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:

[Read more…]

What We Can Learn From a Reformed Troll

[Content note: online harassment & threats]

Many of us who have dealt with trolls online have spent a lot of time–to much, probably–wondering what motivated them, how they would justify their actions (or not), whether they would ever regret it or apologize.

Writer Lindy West actually got to find this out. After she publicly called out a troll who’d made a Twitter account impersonating her late father and used it to harass her (yes, that happened), he emailed her and apologized. He even donated money in her name to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, which had treated her father before he died. On an episode of This American Life, West called him and talked to him more about why he did what he did.

The conversation was both amazingly honest and also painfully unsurprising, at least to those of us who have dealt with this sort of behavior. The ex-troll admitted that he’d been in a really bad mental place when he’d made multiple accounts just to harass West. In the email he’d originally sent to apologize, he wrote, “I don’t know why or even when I started trolling you. I think my anger from you stems from your happiness with your own being. It served to highlight my unhappiness with myself.” In the TAL episode, he explained that he was overweight and unhappy with his body, and West’s public satisfaction with (and celebration of) her own weight made him resentful. Gender played a role, too:

Women are being more forthright in their writing. There isn’t a sense of timidity to when they speak or when they write. They’re saying it loud. And I think that– and I think, for me, as well, it’s threatening at first. …I work with women all day, and I don’t have an issue with anyone. I could’ve told you back then if someone had said to me, oh, you’re a misogynist. You hate women. And I could say, nuh-uh, I love my mom. I love my sisters. I’ve loved my– the girlfriends that I’ve had in my life. But you can’t claim to be OK with women and then go online and insult them– seek them out to harm them emotionally.

West added:

In my experience, if you call a troll a misogynist, he’ll almost invariably say, oh, I don’t hate women. I just hate what you’re saying and what that other woman is saying and that woman and that one for totally unrelated reasons. So it was satisfying at least to hear him admit that, yeah, he hated women.

Indeed, that level of self-awareness is pretty rare in anyone, let alone in men who harass and threaten women.

Although none of my really-awful trolls have ever apologized, one who used to mildly troll my comments section did, and confessed that it had to do with his own mental health issues that he was taking out on me and my blog. I became his outlet, the lightning rod for all his grievances with himself and the world. From talking to other women with a presence on the internet, I know my experience (and West’s) is not unique.

There is a lot to learn from the TAL episode. Although trolls/online harassers probably have a variety of motivations, there clearly is a subset of them that troll because they can’t or won’t deal with their own personal issues. I want to be very careful here and not do the whole blaming mental illness thing, but I also want to trust people who have mental illnesses when they say that their mental illness is what prompted them to do something shitty. That’s part of humanizing mental illness, too–acknowledging that sometimes, especially when untreated/unmanaged, it can cause people to act in ways that aren’t really in accordance with who they actually want to be.

But also, you need not have a diagnosable mental illness to be in a bad place in your head at some point in time. You need not have a diagnosable mental illness to believe on some level that it’s okay to outsource emotional caretaking to someone else. The common thread here isn’t “mental illness” but “people avoiding dealing with their own issues and taking their pain out on others,” which, as I’ve been discussing a lot around here, is a gendered phenomenon.

In the episode, West concludes:

If what he said is true, that he just needed to find some meaning in his life, then what a heartbreaking diagnosis for all of the people who are still at it. I can’t give purpose and fulfillment to millions of anonymous strangers, but I can remember not to lose sight of their humanity the way that they lost sight of mine.

That is what horrified me most about this whole thing, aside from imagining what it must’ve been like for West pre-apology. How on earth could a random writer on the internet give these people what they need–partners, friends, self-love, satisfying jobs? It’s a frustration that I’ve felt before.

When the episode first aired, I saw a lot of people hailing it as some sort of sign that, see, trolls really are people too, and they’re redeemable, and maybe if we just remember not to lose sight of their humanity, then they’ll see the light and stop trolling! (Note that although I’m borrowing some of West’s wording here, I absolutely don’t think she’s this naive. Not after everything the internet has put her through.)

It’s a nice thought. It means that the solution to the revolting bullshit people (mostly women) deal with online is neither to “just ignore it” nor to lash back out or ridicule or petition social media platforms for better moderation. It’s just to talk to them and figure out what’s making them hurt so bad.

You can probably see why this is unacceptable as far as general advice goes. As West said, women can’t take responsibility for healing all these strangers’ hurts. People in my field get paid good money to do that, and I’m not about to do it for free for someone I’ve never met who just called me a fucking cunt.

