“But that applies to EVERYONE”

Every so often when I’m talking about some niche issue, such as how to consensually have sex with an asexual person or how straight women can be better to their queer women friends, someone who is not a member of the marginalized group under discussion chimes in with, “But everyone should do that” or “But you shouldn’t do that to anyone.” No joke, once on Twitter I saw some trans people talking about how you shouldn’t ask them about their genitals, and someone was like “And you shouldn’t ask cis people about their genitals either.”

Okay, I mean, yes. I’m happy to grant that many of these suggestions about how to treat people with particular identities should and do apply to pretty much all human interaction. Don’t touch white people’s hair without their permission either. Don’t ask cis people about their genitals either. Sure.

But the reason this type of comment always comes off as very All-Lives-Matter-ish is because there is a reason the original author has chosen to focus their remarks on a particular type of situation or person. What might that reason be? Some ideas:

  1. The issue is much more likely to affect the group under discussion.
  2. Cis people, how often has a stranger asked you which genitals you have? How often has a potential partner asked you which genitals you have?

    The world is an infinitely varied and complicated place, so I’m sure there exists a cis person somewhere who has had someone ask them, “So do you have a dick or a vagina?” I’m sure there are cis people who have, upon introducing themselves to someone, had that person suddenly ask if they have had surgery on their genitals. (How sure am I? Not actually that sure.)

    But if you ask trans people, they are much, much more likely to have had this experience, often multiple times. In fact, I suspect that any cis person who has had this experience, only had it because they were “read” as trans for whatever reason, and that plays into the exact same harmful ideas that impact trans people every day. There would be no such thing as reading a cis person as trans without the gender-essentialism that gives rise to anti-trans prejudice and discrimination. Just like a straight boy being bullied because he’s assumed to be gay, this can certainly hurt the cis person in question, and their feelings about that experience are valid. But when we’re talking about understanding and preventing the issue, we need to understand why it actually happened. More on that later.

  3. The issue is more harmful to the group under discussion.
  4. So, yes, it is pretty rude and inappropriate to touch people’s hair without their permission, because hair often feels like a part of one’s body and having it groped by random strangers can be rather violating. (Also, some people put a lot of work into getting their hair to look the way it does, so don’t put your greasy hands on it!) Some white people, especially those with curly or otherwise unusual/interesting hair, may indeed have had lots of negative experiences with strangers grabbing it.

    But not only are we much less likely to experience this sort of incident–which in itself means that it’s overall less harmful to us–but it would have an entirely different meaning to us, and that minimizes the harm, too. Touching Black women’s hair is an echo of the many other ways in which white people have historically treated their bodies and their selves as objects for their consumption. They also don’t have the same freedom white people do to set boundaries and ask the person to stop touching their hair, lest they activate the Angry Black Woman stereotype. Doing so can have dangers beyond social rejection.

  5. The dynamics of the issue are different for different groups.
  6. The principle of consensual sex is pretty much the same no matter who’s having sex with who. Sex almost always involves power dynamics (even when both/all people involved have the same gender, power imbalances may arise from other identities), and this can complicate consent when the person with more power is unaware that the person with less power is only saying “yes” because they feel on some level that they have to.

    Asexuality introduces another potential power imbalance into the mix, and brings along with it unique dynamics. For example, many people consider asexuality an “illness” that can be “cured” through good sex. Many people consider it “unethical” for an asexual person to date an allosexual person unless they agree to “give” them as much sex as they want. Different asexual people have different levels of interest in sex, different motivations for consenting to sex, different emotional responses to sex, etc.

    That makes articles like “How to Have Sex With an Asexual Person” absolutely crucial, because they dissect the dynamics that are unique to this situation (an asexual person and an allosexual person having sex) rather than broadly applicable across all sexual situations. Yes, at first glance it all sounds the same–get consent, check in during, etc–and so I can see why it’s tempting for people to brush it off with “Well everyone should do that.” But then you’d miss the nuances.

  7. The person leading the discussion is a member of the group in question and that’s the experience they can speak to.
  8. I don’t know what it’s like to be proselytized to as a religious person, to date as a straight person, to have sex as a cis man. So if I’m talking about various adverse experiences I’ve had with those things and how they might have been better, I can only speak to my experience as a Jewish atheist, as a queer person, as a woman. If religious people, straight people, and cis men can learn something from that and apply it to their own lives–if they feel validated by what I’ve said–that’s great, but that’s not who I’m writing for.

    So when I write about some negative experiences I’ve had with straight women as a queer woman and folks immediately rush to be like “well nobody should ever do that to anyone regardless of identity,” it feels very dismissive. Of course nobody should ever do that to anyone. But I’m not anyone, I’m me, and I’m situated at one particular intersection of identities. That location in part determines which sorts of experiences I have, and I don’t want that to be erased. I want you to see where on the map I am.

“But that applies to everyone” can obviously be a true statement. It’s pretty rare that we would want to treat people differently depending on their social identity. But the fact is, whether we mean to or not, we do treat them differently. That’s been scientifically proven over and over. Likewise, all lives should matter, but they demonstrably don’t, so activists focus on those that we do not treat as though they matter.

Many, many excellent ideas and practices emerge from communities of queer and trans people, people of color, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups. Many of these ideas and practices would be very useful for dominant groups to adopt. Why don’t cis hetero couples ask each other which words they prefer to use for their genitals and other body parts? Why don’t neurotypical people use color-coded communication badges to make socializing at conferences easier? (I encourage them to, provided they don’t act like they came up with those awesome ideas on their own.)

But that doesn’t mean that marginalized people don’t get to talk about their own experiences and issues as they apply to them specifically, rather than to everyone universally. If you liked something one of us wrote about a niche issue and feel that it’s applicable more broadly, why don’t you write your own article rather than complaining that our writing wasn’t broad enough? Maybe it wasn’t for you.


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On “Obvious” Research Results

There is a tendency in my social circles sometimes to dismiss social science results that seem “obvious” and aligned with our views with, “Well, duh, why didn’t they just ask a [person who experiences that type of marginalization/trauma/adverse situation].”

I’ve seen it happen with studies that show that fat-shaming is counterproductive, and studies that show that sucking up to abusers doesn’t stop abuse, and probably every other study I’ve ever written about here or posted on Facebook.

To be honest, I’m often having to suppress that initial response myself. It is infuriating when we’ve been saying something for years and now Science Proves It. (Of course, science doesn’t really “prove” anything.) It’s especially annoying when some of the some of the same people who deny my experiences when I share them are now posting links to articles about research that says that exact thing, without any apology for disbelieving me.

At the same time, though, I try to separate my frustration from my evaluation of the research. In reality, the fact that a result seems “obvious” or “common sense” doesn’t mean that the study shouldn’t have been conducted; for every result that aligns with common sense, there’s probably at least one that completely goes against it. Considering the fact that negative results have such a hard time getting published in psychology, there are probably a ton of studies sitting around in file drawers showing no correlations between things we assume are correlated.

Moreover, research is important because it helps us understand how prevalent or representative certain experiences are, and listening to individuals share their stories isn’t going to give you that perspective unless you somehow manage to listen to hundreds or thousands of people. (Even then, there will probably be more selection bias than there will be in a typical study, in which the subject pool at least isn’t limited to the researcher’s friends.) I will always believe someone who is telling me about their own experience, but that doesn’t mean that I will assume that everyone who shares a relevant identity with that person has had an identical experience. That would be stereotyping.

So, sure, to me it might be totally obvious that people who make creepy rape jokes are much more likely to actually violate boundaries–because I’ve experienced it enough times–but my experience may not have been representative. It is very much still my experience, and it is very much still valid and I have the right to avoid people who make creepy rape jokes since they make me uncomfortable, but it isn’t necessarily indicative of a broader trend. (Of course, now I know that it probably is, because multiple studies have strongly suggested it.)

The weirdest thing by far about the “Why didn’t they just ask a [person who experiences that type of marginalization/trauma/adverse situation]” response is that, well, they did. That’s literally what they’re doing when they conduct research on that topic. Sure, research is a more formal and systematic way of asking people about their experiences, but it’s still a way.

