Women Are Not “Mysterious”

I came across this meme in my Facebook newsfeed (with criticism, thankfully):

A man opens a huge, several-feet-tall book. Caption reads, "The book 'Understanding Women' has finally arrived in bookstores."

It was shared by the page “Engineer Memes,” which makes sense given the trope that it references. You know the one: the brilliant, successful scientist/engineer/mathematician who can solve any problem, invent a lifesaving drug or device, and understand the most complicated theories of physics, but there is one enigma in this world that even he cannot comprehend…the human female.

This trope is tired and old and boring. It’s also harmful.

Here’s an abridged list of things women are not:

  • an alien species with incomprehensible thought processes and behaviors
  • rocket ships that require years of training to operate
  • ancient scrolls written with indecipherable runes
  • never-before-seen weather patterns that have meteorologists stumped

Nevertheless, women are invariably referred to (by men) as “the ultimate enigma,” “mysterious forces of nature,” and other such lofty descriptions. Women’s personalities and sexualities are considered infinitely more complex than men’s supposedly simple ones. When it comes to sex, especially, many people continue to believe that there is something “complicated” or “mysterious” about pleasing a woman, but not about pleasing a man. The female orgasm glimmers in the imaginations of men like Atlantis.

At first glance this sounds like a compliment. Shouldn’t women be glad that they get to be “mysterious” and “complex” while men are simple and boring? Shouldn’t women feel flattered that their male partners are willing to brave the dark labyrinths of their Complex Lady Brains in order to try (in vain) to Understand Women? Isn’t this proof that it’s really women, not men, who are superior, in that they captivate helpless men with their feminine mysteriousness?

I view the women-are-mysterious trope as an example of benevolent sexism, which I’ve written about here before. But here’s a refresher. While hostile sexism consists of the beliefs we typically think of as misogyny–women are stupid, women are weak, women are shallow and catty, women just want to fuck men over and get their money, etc.–benevolent sexism is the set of beliefs that puts women on a pedestal. For instance, the idea that every man needs a woman to take care of him and to make sure he washes his clothes and eats good food is an example of benevolent sexism. So is the stereotype that women are better caretakers than men and that they are superior at communication.

Benevolent sexism and hostile sexism are strongly correlated; people who score high on one tend to score high on the other as well. Benevolent and hostile sexism each also includes beliefs about men, such as “men are strong and competent” on the benevolent side and “men are all lying cheaters” on the hostile side.

Although hostile sexism (toward either gender) is arguably more directly hurtful, benevolent sexism has negative consequences as well. It tends to promote gender roles and it allows men to stigmatize and marginalize women who don’t fit the tropes associated with it (if “real” women are good caretakers, what do you do with a woman who has no interest in taking care of anyone?). Benevolent sexism is a system in which women who conform to their roles receive limited rewards for doing so, but attain little actual power for themselves.

Besides the fact that it’s a type of sexism, the women-are-mysterious trope is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It prevents men from learning how to understand women by teaching them that trying to is a waste of time. In doing so, it ensures that women will remain “mysterious” to men.

Over at Crates and Ribbons, Leopard writes:

It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that Stephen Hawkings can declare women to be “a complete mystery”, and have newspapers gleefully latch on to this, declaring women “the greatest mystery known to man”. It is a common refrain for men to bleat about not understanding women, but this is because they have simply never tried, because society has trained them to never look at life through the eyes of a woman.

In other words, the women-are-mysterious trope is not an accident and nor is it free of consequences. It stems from the historical privileging of men’s viewpoints (and the marginalization of women’s viewpoints) and results in men’s unwillingness to try–to really try–to understand the women in their lives. It’s much easier to write off women’s behaviors, attitudes, and emotions as “mysterious” and “indecipherable” and perhaps arising from mystical female biological processes than it is to actually listen to and try to understand them.

It is, of course, false that men and women are completely the same in every way. They are not, largely because of different socialization. If men were encouraged to learn about and understand this different socialization rather than throwing their hands up and giving up on understanding these mysterious forces of nature, men and women would communicate better and gender roles would break down faster. It’s a win-win!

Understanding women is, indeed, not at all like understanding physics and mathematics. It’s like understanding people, plus being aware of how different groups of people sometimes face different experiences and expectations in society. It also means understanding that while there are some differences between men on average and women on average, the differences among men and among women are much larger–and, arguably, more significant if you’d like to understand individuals as opposed to groups. The best way to understand a particular woman’s–say, your girlfriend’s–needs, desires, expectations, and preferences isn’t to try to Understand Women, it’s to try to understand her. And that means actually communicating with her.