Moreover, though, I’m not sure that most trolls are “redeemable.” Buzzfeed writer Tabatha Leggett, who got rape and death threats after writing about watching The Simpsons (yes, really), recently described her experience contacting her trolls, and seems to have had a rather different one than West did:

The first guy was a stand-up comedian from Chicago. He’d left a meme that said “kill yourself” in the comments section. He insisted that leaving a meme was different to typing out the words “kill yourself”. “Anyone who knows the meme wouldn’t take it seriously,” he told me. “I just wanted to tell you to shut the fuck up.”

I told him that his comment, underneath the hundreds of other abusive ones I’d received, came across as threatening. He told me I was an idiot for feeling that way. I asked him why he felt the need to comment at all. Why not just avoid reading my stuff in the future?

“You might have other really good stuff that you write about,” he replied. “I just didn’t want you to write about The Simpsons again. I was like, shut up.”

Another man that she spoke to did apologize, but it’s unclear which of these reactions is more typical. Point is, sometimes no amount of emotional labor will extract an apology (let alone genuine regret). And even if it did, what difference does it make? The damage has been done, and there always seem to be more trolls willing to take the place of those who realize the error of their ways.

If there’s anything to take away from Lindy West’s interview with her troll, it’s that trolling is more about the troll than the target. However, note that many people are miserable and full of self-hatred and do not make accounts impersonating a writer’s dead father that they use to harass her. The ex-troll’s misogyny and our society’s tolerance of it probably played as big a role in his behavior as did his personal problems.

Unfortunately, we can’t magically heal everyone’s misery. We can stop blaming victims of harassment for that harassment, and we can institute some better social norms and institutional policies that help prevent harassment. People like Lindy West are part of the reason we’re finally having that conversation on any sort of scale, but it’s embarrassing how much we had to put up with before that conversation finally got started.

~~~

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A Vacation from Emotional Labor

What follows are some (even) more personal reflections on the piece I wrote a couple days ago on emotional labor.

As I was writing that piece, I was feeling guilty. I kept thinking, “But some of these things haven’t happened to me for years. It’s gotten better. What right do I have to complain about this?”

As people (women especially) often do when speaking about their personal experiences, I kept questioning if it was really “as bad” and maybe I’m just unusually independent (or, as some would rather say, cold or selfish) and maybe none of this would be a problem for anyone besides me and maybe a few other people. It’s funny that I thought this even as I copy-pasted excerpt after excerpt of other people talking about this exact issue, and quoted two articles written by women who have dealt with it too.

Of course, whenever we talk about things like imbalanced emotional labor, others are eager to tell us that we’re the fucked-up ones, and pity to everyone who has to deal with us. These days, my response to that is a mental “okay,” because after years of very intense self-doubt (more intense than I expressed above), I’ve more or less reached a place where that shit just slides right off.

But other people are not at that place yet, and for those people (as well as for myself), I want to say this: even if you are Very Weird, and Entirely Too Selfish or Fragile, you still get to set boundaries for your relationships and to try to find ones that work for you. Yes, if you have more needs or dealbreakers than the average person, then you will find, on average, fewer compatible friends and partners. That’s rough, but that’s okay. That doesn’t make you “wrong.” That doesn’t make it okay for others to ignore your communicated boundaries because they expect or wish that they were different, more statistically normal.

And that brings me back to why it is that my experiences with emotional labor have been a lot more agreeable lately. That’s because a few years ago, I started really setting boundaries in ways that 1) attracted great people who know how to take responsibility for their own emotions, and 2) alienated people who wanted to take advantage of me. I left all those paragraphs-long messages unanswered, or answered them as monosyllabically as they answered my own attempts to share about my life. I started writing tons of blog posts about boundaries. I made Facebook posts in which I clarified my own boundaries to others. I mostly stopped having serious romantic relationships (not just for this reason, though–I’ve just lost interest in them). I decided that making sure that other people are happy is not my problem. I made it very obvious, in every way I knew how, that if you want a friend or partner who will take care of you, that cannot be me. If you want a friend or partner who will care for you, then that can absolutely be me.

Throughout all this, and still, I’m not always very nice. “Nice” is bending over backwards to accommodate people while silently resenting them for encroaching on your mental space. Instead, I try to be kind. Kindness, to me, is being honest and upfront about my limitations and needs and making space with/from people before it gets to the point of passive-aggressive sniping. Kindness is avoiding assuming the worst about people unless I have a good reason to. So when someone clearly wants things from me that I can’t give, I try to train myself out of assuming that they want to hurt me or take advantage of me. Instead, I say to myself, “We just need different things.” Kindness is making sure that whatever I do to support or help the people in my life, I do with all my heart, not grudgingly. I make sure they know that, too. I don’t want people to ever feel like they’re my obligation. I want them to know that I chose them. On purpose.

I do think that I probably overcompensated. Sometimes I guilt-trip myself about it, about how little emotional work I do nowadays. “You just want everything to be easy,” I berate myself. Maybe. On my better days, though, I understand that this makes complete sense. After years of wearing myself out with emotional labor, I’ve decided to just take it easy for a while. Consider it a nice long vacation after accumulating a decade’s worth of vacation days.

Moreover, I’m not sure I trust myself with emotional labor right now. I’m not sure I know how to get the balance right, so for now, to protect my own mental health as I went through grad school and as I take on the challenge of starting a career, I err on the side of doing very little. That’s why things are relatively easier right now.

Of course I worry that I’m a terrible friend and partner. I try to make sure to ask very little emotional labor of my friends and partners, so that it’s still about equal. (That’s why I’ve only asked for affirmation about not being a terrible friend/partner once that I can think of, in all these years.)

That said, I also trust my friends and partners to make their own decisions about me. I hope that if they decide they need more from me, they will ask, and if I say no, they will either accept that or choose to make more space between us, whatever feels right for them. I hope that if they feel that I’m asking too much, they will let me know. I think they will.

It’s super important to point out that nobody is A Bad Person in this situation. I am not A Bad Person for having limits, even if they are more limiting than other people’s limits. My friends are not Bad People if they were to want more from me. They also wouldn’t be Bad People if they decided that this doesn’t work for them and made some space or left.

I suppose some would call me selfish. I’m definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m anything but selfish. A selfish person thinks only of themselves without ever considering their impact on others. I think about my impact on others constantly, and I try to make sure that it’s a net positive. The challenge is doing that without burning myself out. I think it’s working okay so far.