And while researchers do tend to have all kinds of privilege relative to the people who participate in their studies, many researchers are also pushed to study certain kinds of oppression and marginalization because they’ve experienced it themselves. While I never did end up applying to a doctoral program, I did have a whole list of topics I wanted to study if I ever got there and many of them were informed directly by my own life. The reason researchers study “obvious” questions like “does fat-shaming hurt people” isn’t necessarily because they truly don’t know, but because 1) their personal anecdotal opinion isn’t exactly going to sway the scientific establishment and 2) establishing these basic facts in research allows them to build a foundation for future work and receive grant funding for that work. In my experience, researchers often strongly suspect that their hypothesis is true before they even begin conducting the study; if they didn’t, they might not even conduct it.

That’s why studies that investigate “obvious” social science questions are a good sign, not a bad one. They’re not a sign that clueless researchers have no idea about these basic things and can’t be bothered to ask a Real Marginalized Person; they’re a sign that researchers strongly suspect that these effects are happening but want to be able to make an even stronger case by including as many Real Marginalized People in the study as financially/logistically possible.

As I said, I do completely empathize with the frustration of feeling like nobody takes our experiences seriously until they are officially Proven By Science. I also wish that people didn’t need research citations before they are willing to accommodate an individual’s preferences for the sake of inclusivity or just not being an asshole. (For instance, if I ask you to stop shaming me for my weight, you should stop doing it whether or not you have seen Scientific Proof that fat-shaming is harmful, because I have set a boundary with you.)

However, if we take individual experiences as necessarily indicative of broader trends, we would be forced to conclude that, for instance, there is an epidemic of false rape accusations or that Christian children are overwhelmingly bullied in the United States for their religious beliefs. Certainly both things happen. Certainly both things happen very visibly sometimes. Both are awful things that should never happen, but it is, in fact, important to keep in perspective what’s a tragic fluke and what’s a tragic pattern, because flukes and patterns require different prevention strategies.

I’ll admit that a part of my discomfort with “well duh that’s obvious why’d they even study that” is because I don’t want the causes I care about to become publicly aligned with ignoring, ridiculing, or minimizing science. We should study “obvious” things. We should study non-“obvious” things. We should study basically everything as long as we do it ethically. We should do it while preparing ourselves for the possibility that studies will not confirm what we believe to be true, in which case we dig deeper and design better studies and/or develop better opinions. I find Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Litany of Tarski to be helpful here:

If the box contains a diamond,
I desire to believe that the box contains a diamond;
If the box does not contain a diamond,
I desire to believe that the box does not contain a diamond;
Let me not become attached to beliefs I may not want.

Even if your experiences turn out to be statistically atypical, they are still valid. Even if it turns out that fat-shaming is an effective way to get people to lose weight, guess what! We still get to argue that it’s hurtful and wrong, and that it’s none of our business how much other people weigh. Knowing what the science actually says at this point is the first step to an effective argument. Knowing what the possibly-faulty science is currently saying is the first step to making better science.

How SXSW Got Online Harassment Wrong

At the Daily Dot, I wrote about SXSW’s…weird handling of its little Gamergate problem.

This week, South by Southwest, an annual film, music, and interactive media festival, canceled two of its scheduled panels: one about harassment in gaming and another about “the gaming community,” organized by Gamergate supporters.

Dealing with ongoing controversies while planning events is never easy, but the festival organizers’ handling of this situation so far suggests, at best, serious ignorance of the reality of online harassment and, at worst, gross negligence on part of SXSW.

Here are the three biggest mistakes the festival made and what future organizers—and everyone else—can learn from them:

1) Failing to take a stand against online abuse

Their first mistake was failing to notice and react to the harassment that the panelists on the “anti-Gamergate” panel were receiving. (Although the purpose of the panel was to discuss harassment, not to “oppose” Gamergate, that’s how it’s being described online, presumably because everyone understands that Gamergate is a pro-harassment movement.)

As Arthur Chu points out in his detailed breakdown of this story, the organizers were aware of the dozens of harassing comments being posted on the page where the panel was being voted on. Although SXSW eventually shut down the comments, it never deleted any. Instead, organizers responded in an email:

Right now, what we see in the comments section is an open dialogue/debate between two different opinions. Until one of those comments turns into an outright threat of violence, we will leave them up.

Unsurprisingly, Gamergate’s response did end up escalating to threats of violence. And while we can’t ever know for sure if that could’ve been prevented by a more assertive response by SXSW, it’s entirely possible that the trolls would’ve given up and moved on to more interesting targets if the festival organizers had deleted all inappropriate comments and made a clear statement in support of its panelists without inviting further “dialogue/debate” on the matter.

The fact that people should be able to use the Internet and participate in panels without being subjected to slurs and harassment shouldn’t be up for debate.

Read the rest here.

Why You Should Care About Violence Against Sex Workers

[CN: sexual assault, anti-sex work stigma]

Last month, the Chicago Sun-Times published a shameful column by Mary Mitchell regarding a recent case in which a sex worker was raped by a would-be client. Unusually, the rapist was actually charged with rape. Mitchell refers to this as “making a mockery of rape victims” and states that she is “grateful [the rapist] isn’t being accused of snatching an innocent woman off the street.” She says it’s “tough to see this unidentified prostitute as a victim” and that “because this incident is being charged as a criminal sexual assault — when it’s actually more like theft of services — it minimizes the act of rape.” She also includes this amazingly contradictory bit of reasoning:

I’m not one of those women who believe rape victims are at fault because they dressed too provocatively or misled some randy guy into thinking it was his lucky night.

But when you agree to meet a strange man in a strange place for the purpose of having strange sex for money, you are putting yourself at risk for harm.

Anyway, that’s enough of that. I recommend reading these excellent responses from sex workers.

First of all, if you care about the issue of sexual violence, as Mitchell claims to, you should care about sexual violence against sex workers. Even if you aren’t one. Even if you don’t know any (although you probably do). We can’t restrict ourselves to caring about problems only when they affect people who look and act like us, or else things will only get better for the people who have the most people who look and act like them. (Who might those be?)

But even from a more self-interested point of view, it makes no sense for anti-rape advocates to excuse sexual violence against sex workers.

If you think you’re going to find success by portraying yourself as pure and good compared to those nasty women* who “sell themselves,” you’re mistaken. Sex workers aren’t stigmatized simply because there’s an exchange of money involved. After all, many of the women who cheerfully dismiss sexual violence against sex workers would be horrified at the idea that a woman “deserves” to be raped because she went on a date with a man to get free dinner. (Of course, though, there are plenty of other people who nevertheless accept both scenarios.)

Women who do sex work are stigmatized for many reasons, many of which intersect with class, race, and other social categories. One of those reasons is that their sexual behavior is “improper” and therefore suspect. We can’t seem to trust a woman who actively pursues sex (whether for pleasure or money or both) rather than letting herself be “chased.” People who don’t understand consent think that a sex worker can’t be raped because she already agreed to have sex (never mind that sex workers can be assaulted by people who aren’t clients at all). They believe that consenting to one sex act means consenting to all sex acts, forever, and that “putting yourself out there” as a person who’s willing to have sex means that people can do whatever they want to you.

But sex workers aren’t the only people impacted by these myths. You know who else’s experiences of sexual assault are routinely dismissed because of their perceived sexual “availability”?

Most survivors’.

If you’re assaulted after agreeing to do something else sexual with someone, you’ll be blamed for agreeing to that. If you’re assaulted by someone you’ve had sex with in the past, you’ll be blamed for having had sex with them in the past, even if you made it abundantly clear that you didn’t want to do it again. If you’re assaulted by someone you never agreed to have sex with but did go on a date with, you’ll be blamed for agreeing to go on a date with them. If you’re assaulted by someone you’ve never gone out with but did flirt with–or were perceived to be flirting with–then you’ll be blamed for flirting. If you never flirted but dressed “revealingly”; if you never dressed “revealingly” but drank alcohol; if you never drank alcohol but let yourself be alone with them for any reason; if you did none of the above but have a race, body type, or gender identity that people devalue and treat as sexually “available”…and on and on it goes.

