Pride, Drag, and Competing Access Needs

I know I’m constantly linking to theunitofcaring’s post on competing access needs here, but that’s because it’s so relevant to so many issues. The post gives several examples of ways in which one person’s safe space is another’s unsafe space and vice versa, and both spaces need to exist:

Or (and here’s the example I am scared to share) I’m gay. And sometimes I wonder, ‘would the world be a better place if gay people didn’t exist?’ Telling me ‘wtf is wrong with you’ is really not helpful for enabling me to work through that question. And if I ask it in my campus LGBT center, or on tumblr, it is likely that my need to have that conversation is going to have a big painful collision with someone else’s need not to hear questions like that entertained seriously.

I need people who will think about my question and give me honest answers, to the best of their ability. I won’t be able to get over this question until someone reaches out to me with a genuine spirit of respect and curiosity so we can talk about the answer.

On the other hand, the needs of other people to not be around serious conversations about whether they deserve to exist is really valid and really important. There should be safe spaces where my question is prohibited. There should be lots and lots of spaces where my question is prohibited, actually. Everyone in the world should have access to spaces where my question is prohibited.

This time, I’m applying this concept to the Glasgow Free Pride “drag queen ban,” as it’s being reported. This has been blowing up Queer Internet lately, so first I want to clarify some misconceptions.

Here’s how it looks on Google News right now:

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Unfortunately, the official RuPaul’s Drag Race Facebook page didn’t help:

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These posts make it sound like the event banned drag queens entirely, and they also failed to distinguish between Free Pride and the main Glasgow Pride event. Here’s what actually happened:

At Free Pride we hope to create a safe space for all people within the LGBTQIA+ community. We understand that sometimes this will disappoint some people within the community, however our priority is always to put the needs of the most marginalised groups within our community first.

This is why, after much discussion, the trans and non binary caucus decided not to have drag acts perform at the event. This does not mean that people of any gender can’t wear what they want to the event, we simply won’t be having any self-described drag acts perform at our Free Pride Event on the 22nd August. We hope people can understand and support our decision. However we feel it important to fully explain why we came this decision.

The decision was taken by transgender individuals who were uncomfortable with having drag performances at the event. It was felt that it would make some of those who were transgender or questioning their gender uncomfortable. It was felt by the group within the Trans/Non Binary Caucus that some drag performance, particularly cis drag, hinges on the social view of gender and making it into a joke, however transgender individuals do not feel as though their gender identity is a joke. This can particularly difficult for those who are not out and still present as the gender they were assigned at birth. While it was discussed whether we could have trans drag acts perform, it was agreed that as it would not be appropriate to ask any prospective drag acts whether or not they identified as trans. It was therefore decided that having no drag acts perform would be the best option as it would mean no-one would feel pressured to out themselves. This also adheres to our Safer Spaces Policy, where we ask that no-one assume anyone else’s gender identity, and to always ask people’s pronouns.

We would like to reaffirm that this is not to say that we do not want gender expression, which we do encourage, at our event. We encourage everyone to wear what they want and express their gender however they please! There will be no policing of peoples gender identity. We will be re-inforcing our safer spaces policy at the event and asking that no-one assume anyone else gender and remember to always ask pronouns.

Free Pride is intended to be a safe space for all individuals. It is also intended to bring a new vibrant change to Glasgow’s LGBTQIA community; putting marginalised people at its heart.

Drag queens were never banned; drag performances (of people of all genders) were not invited, because the trans people involved in organizing the event were deeply uncomfortable with many of the ways in which cis people perform drag, but felt it inappropriate to ask performers to out themselves. Therefore, to carve out a space for themselves that felt right, they made the decision not to have drag performances.

Two things to note also: 1) Free Pride is an alternative to the more mainstream Glasgow Pride celebration, which costs money and, like most Pride celebrations worldwide, caters primarily to cis white gay men; 2) this entire policy was rescinded later after international furor and also a ton of abuse and harassment directed at Free Pride organizers.

AB Silvera, a trans woman in Glasgow, disagreed with the ban but provides more context:

Free Pride is small. Very small. This is its first year. It could be its last. Because when the ‘drag ban’ went viral, the entire mainstream gay community turned against them. And they didn’t do so with reasoned arguments like the one I outlined above about how I disagree with the ban. They did so with racist, transphobic, misogynist and ableist slurs, harassment and threats. Multiple threats. To Free Pride organisers, to their venues, etcetera.

Free Pride, from day one, has been listening to the criticisms from the community, and are working to address things. The decision was one done by the trans caucus, from people who I know don’t really understand the history and present overlaps between drag and trans. Free Pride is trying to address this.

Yeah, I think the drag ban was a mistake. But the problem is this has gotten picked up by Big Gay ™ and it’s been fed into the internet outrage machine. And the more you spread misinformation about this, the more you make it sound like it’s people with power banning the poor drag queens, the more you are LITERALLY FUCKING OVER A SMALL LGBTQ COMMUNITY.

Clearly there is a nonzero number of trans people who are uncomfortable with drag performances. Whether or not their feelings about this are “correct” or “rational” or “based on an accurate understanding of the history and context of drag performance,” those are their feelings. Virtually all Pride events involve drag performances. What to do?

That’s where it comes back to competing access needs. Some people (including many trans people, but also many cis people) really need there to be a Pride that has drag performances. It’s how they express their own gender, it’s a big part of what being [insert non-straight/non-cis identity] means to them, and so on.

Some other trans people really need there to be a Pride that does not have drag performances. When they see drag, especially by cis people, it feels like a mockery of their experience and makes them feel unwelcome at an event that’s supposed to be all about celebrating those experiences.

How fortunate that Glasgow has two different Pride events! How fortunate that people who want to watch or perform drag can attend Pride Glasgow, and people who are really, really uncomfortable with drag can attend Free Pride Glasgow! This sounds like a great solution to a challenging problem (how to accommodate both categories of people) and a perfect example of competing access needs being handled as well as they probably could be.

Unfortunately, foreign media (as in, outside of Scotland) widely reported it as a “ban on drag queens,” and also made it sound like this was Glasgow’s main Pride event as opposed to a tiny alternative one that was created specifically to serve those who did not feel especially welcome at the main one. As a result, apparently, a ton of people who aren’t even anywhere near Glasgow and have no reason to concern themselves with its Pride events started heaping threats and harassment onto the organizers. While it sounds like the organizers rescinded the ban at least in part because they had changed their minds on the issue, it also sounds like it might’ve been an act of self-preservation in response to bullying. (Which, by the way, is what it is when you get people to change their opinions or behavior by sending them death threats.)

On my own Facebook I saw the initial policy described as infringing on “free expression” (is it also infringing on “free expression” when a music festival chooses which bands to include in its line-up and which not?) and as “punishing the whole because of the actions of a minority.” Many of the folks opining are not queer or trans, yet they believe that this decision will “divide the LGBT community.” Really what divides the LGBT community is the fact that major Pride events only feel safe and accessible for a fairly small subset of the actual community. That is divisive.

And again, it could very well be that the ban ignored a lot of context and left out those trans people for whom drag is integral. AB Silver writes:

The ‘drag ban’ was wrong. I feel it completely ignored the history and present of the larger trans community, especially considering there is a strong class issue, with working class trans people and/or trans people of colour having much more of a connection in general to drag as a performance, identity, and community.

As a cis person, it’s not my place to decide whether or not there’s a legitimate reason for some trans people to find drag offensive. I’m emphatically not making any claims about that. However, if some people want a space that feels safe for them, I’m not sure what gives us the right to say that they shouldn’t create that space, especially since they’re not actually excluding any people (i.e. any drag queens), only setting limits on which sorts of performing acts will be booked.

Amy writes on Medium:

There’s only one thing driving this media circus: cis male entitlement. That’s why Nick can’t tell the difference between declining to invite drag acts to perform and banning drag queens. This is why none of the media outlets that have picked the story up so much as thought about mentioning drag kings — because drag kings aren’t, generally, cis men.

Free Pride Glasgow’s crime is decentering cis men, by declining to feature an art form which is dominated by them. Their crime is placing the comfort, concerns, and safety of the trans community at a higher priority than making space for cis men to perform.

Maybe if we viewed this as a competing access needs issue rather than a “how dare you be uncomfortable with drag” issue, Free Pride’s initial decision would make a lot more sense. I get that it sucks to be not-invited to an event, especially if you’re also a member of a marginalized group yourself. But a lot of the people taking this very personally (for instance, RuPaul) were never going to attend anyway, and probably hadn’t even ever heard of Free Pride Glasgow until this story started going viral. Pride events at which drag performance is welcomed (and, in fact, central to the celebration) will probably always be the majority.

