How (Not) to Respond When People Change Their Minds

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the process of changing one’s mind. For those of us who like to try to persuade people, it’s important to think about that process and how it happens and how to facilitate it, but even someone who doesn’t spend most of their free time yelling on the Internet like I do might occasionally hope to change a friend or family member’s mind about something.

Obviously, everyone changes their mind on things at some point. Just within the last four years, I’ve gone from being very conservative to being too left-wing to support the Democratic Party in good conscience. I’ve switched my career plans from being a journalist to getting a PhD in sociology to getting a PhD in clinical psychology to getting a master’s in social work. I’ve ended a few friendships and relationships that I once hoped would last forever. Ive revised (to put it mildly) my opinion that feminists and atheists suck (hi FtB!). I’ve also stopped believing that I’m unfit to live in this world and that my entire life is a waste of time and resources, because I’ve (mostly) stopped being depressed. Perhaps the only major things that have stayed the same are that 1) I cannot live without writing, and 2) I fucking love New York City and intend to move there.

So, that’s a lot of mind-changes. That’s a lot of admitting to people I was wrong about things that range from extremely personal to extremely, well, not. That’s a lot of seeing how they react to these changes in my thinking.

The worst thing you can say when someone changes their mind about something, whether it’s about a political position or a career goal or a restaurant, is something like this: “What?! But that’s not what you were saying a week/month/year ago! Make up your mind!”

If that sounds like an outlandish reaction, I assure you it’s not, because I’ve gotten it very often within the last four years. It’s hurtful because its “Gotcha!” tone makes it sound like the person’s desperate to catch me in the act of being a hypocrite or a flip-flopper rather than actually trying to understand my point of view and how it’s changed.

Another crappy way to react when someone changes their mind, particularly when they change it in the direction that you were trying to convince them, is, “Told ya so! I knew you’d come around!” This is just annoying because, first of all, “I told you so” is a pointless and snide thing to say in almost any circumstance, and second, most people hate being told that you knew all along how they were going to act or think. Even if it’s true! It presumes that you know them better than they know themselves and that you were just sitting there biding your time until they came to the decision that you wanted them to come to.

In a way, these two reactions are opposite extremes. The first is incredulous and skeptical and assumes that people don’t typically change their minds. It forces the person into the position of justifying and proving the change in thinking that they’ve undergone. The second is self-assured and know-it-all and assumes that people always change their minds when you personally want them to. It forces the person into the position of justifying their previously-held opinion and trying to convince you that their change of heart was really something they thought through themselves as opposed to just taking your arguments on faith.

Both of these reactions will discourage people from admitting to you that they’ve changed their minds. They might even discourage people from changing their minds at all. That’s why they’re harmful.

A better way to respond when you’re confused by someone’s mind-change would be something like, “I remember you felt differently about this before. Did you change your mind/What made you change your mind?” A better way to respond when you’re not confused is, “Glad to hear you changed your mind!” That’s it. Don’t try to “catch them in the act” or snark at them for “finally coming around.”

What’s interesting is that even though we’ve all at times tried to persuade people to agree with us, there’s sort of a stigma on changing one’s mind, especially in the realm of politics. Politicians are encouraged to be ideologically “consistent” (which apparently means keeping the same opinions forever and ever) or else they’re derided as “flip-floppers” (see: John Kerry). Even we ordinary citizens may feel the pressure to keep supporting the same policies, parties, and politicians rather than reevaluating our opinions.

But ultimately, isn’t that kind of harmful? Isn’t being right more important than being stubborn?

Honestly, I love changing my mind. Not just about politics, but about everything*. Yes, I think that everything I currently believe is correct, but that might just be because I haven’t heard a good argument against any of it yet. I love hearing a thought-provoking counterargument and being inspired to reconsider what I thought was right. I want to keep improving and fine-tuning my opinions. So I have little reason to be ashamed to admit when I’ve changed my mind, but reactions like the ones I’ve described above sometimes make it difficult.

There’s a lot that goes into the art of persuasion, and the reaction that you have when someone finally changes their mind might seem irrelevant. They’ve changed their mind, after all! But being kind, supportive, and empathic throughout that entire process, even when it seems to have finished, encourages people to consider your arguments and to admit to you if they’ve decided to adopt them. It also encourages them to view changing one’s mind as a normal and even desirable thing to do.

The three little words that I wish I heard more–that I wish were easier for us all to say–are “I was wrong.”

*I’ll even change my mind about everything I’ve written in this post if someone disagrees well enough! :)

Does Telling People to “Think Positive” Actually Help? An Informal Survey and Some Protips

Positive thinking is the bane of my existence. Not because I can’t do it, but because I’ve so often been exhorted to do it in the most unhelpful of ways. I’m someone who prefers to talk mostly about the neutral or negative aspects of my life to friends and family because I don’t want to seem like I’m bragging, which probably leads people to assume that I have difficulty “thinking positively” (and I wouldn’t blame them). Of course, during periods of depression, positive thinking is mostly impossible, but when I’m feeling relatively healthy I’m actually quite optimistic.

Point is, I’ve gotten a lot of unsolicited advice to “think positive!” and “look on the bright side!” and “just try to find the silver lining!” Chances are, I’ve either done that already, or I’m not going to be able to do it no matter how many times one tells me to.

So despite the fact that I’m actually quite adept at finding reasons to be hopeful and getting good things even out of bad situations, being told to do so, even though it’s almost always well-meaning, usually rubs me the wrong way. Like, what, you don’t think that “thinking positively” occurred to me? And for that matter, when you tell people to “think positively,” does anyone ever go, “Oh wow, I didn’t even realize I could do that! Thanks so much!”?

And yet thinking positively helps me, and it must help many other people or else people would quit telling each other to do it. I wanted to find out more about the contexts in which people find it helpful to be reminded to “think positive” versus the ones in which they don’t, so I did an extremely informal survey of my online friends and followers. I basically asked (I’m paraphrasing here), “Does it ever help you to be told to ‘think positive’?”

Disclaimer: This is not “research,” this is just me asking people I know about their opinions. Maybe if I’d gone for that PhD after all, you’d be reading about this in Science someday, but that’s not going to happen.

Some people said that it doesn’t help at all:

Nope. I find it helpful when people genuinely ask thoughtful questions and then actively listen. Pat answers are a brush off, nothing more.

No. Usually it just makes me feel like I have to shut up now because the person is done listening.

I think just saying “think positive” is a limiting concept since it doesn’t teach anyone how to change negative self talk to positive.

“Think positive” as a general suggestion can actually be harmful – it doesn’t enable its recipient to solve a problem any more than they were before, and can easily lead to an affected individual thinking they’re at fault for being unable to fix something simply by failing to think positively.

“Just think positive” almost always comes couched with The Secret or other metaphysics bullshit in my life. Sooooo I cringe whenever I hear it.

