“Women Just Want Men To Take Control.”

[Content note: sex/BDSM]

One trope I often hear about women’s sexuality is that “women just want men to take control.”1 I encounter this everywhere–in pickup artist how-to’s, in pop psychology articles, in Cosmo magazines, in Sigmund Freud’s theories. At its best, it’s a harmless meme that simply reflects the gender roles that our society has. But at its worst, it’s rape apologetics.

In a rather old Newsweek piece, Katie Roiphe (she who claims that date rape is just bad sex that you regret) uses the 50 Shades of Grey series and the TV show Girls as evidence that, well, women just want men to take control. She also goes on to make a terrible argument that the reason women just want men to take control is that they have too much power in the workplace now, or something. (She also seems to think that the reason people are ashamed of these fantasies is because Feminism Has Gone Too Far, not because, newsflash: non-vanilla sexuality is really stigmatized, and so is all sexuality, actually.)

Anyway, I could write multiple articles about why this piece by Roiphe pissed me off so much a year ago and continues to piss me off, but for now I will focus on one reason: her implicit assertion that women ultimately just want to be dominated.

Some women want men to take control. Some women don’t want men to take control. Some women want men to take control, but only under certain circumstances. Some women want men to take control, but only in their fantasies. And some women aren’t interested in having sex with men at all. And that’s important to point out, because when you say things like “women want men to be X/do Y in bed,” you’re completely ignoring the fact that some women don’t give a single flying fuck about what men do in bed.

First of all, statements like “Women just want men to take control” are wrong because, well, plenty of women don’t. I don’t have the statistics on me, but any cursory conversation with women who trust you enough to talk about their sex lives will reveal plenty of these mythical women. And no, don’t say that they’re “not being honest with themselves” or “just don’t realize what they really want.”2 Yes, people are, at best, mediocre judges of their own selves. But they sure know themselves better than you do!

Second, now that we’ve established that some unspecified percentage of women don’t want to be dominated: even if there are many women who want men to be dominant in bed, that still doesn’t excuse not asking. Many women also like oral sex, but that doesn’t mean they want it ALL THE TIME AT EVERY MOMENT THEY’RE WITH YOU. Ask! And it doesn’t have to be something like “Do you grant me permission to forcibly hold you against the wall while I remove your clothing without your aid and perform acts of my own choosing upon your sexual organs?” It can be, “I really want to take control tonight. Is there anything you don’t want me to do? Just say [safeword] if you want me to stop.” Better yet, though, would be to talk about this beforehand, at some point when you’re not naked or about to be, and ask your partner if they’re interested in this and what boundaries they have about it.

The reason this is important, aside from the consent part, is that we use the words “dominant” or “take control” to mean many different things. For some people, “take control” may just mean initiating everything that happens that night, choosing what stuff you do, being on top, etc. For some people, “take control” may mean tying their partner up and shackling them to the bed and doing whatever they want to/with them unless and until they say the safeword. And for some people, “take control” means that your partner is your 24/7 slave who does absolutely anything, sexual or otherwise, that you demand. If you’re someone who uses the former definition while your partner uses one of the other definitions, you might find yourself having an unpleasant miscommunication unless you talk about these things.

And that brings me to my third point: even if you’re 100% sure that your partner wants you to “take control,” you don’t know what they want that to look like until you ask. If you don’t ask and just do and happen to do something they want, good for you. But most likely you’ll do something they don’t want, which means they’ll be bored, annoyed, or even upset and violated.

Fourth, even if your partner wants you to take control, and even if you do happen to be on the same page about what you want, getting explicit consent is still a really good idea. Why? Because it sends the message that you care about your partner’s comfort and agency.

As one of those infamous women who want their male partners to be dominant almost all of the time, I’ll tell you this: I would be appalled, disgusted, and turned off if a partner just assumed that I want them to be in control and started doing it without having asked me or heard from me that this is what I want. Of course, it’s different with long-term partners because they know each other’s quirks and desires, but if we’re just starting out, you’d fucking better ask first. If you don’t, I might enjoy it at the time, but I’ll be left with the really uncomfortable feeling that you actually didn’t really care whether I wanted to do that or not. These tend to be the people I do not see again, because I can’t trust them not to cross my boundaries in the future.

Sure, they got lucky: they didn’t get explicit consent, but it turns out I wanted to do that anyway. But what about when they fail to get explicit consent for something I don’t want to do? How are they going to know what I want to do and what I don’t? Why should it be my responsibility to stop them from doing things I don’t want once they start to do them, rather than their responsibility to ask first?

Fifth, what Katie Roiphe and others who try to understand Women’s Sexuality from romance stories fail to grasp is that sometimes fantasies are just fantasies. Many people think that if you fantasize and get off to something, that must mean that that is Who You Really Are Sexually and you must want to act out that fantasy ASAP. Actually, no. (Sometimes I hesitate to tell partners about fantasies because then they’re immediately like OH OKAY LET’S DO THAT I’LL GO TO THE SEX STORE AND BUY THAT THING when I might not actually want to.) But there are plenty of valid reasons you might choose not to do something no matter how hot it is to think about: it’s unsafe, you have physical limitations or disabilities that make it impossible, you’re worried about how it’ll make you feel, you can’t afford to buy something that you’d need for it, you don’t really want to do it with any of the partners you currently have, you don’t want to go through the hassle of negotiating it, you don’t think it would be as fun in real life and you’d rather just keep it as a nice thing to think about, and so on.