~~~

I’ll close with one last example of gendered emotional labor that I forgot to include in the previous piece and haven’t seen discussed anywhere else. Men, you need to stop demanding that women laugh at your jokes and getting upset when they don’t. This is exhausting. Forcing laughter, especially believably, is difficult. But what else can I do when every time I fail to laugh at one of your jokes, you start with the “But you didn’t laugh!” “Hey, why didn’t you laugh?” “You’re supposed to laugh!” “Uh, that was a joke!”? Yes, I’m aware. It wasn’t funny. Learn from that and make a better joke next time. Or, if you can’t handle the relatively minor embarrassment of making a joke that doesn’t get laughed at (which everybody, including me, has done at some point), then don’t make jokes. Because if you ask me why I didn’t laugh and I tell you honestly that I didn’t find it funny, then I’m suddenly the mean one. Someone tell me how that makes any sense.

And especially stop demanding laughter at jokes that are sexist, racist, otherwise oppressive, or simply cruel.

Women are not your Magic Mirrors, here only to tell you that you are the funniest and the manliest in the land.

~~~

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Emotional Labor: What It Is and How To Do It

Ages ago, I read this fantastic piece about practical things men can do to support feminism. Almost every item on the list really resonated with my experience, and this was one of the most resonant:

2. Do 50% (or more) of emotional support work in your intimate relationships and friendships.

Recognize that women are disproportionately responsible for emotional labour and that being responsible for this takes away time and energy from things they find fulfilling.

Since this was just a list, that’s all it had to say about this very important topic. As I shared the article and discussed it with others, especially men, I realized that many men don’t actually know what “emotional labor” means. That, I think, is part of the problem.

I kept meaning to write a piece that explains the concept, but life happened, and I forgot. Then I read this brilliant thing:

We are told frequently that women are more intuitive, more empathetic, more innately willing and able to offer succor and advice. How convenient that this cultural construct gives men an excuse to be emotionally lazy. How convenient that it casts feelings-based work as “an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depths of our female character.”

This, in turn, spawned this great Metafilter thread in which people discuss their experiences with emotional labor. And, that, finally, led to this Ask Metafilter thread, which addresses the very question I initially meant to address: what is emotional labor and how do you know if you’re doing your fair share of it?

If this topic interests you, I encourage you to read these resources, because they’re extremely useful and accessible. I wanted to highlight some of the contributions to the Ask Metafilter thread here.

The original Ask Metafilter post:

# Partnered Life

* Am I checking in with my partner to see if they had a rough day?
* If so, am I stepping up to make their life easier in other ways (cooking, cleaning, etc.)?
* Am I open and clear about my wants, and not forcing my partner to guess/drag it out of me?
* Am I contributing constructively to planning of meals, events, trips, etc?
* Am I actively trying to make my presence feel safe for my partner?
* Do I try to do nice things for my partner without being asked (flowers, treats, etc.)?
* Do I take care of my own administrative life (paperwork, bills) without needing to be repeatedly reminded?
* Am I supportive of my partner’s decisions, big and small?
* Am I respectful and validating of my partner’s emotions?
* Am I vocally grateful when my partner goes out of their way to do something nice for me?
* Am I nice to my partner’s family [if that’s a thing they want]?

# Friend Groups

* Do I work to coordinate peoples’ schedules so that we can have a nice picnic/party/board game night/etc.?
* When planning an event, am I conscious of possible interpersonal conflicts?
* When planning an event, do I take into account different peoples’ preferences for food, beverages, music, etc., so that no one feels excluded?
* Do I actually have everything prepared in advance for an event I’m hosting, or at least clearly and fairly delegated?
* If there is an imbalance of emotional or physical labor occurring, am I willing to risk social awkwardness to improve the lot of those negatively affected?

# Third Party Relationships (Familial & Otherwise)

* Do I remember to make phone calls and visits to people I care about and want to have relationships with?
* Do I remember to send cards to people I care about?
* Do I send thank you notes to people to acknowledge their emotional labor for me?
* Am I actively sensitive to and supportive of people who are experiencing a difficult time (death of spouse/child/pet, etc.)?

User phunniemie adds:

I’d add “am I going to the doctor regularly” to what you have.