I also don’t think it helps, but for me it’s because it feels like an invalidating thing to say. I’d rather my feelings be acknowledged for their authenticity than be dismissed for not being all sunshine and rainbows like they “should” be.

Telling myself to think positively also occasionally helps, but not always. Other people telling me that does not generally help, particularly since if someone is telling me “just think positive” it’s usually in the context of, I’ve told them some specific problem I’m worrying about and they’ve given me “think positive” as a non-answer.

not when by someone who lacks knowledge of my life and circumstances. Not when I’m clinically depressed, at all.

I’ve never found it helpful, and now I understand that the reason I’ve always found it so upsetting is that the statement comes from a place of neurotypical privilege. My visceral response is almost always “Don’t you think I’ve TRIED THAT ALREADY. Seriously, if it were that simple I would FEEL BETTER.”

I think the logic behind “think positive” and “look on the bright side” are, er, “positive” alternatives to “you like being sad.” They all stem from this idea that is it the person’s own doing, that it is something the individual can control but isn’t trying hard enough, etc. But real depression and anxiety are caused by something beyond the individual’s ability to control.

There aren’t enough characters here for all the four-letter words.

A few said it does:

Certainly. I usually have negative expectations, and have to be reminded to consider positive outcomes. Otherwise, I’d never try anything.

In a really weird way it can me. Like it pisses me off, but it’s a good reminder at the same time.

The majority, however, gave an answer that was basically either “Yes, but” or “No, unless.” And these people generally hit on the same basic point:

It has, if people point out *actual* positive things about the situation.

Yes, but not if they are being dismissive. If they are like, “what about x, and y” then yes. But dismissive, NO.

It can sometimes be helpful to be reminded OF something good, but it doesn’t really help just to be told “look on the bright side.”

It depends entirely on who’s saying it to me. Like if my bestie tells me to chin up it’s entirely different then some random ass fuck

Not as a general statement, no. What has occasionally helped is if someone breaks down a situation and specifically outlines possible positive outcomes – but you can’t just think your way to them.

Although I have found it helpful to try to find the positive aspect in a bad situation, and if I find one I will point it out (especially if the “bright side” is actually black humor), telling people to just generally look on the bright side of life is horse hockey.

Only if they’ve got evidence that says I should. Saying that emptily just sounds like “smile, emo kid!” #ThingsThatDrainMyPacifism

Sometimes, especially if it’s offered along with an example of a silver lining I may have overlooked.

These aren’t nearly all of the responses, but looking through these and the others I got, I hit upon a few major themes that may help you discern whether or not telling someone to “think positive” is worthwhile:

1. Mental Illness

One of the worst things about disorders like depression and anxiety is that they rob you of your ability to be hopeful and think positively. It’s not that you’re not trying, it’s that you can’tSo, when someone’s dealing with sadness, stress, pessimism, etc. that’s brought on by a mental illness as opposed to just “faulty” thinking, telling them to “fix” their thinking isn’t going to be helpful.

2. Proof

Many people said that being advised to think positively helps when they’re actually given “proof” that there’s something to think positively about. Otherwise it just sounds like an empty platitude; if the person who’s telling you to “think positive” can’t even come up with a reason why, that’s not reassuring.

3. Closeness

It feels different to be told to “think positive” by someone who actually knows you very well than, as one person said, by “some random ass fuck.” Although nobody elaborated on why, I can think of several reasons. It’s easier to trust that someone who knows you well generally wants to help you rather than to just get you to stop talking about sad stuff. Someone who knows you well is also more likely to know what helps you. They’re also more likely to actually understand your situation, making advice to “think positive” sound much less flippant than it would otherwise.

In general, telling people to “just think positive” has the same problems as, for instance, telling people to just stop being hurt by bigoted comments or to just learn to keep saying no to persistent unwanted sexual advances: it doesn’t actually help them to do these things. Changing the way you think and feel isn’t like flipping a switch. It requires hard work and practice, just like learning a language or a musical instrument.

Generally that’s a job for a therapist or perhaps a really good self-help book, but if you’d like to help facilitate that process for someone, here are some scripts to help them learn to think more positively without doing the annoying and dismissive “Just look on the bright side!” thing:

  • “That sounds like a tough situation to be in. Is there anything you could do that would make it easier right now?”
  • “Do you think anything good can come of this?”
  • “I’m sorry, that really sucks, but just know that I/your friends/your family will be here to support you.”
  • “Would it help if we went out and did something fun to help you get your mind off of it?”
  • “I know it seems pretty awful right now, but I think you will come out a stronger person because of this.”

Note that these don’t work for everyone and are very dependent on the situation, so use your best judgment. But these are all things that have really helped me to hear at one point or another. And notice that a lot of them involve asking, not telling. Don’t tell people to think positively or do something to get their mind off of it; ask them if they’re able or willing to.

And as with all things emotional, affirming whatever the person is feeling right now is the most important thing. Even if it’s negative! Their emotions are valid even if you don’t understand them or think that they’re productive.

Is It Wrong To Help Someone Cheat?

A while ago, a great blog called Polyskeptic had a post about the ethics of helping someone else cheat. Dan Savage had said on an episode of his podcast that it’s definitely not okay, and Wes of Polyskeptic disagreed.

Wes brings up some good points about what exactly is wrong with cheating, and it’s not the sex itself:

The poly community has, shall we say, an unconventional view of cheating. We tend to say that the problem with cheating isn’t the sex, it’s the lying. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having sex with a person in a relationship. The problem is that when a monogamous person cheats, they are being dishonest with their partner. The harm is caused by the betrayal, not by the sex.

The problem with the standard advice is that, once the proposition has been made, the harm has already been done. By turning down the proposition, you’re turning a cheater into merely an attempted cheater. Is that really any better? To my mind, it is not. When someone attempts to cheat, the betrayal has already occurred.

He goes on to say that simply refusing to help the person cheat is not in itself morally good unless you also inform their partner that they propositioned you, because the harm has already been done by the proposition itself. But people have no moral obligation to protect others’ relationships, and since helping the person cheat wouldn’t make the situation any worse than it already is, you might as well do it.

Dan Savage’s preferred option – rejecting the cheater – is premised on the idea that you have a responsibility for the health and quality of that relationship. As I’ve explained above, rejecting the cheater is, at best, not helping the relationship, and at worst harming the relationship. If you accept that you have a responsibility for that relationship (what I call the “be a hero” option), the only moral choice is to inform the cheater’s partner (or at least make reasonable efforts to do so). Any other choice makes you an accomplice to fraud. If you truly think you have an obligation to that relationship (which I don’t think that you do), your obligation must be to ensure that it isn’t being conducted under false pretenses.  Otherwise, you’re helping the cheater to hide their cheating.