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Should We Publicly Shame Cheaters?

This past week has seen two shameful episodes in the Creepy People Getting Into Others’ Private Affairs And Shaming Them Online category.

First, Gawker published (for no apparent reason) a story about a married “C-Suite” Condé Nast executive who arranged to spend a weekend with a male porn star who then attempted to blackmail him–and, with Gawker’s capable help, succeeded*. Max Read, the now-former editor-in-chief of Gawker, justified the story thus: “given the chance gawker will always report on married c-suite executives of major media companies fucking around on their wives.”

Second, hackers are threatening to leak the user data (including credit card numbers, addresses, and listed sexual fantasies) of 37 million individuals using the website Ashley Madison, which helps people find partners to have extramarital affairs with. The hacker group claims that the reason for the attack is because Ashley Madison charges money for user account deletion and then doesn’t fully delete the information, but their demand isn’t a change in the policy–their demand is that the site goes offline altogether.

As I noted in my recent piece on the subject of Creepy People Getting Into Others’ Private Affairs And Shaming Them Online, nobody is safe when this sort of behavior is socially acceptable. Nobody. Because we all do immoral things at some point in our lives, and while some will claim that cheating is its own special category of immorality and therefore deserves naming and shaming online, that doesn’t really seem to follow from any reasonable premise. Cheating is (generally**) wrong because it’s wrong to break an agreement with someone without first letting them know that you are unable to stick with the agreement. (And being unable to stick with an agreement obviously kind of sucks for everyone involved, but I’m uncomfortable with classifying it as immoral.) It’s not wrong because sex is bad, or because wanting sex with more than one person is bad. The reason cheating gets placed in its own special category is because it pertains to sex and relationships, not because it’s inherently worse than other immoral acts. (It may be worse than some immoral acts, to some people, in some circumstances, but that’s not an inherent property of cheating.)

And I am entirely unconvinced that homophobia did not play a role in Gawker’s story, or in the (presumed or actual) interest of its audience in that story. Stories about men cheating on their wives with other men get attention in a way that stories about men cheating on their wives with other women just do not. Charitably, one could claim that this is just a man-bites-dog effect–these stories are so much more rare. But the fact that we place them in an entirely separate category from other “Men Cheating On Wives” stories suggests that same-sex attraction is, well, an entirely separate category. Who cares which gender someone sleeps with? We still do, apparently.

By far the most disturbing claim I’ve seen about these incidents is that outing cheaters is for the good of their “victims” (that is, the people they are cheating on). This is the claim that Max Read so flippantly made, and also a claim I’ve seen about potential benefits of the Ashley Madison hack.

First of all, consider that when you out someone as a cheater, you are also outing someone as a “victim” of cheating (or a “cuckold,” or whichever term you wish to use). This may not seem like a big deal, but being cheated on is also quite stigmatized to some extent–maybe not quite as much as cheating, but still. A woman who gets cheated on may be accused of being “frigid” and “failing to keep her man happy”; a man who gets cheated on may be ridiculed and considered less of a man. (That’s in the context of heterosexual relationships, but I don’t doubt that same-sex relationships are subject to some of the same gendered societal crap.) For some people, the pity may be even more difficult to deal with than the blame. And while nobody’s posting the cheated-on spouses’ names online, all their friends and family will know! Now their private pain has become quite public.

Further, put yourself in their shoes. If you’re going to find out that your spouse is cheating on you, how would you like to find out? By having thousands of people retweet an article about it? By having all your friends text you and ask if you’ve seen that Gawker piece? By having your coworker stop by your office and say, “Wow, I’m so sorry, I can’t believe your partner was using that cheating site!”

I wouldn’t be surprised if many people would rather not know at all.

In fact, some people would rather not know at all in any case. It’s a common assumption that if someone is cheating on you, naturally you would want to find out ASAP so you can dump them. But for some people, peace of mind is more important. They may suspect their spouse is cheating, but as long as things are basically fine and there’s someone around to help support the children, they’d rather just not deal with finding out. That’s valid. It’s not my place to tell someone what they ought to want to know and how they ought to respond to a suspicion that they’re being cheated on. It’s not what I’d want for myself, but everyone doesn’t have to want what I want.

I think there are some cultural components to this as well. While I haven’t conducted (or read) a comparative study, it seems that a lot of Russian couples approach extramarital affairs in this “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” sort of way. I can’t imagine they’d be pleased if someone came tattling on their spouse for their supposed good. I really wish Americans–and people in general–would remember that their norms and standards are not universal or inevitable. In some other cultures, by the way, it’s also considered extremely messed-up to meddle in people’s private lives this way.

Finally, when you out someone as a cheater, you may be actually outing them as polyamorous. Anecdotally, I’ve found that there are many more people practicing consensual nonmonogamy without publicly coming out as poly than there are people who are out as poly. In fact, being accused of cheating is one of the dangers of not coming out as poly, but for many people it’s still safer than coming out, which could cause them to lose jobs, child custody, and so on.

A poly person who gets “outed” for cheating (or whose primary partner does) faces a really uncomfortable dilemma: they have to either come out (which also means outing at least one of their partners), or they have to perform the role of either remorseful cheater (with all the public groveling that entails) or jilted spouse (with all the public pity that entails).

A poly person who does choose to come out at a moment like this is likely to face a lot of backlash. People are in some ways even more suspicious of polyamory than they are of cheating–at least the latter fits into their understanding of relationships to some extent. On the flip side, people may claim that they’re lying about being poly so that they don’t have to face judgment for cheating. You can’t win.

In fact, when you put people’s private sexual lives on trial, nobody wins.

That’s because we all sometimes act immorally, and we all sometimes fail to live up to our own ideals. That is not some special sort of failure reserved for Bad People; we all do it. There are times to speak up and stop people from hurting others, and there are gray areas where no one (certainly not me) can really say whether or not something should be publicized. This is neither.

If you want to prevent cheating–if that’s really such a hot issue for you–then encourage people to consider and explore alternatives to monogamy. Not all people who would cheat in a monogamous relationship would behave ethically in a nonmonogamous relationship, sure. Some people suck. Other people are trying to do their best with what they have, and they don’t realize that they have a lot more options than they thought.

So, what now? some will ask. Gawker’s gonna Gawk and hackers gonna hack. True, we can’t undo the damage that has been done and we can’t necessarily prevent creepy people from ever creeping on others and putting their personal business online.

What we can do is refuse to learn the information or act on it. I still don’t even know the name of the executive who hired the porn star, and I don’t intend to learn it. I will not look at the list of Ashley Madison users, just like I chose not to look at the nude celebrity photos that got leaked last year. You shouldn’t either. If more people agree not to look, this type of information loses its power, and those who collect it and leak it lose the power to judge and ruin others’ lives for the fun of it–or for whatever twisted moral justification they manage to invent.

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*As Parker Molloy pointed out, the Gawker story may actually have been in violation of the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics. If Gawker wants to keep positioning itself as a source of Important Journalism For Our Day And Age, they should take note. Can’t have it both ways.

**Also really important to note, as Dan Savage and Esther Perel both have, that cheating doesn’t always happen in a simple context where one person is a “victim” and the other is the “bad terrible cheater.” Sometimes people cheat because they are stuck in awful, possibly abusive relationships, and cheating is a way they preserve their sanity. Is this rare? Maybe. I don’t know. You don’t know either, though.

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Secular Students Week Guest Post: Tim Kolanko

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Continuing Secular Students Week, I’ve got a guest post from Tim Kolanko, a student activist who was able to use the SSA’s support to bring a speaker to raise awareness of intersex issues and medical malpractice.

I’m Tim Kolanko, President of the Northern Illinois University Secular Student Alliance. A few weeks ago, the national Secular Student Alliance gave my group a grant so we could hold an awesome event, “The Gender Binary and LGBTI People: Religious Myth and Medical Malpractice.” Thanks to their funding, we were able to bring in Dr. Veronica Drantz and two intersex activists to talk about how LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex) people have been and continue to be victims of medical malpractice purely because they are neither Adams nor Eves.

Psychiatrists, surgeons, endocrinologists, pediatricians, and other medical experts have subjected LGBTI people to bogus and horrific treatments with reckless disregard for patient health and well-being―all the while ignoring the basic tenets of medical ethics and the ever-growing scientific evidence showing LGBTI people to be natural variations. This talk contrasted the scientific evidence with the ongoing medical (mis)treatment of LGBTI people to vividly illustrate the insidious effect of the biblical creation myth.

