never ask us for anything. I don’t think anyone actually wants to live with those social norms.

As someone who seems to straddle the boundary between Ask and Guess a lot, I have a complicated relationship with the idea of myself asking people for money. I do it with my Patreon, of course, but that feels more like giving people the option of paying me for work that I do that they benefit from, not “requesting donations.” But I’ve toyed with the idea of doing a GoFundMe to raise money to apply for American citizenship, which is extremely expensive and otherwise unaffordable for me. But it’s not food. It’s not shelter. I have permanent residency and will be fine without citizenship. Many people will not want to donate to that fundraiser. Others have specifically told me that the would, because they think that the country needs more citizens like me. That’s their choice, and they get to decide that that’s worth their money just like others get to decide that it’s not.

It seems overbearing and infantilizing to act like it’s my responsibility to make sure that others don’t spend money they don’t have. It’s true that not everyone is great at managing their money, but that doesn’t make it my responsibility (or my right) to try to manage it for them by assuming that they cannot handle seeing a request for donations in their Facebook feed.


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Not the Ethics We Need, But the Ethics We Deserve

Yesterday, Charles Clymer wrote on Facebook regarding the Ashley Madison hack:

The thing about the Ashley Madison leak that truly fascinates me is the hypocrisy of internet privacy activists, whom are predominantly male.

No, I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to judge every person who has “cheated” on their spouse or with someone who is married. People engage in infidelity for a lot of reasons. There are trapped relationships, repressed sexualities and gender identities, abusive marriages, etc. I get that “cheating” isn’t always black-and-white and that people have a right to privacy.

But what blows me away every time some internet privacy incident comes up is that so many of the same people who rant and rave about government surveillance or compromised private information or unauthorized data collection… are the same folks who will gladly share a nude picture of a woman whose computer or device has been hacked.

These are the same people who view celebrity women as commercial products and thus, not entitled to any privacy.

These are the same people who, because of whatever bullshit “friendzone” grudge they hold against women, seem to gleefully–even obsessively–post stories, anecdotes, videos or whatever about women who have been caught cheating.

And not because of some moral crusade against infidelity but because they feel the need to control, in however small a way, women’s sexuality. If they’re not getting any, neither should women.

If they feel they have been denied sex by the women of the world (apparently a collective), they’ll go out of their way to publicly humiliate women in compromising situations.

Can women be cheating assholes or abusive or simply awful human beings? Of course. Every rational adult knows this.

But these angry, insecure men who spend their waking hours glued to Reddit and 4chan aren’t rational. They don’t view women as having the potential to be assholes because they’re human beings; they view a woman as an asshole because to them, she’s a product who is expected to perform to their liking. A robot devoid of character and personality, dreams and nightmares, needs and wants.

This is about a vicious sense of entitlement to women’s minds and bodies by a large population who wield enormous influence over the primary means of communication among human beings.

It’s not just about hacking a nude photo or revenge porn or the unceasing stream of harassment women receive online.

It’s also about enabling a culture that communicates to men that it’s perfectly fine to assault, rape, and kill women for not giving you what you want.

This whole Ashley Madison fiasco is simply another illustration of male entitlement and rage over the loss of that entitlement.

So, yes… while it’s a bummer to see privacy violated, I’m not exactly inspired to “join the cause”.

Shoot me an e-mail when your ethics are consistent and don’t blatantly and violently discriminate against women.

Fine, I’ll bite, since it’s a little weird to have Charles Clymer tell me that my anger over the Ashley Madison hack is “simply another illustration of male entitlement and rage over the loss of that entitlement” (which, you know, I never had), and that I’m one of the people who looked at the leaked nude photos last summer. I didn’t–and in fact, have been speaking out against this sort of thing for years–but the conflation Charles makes in this post sure is a convenient way of avoiding the issue of privacy and online shaming.

Are there people who oppose the Ashley Madison hack but supported the celebrity nude photo leak? Certainly. Are there entitled, sexist men speaking out right now against the Ashley Madison hack? Certainly. Unfortunately, you’re going to find horrible people in just about any political camp, including the most feminist camps out there. (TERFs, anyone?) That other people are ethically inconsistent doesn’t mean I have to be.