It’s an interesting argument, but ultimately I disagree.

First of all, for many monogamous people, wanting to cheat is not at all the same thing as actually cheating. Back when I was monogamous and thought about this sort of thing a lot, I knew that even though I would be really hurt if my boyfriend tried to cheat but wasn’t able to, I would be even more hurt if he tried to cheat and actually did. It’s not really logical, but for some people it really is about the sex.

Somewhat similarly, there are plenty of poly folks who are completely fine with their partner(s) seeing other people but nevertheless don’t want to know when they’re having sex with someone else, or even who those people are, because it’s unpleasant for them to hear about and makes them feel jealous. So it’s completely possible to be okay with the fact that your partner slept with someone else, but not necessarily with the knowledge that they actually did.

Second, Wes’ argument presumes that being rejected in an attempt to cheat can never be an illuminating or transformative experience for someone, that the person will just shrug and carry on trying to find another person to cheat with. That’s not necessarily the case. Sometimes you fall for someone else, ignore the problems in your current relationship, pursue a fantasy in your mind with this new person, and finally try to cheat with them. Being told “no” can be a wake-up call that causes you to realize that you want to stay committed to your current partner, that you need to work on your relationship with them, or that you need to leave them.

Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work that way. Some people never do develop that self-awareness. But if I had a chance to help someone develop it by not helping them cheat on their partner, I’d take it.

The idea that refusing to help someone cheat without informing their partner about the proposition is harmful is also strange to me. If you’re an “accomplice to fraud” if you don’t cheat with them, how are you not one if you do cheat with them? While informing their partner would arguably be a more “moral” option than just doing nothing, it also overrides the couple’s right to conduct their relationship without your interference. And, yes, it’s too much effort for most people to do even if they wanted to. How would you even get the person’s partner’s contact info?

Whether or not it’s ethically wrong to help someone cheat, there are tons of reasons it’s at least practically a bad idea. If someone’s willing to betray someone’s trust, they’re probably also willing to lie to you about STIs and birth control, for instance. And although you may not be pursuing a monogamous relationship with this person (at least, hopefully not, since they’re with someone else), even casual, open arrangements can involve violations of trust. That’s why even poly folks tend to have such a thing as “cheating.”

In any case, I can’t quite agree with the view that other people’s relationships are absolutely not your responsibility and that if you happen to participate in fucking up someone’s relationship, it doesn’t matter because it’s not your job to preserve people’s relationships. Obviously you don’t carry nearly as great a responsibility for other people’s commitments than the people who have made those commitments, and obviously helping someone cheat isn’t nearly as wrong as cheating, but the idea that we’re all just individual little islands and carry no obligations to each other seems way too libertarian for me.

Personally–and you don’t have to agree with me or do the same thing–if someone asked me to help them cheat, I would say no, and I would strongly urge them to either ask their partner for an open relationship or think about what’s causing them to want to cheat. I would urge them to do that, and that’s it. I wouldn’t play counselor or mediator, I wouldn’t look up their partner on Facebook and let them know what happened. This would be my way of trying to leave the world and these two people in a slightly better state than I found them.

I Really Strongly Dislike Valentine’s Day!

The only good thing about VDay: condom roses.

The only good thing about VDay: condom roses.

Hey everyone! I’m going to poop on your parade. Don’t worry, I’ll be cheerful about it.

I’m not going to say I hate Valentine’s Day, because hate is a strong word and I reserve it for things I really mean it for, like coffee and misogyny. I was going to just let today go by without writing about it, but then I realized that I really want to dispel the notion that everyone who dislikes Valentine’s Day is just bitter/jealous/single/all of the above. I’m none of the above; I’m happily taken (well, insofar as a person in an open relationship who is also an autonomous human being can be “taken”) and I wouldn’t trade my love/sex life for anyone else’s. And I still really strongly dislike Valentine’s Day! Imagine that.

First of all, as many happy couples will tell you, I think it’s superfluous. The way you stay in a fulfilling long-term relationship is, among many other things, showing love to each other every day in whatever little ways you each find meaningful. If you save it all up for one big day of the year, y’all are probably going to break up. Just saying.

That’s not really the reason I dislike it so much, though. If that were the case, I’d merely be ambivalent.

The bigger reason is that romantic love (a very small and specific subset of the vast number of human experiences that can be called “love”) is already so glorified and celebrated in our culture that it actually seems very odd to me to have a special holiday just for its sake. It’s like having a Christianity Awareness Day or Straight Pride Day or something, although without the added bigotry.

Romantic relationships are already presented (and largely considered) something that everyone should aspire to and something that everyone should feel miserable without. They don’t need a special day of appreciation. Contrast that with, say, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, which celebrate relationships that we do often take for granted in this society (as opposed to, say, in Russian culture, where you cannot go a damn day without being reminded of your parents, for better or worse). Unfortunately, it often really does take a special occasion to make us sit down and think, “Wow, I really wouldn’t be half the person I am today without my mother/father.” Who the hell needs a special day to remember the fact that sex and romantic love are important?

Add to that the fact that even little children are expected to participate in VDay by bringing cards to class. What’s actually super creepy about that is they have to bring cards for every classmate, not just the ones they actually like and are friends with. While I understand that the point is so that kids don’t feel left out, 1) that doesn’t justify faking affection (or, worse, attraction) for people, and 2) that problem would be solved entirely if we either didn’t make such a big show of VDay or, even better, didn’t have it at all. Pretending to want someone to “be my Valentine! <3 <3 <3″ when you really don’t is creepy. We should be teaching kids to get their guard up about something like that rather than institutionalizing it.

And in high school, VDay is an even bigger deal, with themed dances and flower deliveries during class and everything. At the time when it’s most important for people to focus on developing their own identity and becoming independent, these lavish observances encourage them to think of themselves in terms of their ability to find a romantic partner. If you think being single on VDay as an adult sucks, imagine (or remember) how it would feel in high school.

Even for the most traditionally romantic and “into” VDay of us, it’s probably sobering to remember that this holiday really wouldn’t be nearly as big of a deal as it is without the forces of commercialism and consumerism. Producers of greeting cards, chocolate, jewelry, and so on have driven popular perceptions of VDay for decades now. Many people celebrate it because it’s what their partners have come to expect, or because, honestly, what else are you going to do if all your friends are out on dates? Might as well.

There’s a certain amount of lip service now paid to the idea that VDay is about all kinds of love, not just romantic love, that you should take this opportunity to express love to your friends and family, or practice “self-care,” or whatever. But while I think it’s nice that a conscious effort has been made to correct for the fact that tons of people get left out by VDay, these exhortations to “celebrate love in all its forms” seem kind of shallow to me. In fact, they seem like advertisers’ attempts to get more people to buy stuff.