The point is that as long as we treat a survivor’s prior sexual behavior, actual or perceived, as relevant to the question of whether or not they were really assaulted, nobody is safe. The justifications we use to dismiss assault of sex workers are basically identical to the justifications we use to dismiss assault of anyone else.

Sex workers pursue sex with people; non-sex workers pursue sex with people. Sex workers agree to do some sexual things but not others; non-sex workers agree to do some sexual things but not others. Sex workers may have had many different sex partners; non-sex workers may have had many different sex partners. Sex workers may have sex with strangers; non-sex workers may have sex with strangers. The only difference is the exchange of money.

And if you claim that these victim-blaming narratives suddenly become acceptable and proper when the exchange of money is involved, then you’re claiming that being a sex worker is so bad that it means you deserve to be raped.

In which case, you should just say that so that people know what you mean rather than obfuscating the issue needlessly.

Keep in mind that if you believe that sex workers deserve to be raped, you’re including the ones who don’t experience sex work as a choice. (While activists rightfully challenge that idea that all sex workers are exploited, some certainly are.) Can a sex worker forced to do sex work be raped? If so, why can’t one who chose sex work? Can someone who used to do sex work but stopped be raped? If so, why can’t a sex worker who’s not working on the day they are assaulted, or whose assailant is not one of their clients?

You can see how tricky things get when you claim that there are cases in which the absence of consent does not equal sexual assault.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t surprise me when people who have a vested interest in violating others’ consent oppose the idea that yes means yes. All those men in my Twitter mentions yelling “But that would make me a rapist”? Well, yeah. But it does surprise me when people who advocate against sexual violence twist themselves into the same arguments.

It is apparently tempting for some of these people to create hierarchies of survivors with themselves or the people they care about at the top. Maybe they think there is safety in that, in always having someone below them.

But there isn’t. The prejudice and violence of others is not a force you can harness and control so that it always points away from you. That’s why what we call victim-blaming is always invalid. If directing others’ prejudice and violence away from you were a real option, then there’d be no such thing as victim-blaming.

Besides that, though, it’s monstrous to use people who are more marginalized than you as shields. Too many people take it for granted that sex workers should serve as bait, to redirect male violence away from women who do not “deserve” it.

I can’t live at ease in a world in which we’re shifting the burden of violence onto other people rather than ending it. Of course, ending it is easier said than done, but it begins with acknowledging the problem whenever we see it, including when the victim is a sex worker.

We will not be safe if we throw sex workers under the bus. We will not be safe by creating categories of people who are rapeable, expendable. Those chickens are always going to come home to roost.

The only way to fight sexual violence is to keep centering consent in the discussion. Not what the victim looks like or acts like. Not what the victim did in the past. Consent. And once we’ve finally got that down, maybe we can even go beyond it.


*Although I’m mainly talking about female survivors in this post–because the tropes that Mitchell used are based on that–it’s important to note that sex workers are not all women, and that the violence and stigma faced by sex workers applies to sex workers of all genders.


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“Oh so I can’t say ANYTHING anymore”

Ready to get meta? Let’s get meta.

It seems that anytime the words “Please don’t say…” come out of someone’s mouth, someone else is always ready to start with the “Oh so I can’t say ANYTHING to anyone anymore” and “I guess we should just never talk to anyone ever again” and “What an awful world it would be if nobody ever said things to other people.” It also happens all the time with posts about street harassment (“Oh so now I can’t EVER talk to a woman again, how is the human race going to procreate”), racism (“Oh so everything is racist now, I guess I just shouldn’t talk to Black people except then I’m a racist anyway”), mental illness (“Ok so I should just never say anything to my friend with depression ever again, got it”), and probably others too.  I was prepared to get this response to my previous post about telling people they look tired, and oh, I got it.

And I decided that I’m tired of it and I’m not going to entertain this bullshit anymore. I’m not going to patiently repeat, “Well, I didn’t say you can’t say ANYTHING, and I even provided a list of things that are better to say…” and “No, as I said, it’s totally acceptable to say it when you’ve got that kind of relationship with the person…” Because you know what? Life’s too short. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, and all that.

I’m fully cognizant of the fact that this is only going to provoke even more “Well now I REALLY can’t say ANYTHING EVER AGAIN” like tribbles on the Enterprise, but here goes anyway.

Tribbles. So many tribbles.

First of all, it’s an annoying thing to say. It’s antagonistic and whiny. That wouldn’t in and of itself make it inadvisable to say; I’ve noted many times that it’s important to learn how to separate the message from the way the message makes you feel. So, sure, I could be annoyed at this for no good reason and maybe I should set that annoyance aside so that I can instead grasp at the nugget of truth hidden therein.

Second, in the context of a discussion, it adds nothing. It’s empirically inaccurate. It neither asks for clarification nor provides it. The only thing it accomplishes is that it expresses disapproval, but it does so in an indirect, passive-aggressive way that’s ultimately ineffective. You could, for instance, say “Now I’m worried that I’m going to offend someone through no fault of my own” or “So what can I say instead?” or “I still don’t understand why this is offensive, and that’s freaking me out because how am I going to know what else I’m not supposed to say and keep people from hating me?” (Hey, did you see that? Those were examples of things you can still say. See? You are still allowed to say things to people.) Passive-aggressiveness is a great way to annoy people and get them to ignore you, and not necessarily a great way to get your needs met.

Think about how ridiculous this argument would sound in any other context:

“I didn’t like Age of Ultron.”

“Wow I guess all movies are bad and should never have been made”

“Can you not tease me about that? It’s a sore subject.”

“So I’m not even allowed to talk to you anymore?”

“Can you please keep it down after 11? That’s when I go to bed.”

“Ok so I guess I have to be completely silent 24/7 and never communicate verbally or do anything that causes sounds”

Come on. It’s not fooling anyone.

Third, it derails and shuts down people who are trying to share their experiences. Most “Please don’t say” articles aren’t coming from Experts Dispensing Sage Advice; they’re coming from ordinary folks who are talking about difficult stuff they’ve gone through and how other people unintentionally made it even harder. If that’s not interesting to you and you don’t care about making their lives easier, that’s fine. That’s what the “close tab” button’s for, you know. If you do care about being a better friend or ally to people who are dealing with said issue, then read the article and consider it seriously.

It’s been suggested to me that “Oh so I can’t say ANYTHING” responses are coming from a place of fear of social disapproval and frustration with changing social norms. I believe it. Those are valid feelings. As someone who’s lived in three countries and six cities and has shifted political, religious, and sexual identities, I know the struggle of constantly trying to fit in and be accepted in new social spaces. It’s not easy.

Remember that ring theory thing I keep referencing, though? You need to find the right spaces in which to process your feelings about someone else’s feelings. The person who is having the original feelings–the Original Feeler, I suppose–is not the appropriate person on whom to foist your own feelings.

Just because your feelings and needs are valid doesn’t obligate anyone to do anything about them. That may sound harsh, but remember that it applies to everyone. You don’t have to take care of your friends with depression or fatigue or whatever, either. You don’t have to care about the shit that anyone else goes through. You only have to respect their stated boundaries.

Fourth, another consequence of this tendency to exaggerate someone’s actual criticisms into something grotesquely ridiculous is that, intentionally or otherwise, you’re poisoning the well. That entire line of criticism starts to be considered laughable, not something for serious people to actually contemplate, because the exaggerations become louder, more visible, and more accessible than the original criticism. Maybe you’ll even find some obscure, poorly-written example to prove your point and use that as a stand-in for the rest of the criticism. See! This feminist blogger says she doesn’t want men to ever speak to her for any reason, not even to yell “Fire!” when the building’s on fire. Here’s one random college student who thinks that every single classic novel contains sexism and racism and therefore should be permanently banned from their college curriculum. That’s definitely what street harassment and trigger warnings are all about.