When it comes to ethical consistency, which Charles is trying to lecture us about in this post, you have to support what’s right and oppose what’s wrong based on what’s right and what’s wrong, not based on what your friends and your enemies happen to be doing.

I’ve already stated my opposition to the Ashley Madison hack in a variety of ways, so here I want to get a little more meta and point out a disturbing trend that Charles Clymer is far from the only progressive writer to play into. That’s the idea that finally this whole sexual shaming thing is impacting straight white men, not just women, queer people, and people of color! Rejoice!

I think I won’t. Yes, I belong to some groups that have suffered for millennia because of the idea that our private sexual lives should be anyone else’s business and that we should be judged and punished for living those lives. And you know what? It gives me no joy to see this virus spread. Revenge may be a valid impulse, but it doesn’t tend to lead to a better world for anyone. I don’t want straight white men to have to deal with public sexual shaming. I don’t want anyone to have to deal with it. The fact that it’s starting to hurt them too is not a good sign! It means we’ve really started to accept this as just the way things are.

Further, everyone keeps conveniently ignoring the fact that straight white male lives were not the only ones potentially ruined by this hack. It is impacting LGBTQ people. It is impacting women. It is impacting people who did not join the site to cheat, but because they needed things to be “discreet” for some other reason, and if you really can’t imagine any other reason someone might need things to be discreet, well…what you lack in imagination, you make up for in privilege.

I do recognize that for some people, this hack turned out to be a good thing. The people who found out that their own ostensibly monogamous partners were cheating on them, for instance. Maybe the hack gave these people a way to get back control over their lives. It’s almost inevitable that unethical actions will genuinely benefit some people who themselves did nothing wrong; that’s one of the reasons ethics is hard. That’s why I didn’t really see anything wrong with people using the hack to find out if they were being cheated on.

As for all the people I know–many of whom I greatly respect–who were gleefully feeding their entire email address books into that app so that they could spy on the lives of their friends and acquaintances and that one random person they emailed once about a potential sublet, that only fills me with horror and fear. Horror that I have friends who care so little for others’ privacy; fear that one day I’ll get doxxed, and people I thought were my friends will cackle at their laptop screens as they violate my consent.

I keep coming back to this patronizing undertone in all this–that I should somehow be glad for this. That this is keeping people safe. That if we all watch each other, if our world becomes like a panopticon, then we can be safe from being cheated on, from being discriminated against, from being hurt. I don’t agree. I don’t want this. I didn’t ask for this. This does not feel safe to me. I would feel much more safe if we all just finally agreed that it is unacceptable to dox and shame people unless they present a real, direct threat to someone else. I do not feel safe when my friends say, “Well, we’d never dox you, you haven’t done anything bad.” But someone else thinks I have! Everyone has done something bad according to someone.

Sexual shaming is an old, old problem. For a while it seemed to be getting better, but now I’m not so sure. We’ve started to accept its premises rather than challenging them. Some of us celebrate the fact that people who were always safe from sexual shaming are no longer. That shows them, right? They deserve it after what they’ve done to us, right?

We’re in the middle of the ocean and the water’s streaming in through the cracks in the hull, but rather than patch them until we can get to safety and build a better ship, we’ve apparently decided to just sink the motherfucker along with everyone on it. Nobody gets any privacy! Everyone gets their sex lives posted online and scrutinized! Anyone can lose their livelihood–even their life–for doing a disapproved-of thing!

Is this what justice looks like to you? It’s at least a twisted sort of equality, I’ll give it that.

But some of us have boats and life jackets and others don’t. Some at least have a wooden plank to grab onto, and others don’t even have that. Who do you think will be the first to drown? Who will be able to float away to land? Most importantly, wouldn’t it have been better not to sink the ship to begin with?

This is what Charles Clymer refers to as “a bummer.”

Revenge may taste sweet, but it’s not nutritious. It won’t keep us alive. Only justice can do that.


Further reading: “Our Shared Affair: The Sexual Shaming Behind the Ashley Madison Hack” by Katherine Cross, who has seriously been a consistent breath of fresh air to me in all these discussions about online doxxing and shaming.