We tend to measure people’s worth by how much other people like them–as people, as sex objects, as romantic partners. This is especially true for women, but really it’s true for everyone. As someone who’s recovering from Chronic Feeling-Like-I-Have-No-Worth-As-A-Person-Unless-I-Have-A-Boyfriend-itis, I’m very aware of how VDay can exacerbate that state of mind for people.

Many of you probably like VDay and that’s fine. You’re not a bad person if you like it. I don’t particularly care if you do or not. My aim here isn’t to convince anyone of anything, but just to rant about my opinion for a while and also show that not everyone who finds today annoying and pointless is sitting around at home putting pins in a voodoo doll of their ex or something.

Anyway, VDay isn’t all bad. I’m going to CVS tomorrow for some cheap-ass chocolate. Simple pleasures.

[Forward Thinking] What Would You Tell Teenagers About Sex?

Libby Anne and Dan Fincke are doing this cool thing called Forward Thinking where people blog about values. This week’s question is, what would you tell teenagers about sex?

I have a lot of perspectives on this. As a teenager, I wasn’t really told anything about sex–good or bad. A few things, sure. I picked up a lot from the surrounding culture but by that point in my life I’d learned to be extremely skeptical of anything I see on TV or hear from a classmate.

The beginning of what I would tell teenagers about sex would actually be to teach them from early childhood to practice that sort of skepticism. It saved me from what I can only imagine would’ve been years of either feeling shame about my sexuality, getting into sexual situations I didn’t really want, or both.

But skepticism only gets you so far, and sometimes it can take you much too far–as soon as you start questioning people’s lived experiences and demanding to see proof, you should know you’ve wandered into hyperskepticism.

Besides that, it’s unreasonable to expect teens to seek out everything they need to know all about sex on their own. If I’m ever in charge of any teens, there are things I’d want them to know right off the bat. So, here–starting with the most obvious and then wandering into what’s probably less obvious–is what I would tell teenagers about sex.

Ask first. Consent is hot, assault is not.

Credit: The New School

1. Basic health and safety stuff.

How to use condoms, dental dams, and Plan B. How to obtain and use hormonal birth control. What IUDs are. How pregnancy works and what options you have if you become pregnant. What STIs are, how they are transmitted, and how to tell if you have one. What sorts of medical exams you need to get, and how often. How to find a gyno.

(This is where most non-abstinence-only sex ed seems to end.)

2. Sexual ethics.

A lot of things fit into this, starting with consent. Teens should know how to ask for consent and tell whether or not it has been given. They should also know how to communicate their own consent. They should understand that coercion is wrong; if someone doesn’t want to do something with you, stop asking. They should know how to discuss sexual and relational preferences, as well as STIs and other factors that affect sexual decision-making. They should know that cheating is wrong, but seeing multiple people with the consent of everyone involved is just fine.

3. Sexual harassment and assault.

As unpleasant and scary it will be for teens to hear about this, it’s something they need to understand. Sadly, there’s a good chance they do already, either from personal experience or hearing about it in the media. Teens should know what harassment and assault are, that it can be perpetrated by anyone of any gender upon anyone of any gender, that there’s nothing you can do to cause sexual assault except sexually assaulting someone, and what options and resources there are for someone who’s been assaulted. They should also know about the cultural factors (victim-blaming, alcohol, gender roles, etc.) that contribute to the prevalence of sexual assault and what they can do to help reduce them. They should know when and how to safely intervene if they think someone is about to violate someone’s else’s boundaries.

4. You don’t owe anyone sex or intimacy.

Even if you’ve had sex with them before. Even if you said you would. Even if they’re your significant other. Even if they’ll be sad if you don’t.

Relatedly, if you ever feel uncomfortable in a sexual situation, get out of it if you are able to, as quickly as possible. Even if the other person hasn’t “done anything” to make you uncomfortable. You don’t owe it to anyone to stay in a situation that you feel weird about.

4. Sexual/gender diversity.

I think it’s important for kids to know and understand the different ways in which humans experience gender and sexuality. Although it’s obviously impossible to be exhaustive with this, I would talk to young teens about being gay, lesbian, or bisexual; being trans*; being asexual; being intersex. Once they’re older, I would talk to them about kink and polyamory. Giving names to what might be their own desires will help them come to terms with their own experience and find like-minded people, but even if they turn out to be the most straight, cis, vanilla, monogamous people ever, it will help them accept others and support queer/otherwise nonconforming friends.

5. Masturbation.

It’s a great way to learn about your own sexual needs and preferences. It’s definitely not something you have to stop doing just because you’re hooking up with/seeing someone regularly. Masturbating doesn’t mean you’re “lonely” or “pathetic”; it just means you enjoy experiencing sexuality independently.

6. Finding more information.

I don’t think it’s the responsibility of parents or teachers to tell teens everything they will ever need to know about sex. They should know about some of the well-known and trusted resources that exist, such as Scarleteen, The Guide to Getting It On, and What You Really Really Want. They should also know how to tell whether a resource is trustworthy or not (really, that’s an essential skill for skeptical teens in general).

I would also remind teens that if they need help or have questions, there are adults they can ask. I’d be one of them, but there are certainly others. Don’t be discouraged if you ask an adult for help and they judge you or refuse to answer. Being an adult doesn’t automatically make someone right.

7. As long as you’re being ethical and safe, there’s no wrong way to be sexual.

Despite what others–even other adults–will tell you, it’s nobody’s business what you do with consenting partners. It’s also completely okay if you don’t want to do anything with anyone at all. There’s no “order” that sexual acts are supposed to progress in, and the bases analogy is crap. It’s also total crap that you have to be a certain way sexually just because of your gender. (Or race, or anything else, really.)

8. Related: sex serves different purposes for different people.

For some, it’s something you do to express love for a significant other. For others, it’s something fun to do with friends. Some don’t attach any “meaning” to sex at all. Sexual relationships tend to work best between people who are both looking for the same thing, so that’s something to consider when planning to get involved with someone.

9. Sexuality isn’t separate from society.

Sexuality is affected–and affects in turn–everything from media and pop culture to law and foreign policy. It’s also important for understanding systems like beauty standards, sexism, racism, and poverty. Although it wouldn’t necessarily be my job as a parent or teacher of teenagers to explain to them exactly how all of these things work (who even understands that in its entirety?!), I would hope to at least make them curious about it. I would want them to start thinking about how different types of people are viewed sexually, and how political institutions determine what is sexually permissible in a given society.

10. Porn and sex work.

Two complicated subjects that most adults would rather keep teens sheltered from, to be sure. But we all know that doesn’t work. I would want to talk to teens about the ways in which porn and sex work misrepresent sexuality, and the ways in which capitalism, sexism, and other systems have created a society in which porn and sex work can be deeply exploitative and dangerous. If you’re going to participate in either, it is your responsibility to make sure that you’re doing so as ethically as possible.