It starts to turn into a weird sort of gaslighting. “I know you’re saying that you’re only bothered by these specific things, but actually you’re bothered by literally everything so the problem is with you and I don’t have to take you seriously anymore.” And so we have to focus our energy on preempting these immature and derailing accusations by insisting that there are plenty of men or white people or whatever that we do like, and plenty of compliments we do appreciate, and so on. Imagine how much easier things would be if we didn’t have to spend all that time stroking egos and could instead just state directly what we’d like you to stop doing, and you could either agree to stop doing it or disagree and take yourselves out of our spaces and lives.

There is no other option, by the way. If you don’t like my boundaries, you can choose not to interact with me, but you cannot choose not to respect my boundaries. And no, I’m not talking about honest mistakes. I said “choose.”

There’s something to be said for the weaknesses of “Please don’t say” articles, which is why many writers try to frame these things more positively, like “How to support your friend with depression” or “Some better things to say to people with chronic illness” or whatever. That can be a great idea. I try to do that when possible.

However, sometimes, that’s not enough. Sometimes I really do need someone to stop saying a particular thing that I don’t want to hear anymore, and I have the right to set that boundary. Whether or not you agree and are prepared to honor it, I get to set it. You don’t get to tell me I don’t get to set it.

And even when I do that, I usually provide alternatives. In that last post I had a bunch of them, which at least a few readers apparently either didn’t bother to read or considered so insufficient as to persist in claiming that WELL NOW WE JUST CAN’T SAY ANYTHING ANYMORE. Really? I literally gave you some stuff to say. I can’t exactly take it in good faith when you claim that I’m telling you you are not allowed to speak to other human beings ever, especially when I only gave you one sentence not to say. Does your entire vocabulary consist of the words “you,” “look,” and “tired” in various combinations?

Basically, I’m disturbed by these responses to folks attempting to set their boundaries. That is really weird to me. You (usually) have the option of not interacting with someone if you don’t like how they’re asking to be interacted with. Sure, that doesn’t always work for your boss or your child, but it certainly works for me, a random writer that you’ve probably never met in person and never will. If my boundaries bother you that much, close this tab. Do not return to this blog. Do not pause to leave a childish little comment about how you are closing this tab and not returning to this blog. Your irritation is not my problem.

And then do that with the other people in your life whose boundaries you’re not willing to respect. Do it for yourself, and do it for them.

Or, you know, consider respecting their boundaries. That works too.


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Stop Telling People They Look Tired

Seriously, stop it. It’s rude.

I am, for no specific medical reason I’ve ever been able to discern, chronically fatigued. I’m almost always tired. I sleep a solid 7-8 hours a night, stay fairly active, eat fairly well, and don’t have an especially demanding daily schedule, but I’m always tired all the same. I was always tired in middle school. I was always tired in high school. I was always tired during school breaks. I was always tired in college. I was always tired in grad school. I continue to be always tired now that I’m employed full-time. I was always tired before puberty. I was always tired during puberty. I was always tired after puberty. I was always tired without birth control and with periods; I was always tired with birth control and without periods. I was always tired when I exercised almost every day, when I exercised several times a week, and when I scarcely exercised at all. I was always tired when I ate good home-cooked food my mom made, and I was always tired when I ate ramen and Easy Mac in college, and I was always tired when I started cooking real food for myself. I was always tired when I slept on a shitty dorm room mattress and when I slept on a nice memory foam mattress. I was always tired when I used my phone or laptop right before bed, and I was always tired back before I had any phones or laptops to use. I was always tired when the morning light came through the window at 6 AM, and I was always tired when I used special curtains and sleep masks. I was always tired when I took vitamin B and vitamin D and vitamin C and probably other vitamins too, and I was always tired when I didn’t.  I was always tired before my depression started, and I was always tired during my depression, and I’m always tired now that I’m mostly not symptomatic. I was always tired during stressful times and I was always tired during careless, stress-free times. I was even tired on vacation.

I expect things will continue in this way, because I’ve lived with all sorts of schedules and lifestyles and mental states during this time and the one constant was always, always, always wishing I could just lie down and close my eyes.

(A meta-note here: the reason I included that huge paragraph is because people literally will not take me seriously about this topic until they’ve audited me to make sure that I really have Tried Everything to “cure” my fatigue, even though that doesn’t actually matter for what I’m about to say.)

(I’m not interested in any advice or input about managing fatigue. I really do mean it.)

I’m not actually here to talk about my fatigue, because it really doesn’t matter for the substance of my argument. I’ve done pretty much everything I can afford at this point to try to make it better, so anyone who is so disturbed at the sight of my tired face will just have to deal with it.

What I wish is that it were generally considered rude to comment on people’s bodies unless you are quite certain that the comment will be appreciated, or that there is some other pressing need to do it. (I can’t imagine right now a situation in which someone doesn’t want to hear your opinion about their body but the harm of stating it is outweighed by some greater good, but I’m hesitant to make absolute statements and I know that if I don’t include that caveat, the comments will fill up with fantastical examples of extreme situations in which that is indeed the case. “Yes but imagine if an evil wizard threatens to curse you and your entire family unless you tell your random coworker that they look tired…”)

“Do not comment on people’s bodies unless you are quite certain that the comment will be appreciated.” Such a general rule would mean no physical compliments unless you have that kind of relationship, no asking strangers when the baby is due, no expressing your unsolicited negative opinion about someone’s tattoos, and no awkward “You look tired” comments.

And sure, there are probably situations in which “You look tired” is appropriate. “You look tired” with a knowing grin the morning after a shared night out on the town (or in the bedroom). “You look tired” along with an offer to help carry something. “You look tired” in acknowledgement of a difficult task well done.

Everything is contextual with human interaction, so I don’t claim to offer absolute rules.

Most of the time, though, “You look tired” either communicates something that’s better kept to yourself or something that would be better communicated some other way.

Instead of saying “You look tired” out of concern for someone’s well-being, ask them how they’re doing. Leave their physical appearance out of it and say something like, “You seem overwhelmed lately. How are you? Can I help?”

Instead of saying “You look tired” because someone looks bad and it’s bothering you so you feel like you need to say something, deal with that discomfort on your own. We’re all adults here. Fatigue and stress and sleep deprivation are things that happen.

Instead of saying “You look tired” because you’re concerned about someone’s ability to do something safely, say so directly. “Do you want me to drive for a while? I’m worried that you’re getting tired.” “Why don’t you take the rest of your shift off and get some sleep? You almost dropped that equipment.” Again, the problem isn’t how they look; the problem is how they probably feel based on a variety of cues that you’re picking up on.

Instead of saying “You look tired” because you’re hoping they’ll tell you why they’re so tired, ask them how they’re feeling today. I don’t treat “You look tired” as an invitation to tell you how I actually feel, because it’s awkward and I’m not sure what it’s meant to communicate. I get the sense that some people say it because they’re genuinely curious about how I feel, but who knows?

Instead of saying “You look tired” because nobody’s talking and silence makes you feel awkward, either deal with that discomfort (there’s nothing wrong with some silence) or think of something to say that doesn’t force them to defend or explain their physical appearance.

Ask yourself what sort of response you’re hoping for when you say “You look tired” to someone. “Uh, I guess”? “Yup”? “Not really, just bored/sad/depressed/worried/stressed”? Because I really don’t know what I’m supposed to say in response, whether I’m actually tired or not. Maybe they expect me to launch into some wild story about dancing at the club till 5 AM or spending the whole night chasing my runaway cat through the city, but no, the answer is that I went to sleep at 11 PM after reading for a bit, and woke up at 7 AM feeling like total garbage, and here I am at 1 PM still feeling like total garbage, because that’s how my body is.