You don’t need a two-foot-thick book to understand women. You do, however, need to learn to listen.

~~~

P.S. Not the subject of this post, but women who claim that it’s Impossible To Understand Men should stop doing that, too. It’s not impossible.

How to Be a Responsible Devil’s Advocate

Devil’s advocate is a tricky rhetorical strategy. On the one hand, it can be extremely useful for exposing the flaws in an argument, helping others clarify and strengthen their positions, and practice your own argumentation. Using devil’s advocate when the topic under discussion is, say, whether or not we should pursue immortality or how best to end our dependence on non-renewable energy sources will probably be productive and enlightening.

On the other hand, when the topic is whether or not it should be legal to shoot unarmed Black teenagers or how best to respond to sexual assault, devil’s advocate is a minefield of potential faux pas, triggers, and discussions that end in yelling and/or blocking each other online.

Although some claim that in discussions like these we should be “objective” and not allow emotions to “get in the way,” I would argue that 1) it is virtually impossible to be objective about issues to which we have a personal connection, and 2) it’s not even desirable to be objective about issues to which we have a personal connection. For all their flaws, emotions alert us when the stakes are high, tip us off to our biases, and keep us fighting our battles. The important part is knowing what your bias is, and reminding yourself constantly to be on the lookout for information that doesn’t fit into that bias.

The reason this is relevant to the devil’s argument discussion is that people are going to have strong emotional responses to issues like sexual assault prevention. They just are. If you choose to play devil’s advocate during a discussion about an issue as personal and painful as this, you’re probably going to push some people’s buttons, and not in a good way. You’re going to sound exactly like the people who argue against them in earnest, and you’re going to make them defensive and cause them to double down even on parts of their arguments that are not that good. You’re going to jeopardize any chance of having a productive discussion.

Unless you learn how to be a responsible devil’s advocate.

First of all, and most importantly, accept that some people do not want to engage with devil’s advocates on certain issues. They do not want to hear about your thought experiments and hypotheticals. They do not want to argue with people whose positions on the issues are not clear, because it can be painful and even triggering to hear these opinions.

You may feel that these people are not doing their duty as Good Skeptics by not engaging in your Spirited Debate or supporting Free Inquiry or appreciating Diversity of Opinion, but it frankly doesn’t really matter. Some people don’t have the privilege to be able to look at issues like this objectively and without emotion because they have lived through the traumas and tragedies associated with these issues. If you can’t respect that and accept that not wanting to argue with you does not mean someone is Bad At Arguing or Bad At Skepticism, then you have no business trying to discuss these issues with anyone.

Second, make sure you have examined your own motivations for wanting to play devil’s advocate on an issue that’s personal and painful to many people. I’m not saying that there are no good motivations (insofar as you can discern “good” and “bad” motivations here); I’m just saying that it merits examination. Are you doing it to hash out your own doubts and figure out what you believe? That’s pretty legit. Are you doing it to help the other person argue better? Commendable, but not necessarily recommended; I’ll get to that in a bit. Are you doing it to get a reaction out of someone? If so, consider not doing that ever.

Often people are “rubbed the wrong way” by the discourse on issues like sexual assault, sexism, racism, and so on. They just find the claims made by progressives on these issues to be irritating somehow and they feel compelled to argue against them without really knowing for certain where they themselves stand or why they feel such a need to argue with a random internet person they don’t know.

A lot of the time, these people discover that their irritation and discomfort are stemming from unexamined prejudices, biases, and feelings of guilt. They realize that they’re actually worried that they will be perceived as an “-ist” or that they have undeserved privileges or that they have mistreated others because of bigotry or that they are resentful because they think minority groups are receiving special advantages of some sort. Examining carefully your reasons for wanting to play devil’s advocate can reveal some of these deep-seeded thoughts and feelings, and prevent others from using up valuable time and energy trying to get you to recognize them.

Third, if you’re playing devil’s advocate in order to try and help someone else, find out if that person actually wants or needs your help. Unsolicited advice is frankly annoying in almost any case, but especially when it involves a long, drawn-out debate with someone you believe to be in need of convincing, only to find out that they actually think they’re kindly bestowing their argumentative expertise on you.

If you’re not a progressive activist, you might not know how discussions generally work in our communities. We’re always hashing things out with each other, trying out new arguments, and asking for feedback. If we blog on networks or in groups of some sort, we often have private backchannels where we practice our arguments. You may think, running across a random blog or Twitter feed, that we’re desperately in need of someone to help us refine our views, but generally we have plenty of trusted friends and colleagues that we can do that with. So don’t assume.

Fourth, if you have now decided that you’re going to play devil’s advocate, tell the person what you’re doing. Be open. Get consent. Constructive debate is not that different from sex in this regard. For instance, here are some things you can say:

  • “I generally agree with you, but I’m having some doubts. Can I argue from the other side to see how you’d respond?”
  • “I’m not sure this argument will stand up to scrutiny. Do you mind if I try some counterarguments?”
  • “Want to practice debating this issue?”
  • “I don’t actually believe this, but just out of curiosity, how would you respond if I argued that ______?”

As Captain Awkward says, use your words. The clearer it is what you’re trying to accomplish and what your actual point is, the likelier it is that you’ll have a productive discussion and nobody’s feelings will be hurt.

And, as I mentioned in my first point, don’t forget to accept no for an answer. Do not respond passive-aggressively about how “sad” it is that you can’t even have a good debate about this issue. Do not snark at them about how “some skeptic you are.” Do not bloviate using grand, vague terms like “freedom of expression” and “free inquiry.” Do not pout about how you “just wanted a discussion.” If they say, “Sorry, this is too close to home,” say “Ok, sorry I bothered you!” and move on.

Fifth, be prepared for the possibility that people will misinterpret your arguments and positions as much more vile than you believe they actually are. You may be accused of rape apologia or various -isms or of not giving a fuck. Two things may be going on here: 1) the people you’re arguing with have a more accurate impression of your views than you think they do, because they’ve been down this road before; 2) the people you’re arguing with are extremely sensitized to horrendous bigotry and now sometimes see it in places where it isn’t really.

You may feel this is incredibly unfair, and that’s understandable. However, what’s considerably more unfair is how often these people, many of whom have been personally affected by the issues they’re discussing, have to deal with those who blame them and treat them like they’re subhuman and advocate for them to have their rights taken away (or not even given in the first place). Your arguments may sound exactly like the arguments made by those Actual Bigots, and so you get pegged for one.

Remember that being charitable means trying to understand why others often aren’t.

And remember that when it comes to social justice issues, the devil already has plenty of genuine advocates. There are people who tell us every day that bitches be lyin’. There are people who tell us every day that we shouldn’t ruin rapists’ lives by holding them accountable for what they did. There are people who say that Trayvon deserved it. There are people who say that a fetus has more rights than an adult human.

So, I will include the same cautionary note for devil’s advocate as I recently wrote for sarcasm: if you mimic terrible opinions and sound exactly like the people who hold those opinions earnestly, do not be surprised if people don’t take kindly to your arguments. Do not be surprised if we’re tired of responding to the same terrible opinion every day. Maybe you were bored at work and started reading a feminist blog for the first time in your life and wanted to play a fun game of devil’s advocate, but for those of us who write those blogs, that’s what we do every day. And for those of us who live the horrible reality of some of the issues we write about, facing the same terrible opinion for the millionth time can be too painful and stressful to be worth it.

You may be able to turn these issues into an engaging intellectual exercise while we may not. Do not hold yourself up as a paragon of emotional stability and argumentative prowess because of this. Understand that you’ve been lucky.

Update: added a link to this relevant post.

“They’re Your Friends/Family/Neighbors!”: On Activism and Appeals to Kinship

This post may have more questions than answers. You have been warned!

For a while I’ve been noticing a certain tension in activism of various kinds. On the one hand, we want people to care about our causes not because those causes are necessarily proximal to them and impact their lives directly, but because these causes are just important and working on them contributes to a better world. On the other hand, relating these causes to people and showing them why the causes are relevant to their own lives gets them to care when they otherwise might not.

The particular example of this I’m going to talk about is the “they’re your friends/family/neighbors” approach, and my two subexamples are women’s rights and mental health advocacy.

For instance, in this past year’s State of the Union address, Barack Obama said this: “We know our economy is stronger when our wives, mothers, and daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace and free from the fear of domestic violence.” Sexual assault, too, is often talked about in this way, when men are exhorted to “imagine if it happened to your mother/sister/daughter/girlfirend/wife.”

Similarly, during the National Conference on Mental Health this past June, Obama (again) uttered the following sentence: ”We all know somebody — a family member, a friend, a neighbor — who has struggled or will struggle with mental health issues at some point in their lives.” (Notably, none of the conference speakers actually identified as mentally ill except one woman on one panel, so the conference seemed to be addressed at people who have mentally ill family members, friends, and neighbors as opposed to people who have mental illnesses.)

Although these verbal maneuvers are so common as to pass unnoticed by most people, they’ve been criticized soundly. For instance, writing about Obama’s State of the Union address, mckennamiller at Daily Kos says:

The time is long past due that we recognize the value of all people by their inherent worth, rather than by their relationship to someone else. The reason to fight homophobia isn’t because “you’ve got a gay friend,” it’s because it’s simply the right thing to do. The reason why a woman is valuable isn’t because she’s someone’s sister, or daughter, or wife, it’s because of the person she is unto herself.

Writing about Steubenville, the Belle Jar Blog says:

The Steubenville rape victim was certainly someone’s daughter. She may have been someone’s sister. Someday she might even be someone’s wife. But these are not the reasons why raping her was wrong. This rape, and any rape, was wrong because women are people. Women are people, rape is wrong, and no one should ever be raped. End of story.

And, writing about the mental health conference, C.D. says:

Second, the “friends and family” approach makes it seem like people with mental illnesses are only important in the context of their relationships. In the President’s speech, we are defined not as individuals, but within the structure of relationships with “sane” people – the “family member, friend, neighbor” who knows us. This makes us secondary players in our own illnesses: our conditions are important not because they’re destroying our lives, or making every day a struggle, but because they’re making our loved ones miserable.

I agree with these arguments. I think that the “friends and family” approach, which I will call the “appeal to kinship” for lack of a better term, implies–not intentionally–that people should care about these issues because, well, wouldn’t it suck if that happened to someone you love?

I think the “not intentionally” part is absolutely vital here. A lot of people respond to the arguments above with things like “Yeah well Obama didn’t mean that women have no worth if they’re not related to you” and “But nobody said that we should only care about mentally ill people because they’re our friends and family” and so on. Yes, if we were saying that Obama et al literally mean to say that we shouldn’t rape women and we should help the mentally ill get treatment simply because sometimes people we love get raped or have mental illnesses, that would be an incredibly uncharitable interpretation. But that’s not what these arguments are claiming.

They’re claiming that very kind, very well-intentioned phrases and statements can still send the wrong message, a message that the speaker never meant to send but that is getting sent nonetheless.

Do speeches like Obama’s actually convince people that they should only care about rape survivors or mentally ill people who happen to be part of their lives? I doubt it’s quite that simple. But they probably reinforce the preexisting tendency that most people have to value their loved ones over their not-loved ones, which isn’t a problem when it comes to personal relationships, but is a problem when it comes to social justice: the biggest problems facing people in this world are the problems least likely to affect the friends and family of your average listener of Obama’s speeches.

However, speechwriters and activists do not pick their strategies at random. I think that the reason appeals to kinship are so often made is because they probably work. People do have a bias toward those who are close to them proximally and relationally, and many people are probably more likely to get invested in a cause if they think it affects those they love than if they have no reason to think that. There’s a reason coming out in various forms is such a powerful political act; not only does it humanize people who have been considered “other” for decades or centuries, but it also often jolts the friends and families of those people into awareness. The conservative, anti-gay politician who suddenly flip-flops when a family member comes out as gay or lesbian is a tired trope by now, but there’s a reason it happens.

If this is truly the case that people care more about issues when they believe those issues affect the people they love–and, based on what I’ve studied, it probably is–that brings up a bunch of difficult questions. If appeals to kinship are effective, are they justified despite the possible harmful implications?* How successful would they need to be in order to be justified?

Even supposing we choose to use appeals to kinship to get people to care about things we think they should care about, that doesn’t mean we have to just accept that people are biased in this way. Can we get people to unbias their thinking and care as much about issues that do not affect their own own loved ones? If so, how? After all, while it’s true that there’s a good chance that some of your friends and family are queer, mentally ill, or victims of sexual assault, how likely are they to be living in abject poverty? How likely, if you are white, are they to experience racism? How likely are they to be incarcerated?

The appeal to kinship is similar to another strategy often used in liberal activism: “_____! They’re just like us!” With this tactic, people are persuaded to care about some minority group’s lack of rights by making them see that the members of this group are really just like them and therefore deserve rights. For example, the push for same-sex marriage rights and the way that that push has now become the most visible and most-supported LGBT cause is a prime example of this. Being unable to legally marry is objectively not the biggest problem facing queer people, but it’s getting the most attention. Why? Partially because queer people who get married are Just Like Us.** It’s no surprise that a certain very popular current song about same-sex marriage is literally called “Same Love,” after all.

Unfortunately, premising one’s activism on people being Just Like Us has two negative effects: 1) it fails to challenge the idea that people must be Just Like Us to deserve rights, and 2) it fails to help those who cannot somehow be shown to be Just Like Us. That’s why liberal activism frequently ignores the most marginalized people–they’re the hardest to portray as being just like “ordinary” (white, middle-class, straight, Christian, etc. etc. blahblah) folks.

So, to expand on my original questions a bit: Should we acknowledge the limitations of the Just Like Us approach to activism while using it anyway? Should we stop using it? Although this approach has ethical issues, could it be even more unethical to abandon a strategy that can do a lot of good? How do we get people to care about oppression, discrimination, and prejudice even when it does not affect anyone they have a personal connection to, or anyone they feel very similar to? 

Although I’ve presented some arguments here, I don’t actually intend for this post to answer any of these questions. So if you have answers, the floor is yours.