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Sexual Identity Labels Are Maps, Not Territory

Last month I wrote:

Sexual identity labels are maps, not territory. Anybody who claims that maps are useless has clearly never gone adventuring, and neither has anyone who claims that maps are a perfectly accurate representation of the territory.

This resonated with many of my friends (especially the adventuring sort), so I wanted to expand on this concept.

The map-territory distinction has a long history in fields like art, philosophy, and, presumably, geography. I don’t claim to be knowledgeable about all of that history, but the basic idea is that there is a reality, and there are our representations of that reality, and it’s important not to confuse one for the other.

There are two broad “camps” when it comes to the issue of sexual identity labels, which includes any of the LGBTQ+ identities as well as labels like dominant, submissive, demisexual, and basically any other word people use to say, “This is who I am/what I’m into.”

One camp says that labels are unnecessary. They cannot describe the full variety of human sexual experience, they prevent people from being open to experiences and feelings they might otherwise be open to, and they cause others to make unwarranted assumptions based on others’ labels. This camp might acknowledge that labels were politically necessary at one point to gain visibility and basic rights, but now we’ve reached a point where–even though homophobia still exists and must be fought–they are not necessary for that fight. You can find sex, love, or whatever else you’re looking for without them. Some members of this camp additionally claim that people using labels–especially if they are inventing new ones–are “special snowflakes” who just “want attention” for something that ought to be personal and private.

The other camp says that labels are important and that they are natural categories. That is, people are naturally and necessarily either gay/lesbian, straight, bi, or maybe even ace. While some people may choose not to use a label, that doesn’t mean they don’t ultimately fit into one of these categories. Labels are important for politics, research, and social interaction. After all, how are you going to find people like you if you don’t identify what “like you” even means? People who claim they can’t choose one of the available labels are probably confused and haven’t progressed all the way through the stages of sexual identity development.

Both of these camps would be right in some way if the people in them stuck to making observations about themselves rather than about others. Some people don’t like to use labels. Other people like to use labels. Neither is wrong, because both are making choices for themselves in order to create the lives that they want for themselves.

As I wrote, people who claim that maps are universally useless probably don’t do a lot of traveling. Maybe all your loved ones are living with you or just down the street. Maybe you don’t need to leave town and cross rivers and mountains to find them. Others do. For us, labels can be a way of finding others or helping them get to us. Sure, I’m not going to be attracted to everyone that my sexual labels say I have the potential to be attracted to, but I’ll at least be looking in approximately the right place. This way, if I’m looking for trees, I can make sure to at least end up in a forest and not in a desert, or in the middle of the ocean.

On the other hand, maps are also imperfect. That’s not (just) because we need better maps; that’s because they cannot be perfect. The landscape changes. People make mistakes. The mapmaker can’t predict what information will be important for a particular person to know, so they might leave out important things or include extraneous information that clutters up the space and makes it harder to find your way. The researchers who theorize in their offices and then design studies that confirm what they already believe–for instance, by only accepting participants who are able to label themselves “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” or (maybe, in some studies) “bisexual”–aren’t out there surveying the land. Of course your map looks perfect when all it does is hang on your wall as decoration.

There’s another challenge, too. Depending on your philosophy, most people do believe that maps depict something that has an objective truth to it: either the river bends here, or it doesn’t. Either the elevation at these coordinates is 100 feet above sea level, or it is not. But when it comes to sexuality, there may not be an objective reality to discover. I’ve just finished reading Lisa M. Diamond’s excellent book, Sexual Fluidity, in which she surveys a variety of ways in which female sexuality may be more complex and undefinable than anyone (who hasn’t personally experienced it) would’ve imagined, so at the moment I’m inclined to believe that an individual’s sexual territory may not be knowable even to them. That’s another reason our sexual identity “maps” will never be perfect.