Finally, another thing that Katie Roiphe et al. don’t get is that women who have fantasies about submission aren’t necessarily having them for some reason like Men These Days Aren’t Aggressive Enough or Women Have Too Much Power In The Workplace And Feel Too Powerful. I can think of many reasons fantasies about submission might be fun. Submitting to someone requires a degree of trust that many find sexy. The idea of being so into someone that you’re willing to let them control you is a powerful idea to many people. Submitting means being vulnerable, exposing yourself, and some people find that hot. There’s also something about relinquishing control that’s comforting–especially, I might add, to women, who often find themselves stigmatized for being dominant and upfront about their sexuality. Being dominated is a way to enjoy sex without having to open yourself up to the possibility of being shamed for expressing your desires.

On that note, it’s important to recognize that the reason we’re seeing all these stories about female submission but not male submission is not an accident. It is extremely taboo for men to express a desire to submit to a female partner–perhaps even more taboo than it is for women to want to dominate. If someone wrote Fifty Shades of Grey with the gender roles reversed, would any man want to be caught reading that book?

But men who want to be submissive, sometimes or all of the time, are not rare. If you date men and you’re open-minded and supportive of your partners’ sexualities, you have probably met them. If you are Katie Roiphe and you spew outdated gender stereotypes like a broken toilet spews…you-know-what, then men are very unlikely to “come out” as submissive to you.

I think that the dismantling of gender roles would bring about an increase in the number of men who are openly submissive, and an increase in the number of women who are openly dominant. But dominant men and submissive women would obviously still exist, because playing with power can be fun.