~~~

* I should note that more research is needed (as always) on this. Not just on the effectiveness of appeals to kinship, but also on their potential dangers.

** For a really fantastic and in-depth treatment of same-sex marriage and assimilation, read this piece by Alex Gabriel.

“How Do I Get My Partner To Try Polyamory?”

The title of this post is one of the most common questions I’ve seen people ask, online and off, about polyamory. “I really want to try an open relationship but my partner doesn’t. How do I get them to change their mind?” “I’ve started seeing a wonderful new person, but there’s a catch: they’re not poly. How do I convince them to try it?” And so on.

Here’s the short answer: you don’t.

Here’s the longer answer: This way lies potential for mutual growth and awesomeness. But this way also lies an arguably greater potential for hurt feelings, manipulation, coercion, and even abuse. Please be careful.

The first important thing is to understand why your partner does not want to try polyamory. People have all sorts of reasons for that:

  • they’re afraid of feeling jealous
  • it’s against their religious beliefs
  • they want a partner who’s always available to them
  • they don’t want to worry about the complications of safer sex with multiple partners
  • they don’t want to face stigma from friends, family, employers, or communities
  • they’re not interested in seeing anyone else
  • they want to get married and/or have children soon and don’t want to deal with polyamory in that regard
  • they just don’t understand what it is or how it works or why it might be worthwhile
  • and many more.

If you are polyamorous, many of these may not seem like very good reasons to you. Some of them don’t really to me either. But it’s not up to you to pass judgment on how good someone else’s reasons are, and if that someone else is your partner, being nonjudgmental is especially important.

Ask your partner what their qualms about polyamory are. Don’t frame the question like “Yeah well why not” or “But what’s wrong with polyamory” or “But don’t you want [to feel more free/to let me be more free/to explore other options/etc].” Go into the discussion with the intent to understand your partner, not necessarily to be understood by your partner or to push a specific point of view. Ask, “How do you feel when you think about being polyamorous?” or “How do you imagine an ideal relationship?” This will probably not be a one-time conversation, though. Follow the discussion and see how it unfolds.

Eventually, you may–if your partner trusts you and if you’re empathic and patient–understand why your partner doesn’t want to try polyamory. If the reason is that it goes against their core beliefs or it’s just not how they envision what a relationship ought to be, you’re probably out of luck. Sometimes people have beliefs that you strongly disagree with; that’s a good indicator that they may not be the best partners for you.

Sometimes, though, people don’t want to try polyamory because they don’t really understand how it works. For instance, I once thought that polyamory meant that none of my partners would “truly” love me. None of them would ever want to, say, live with me or get married or sit at the hospital for hours while I recovered from surgery. I thought that polyamory just meant having a loose collection of friends with benefits who pass in and out of your life seemingly at random. While for some people that might be great, for me it sounded horrible.

But then I read some books about it out of curiosity and I discovered that there are people who would want to do all of those Serious Relationship Things with me while still being okay with me seeing other people! Those things are not mutually exclusive. And although I now value Serious Relationship Things much less than I used to, and would be comfortable being single and not having those things with anyone, it’s nice to know that they are not incompatible with polyamory.

If your partner is like I was back then, you can certainly help them understand what you’re looking for by sharing with them good books and articles about polyamory, introducing them to poly friends who can talk about how their own relationships work, and just talking about how you envision the future if you stay together and become poly.

But the key is that you cannot be too forceful or pressuring. If you do that, you will fail, but more importantly, you will probably seriously hurt your partner.

Often, though, it’s not so simple. Many people say that they don’t want to try polyamory because they would feel too jealous. Remember that jealousy, like any other human emotion, is neither good nor bad; it just is. Some people choose to hack their own emotions and try to replace them with more optimal ones (compersion, in the case of polyamory), but other people have no interest in doing this. That’s their right. Feel free to share with your partner your own perspectives on jealousy, but remember that it’s unfair to presume that your partner “ought” to try to get over their jealousy. That’s for them to decide.

You may be entirely correct if you think that your partner would be better off learning to manage their jealousy and becoming polyamorous. But sometimes, when it comes to relationships, being kind is more important than being right. I’ll share a personal story to illustrate what I mean.

The main reason I was initially extremely opposed to polyamory (personally, not universally) was because I had depression. I didn’t realize this at the time; I thought that I was just a person who has Extreme Feelings of Jealousy and that’s Just How I Am and nothing can be done about it, because I hadn’t ever been able to do anything about it for as long as I could remember having those feelings. The mere thought of polyamory made my guts churn.

But when I recovered from depression, I realized that those Extreme Feelings of Jealousy had all been tied into my depression, which was fueling my insecurity and fear. I started identifying as poly within a month of recovering and started seeing my first poly partner two months later. Although I still have manageable, healthy feelings of jealousy sometimes, that gaping chasm of fuckfuckthisisterribleIcan’tdoit had closed and becoming polyamorous was actually a very easy decision.

How would I have felt if, prior to my recovery, a partner had patronizingly informed me that the reason I didn’t want to try polyamory was because I was depressed? Pretty angry and hurt. I would have felt manipulated if I sensed that my partner’s main concern about my depression was not that it was making me depressed, but that it was preventing me from agreeing to polyamory and letting my partner get their rocks off with other people. I would have felt that my serious illness was being trivialized. I would have felt that my partner was treating me like a child by making assumptions about how depression affects the rest of my life. Because even if a partner of mine had understood what was going on–itself an unlikely feat–it’s not their place to tell me how my mental health is affecting my relationship choices and that I should improve my mental health so as to make “better” relationship choices. That was my battle to fight, and I fought and won it.

Sometimes being kind is more important than being right. And, I would add, presuming to know what’s best “for your own good” is not being kind in my book. It’s being manipulative and condescending.

So, try not to speculate about why your partner is feeling the way they are about polyamory. Let them discover that on their own. Hopefully, if they value your relationship, they will at least make an effort to do some soul-searching and help you understand them, just as you, if you value your relationship, will make an effort to understand their objections rather than trying to “convert” them to your preferred relationship style.

I want to emphasize how fine a line you have to walk. It’s quite possible that you’ll convince your partner to try polyamory and they’ll be really glad they did. It’s also possible that you’ll convince your partner to try polyamory, and later–in months, or years–they’ll gradually understand that they only tried it because they started to believe that they had to do it in order to keep you. They may feel manipulated even though you never intentionally manipulated them. They may feel worthless because they were unable to do what you wanted them to. This may not be your fault whatsoever, or it may be a little bit your fault, or it may be almost entirely your fault. Neither of you may ever know for sure.

This is why my knee-jerk answer at the beginning of this post was, “You don’t.”

I completely understand how awful it feels when you really like/love someone, but you’re poly and they’re not and you don’t know what to do. Some poly people deal with this situation by trying monogamy, temporarily or permanently, to varying levels of success. Some try to convince their partner to give polyamory a try, as I’ve laid out above. Others end the relationship.

The later is, in my opinion, the safest and healthiest option. It assumes responsibility for your own needs rather than expecting your partner to conform to them, and it acknowledges the fact that trying to “get” your partner to try another type of relationship is a situation that’s pretty likely to lead to lots of frustration and resentment for both of you.

I would love it if people would reframe the question in this post’s title as, “How do I help my partner understand polyamory?” This suggests that your goal is to help them come to their own conclusion about whether or not this is something they’d like to try, and that your role in the process is to provide them with resources and support, not prefabricated opinions.