Nevertheless, having maps is easier than not having maps. But poorly drawn, inaccurate maps can cause a lot of trouble. How many people–women and nonbinary people especially–have I seen worrying that there’s something wrong with them because they’re standing at a crossroads holding up their map and it just doesn’t look anything like what’s in front of them? They think they must’ve made a wrong turn somewhere, but what’s actually happened is that someone drew a map lazily and sloppily. “Am I bisexual?” they ask. “Was I actually gay all along?” “Can I be a lesbian if I sometimes have sex with men for fun?” “Am I ace enough to call myself ace?” “I’ve only ever dated men but I like other genders, too, so why do they keep telling me I’m straight?

Sexual labels are maps, not territory. If they don’t seem to be working well, they probably need some updating. For some people, that might be enough to throw out the map altogether and just go wandering. Others want more guidance, more concreteness. Either approach is okay.


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“That’s not true, but even if it were…”

So many debunking-type conversations that we have go like this:

  • “But gay parents will raise gay children!” “Actually, children of same-sex couples aren’t any more likely to be gay.”
  • “Women just want insurance to pay for their birth control so they don’t have to pay for all the sex they’re having.” “Actually, many people take birth control for medical reasons.”
  • “Feminists are ugly and can’t find a man!” “Actually, many feminists have male partners and happy relationships.”
  • “Lesbians just had a bad experience with a guy so they’ve decided to date women.” “Actually, lesbians are Born That Way.”
  • “Polyamorous people just want to have tons of casual sex without having to commit to anything.” “Actually, polyamory is about love, not sex; many poly people have lifelong partners and raise children with them.”
  • “Mentally ill people are crazy and can’t act like normal people.” “Actually, most people with mental illnesses have jobs, friends, and relationships just like everyone else.”
  • “Gay men have deviant, promiscuous lifestyles.” “Actually, most gay men are Just Like Us; all they want is to marry their soulmate and raise children together.”
  • “Women who get abortions are just casually throwing life away.” “Actually, for many women, abortion is a difficult and painful decision.”
  • “Homosexuality is a sin.” “Actually, gay people never chose to be gay.”

These are defensive narratives. They’re defensive because they accept the opposition’s terms and assumptions and then respond as though those terms and assumptions are acceptable, even preferable.

It’s not always obvious what you’re accepting when you take these statements at face value. So let’s unpack them.

  • “But gay parents will raise gay children!”: Raising gay children, and being gay, is a bad thing. The idea that same-sex parents might raise gay children is therefore a counterargument against letting them adopt.
  • “Women just want insurance to pay for their birth control so they don’t have to pay for all the sex they’re having.”: It’s bad for women to have sex, and women who cannot afford birth control shouldn’t have sex.
  • “Feminists are ugly and can’t find a man!”: Being unattractive by conventional standards and being unable to find a man to date is a bad way for a woman to be and it means I don’t have to take her opinions seriously.
  • “Lesbians just had a bad experience with a guy so they’ve decided to date women.”: If someone’s sexual identity stems from negative experiences that they’ve had, then that identity is invalid.
  • “Polyamorous people just want to have tons of casual sex without having to commit to anything.”: Wanting to have tons of casual sex without having to commit to anything is wrong.
  • “Mentally ill people are crazy and can’t act like normal people.”: Being unable to act like “normal people” is a bad thing and worthy of shame and stigma.
  • “Gay men have deviant, promiscuous lifestyles.”: Being “deviant” and “promiscuous” is bad.
  • “Women who get abortions are just casually throwing life away.”: It’s wrong to treat abortion like any other medical procedure; it’s only acceptable if the person getting the abortion suffers emotionally because of it.
  • “Homosexuality is a sin.” That one’s pretty obvious.

How do you know that you’re taking a defensive stance and accepting your opposition’s faulty assumptions? If you find yourself trying to claim that a stigmatized group is “just like everyone else,” or that your group or idea is really totally nonthreatening to the status quo, you may be agreeing with more of your opposition’s premises than you mean to.

Children raised by same-sex couples aren’t more likely than children of different-sex couples (or single parents) to be lesbian, gay, or bi. But so what if they were? Why is that a bad thing? How would that justify denying rights to same-sex couples?

Women with feminist views don’t generally come to those views by being “ugly” and rejected by men (if anything, some of us have had a little too much attention from men). But so what if they did? The ideas can be evaluated on their own merits, can they not?