The event included an hour-long presentation of Dr. Drantz laying out the scientific evidence having to do with sexual development, sexual orientation, and gender identity, arguing that LGBTI people are natural variations. Her presentation was followed by the emotionally powerful personal testimonials of two intersex people that have been harmed by the medical community and society because they are viewed as disordered, not different.

The Project Grant we received from the Secular Student Alliance allowed us to fund not only the speakers, but the video recording of the event! With the help of two on-campus co-sponsors, we were able to put on a successful event. We worked with the my University’s Gender & Sexuality Resource Center and the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program.

Around 40 people took part, despite the severe weather in the area, and we were so excited to be able to network with two large on-campus organizations, which will definitely help for future events!

This event wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the national SSA. Their grant, and their support of our organization, lets us explore the world from a naturalistic point of view, combat the negative connotations associated with being non-religious, and promote critical thinking, reason, and skepticism over faith-based worldviews.

Not only did the SSA give us a grant, but they also provide us with so many free resources and services, like our tabling supplies! They are only able to do this because of the generosity of people just like you.

This week is Secular Students Week, when the SSA is highlighting activism of students like me and my group members. If they get 500 donations this week, they’ll unlock a challenge grant for $20,000!! This money would have a huge impact for groups like mine: help us out by giving today! Even a gift of $5, $10, or $20 can make a big difference: give to the SSA today!

Sexual Desire and Sexual Objectification are Not the Same Thing

I came across a fascinating forum post on the gaming site Polygon in which the poster complains that Polygon seems to take a hypocritical stance about sex and women in video games. On the one hand, the website’s writers seem to condemn the objectification of women in video games, but on the other hand, they seem to support the idea of women going out and having sex with whomever they want, however much they want:

It’s extremely obvious that Polygon wants to have their cake and eat it too, women who have lots of sex with multiple partners or are otherwise promiscuous are empowered females, games that reflect characters that have lots of sex or otherwise promiscuous and titillatory? Completely wrong.

The poster, Flower193, goes on in the comments to make some troubling assertions about sex, such as, “a woman who has sex with a lot of guys and lots of it is basically treating herself like a sex toy for men.” In response to a commenter who asks, “Could you be conflating objectification with a normal sexual desire?”, they respond, “That’s exactly what I’m doing, because they’re exactly the same thing.”

I think there are two main ideas that Flower193 is missing here. One is that discussing a character in the context of a story is separate from discussing the artistic/editorial decisions that went into the creation of that character. I could say that Black Widow is a fantastic badass whose fearlessness and selflessness when it comes to taking care of Bruce Banner is sweet and admirable. I could also say that I disagree with the decision to have the only female lead in that film be the one who can calm Hulk down, because of what it implies about women and their role in helping men control their anger and violent impulses*. There’s nothing contradictory here.

Analogously, even if it’s totally okay and positive and great for women to have a lot of casual sex, it’s still bad when they’re almost exclusively represented that way in video games, because that prevents us from telling the stories of women who don’t feel or act that way and gives the people who play those games a very skewed impression of what real women are actually like.

People are critiquing video games that present women as nothing but conventionally attractive sexbots because they want to see alternate representations of women too, not because there’s anything actually wrong with choosing to present yourself in that way. But, of course, video game characters don’t choose anything. They are made that way, and the way game designers choose to make characters says something. It’s not a random accident; it’s intentional. Someone had to draw that and code it, and they did so deliberately, in order to present their own vision of what’s appealing/fun/beautiful/worthwhile.

People often misinterpret criticism of sexualized women in films/games as saying, “This representation of women is bad because it shows them having lots of casual sex and having lots of casual sex is bad.” But that’s not what anyone besides certain conservative critics actually says. We’re saying, “Having women there just as eye candy is bad.” Or “Having women there just to fulfill men’s sexual desires is bad.” Or “Only presenting women as being desirable insofar as they fit a certain ideal of beauty is bad.” Or “Failing to fully develop a female character as a person with her own complicated feelings, beliefs, experiences, desires, and hopes–just as a male character would be developed–is bad.”

The second idea is that that Flower193 misses is that objectification and desire are not the same thing

This ties back in with the first and helps explain Flower193’s understanding of Polygon’s critiques. They (Flower193) think that Polygon celebrates women who have lots of casual sex while also critiquing their portrayal as such in video games, which I guess really would be kind of bizarre. But although I haven’t read the specific reviews to which they refer (because they don’t link to them in the post), my understanding is that that’s not the criticism. The criticism isn’t “you shouldn’t have all these badass confident casual-sex-having women in your video games”; but rather “you shouldn’t present women as sexual objects for men to take or win as rewards.” And Flower193 has already demonstrated that they think these are the same thing.

Objectification and desire are not the same thing. For starters, objectification isn’t necessarily sexual. It’s embedded in the way service sector workers are treated by both employers and customers, for instance–essentially as machines who must perform friendliness and cheerfulness despite often-extreme mistreatment. We objectify service sector employees when we expect robotic perfection from them while treating them poorly and paying them terribly. (I’m not saying, by the way, that not objectifying service sector workers requires having a five-minute conversation with them about their kids and the weather today. It does require paying them fairly, speaking to them as courteously as we would to anyone else, and allowing for the fact that sometimes the customer is, in fact, wrong.)

We objectify people when we believe and behave as though their only purpose is to satisfy our needs and desires. Catcalling someone on the street objectifies them because it implies that they exist for the catcaller’s viewing pleasure. Expecting your spouse to always be sexually available objectifies them because it implies that they exist for your sexual satisfaction. Having a one night stand in which you focus entirely on getting yourself off and never bother to ask your partner if they’re enjoying themselves or what they would like objectifies them because it implies that only your sexual pleasure is important, not theirs.

In contrast, there’s nothing inherently objectifying about noticing that someone is attractive and thinking about that. For many people, feelings of attraction just arise as we go about our lives, and they’re value-neutral. What matters is what we do with them.

Another feature of objectification is a lack of agency. If I’m walking down the street and someone makes a crude sexual remark to me, I didn’t have any agency in that. If I walk into the bedroom wearing my new lingerie and ask my partner what they think, and they respond, “Daaaaamn!”, I do have agency. I chose to wear the lingerie in front of my partner and ask for their opinion. Although they may be looking at me very sexually in that moment, I’m not being objectified, especially if this is a healthy relationship in which I’m not otherwise treated like a sexual object.

Flower193 says that a woman who has lots of casual sex with guys is “treating herself like a sex toy for men.” Not necessarily. Those men may see her as a full and equal partner in the context of those encounters. They may ask her what she likes, respect her boundaries, and make sure that she gets what she wants out of those hookups. Just because the relationship may only last that one night doesn’t mean that it involves objectification.

But even supposing those partners really don’t care about her pleasure and just “use” her body to get themselves off, the key part is actually right there in Flower193’s comment: “treating herself.” Maybe she wants to be a sex toy. Maybe she wants some casual sex to fill the time or take her mind off of things, and she doesn’t care how those men see her. She’s still making the choice.

Of course, we can talk about how choices are constrained by culture and society, especially for marginalized people. If she has internalized the idea that her only value is in her ability to please men, that may be driving these choices. Variables like class and race play into this too. Maybe she doesn’t truly believe that she deserves the sex and relationships that she wants, so she “settles” for these encounters. Maybe these encounters are exactly what she wants. That’s for her to figure out and decide, not for us to pass judgment on.

The conflation of sex (especially casual sex) and objectification is a common one, and it’s one made even by some feminists and progressives. It’s pervasive within the Older Women Tsk-Tsking At Young Women And Their Silly Hookups genre, and you hear it when people say things like “those girls are objectifying themselves” or “dressing revealingly means you don’t respect yourself.” No. Objectification is something others do to you, not something you do to yourself. What do with my body is separate from what others project onto me and my body in response, and only one of those is my responsibility.

As I see it, Polygon isn’t trying to “have its cake and eat it too,” and neither are any other video game reviewers who engage in this sort of critique. Women (and people in general) deserve to be able to make their own sexual choices and not be shamed for them, and many of us would like to see video games that show women making a variety of choices, not just the ones that (some) straight male designers happen to find the most sexy.

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*For my favorite-ever piece about Black Widow and representation, see here.

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“The Good Ones Say No”: Why Purity Culture and Rape Culture Are Two Sides of the Same Coin

[Content note: sexual assault/coercion]

Alice Dreger, professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University, recently livetweeted her son’s high school sex education class. (Here’s her article about it.) The results were…about what you’d expect, if you’ve been following the news about high school sex ed. Students were warned that condoms frequently fail (as in, 18% of the time) and that premarital sex can lead to drug abuse and imprisonment and (obviously) teenage pregnancy.