Whichever path you choose, be prepared to spend a lot of time examining your own biases and motivations and making sure that you’re not being coercive or manipulative. Remind your partner that you only want them to try polyamory if they decide they want to, not in order to please you or keep you from leaving. Try to refrain from making assumptions about their reasoning; while people are often wrong about themselves, they still have access to much more information about themselves than you do.

Remember that sometimes, being kind is more important than being right.

What We Write About When We Write About Hookups

Every few months the New York Times (or another similarly-positioned publication) prints an article about how Women These Days Are Having Casual Sex And It’s Ruining Things. The articles are often framed just progressively enough to get progressives to eagerly share them over social media because anything about casual sex that’s not from Fox News must be interesting, right?

No. It’s the same story over and over, and it misrepresents what casual sex is really like.

First of all, only a certain type of woman is ever interviewed. The newest offering from the NYT starts out: “At 11 on a weeknight earlier this year, her work finished, a slim, pretty junior–”

Stop right there. Why are they always “slim” and “pretty”? Why are they always middle-/upper-class? Why are they always white? In fact, why are these stories only ever written about women, and not about men? How do men feel about casual sex? (You might think the answer is obvious, but that’s just because you haven’t talked to enough men.)

In fact, interviewing a more diverse group of people might provide insights about hookups that are more profound than “sometimes skinny hot girls have casual sex.” For instance, Black and Latina women are sexualized–presumed to be “overly” sexual–based on their race. How do they view casual sex? Asian and Indian American women are desexualized–presumed to have little independent sexuality–based on their race. How do they view casual sex?

Poor women are sometimes sexualized, too, and they also face more challenges if their hookups lead to STIs, pregnancy, or sexual assault. How do they view casual sex?

Disabled women are presumed to have no sex drive, but they do. How do they view casual sex? How do they overcome the stereotypes that people have about them?

Fat women are stigmatized by many people, and also fetishized by some. They’re expected to be “grateful” for any sex they can get. How do they view casual sex?

Older women who still want casual sex are looked down upon because this is something that “kids these days” do. They’re expected to be married with children already. How do they view casual sex?

Queer women are often considered either promiscuous or sexless, depending on how people have categorized them. Asexual women, when they are even recognized to exist, are assumed not to want any sex ever for any reason. Do some of them have casual sex? How do they experience it? Trans* women face a unique set of challenges when it comes to finding partners. Do they feel pressure to out themselves to potential partners? Do their partners ever view them as not “really” women?

Polyamorous women may have only casual sex, but they may also have a committed partner, too. They may have several committed partners. They may have a committed partner and a few friends that they hook up with. What’s casual sex like when you get to come home to your spouse afterward?

Isn’t this all a lot more interesting, relevant, and important than interviewing the same types of women over and over?

One might argue that there are separate articles written about sex from the perspective of these types of women. But how come, when we talk about “hookups” in general, we’re always talking about straight/white/thin/attractive/well-off/able-bodied women? Why are women who don’t fit into these categories relegated to other articles, ones that don’t get published in places like the NYT and the Atlantic?

Furthermore, these articles generally present the same narrative about how and why people have casual sex. From the one linked above:

Ask her why she hasn’t had a relationship at Penn, and she won’t complain about the death of courtship or men who won’t commit. Instead, she’ll talk about “cost-benefit” analyses and the “low risk and low investment costs” of hooking up.

“I positioned myself in college in such a way that I can’t have a meaningful romantic relationship, because I’m always busy and the people that I am interested in are always busy, too,” she said.

“And I know everyone says, ‘Make time, make time,’ ” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity but agreed to be identified by her middle initial, which is A. “But there are so many other things going on in my life that I find so important that I just, like, can’t make time, and I don’t want to make time.”

I absolutely do not doubt that some people, perhaps including this “A,” really do conduct a “cost-benefit analysis” to determine what types of relationships to have. However, based on everything I know about the way we make decisions, I’ll say that that’s not usually how it works. Usually, we make decisions based on emotions, and then we come up with post-hoc rationalizations for those decisions. Often this happens subconsciously.

A previous NYT trend piece on casual sex, meanwhile, blamed hookup culture on the fact that people just don’t know how to do anything different:

Many students today have never been on a traditional date, said Donna Freitas, who has taught religion and gender studies at Boston University and Hofstra and is the author of the forthcoming book, “The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy.”

Hookups may be fine for college students, but what about after, when they start to build an adult life? The problem is that “young people today don’t know how to get out of hookup culture,” Ms. Freitas said. In interviews with students, many graduating seniors did not know the first thing about the basic mechanics of a traditional date. “They’re wondering, ‘If you like someone, how would you walk up to them? What would you say? What words would you use?’ ” Ms. Freitas said.

Predictably, that piece also blames technology:

Online dating services, which have gained mainstream acceptance, reinforce the hyper-casual approach by greatly expanding the number of potential dates. Faced with a never-ending stream of singles to choose from, many feel a sense of “FOMO” (fear of missing out), so they opt for a speed-dating approach — cycle through lots of suitors quickly.

That also means that suitors need to keep dates cheap and casual. A fancy dinner? You’re lucky to get a drink.

So, young people have casual sex because their cost-benefit analyses have told them that it’s more optimal than relationships. Or because they don’t know how to not have casual sex. Or because the evil technology makes them.

What’s missing from this picture?

Many people have casual sex because that’s what they want to do.

This is a story you never seem to find in the NYT. You’ll have to go to blogs for it, probably because it wouldn’t play well to the NYT’s audience. One of my favorite pieces along this vein is from xoJane and it’s called “I Used To Give Out Sex Like Gold Star Stickers (And I’m Glad I Did).” While I’m a little weirded out by the metaphor of “giving” sex like some sort of reward (different strokes for different folks, though), I can really relate to the basic message of the piece. For instance:

Several years ago, on a long walk through the English countryside, Lucy and I were struggling to define our sexual standards. We weren’t wait-until-marriage types, or even wait-until-exclusivity. Yet neither of us would say we did much in the way of soulless jolly-grinding.

We were somewhere in between: we had sex with friends we liked and trusted, almost as a prize for being awesome. It was our seal of approval: “You’re an attractive and accomplished person, and I admire you. Congratulations! Gold star for you.”

Gold Star Sticker Sex is the opposite of no-strings-attached. It’s shared in the same way you might have shared a deep, dark secret in high school…or one of those BE FRI/ST ENDS necklaces in 2nd grade. It’s not a romantic commitment, but nevertheless, it comes from a loving place — a desire to enhance intimacy.

You will never find this type of sex in the NYT trend pieces. There, sex is of only two kinds: Meaningful and Committed, or Meaningless and Casual. But why can’t casual sex be meaningful, affectionate, intimate? Why does casual sex need to be with someone you don’t like “in person, sober,” as A says in the latest piece? Why can’t it be with someone you’re close with and adore, but just don’t want a serious relationship with for any number of reasons?

I think I know why these pieces always interview women. They think they’re reporting on some new and edgy phenomenon (they’re not) or writing about it in a new and edgy way (they’re not), but they’re actually repeating the same tired narrative about women and sex.

Namely, women don’t really want casual sex. They do it because those stupid shallow guys don’t want anything else. They do it because they don’t know what’s good for them. They do it because they’re too tragically busy for meaningful human connections. They do it because they have conducted a cost-benefit analysis, the results of which have determined that a relationship would not be optimal at this time; the marginal utility of casual sex is greater than the marginal utility of a relationship. They do it because they don’t know how to do anything different.

But they don’t really, really want it.

Casual sex is meaningless. Casual sex makes you feel empty inside. Casual sex makes you forget how to have a Real Relationship. Casual sex leads to rape. Casual sex is unfulfilling. Casual sex is cold and calculating (see: cost-benefit analysis). Casual sex is no way for a woman to live.

If you think this is an original idea, you’re quite wrong.

I’m not sure that these reporters deliberately set out to write this story over and over like so many Sisyphuses with their boulders. I’m not a professional journalist, but I spent a year studying to be one, and I remember what it’s like to try to collect interviews and assemble them into a coherent narrative. To be specific: the interviews that felt out of place, that couldn’t be woven into that narrative, were left out.

A college woman telling you that she’s had opportunities for relationships but turned them down because casual sex is just too fun and fulfilling would not “fit in.” A 40-year-old woman telling you that her loving husband doesn’t care if she’s out hooking up with someone else a few nights a week would not “fit in.” And, for that matter, a young man telling you that he’s having casual sex not because HORMONES but because he’d like to figure out what he’s looking for in a partner wouldn’t fit in either, because men are only supposed to have casual sex because their penishormones make them.