Many or most lesbians have probably been lesbians for their whole lives, and didn’t have any particular experiences that “caused” them to be lesbians. But some did. Some women find that their patterns of attraction change after traumatic experiences with men. Aren’t their identities just as valid?

Most people with mental illnesses do have jobs and families and can generally “pass” as neurotypical. What about the ones who can’t? Don’t they deserve support rather than shame and stigma? Shouldn’t we fund programs that will provide much-needed services to these people, not just to the ones who “pass”?

Most LGBTQ people do not experience their identity as a choice that they got to make. But so what if they did? What’s the problem with choosing to be gay, supposing that’s even possible?

Progressive advocates don’t concede these points maliciously. Often, they understand what’s being left unsaid and disagree with it, but they believe that we need to go “one step at a time” or else we’ll never get anywhere.

Maybe that’s true. I don’t actually know. That’s an empirical question, but it’s very difficult to answer because studying attitude shifts is a process laden with variables that can’t be controlled. I obviously understand the reasoning–you can’t teach a child algebra until you teach them how to count–that doesn’t necessarily mean that the reasoning applies.

For instance, it’s also possible that this approach actually increases the length of time it takes to achieve equality or justice. When we accept the opponent’s faulty premise, we waste time that we could’ve spent challenging that premise. So we hear “Gay people are sinful deviants” and respond that actually gay people just want to get married and raise cute babies, why won’t you give them that chance? And the premise we accept is that being gay is only okay as long as you can look as much like a typical straight person as possible, and we choose our battles accordingly. If rather than battling homophobia, we battle the fact that two people of the same gender cannot get married, and next we battle the fact that in many states same-sex couples can’t adopt children, and so on, then when will we actually defeat homophobia?

Moreover, as plenty of people have pointed out plenty of times, this approach often ignores the most marginalized in a given group. If we’re always choosing the easiest, most press-friendly battle, then when are we going to address the fact that trans women of color are being murdered at really high rates? When do we address violence and discrimination against homeless queer youth, including the ones who do sex work and the ones who use or sell drugs?

I’m kinda wondering if the answer is “never.”

Accepting the opponent’s premise is not a neutral action; it causes actual harm to actual people. It marginalizes everyone whose narrative doesn’t fit into the tidy paths we’ve laid: the lesbian whose sexual trauma influenced her developing identity; the gay man who does want to have lots of random casual sex rather than finding a husband and raising children; the person who accidentally gets pregnant and immediately gets an abortion and feels nothing but relief; all the people who do want birth control specifically because they love sex and don’t want children. Which, by the way, is totally okay. That’s why birth control exists.

I won’t pretend to know what the way forward is, but I think we do have a responsibility to at least try to challenge faulty premises. It’s possible to say, “Actually, children of same-sex parents aren’t more likely to be gay or bi themselves, but so what if they were?” or “For many people, the decision to get an abortion is actually a really difficult and painful one, but for some it’s just another medical procedure. What’s the problem with that?” Throw that shit back in their face. Make them explain to you why they’re saying what they’re saying. Make them actually admit that they think that being gay is bad or that having non-procreative sex is wrong or that having occasionally smoked pot makes it okay for the police to murder you on the street. At least then you know where you stand.


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Queer Women Who Have Only Dated Men Are Queer

Queer women who have only dated men are queer.

Queer women who are currently in a monogamous relationship with a man are queer.

Queer women who are not out to everyone or anyone are queer.

Queer women who have no idea if they’ll ever (be able to) date a woman are queer.

How do I know? Because they say so!

I won’t bother linking to the latest article that attempts to argue otherwise, but here’s a great rebuttal. The conclusion:

Here’s how the author and xojane could have used the space of this article to make the queer world safer and more welcoming for multi-gender-attracted women: Queerness is about how you feel and identify, not the stats of whom you’ve dated or fucked. Coming out is difficult, especially when people try to shove you back in the closet. You don’t ever have to come out, and you’re the best judge of under what circumstances that’s a good idea for you. If you do want to come out, you have every right to, even if you’re uncertain of your identity or you’ve come out differently before. You are not responsible for other people’s misreadings of you, and it’s up to you whether to correct their biphobia. You’re not letting the rest of us down by taking care of yourself. There is huge variation among bi and queer people, and you don’t have to meet a quota of attraction frequency or intensity in order to be one of us. You are one of us. You are enough. Welcome.