The science of sexual desire is still quite nascent, so we don’t really know what actually causes people to like what they like in bed. But, honestly, I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to figure out, and that doesn’t really bother me. The most important thing is to not make assumptions about what someone likes based on their gender, or based on anything else. As humans, we have been gifted with the ability to communicate our desires clearly rather than relying on clumsy guesswork. Let’s use that ability.
~~~

1 When I typed this phrase into my phone at like 3 AM one night to remind myself to write this blog post, I initially typed “men just want women to take control” by accident. HMMM.

2 Remind me to write another piece about why people who claim that others are “not being honest with themselves” or “just don’t realize what they really want” really creep me out and raise a bunch of red flags.

Yes, Activists Have Doubts Too, And Also Criticism Is A Process (A Rant About Two Kinda Different Things)

I was avoiding my statistics homework today and found this comic on Tumblr, by an art student named Alyssa Korea:

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This really resonated with me, for various reasons. First of all, it really captures that feeling of Am I doing it wrong am I saying something problematic am I exactly what I’m fighting against that many of us experience as a constant low hum but never talk enough about. Activism of all kinds–not just social justice–has a high barrier to entry because you sort of have to learn a certain language, to talk the talk. You also have to learn to walk the walk and exemplify the ideals you’re fighting for in your everyday life, which is why many feminist women agonize over things like wearing makeup, wanting to be pretty, getting married, and having children–they fear that it makes them “Bad Feminists.”

This is, of course, not unique to activists. Communities define themselves both proactively and also in opposition to those they seek to exclude (and seeking to exclude people isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself). As the furor over “Fake Geek Girls” shows, geek/nerd/fandom communities are struggling with this too. And not just that–perhaps you have reaped the shame of being a Star Wars fan who enjoys the prequel trilogy, or a Harry Potter fan who prefers the movies to the books. (Only one of these two applies to me; I’ll let you guess which.)

But the stakes are higher with social justice. If you say the wrong thing, you risk more than just annoying people who think the prequel trilogy is totally the stupidest shit ever. You risk seriously hurting someone you’re trying to work with and exposing your own unexamined prejudice–which all of us have, believe me–to people you respect and want to gain the respect of.

It’s not just a social thing, though. We want to be right, not just for selfish egotistical reasons but also because we’re invested in the concept of being able to change things. If you’re wrong about what causes X Problem or how to fix it, then, at least in this particular instance, you’re not helping. And you really want to help. We all do.

That’s the other reason the particular sort of angst in this comic is something I can really relate to. I have a moment at least once a day when I’m like WHAT IF EVERYTHING I BELIEVE AND THINK I KNOW IS ACTUALLY WRONG. There are probably a few reasons for this: 1) impostor syndrome, 2) having always had plenty of people tell me that everything I believe and think I know is actually wrong, 3) having been raised a skeptic.

That third one is why I ultimately think that, no matter how unpleasant it is to do what the woman in the comic is doing–what I do every day–that is actually a feature, not a bug. Questioning yourself is good. It makes you better. Questioning your beliefs and opinions also doesn’t mean you have to question your worth as a person. You can be wrong about something–many things, even–and still be a decent, worthy human being.

Nonetheless, activism is contingent on getting people’s attention and making strong statements. I wish it weren’t, but it is. If I wrote a blog post like this comic, it probably wouldn’t have much of an influence because I’d sound wishy-washy and uncertain of my own positions. People wouldn’t feel compelled to think about what I wrote and to take action on it.

On the other hand, maybe it would do some good. Opinionated people are often accused of being “dogmatic” or “intolerant” of other opinions, but that’s partially because nobody hears or reads all the inner monologues and debates we have. There have been times when I’ve written entire blog posts, realized I disagreed with them, and deleted them without publishing. You’ve never read those blog posts. There are huge swaths of fascinating subjects that I’ve never written about–racial preferences in dating, whether or not religious belief is a choice, why boys are falling behind in schools, the usefulness of the DSM, whether or not we should abandon the label “feminist”–because I just haven’t made up my mind!

By the time I do write something, I’ve generally read a ton of articles about it (or even books in some cases), pushed it around in my mind like a picky eater pushes food around on a plate, discussed it with a few people, and debated myself extensively. Sure, sometimes I change my mind later, but by the time a blog post appears, hours and hours of preparation have gone into it. So you can imagine it’s a little annoying to be told that perhaps I just haven’t “considered” other opinions.

I like this method. It works for me. But I sometimes worry that if I reveal it to people, they will lose respect for me as an activist because they’ll see that I’m not always as firm in my convictions as I appear to me. I struggle with doubt. I wonder sometimes if we’re not just making mountains out of molehills or being “too sensitive.” (I wonder, of course, but you know how I really feel about that.) Maybe that’s an irrational fear. Maybe all of you feel the same way as the woman in the comic.

And that’s why I think the comic is so important, especially when it comes to feminist media criticism. People often try to play “Gotcha!” with feminists who criticize media, hoping to catch them in an act of hypocrisy. For instance, if a feminist says something like, “It’s kinda fucked up that all the female characters on this show are always dressed so revealingly,” a decidedly-not-feminist will be like “OH SO ARE YOU SAYING THAT WOMEN SHOULDN’T DRESS REVEALINGLY? HUH?”

Of course, these arguments are usually made in bad faith. I have been accused of “perpetuating patriarchy” by people who previously commented that they refuse to believe that patriarchy even exists. So when conversations like this happen, it’s generally pretty clear that the person isn’t actually super concerned with women’s right to wear as much or as little as they want; they’re just trying to force me into a corner in which I look like a hypocrite.

But this comic shows that 1) we do not have easy answers to this, and 2) criticism is a process, not a product. One doesn’t produce criticism and then go “Alright here’s my criticism! Here’s my Ultimate Answer To The Problem of Objectification of Women In The Media!” Feminist criticism is, rather, a process in which we think critically about the images and scripts with which we are constantly presented, picking them apart and figuring out why they’re so common and compelling, trying to design slightly better (but still wildly imperfect) ones instead.

And that, really, is what all activism is.

[blogathon] Top Five Celebrities I’m DTF

This is the fifth post in my SSA blogathon, and another reader request (as if I’d ever write it otherwise, haha). Don’t forget to donate!

I don’t follow celebrity news/gossip much, so I knew this would be a bit difficult. However, once I searched deep within my heart I realized that there are indeed at least five celebrities that I’d do. Spoiler alert: only one is a man. MISANDRY. Here you go!

5. Natalie Portman.

Did you know that Natalie and I are both from Israel? Well, we are! So we already have something in common.

Not only is Natalie a fantastic actress (V for Vendetta and Black Swan are two of my favorite movies), but she’s intelligent and loves learning. She got a degree in psychology from Harvard and said, “I don’t care if [college] ruins my career. I’d rather be smart and a movie star.” She’s an advocate for various progressive causes, including animal rights and antipoverty. While a bit of cynicism is certainly warranted when it comes to celebrities taking up political causes, according to Fareed Zakaria, “she really knew her stuff.”

Besides that, come on, she’s gorgeous and if you disagree you can go ahead and leave.

Natalie Portman.

4. Kristen Stewart.

Alright, this will be controversial, so let me explain.

I like Kristen because she gives so few fucks. She doesn’t care if you think she’s not “grateful” enough for her success. She doesn’t care if you don’t like that she doesn’t do her womanly duty to smile and look happy for the camera at all times. She doesn’t care if you’re pissed that she doesn’t keep playing her role off-screen by having a fairytale romance with Edward I mean, Robert Pattinson.

Besides, she totally does smile. When she fucking feels like it.

Kristen Stewart. Smiling!

3. M.I.A..

Her actual name is Mathangi Arulpragasam, but M.I.A. is her stage name. Her music is unique and catchy and her activism is serious. She’s not afraid to call out the implicit sexism and racism of mainstream media and to keep going despite death threats against her and her son because she criticized the Sri Lankan government.

On a lighter note, M.I.A. has a really cool fashion sense, and she refused to be featured in People magazine’s “Most Beautiful People” issue. Fuck you, People.

M.I.A.

2. Mila Kunis.

I’ve had a total crush on Mila since Black Swan, but what really cemented it was her response to a reporter while she and Justin Timberlake were on tour promoting Friends With Benefits. The reporter asked Justin why he was focusing on making movies rather than music in a way that implied judgment, and Mila fired back, asking him why Justin shouldn’t do what he feels like doing. Unfortunately for you and not for me, all of this happened in Russian.

Further, she’s going to be producing a TV show about the women’s liberation movement. I can’t wait for it.

Also, Mila on the GOP: “The way that Republicans attack women is so offensive to me. And the way they talk about religion is offensive. I may not be a practicing Jew, but why we gotta talk about Jesus all the time?”

Why, indeed.

Mila Kunis

1. Jon Stewart.

Fun fact about me: one of my custom cards for Cards Against Humanity is “a threesome with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.” It frequently wins.

GIF of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Jon is dancing around adorably in his seat.

But focusing on Jon for a moment. This man is brilliant, hilarious, progressive, sexy, and generally everything a person should be. He makes adorable faces:

Jon Stewart's googly eyes.

He speaks the truth:

Jon Stewart on Congress.

Even when he’s doing something totally unsexy, he still looks great:

Jon Stewart sticking his tongue out and doing some sort of humping motion? Maybe?

Jon Stewart, everyone.