We need to change the way we talk about casual sex. It needs to be more inclusive, both of people and of narratives. Writing the exact same story again isn’t just boring; it’s bad journalism.

~~~

Further reading:

The Allure of the Beautiful Woman Who Doesn’t Know She’s Beautiful

You’ve probably heard this song:

You’re insecure,
Don’t know what for
You’re turning heads when you walk through the door
Don’t need make-up
To cover up
Being the way that you are is enough

Everyone else in the room can see it,
Everyone else but you

Baby you light up my world like nobody else
The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed
But when you smile at the ground it ain’t hard to tell
You don’t know
You don’t know you’re beautiful
If only you saw what I can see,
You’d understand why I want you so desperately
Right now I’m looking at you and I can’t believe
You don’t know
You don’t know you’re beautiful
That’s what makes you beautiful

This is “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction and it exemplifies some common attitudes about women and beauty. While this song makes it a lot more explicit than you’ll see it elsewhere (that’s why I bolded that part), this trope comes up all the time in film, television, literature, and music (is there a TVTropes page for this? There should be). Something about beautiful women who don’t realize how beautiful they are seems to appeal to many men. But why?

I think there are a few things potentially going on here:

First, being unaware of one’s beauty could be a marker for “innocence,” “purity,” or “virginity.”

A woman who doesn’t realize she’s beautiful is a woman who’s not experienced enough in love and sex to have been told otherwise. She doesn’t understand her own sex appeal. She doesn’t yet realize that her beauty can be used to control, manipulate, and ensnare men (remember, this is one of the dominant cultural narratives we have about what women’s beauty is “for”).

Of course, some inexperienced women are aware of their beauty and some experienced women are not. However, I think that insecurity is often read as innocence by many people when it comes to women and beauty (unless of course, the woman is not considered beautiful by conventional standards).

Second, for a woman, being unaware of your beauty means that you are not confident, cocky, or narcissistic.

Men and women face different pressures when it comes to communicating and performing confidence. Women must be humble and self-effacing (“Oh, me? I’m nothing special.”) while men must be confident and sure of themselves. Neither gets that good of a deal, really: while women have to perform a sort of humility that will inevitably feel fake to many, men have to perform a sort of confidence that they don’t always feel, either.

None of this means that there’s no such thing as “too humble” for a woman or “too cocky” for a man. There are. But the social costs of them differ from the social costs of being too cocky as a woman or too humble as a man. Women who are “too” confident (which often means women with a reasonable, healthy level of confidence) are disliked much more than men who are “too” confident (which is more likely to mean men who are truly unpleasantly full of themselves). Men who are “too” humble or insecure (which often means men with a reasonable, healthy level of humility or insecurity) are disliked much more than women who are “too” humble or insecure (which is more likely to mean women who are truly extremely insecure).

With beauty specifically, women end up in a weird double bind. Women must be beautiful, but they must not be confident. So they must play up their beauty while denying having done so and while claiming outwardly that they’re not actually beautiful. The subject of One Direction’s infamous song may very well know how beautiful she is, but she gives off a good enough impression of not knowing that she’s managed to attract the singer anyway.

Third, being painfully insecure makes you a damsel for the guy to ride in and save.

A woman who doesn’t realize how beautiful she is isn’t just an innocent and non-threatening partner; she’s also a project. She’s “broken” and needs to be “fixed” by making her “finally see” how beautiful she truly is.

I think many people, not just men, conceptualize relationships as a sort of mutual repair job. They think that their love will “make” their partner recover from a mental illness, stop drinking and partying so much, stop chasing others, realize they want marriage and kids after all, get a job, become more sexually open-minded, convert to the proper religion, recover from past trauma, or any number of other improvements. Although the repair job isn’t always mutual, it often is: people also want to depend on their partner to fix their faults for them in turn.

It would take another post to explain everything that I think is wrong with this approach to relationships, but I’ll just leave it at this: it’s codependent. It presumes that your partner needs you to fix them, and it abdicates responsibility for fixing yourself.

I have known many, many sweet and generous guys who have fallen into this trap with women, particularly women who were insecure, from difficult family situations, and/or suffering from mental illnesses. Although the concept of saving “damsels in distress” is certainly a patriarchal concept, that doesn’t mean that all (or even most) of the men who do it are somehow bad people. That’s just how they’ve learned to “do” relationships.

I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with helping a partner improve themselves somehow, but this has to be 1) mutually acknowledged and agreed upon by both people, 2) free of any emotional manipulation or pressure, and 3) the icing on the cake of a relationship that’s premised on something other than that–shared interests, mutual respect, great sex, similar visions for life and the future, or whatever else matters to you and sustains a relationship. If your entire relationship is based on trying to fix someone, one of two things will probably happen: 1) you’ll succeed in fixing them and realize that the only thing keeping you together was the repair job; or 2) you’ll fail at fixing them and become extremely frustrated because you premised your entire sense of self-worth as a partner on your ability to fix someone else’s problems–problems that are deep-seeded, complex, tenacious, and probably in need of attention from a mental health professional.

The type of attraction that’s going on in this One Direction song is, therefore, unlikely to lead to any healthy and mutually satisfying relationship. Most likely, the girl in the song will finally see what everyone else sees and will lose her appeal to the singer because she’ll no longer be innocent, humble, and in need of help. Relationships like this also have a huge potential for abuse, because the person doing the fixing can say, “You’re never going to find anyone who loves you like I do” or “Nobody but me could ever be attracted to you.” In fact, these are things that abusers often say. A slightly less abusive but still extremely manipulative possibility is that the person doing the fixing implies, directly or indirectly, that the person being fixed can’t do it on their own.

The qualities we admire and find attractive in people do not, in fact, appeal to us simply because of our own immutable “natural” tendencies with which we are endowed by genes or early childhood experiences, although these probably play a role. If you spend your life hearing from every possible source that confident women are unattractive while confident men are attractive, that’s probably what you’re going to think unless you challenge your own beliefs. But there’s nothing inherently attractive about women who don’t know they’re beautiful (however you define “beautiful”), and there’s nothing inherently attractive about women who do know they’re beautiful.

What you find attractive says more about you than it does about the person you find attractive, because it’s an indicator of your own values and beliefs about people and how they ought to be. Should people be confident and unapologetic about who they are and what they like about themselves?

I think so.

Confession: I Basically Never Ask People Out

Every progressive has a traditional streak in them. It might be little, it might be huge, it might be a secret, it might be totally obvious.

Mine is this: I do not take initiative when it comes to sex and romance.

Save for some occasional exceptions, I don’t ask people out on dates, I don’t proposition people for sex, I don’t disclose romantic or sexual feelings to anyone unless they’ve done so first, I don’t initiate conversations about moving relationships “to the next level” (I hate that phrase, but it’ll suffice here), I don’t say “I love you” first, and if I ever get married I doubt I will be the one to propose.

This is not a random personality quirk, and it’s also very localized. In the context of friendships and professional relationships, I take lots of initiative. I let people know that I’d like to get to know them better and I’ve initiated lots of coffee/lunch dates with friends. In the context of existing sexual/romantic relationships, I’m also very assertive and often suggest dates or initiate sex. In general, I set and enforce boundaries clearly (although this costs me friendships and relationships) and make my needs known.

So what is it about initiating new sexual/romantic relationships and making existing ones more serious or committed?

For lots of people, this is difficult because they fear rejection. They find themselves paralyzed with fear at the thought of asking someone on a date or telling them they want to have sex. They worry that asking and being rejected will lead to ridicule or ostracism. They worry that the person won’t want to be friends with them anymore.

I don’t. Rejection bothers me to the extent that it bothers everyone–it sucks and it’s unpleasant. But that suckage isn’t nearly enough to keep me from pursuing relationships that could make me really happy.

For some people–a group that overlaps with the fear-of-rejection group–initiating things is hard because they are insecure. They believe it’s pointless to even try because nobody could possibly like them or find them attractive anyway. Perhaps they believe this because of past romantic/sexual failure, or because they have depression and this is what depression does to you, or just because they haven’t tested this particular hypothesis yet.

That’s not the case for me either. Although I have a few insecurities, I’m quite confident in my ability to find partners.

For me, passivity in initiating relationships has little to do with fear or insecurity, and everything to do with the lessons I’ve absorbed about what it means to be a woman who initiates relationships and how people–men, mostly*–have responded when I’ve done so in the past.

First of all, as I mentioned, I do initiate sometimes. It has ended very badly almost all of those times. Not in the sense that I got rejected or that stuff happened and later didn’t work out. Rather, what inevitably happened was that the guy I asked on a date or disclosed my crush to or wanted to have a casual friends-with-benefits relationship with would string me along to see what he could get, and then reveal that he’d actually never been that interested to begin with. In the friends-with-benefits case, the “friends” part would quickly disappear. In the crush case, he’d persuade me to have sex with him and then claim that I should’ve known it “meant nothing.” In the date case, he’d act bored and blasé on the date and explain that actually he hadn’t really wanted to go on a date with me at all but just didn’t think to say no.

Of course, I get that at the beginnings of things, it’s hard to know what exactly you’re interested in, if anything. But this is why language exists. “Sure, I’d love to hang out, but I’m not sure yet if I’m interested in you romantically.” “I’d totally hook up with you, but I don’t tend to stay friends with the people I fuck.” “Right now I don’t see you as someone I’d have a relationship with, but if you’re okay just being friends who hook up sometimes, I’m down.”

Now that I’m older and more experienced, I know what to look for when someone’s purposefully being vague just to see what they can get from someone who’s expressed interest in them. I also understand why men might do this. Having a woman initiate things is probably rare enough that they want to “take advantage” of the opportunity, even though they’re not actually interested and even though that’s extremely manipulative.

Nevertheless, this has happened most of the times I’ve initiated romantic/sexual things, and that makes me extremely reluctant to do it again. If initiating things means wading through someone’s obfuscations and asking them to specify what they’re looking for from the situation and knowing that they might lie and lead me on anyway, no thanks.

The second reason involves all the patriarchal stuff I’m sure you know. All my life I’ve been told that women who initiate are whores. In fact, I’ve been warned by plenty of well-meaning women that men will string women who initiate along to see what they can get (or just assume that what they can get is sex and act accordingly). Obviously, I don’t believe any of these things. But the latter happens to have been confirmed by my personal experiences, which makes it really difficult to break out of that mold.

Along with that are the fears that many of us probably still have and try every day to overcome. In my case, it’s that nobody will ever like me if I take charge and ask people out or whatever, and that everyone will think I’m “a slut” and make fun of me behind my back (this has also happened, so believe me when I say I’m not pulling this shit out of nowhere).

And yeah, people say that men who take advantage of a woman who shows initiative aren’t the kinds of men you’d want to date, and that friends who make fun of you and call you a slut aren’t the kinds of friends you’d want to have.

But does that make it hurt any less?

The third reason is that, in my experience, many men who claim to like women who show initiative don’t really mean it–and, more to the point–they don’t realize they don’t mean it. They say, “Oh, I’d love it if a girl asked me out.” “I’d love it if a girl asked me for sex.” But then it actually happens, and the caveats come out: “Well, sure, I like assertive women, but she’s just too aggressive.” “Well, I just felt intimidated when she asked me how I felt about her.” “Wow, she just seems really desperate and obsessed.” “I think she’s like, in love with me, and I’m not ready for that right now.”

It’s not a coincidence that men tend to feel intimidated by assertive women and to view them as aggressive, desperate, and obsessed. First of all, that’s how women who initiate sex and dating are constantly portrayed in the media. Second, while more and more women are feeling comfortable initiating things, it’s probably still rare enough that men might assume–without realizing they’re assuming–that if a woman asks them out, she must be so desperate or in love with them that she was willing to ignore our society’s taboo against women who initiate relationships.

People tend to talk about fear of rejection as the ultimate reason for not making a move and the biggest obstacle for folks to overcome if they want to take charge of their love lives, but honestly, I wish rejection were the biggest problem I faced when it comes to asking people out. Rejection seems like a walk in the park compared to this other stuff. At least rejection is honest. “Sorry, I don’t like you that way.” But in my experience, taking initiative means dealing with people who don’t say what they mean, or say what they don’t mean, or don’t realize that what they say they want is not what they want, or blatantly lie. Who has time for that?!

For me, it’s not so much a conscious decision not to ask people out or proposition them even when I want to, but rather a nearly-complete lack of any desire to do so. When I meet someone I’m interested in, I often find myself thinking that it would be nice to date or hook up with this person, but there isn’t really any part of me that wants to make that happen. Instead I sometimes befriend them and see what happens. Worst case scenario is that I make an awesome friend; best case scenario is that they initiate things. Often they do. (And note how the worst case scenario and the best case scenario are actually equal in terms of awesomeness.)

But this is what makes it hardest to fight. If I really wanted to do something about my feelings for someone, I could absolutely drum up the courage to do it. But I just don’t. Apathy is always the worst enemy. I’ll meet someone and get a crush and tell my friends and they ask me what I’m going to do, and I usually just shrug and say that I don’t feel like doing much of anything about it.

To be clear, I’m not happy with the fact that I’m this way. Although I don’t feel any guilt over it (I find guilt over not being “feminist enough” or “progressive enough” to be counterproductive anyway), I’d like to change and I hope I’ll be able to. But it’s not a huge priority right now because I’m more concerned with making sure my depression doesn’t relapse and that I move to NYC successfully and do well in graduate school and make friends and all that. Sex and dating is quite a few burners away from the front.

In any case, this post should not be taken as an endorsement of How People Ought To Be, and the personal history I described should not be taken as my impression of What Men Are Like. It’s just how my life has happened to go so far. It’s likely that someday my life will go differently. I will look forward to that day.
~~~