I sense a lot of fear in some queer women (especially, but not exclusively, those who identify as lesbians) that people will try to co-opt our identities in order to gain inclusion and acceptance in our spaces even though these people supposedly know deep down that they’re not “actually” queer. (That, at least, is my steel-manned version. I’m sure some of these folks also think that people can be wrong when they identify as queer.) On one hand, it makes sense that some would envy our loving, supportive communities–flawed and in-progress as they are–because your average straight person might not even have access to a group of people who affirm them. Yes, heterosexuality is culturally affirmed, but individual straight people still have to deal with slut-shaming, toxic masculinity, and other harmful ideas related to sexuality. And queer communities certainly aren’t immune to them, but they tend to have more of a language for naming and working through these issues. That’s certainly enviable.

On the other hand, if someone is feeling so unsupported and dismissed in non-queer spaces that they feel an urge to seek out queer spaces (considering that queerphobia is very much still a thing), I would wonder if this person might not be straight. Really. Many people who are initially certain that they’re straight but nevertheless feel some sort of…some itchiness, some discomfort, around the whole straight thing, later come out as queer. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to disagree with people who say they’re straight, but it does mean that we have to give people room to figure themselves out.

I wrote recently that the reason many queer spaces also explicitly include allies isn’t necessarily because it’s very important to include straight people, but because that provides a way for closeted queers or those who are questioning to explore queer identities and communities without having to out themselves. The same applies to people who do identify as queer but apparently aren’t queer enough for your satisfaction. Almost every queer person goes through a period of time in which they know themselves to be queer but have not yet had any sexual or romantic experiences with a person of the same gender. That period of time may last days or years or decades, and you are not a better person for having a shorter one.

What’s confusing to me about all this derision that some queer women feel towards some other queer women is that most of us seem to wish there were more queer women around, for friendship or community or sex/dating, and most of us acknowledge that we really are a pretty small minority and that that’s difficult. That shy queer girl who comes to your space and admits that she’s only ever dated men and gets a whole ton of derision and condescension and policing in response isn’t going to come back. She may even believe your bullshit and decide that she must be straight after all. (Remember that identity is fluid and socially constructed, especially for women, and yes, a person who was genuinely queer at one point in time can be bullied into believing that they’re straight.) As theunitofcaring notes:

making bi girls feel unwelcome in LGBT+ spaces makes them KISS GIRLS LESS OFTEN my fellow lesbians I just need to point out that this is is a CATASTROPHIC STRATEGIC FAILURE on our part

If making bi/otherwise-deemed-not-queer-enough women feel unwelcome is so counterproductive, why do some queer women do it? I have a theory, though I’m not sure how accurate it is. I think that our current climate, Supreme Court decisions notwithstanding, makes it really difficult sometimes to conceptualize queerness separately from marginalization and suffering. We fall into the trap of thinking that it’s experiencing tons of homophobia, not falling outside of traditional norms of attraction and identity, that makes us queer. And so, if the way you’ve been living your life has mostly sheltered you from that homophobia, then you’re not “really queer.” But as Lindsay King-Miller writes in response to a letter from a woman who doesn’t feel like she “deserves” the label “bisexual”:

I know you think you haven’t earned your non-straight orientation because you’ve never faced discrimination, but here’s the thing: you do not have to have suffered to be queer. Wait, can I say that again, much louder? YOU DO NOT HAVE TO HAVE SUFFERED TO BE QUEER. We don’t have hazing rituals. Yes, most of us have experienced discrimination at some point in our lives—and I’m sorry to say that you probably will too, if you date this girl/any girl in a publicly visible way—but that’s not what makes us queer. I worry that focusing on suffering as the arbiter of queer experience leads us to downplay what’s great about our lives and may even scare some people (maybe you!) out of coming out. If you are a lady and you want to date a lady, you’ve already passed the initiation.