11. Virginity.

It doesn’t really exist. Really! I’d love to get teenagers to read Hanne Blank’s brilliant history of virginity, but since that’s probably impossible, I’d just tell them that what we call “virginity” has changed so much over the centuries that it really doesn’t even matter. Consequently, your “first time” doesn’t have to include candles and rose petals; it might be awesome or it might suck or it might be anything in between, and that doesn’t say anything about you as a person or your sexual future. If someone has a problem with you “being a virgin” or “not being a virgin,” the problem is with them, not you.

12. Question everything.

Question your desires: might they be influenced by the surrounding society?

Question what you see in the media about sex.

Question what your friends tell you.

Question what adults tell you.

Question what I’m telling you.

Question research studies.

Question laws and policies.

Question tropes about sexuality: that asking for consent “ruins the moment,” that you “need” alcohol to hook up, that sex is something “special” and “sacred,” that having casual sex means you don’t “respect yourself,” that only penis-in-vagina is “real sex,” that being a virgin makes you a “loser,” that saying “no” is always easy, that men can’t “control themselves,” that if someone’s nice to you and wants sex, you should give it to them.

Questioning everything doesn’t mean discarding everything. It means understanding that sexuality is subjective, that desires and attitudes are always influenced by external factors. Just because the way you want to be sexual was probably influenced by your culture doesn’t mean that it’s invalid or that you should try to change it, but it’s good to be aware of how malleable human sexuality is.

Some people would probably claim that teenagers are too young (their frontal lobes aren’t developed enough) for this type of thinking, but I strongly disagree. We sell teenagers short all the time. The fact that people don’t encounter this type of thinking until college (if they even go, and if they even encounter it there) doesn’t mean teens can’t do it. They just need to be encouraged to.

I also think that kids and teens can benefit greatly from being told things that they may not fully understand yet. It encourages them to view knowledge and learning as a process rather than an achievement, and reminds them not to get too cocky about what they know.

Sex is much too important a subject not to think critically about.

What would you tell teenagers about sex?

Creating More Accurate Media Representations of Stigmatized Identities

Greta recently wrote about Yes, We’re Open, a new indie film about a couple in an open relationship. She wrote:

A lot of why it was frustrating can be summed up in the question I asked the filmmakers in their post-film Q&A: “Given that the template of San Francisco poly culture is that it’s hyper-ethical, hyper-processing, talking everything to death… why did you choose to make the poly couple in this movie so skanky, and not particularly ethical?”

They clearly understood the question, and the context for it. They agreed about poly people, if anything, tending to be hyper-ethical to the point of relentlessly over-processing everything, and hyper-honest to the point of being TMI and never shutting up. In fact, one of the filmmakers is himself non-monogamous. But they were making a comedy, they said, and unethical people are just funnier. For a long-format story, anyway.

She later says:

I don’t want every poly character in every TV show or movie to be a perfect paragon of sensitivity and high-minded ethics. I’m okay with them being flawed and human. The need for role models isn’t a need for one perfect hero: it’s a need to see that you have options, other than the ones your culture is unfairly slotting you into. (Not to mention the need for the rest of the world to see that as well.) I don’t think every producer of pop culture has an obligation to single-handedly fill that entire gaping hole. And again, I don’t want propaganda. Propaganda is boring.

But given that there are so few poly characters in pop culture, and even fewer who don’t fall into the stereotype of unethical seducers and skanks with no self-control, I think producers of pop culture do have an obligation to not actively perpetuate that stereotype.

I left a comment there but subsequently realized I had way too many Thoughts for just a comment, so here we go.

It’s true that creators of pop culture are (and should be) primarily concerned with telling a good story, not teaching us morals or otherwise educating us. When the latter goals take priority, you end up with the insipid morality tales that comprise much of children’s media.

However, when media presents a false or misleading portrait or a group that is already stigmatized and misunderstood by the public, that’s a negative externality that should be dealt with. But how?

I think that one way the entertainment industry falters in presenting characters who have a stigmatized identity is by making their entire character all about that identity.

Sometimes they do this by having the character confirm a stereotype. In the film Greta wrote about (which, full disclosure, I haven’t seen), the poly characters are unethical and obsessed with sex. Another film might have, say, a flamboyant gay best friend or an uptight Asian student who’s obsessed with her grades. Even if that character also does a bunch of other stuff, the prevalent stereotypes keep the audience focused on the character’s polyness or gayness or race.

So that’s one way. It’s the most obvious way, so many people rightfully attack it these days. A less obvious way is making that character’s entire story arc–or, indeed, the entire film or show–all about that stigmatized identity. That’s what Yes, We’re Open is. It’s not a film that happens to have poly characters or that references polyamory in some way. It’s a film about polyamory.

Because of that, the central conflict of the film has to be about polyamory, too. And that means that the filmmakers have to exaggerate. After all, if you made a documentary about my open relationship or that of one of my best friends or all the other poly folks I know, it’d be boring as hell. Making it interesting requires making it unrealistic, and because most people don’t spend much time reminding themselves that entertainment is not reality, they’re going to watch the film and think, “Oh, so this is what polyamory is like.”

The same thing happens to a lesser extent with any film that’s primarily about relationships. Romcoms are unrealistic because their writers have to create an unrealistic amount of conflict in order for the film to be interesting and funny. So you see massive failures to communicate, glorification of abusive relationships, and other crap.

The most realistic portrayals of romance in film tend to be the stories that are mostly about something else. For instance, Eric and Tami’s marriage in the show Friday Night Lights has been praised for its realism. Eric and Tami love each other and their children and work to improve their relationship, but there’s still conflict in it. It’s just not enough conflict to base an entire show on, which works because the show is primarily about a small-town Texas football team, not about the relationship between two characters. That’s one of the reasons it’s realistic.

That’s why I believe that the best way to improve representations of stigmatized individuals and misunderstood identities in the media is actually to make the story about something other than those identities. Make a spy thriller where one of the main characters happens to have two partners. Make a sci-fi film in which the main character turns down a potential love interest because the main character happens to be asexual. Present these possibilities as just a part of life.

This approach won’t fix all of the problems. It also doesn’t have to be applied universally. There should be films out there are are about polyamory or homosexuality or whatever, although they need to be made by people who know what they’re talking about. These films can serve their own purpose.

But in order to really normalize a lifestyle or identity, you have to present it as realistically as possible, and that means presenting those characters as fully-formed individuals who are not defined by that particular identity. If the subject you’re addressing (polyamory, homosexuality, etc.) is the only source of conflict in the film, you’ll end up having to exaggerate that subject for the sake of entertainment.

When something like this happens in movies that address very common and accepted things–such as, in the case of romcoms, monogamous heterosexual dating–misrepresentation is still a bit of a problem, but at least people can draw on their personal experiences and those of friends and family, as well as on their knowledge of the dozens of other films and shows that address that experience, in order to evaluate whether or not the film is realistic.