But the most disturbing thing in the whole livetweet, for me, was that bit about going for the girls who say no:

This is how purity culture and rape culture are two sides of the same coin.

On one side of the coin is the idea that only “good” women are worth anything, and only women who consistently refuse men’s advances can be “good.” Of course, this creates a paradox: if women are only “good” as long as they refuse, and men could only ever want to get emotionally (and materially) invested in “good” women, what happens when a woman stops refusing?

So either men are supposed to only have sex with virgins and only once, or they’re supposed to indefinitely stay in relationships that are not sexually fulfilling (because there is no sex), or they’re supposed to coerce and rape women. The latter option is the only way to have sex with someone who says no, by the way.

And that’s why rape culture is the other side of the coin. If saying no is the only way a woman can be “good” and therefore desirable, if pushing past “no” is romantic and sexy, if sex is only morally acceptable if the woman didn’t really want it–then rape is acceptable. Not all rape, of course–most purity culture adherents would probably be horrified at stranger-in-the-bushes rape–but I would argue that accepting some rape is equivalent to accepting rape, because as soon as you accept that it is okay to violate someone’s consent in some cases, you will be able to justify violating someone’s consent in any case where you have a motivation to justify violating their consent.

Of course, people who endorse views like “the good ones say no” would be quite offended by what I just said. After all, they’d say, a woman need only say no until she is married to a man. Then she can magically undo years of sex-negative messaging and have a healthy, fulfilling sex life with her husband. More easily said than done.

But this has consequences far beyond wrecking individual people’s sex lives. The idea that “the good girls say no [until marriage]” implies that women frequently say “no” when they really mean “yes,” or wish they could say yes, or whatever. This is one of the beliefs that is most frequently used to justify sexual assault and coercion.

Of course, even if someone says no to sex that they actually want, that’s no excuse to pressure them into bringing their actions in line with their desires. If I say no to a party I’d really love to attend because I have to write a paper instead, it’s still wrong to pressure me to go. If I decline to go on a trip with you that I really wish I could go on but cannot afford, it’s still wildly inappropriate to just buy me the tickets and then expect to be paid back. Most adults understand that we can’t and shouldn’t always do what we want to do regardless of the consequences, and people who don’t understand this are people that I usually feel unsafe around.

And what of the unknown proportion of women who say no while hoping that their partners will ignore it and proceed anyway? Sexual predators claim that many, if not most women do this. (And many men have told me stories of how they dutifully took “no” for an answer, only to have the woman demean their masculinity and lose interest because of it. Needless to say, I still think they did the right thing and should keep doing it.) I don’t have statistics, but I can’t imagine this is very common. And regardless, there’s a simple solution–always believe someone who tells you “no.” If that’s not what they meant, they’ll quickly learn to say what they mean.

(And if not taking no for an answer is sexy for your and your partner, negotiate a kinky scene that’s consensually nonconsensual.)

More broadly, I think this is a small part of how we get that cultural message that resisting is sexy (when women do it). Think of how many romantic scenes in books and movies hinge on a woman saying no over and over until the man finally wears her down and she agrees–or he just straight-up physically forces her.

Some people say that this is sexy because there’s just something inherently sexy about chasing someone. (But only for men, for some reason.) I don’t know about that. More likely, as Emily Nagoski writes in her excellent book, Come As You Are, there is little about sexuality that isn’t learned.

And certainly it’s okay to find it sexy and to incorporate it into your life in a consensual way. In fact, one of the vignettes in Nagoski’s book features a couple trying to do exactly that. The problem is when women are taught that refusing is the only way to be sexy, and when men are taught that “chasing” a woman who refuses is the only sexy thing to do. And that’s exactly what the sex ed class that Dreger livetweeted tried to do. The speaker implies that women who don’t initially say no aren’t worth pursuing at all.

(Obviously, this particular class will not be the only way that these teens will get this message, and if it were, I wouldn’t be writing this because it’d be a drop in an otherwise-empty bucket. But it’s a drop in a very full bucket, and we have to empty the bucket drop by drop.)

When girls get the message that saying no makes them sexually/romantically appealing, they lose touch with their own boundaries and their own sense of what they want*. When boys get the message that girls who refuse are playing coy in order to attract them, they learn to ignore any intuitions they may have about respecting boundaries and not pressuring people. I hear from a lot of men who are so clearly uncomfortable with the idea of pressuring women into sex, but are nevertheless convinced that they must do it because it’s just what men should do. Why do we persist in teaching young people this convoluted and contradictory way of thinking about sex?

Most of the controversy about abstinence-only and otherwise sex-negative sex ed is that it teaches teens falsehoods about safer sex and STIs, and that’s true, and that’s scary and wrong. But there’s a lot more lurking in these lessons than medical misinformation.
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*I just want to add something here for all the women who find it sexy to be pressured in certain ways but not in other ways or some of the time but not other times or at first but not once you pause and really think about it: there’s nothing wrong with you. We’re taught to ignore our own intuitions about what we want, and we’re taught that men know what we want better than we do. In some situations, you might truly be okay with someone pushing you to do things, whether it’s because you trust them or for any other reasons, and in other situations you might not be. My advice is to do the difficult work of figuring out what you want, not what other people think you want, and then go about getting that by being clear with your partners about it.

I’ve felt that flutter in my chest when I watch movie scenes that are totally not consensual and I sometimes wish that would happen to me, and then I remember that it has happened and it was never like it was in the movies and I never turned out to want it. Maybe someday it will happen like that, but in my own experience, these things are better negotiated and brought out into the open rather than assumed.

And guys who date women: you need to try to understand these dynamics if you’re going to date women ethically. What men often write off as women being “fickle” or “complicated” is actually just us trying to negotiate some peace treaty between all the competing messages we’ve been given about our bodies and our sexualities. Negotiating peace treaties, as you may know, can be messy, difficult, and time-consuming. That’s life. For the time being, that is. Until classes like the one Dreger attended never happen anymore, and the things said there are never said anymore.

No, You Don’t Need Rules For Polyamory

[What follows is an approach to polyamory that isn’t possible or appealing to everyone, which is why this isn’t a “you should do poly my way” article. It’s a “my way of doing poly exists and can work so please stop acting otherwise” article. I am not telling you what to do. I am telling you that I exist.]

There are two competing narratives about polyamory in the mainstream world: that polyamory is about indiscriminately having casual sex with a lot of random people, and that polyamory is about True Love and Soul Mates and raising children together and wedded (legally or otherwise) bliss.

Neither of these feels like it has any relevance to my life, though it might be great for other people.

Along with the latter usually comes the myth–often perpetuated by poly folks themselves–that polyamory means rules. Rules are necessary, I am told, to prevent jealousy, keep relationships stable, restrict them to certain bounds, and make sure that everything is “fair,” for that couple’s/polycule’s definition of fair.

I have watched as professors and therapists and writers who are not polyamorous themselves insisted to me that poly relationships cannot work without rules, in direct contradiction to my experience and that of many of my friends and most of my partners.

For instance, Dr. NerdLove, an advice columnist I otherwise respect, had this to say about the basics of nonmonogamy:

Rule #3: Establish Ground Rules
You want to establish certain rules regarding your relationship in order to ensure the comfort and safety of everybody involved. For some this means no sex in your marriage bed. For others it means that partners are only allowed off the leash once per year or on months that end in “Y’. You may both agree not to bring someone home with you, to only allow for outside partners while you are out of town or to not see the same person more than a limited number of times. If you have threesomes, you may forbid sex with your third except when everybody is present. These rules apply to both of you unless you agree in advance to a lopsided agreement. What’s good for the goose, etc.

[…]Rule #6: Both Partners Have Veto Power
If your partner is going to trust you with non-monogamy, you have to show that you’re worthy of that trust by giving him or her a certain degree of control. Even the most open of relationships will set boundaries as to who everybody can and can’t play with, whether it’s close friends, co-workers or people that either partner might think are a legitimate threat to the relationship. Both partners can veto a potential playmate, no questions asked or answered. If your partner drops the hammer on someone then they’re off limits. Sorry. You have to show that you’re willing to abide by your partner’s comfort level. That’s part of what this trust business is all about.

My own approach to rules is that I’m skeptical of them and will not get involved with someone who prefers them or who has them in their other relationships, but I won’t insist that they are always bad or never work. (Only a Sith deals in absolutes.)