*I specified men because this post is primarily about my experiences with men. With not-men, I have a completely different set of challenges and experiences that I didn’t want to get into here.

Extra moderation note: Posts like this one tend to bring out a lot of condescension and unsolicited advice. Note that I didn’t ask for any advice in this post, so please don’t offer it unless you’d like to talk about your own story and how you overcame problems like these. I wrote this mostly to work through my own thoughts on it and see if anyone else feels the same way, and as much as I love you all I have other people to turn to when I need advice.

Also, if you’re going to comment with something like “wow I could never have expected this from you I mean YOU you’re always all like feminist and talking about communicating and going for what you want I mean wow if even you can’t do it” please consider just not doing that.

Is All Pickup Advice Sexist?

I was reading an article that started out with the question, “Is all pickup advice sexist?” So of course I immediately started thinking about that. (I proceeded to write the following without having read the rest of the article, and when I did go back and read it, I realized that I and its author basically agree on everything. I love it when that happens.)

If you’re unfamiliar with pickup advice/pickup artists/the seduction community, it generally refers to advice targeted at straight men who would like to meet and “pick up” women for casual sex. For a less charitable explanation, see this Twitter account that collects actual quotes from pickup forums.

I don’t know if all pickup advice is sexist because I am a skeptic and I would need to either review all pickup advice or see a large representative sample of it to come to a conclusion, and that’s impossible. However, I think I can offer three reasons for why pickup advice so often tends toward sexism.

First, pickup advice is meant to be generic; i.e. “here’s how to pick up chicks” or at least “here’s how to pick up this subtype of chicks.” There’s no way to give advice on how to “pick up” an individual person because, well, people are extremely different. So pickup advice must by necessity use stereotypes and generalizations as its basis, and because all you know about your “target” is that she is a woman, the advice uses stereotypes and generalizations about women and what women like and how women’s sexuality works.

But there is no such thing as What Women Like or How Women’s Sexuality Works. Assuming that there is is sexist. And while pickup artists may still pay lip service to the fact that there are some minute differences among women, the entire thing is predicated on the notion that there are “tricks” and “techniques” you can use to “get” women.

(And that’s not even getting into the coercive and rapey elements of pickup advice.)

Second, pickup advice is, for the most part, not focused on establishing a relationship or a one-night stand or anything else that takes the needs and desires of both partners into account. Pickup advice may grant that you shouldn’t do things women explicitly say they don’t want (sometimes), but the emphasis is still on the man getting what he wants from the woman, not on having a sexual experience in which both partners have equal agency. The age-old notion of men dictating the terms and boundaries of a sexual encounter is, needless to say, also sexist.

Even when these types of advice suggest ways to please women, the emphasis tends to be on establishing yourself as Everything She Needs and a Manly Man, not on helping someone with sexual desires of her own fulfill them and feel good.

Finally, when pickup advice does center on things the guy can do to improve himself and how he comes across to others, the advice tends to center on “faking” things, exaggerating stories, and performing a certain stereotypical version of masculinity. It does not focus on genuine self-improvement, on the things that most people will tell you help make you more appealing as a partner: having real interests, being curious about the people you meet, working on developing your confidence in yourself (yes, it’s a process!), having good hygiene (guys, you wouldn’t believe how much more this matters than being “attractive”), and so on.

In this way, pickup advice is sexist because it presumes that women can be tricked into sex with cheap ruses, and because it presumes that the only way for a man to be attractive is to perform stereotypical masculinity.

Many people defend pickup advice as occasionally legitimate “self-help” for men looking to make themselves more attractive to women. I do think there are decent men in the community, and decent bits of advice. However, my take on this view is that genuine “self-help” when it comes to dating should not focus on “picking up” women; it should focus on becoming the sort of person who is ready to be a respectful, attentive, and consent-conscious partner, whether it’s just for a random one-night stand or for a serious relationship.