But when it happens in movies that deal with unfamiliar and misunderstood experiences, like polyamory, the audience is much less likely to have other sources of information about that subject readily available. So they end up with glaringly inaccurate ideas about that subject.

Correlation Is Not Causation: The Marriage Edition

Steven Crowder–that guy who wrote an article on Fox News’ website gloating about his “perfect wedding” and sanctimoniously censuring people who have sex before marriage or *clutches pearls* drink at the wedding–is back. (Actually, he’s probably been back; I just haven’t been following his pearl-clutching screeds.)

This time, Crowder, who presumably still has that newlywed glow, wants to tell you why you should get married. Yes, you!

Crowder runs through the typical list of established correlations about married people. They make more money. They have more money. They have more and better sex. It’s better for the children. They’re more productive at work (crucial in our capitalist society). They’re healthier.

Crowder is writing this article because he seems to be under the impression that there is a War on Marriage going on:

Sadly, marriage has become a punchline in today’s society. From referring to the wife as “the old ball and chain” to nearly every poorly written sitcom that we watch, the message we’re sending to today’s generation is clear… Marriage = no fun.

Men on TV constantly joke about how wives are incredibly expensive, demanding and overall vacuums of all things fun. By that same token, the women complain about their fat, lazy, insensitive husbands as they swoon over their trimmed, manicured and chest-waxed Hollywood counterparts.

[...]I know plenty of people my age that will never get married because they genuinely believe the false cultural meme that marriage has sadly become.

Although marriage is certainly portrayed as boring in pop culture, the reality is that, especially among Crowder’s ilk, marriage is still largely considered the only acceptable choice for straight people (gay people, on the other hand, need to either choose to be straight, live a life of celibacy, or have those adorable cute little gay relationships in which they live together and have cats but never actually do anything annoying like ask for the right to get married).

Aside from the fact that this article is completely unoriginal and pointless–there is no war on marriage, people–Crowder displays an incredible lack of intellectual curiosity. That is, he fails to ask where all of these wonderful benefits come from.

Where do they come from?

Are married people healthier, richer, and more productive than straight people because marriage is “naturally” the best state of adult humans to be in? Or might it be because of all the benefits our society has conferred to married couples, the privilege that we have afforded to the status of being married?

And what about that awkward moment when most of the correlations Crowder mentions are just that–correlations? Do married people get richer, or are rich people more likely to be able to afford marriage? Does marriage make people healthier, or are healthier people more likely to find and keep partners?

Actually, these are not rhetorical questions. I really am curious. But because the only studies Crowder linked to were correlative studies (and they were all found on websites like the FRC and FamilyFacts.org, but whatever), I don’t actually know the answers.

In his rush to prescribe marriage to every single person man in America, Crowder overlooks quite a few things. Some of the oversights are quite callous:

Okay so you may not want kids. You may despise them. I get it. Sticky hands. Let’s say you’re just another selfish, narcissistic bachelor (or bachelorette) who quite frankly, isn’t deserving of the unconditional love you may oh-so-luckily find. You just want the sex. Statistically, not only do married people have more sex, they have better, more satisfying sex. If the two of you should hold off on sex until marriage, those statistics become even more promising. Here’s a perfect example of where Hollywood gets it wrong. In the real world, while Alfie fruitlessly toiled away at picking up harlots from the bar, suffering a mean case of whiskey-wiener, Mr. Cleaver was getting busy on the regular. Them’s the real breaks.

It appears that Crowder is totally okay with the idea of a man pretending to be invested in marriage and family for the purpose of getting regular sex. (Also, “picking up harlots from the bar”? What century is this?)

The rest of the piece, too, is infested with sexism, from the implication that wives are supposed to keep husbands in line down to the pointless and tacky sandwich joke at the very end. For example:

Married men in particular, have higher employment rates, work longer hours and receive better wages. It’s time to stop wading through puddles of your own filth as you reach for the hotpockets and have a dame whip you into shape. You’re welcome.

Why the hell is that a woman’s job? I don’t want to get married if it means “whipping” some lazy slob into “shape.” This, by the way, is a perfect example of the fact that it’s conservatives, not feminists, who have the most sexist and unflattering opinions of men. I at least accept the remote possibility that a man might, you know, not be a lazy slob who needs to “stop wading through puddles of [his] own filth.”

Crowder also correctly notes that married people “qualify for more benefits/financial incentives than lonely, single folk,” but fails to explain how the fuck this is fair, and why exactly the government is in the business of encouraging procreation when we’ve got plenty of humans on the planet as is. Big Government is totally okay with this Republican when the purpose is to encourage procreation.

Before the icky sandwich joke, Crowder closes his screed with this:

Picture coming home every night to your best friend, your greatest fan, and your number one supporter. She (or he) makes each good day better, and each bad day good again. Every day, you get to live what is essentially a 24/7 sleepover party with the greatest friend you’ve ever had.

That does sound like a pretty awesome deal–for me, because I do happen to be a person who wants a stable, long-term relationship. Believe it or not, not everyone does!

But notice how nothing in that paragraph requires a certificate from the government saying that you are married. Nothing in it requires standing in front of all of your friends and family wearing fancy clothing and vowing to love and cherish each other till death do you part.

Edit: My friend Michael has also written a post about this that’s making me guffaw loudly. A snippet:

Regarding this whole “It’s even better if you wait!” thing, though, I’m a bit more skeptical.  The trouble with measuring sexual satisfaction is that it’s entirely subjective, and based on comparison within your own experience.  If you’ve only ever had sex with one person, then that’s the best sex you’ve ever had.  Add onto that the fact that people who wait until marriage to have sex are routinely told that theirs will be the best sex ever, and all those filthy fornicating whores out there will never truly be happy, of course they’re going to say that their sex lives are great (and hey, if it’s working for them, whatever).  If you only ever give someone an Oreo, and make sure that you talk up Oreos all their life and stress to them that all other cookies suck, then they’ll probably think Oreos are the best cookie, too.

Feminism Is Not About Who Pays The Bill

So, I know that I’m really young and spent most of the feminist movement as a mere wish in my mother’s brain (well, hopefully). But I’m really confused about why an entire generation of men seems to have heard the message of feminism not as “Women want the same rights and opportunities as men” or “Women want to be seen as people, not objects” but rather as “DO NOT DARE PAY FOR A WOMAN’S MEAL AT A RESTAURANT IF YOU PAY FOR A WOMAN’S MEAL AT A RESTAURANT YOU ARE A NASTY SEXIST PIG.”