My purpose here is mainly to provide an alternate voice to the chorus of “you must have rules to be poly.” No, “the most open of relationships” do not “set boundaries as to who everybody can and can’t play with.” Rules are not necessary for polyamory. I find them pointless and stifling. Not only do I not want to follow rules set by others, but I also don’t find it useful to try to restrict others with rules. It does not reduce my jealousy and insecurity; it makes them worse. It prevents me from taking responsibility for my own needs, boundaries, and feelings. It encourages me to artificially restrict the growth of new relationships out of fear that they might impact my other relationships. It prevents flexibility in relationships. And I am especially offended at the idea that I should practice “veto power” or allow anyone such control over me.

Everyone always asks–if I don’t use rules, how do I make sure my relationships are stable?

The answer is, I don’t. I let them develop (or not) as they will. But rules don’t ensure stability, either. Even monogamous couples break up all the time, often prompted by new interests. I find that if someone is really determined to do something, rules won’t stop them. And if they don’t, rules are unnecessary. And if my partner wants to do something that I don’t want them to do so badly, I should probably reevaluate either my preferences or the relationship.

What this looks like in practice is that, for instance, I might tell a partner that I prefer to know when they’re getting involved with someone new, because it’s really hard for me to manage the negative emotions that result when I don’t know what’s going on. They might then decide to always let me know when they’re getting involved with someone new–not because we made A Rule, but because they care about me and don’t want me to be sad. Or they might say they’re unwilling to do this and explain why. I might then decide not to be involved with them anymore, or to keep things casual. I might talk to them and see if there’s any other way we can make things easier on me. Or I might decide, with full knowledge of the situation, to proceed anyway and accept the negative emotions I may have.

So far it may be difficult to see how this is any different from using rules, but the difference becomes apparent if, for instance, my partner gets involved with someone but doesn’t tell me until later.

In a rules-based poly relationship, my partner has now Broken A Rule. The pain I feel at being blindsided by this new relationship suddenly becomes their fault, not my responsibility. Where before I may have acknowledged that this need to know comes from my own insecurities (which are perfectly normal and shared by many people, but still mine to deal with), now I would say that the pain is being caused by my partner’s failure to Follow The Rules. In this scenario, some poly people would even say that my partner has cheated. Even if they simply forgot to tell me. In this framework, it’s possible to cheat by accident. Not by losing your inhibitions, not by neglect, but by mistake.

In a relationship not based on rules, such as solo polyamory or relationship anarchy, this situation would be interpreted quite differently. If my partner previously indicated that they would try to tell me about things as they happen, I might remind my partner of those preferences and ask (non-judgmentally, non-confrontationally) what led them not to tell me about the new relationship until now. Maybe they forgot. Maybe they were feeling anxious about their own position in this new relationship and couldn’t bring themselves to share it with anyone yet. Maybe we just have different understandings of when a sexual/romantic relationship begins, and they didn’t realize I’d already want to know.

My main objective for this discussion isn’t necessarily to get my needs met, but just to understand my partner’s motivations and reasoning. I don’t automatically assume that my partner has done something wrong. Only when I feel that I understand their actions will I decide whether or not I need to ask for something from them.

The difference between treating my partners like potential cheaters and rulebreakers and treating them like people who have their own needs and desires that may not always be compatible with mine has made a world of difference in my relationships.

The lack of rules doesn’t mean that everyone does what they want without even considering a partner’s needs and preferences. For instance, even in relationships that lack the (in my opinion) horrendous “veto power,” there are plenty of instances in which someone might not get involved with someone after their partner expresses a preference against that. In a veto-based relationship, it works like this:

Sam: I want to hook up with Alex. Is that okay?
Glenn: No, I’m not okay with that.
Sam: Okay, then I won’t.

(Or, Sam decides they want to do it anyway, and their relationship with Glenn either ends or enters a very difficult period.)

In a non-veto relationship, it might work like this:

Sam: I think I’m going to hook up with Alex. What do you think about that?
Glenn: I don’t really feel good about that. I want you to do what makes you happy, but I’ve been having a hard time feeling secure and comfortable and it would be hard on me if you hooked up.
Sam: Okay, it’s more important to me that you’re happy right now than that I hook up with this particular person, so I won’t.

Or:

Sam: I think I’m going to hook up with Alex. What do you think about that?
Glenn: I don’t really feel good about that. I want you to do what makes you happy, but I’ve been having a hard time feeling secure and comfortable and it would be hard on me if you hooked up with them.
Sam: Hmm. I’ve really been wanting to do this for a while now. Do you think there’s a way I could help you feel better about it if I were to hook up with them?
Glenn: Maybe it would help if you tell me about the hook-up so that I don’t have to just imagine it and feel like they’re way better than me and stuff like that.
Sam: Okay, I’ll ask Alex to make sure they’re comfortable with me sharing those details with you. But also, I don’t really think of my partners in terms of who’s “better” at sex.
Glenn: That’s good to hear. I would also appreciate it if at least after the first time, you still came home and spent the night with me.
Sam: I can definitely do that!

While partners using a veto can still discuss these nuances, it’s much less likely to happen, because Glenn can just nix the whole idea and never have to actually address the reasons they’re feeling so bad about this possibility. This makes personal growth (and relationship growth) less likely to happen.

Furthermore, Dr. NerdLove doesn’t merely advocate always including veto power in poly relationships; he also states that the veto should be used “no questions asked or answered.” This seems extremely controlling and makes abuse much more likely to happen. If my partner can control my behavior without even having to explain or justify themselves in any way, then they are now free to “veto” my other potential partners for all sorts of horrible reasons, knowing that they will never have to tell me those reasons. They can veto a person for not being white. They can veto someone because they don’t want me dating someone of that gender because of sexist beliefs that they have. They can veto someone because they think I like them “too much.” They can veto someone because they’re having a bad day.

If you’re going to use veto power in your relationships–and this is the only piece of advice I’m going to give here–please be fully communicative about your reasoning.

(Or, you know, don’t use veto at all.)

At this point, someone also usually brings up STIs. If you’re poly, shouldn’t you have rules about using barriers with all/other partners, getting tested at regular intervals, and so on?

Not necessarily. This is where the difference between rules and boundaries becomes very clear. You are the supreme dictator of your body. You have complete authority over who or what touches your body, in what way, under which circumstances. If you say to your partner, “I can only have unprotected intercourse with you if you use barriers with your other partners,” that’s you setting a boundary for yourself, not setting a rule for someone else. If that person then neglects to use barriers with someone else and lies by omission to you about it, they are violating your consent. (And you are 100% allowed to make your consent contingent on certain safer sex practices.)

As unpleasant as it can be to acknowledge, rules will not stop someone who’s okay with violating your consent from doing so.

One more situation in which people typically try to justify rules and vetos is abusive partners. It can be extremely stressful and difficult–even vicariously traumatizing–to watch your partner be in an abusive relationship with someone else. It can be tempting, then, to use something like a veto to prevent them from seeing that person.

However, I think this is misguided for several reasons. First of all, the whole thing with abusive relationships is that they are extremely difficult to leave. (Otherwise you wouldn’t feel like you need to veto them.) If you force a person to choose between you and their abuser, they will likely choose the abuser. (In fact, friends of people in abusive relationships sometimes try these sorts of ultimatums and end up accidentally depriving their friend of a source of support.) Their abuser is also likely to try to turn them against you using familiar narratives like “Nobody Understands Our Love” and “They’re The Real Abuser” and “They Just Don’t Want You To Be Happy.”

Second, one of the most important things you can do for someone in an abusive situation is to help them feel empowered. Power is something that abusers take away from their victims. To empower someone, you have to help them see that they are strong and capable and can make their own decisions. Forcing them to break up with an abuser is a controlling move, even if it’s “for their own good.” Even if that move succeeds in ending this particular abusive relationship, it does not help the person avoid future ones, and may even make them feel even more disempowered.

Finally, while actual abusive situations are sadly common, including within the poly community, it is also true that people who want to end a relationship can confirmation-bias themselves into seeing it as abusive when it really isn’t. Maybe seeing your partner with someone else hurts so much that you find yourself grasping for “legitimate” reasons to wish it were over–after all, it might feel shameful to admit that you want it to end because you are jealous. If all you have to say to force your partner to end a relationship is that it’s abusive, you may be motivated to see it as abusive.

Someone should probably write an article about what to do when your partner is being abused by one of their other partners, and that someone should probably not be me. So I’ll move on to a few other really disturbing things in the Dr. NerdLove article that I’d like to address. For instance:

Like I said earlier: couples will frequently transition between different levels of openness over the course of a relationship, in both directions….This renegotiation can be initiated at any time and isn’t finished until both partners agree (as subject to Rule #2a.) The only exception is that either partner can close the relationship unilaterally for any reason. If, for example, only one of you is able to find an outside partner (as is often the case with hetero couples; the woman frequently has an easier time finding sex than the man does) and the other resents the one-sidedness of the arrangement, it is well within his or her rights to shut things down until a later date.