A big part of this that I would like to stress to any man considering pickup advice is that if everything about you screams “WAHHH CHICKS NEVER WANNA FUCK ME I HATE ALL THESE FUCKING BITCHES,” I promise you that women will stay far away. Being lonely and sexually frustrated is extremely difficult, yes. It’s even more difficult to maintain a positive, open attitude both about yourself and about your potential partners when you feel this way. But it’s important to work on developing this sort of attitude before you try to find partners*.

If you become this sort of person and you put yourself in situations where you are likely to meet people who are similar enough to you to be interested in you, you will be infinitely more successful than someone who reads every single pickup guide in the galaxy and then heads out to bars and plies women with alcohol.

~~~

*That’s not to say that people with insecurities can never get laid or get into relationships, of course. But there’s a fine line between insecurity and WAHHH CHICKS NEVER WANNA FUCK ME I HATE ALL THESE FUCKING BITCHES.

*Edit* OOPS I FORGOT A REALLY IMPORTANT FOURTH REASON. Here we go.

Pickup advice is predicated on traditional gender roles; namely, that 1) that men are the pursuers and women the pursued and 2) that men want sex more than women, who must be “persuaded” into “giving it up.”

In this way, actually, pickup artists and feminists agree on one thing: many women are unwilling to have casual sex. But they take this premise in two very different directions. Feminists argue that the problem is culture and socialization: women are taught that casual sex makes them bad and dirty, but even women who escape this sort of upbringing must deal with the social consequences of having casual sex, which leads many of them to avoid it even if they do really want it.

Pickup artists, on the other hand, often couch their observations of human behavior in evolutionary-psychological terms and view their techniques as ways to circumvent the ways in which women are “wired.” Or they claim that women who say they don’t want casual sex aren’t “being honest with themselves” and that sort of B.S.. (I’m now reminding myself once again to write an article about how creepy it is when people say things like that.)

[blogathon] Against Pokemon-Style Polyamory

This is the sixth post in my SSA blogathon. Don’t forget to donate!

When I first started exploring and getting into polyamory about a year ago, one of the things that appealed to me about it was this idea of having “different partners” for “different needs.” It made a lot of sense to me and seemed like a rational, ethical justification for dating multiple people with everyone’s knowledge and consent.

You’ll see this rationale repeated and defended in various books and articles about polyamory, and it generally goes something like this: we all have various needs and desires when it comes to sexual/romantic relationships. Often, one person can’t possibly fulfill all of these needs and desires for you. Maybe you have a particular kink that the person you love just isn’t interested in. Maybe you thrive on the excitement of casual sex or brief relationships but still want to have a long-term, serious relationship. So you look for different partners to fulfill your different needs, and the fact that a given partner can’t be everything you want in a partner doesn’t have to prevent you from being seriously, passionately, and healthily involved with this person.

So yeah, that all sounds good in theory. But in practice, it has started giving me an uncomfy feeling over the past year. I couldn’t put my finger on why until I read this great post on Tumblr:

The idea that we should look to a single person to fulfill all our needs offends me, but so does this notion that we each have some exact checklist of needs, and that the path to fulfillment is assembling just the right combination of partners.

Someone reblogged it and added this: “People aren’t Pokemon where you are trying to build a team. Or trying to collect them either :B”

And suddenly, there it was. All of my discomfort perfectly articulated. What I’d encountered was Pokemon-Style Polyamory–the idea that polyamory is about assembling some ideal collection of partners to conveniently fulfill all of one’s needs and desires.

Looks like a pretty strong team!

Looks like a pretty strong team!

There are a number of problems with this idea. First of all, it might not be practically possible. While it’s often said that polyamory requires a lot of self-awareness–which is true–being able to literally make a list of all your “needs” might not be feasible for most people. For people with very specific sexual preferences, it’s possible to be like, “I need a partner who’s willing to Dom me,” or “I need a partner with whom I can explore [X Fetish].” But sexual/romantic relationships are rarely this simple.

Further, except in the case of specific sexual preferences or relationship configurations, how exactly does one shop around for a partner who fits their specifications? Suppose I really love cooking with a partner, but my primary partner doesn’t really like doing that (this isn’t true, he totally loves doing that). Am I really going to go on OkCupid and specify that I’m looking for a partner with whom to go on dates, have sex, and cook meals? While I could certainly do that, the likelihood that anyone else out there is looking for that specific thing is pretty low, and unlikely to work–because most people want more from a partner than just someone to sleep with and cook meals with.

Or to make it even more abstract: suppose my partner’s not the best at listening when I’m going through something difficult that I’d like to talk about (also false, but suppose). How do I go about finding a partner for the specific purpose of being a good listener (and also being, well, a partner)?

So there are at least a few practical challenges to such an approach. I’m not saying it wouldn’t work; just that it would be pretty hard to make it work. I’m sure it’s been done.

The more important challenge to this view, though, is an ethical one. Ultimately, what rubs me the wrong way about this approach to polyamory is that it feels objectifying. Rather than looking for partners in order to be close to people, have fun with them, build lives with them, have a single fantastic night with them, etc., you’re looking for partners to “fulfill” particular “needs.” You’re kind of treating them like objects.

That’s not to say that the end result could never be a mutually satisfying, respectful partnership in which you see each other holistically rather than just as means to ends. But it’s an instrumental view of sex and dating. “I need this, so I will do this to get it.”

Personally, if someone wanted to date or hook up with me because of a specific trait that I have that fulfills one of their needs–say, that I’m a good listener or am willing to do X or Y in bed or like going on dates that involve concerts and museums–I would probably say no. I would feel objectified. I want to be seen as a whole person, as the sum of all of my traits, not just as a way to fulfill a particular need that someone has.

(Of course, many poly folks might say that not being limited to one person–or seeing more than one person–is a “need” that they have, so they are poly in order to fulfill that need. I think that’s a different sort of justification, though.)

Although this view had once appealed to me, when I read that Tumblr post I immediately realized that this is not why I’m poly. I’m not poly because I have different “needs” that I must assemble an optimal set of partners in order to fulfill. I’m poly because I love more than one person at a time. I dream of more than one person at a time. I want more than one person at a time. And it feels awful to limit myself to just one when the world is so full of people to love, and life is so short and so ultimately meaningless unless we create that meaning for ourselves.

I want to emphasize that if this works for you and your partners and nobody feels used or objectified (unless they want to feel that way), go for it. It’s not my place to tell anyone how to set up their relationships. I don’t think this approach is Bad or Wrong. I just think that this is an approach worthy of thinking carefully about and being cautious about, especially if this is how we explain and promote polyamory to others.