I hear a lot of guys (I take it you are a dude) complain (complain, or even just mention offhand) all the time about x, y, or z weird body thing that they have going on, but 9 times out of 10 (actually more, but then we’re getting into fractions) when I ask if they’ve talked to a doctor about it their response is no, or it’s not that big a deal, or they can’t because they don’t have a doctor despite living in the same place for 5+ years. So now they’ve involved me in concern for their Problem Freckle but have no ability or intention to manage it themselves.

Make sure you’re taking care of yourself and being proactive about your healthcare (physical and mental) so that the women in your life don’t have to feel like your nurse.

WidgetAlley adds:

Huge one for me, especially in reference to mental illness or trauma or disorders: are you doing your own emotional work?

This means asking for support and accommodation for your feelings and your illness if you need it, and negotiating with your partner about your needs, but also not making your problems their problems. If you have depression or past trauma, tell your partner– don’t make them guess. Ask them to make reasonable adjustments to their behavior and interactions if you can, or if you’re not sure what you need, just keep them in the loop as much as you can.

And then, do your own work and get to a doctor, a therapist, or another appropriate person who can help you in a solid professional context. It’s reasonable and sane and wonderful to ask for support and love and reassurance, but don’t make fixing your own internal workings your partner’s problem any more than you can help it.

wintersweet adds:

Do I pause to observe the context (my partner’s body language or current activity, what’s been happening today, etc.) before I involve my partner in something me-focused? (Whether that’s a request or a touch or whatever.)

Am I answering my partner’s bids?

Am I taking responsibility for my own reminders by putting things in a calendar app or whatever reminds me to do things?

Am I aware of all the unseen work involved in things like meal preparation*, and am I educating myself so that I can share the work?

HotToddy adds:

How often am I saying knee-jerk defensive things like “I forgot,” “I’m trying,” “I’m doing my best,” “It’s not a big deal,” vs “Oops, shit, I’m sorry, let me [take independent action and come up with my own fucking idea for how I can finally make this change that you’ve repeatedly told me is important to you and that I’ve said I would do but still haven’t].

RogueTech adds:

Am I difficult as hell to work with and expect everyone to work around it because I present as male?

E. Whitehall adds:

Are you interrupting your partner unnecessarily? Is their busy-ness less valuable to you than a question you could likely just Google instead of interrupting them? Consider whether you really need to ask them, specifically, right now, about this particular thing. Consider whether you’ve actually looked for answers. Have you googled? Have you checked the most likely places? Several times? Have you actually reached in and looked with your hands for whatever you’ve lost?

There are a lot more great examples in the thread, but this should give you some sense of what emotional labor is.

You might notice that some things in the thread sound like “bare minimum for being a decent friend/partner” type things, such as respecting and validating others’ emotions. Others sound like things that aren’t necessary (or even desirable) in every relationship. The important thing is that there’s a balance. If you and your friend or partner have the kind of relationship where you share household responsibilities and expenses, for instance, it’s unreasonable for your partner to always have to remind you to do your duties when they never need a reminder from you.

Of course, it’s easy for people to look at these lists and immediately start doing this thing: “Well, but, my partner’s so much better at planning things than I am, so of course they plan all of our social events as a couple” or “Well I have a mental illness and my friend doesn’t, so I can’t always be expected to remember to ask about their day the way they ask about mine.” Okay. This isn’t a be-all end-all list, and different people’s situations have their own particular needs and restraints. I encourage you not to get too hung up on any particular item on the list, and instead focus on the concept itself.

The point is that, for the most part, women are expected to do a lot of these sorts of things in relationships and friendships, and men are not. It may well be that men are on average objectively worse at them than women are, but that’s only because they’ve never been held responsible for these things and therefore haven’t developed the skill. Most men have gone their whole lives hearing that women are “naturally” suited for these things and men are “naturally” not, so why bother working on it? Gender essentialism doesn’t exactly foster a growth mindset, and many people don’t realize that things like communication skills and empathy can actually be improved to begin with.