~~~

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“We Saw Your Boobs” and Distorted Views of Female Sexuality

I’ll leave it to others to thoroughly excoriate Seth MacFarlane’s performance at the Oscars. What I want to address specifically is his gloating “We Saw Your Boobs” video, and the interestingly skewed notion of sexuality that it presents.

If you believe MacFarlane, and others who think like him, sex is a sort of competition between men and women. Whenever women engage sexually with men–for instance, by appearing topless in a movie that is viewed by men–the man “wins” and the woman “loses.” In the video, the women whose boobs MacFarlane says he saw are portrayed as shocked or embarrassed, whereas Jennifer Lawrence, whose boobs MacFarlane notes that we have not seen, is shown to be celebrating.

In this view, women have no agency to experience sexuality on their own terms and for themselves. MacFarlane et al. do not realize that a woman might want to appear topless in a movie not (just) to be viewed by men, but because it makes her feel good or because it increases her opportunities as an actor, or for any other reason.

Of course, that’s arguable, because nowadays in Hollywood female actors’ opportunities are so limited unless they’re willing to appear topless. So for an actor who doesn’t want to do a nude scene for whatever reason but feels pressured to do it because there’s not much of a choice, doing a nude scene is a sort of loss. But not because “hur hur we saw your boobies,” but because in the society we have set up, people often have to do things they find objectionable in order to make a living.

This view of sex as a game or competition is embedded in the language we use to discuss sex–for instance, in the case of virginity. Although men are also sometimes thought of as being virgins or having virginity, traditionally it’s a concept that only really applies to women. Virginity is something that women “lose,” “save,” “give up,” “give away.” Although you could certainly argue that sometimes we can also lose things that are bad and that we’re better off for having lost, it’s still interesting to think about the connotation that it has to say that women “lose” something when they have sex for the first time.

It’s similar when we talk about “playing hard to get,” which is a role that’s traditionally been assigned to women. A woman “plays hard to get” until she finally “gives in” and lets the guy “get” her–he wins, she loses. (Interestingly, the “hard to get” role is becoming more associated with straight men, as well–thanks to PUAs, the cultural ideal of apathy, and probably tons of other factors.)

(As an aside, it’s interesting and also discouraging that some of the most problematic aspects of traditional views of female sexuality–virginity, playing hard to get, etc.–are increasingly being attributed to male sexuality as well. Equality shouldn’t mean making things suck for everyone.)

Why must women “lose” when they have sex with men or allow themselves to be viewed sexually by men? Because it seems that some people still believe that ultimately, women don’t really want to be sexual. It’s good to remember that views of female sexuality have varied widely throughout history, and until fairly recently one of the predominant views was that women didn’t have sexuality. They “gave in” to sex because men wanted it and because they wanted to please men. When I read The Hite Report on Female Sexuality, a landmark 1976 study of women’s sex lives, for class, I was stunned at how many women reported that their male partners didn’t really seem to notice or care whether or not they were having orgasms or otherwise getting pleasure out of sex. It can’t be that all of those men are just terrible people who don’t care about their partners; it’s more likely that they simply didn’t realize that that could even be a concern.

At the time the report was published, prevailing notions of female sexuality were already beginning to shift. Many of the women who responded to the questionnaire said that they faked orgasms for their male partners because the partners expected them to have orgasms–but only from whatever the men enjoyed (generally, vaginal intercourse).

Of course, there’s usually more than one view of any given thing circulating in a given culture at a given time. Interestingly, an alternate and sort of opposite view of female sexuality from MacFarlane’s is the one championed by Girls Gone WildCosmo, and hookup culture: that sex with men is empowering for women and that if you’re out there flashing your boobs in front of a camera or hooking up with as many guys as you want, you’re not “losing” at all–you’re winning. There’s a reason this sort of ideology is so popular with young women: it appears, at least on the surface, to affirm and empower female sexuality as opposed to treating it as something shameful or even nonexistent. You could view it as a direct repudiation of outdated views like MacFarlane’s.

But ultimately it falls short, because in this view, sex and the female body in general are still things that exist for male consumption, whether it’s the leering guys behind the cameras of Girls Gone Wild or the mythical and almost deity-like “he” constantly being referenced in Cosmo headlines: “Drive him wild with pleasure!” “Find all of his erogenous zones!” “Make him feel like a real man tonight!”