If I merely found this rude and weird, I probably wouldn’t be writing a blog post about it, but it does harm me in a very real way. Basically, the only reason I’m able to continue to be a human and do things despite my crushing fatigue is by keeping myself busy and engaged enough that I can ignore it. That takes effort. For instance, it’s why I’m almost never just “doing nothing.” If I’m on public transportation or waiting in line for something or I arrived five minutes earlier to the restaurant than my friend did, I’m reading. If I’m eating, I’m reading. If I’m driving, then I’m listening to music or an audiobook or making conversation with a passenger. Smartphones are an essential coping tool for me, and I don’t give a fuck if that makes me a Millennial Stereotype.

So what happens when someone pointlessly blurts out “You look tired”? All of that is sort of ruined. I’m forced, if temporarily, to pay attention to the physical state of my body, and it feels awful. In attempting to assemble a response to this awkward statement, I have to actually contemplate my own tiredness, which I try as much as possible to avoid doing. (Writing this constitutes an exception.)

And to what end? What is gained by someone telling me that I look tired? What do they learn about me? What do I learn about them, except that they’re sort of rude? How does either of us benefit?

Generally, when someone looks unusual or “bad” in a way they can’t control, such as fatigue or disability or scarring, I think it’s best to give them the dignity of letting it pass unremarked unless you have that kind of relationship or unless they invite comment on it themselves. When someone looks unusual or “bad” in a way they can control, the dynamics are a little different, but it’s still useful to keep in mind that 1) nobody asked for your opinion and 2) giving your opinion uninvited is unlikely to accomplish anything useful for either of you. In fact, it will probably hurt the person and your relationship with them, however passing it might be. Exceptions include letting someone know that they’ve got something stuck in their teeth or that there’s a tear in their clothing they probably can’t see. It’s just like I said before: do you honestly think they’ll appreciate what you’re going to say? If so, then it’s okay.

This wonderful bit of advice from Captain Awkward is about pregnancy, but towards the end it applies to all sorts of body stuff:

Readers, if you did not know, the only time to notice or talk about someone’s pregnancy is when they tell you, in words, that they are pregnant. And the thing to say to a pregnant person about their appearance is “Well, you look very nice today, that color suits you/your hair is pretty/I am glad to see you” and to NOT comment on anything about how their body looks, and then you let them take the lead on bringing up the subject of body stuff. If you need a cautionary tale to drive this home, let me tell you about the time I was in mall food court with a friend who had just miscarried at 5 months and how a stranger came up to tell her that she was “absolutely glowing” and “obviously meant to be a mother” and how “that precious baby didn’t know how lucky it was to have such a beautiful mommy!” and how “the way you’re carrying, it looks like a boy. Do you know the sex yet?” and we both froze like deer. My friend excused herself to go to the restroom because she’d forgotten to wear purple shorts under her pants today and didn’t want to Hulk out or cry in public, and after she left I babbled something at the lady like “I’m sure you meant well, but she just lost her baby, not that it’s any of her business, but pregnant strangers and their bodies are also not your business” and she fell all over herself apologizing and unfortunately science still doesn’t let you wish people into the cornfield. Moral of the story: You DON’T know what’s going on inside other people’s bodies, you DON’T know how they feel about it, so DON’T comment on their bodies.

No, I don’t think my chronic fatigue is “as bad” as miscarrying at 5 months, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s pretty bad for me, and it’s something I’ve had to carry with me (it really feels like a burden to carry) for about 12 years and it’s probably not going away soon. Why remind me of that? Why force me to awkwardly stammer something about how I’m always tired, don’t worry about it, that’s just how I always look?

Why should I have to defend or explain my chronic condition to anyone?

I have to wonder how much of these comments that I get are being made on some level because I fail to present as enthusiastic and energetic and peppy as we expect young women to be. When my face and eyes look physically tired, it seems to almost offend some people, as though I should’ve been considerate enough to cover all that unpleasantness up with makeup or at least force a disgusting cup of coffee down my throat so that nobody has to see me so tired. (I hate coffee, truly.) My exhaustion becomes about their discomfort and worry and irritation at my appearance.

I don’t know what to tell you. If I can drag myself out of bed every day and stay busy from sunrise to sunset (and sometimes much later), you can deal with the sight of my tired face without making it my problem.


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Is Passion Necessary?

Lately I’ve been finding the idea that your work should be your passion about as oppressive as the idea that work should be boring well-paid drudgery or that you should pick your career based on what your father and his father and his father’s father did for a living.

I’m not even talking about the fact that only certain fortunate people even have the privilege of being able to choose to do something they love, although that’s also something that the Do What You Love crowd ignores.

I’m talking about the fact that when we accept the idea of your work being your passion, we accept unfair treatment of workers as a reasonable price to pay.

Whenever I mention (in some relevant context) that my field is underpaid, the response is often, “But at least you get to do What You Really Love!” They’ll sigh, and add, “I wish my work actually made a real difference. Instead I just sit in an office and move people’s money around.”

When I talk about the difficulties of living on a low salary and the lack of institutional support for the self-care our employers all patronizingly insist we prioritize, they say, “Well, that’s a small price to pay for getting to Follow Your Passion.”

(Actually, my work isn’t my passion. My passion is reading books and spending time with people I love, but nobody’s monetized that yet.)

I do love and enjoy my work, but I also really get a kick out of being able to pay off my student loan debt, take the occasional vacation, be allowed adequate time off to do all those Adult Things that can only be done during business hours, have my own apartment, and not worry about money all the time. That would really be fulfilling. You could almost say I have a passion for it.

The idea that Your Work Should Be Your Passion seems empowering on the surface. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone could get paid to do something they really love? How great would it be if you could spend most of your day actively making the world a better place, or whatever it is you care about most?

But if your work is your passion, then it won’t matter so much that it doesn’t pay that well…right? If your work is your passion, you might want to miss your kid’s sports game or musical performance so that you could stay a few hours late and keep working. And if you want to, surely it’s not too much to expect you to.

If your work is your passion, but suddenly you’re asking to work remotely or part-time because you just had a baby, maybe you’re just not that into your work anymore and your job should go to someone who’s more passionate.

If your work is your passion, then “attitude” matters more than actual competence. “Passionate” people are more fun to work with and we assume that they’ll be more dedicated to their job, so we hire people who are “a good fit for the company” rather than people who have a proven record of getting shit done.

Which leads into the other way that this emphasis on passion becomes counterproductive and ultimately harmful: the idea that “passion” is ultimately the reason people succeed.

Erik Devaney breaks this myth down in his article about passion and work:

Ultimately, the role passion plays in a person’s success depends on the context of that person’s unique situation.

For some folks, the road to success is smooth and straight, and being smart and hardworking and passionate can help those folks travel down that smooth and straight road even faster.

For others, the road to success is full of hurdles and potholes, and even if they’re just as smart and hardworking and passionate as the folks on the other road, they’ll never be able to catch up.

Life, as we all know, isn’t fair. But that doesn’t mean that the folks with the unfair advantages get to decide how everyone else thinks and feels.

Besides the fact that people with relatively little privilege face roadblocks that no amount of passion can overcome, this idea that passion is what makes for success also masks the often massive amount of practice and skill-building involved. And that, ironically, is easier to do than to force yourself to feel passionate about something you’re just not passionate about. Changing behavior tends to be easier than changing feelings, and pretending that your feelings are other than what they are can be counterproductive. Ferrett writes:

“Look,” I said.  “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to stay in better touch with your friends.  But what you’re doing is this fucked-up equation where you go I miss my friends == I need to use the Internet == I want to use the Internet.  And because you think the only way to do something is to be the sort of person who wants to do it, you’re psyching yourself up to be something you’re not.”

“…this is like the way you hate exercise, isn’t it?”

“Fucking loathe it.  Went for a hard twenty-minute workout on the elliptical this morning.  Hated it every step of the way.  I realize I hate exercise so much I literally have to do it right after I wake up, because if I hold off until my brain comes online I’ll manufacture good excuses why I don’t have to work out all day.   I can only get exercise because I’ve acknowledged that I fucking hate doing it.”

You can, in fact, do things you’re not passionate about–even things you dislike–in order to achieve something you do really care about. You may not be passionate about playing scales on the piano for hours, but you’re passionate about the beautiful music you’ll create as a result. There’s no point in obscuring the fact that becoming a talented pianist requires more than just PASSION, but also a lot of rather boring hard work.