After reading these articles and threads, I started to understand my frustrations with my male friends, roommates, and partners much better, because these imbalances have touched every single relationship I’ve ever had with a man. Male partners have consistently ignored glaring issues in the relationship so that I had to be the one to start the difficult conversation every single time, even though they supposedly had as much of a stake in the relationship as I did. Male roommates have made me beg and plead and send reminder texts to do even the most basic household management tasks. Male friends have tried to use me as a therapist, or drawn me into worrying about their physical health with them while refusing to see a doctor even though they had insurance.

Well-meaning men of varying roles in my life have consistently ignored my nonverbal cues, even very visible ones, forcing me to constantly have to articulate boundaries that ought to be obvious, over and over. (For instance, “Do you see how I’m intently reading a book right now? That means that I’m very interested in the book and am not interested in having a conversation right now.” “Did you notice how I’m hunched over with my arms folded over my stomach and a grimace on my face? This means that I’m in pain and probably not in the mood for cheery small-talk!” “Pay attention to how I’ve got huge headphones on and am staring at my computer screen and typing very quickly. This is why I didn’t hear a single word you just said and now is probably not a good time to chat about your day!”)

This is why being in relationship with men, even platonically, is often so exhausting for me. As much as I love them and care for them, it feels like work.

Like all gendered dynamics, of course, this isn’t exclusive to male-female interactions and the imbalance doesn’t always go in the same direction. It can happen in any relationship, romantic or platonic, serious or less so. I’m pointing out the gendered dynamic here because it’s so extremely prevalent and so very harmful, but if, for instance, you’re a man realizing that you’re doing the bulk of the emotional labor in your relationship with someone of whichever gender, you still have a right to try to sort that out.

I strongly suspect that the emotional labor imbalance underlies part of the problem men often say they have with forming and maintaining friendships with other men. When neither of them is able to rely on the other person to do the emotional labor, relationships fall apart. In friendships and relationships with women, men are able to trust that we’ll handle all that messy feelings stuff.

I also suspect that this underlies the fear and anger with which some men respond to women’s emotional unavailability. That’s not to excuse the manifestations that these emotions often take, but to explain them. I empathize with this, because it must be terrifying to feel like you can’t deal with your own stuff and the person you thought was going to help you is refusing to. It must be especially terrifying when you don’t even know where the feelings are coming from, when you can’t even tell yourself, Okay, this is scary because I’ve never had to do this for myself and now it’s time to learn how.

It would be like if you’ve gone your whole life having fully prepared meals just suddenly appear in front of you whenever you’re hungry (or whenever you say the words “I’m hungry”), and suddenly you’re being told that not only will the prepared meals not be provided anymore, but now you have to go out and hunt and gather for yourself. Whaaaat.

Emotional labor is often invisible to men because a lot of it happens out of their sight. Emotional labor is when my friends and I carefully coordinate to make sure that nobody who’s invited to the party has drama with anyone else at the party, and then everyone comes and has a great time and has no idea how much thought went into it.

Emotional labor is when I have to cope, again, with the distress I feel at having to clean myself in a dirty bathroom or cook my food in a dirty kitchen because my male roommate didn’t think it was important to clean up his messes.

Emotional labor is having to start the 100th conversation with my male roommate about how I need my living space to be cleaner. Emotional labor is reminding my male roommate the next day that he agreed to clean up his mess but still hasn’t. Emotional labor is reassuring him that it’s okay, I’m not mad, I understand that he’s had a very busy stressful week. Emotional labor is not telling him that I’ve had a very busy stressful week, too, and his fucking mess made it even worse.

Emotional labor is reassuring my partner over and over that yes, I love him, yes, I find him attractive, yes, I truly want to be with him, because he will not do the work of developing his self-esteem and relies on me to bandage those constantly-reopening wounds. Emotional labor is letting my partner know that I didn’t like what he did sexually last night, because he never asked me first if I wanted to do that. Emotional labor is reassuring him that, no, it’s okay, I’m not mad, I just wanted him to know for next time, yes, of course I love him, no, this doesn’t mean I’m not attracted to him, I’m just not interested in that sort of sex. Emotional labor is not being able to rely on him to reassure me that it’s not my fault that I didn’t like the sex, because this conversation has turned into my reassuring him, again.