A few nights ago my friends and I were laughing at a book of Cosmo sex tips and someone asked if the magazine ever even mentions the possibility of sex with women. We shook our heads. Although many people see Cosmo as a celebration of independent female sexuality, the fact that it completely ignores the existence of queer women suggests that it’s really just about female sexuality for men.

In this sense, the Cosmo view of female sexuality isn’t actually that different from MacFarlane’s wacky sex-as-competition view. Whether women “win” or “lose” by engaging sexually with men, the reason they ultimately do it is always for the men, and never for themselves or for any other reason.

The irony of MacFarlane’s song is that a bunch of the nude scenes he mentioned are actually rape scenes. The female actors in these scenes weren’t topless in order to titillate (male) viewers, but to depict a cruel and tragic part of reality. And Scarlett Johansson’s “nude scene” was actually not one at all, but rather the nude photos of her that were leaked to the press. She certainly didn’t take off her shirt for MacFarlane’s smug pleasure.

Of Charlize Theron’s nude scene, Salon’s Katie McDonough writes:

[T]he only time we see Theron’s breasts is in a quick shot in the bathroom, following a brutal rape at the hands of a john, in which she examines her badly beaten body. The “boobs” that MacFarlane sang an ode to are made up to appear badly swollen and red from the multiple times she was kicked in the stomach by her abuser. The nudity isn’t there for cheap thrills, it’s a snapshot of a terribly beaten body that should evoke horror — not giggles — from the viewer.

While giggling about a rape scene is several orders of magnitude more egregious than giggling about the fact that a woman showed you her boobs, the common thread is an inability on the part of MacFarlane (and, I’m sure, others) to see the “purpose” of women’s bodies and sexuality as anything other than entertainment and titillation on the part of male observers.

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.

The Role of Feminist Criticism

In one of my recent pieces, I criticized a particular aspect of the love stories often found in popular books and movies. Whenever someone critiques pop culture–especially from a feminist perspective–it raises a lot of questions for many people. Questions such as:

  • Does it really matter that this work is “problematic”?
  • Can you even have media that isn’t problematic in any way?
  • Am I a racist/sexist/etc. if I find a racist/sexist/etc. joke funny?
  • Would people really take this seriously?
  • What’s the point of talking about this?
  • Am I a bad person if I enjoy this book/movie/show?

Of course, people rarely come right out and ask these questions; they usually couch them in objections instead: “You’re just looking for flaws,” “It’s just a movie,” “There’s nothing that would make you feminists happy.”

But if you read between the lines you’ll usually find questions like the ones above, and all of them eventually condense into the same question: What is the role of feminist criticism? In other words, what’s the point of picking cultural artifacts apart and finding their flaws and analyzing them?

In my view, the role of feminist criticism is not to prescribe what you should and should not read, watch, listen to, wear, or otherwise consume. It is not to say which things are “bad” and which are “good,” since, as some detractors have pointed out, everything seems to have flaws. It is not to create some list of 100%-feminist-approved media and boycott everything else.

Rather, it is to use cultural artifacts as a way to analyze our prevailing norms and values and see how they might be harmful. For instance, in my earlier post, I used the romance genre to show how people are encouraged to maintain abusive or otherwise unhealthy relationships because that’s the “romantic” thing to do.

In this situation, I’m definitely not saying that you shouldn’t consume those books, films, and TV shows, because then you wouldn’t be able to criticize them. I’m not even saying you shouldn’t enjoy them, because ultimately I don’t care what you enjoy and what you don’t. That’s up to you.

Sometimes, though, it might be more ethical to avoid something “problematic” entirely. The role of feminist criticism is also to remain aware of what we consume so that we’re able to draw the line when it’s gone too far. For instance, I don’t eat at Chick-Fil-A and I don’t purchase any music from Chris Brown. Others may draw their personal lines differently, which is okay. But I wouldn’t have been able to decide that this business and this musician do not deserve my money had I not kept myself informed of what they do and what the criticisms of them are.

For me, the most important insight that feminism has given me is that we do not live, love, consume, and decide in a vacuum; we do so under the influence of society. That doesn’t mean we don’t have “free will” (and I do hate to get into that debate), but it does mean that we might not always be aware of all of the reasons for which we want (or don’t want) to do something. We will probably never be able to disentangle ourselves from the influence of society, and that’s fine. What’s important to me is to be aware of what some of those influences might be.

To use an example that’s slightly off-topic: makeup. Many women like to wear it, and many women are, unfortunately, under the impression that feminism opposes the use of makeup unilaterally. Hence the “I’m not a feminist, I wear makeup and dresses” thing that you get sometimes. (Maybe second-wave feminism did oppose makeup, but no feminist person or piece of writing that I’ve ever come across has said that.)

Again, in my view, feminism doesn’t prescribe whether or not women should wear makeup. What it does is ask questions:

  • Why does makeup exist?
  • Why are women expected to wear it and considered lazy, ugly, or unprofessional if they don’t?
  • Why aren’t men expected to wear makeup?
  • Come to think of it, why are men shamed if they do choose to wear it?
  • Why do some professions require women to wear makeup to keep their jobs?
  • Does wearing makeup ever actually make a woman better at her job?
  • Why do makeup ads show women who are considerably more flawless than any foundation or cream could actually make you look?