This strikes me as incredibly controlling to the point of being potentially abusive. Leaving aside for now the fact that people in an open relationship will have other partners–maybe even long-term, beloved partners–who will find themselves unceremoniously dumped once the relationship is “unilaterally” closed, why should someone have the right to control me just because they are sad that they are not having as much sex? How horrifying. If someone tried to “close the relationship unilaterally for any reason,” personally, I would break up with them.

Also:

If your relationship is open to any degree beyond oral (and possibly even before), condoms aren’t just a requirement, they’re a sacrement….By the by: this means you’re using condoms when you’re with your primary partner as well. Sorry. Once you step out of a mutually monogamous relationship, doing it raw is officially off the table.

This is also not true, and is not the experience of almost anyone I’ve been involved with. It is quite possible to safely practice sex without barriers as a poly person. It involves communication, trust, and plenty of STI screenings. Poly people sometimes use the term “fluid bonding” to refer to the step of agreeing not to use barriers with a particular partner.

Overall, Dr. NerdLove’s article sounds like it was written by someone either without much experience with nonmonogamy, or a very unnecessarily rigid view of how it “ought” to work. Many people view polyamory as something they are “allowing” their partner(s) to do, and therefore they are under no obligation to “allow” aspects of it that they do not like. I don’t view it as something I “allow” my partners to do. I never really view anything to do with relationships between adults in terms of “allowing” or “letting.” My perspective comes from my deep and strong belief that I do not have the right to control other people and their bodies, and am not obligated to allow them control over me and my body. That is why I’m polyamorous. It’s not just about fucking or dating more than one person at a time.

~~~

Further reading:

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

 

I think that polyamory triggers (for lack of a better word) a lot of people because it causes them to think about very upsetting things, such as their partner having sex with someone else. Those bad feelings cause them to lash out and condemn polyamory as wrong and selfish etc and do not generally contribute to a productive discussion. If this describes you, please take care of yourself and step out.

Feminist Bloggers Cannot Be Your Therapists

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault and suicide]

I’ve been thinking more about Scott Aaronson. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about what he struggled with during adolescence, and about the (in my opinion, misguided) notion that feminism could have possibly been of any help to him.

The battle cry I’ve heard from men since Aaronson’s now-infamous Comment 171 was published is that feminist writers and activists need to be more mindful of situations like Aaronson’s when we choose our language and strategies. There seems to be a collective yearning for acknowledgement that the usual feminist rhetoric is not only unhelpful for people in the teenage Aaronson’s frame of mind, but actively harmful to them. There is one piece of this that I fully agree with, that I will get to later. But for the most part, I continue to feel a sort of frustration and exhaustion, and I think I’ve finally figured out why.

I wrote in my previous post on the subject that I feel that we (women) are being given all these male traumas and struggles and feelings to soothe and fix, as we always are. But now I understand why exactly I feel like we’re such an inadequate receptacle for these things.

Let’s look at some of the most salient parts of Comment 171:

I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified. I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison. And furthermore, that the people who did these things to me would somehow be morally right to do them—even if I couldn’t understand how.

You can call that my personal psychological problem if you want, but it was strongly reinforced by everything I picked up from my environment: to take one example, the sexual-assault prevention workshops we had to attend regularly as undergrads, with their endless lists of all the forms of human interaction that “might be” sexual harassment or assault, and their refusal, ever, to specify anything that definitely wouldn’t be sexual harassment or assault. I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year.

[…] Of course, I was smart enough to realize that maybe this was silly, maybe I was overanalyzing things. So I scoured the feminist literature for any statement to the effect that my fearswere as silly as I hoped they were. But I didn’t find any. On the contrary: I found reams of text about how even the most ordinary male/female interactions are filled with “microaggressions,” and how even the most “enlightened” males—especially the most “enlightened” males, in fact—are filled with hidden entitlement and privilege and a propensity to sexual violence that could burst forth at any moment.

Because of my fears—my fears of being “outed” as a nerdy heterosexual male, and therefore as a potential creep or sex criminal—I had constant suicidal thoughts. As Bertrand Russell wrote of his own adolescence: “I was put off from suicide only by the desire to learn more mathematics.”

At one point, I actually begged a psychiatrist to prescribe drugs that would chemically castrate me (I had researched which ones), because a life of mathematical asceticism was the only future that I could imagine for myself. The psychiatrist refused to prescribe them, but he also couldn’t suggest any alternative: my case genuinely stumped him. As well it might—for in some sense, there was nothing “wrong” with me.

[…]And no, I’m not even suggesting to equate the ~15 years of crippling, life-destroying anxiety I went through with the trauma of a sexual assault victim. The two are incomparable; they’re horrible in different ways. But let me draw your attention to one difference: the number of academics who study problems like the one I had is approximately zero. There are no task forces devoted to it, no campus rallies in support of the sufferers, no therapists or activists to tell you that you’re not alone or it isn’t your fault. There are only therapists and activists to deliver the opposite message: that you are alone and it is your privileged, entitled, male fault.

It’s worth reading the entire thing, and reading it carefully. (Aaronson’s defenders are correct that some people have been making accusations of Aaronson that are directly refuted by things that he said in the very same comment. Let’s not do that.)

Here’s what I thought. If someone came to me and said that he earnestly believes that he will be “expelled from school or sent to prison” if a woman finds out that he finds her attractive, and that he has “constant suicidal thoughts,” and that his daily existence is characterized by “crippling, life-destroying anxiety,” I would not recommend that he read Andrea Dworkin or attend a sexual assault prevention workshop. I would recommend, gently and tactfully, that he go see a therapist.

I would do that because these are very serious issues. They are serious enough that, when a client tells me that they have “constant suicidal thoughts,” there is an entire protocol I’m required to follow in order to ensure that they are safe and receive appropriate care if they accept it.

I will not speculate about what mental illness Aaronson could have theoretically been diagnosed with in his adolescence; I oppose such speculation and it’s actually irrelevant. I don’t need to diagnose him to say that he had serious issues and could have really benefited from treatment. (However, I may reference some diagnoses in what follows, not to suggest that Aaronson had them but to show how mental illness can interact with other life circumstances.)

Maybe Aaronson didn’t think to seek therapy as an adolescent, because therapy and mental illness are still quite stigmatized and would have been even more so when he was younger. Maybe nobody close to him noticed or cared what was going on, and therefore did not encourage him to seek therapy. Maybe the psychiatrist he asked to prescribe castration drugs did not pause to consider that a teenager seeking castration is a red flag, and that maybe he should refer him to a colleague who practices therapy. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

But why aren’t we talking about it now? Why are people blaming feminism–the feminism of the 1970s or 80s, no less–for failing to cure what appeared to be a serious psychological issue? Why are people claiming that the solution now is simply for feminist writers and activists to be more compassionate and considerate towards male nerds like Aaronson, as though any compassion or consideration could have magically fixed such a deeply layered set of deeply irrational beliefs?

This troubles me. If I ever start claiming that, for instance, I’m a terrible person and deserve to literally die because I’m queer, or that I cannot be in the same room with a man without literally having a panic attack, I sincerely hope that people advise me to seek mental healthcare, not to read feminist literature.

Lots of helpful things can harm a small subset of people because of that subset’s individual traits. For instance, there are a lot of PSAs about washing your hands to prevent the spread of disease and things like that. But some people have OCD and wash their hands compulsively, to the point that they’re hurting themselves physically and having trouble accomplishing daily life tasks because they have to wash their hands so much. I can imagine these PSAs being extraordinarily unhelpful to them.

We also often hear about the importance of donating to charity. Most people could probably donate more to charity if they wanted to. However, some people compulsively donate so much to charity that they harm themselves or their families. I can imagine this being exacerbated by someone telling them how important it is to donate to charity. Perhaps they feel they are never good enough.

I can see how feminist literature might have functioned in a similar way for Aaronson. The truth is that most men are about as far away from his mindset as you can get. Some are even the opposite extreme. Most men spend very little time thinking about how their behavior impacts women. Most men need to spend more time thinking about it. But how could he have known that these feminist books were not for him? If they were to put on the cover, “If you’re a great guy who does not hurt women, you don’t need to read this,” well, no man would ever read it. They all think they’re great guys who do not hurt women, even though some of them rape women.

Neurodiversity is an axis of privilege/oppression. People who suffer from mental illness or whose brains are set up differently from what is considered the “norm” (such as people with autism) lack privilege along this axis. They have difficulties because our society is not made to accommodate them. However, if these people are white, or male, or straight, or cisgender, or so on, they still benefit from the privileges afforded to people in those categories.

For instance, despite all his other fears and anxieties, Aaronson did not have to live in constant fear of being sexually assaulted, because he is male. He did not have to live with a significant risk of being harassed or brutalized by the police, because he is white. He did not have to deal with having people constantly refuse to identify him as the gender he identifies as, because he is cisgender. He did not have to struggle to physically access places he needs or wants to go, because he is able-bodied. Of course, he still faces some risk (in some cases fairly negligible) of all of these things, because having privilege doesn’t shield you from everything.

However, as a person who was (apparently) neuroatypical, Aaronson did have to live with “crippling, life-destroying anxiety.” He did not appear to have access (even if it’s just because he didn’t know to ask for it) to mental healthcare that could have helped him. He was forced to spend years feeling horrible. If he told people how they felt, they may have blamed him for it, because victim-blaming is a key component of our society’s oppression of neuroatypical people. Had he lacked some of the other privileges that he had, such as race and class, he may not have been able to access the apparently-useless psychiatrist that he did access.

Aaronson claims that he did not have “male privilege” because he did not feel that he had it. I’ve addressed arguments like these before. He presumably did not feel privileged because on one very salient and relevant axis, he certainly was not.

But otherwise, having or not having privilege isn’t actually dependent at all on how you feel. You have it or not. Men on the street hurl sexual obscenities at you or they do not. Cops stop you and slam you to the ground for no reason or they do not. You are allowed to marry someone of the gender(s) you’re attracted to or you are not.

Aaronson might be interested (or not) to know that many feminists are busy fighting to ensure access to mental healthcare for everyone, and an end to the stigma that prevents people from seeking help. But maybe that’s irrelevant now.

As I mentioned earlier, I am taking one piece of Aaronson’s (and the many others who have echoed him) criticism to heart. Namely, feminist materials need to be better at specifying what to do rather than just what not to do. Now is a good time for a reminder that I offer a workshop on this exactly, with a light-hearted tone and lots of audience participation and definitely no yelling at men that they are horrible awful creeps no matter what they do. I am far from the only person who offers such materials, but it would be cool if there were more. That said, anyone claiming that feminism does not offer this at all has quite clearly not done their research. Andrea Dworkin and some random shitty college sexual harassment training are not the only resources feminism has to offer.

(Some things that I have read along these lines [“these lines” meaning, roughly, “affirmative resources that help men and others conduct their sexual/romantic lives ethically without shaming them]: Charlie Glickman, Doctor Nerdlove, Yes Means Yes (the book and the associated blog by Thomas Macaulay Millar), Pervocracy, Franklin Veaux. If you don’t like any of these, create your own!)

But even then, your average casual feminist blogger or columnist cannot take responsibility for fixing the problems of someone who apparently sincerely believes that speaking to a woman will get him sent to prison. Or someone who is literally unable to talk to a woman because they have so much social anxiety. These are issues for professionals to deal with. Professionals can affirm. They are there to hold your feelings and make you feel comfortable and supported. They can teach social skills. They can help you examine maladaptive and irrational thoughts. They can help you learn how to cope with anxiety. That is what therapists are for. They are imperfect, but they are trained for this. I worry about placing this responsibility on every feminist with a blog.

Aaronson claims in his comment that “there are only therapists and activists to deliver the opposite message: that you are alone and it is your privileged, entitled, male fault.” I’m not sure if this comes from experience or is purely the creation of his mind with the biases that it had at the time. If Aaronson went to see a therapist and that therapist shamed him, then that therapist is wrong and does not deserve the title. (I’m not trying to do a No True Therapist fallacy here; I’m just pointing out that shaming people is against our ethics and if you cannot not shame people then you should not be a therapist.)

If Aaronson did not see a therapist, perhaps because he was afraid that they would shame him, then that’s unfortunate. And I don’t blame him. But I still think that we should be encouraging people with such pronounced irrational beliefs to seek therapy, not feminist literature.

No wonder I was so frustrated when I wrote that earlier post. I felt like feminist writers are being asked to do the job of a mental healthcare professional.