Emotional labor is when my friend messages me once every few weeks with multiple paragraphs about his life, which I listen to and empathize with. Afterwards, he thanks me for being “such a good listener.” He asks how my life has been, and I say, “Well, not bad, but school has been so stressful lately…” He says, “Oh, that sucks! Well, anyway, I’d better get to bed, but thanks again for listening!”

Emotional labor is when my friend messages me and, with no trigger warning and barely any greeting, launches into a story involving self-harm or suicide or something else of that sort because “you know about this stuff.”

Emotional labor was almost all of my male friends in high school IMing me to talk about how the girls all go for the assholes.

Emotional labor is when my partners decide they don’t want to be in a relationship with me anymore, but rather than directly communicating this to me, they start ignoring me or being mean for weeks until I have to ask what’s going on, hear that “I guess I’m just not into you anymore,” and then have to be the one to suggest breaking up. For extra points, then I have to comfort them about the breakup.

Emotional labor is setting the same boundary over and over, and every time he says, “I’m sorry, I know you already told me this, I guess I’d just forgotten.”

Emotional labor is being asked to completely explain and justify my boundaries. “I mean, that’s totally valid and I will obviously respect that, I just really want to understand, you know?”

Emotional labor is hiding the symptoms of mental illness, pretending my tears are from allergies, laughing too loudly at his jokes, not because I’m just in principle unwilling to open up about it, but because I know that he can’t deal with my mental illness and that I’ll just end up having to comfort him because my pain is too much for him to bear.

Emotional labor is managing my male partners’ feelings around how often we have sex, and soothing their disappointment when they expected to have sex (even though I never said we would) and then didn’t, and explaining why I didn’t want to have sex this time, and making sure we “at least cuddle a little before bed” even though after all of this, to be quite honest, the last thing I fucking want is to touch him.

Although these discussions cause it to have a negative connotation, emotional labor is not inherently bad. In any healthy, balanced friendship/relationship, the participants are all doing some amount of it, though the total amount varies based on the type of relationship and the needs of those involved. Emotional labor becomes bad when certain people are expected by default to be responsible for the bulk of it even though we’d rather be focusing on other things if given the choice. It becomes bad when it’s invisible, when it’s treated as an assumption rather than as something that the participants of a relationship intentionally discuss and negotiate together.

What might that look like in practice? Here are a few examples:

“I’m struggling with depression right now and am also extremely busy with my dissertation, so I’m not going to be able to do X, Y, or Z in this relationship. Instead, I’m going to make an extra effort to do A and B. Is that okay for you?”

“If we’re going to be living together, I need to make sure that we both do an equal share of X. Does that work for you?”

“I know you’ve had to give me a lot of reminders lately to do basic things for myself and for our household. I’m working on getting better at remembering on my own by [setting reminders on my phone/bringing this up in therapy/starting medication/cutting back on some stressful things]. While I work on this, are you okay with continuing to remind me? If you don’t feel that things have gotten any better in [timeframe], will you let me know?”

“I’ve noticed that you manage a lot of our interactions with my family. I feel like you get along a lot better with them than I do, so maybe it makes sense that you’re the one who plans our get-togethers, but is this okay with you? Do you need me to take more of an active role in this?”

“I’ve been the one who initiates the majority of our plans together, and while I always enjoy seeing you, I need some clarity about this. If you’re not that interested in spending time with me, I need to know. If you are, I’d really appreciate it if you sometimes invited me to do things, too.”

Remember that one way in which imbalances in emotional labor manifest themselves is that it always ends up being the job of the person who does the bulk of it to start these conversations and to let you know that they’re overwhelmed by the amount of emotional labor they have to do. End that cycle. Be the person who brings it up and ask your partner if this is okay for them. Remember that a lot of people who are doing the bulk of the emotional labor, especially women, might initially try to claim that it’s okay when deep down they feel that it isn’t. Leave room for them to change their minds as they feel more comfortable with you, and don’t pull the “But you said before that it was fine” thing.

I absolutely recognize that this work is not easy. If what I’ve described sounds exhausting and overwhelming and maaaybe you’ll just let your girlfriend/friend/etc deal with it instead, I get it. It is hard. But it would be a lot easier if that labor were distributed more fairly. Emotional labor isn’t a silly fluffy girl skill. It’s a life skill.