And so on. Answering those questions for yourself is enlightening, a bit disturbing, but also (in my opinion) kind of fun.

In my own case, becoming a feminist and learning about feminist criticism of makeup and the beauty industry didn’t change my makeup-wearing habits at all. I still do exactly what I did back when I wasn’t a feminist: sometimes I feel like wearing it so I do, and sometimes I don’t feel like wearing it, so I don’t.

What feminism has done for me, though, is to silence that petulant voice I get in my  head on days when I choose not to wear makeup–the one that tells me I’m being lazy, that I’m not a real woman, that people are going to judge me, that I look bad. Before I’d stubbornly choose not to wear makeup on days when I didn’t want to but then have to deal with that voice in my head all day. Nowadays it’s gone. Maybe people do judge me for not wearing makeup sometimes, but I no longer give a fuck.

So feminist criticism hasn’t kept me from doing things i want to do or forced me to do things I don’t; it’s merely given me a framework for understanding some of my own desires, fears, triggers, values, and so on.

The same sort of thing applies to feminist criticism of pop culture. I still enjoy popular movies and TV shows (except How I Met Your Mother, perhaps), but I understand how some of the assumptions they contain are inaccurate and harmful. Thinking through these things helps me think about our culture as a whole and how it might be improved. It also helps me construct a blueprint for how I want to live my own life, raise my future kids, and so on. (For instance, I will never tell a daughter of mine that if a boy treats her like crap “it’s just because he likes you.” That’s the most dangerous bullshit I’ve ever heard, and He’s Just Not That Into You is with me on that.)

And on that note, feminist criticism has one more role–showing us ways to improve the stories we tell. It reminds us that casts should not be all-white, that the Bechdel Test should be passed with flying colors, that glorifying violence against women (or anyone, really) is not okay. We can’t produce better books, movies, and shows unless we criticize the ones we have thoroughly.

In summary, feminist criticism is important because:

  1. It allows us to analyze problematic aspects of our culture.
  2. It lets us know when we should consider avoiding something entirely.
  3. It helps us understand how culture influences our behavior.
  4. It points the way to better media in the future.

It’s unfortunate that some people think that feminist criticism “ruins” everything or that feminists are here to take all the stuff you love away. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are ethical ways to consume problematic media, and I’d say it’s easier to enjoy something when you understand exactly why you sometimes get uncomfortable feelings about it.

I’m sure many feminists would disagree with a lot of what I’ve said, but I’d probably respect their views nonetheless. The view I definitely do not respect is that we should just ignore critiques of the stuff we like because it’s boring and not fun and who cares that the stuff we read, watch, and listen to is selling us a version of reality that we might despise if we actually thought about it.

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.

Save the People, Not the Boobies: The Ethics of Breast Cancer Awareness

Few ad campaigns make me as misanthropic as the breast cancer awareness ones I’ve been seeing at an especially high volume for the past month:

There’s also this video (NSFW).

I hate these campaigns for many reasons. First of all, they make breast cancer all about boobs. Yes, it has “breast” in the name, but reducing an illness as complex and life-shattering as breast cancer into a cutesy “save the boobies!” campaign seems callous and inappropriate.

I’m not sure everyone would even agree that the prospect of losing your breasts is the worst thing about breast cancer, and yet that’s what these campaigns almost universally target. It’s not the “boobies” or “ta-tas” that need to be saved–it’s the human beings who have breast cancer.

It’s even worse when the campaigns are created by and/or targeted at men and involve that hint-hint-nudge-nudge assumption that men should care about breast cancer because men love tits. Never mind that men can get breast cancer too, and never mind that men care about breast cancer not (just) because they care about boobs, but also because they care about their friends, girlfriends, wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, and etc. who might get breast cancer, or who already have.

Campaigns like these also completely ignore women who have chosen (or been forced to) undergo mastectomies. If breast cancer research and awareness is all about “saving the boobies,” does losing your breasts mean you’ve lost the fight?

This preoccupation with breasts is probably what inspires awful ads like this one by the Cancer Patients Aid Association, an Indian NGO:

The text at the bottom reads, “One out of every eight women develops breast cancer in her lifetime. Early detection helps recovery. Get yourself examined before it’s too late.” So there you have it. If you get a mastectomy, you’re “making yourself ugly.”

This is all to say nothing of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the hypocrisy and reactionism of which should by now be well-known. (Incidentally, the former Komen executive who was responsible for that move was not content with merely that; she just had to write a book-length screed against Planned Parenthood, as well.) This unethical organization seems to be the beneficiary of most (if not all) of the sexualized ads I’ve seen. I still refuse to give them a single cent, which is difficult given how easy it is to accidentally pick up one of those pink-ribbon-branded products at the grocery store.