Many people would argue that if you don’t enjoy doing something, you shouldn’t choose it as your job. But that comes from the idea that Work = Passion and that things you’re not passionate about can never be things you’re good at and would be satisfied doing for money so that you can spend that money doing the things you are passionate about. In fact, the entire concept of being satisfied with your job rather than LOVING your job seems all wrong.

But it’s not. I know people who have pretty boring but acceptable jobs, who then go home and enjoy not worrying about putting food on the table. Instead, they do their hobbies, take vacations, spend time with their families, and donate to causes they care about.

The problems endemic in our approach to work were not caused by the idea that passion is mandatory, nor will they be fixed by taking a more reasonable view on passion’s role. (And they won’t be entirely fixed by better vacation policies or workplace discrimination laws, either.) Unfortunately, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

However, it pains me to see progressive folks perpetuating the myth that passion should be central to work. That makes it too easy to disregard unfair, exploitative, or even abusive working conditions. It asks people to accept receiving less than a living wage because getting to do What They Love ought to somehow make up the difference.

Loving my job doesn’t pay the rent. Loving my job won’t help when my job has taken over my life to such an extent that I can’t care for myself. Even if I love my job, it’s not the only thing in the world that I love.


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Not the Ethics We Need, But the Ethics We Deserve

Yesterday, Charles Clymer wrote on Facebook regarding the Ashley Madison hack:

The thing about the Ashley Madison leak that truly fascinates me is the hypocrisy of internet privacy activists, whom are predominantly male.

No, I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to judge every person who has “cheated” on their spouse or with someone who is married. People engage in infidelity for a lot of reasons. There are trapped relationships, repressed sexualities and gender identities, abusive marriages, etc. I get that “cheating” isn’t always black-and-white and that people have a right to privacy.

But what blows me away every time some internet privacy incident comes up is that so many of the same people who rant and rave about government surveillance or compromised private information or unauthorized data collection… are the same folks who will gladly share a nude picture of a woman whose computer or device has been hacked.

These are the same people who view celebrity women as commercial products and thus, not entitled to any privacy.

These are the same people who, because of whatever bullshit “friendzone” grudge they hold against women, seem to gleefully–even obsessively–post stories, anecdotes, videos or whatever about women who have been caught cheating.

And not because of some moral crusade against infidelity but because they feel the need to control, in however small a way, women’s sexuality. If they’re not getting any, neither should women.

If they feel they have been denied sex by the women of the world (apparently a collective), they’ll go out of their way to publicly humiliate women in compromising situations.

Can women be cheating assholes or abusive or simply awful human beings? Of course. Every rational adult knows this.

But these angry, insecure men who spend their waking hours glued to Reddit and 4chan aren’t rational. They don’t view women as having the potential to be assholes because they’re human beings; they view a woman as an asshole because to them, she’s a product who is expected to perform to their liking. A robot devoid of character and personality, dreams and nightmares, needs and wants.

This is about a vicious sense of entitlement to women’s minds and bodies by a large population who wield enormous influence over the primary means of communication among human beings.

It’s not just about hacking a nude photo or revenge porn or the unceasing stream of harassment women receive online.

It’s also about enabling a culture that communicates to men that it’s perfectly fine to assault, rape, and kill women for not giving you what you want.

This whole Ashley Madison fiasco is simply another illustration of male entitlement and rage over the loss of that entitlement.

So, yes… while it’s a bummer to see privacy violated, I’m not exactly inspired to “join the cause”.

Shoot me an e-mail when your ethics are consistent and don’t blatantly and violently discriminate against women.

Fine, I’ll bite, since it’s a little weird to have Charles Clymer tell me that my anger over the Ashley Madison hack is “simply another illustration of male entitlement and rage over the loss of that entitlement” (which, you know, I never had), and that I’m one of the people who looked at the leaked nude photos last summer. I didn’t–and in fact, have been speaking out against this sort of thing for years–but the conflation Charles makes in this post sure is a convenient way of avoiding the issue of privacy and online shaming.

Are there people who oppose the Ashley Madison hack but supported the celebrity nude photo leak? Certainly. Are there entitled, sexist men speaking out right now against the Ashley Madison hack? Certainly. Unfortunately, you’re going to find horrible people in just about any political camp, including the most feminist camps out there. (TERFs, anyone?) That other people are ethically inconsistent doesn’t mean I have to be.

When it comes to ethical consistency, which Charles is trying to lecture us about in this post, you have to support what’s right and oppose what’s wrong based on what’s right and what’s wrong, not based on what your friends and your enemies happen to be doing.

I’ve already stated my opposition to the Ashley Madison hack in a variety of ways, so here I want to get a little more meta and point out a disturbing trend that Charles Clymer is far from the only progressive writer to play into. That’s the idea that finally this whole sexual shaming thing is impacting straight white men, not just women, queer people, and people of color! Rejoice!

I think I won’t. Yes, I belong to some groups that have suffered for millennia because of the idea that our private sexual lives should be anyone else’s business and that we should be judged and punished for living those lives. And you know what? It gives me no joy to see this virus spread. Revenge may be a valid impulse, but it doesn’t tend to lead to a better world for anyone. I don’t want straight white men to have to deal with public sexual shaming. I don’t want anyone to have to deal with it. The fact that it’s starting to hurt them too is not a good sign! It means we’ve really started to accept this as just the way things are.

Further, everyone keeps conveniently ignoring the fact that straight white male lives were not the only ones potentially ruined by this hack. It is impacting LGBTQ people. It is impacting women. It is impacting people who did not join the site to cheat, but because they needed things to be “discreet” for some other reason, and if you really can’t imagine any other reason someone might need things to be discreet, well…what you lack in imagination, you make up for in privilege.

I do recognize that for some people, this hack turned out to be a good thing. The people who found out that their own ostensibly monogamous partners were cheating on them, for instance. Maybe the hack gave these people a way to get back control over their lives. It’s almost inevitable that unethical actions will genuinely benefit some people who themselves did nothing wrong; that’s one of the reasons ethics is hard. That’s why I didn’t really see anything wrong with people using the hack to find out if they were being cheated on.

As for all the people I know–many of whom I greatly respect–who were gleefully feeding their entire email address books into that app so that they could spy on the lives of their friends and acquaintances and that one random person they emailed once about a potential sublet, that only fills me with horror and fear. Horror that I have friends who care so little for others’ privacy; fear that one day I’ll get doxxed, and people I thought were my friends will cackle at their laptop screens as they violate my consent.

I keep coming back to this patronizing undertone in all this–that I should somehow be glad for this. That this is keeping people safe. That if we all watch each other, if our world becomes like a panopticon, then we can be safe from being cheated on, from being discriminated against, from being hurt. I don’t agree. I don’t want this. I didn’t ask for this. This does not feel safe to me. I would feel much more safe if we all just finally agreed that it is unacceptable to dox and shame people unless they present a real, direct threat to someone else. I do not feel safe when my friends say, “Well, we’d never dox you, you haven’t done anything bad.” But someone else thinks I have! Everyone has done something bad according to someone.

Sexual shaming is an old, old problem. For a while it seemed to be getting better, but now I’m not so sure. We’ve started to accept its premises rather than challenging them. Some of us celebrate the fact that people who were always safe from sexual shaming are no longer. That shows them, right? They deserve it after what they’ve done to us, right?

We’re in the middle of the ocean and the water’s streaming in through the cracks in the hull, but rather than patch them until we can get to safety and build a better ship, we’ve apparently decided to just sink the motherfucker along with everyone on it. Nobody gets any privacy! Everyone gets their sex lives posted online and scrutinized! Anyone can lose their livelihood–even their life–for doing a disapproved-of thing!

Is this what justice looks like to you? It’s at least a twisted sort of equality, I’ll give it that.