I feel like every other time a guy asks me out, it includes either something like “I’d love to take you out if your Feminist Sensibilities let me buy you dinner hur hur” or “I’d love to take you out and I can even let you pay for your own dinner like a True Feminist hur hur.” And no MRA site is complete without some discussion of some hypocritical feminist who is ALL ABOUT WOMEN’S EQUALITY but still likes it when guys buy her drinks or dinner or whatever.

Some women, too, beat this dead horse enthusiastically. “Guess what,” writes a libertarian on Tumblr. “I love it when boys buy me food. And no, I don’t hate myself because of that.” The post is titled “Hey Feminists” and tagged “deal with it bitches.”

Do feminists who allow men to buy them things hate themselves for that? I was not aware.

Now, I know every discussion of this issue gets derailed by men (or women) sharing personal stories of That One Meanie-Face Feminist Who Got All Bitchy When I Offered To Pick Up The Check, so I want to preface it with this: rude people come in all genders and ideologies. A rude feminist may yell at you for offering to pick up the check. A rude anti-feminist may yell at you for refusing to pick up the check. And I know the latter happens, too.

There are good reasons to talk about who picks up the check in a feminist context, of course, as there are with all gender roles. Feminists care who picks up the check for two main reasons: 1) because they realize that it’s unfair that men be expected to pay for everything; and 2) because of the implications that it has for women, who are often expected by men to pay back the cost of their meal in…other ways.

And, ultimately, nobody has ever been able to give me a good reason why men should be the ones who pay. It’s always like “Yeah but that’s how it’s always been!” “Yeah well they’re MEN, that’s why!” “Because it’s romantic that way!” I suppose one could argue that because men still make more money than women on average, it’s only fair, but that’s on average, and in that case it’d be up to the couple to discuss their individual financial situations and whether or not one person should pay for the other. And whenever a guy gets all indignant because it’s just so important to him that he pay the bill or else he won’t be a Real Man, that’s a red flag to me. So it’s definitely a useful thing to know about someone.

But I also feel like the reason who pays the bill gets talked about so much (both by feminists and by anti-feminists trying to be all like CHECKMATE FEMINISTS) is because it’s such a simple but visible gesture. As manifestations of casual sexism go, it’s easy to address and impossible to rationalize (see the previous paragraph). It’s so much easier to say, “I’d like to pay for my own meal, please,” than to say, “You know, it kind of bothers me when you interrupt me whenever I talk or just kind of shut down and look away. You never do that when talking to other guys.” Any guy who does this sort of thing will just be like, “What are you talking about? Of course I listen to you.  You’re overreacting.” (And he’ll probably earnestly believe what he’s saying, too.) So I’m guessing feminist women are much more likely to be upfront and assertive about paying their half of the bill than about vague and subjective things like being listened to, not being objectified, and so on.

Likewise, it’s much easier for anti-feminists to understand and critique make fun of the bill-paying thing than anything else that comes up with feminist dating. Men can be like “YEAH WELL I WANNA PAY FOR YOUR MEAL BECAUSE I AM A REAL MAN” and women can be like “YEAH WELL I HAPPEN TO LIKE IT WHEN MEN PAY FOR MY MEAL SO WHAT NOW.”

And so, feminism becomes all about who pays the damn bill, and not about treating each other with dignity and respect, making decisions cooperatively as a couple, resisting the temptation to play those stupid dating mind-games, refusing to assume that your partner wants What Men Want or What Women Want, questioning your impulses to commercialize your love through stuff like Valentine’s Day and diamond rings and big fancy white weddings, flouting heteronormativity and (perhaps) monogamy, and generally challenging each other’s preexisting notions of what love and dating should be.

All of that stuff–not who pays the bill–is what matters to me, as a feminist, when it comes to dating. So when someone asks me out and acts all self-satisfied because they’re going to graciously allow me to buy my own meal, I know that this person is missing the point.

Analyzing gender roles like who pays the bill after a meal is a part of feminism, but it’s only a part. The disproportionately large focus that many people have on this one small action misrepresents what feminists are looking for from partners in their personal lives, and it also misrepresents what they’re fighting for in society at large.

 

Writing A Better Love Story: On Pop Culture That Romanticizes Unhealthy Relationships

Imagine this story.

You meet someone you really like and fall for them immediately. They’re attracted to you too and the sex is great. But you want something more serious and they drag their feet. They’re emotionally detached, they forget to call, they make you do all the work of moving the new relationship along. It becomes tumultuous. You fight, you break up, you make up and get back together. They cheat. They lie. They promise to change every time but they never do.

And then, finally, the story reaches its climax–perhaps because you’ve finally walked out, or maybe because of some dreadful accident or because their best friend got married or something else that leads to a Big Realization. And they finally decide that it was you they wanted all along, and one of you proposes to the other, and you get married.

If this sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because that story weaves its way through too many novels, movies, and TV shows to count. It’s in Sex and the CityTwilight, 50 Shades of Grey, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Gossip Girl. 

These stories suggest that this relationship script is somehow supposed to be romantic. That that moment when they Finally Realize how wrong they’ve been makes it all worth it and that after that moment everything becomes healthy and happy. That a relationship built on detachment, betrayal, manipulation, or even abuse can survive and become some great love story.

There are two misconceptions that one can get from these kinds of stories. One concerns how to actually conduct your relationships, and the second concerns what we value in our relationships and what types of relationships we consider romantic.

The first misconception is that it makes sense to stay in a relationship with someone you love even though they are clearly unable to give you what you’re looking for. In pop culture, women are often portrayed as refusing physical intimacy and men are often portrayed as refusing emotional intimacy, although some stories flip this around (such as (500) Days of Summer). What’s to stop the other partner from just leaving and finding someone who’s able to be as intimate as they need?

Part of it is the false belief that you can make someone change by the sheer force of your love, and that you have enough patience to remain in a relationship that’s not satisfying to you until your partner changes.

Of course, sometimes people do change. They become more empathic, better listeners, less self-centered, more attentive, better at managing their time and money. But they generally don’t just flip-flop personality-wise. Going from a noncommittal, dishonest, and/or abusive jerk to a loving and affirming partner doesn’t just happen; it probably requires years of therapy. Yet in these stories, it does just happen.

And even if that ever happens in real life, would you really want to spend years in an unhealthy relationship in the hopes that it will?

The second misconception is that stories like this are Romantic. They are Love Stories. They’re the kinds of stories you would want to tell at your wedding and then to your children and grandchildren. They’re something to aspire to. They’re something to make movies and write books about.

Really, though? I’d never want to tell my future kids that I took crap from their other parent for years and years until they finally Came Around after some supposedly romantic moment and started loving me back. I would want to tell them that I knew my partner was a good person from the very beginning, and that while we’ve had our disagreements, we always managed to learn from each other and compromise.