It’s hard, too, because most men have been intentionally deprived of the language and tools to even think about these sorts of issues, let alone work on them. That’s why so many men don’t even know what emotional labor is, and why they have no idea what to do when they feel really bad except find a woman and outsource the labor to her–often without even realizing why they’re doing what they’re doing. As I said before, this sounds absolutely terrifying and I do not envy men in this regard.

But you can’t get better at what you don’t practice. Start the tough conversations. Pause before speaking and intentionally observe your partner’s body language. Ask yourself, “What could I do to make life easier for her? What things is she doing to make life easier for me, without even being asked?” Spend some time listening to your own emotions and learning to name them before rushing to either unload them on someone else or drown them out with something that feels better.

I do not exaggerate one little bit when I say that if more and more men learn to do these things, we can change the world.

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Although I chose to examine gender dynamics here because that’s what I feel most qualified to talk about, it’s very, very important to note that imbalances in emotional labor also happen along other axes. In particular, people of color often do emotional labor for white people, especially in conversations about race. Just as I was finishing this article, a friend on Facebook posted this poem, which illustrates this dynamic.

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Update: Maecenas, who started the Ask Metafilter thread, has compiled it into this really useful google doc.

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Keeping Others Happy At All Costs Is Manipulative

[spoilers for Orange is the New Black]

For a long time, and to a much lesser extent now, I have struggled with feeling like I have to keep everyone happy at all times and at all costs. I’m sure this is a common experience for many people, women especially.

When I facilitated a workshop about setting and respecting boundaries last week, I asked the participants what makes setting boundaries difficult at times. The most common response I got was that people are afraid of upsetting others by setting boundaries with them.

Being afraid of upsetting others is what leads me to “consent” to sex or other interactions that I don’t actually want. It leads me to carefully manage my public persona in ways that aren’t designed just to ensure my own safety and comfort, but also to avoid hurting others’ feelings. In some ways, this is good–it means I try to avoid doing things that are rude or mean, for instance–but in other ways, it stifles my self-expression and causes me to take much more responsibility for others’ feelings than I ought to. For instance, I shouldn’t be worrying that merely allowing a conservative or religious friend to see my Facebook posts will hurt their feelings. Yet I worry about that constantly.

I’ve tried all sorts of things to get myself to stop being such a people pleaser. As you might expect, reminding myself that It Doesn’t Matter What Others Think wasn’t necessarily helpful. Neither was getting shamed for it by others (often men, who don’t face the same pressures I do). You can’t always rationalize your feelings away.

The thing that helped the most was having this realization:

It is manipulative to try to keep the people around you happy at all times.

It can be difficult to think of yourself as someone who does something manipulative, but we all do in one way or another, so bear with me for a bit.

When we take responsibility for other people’s emotions and try to keep them happy at all costs, we’re manipulating their emotions. Sometimes, we’re even manipulating their reality: at its extremes, this sort of approach leads people to lie to others, sometimes about major things, in order to keep them from being upset. (Of course, sometimes lying to keep someone from being upset is necessary to keep yourself safe–that’s an abusive situation and not the sort of thing I’m discussing here.)

We often rationalize this sort of behavior by claiming that it’s “for their own good” and that we “just want them to be happy.” More often, though, it’s more for our own good: making people unhappy or upset is painful, and many of us have been taught that if we ever make anyone unhappy or upset, that makes us Bad People. Keeping others happy becomes a way of keeping ourselves happy, or at least keeping that self-hatred under control.

It took interacting with other people like this–other people like me–to realize that it’s manipulative. When people would admit to not being fully honest with me even when I asked for the truth because they worried that it would hurt my feelings, I felt manipulated–why didn’t they let me deal with my own feelings? Coming from men, it felt patronizing, like I’m some sort of fragile flower that needs to be protected from the force of my own emotions. Coming from neurotypical people, it felt ableist, like they thought that just because I have a mental illness, I can’t be trusted to handle my own emotional responses. Over and over, I heard “I didn’t want to tell you about my new partner because I thought you’d be upset” or “I didn’t want to tell you that I was exhausted of listening because you were just so sad” or “I didn’t want you to have to worry about yet another thing so I just arranged this whole situation that involves you without consulting you about it.” It was well-intentioned, but it was manipulative all the same.