~~~

Extra moderation note: I am not interested in debating whether or not polyamory is healthy/natural/”moral”/feasible. If you want to argue about that, you can do it elsewhere. Because if you tell me that polyamory is unhealthy or never works, you are literally denying my lived experience and that of many friends and colleagues. Not cool. For some people, polyamory is unhealthy and doesn’t work; for others, monogamy is unhealthy and doesn’t work.

~~~

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Busting Myths About Feminism With SCIENCE!

Well, Monday’s April Fool’s joke left such a bad taste in my mouth that I was compelled to hurry up and write this post, which I’ve wanted to write for a while.

Feminist activists are invariably compelled to respond to silly, derailing claims about feminists’ supposed appearance, personalities, sex lives, attitudes towards men. You know the ones. Feminists are ugly. Feminists are angry and bitter. Feminists just hate men. Feminists just need a good lay.

These claims are extremely effective as derailing methods because they compel feminists to respond to these ridiculous, unsubstantiated claims (since they’re personal attacks, basically) rather than the important issues that actually matter.

There are several ways to respond to these comments. One is to simply ignore them. (I immediately delete all such comments from this blog because I don’t consider it productive or worth my time to respond to them.)

Another is to attempt to provide anecdotal evidence to the contrary–”Actually, I’m in a happy relationship with a man.” “Actually, I do shave my legs.” This might be the inspiration for those “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirts and stickers. This response is tempting–it was a personal attack, after all–but I don’t think it’s ultimately effective. It’s too easy for the derailer to claim you’re lying or that you’re an exception, and besides, the entire conversation has now been shifted to what they want to discuss–your attractiveness or lack thereof.

A third response is to question the question the assumptions latent in the claim. Who cares if we’re not as “attractive”? So what if feminists don’t shave their legs? Is that a problem? I think this is a more effective response than the previous one because it forces the derailer to justify their claims. However, it may also promote inaccurate stereotypes because, well, it sounds like a concession.

The fourth response is my favorite: “Citations or GTFO.” Tell them to prove it. And for good measure, you can cite evidence yourself, because thanks to science, there’s good reason to believe that the crap people say about feminists is simply false. Let’s examine two papers.

Paper 1: Do feminists hate men?!

Did you know that there’s a psychological measure called the Ambivalence toward Men Inventory (AMI)? Well, now you do. Anderson, Kanner, and Elsayegh (2009) administered it to a sample of nearly 500 college students to see if there’s any truth to the constantly-trotted-out stereotype that feminists hate men.

First, a quick background on the types of sexism being studied. Although many people believe that sexism necessarily involves hostile attitudes (i.e. “Women are vain and shallow”; “Men suck at understanding feelings”), attitudes like these are just one component of sexism. The other is benevolent sexism, which may seem positive based on its name, but really isn’t. Benevolent attitudes is stuff like, “Women need men to protect them,” and “Men need women to take care of them in the home.” The AMI is designed to measure both components, HM (hostility toward men) and BM (benevolence toward men). Keep in mind, again, that “benevolence toward men” doesn’t necessarily mean liking men. It means holding attitudes toward men that seem kind or affectionate on the surface, but actually support traditional gender roles. Finally, ambivalent sexism is the concurrent support for both of these seemingly contradictory sets of beliefs.

So, the participants in the study were a large, ethnically diverse sample of college students. The majority (66%) were women. The participants completed the AMI and were then asked to define feminism and state whether or not they considered themselves feminists (“unsure” was also an option). Those participants who provided a definition of feminism that did not include “any reference to equal rights for women, the acknowledgement of inequality between women and men, [or] the need for social change on behalf of women” were excluded from the main analysis of the study. (For instance, a few people defined feminism strictly as being “ladylike” or “hating men,” without any reference to gender equality. I presume that the researchers assumed that these participants simply didn’t know what feminism is and should therefore be excluded from the analysis.)

In general, men reported more BM than women, and women reported more HM than men. This is consistent with earlier research. But when it came to feminists specifically–you already know where this is going, right?–feminists scored less on hostility toward men than did non-feminists. And it’s not because of the feminist guys in the sample, either: “The presence of feminist men alone cannot explain the relatively low levels of hostility toward men in the Feminist category because there was no significant Gender × Feminist Identification interaction on hostility toward men.”

So, not only do feminists not “hate men” any more than non-feminists do; in fact, they hate them less.

Caveats about this study:

  • It turned out that a relatively small percentage of the sample identified as feminist (14%). This, combined with the fact that many people gave shoddy definitions of feminism, caused the researchers to collapse the ethnic categories into just two: white people and people of color. Obviously, this is not ideal.
  • On a related note, because the sample was so diverse (83% of the final sample were people of color), it’s also important to note that, historically, feminism has been a white, middle-class movement. People of color are therefore less likely to identify with it, and that might be why there were so few self-identified feminists in this sample.
  • Also, the participants were all college students. That brings with itself all sorts of problems with generalizing to a larger population, but also, the researchers suggest that younger people are less likely to identify as feminists, so there’s also that.

There are many reasons why the stereotype of feminists as man-haters might persist. First of all, as both this paper and the next one note, there has been a concerted effort to discredit feminism in the media and in the political arena. Second–and this is just a personal thought–I think many people, especially men, have a serious misunderstanding of what the term “patriarchy” means. It does not mean “men are bad and evil and want to oppress women.” It means, “a societal system that, in general, privileges men over women.” Both men and women, of course, are complicit in this system, and that doesn’t mean that men as a group intentionally make it so. (Although some probably do.)

But men hear feminists talking about patriarchy and think that it’s secret feminist-speak for MEN ARE BAD AND EVIL AND I HATE THEIR PENISES and so the stereotypes persist.

Paper 2: Do feminists have crappy relationships?!

Noting that “past research suggests that women and men alike perceive feminism and romance to be in conflict,” Rudman and Phelan (2007) set out to address this question by surveying both college undergraduates and older adults about their romantic relationships. In the first study, they used several hundred heterosexual undergraduates, both male and female, who were currently in a relationship, about the extent to which they and their partners are feminists and how favorably both they and their partners view feminists. The participants also completed a 12-item questionnaire that assessed the health of their relationships; two example questions are “How often do you and your partner laugh together?” and “Do you confide your deepest feelings to your mate?” For each item, participants responded using a 6-point scale. (By the way, since I have access to the full paper and you probably don’t, feel free to ask for details, such as what all 12 questions were, in the comments if you’re curious. I didn’t want to bog down the post with details like that.)

Predictably, women were on average more feminist than men, and the extent to which participants reported that their partners are feminists correlated with their own level of feminism. Overall, there was no correlation, positive or negative, between participants’ feminism and the quality of their relationship. However, women who reported that their male partners were feminists seemed to have better-quality relationships. The authors note, “Because self and partner’s feminism were strongly related, feminism may indirectly promote relationship health, through the selection of like-minded partners.”

Meanwhile, although men who were dating feminists reported more disagreement about issues of equality in the relationship, feminist men reported less disagreement about such issues. It’s important to note, though, that there was still no significant correlation overall between a person’s feminism and the quality of their relationship (as measured by the questionnaire).

In their second study, Rudman and Phelan employed an online survey of older adults, theorizing that perhaps people who grew up during the second wave of feminism would have a different take on relationships, or that older adults would have become jaded in their relationships. They replicated the first study almost exactly, but they added a few questions to the relationship questionnaire, including several about sexual satisfaction. Again, women’s feminism was not related to their relationship health, but their partner’s feminism was positively correlated with relationship health, including the new measures on sexual satisfaction.

To make a long story short, here are Rudman and Phelan’s conclusions:

  1. There was no evidence that, for women, being a feminist is incompatible with being in a romantic relationship (with a man).
  2. The greater the extent to which women reported that their male partners are feminists, the greater their reported relationship satisfaction.
  3. For men, both being a feminist and having a feminist female partner was correlated positively with certain measures of relationship quality.

Now, some caveats:

  • As always with self-report measures, bias may be an issue. Many people may feel a certain amount of pressure to respond positively about their partners and relationships. However, I can’t think of a compelling reason why feminists would feel this pressure more than non-feminists, especially in light of the stereotype that feminists just want to complain about stuff.
  • This doesn’t mean that being a feminist makes your relationships better, or that having a feminist partner makes them better. It could just mean that people tend to select partners who resemble them in various ways, including politically, and that this leads to better relationships. But even then, the stereotype that feminists suck at dating is given no support by this research.
  • One limitation is that the study had participants report their perceptions of their partners’ level of feminism. A better design would be bringing both partners into the lab and having them report their own level of feminism (as well as that of their partner, perhaps, to see if there are disagreements). If you’re dating someone with whom you disagree strongly, you may feel tempted to minimize those differences in your mind in order to alleviate the cognitive dissonance that can result from being very close to someone with whom you disagree strongly.

The researchers conclude:

The fact that feminists are unfairly stereotyped suggests a political motive underlying negative beliefs. Whenever women challenge male dominance, they are likely to be targeted for abuse, and particularly along sexual dimen- sions, perhaps to discourage other women from embracing feminism and collective power (Faludi 1991). Because this strategy appears to be effective (Rudman and Fairchild 2007), it will be important for future research to examine whether educating people might alleviate their concerns that the Women’s Movement has disrupted heterosexual relations. Far from supporting beliefs that feminism and romance are “oil and water,” we found that having a feminist partner was healthy for both women’sand men’s intimate relationships. Contrary to popular beliefs, feminism may improve the quality of relationships, as opposed to undermining them.

Here’s my take on feminism and compatibility between partners: if there’s something you really really dislike about your partner’s political views (or any other kind of views), you may have trouble making a relationship work. That’s just the reality. Blaming this on your partner’s views may be tempting, but it also sort of misses the point. We all have qualities we look for in a partner, some of which are absolutely necessary while others are not. I could never date a conservative or an anti-feminist, but I don’t claim that this is because conservatives and anti-feminists are undateable or can’t be good partners. It’s just because I don’t want to date them.

Similarly, if you hate feminism, don’t date a feminist. Every non-feminist guy I’ve met has a story about That One Meanie Feminist Who Got All Pissy When He Tried To Pay For Her Dinner Like A Real Man, and while I clearly make fun of these guys, I also sympathize with how uncomfortable and frustrating it is to try to date someone whose worldview just keeps clashing with yours in every conceivable way.

So don’t do it. Someone who’s better for you will come along.

And all of us feminists can just happily date each other.

Oh, and while we’re talking about myths, here’s an easy one to bust that requires no research papers. It’s amazing, by the way, how many self-described skeptics just adore Snopes but have never managed to find their way to this page.

~~~

Anderson, K., Kanner, M., & Elsayegh, N. (2009). Are feminists man haters? Feminists’ and nonfeminists’ attitudes toward men. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 33(2), 216–224. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2009.01491.x

Rudman, L. A., & Phelan, J. E. (2007). The interpersonal power of feminism: Is feminism good for romantic relationships? Sex Roles, 57(11-12), 787–799. doi:10.1007/s11199-007-9319-9