Now, I get that that doesn’t make as flashy of a movie. Conflict does make stories interesting (although I still don’t see why the type of conflict that gets written about has to romanticize unhealthy relationships and abuse). It’s difficult to criticize cultural scripts like these without people suggesting that I’m somehow saying that these books and movies shouldn’t exist.

The point of feminist criticism, in my mind, isn’t to say what should and shouldn’t exist. It’s to remind people that these stories are written from a particular perspective, one that we don’t necessarily have to agree with or accept. People who make movies and write books are operating under their own assumptions of what the world is or what it should be. It’s up to us to present alternative views.

Media affects us in ways that are too nuanced for easy fixes. As it is with eating disorders, it’s not like anybody would read Twilight or watch Gossip Girl and immediately conclude, “Gee, it sure is hot when Edward/Chuck treats Bella/Blair like that. I’m glad my boyfriend’s the same way.”

But these scripts can change what we value in our relationships: is it mutual respect and open communication, or is it that hot, passionate, tumultuous “love” that’s being sold?

These scripts embed themselves in our minds and start to seem normal. It’s easy to start telling our own stories through those lenses. For instance, a survey done at Twilight screenings in Idaho showed that 68% of the teens seeing the movie thought that Edward’s treatment of Bella is a “sign of true love.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that watching and enjoying Twilight literally causes people to interpret Edward’s abusive behavior as evidence of a loving, healthy relationship. Perhaps people who already view relationships that way gravitate towards films like Twilight.

That’s why the solution isn’t to boycott them or vilify them unilaterally; it’s to use them to examine the assumptions we hold about love, relationships, and all sorts of other stuff. It’s also to write our own stories–ones that portray manipulation, lopsided relationships, and abuse as antithetical to the lives we want, rather than as stepping stones to the healthy love that supposedly follows.

There Is No Universal Definition Of “Cheating”

A very disturbing thing I found here.

Every time I read a women’s website or magazine these days, I come upon a headline that demands to know, “IS THIS CHEATING?!?!” Is sending flirty Facebook messages to someone else cheating? Is sending them nude pics cheating? Is flirting cheating? Is there a chance you could actually be cheating on your boyfriend and not even realize it?

Technology seems to exacerbate these existential questions because it keeps giving us new ways to violate our partners’ trust (but, on the flipside, it keeps giving us new ways to be sexual). Coming up to someone in person and stripping naked is one thing; sending a nude photo of yourself to them is another (or feels like another). And so we have to have these endless conversations about what exactly cheating is.

Here’s the thing, though. If you’re reading a magazine article to find out if you cheated or not, you’re doing it wrong, because it can’t answer that question for you. The only person who can tell you that is your partner.

Nobody else can tell you what “cheating” means in your particular relationship because it’s different in each one. In monogamous relationships, most people take the “default” definition of cheating, which includes any sort of sexual contact with someone else. But even then, what about flirty Facebook messages? What about “emotional cheating,” when you have feelings for someone else (even if you don’t act on them)? Some people count these things as cheating; others don’t.

Monogamous relationships can have a lot of wiggle room, too. I’ve known many couples in which one partner is straight and the other is bisexual, and the straight partner doesn’t mind if the bisexual partner hooks up with people of their own gender (as long as it’s just hooking up). Long-distance relationships can also have certain “rules” for what the partners can do while they’re apart.

In non-monogamous relationships, there’s an even greater variety of configurations and definitions of cheating. Some couples restrict which types of sexual acts they can do outside of the primary relationship, or they specify that sex without barriers outside of that relationship would be cheating. Some people form triads or group marriages and forbid all sexual contact outside of that established group. Some decide that you can only hook up outside of the relationship at certain events or in particular spaces, or if your primary partner is present and either watching or participating.

Meanwhile, in other non-monogamous relationships–for instance, mine–the boundaries aren’t about specific acts or people, but rather about communication. If my partner or I act secretively about other people we’re seeing, we’re cheating. If we’re not considerate to each other in terms of making plans with those other people, we’re cheating.

But people don’t just come to these agreements by separately reading Cosmo articles about what cheating is and then never discussing it.

So, if you’re unsure of what counts as cheating in your relationship, you have three options:

1. Say nothing and avoid all activities that could possibly be considered cheating, thus potentially missing out on some great opportunities;

2. Say nothing and do whatever you feel like doing while convincing yourself that your partner wouldn’t see it as cheating, thus potentially, you know, cheating on your partner;

3. Ask your partner what they would like the boundaries of the relationship to be.

I can see why that third option might feel awkward or uncomfortable. If you ask your partner, “What are our boundaries as a couple? What could I potentially do that would make you feel like I cheated on you?”, there’s a chance that your partner will interpret that as you “looking for permission” to get involved in some way with other people. But if they understand the importance of communication in relationships, they’ll see it for what it is–an attempt to make sure that you’re on the same page and that neither of you will be hurt by a misunderstanding about relationship boundaries.

That’s also why it’s a good idea to have that discussion at the beginning of a relationship rather than once it’s been going on for a while, but late is definitely better than never.

The great thing about a discussion like this is that it also allows for discussing things that aren’t “cheating” per se, but nevertheless feel like a violation of boundaries. For some people, it’s not “cheating” if their partner flirts harmlessly (as in, with no intentions for anything else) with someone else, but they wouldn’t feel comfortable if their partner did that right in front of them. For some people–it’s hard for me to imagine this myself, but I’ve heard of it–it feels “wrong” somehow if their partner dances with someone else at a party. Some people would want to know if their partner develops a crush on someone else, but that doesn’t mean it’s “cheating” if they do. Nevertheless, finding out that their partner has been keeping a new crush secret would feel like a violation of trust.

All of these nuances can be made clear by a conversation about boundaries.

Prescriptive definitions of cheating (i.e. “this is what cheating must mean for everyone”) don’t serve anyone. They keep people stuck in a very restrictive version of monogamy (not that there’s anything wrong with monogamy, as long as you consciously choose it). They allow for misunderstandings that hurt people, such as when one partner thinks flirting with others is okay and the other feels like it’s cheating. They prevent people from creating their own relationship models that work best for them, and encourage them instead to conform to the dominant cultural conception of what a committed, “faithful” relationship is.

Edit: A reader and fellow blogger, Patrick, noted that the part of this post that deals with relationships between straight and bisexual people might be reinforcing the stereotype that all such relationships involve an agreement that the bisexual person can hook up with others of their gender. I definitely don’t want to reinforce that stereotype, so I asked him how I might have rephrased that in a way that was clearer and less stereotype-y. He suggested this:

“I’ve known many mixed-orientation couples (one partner is straight and the other is bisexual), and in some of them the straight partner doesn’t mind if their partner hooks up with people of their own gender (as long as it’s within their negotiated boundaries).”

I like this phrasing a lot more, so I decided to append this here. A huge thank-you to Patrick for pointing this out and suggesting an improvement. :)