Promoting Mental Health in the Workplace

[Content note: mental illness, including eating disorders]

This post was requested by Kate [not FtB!Kate], who donated to my conference fundraiser. She wanted to hear my opinion on mental health in the workplace and how employees and employers can foster a culture that values and promotes mental health. She had some of her own suggestions, which I’ve incorporated into this piece with her permission.

Work is often a concern for people who suffer from mental illnesses. They might worry, for instance, that their struggles will impact their work performance, that coworkers or employers will find out that they have a diagnosis and stigmatize (or even fire) them, or that offhand comments at work could trigger eating disorder symptoms.

I wrote about this topic much more generally in this piece, which was about how to prioritize and promote mental health in one’s community. Workplaces are particular types of communities, so a lot of this still applies. At the same time, workplaces present particular challenges to promoting mental health, as well as particular capabilities that might help.

Note that I’m writing this as a person with a mental illness, as a person who works, and as a person who observes human behavior. I’m not writing this as someone who’s ever been a manager or a supervisor, so while I can speak to what I would like to see from managers and supervisors, I don’t have firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to be one. If you have that experience and you’d like to weigh in in the comments, feel free to do so.

For employers/managers/supervisors

1. Ensure that the assignments you give your employees and the culture you foster in the office encourage and allow employees to take good care of themselves.

Every workplace that expects people to skip lunch or sleep less than 7 hours a night is a workplace that is detrimental not only to physical health, but mental health as well. Sleep deprivation can dangerously exacerbate many mental illnesses, and having to skip meals can cause people with eating disorders to relapse. Obviously this is unavoidable with certain jobs or when a big important project is nearing completion, but it’s avoidable with most jobs most of the time.

(At the same time, recognize that this is a problem with American culture at large, and companies feel pressure to pressure their employees in this way because if they don’t, a competitor will, and it’ll reap the profits.)

2. Make sure that new employees understand the health coverage they’re receiving under the company’s benefits plan, especially as it pertains to mental health.

Explain in as little legalese as possible what the coverage includes and doesn’t include, and where they can go to find more detailed information or look up specialists in their area. In my experience, many people are worried that if they see a mental health professional using their employer-provided insurance plan, their employer will somehow have access to their medical records. Emphasize that it’s none of your business as an employer what your employees do with their health insurance and that providers cannot disclose such information to you without a patient’s consent. For extra points, give a short overview of HIPAA.

Going over this information not only improves the odds that employees are able to get the mental healthcare they need, but it shows that you’re comfortable discussing mental health with employees and that your company thinks it’s important.

3. If you choose to have health-related contests at the office, focus them on fitness goals or healthy eating, not weight loss.

Personally, though, I’d avoid these altogether because many people consider health a personal matter and feel pretty uncomfortable about having to discuss it publicly and competitively. Even if the contest is optional, keep in mind that people will feel a strong social pressure to join in. Who wants to be the only person in the office who doesn’t seem to care about staying in shape?

In any case, framing weight loss as an intrinsically healthy and positive goal is harmful and counterproductive. You can weigh little and be very unhealthy, and if you lose weight in an unhealthy way, you’ll probably gain it back anyway. A better way to structure a health contest is by encouraging participants to achieve goals that are proven to be healthy and doable.

4. Make sure employees understand the policies and processes about taking time off for medical reasons (and remember that mental health is a medical issue).

It’s especially important to find a way to emphasize that mental health is just as important as physical health, and little gestures make a big difference. For example, you could say something like, “If you know in advance you’re going to need time off, like for a physical or a therapy appointment, you can submit the form to me at at least a week’s notice.” That provides important information while also implicitly conveying the fact that you consider therapy to be a legitimate reason to leave work an hour early.

For employees

1. Consider your own mental health when choosing responsibilities to take on at work.

It’s understandable, especially in this economy, to try to impress your boss by offering to do as much as possible and overworking yourself. However, good mental health should be seen as an investment. If you take good care of it, you’ll ultimately be more productive than if you neglect it and burn out.

This applies to all those little volunteer opportunities that aren’t directly job-related, either. If you have social anxiety, it might be a bad idea to offer to organize a social outing for the office. If you have an eating disorder that makes it really stressful to choose food to buy, it might be a bad idea to offer to bring snacks for a meeting. You know yourself best.

2. If you feel safe and comfortable, let your boss know about mental health issues that may affect your performance and how you plan to deal with them.

The “if you feel safe and comfortable” is the key part. I’m absolutely not suggesting that everyone can and should come out about their mental illness to their boss, since I know that in many cases that’s a really bad idea. (It shouldn’t be, but it is.) But personally, I know people who did this and found it really helpful because they were able to work collaboratively with their boss to make sure that they can get the time off they need and that they can fulfill their responsibilities rather than having to keep it a secret and try to solve potential problems on their own. Disclosing also makes it possible to receive any accommodations you may need, which brings me to:

3. Educate yourself about laws related to mental illness and the workplace.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is obviously a major one, but so is HIPAA, which I mentioned earlier. The definition of “disability” in the ADA is intentionally quite general, but mental illnesses are included: depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, and so on. Title I of the ADA concerns employment. There’s a lot of useful information in there; for instance, an employer cannot ask you in a job interview whether or not you’ve been treated for mental health problems, or which medications you’re taking. Keep in mind that the ADA only applies to businesses with 15 or more employees, however. Here’s another useful article about it.