That said, I also really hate the idea that closeted queer women can’t possibly have experienced any Real Oppression™. The microaggressions we constantly hear–sometimes from people who’d never say that out loud if they knew–are oppressive. Not being able to come out is oppressive. Invisibility is oppressive.

Some queer women refuse to acknowledge that there are valid reasons why other queer women might not have dated any women, or come out to certain people in their lives. Coming out and living openly as a queer person is difficult, which, paradoxically, makes it tempting to become self-aggrandizing and think of yourself as better than those who haven’t (yet) made the journey. That’s a survival mechanism. But when survival mechanisms turn into weapons against other marginalized people, it stops being okay or acceptable.

So here’s a non-comprehensive list of reasons why a queer woman might not have dated any women, or come out at all, that are not “she’s not actually queer”:

  1. Numbers. According to a 2014 survey, 1.6% of Americans identify as gay or lesbian, and 0.7% identify as bisexual. Those are…pretty fucking tiny numbers. Even though the percentage of people who have had sex with someone of the same gender is higher, if you’re a queer person, you’re probably not going to seek out straight people with the hopes that they’ll be interested in adding to that percentage.
  2. Lack of community connections. With such dismal probabilities, how do queer people ever meet each other? Often, it’s through communities, whether formal (LGBT centers, Meetup groups) or informal (circles of friends who form around similar interests, lifestyles, and worldviews, including acceptance of queerness). As I’ve just shown, queer women who have not yet had any female partners aren’t always welcome in these communities. So how are they going to find any women to date or hook up with?
  3. Lack of scripts. Everyone knows how heterosexual dating goes. Boy meets girl, blahblahblah. These scripts are not always healthy or ultimately conducive to a good relationship, but at least they exist. Many queer women who are just coming out, especially those who are used to dating men, feel terrified that they don’t know “how to date women.” It may be an irrational fear to some extent–you date them just like you date anyone else–but nonetheless, that’s what happens when you never see people like you represented in the stories we tell about love and sex and relationships. In the face of that fear, many of us end up paralyzed, and those who are interested in men wind up in relationships with them instead.
  4. Gender roles. Related to the previous point, it can be very difficult to break out of the traditional boy-asks-girl-out-on-date thing. Obviously, plenty of women do ask people (including men) out on dates, but if you’re a woman who has always dated men and now want to date women, you might not have any experience with making the first move. Personally speaking, that paralyzed me for a while. Like, years. It’s only recently that I started actually asking women out, and you know what helped me most up until that point? Compassionate queer women giving me advice, not yelling at me that I’m actually straight or writing articles about me on xoJane.
  5. Homophobia. When did we collectively decide that homophobia just isn’t a thing anymore, and if you’re scared to come out or openly date people of the same gender, then you’re the one with the problem? Really, I want to know, because last I checked, homophobia is very much a thing. Don’t forget that there are still many people in the U.S. who would lose their entire families if they came out as queer.  (And while I don’t want to unfairly cast blame on immigrant communities, which already face stereotyping and racism, I do want to say as an immigrant that white Americans tend to be very ignorant of some of the challenges we face when it comes to coming out, and they forget that not all of the steps forward that their dominant culture has made are necessarily replicated in our communities. Here is a piece I want everyone to read regarding this.)
  6. Biphobia. How many pieces like that awful xoJane one do you think it would take to convince a bi/pan woman that other queer women want nothing to do with her? For me, it took only a few, and there are always more pieces like that coming out. (There was also the time that a lesbian told me that the reason many lesbians won’t date bi women is because they’re “more likely to have STIs.”) It’s probably not a coincidence that most of the women I date are bi and have mostly only dated men, because these are the only women I feel like I can trust not to hate me.
  7. Internalized homophobia. Many queer women can’t bring themselves to date other women because on some level they still feel that it’s wrong, that they don’t deserve it, and so on. Internalized homophobia can be very sneaky and can manifest itself years after you’d thought you had a handle on everything. I used to think I don’t experience internalized homophobia because I truly never felt that there was anything wrong or bad about me because I’m queer. Then I found myself actually trying to date and couldn’t escape this awful pessimism about it: I felt like no matter what, it would never work out anyway, and no woman could ever want me, and even trying was completely pointless. Where were these feelings coming from? Eventually I realized that they stemmed from internalized homophobia. They came from the belief that this world just isn’t made for people like me and that our stories will inevitably end in loneliness or tragedy. Try dating successfully with an attitude like that. I didn’t get very far until I’d acknowledged it and started to work through it. Other women may have to work through deeply-ingrained feelings of shame or disgust, too.
  8. Chance. Most people will only be interested in a fairly small percentage of the eligible people they meet, and only some unknown percentage of them might like them back. Combine that with the sobering statistics at the beginning of this list, and you’ll probably wind up with quite a few queer women who haven’t dated any other women simply because the opportunity hasn’t come up.