On the bright side, this is a great opportunity to explain what feminists mean when we prattle on about “objectification” and “sexualization,” which are closely related concepts that often (but not always) occur together. Objectification is the reduction of a person to their body parts (usually the sexual ones; hence the frequent co-occurence of objectification and sexualization). An advertisement that objectifies women might show, for instance, a single female leg in front of a flashy car, or a woman lying in a martini glass–literally like an object to be consumed. Sometimes men are objectified too, but that seems to be rarer. Ads that objectify people often don’t show their faces (or eyes), thus making them seem less like people and more like bodies.

Sexualization, meanwhile, is when a person (again, usually a woman) is represented in such a way as to arouse the viewer or otherwise connote sex when the actual purpose of the representation has nothing to do with sex at all. You wouldn’t call pornography “sexualization” because the purpose of pornography is to depict sexual acts and to be arousing. But when an advertisement designed to sell cars or alcohol–or solicit donations for breast cancer research–portrays women in a sexual way, that’s sexualization.

The objectification and sexualization of women in the media has a great deal of negative effects, both on an individual level–for the people who view them–and on a cultural level. Check out the work of Jean Kilbourne if that interests you.

However, I am not a marketing expert. If I were, and if I were charged with designing an ad campaign that elicits as much attention and donations for breast cancer research as possible, there’s a good chance I would feel compelled to create an ad like this, because there’s a good chance that this is the kind of ad that works best.

Hence the misanthropy I mentioned earlier. Marketing people know what they’re doing. If this is really the best way to get people to pay attention to this important cause, I would say that not using ads like these is even more unethical than using them–at least until we shift our culture enough that we don’t need them anymore. But that still means that we’re choosing the lesser of two evils. I would rather more money went to breast cancer research than less, but I would also rather we stopped reducing women to their erogenous zones in our media.

After all, I don’t agree with this rubbish that men are “programmed” or “hardwired” by biology to be obsessed with breasts, at least not to the level that our society seems to think they are. As I already discussed when I wrote about public breastfeeding, the sexualization of breasts is not universal to all cultures and time periods. Even if “sex sells,” breasts don’t necessarily have to always be part of “sex,” and I think it would be beneficial to our society if they were not.

For the record, whether straight men’s love of boobs is entirely biological or not, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, as long as it doesn’t infringe upon public policy or trivialize serious illnesses. Besides, you can totally be an awesome (male) feminist and a boob enthusiast at the same time.

Edit: Here’s a great article that basically makes my point for me.

How to Have Sex Like They Do in the Movies

My recent post on consent got me thinking about how open communication about sex isn’t just important because it establishes consent, but also because it’s what makes sex great.

A man meets a woman–it’s always a man and a woman.

He is tall and handsome–she, thin and beautiful.

He cracks a witty pickup line with a confident smile, and she laughs and moves in closer.

Some amount of time passes–the amount depends on the kind of movie this is–and finally they are alone, almost always in his apartment. Without much (or any) invitation on her part, and without any prior discussion of matters sexual, the man kisses the woman, who responds passionately as though she’d been waiting for this very moment the whole time. They have sex. Few if any words are ever exchanged. But the sex is awesome anyway. It’s like they’ve been searching for each other their whole lives.

Does this ever actually happen? I mean, really, does it?

…not really.

Seriously. Observe a moment of silence for that script. Give it a eulogy. Stop searching for it.

I mean, I guess you don’t have to. If you dedicate your whole life to the search, you may eventually come across a person with whom you fit like two adjacent puzzle pieces, just like that. A person who just happens to share your favorite sex positions, who gives head just the way you like to receive it, who loves to be tied up while you love to do the tying (or vice versa), who feels ready for increasing intimacy at the exact same pace you do, who doesn’t have any triggers or STIs that you might need to discuss first, who shares your fetishes, who comes the easiest from whatever it is you already love to do most. A person who can do and be all this, without ever having to talk about any of it with you.

You might come across a person like that, but I doubt it.

Besides, you could have that kind of sex without finding that person at all.

Say you’ve met someone you’re attracted to. Maybe you’ve known them for an hour, maybe a year. Doesn’t matter. You’ve flirted with each other, and that tension is definitely there. Maybe you’ve gone on “dates,” maybe you haven’t. Regardless, this is a person you absolutely want to fuck.

So tell them!

Ridiculous, right? Aren’t you supposed to “get” them drunk? Shouldn’t you send signals and make sexual innuendo or just grab them and make out with them?

That’s what our pop culture would have you think, but as it is about many other things, it’s wrong.

Here’s the thing: nobody who really wants to have sex with you will be turned off by you telling them you want to have sex with them. In fact, they’ll probably be turned on. They may be a bit shy and embarrassed at first, because this kind of genuine, open forwardness about sex isn’t something our culture encourages. But they’ll probably get over it if they really want you.

Likewise, nobody who really wants to have sex with you needs to be drunk to do it. Having a few drinks may loosen them up and put them at ease, but if that desire wasn’t there already, no amount of alcohol will put it there–at least, not genuinely. And also, sex with a drunk person is not actually legal, since a drunk person cannot consent.