But some of us have boats and life jackets and others don’t. Some at least have a wooden plank to grab onto, and others don’t even have that. Who do you think will be the first to drown? Who will be able to float away to land? Most importantly, wouldn’t it have been better not to sink the ship to begin with?

This is what Charles Clymer refers to as “a bummer.”

Revenge may taste sweet, but it’s not nutritious. It won’t keep us alive. Only justice can do that.


Further reading: “Our Shared Affair: The Sexual Shaming Behind the Ashley Madison Hack” by Katherine Cross, who has seriously been a consistent breath of fresh air to me in all these discussions about online doxxing and shaming.


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Sexual Identity Labels Are Maps, Not Territory

Last month I wrote:

Sexual identity labels are maps, not territory. Anybody who claims that maps are useless has clearly never gone adventuring, and neither has anyone who claims that maps are a perfectly accurate representation of the territory.

This resonated with many of my friends (especially the adventuring sort), so I wanted to expand on this concept.

The map-territory distinction has a long history in fields like art, philosophy, and, presumably, geography. I don’t claim to be knowledgeable about all of that history, but the basic idea is that there is a reality, and there are our representations of that reality, and it’s important not to confuse one for the other.

There are two broad “camps” when it comes to the issue of sexual identity labels, which includes any of the LGBTQ+ identities as well as labels like dominant, submissive, demisexual, and basically any other word people use to say, “This is who I am/what I’m into.”

One camp says that labels are unnecessary. They cannot describe the full variety of human sexual experience, they prevent people from being open to experiences and feelings they might otherwise be open to, and they cause others to make unwarranted assumptions based on others’ labels. This camp might acknowledge that labels were politically necessary at one point to gain visibility and basic rights, but now we’ve reached a point where–even though homophobia still exists and must be fought–they are not necessary for that fight. You can find sex, love, or whatever else you’re looking for without them. Some members of this camp additionally claim that people using labels–especially if they are inventing new ones–are “special snowflakes” who just “want attention” for something that ought to be personal and private.

The other camp says that labels are important and that they are natural categories. That is, people are naturally and necessarily either gay/lesbian, straight, bi, or maybe even ace. While some people may choose not to use a label, that doesn’t mean they don’t ultimately fit into one of these categories. Labels are important for politics, research, and social interaction. After all, how are you going to find people like you if you don’t identify what “like you” even means? People who claim they can’t choose one of the available labels are probably confused and haven’t progressed all the way through the stages of sexual identity development.

Both of these camps would be right in some way if the people in them stuck to making observations about themselves rather than about others. Some people don’t like to use labels. Other people like to use labels. Neither is wrong, because both are making choices for themselves in order to create the lives that they want for themselves.

As I wrote, people who claim that maps are universally useless probably don’t do a lot of traveling. Maybe all your loved ones are living with you or just down the street. Maybe you don’t need to leave town and cross rivers and mountains to find them. Others do. For us, labels can be a way of finding others or helping them get to us. Sure, I’m not going to be attracted to everyone that my sexual labels say I have the potential to be attracted to, but I’ll at least be looking in approximately the right place. This way, if I’m looking for trees, I can make sure to at least end up in a forest and not in a desert, or in the middle of the ocean.

On the other hand, maps are also imperfect. That’s not (just) because we need better maps; that’s because they cannot be perfect. The landscape changes. People make mistakes. The mapmaker can’t predict what information will be important for a particular person to know, so they might leave out important things or include extraneous information that clutters up the space and makes it harder to find your way. The researchers who theorize in their offices and then design studies that confirm what they already believe–for instance, by only accepting participants who are able to label themselves “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” or (maybe, in some studies) “bisexual”–aren’t out there surveying the land. Of course your map looks perfect when all it does is hang on your wall as decoration.

There’s another challenge, too. Depending on your philosophy, most people do believe that maps depict something that has an objective truth to it: either the river bends here, or it doesn’t. Either the elevation at these coordinates is 100 feet above sea level, or it is not. But when it comes to sexuality, there may not be an objective reality to discover. I’ve just finished reading Lisa M. Diamond’s excellent book, Sexual Fluidity, in which she surveys a variety of ways in which female sexuality may be more complex and undefinable than anyone (who hasn’t personally experienced it) would’ve imagined, so at the moment I’m inclined to believe that an individual’s sexual territory may not be knowable even to them. That’s another reason our sexual identity “maps” will never be perfect.

Nevertheless, having maps is easier than not having maps. But poorly drawn, inaccurate maps can cause a lot of trouble. How many people–women and nonbinary people especially–have I seen worrying that there’s something wrong with them because they’re standing at a crossroads holding up their map and it just doesn’t look anything like what’s in front of them? They think they must’ve made a wrong turn somewhere, but what’s actually happened is that someone drew a map lazily and sloppily. “Am I bisexual?” they ask. “Was I actually gay all along?” “Can I be a lesbian if I sometimes have sex with men for fun?” “Am I ace enough to call myself ace?” “I’ve only ever dated men but I like other genders, too, so why do they keep telling me I’m straight?

Sexual labels are maps, not territory. If they don’t seem to be working well, they probably need some updating. For some people, that might be enough to throw out the map altogether and just go wandering. Others want more guidance, more concreteness. Either approach is okay.


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Queer Women Who Have Only Dated Men Are Queer

Queer women who have only dated men are queer.

Queer women who are currently in a monogamous relationship with a man are queer.

Queer women who are not out to everyone or anyone are queer.

Queer women who have no idea if they’ll ever (be able to) date a woman are queer.

How do I know? Because they say so!

I won’t bother linking to the latest article that attempts to argue otherwise, but here’s a great rebuttal. The conclusion:

Here’s how the author and xojane could have used the space of this article to make the queer world safer and more welcoming for multi-gender-attracted women: Queerness is about how you feel and identify, not the stats of whom you’ve dated or fucked. Coming out is difficult, especially when people try to shove you back in the closet. You don’t ever have to come out, and you’re the best judge of under what circumstances that’s a good idea for you. If you do want to come out, you have every right to, even if you’re uncertain of your identity or you’ve come out differently before. You are not responsible for other people’s misreadings of you, and it’s up to you whether to correct their biphobia. You’re not letting the rest of us down by taking care of yourself. There is huge variation among bi and queer people, and you don’t have to meet a quota of attraction frequency or intensity in order to be one of us. You are one of us. You are enough. Welcome.

I sense a lot of fear in some queer women (especially, but not exclusively, those who identify as lesbians) that people will try to co-opt our identities in order to gain inclusion and acceptance in our spaces even though these people supposedly know deep down that they’re not “actually” queer. (That, at least, is my steel-manned version. I’m sure some of these folks also think that people can be wrong when they identify as queer.) On one hand, it makes sense that some would envy our loving, supportive communities–flawed and in-progress as they are–because your average straight person might not even have access to a group of people who affirm them. Yes, heterosexuality is culturally affirmed, but individual straight people still have to deal with slut-shaming, toxic masculinity, and other harmful ideas related to sexuality. And queer communities certainly aren’t immune to them, but they tend to have more of a language for naming and working through these issues. That’s certainly enviable.

On the other hand, if someone is feeling so unsupported and dismissed in non-queer spaces that they feel an urge to seek out queer spaces (considering that queerphobia is very much still a thing), I would wonder if this person might not be straight. Really. Many people who are initially certain that they’re straight but nevertheless feel some sort of…some itchiness, some discomfort, around the whole straight thing, later come out as queer. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to disagree with people who say they’re straight, but it does mean that we have to give people room to figure themselves out.

I wrote recently that the reason many queer spaces also explicitly include allies isn’t necessarily because it’s very important to include straight people, but because that provides a way for closeted queers or those who are questioning to explore queer identities and communities without having to out themselves. The same applies to people who do identify as queer but apparently aren’t queer enough for your satisfaction. Almost every queer person goes through a period of time in which they know themselves to be queer but have not yet had any sexual or romantic experiences with a person of the same gender. That period of time may last days or years or decades, and you are not a better person for having a shorter one.