That’s just a preliminary list. If you use your imagination, you will probably be able to think of plenty of other reasons why someone might not act on every aspect of their internal identity all the time, starting with the fact that they don’t owe it to anyone.

Some people choose to use a label that reflects their outward behavior, which is okay. Some people choose to use a label that reflects their inner experience, which is also okay. There is something disturbingly hazing-like in the logic of these demands that all women who call themselves queer open themselves up to the maximum amount of homophobia: You Must Suffer As We Have Suffered.

If we make suffering or bravery or not giving a fuck what anyone thinks of you the cost of admittance to Being Queer, then we have only ourselves to blame if people decide to stay in the closet and seek community and solidarity and love elsewhere.


I acknowledge that this article reflects a very binary view of gender; this tends to be inevitable when I’m writing in response to a particular view that’s already being couched in those terms (“Queer women who only date men are not queer”). I don’t know what these people would say about women who have only dated men and nonbinary people, or who have only dated nonbinary people, or nonbinary people who have only dated men, or etc. etc. I’m not sure that people who make such ridiculous claims as “queer women who only date men are not queer” are even aware that gender is not a binary, so.


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Goodbye, Ed

Yesterday, Ed Brayton, one of our cofounders, announced that he is leaving FreethoughtBlogs and moving to Patheos:

So why am I leaving? Also omnipresent since the start of FTB, as I’m sure you well know, has been controversy. The bloggers here have often gone on crusades and launched battles, most of them necessary and justified. But along with that has come a great deal of drama and stress. I’ve endured several threats of lawsuits against me as the owner of the network over the words and actions of others. I’ve had continual demands that I do something about this or that blogger, that I throw them off the network or censor them. I’ve been caught in the crossfire of a great many fights, continually taking shrapnel in battles that I wasn’t even involved in.

I believe it has to some degree impeded my ability to engage in important activist projects by making some people reluctant to work with me because of all that controversy. That frequent stress has also begun to affect my health. I have two autoimmune disorders that are triggered by stress and I have come to the conclusion that it would be better for my health, both physical and mental, to get out of the crucible and be responsible only for myself and my own words and actions.

We (especially Greta and I) talk a lot about self-care here, and we always emphasize that it should be okay to step back or quit when you need to for your own health. (Mental health is, obviously, included in health.) Of course, Ed isn’t really quitting, just moving his blog elsewhere, but he’s stepping back from the responsibility of leading a network like this one and being deluged with all the crap he got deluged with because of it.

Something I often say is that we should thank and encourage people when they practice good self-care, because that helps (if only a little) assuage the guilt that many people feel when they need to step back and also show others that self-care is okay (and not selfish, and definitely preferable to not-self-care). So, props to Ed for doing what he needs to do regardless of what others think he should do. I hope that his actions help more people feel empowered to care for themselves and trust that the projects they started will either continue in their absence, or maybe be reborn as something different, perhaps even better.

I also want to thank Ed for creating this amazing space. Despite some of the challenges, I think I’ve really grown as a thinker and writer as a result of being here. Ed has personally encouraged me many times and I appreciate that also. Often it’s fellow writers who best understand how easy it is to get discouraged and how quickly the self-doubt sets in.

I want to address some disturbing things I’ve been seeing in response to Ed’s departure:

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