Unfortunately, the impulse that many of us feel to keep others happy doesn’t come from nowhere. Sometimes people really do act like they think their emotions are our responsibility, and this realization that I had isn’t necessarily helpful for those situations. But it’s helpful for situations in which people really haven’t asked me to help manage their emotions for them.

In the new season of Orange is the New Black, there were some scenes that illustrated this vividly. In Episode 2, Red finally confronts Piper for lying to her about her family store, which Piper claimed to have visited on her furlough but which has actually been closed for ages:

Piper: Red, you’re back and you’re not talking to me. Now what did I do?

Red: My post-slock resolution was to stop giving liars second chances.

P: When did I lie to you?

R: “Business is booming. There’s a line out the door.” You were much more convincing than my husband, but you were just as stupid. You could have said you didn’t make your way there. Instead, you said you ate my vatrushkis.

P: I’m sorry. I–I thought that I was doing the right thing.

R: By lying? We read different children’s books.

P: You know many cultures value a person’s dignity over the truth. In Korea, they actually call it kibun. I heard that on The World with Marco Werman.

R: In Russia, we call it “bullshit.”

P: Look, there was nothing you could do about it, and I thought that I was saving you some pain.

R: You thought if you didn’t bring me bad news, I won’t kill the messenger.

P: I said what I said because I am a nice person and it felt right.

R: Nice is for cowards and Democrats. You’re a selfish little person. You wanted me to like you. Now I like you less.

Screenshot 2015-07-26 22.45.30

Red confronts Piper in Season 3, Episode 2 of Orange is the New Black.

I don’t mean to imply that everyone who lies or twists the truth in order to keep others happy is quite on the level of Piper (who is many folks’ least favorite OITNB character for a variety of reasons), but something about Red’s anger is very familiar to me. Red sees right through Piper’s excuses about being “nice” and “doing the right thing” and “saving you some pain,” and calls it what it really is: trying to get Red to like her, and failing spectacularly.

That, I think, is ultimately what’s so manipulative about it. Refusing to be honest with someone in order to keep them from disliking you is a way of saying, “I know you would probably want this information, but I’m going to withhold it from you because what’s more important to me is that you like me.”

There are subtler forms of dishonesty than what Piper did, to be sure. When I shy away from setting boundaries with someone even though I know they would want to know what my boundaries are, I’m lying by omission.

I totally, 100% get–because I’m living this myself right now–that a lot of this feels like an act of self-preservation. Especially for folks who have survived abuse, it might never feel safe to set boundaries, to be honest, and to allow people to dislike you. We feel that if we don’t keep everyone around us happy, we’ll never be safe. If you’re still living in a context like this, you know your situation best. Not everyone is able to set boundaries and be honest safely, and, as with everything else interpersonal, power and privilege play a role.

But if not, I think there’s a point at which our (understandable) fear of being disliked–even hated–becomes an excuse to avoid saying what needs to be said. I’m writing this as much for myself as for anyone else, because I’m getting exhausted of managing others’ emotions and I desperately need to be able to stop. Realizing that what I’m doing is actually manipulative has been very helpful. I can’t stand it when people try to withhold information from me in order to keep me happy, so I’m doing my best to stop doing it to them.

The advice Red finally gives Piper at the end of the episode resonated with me, and not only because Red and I share a heritage. She says, “Awaken your inner Russian. No more bullshit. Na zdorovie [to your health].”

Na zdorovie is what Russians say when we make a toast, but it’s applicable literally, too: my (mental) health can’t handle the stress of keeping everyone happy at all times, at all costs. Moreover, nobody asked me to manage their emotions for them. Let them deal with their own emotions, just like I deal with my own every day.

And now, since this is such a difficult topic, here’s an actual dog I visited today:

11215712_10153107792022862_6206185993411309787_n

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It is important, though beyond the scope of this post, to address the distinction between “not taking responsibility for others’ emotions” and “being a huge raging asshole and then claiming that it’s not your responsibility if people are hurt.” Nooooope. No.

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