~~~

A few relevant points that I did not have time to expand on here, but may in the future:

  • Part of the reason that a lot of what Aaronson read/watched was so shaming towards men was probably because it was shaming towards sex and sexuality in general. Especially those college sexual harassment trainings, some of which are woefully retrograde. It’s important to remember that stigma/shaming around sex is something that is so entrenched in our culture that it’s bound to show up all over the place, even, yes, in feminist literature.
  • Aaronson claims that all the feminist literature he read confirmed his belief that straight men are awful and violent. While this may be so–I haven’t read Dworkin and don’t intend to–I have also personally watched men respond to materials that were not at all whatsoever shaming of men by claiming that they were being shamed by those materials. This seems to be a very common bias. They expect to be shamed by feminist materials, so they feel shamed by them.
  • I have seen dreadfully few discussions about how everyone–especially non-/anti-feminist men and women–perpetuate toxic ideals about masculinity. It’s usually not feminist teenage girls slamming shy nerdy boys into lockers and publicly humiliating them, is it? We should talk more about that. Unfortunately, most men dislike talking about toxic masculinity, because they think that “masculinity” is synonymous with “men,” and perhaps also because they have bought extensively into this ideal and appreciate the privileges it affords them.
  • There needs to be a space where we can say, “Wow, that is really awful, I’m sorry you felt that way and had to live with that, but I need to point out that your interpretation of things was inaccurate.” Because right now, it’s looking to me like anyone who includes the latter part of that sentence is accused of hating men or lacking compassion. If I read a Richard Dawkins book, came away with the idea that Dawkins believes that all religious people should be put to death, and therefore started to fear for the lives of my religious relatives, I would want someone to try to explain to me that I had misinterpreted the book. It would not be compassionate at all to allow me to continue believing that Dawkins was calling for my relatives’ deaths. It is not compassionate to allow Aaronson to believe that feminists want him to never, ever so much as kiss a girl. (A moot point now, but it wouldn’t have been earlier.)
  • It is also entirely possible that all the feminist literature that Aaronson read was woefully inadequate. (I disagree, and wish he had picked up bell hooks, but let’s grant it.) Feminism is, like every other field of study, constantly advancing and finding new ways to analyze and advocate. The feminist literature of the past decade or so focuses a lot more on helping men than the feminist literature of the 1970s and 80s. But feminist activism still consists mostly of women, and when men join in, they often try to speak to us about our own issues than to other men about men’s issues. And women, naturally, will focus first on issues we primarily face, some of which are life-threatening. Men, please, don’t stand around and lament the fact that feminists are not addressing your problems. Familiarize yourself with feminist principles and join in.

Why Kindergartners Need Sex Education

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault]

My latest piece for the Daily Dot takes “Princeton Mom” Susan Patton to task for her assertion that children do not need sex education, especially not in schools. 

College may be too late to effectively change the deep-seated attitudes that some people, especially men, learn about sex and other people’s bodies. That’s what makes early sex education so vital. Patton seems to draw a false distinction between sex education and teaching children not to touch people’s bodies without their consent:

I think what we’re talking about here is body awareness or bullying or verbal harassment or recognize what somebody else’s space is and don’t violate it and don’t touch it, and keep your hands to yourself. This isn’t sex ed, these are manners.

Teaching children about consent does not necessitate describing sex and rape to them in graphic detail, and nobody is actually suggesting that we do this. In fact, “developmentally appropriate” is a term that gets used a lot in these discussions, and while it can be a slippery concept to define, it’s clearly being taken seriously by advocates of early childhood sex education.

Teaching consent does necessitate explaining to children that only they get to say who can touch their body, and that it is wrong to touch someone else’s body without asking them first. Parents can model this in a number of ways, even with very young children—for instance, by asking them if they would like to be tickled, stopping immediately if the child says to stop, refraining from forcing their child to hug or kiss relatives, and reminding the child to ask other children before hugging or touching them.

However, it’s not enough to hope that parents will do this. Although Patton claims that this type of education has no place in schools, not all parents agree that they should teach it, either—and, crucially, not all parents have the capability to provide the frequent supervision and feedback that it might entail. Some parents are single parents. Some work two jobs.

This is where schools come in: teaching children the things they need to know to eventually become responsible, capable adults. In this regard, respect for consent and bodily autonomy is as important a lesson as reading and writing. Without it, there is no way to be an ethical person.

Read the rest here.

Should We Forgive Stephen Collins?

[Content note: child sexual abuse]

I wrote a piece for the Daily Dot about actor Stephen Collins, who had admitted to sexually abusing three girls several decades ago.