What’s confusing to me about all this derision that some queer women feel towards some other queer women is that most of us seem to wish there were more queer women around, for friendship or community or sex/dating, and most of us acknowledge that we really are a pretty small minority and that that’s difficult. That shy queer girl who comes to your space and admits that she’s only ever dated men and gets a whole ton of derision and condescension and policing in response isn’t going to come back. She may even believe your bullshit and decide that she must be straight after all. (Remember that identity is fluid and socially constructed, especially for women, and yes, a person who was genuinely queer at one point in time can be bullied into believing that they’re straight.) As theunitofcaring notes:

making bi girls feel unwelcome in LGBT+ spaces makes them KISS GIRLS LESS OFTEN my fellow lesbians I just need to point out that this is is a CATASTROPHIC STRATEGIC FAILURE on our part

If making bi/otherwise-deemed-not-queer-enough women feel unwelcome is so counterproductive, why do some queer women do it? I have a theory, though I’m not sure how accurate it is. I think that our current climate, Supreme Court decisions notwithstanding, makes it really difficult sometimes to conceptualize queerness separately from marginalization and suffering. We fall into the trap of thinking that it’s experiencing tons of homophobia, not falling outside of traditional norms of attraction and identity, that makes us queer. And so, if the way you’ve been living your life has mostly sheltered you from that homophobia, then you’re not “really queer.” But as Lindsay King-Miller writes in response to a letter from a woman who doesn’t feel like she “deserves” the label “bisexual”:

I know you think you haven’t earned your non-straight orientation because you’ve never faced discrimination, but here’s the thing: you do not have to have suffered to be queer. Wait, can I say that again, much louder? YOU DO NOT HAVE TO HAVE SUFFERED TO BE QUEER. We don’t have hazing rituals. Yes, most of us have experienced discrimination at some point in our lives—and I’m sorry to say that you probably will too, if you date this girl/any girl in a publicly visible way—but that’s not what makes us queer. I worry that focusing on suffering as the arbiter of queer experience leads us to downplay what’s great about our lives and may even scare some people (maybe you!) out of coming out. If you are a lady and you want to date a lady, you’ve already passed the initiation.

That said, I also really hate the idea that closeted queer women can’t possibly have experienced any Real Oppression™. The microaggressions we constantly hear–sometimes from people who’d never say that out loud if they knew–are oppressive. Not being able to come out is oppressive. Invisibility is oppressive.

Some queer women refuse to acknowledge that there are valid reasons why other queer women might not have dated any women, or come out to certain people in their lives. Coming out and living openly as a queer person is difficult, which, paradoxically, makes it tempting to become self-aggrandizing and think of yourself as better than those who haven’t (yet) made the journey. That’s a survival mechanism. But when survival mechanisms turn into weapons against other marginalized people, it stops being okay or acceptable.

So here’s a non-comprehensive list of reasons why a queer woman might not have dated any women, or come out at all, that are not “she’s not actually queer”:

  1. Numbers. According to a 2014 survey, 1.6% of Americans identify as gay or lesbian, and 0.7% identify as bisexual. Those are…pretty fucking tiny numbers. Even though the percentage of people who have had sex with someone of the same gender is higher, if you’re a queer person, you’re probably not going to seek out straight people with the hopes that they’ll be interested in adding to that percentage.
  2. Lack of community connections. With such dismal probabilities, how do queer people ever meet each other? Often, it’s through communities, whether formal (LGBT centers, Meetup groups) or informal (circles of friends who form around similar interests, lifestyles, and worldviews, including acceptance of queerness). As I’ve just shown, queer women who have not yet had any female partners aren’t always welcome in these communities. So how are they going to find any women to date or hook up with?
  3. Lack of scripts. Everyone knows how heterosexual dating goes. Boy meets girl, blahblahblah. These scripts are not always healthy or ultimately conducive to a good relationship, but at least they exist. Many queer women who are just coming out, especially those who are used to dating men, feel terrified that they don’t know “how to date women.” It may be an irrational fear to some extent–you date them just like you date anyone else–but nonetheless, that’s what happens when you never see people like you represented in the stories we tell about love and sex and relationships. In the face of that fear, many of us end up paralyzed, and those who are interested in men wind up in relationships with them instead.
  4. Gender roles. Related to the previous point, it can be very difficult to break out of the traditional boy-asks-girl-out-on-date thing. Obviously, plenty of women do ask people (including men) out on dates, but if you’re a woman who has always dated men and now want to date women, you might not have any experience with making the first move. Personally speaking, that paralyzed me for a while. Like, years. It’s only recently that I started actually asking women out, and you know what helped me most up until that point? Compassionate queer women giving me advice, not yelling at me that I’m actually straight or writing articles about me on xoJane.
  5. Homophobia. When did we collectively decide that homophobia just isn’t a thing anymore, and if you’re scared to come out or openly date people of the same gender, then you’re the one with the problem? Really, I want to know, because last I checked, homophobia is very much a thing. Don’t forget that there are still many people in the U.S. who would lose their entire families if they came out as queer.  (And while I don’t want to unfairly cast blame on immigrant communities, which already face stereotyping and racism, I do want to say as an immigrant that white Americans tend to be very ignorant of some of the challenges we face when it comes to coming out, and they forget that not all of the steps forward that their dominant culture has made are necessarily replicated in our communities. Here is a piece I want everyone to read regarding this.)
  6. Biphobia. How many pieces like that awful xoJane one do you think it would take to convince a bi/pan woman that other queer women want nothing to do with her? For me, it took only a few, and there are always more pieces like that coming out. (There was also the time that a lesbian told me that the reason many lesbians won’t date bi women is because they’re “more likely to have STIs.”) It’s probably not a coincidence that most of the women I date are bi and have mostly only dated men, because these are the only women I feel like I can trust not to hate me.
  7. Internalized homophobia. Many queer women can’t bring themselves to date other women because on some level they still feel that it’s wrong, that they don’t deserve it, and so on. Internalized homophobia can be very sneaky and can manifest itself years after you’d thought you had a handle on everything. I used to think I don’t experience internalized homophobia because I truly never felt that there was anything wrong or bad about me because I’m queer. Then I found myself actually trying to date and couldn’t escape this awful pessimism about it: I felt like no matter what, it would never work out anyway, and no woman could ever want me, and even trying was completely pointless. Where were these feelings coming from? Eventually I realized that they stemmed from internalized homophobia. They came from the belief that this world just isn’t made for people like me and that our stories will inevitably end in loneliness or tragedy. Try dating successfully with an attitude like that. I didn’t get very far until I’d acknowledged it and started to work through it. Other women may have to work through deeply-ingrained feelings of shame or disgust, too.
  8. Chance. Most people will only be interested in a fairly small percentage of the eligible people they meet, and only some unknown percentage of them might like them back. Combine that with the sobering statistics at the beginning of this list, and you’ll probably wind up with quite a few queer women who haven’t dated any other women simply because the opportunity hasn’t come up.

That’s just a preliminary list. If you use your imagination, you will probably be able to think of plenty of other reasons why someone might not act on every aspect of their internal identity all the time, starting with the fact that they don’t owe it to anyone.

Some people choose to use a label that reflects their outward behavior, which is okay. Some people choose to use a label that reflects their inner experience, which is also okay. There is something disturbingly hazing-like in the logic of these demands that all women who call themselves queer open themselves up to the maximum amount of homophobia: You Must Suffer As We Have Suffered.

If we make suffering or bravery or not giving a fuck what anyone thinks of you the cost of admittance to Being Queer, then we have only ourselves to blame if people decide to stay in the closet and seek community and solidarity and love elsewhere.


I acknowledge that this article reflects a very binary view of gender; this tends to be inevitable when I’m writing in response to a particular view that’s already being couched in those terms (“Queer women who only date men are not queer”). I don’t know what these people would say about women who have only dated men and nonbinary people, or who have only dated nonbinary people, or nonbinary people who have only dated men, or etc. etc. I’m not sure that people who make such ridiculous claims as “queer women who only date men are not queer” are even aware that gender is not a binary, so.


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