So, hopefully your would-be hookup buddy agrees that sex with you would be an awesome thing. Hopefully they’re also open and comfortable with talking about sex, because, unlike the movies tell you, communication–more so than “chemistry” or “the moment”–is what makes sex great:

“So how do you like to come?”
“It’s easiest for me if I’m getting myself off…with a little help. You?”
“I like to get head.”
“Good! I like giving it.”
“How do you feel about doggy style?”
“I love it. Could I handcuff you while we do it?”
“Actually, handcuffs make me a bit uncomfortable. What if you tied me up with a scarf instead?”
“That works!”

This isn’t something that most people are used to, except perhaps in the context of an established and ongoing sexual relationship. First of all, despite our sexualized culture, sex is still considered dirty and “inappropriate” for casual conversation by many people. Since it’s such a supposedly private and shameful thing, many of us will never discuss it with anyone but the closest of friends (and partners). Someone that you haven’t even slept with yet probably doesn’t fit the bill.

What this means is that many people feel a reflexive discomfort with talking about sex, a discomfort that they assume is “natural.” But it’s not. It’s a consequence of us being taught from birth that sex and penises and vaginas and butts are shameful. And so we’re ashamed.

Second, our culture–for example, the sorts of movies that I mentioned–teaches us that you don’t need to communicate about sex in this way for it to be great. In fact, it says, too much talking about or during sex is just weird and a turn-off (remember that awkward scene in The Notebook where they nearly have sex for the first time? And also that awkward scene in the pilot episode of Girls?). Furthermore, someone who is Right For You will supposedly Just Magically Know what you like Because Chemistry, so talking about sex shouldn’t even be necessary.

But it is. Not only to prevent assault, but to make sure that the sex you’re having is truly cinematic.

1 + 1 = 2: Why I'm Not Looking for My "Other Half"

I was listening to music today when I noticed something odd about the lyrics to many of the songs:

Give me a reason to fall in love

Take my hand and let’s dance

Give me a reason to make me smile

Cause I think I forgot how (Meiko)

 

Who doesn’t long for someone to hold

Who knows how to love you without being told

Somebody tell me why I’m on my own

If there’s a soulmate for everyone (Natasha Bedingfield)

 

You got a piece of me, and honestly

My life would suck without you (Kelly Clarkson)

 

Before you met me, I was a wreck

But things were kinda heavy

You brought me to life

Now every February, you’ll be my valentine (Katy Perry)

 

Look into your heart pretty baby

Is it aching with some nameless need?

Is there something wrong and you can’t put your finger on it

Right then, roll to me (Del Amitri)

If you pay attention to these songs, it seems that romantic love is something that “saves” you from loneliness and misery. It’s not just in our music that you see this sort of thing, either. Plenty of movies and novels are based on the premise that one or both of the people in the love story are lost and broken until they find each other, and there’s a reason, I suppose, that we talk about “finding our other half.” My parents, too, always told me that once I fell in love I would not be depressed anymore, and used my ongoing depression as “proof” that I didn’t really love my boyfriend.

In a way, this seems like an extension of the rescue trope in our love stories. Typically, it’s a woman being rescued by a man, but you see the story play out the other way around, too, with the woman “rescuing” the man from workaholism, domestic ineptitude, skirt-chasing, substance addiction, emotional numbness, and even, apparently, a propensity for BDSM. All ills, it seems, can be cured by falling in love with the right person.

I used to buy into this myth completely. The fact that I had depression and few genuine friends probably fueled my acceptance of it, as did the fact that in our culture it’s freakin’ everywhere. I told myself, “I can never be happy if I’m single,” and believed that once I was in a stable relationship, I would immediately feel understood and loved–and thus would finally begin to understand and love myself.

Well. I don’t buy this anymore. (I also don’t buy the other extreme, which is that “you must love yourself in order to be loved” or whatever. People with self-esteem issues are capable of having relationships, thank you.) At one point I took stock of my life and realized that I’m single and…happy. I would still like to have a significant other sometime soon, but not because they will make me “complete.” I already am.

I now believe that the fundamental “unit” of humanity is not a couple or a family, but a single person. Nobody can ever be as close to you as you are to yourself, but you can choose to make connections of varying degrees of closeness with others. After all, if we’re all “meant” to be half of a couple, why are many people genuinely happy being single? Why do some people choose to form triads or group marriages? Why do some people find happiness as single parents? Why are some people’s greatest loves their friends, not their spouses?

Now that I’ve realized that I don’t “need” a partner, it’s sometimes difficult to articulate why I nevertheless want one. I don’t need to be “saved” from anything, and I don’t think that a relationship would (or should) change my life in a huge way. Now that I have lots of good friends, I don’t need much emotional support from a partner (or from any one person), and now that I don’t have depression, I don’t need much emotional support anyway.

If you were to imagine relationships as a mathematic equation, the traditional one would be 1/2 + 1/2 = 1 (or, perhaps more paradoxically, 1 + 1 = 1). I like to think of them as 1 + 1 = 2. Two people in a relationship are still two people. They still have (or should have) their own personalities, friends, hobbies, careers, and lives. (In my view, they should have their own last names and bank accounts, too, but I suppose that’s not for everyone.)

They also still have their own problems, because you can’t cure loneliness or depression or insecurity or boredom by adding into the mix another person and all of their own issues. I think a relationship between people who consider themselves whole is by default healthier than one between people who consider themselves fractions.