After actor Stephen Collins released a statement to People last week about his past molestation of three underage girls, Rosie O’Donnell, once his friend, responded with a poem eviscerating the former 7th Heaven star and describing her own experiences of abuse. In the poem, she wrote, “in case u wonder / what ur man sized penis – / ur abuse of power / ur lack of impulse control did to that kid / i will tell u a bit about me / sex is not fun / not now / not ever / it is married to a lingering terror.”

Others take an entirely different view of Collins’ confession. Writing in Psychology Today, Deborah King responds:

When someone is this sincere in his efforts to address his shortcomings, and has twenty years of clean personal behavior behind him, shouldn’t we support him…and forgive him? He has been in personal hell for decades over this; there is no need for further punishment. He has handled everything in the right way, including not apologizing directly to two of his victims, which could reopen old wounds for them. Clearly, 20 years of restraint and no repetition of his inappropriate sexual behavior shows that he is holding himself accountable.

In a number of ways, the Stephen Collins‘ case is different from most other cases of famous men harassing, assaulting, or abusing women. First of all, it came to light not because Collins was caught or accused by someone else, but because he admitted it—at least, initially. Second, unlike many sex offenders, Collins has not been denying any wrongdoing, but rather working to address the roots of his behavior in therapy. Third, Collins then shared his own story of being victimized by an adult as a child. While it’s not uncommon for abusers to have been abused themselves, few of them speak out about it—perhaps because they do not realize that they were abused and, therefore, do not understand that their own actions constitute abuse as well.

In discussing the woman who repeatedly exposed herself to him, Collins shows a high degree of self-knowledge. He states that he’s not “blaming” the woman or using her as an “excuse,” but rather attempting to show how his attitudes and beliefs developed in such a way that led him to perpetuate sexual abuse against others. In an interview this past Friday, Collins said:

That [experience] distorted my perception in such a way that some part of me felt—I never felt like I was molested. That word never crossed my mind as a 10 to 15-year-old boy. It was a very intense experience—I think somewhere in my brain I got the equation that, ‘Well, this isn’t so terrible. This person who I trust is doing it.’… I think that’s an aspect that went into my own distorted thinking as a young man.

While I understand why people are hearing this as an attempt to excuse away Collins’ behavior, I hear it differently. Explaining why someone has done a bad thing isn’t the same thing as saying that it was OK for them to do, or that it was someone else’s fault that they did it. We do not grow and act in a vacuum, and although it is our responsibility to reevaluate the wrong and sometimes dangerous beliefs we are taught as children, we must also stop such things from being taught to children to begin with. Understanding how someone develops the belief that these actions are not abuse is important if we are to prevent others from developing it in the future, and it’s rare that we get to hear such an insightful and self-aware explanation of how someone comes to abuse others. Perhaps Collins has therapy to thank for that.

Read the rest here.

On Mishearing “Get Consent” as “Don’t Have Sex”

[Content note: sexual assault]

This fall, the new affirmative consent law in California, which requires all universities that receive state funding to adopt definitions of consent that translate roughly to “only yes means yes” rather than simply “no means no,” reignited a number of age-old debates about the meaning of consent and sexual assault. One of them is the claim that anti-rape advocacy is attempting to redefine perfectly good sex as rape, and that in this new climate, men cannot ever be safe from being accused of rape no matter how careful they are.

Remember, by the way, that this is not new. This is not a California’s-new-law problem. This is a very old problem.

This article was published before the law passed, but it’s still very relevant because I’m hearing these sorts of objections, especially in response to the law, all the time. The authors interview a number of college men (and those who work with them) who say they are much more careful about hooking up now that there’s such a focus on campus sexual assault. For instance:

Pollack said a patient recently told him about making out with a girl at a party. Things were going fine, the student said, when suddenly a vision of his school’s disciplinary board flew into his head.

“‘I want to go to law school or medical school after this,’” Pollack said, recounting the student’s comments. “‘I said to her, it’s been nice seeing you.’”

More anecdotally, I’ve heard these sorts of remarks too. “I don’t even bother asking women out now,” or “I haven’t had sex for years because I’m scared they’ll call me a rapist.” I feel sad for these men who clearly want sexual intimacy but feel that they have no choice to give it up. And I also feel angry, because this is not what we’ve been saying, and yet they insist that we’re telling them they can’t have sex at all.

Countless writers, educators, and activists have weighed in on what consent is and what it is not and how to communicate around it. If you Google “what is consent,” the first page has numerous resources meant to help young people learn what consent is, such as this one and this one. Don’t like reading? There are graphics!

Yet (some) men insist that this is all so mysterious and perilous that they have no choice but to avoid the whole enterprise altogether.

I don’t want anyone to be lonely, insecure, and sexually unfulfilled. I don’t want anyone who wants to have sex to be unable to have it. I want everyone to have the confidence to pursue and find the types of relationships they’re interested in. I want everyone to feel worthy and valuable even if they haven’t found a partner yet.

But I also want people to pursue all of this ethically. That means that if you’re ever unsure if someone is consenting, you stop and ask. And if you don’t think you are able to do that, then you should abstain from sex until you are able to do it.

~~~

I wish I could explain consent to all of these men. I wish they could attend one of my workshops about consent, where I help people learn to understand body language, find language to help them ask for and give consent, and show how these skills apply to all areas of life, not just sex.

But I’m not sure how much of the misunderstanding is innocent rather than willful. The information is out there. So many people are working hard to make it available to college men. I’m not sure how much else I personally–or we collectively–can do for people who may not want to learn and change.

If we keep saying, “Make sure your partner is consenting!” and they keep hearing, “Women are mysterious fickle creatures who sometimes call random things rape just to screw you over,” I’m not sure how much responsibility we can accept for the misunderstanding.

Especially since many people have a vested interest in perpetuating this misunderstanding. It serves their purposes. They think it makes things easier for them, even as it causes so much more anxiety and fear and pain than embracing affirmative consent as a standard.

~~~

Sex, with all of its possibility to hurt, will probably always bring up fears, including the fear of overstepping a boundary and hurting someone. That is not a pleasant feeling; I know because, as someone who was not socialized to feel entitled to others’ bodies or attention, I feel it. Communicating clearly and expecting nothing less than clear communication from my partners helps relieve that fear, but a little bit of it is a good thing. It helps us remember that we have the power to hurt.

Right now, though, the predominant fear is one many people, women and gender-nonconforming people especially, face–the fear of having our boundaries willfully ignored. I won’t speculate about which feels worse. It is possible that someone who doesn’t have to face a high likelihood of being sexually assaulted feels subjectively as bad when they imagine the possibility of “accidentally” assaulting someone as I feel when I imagine the possibility of being assaulted (on purpose).

But for me, personally, the fear of being assaulted is so much worse. Because there are ways–ways that aren’t discussed nearly enough–to reduce my risk of assaulting someone to approximately zero without any undue burden on me. There are no ways to reduce my risk of being assaulted that are effective and that to not impose an undue burden on me.

This is why I am glad that men are starting to feel that surmountable fear. I don’t want them to live in terror. I don’t want them to avoid sex out of fear. (That would be how the other half lives.) I do want them to accept their fair share of the responsibility, though. And yes, that means more fear than they may be used to.

Ezra Klein says as much in a provocative Vox piece:

If the Yes Means Yes law is taken even remotely seriously it will settle like a cold winter on college campuses, throwing everyday sexual practice into doubt and creating a haze of fear and confusion over what counts as consent. This is the case against it, and also the case for it. Because for one in five women to report an attempted or completed sexual assault means that everyday sexual practices on college campuses need to be upended, and men need to feel a cold spike of fear when they begin a sexual encounter.

~~~

When I first read that Bloomberg piece about waning “hookup culture,” my initial reaction was, honestly, to shrug. Let them be scared. Let them avoid sex and intimacy. I’ve certainly done that because I was afraid of sexual assault.

But then I thought, this isn’t really the way forward. At least, not entirely.

These men don’t seem to be afraid in that rational, “Shit, I could really hurt someone! Better be careful” way. They seem afraid in a reactive way, almost out of spite–“See, look how much you’ve fucked up my life! Happy now?” They seem afraid because they keep interpreting consent education in the most negative and life-fucking sort of way. They seem afraid because they still don’t understand that their female partners are human beings with their own subjective experiences, experiences that they would do well to listen to and try to understand.

I don’t want men to live in fear. I don’t want men to stop flirting with women and asking for their number. I don’t want men to start refusing sex with eager, consenting women because what if they’re actually lying and not consenting.

I want them to listen to us. I want them to respect our agency. I want them to let us write the story together with them, rather than writing each chapter themselves and then handing it to us to read, perhaps accepting some critique if they are especially gracious.