For everyone

1. When someone asks you how you’re doing, be honest (within reason).

In the piece I linked to earlier, I wrote:

This is something I’ve been really making an effort to do. This doesn’t mean that every time someone asks me “What’s up?” I give them The Unabridged Chronicles of Miri’s Current Woes and Suffering. But I try not to just say “Good!” unless I mean it. Instead I’ll say, “I’ve been going through a rough patch lately, but things are looking up. How about you?” or “Pretty worried about my grad school loans, but hopefully I’ll figure it out.” The point isn’t so much that I desperately need to share these things with people; rather, I’m signaling that 1) I trust them with this information, and 2) they are welcome to open up to me, too. Ending on a positive note and/or by asking them how they are makes it clear that I’m not trying to dump all my problems on them, but I leave it up to them to decide whether or not to ask more questions and try to comfort me, or to just go ahead and tell me how they’re doing.

At work, there are obviously different standards than in other communities, or with friends and family. But even at work, there’s room for honesty and mutual support.

2. Be mindful of using language that relates to mental illness.

Casual usage of diagnostic terms (“That’s so OCD,” “You’re being delusional,” etc.) hurts people with mental illnesses by trivializing their conditions and turning them into the butt of a joke. It also makes it more difficult for people to disclose mental illnesses because it keeps people from taking them seriously. If “ADHD” is what you call it when you can’t focus on a boring project and someone tells you they have “ADHD,” you’re not going to think, “Oh, this person has a serious condition that makes it neurologically impossible for them to focus on a task unless they get treatment.” You’re going to think, “Oh, come on, they just need to close Facebook and get focused.”

3. Remember that talking about dieting and weight loss can be very triggering for people with past or current eating disorders.

Fat talk (as it’s called) is so ingrained in our culture and communication patterns that it’s hard to imagine that it could be such a serious issue for someone. But anecdotally, it seems that eating disorders in particular are very easily triggered by offhand remarks like “Ugh I need to work off this cupcake” or “My thighs are huge.” Even when not actually triggering, these comments encourage unhealthy behavior and create a social norm of dieting and preoccupation with weight loss.

I sometimes dread being around groups of women who are not my friends because more likely than not, I’m going to hear these comments. And it’s not like you can avoid your coworkers. So if you must do it, try not to do it to a captive audience.

4. Respect others’ privacy when it comes to mental health issues.

Just as you should never out an LGBT person without their permission, you shouldn’t discuss someone’s mental health with others at the office. Although I generally encourage people to be open about mental illness if they feel they can be, that has to be on their terms, not someone else’s. If you’re concerned that someone’s mental health problems are causing them to be unable to do their work, do the same thing you’d (probably) do anytime a coworker isn’t pulling their weight: talk to them about it in a kind and considerate way rather than going straight to the boss.

(An exception to this is if you’re worried that someone may harm themselves or someone else. In that case, please call 911. )

When it comes to structural issues like ableism and stigma, no community can be an island, unfortunately. There will not be stigma-free workplaces until there is a stigma-free society. But the more power you have in a workplace, the more influence yo have over its culture.

Thank you to Kate for her donation and for this prompt. 

~~~

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On Demanding Solutions To Social Problems

One of the most frustrating and most understandable responses I encounter in the course of activism goes something like this:

“Okay I get that this is a problem but what am I supposed to do about it? Should I decline a job that I supposedly got because of my privilege? What are your policy prescriptions? What’s the point of talking about this all the time rather than doing something about it?”

I hear variations on this theme all the time, and they vary from well-intentioned to not well-intentioned, from honest to dishonest. It’s not always clear what’s really going on. Questions often contain a declarative layer to them, even when someone claims they’re “just asking questions.” (Perhaps especially when someone claims they’re “just asking questions.” For example:

  • “I’m frustrated by the immensity of this issue and I feel like it’ll never be solved.”
  • “It makes me uncomfortable to have to listen to people talk about how injustice has impacted them. I’d rather hear something more positive.”
  • “I bet you’re about to suggest that the government intervene to fix this and I want to argue about the role of government rather than listen to what you want to talk about.”
  • “I don’t actually think this is a problem.”
  • “I don’t think there’s anything we can to do solve this problem, so I’ll dismiss your proposed solutions anyway.”
  • “I don’t think it’s worthwhile talking about problems if we’re not also taking immediate steps to solve them.”
  • “I don’t think it’s all that important to understand the nature of a problem before trying to solve it.”
  • “Not knowing how to fix something makes me feel inept and useless, so I want to know how to fix it.”

I disagree with some people that it’s always necessarily possible to tell when someone is arguing (or asking) in bad faith, and I disagree with some other people that one should always assume good faith. So I tend to just take these questions at face value and try not to guess at which of these layers may be hidden inside them.

There’s a reason why activisty/writerly types are often advised to include “where to go from here” or “suggestions for action” or “next steps” in their works, and a reason why books about social causes often have that as the last chapter. I think it does make the medicine go down a little easier by showing that all hope is not lost, and it also encourages people to take action by giving them simple ideas for things to do.

But sometimes it’s impossible to include such a section, either because we simply don’t know what to do or because that’s not the intended focus of the piece.

“Raising awareness” gets sort of a bad rap because of its association with car magnet ribbons and Facebook memes about where women put their purses. It’s true that most people are already “aware” of breast cancer, for instance. But most people are not aware of what often happens when someone tries to report a sexual assault to the police or what often happens when a person of color shops at an upscale store or what often happens when you’re a teenager trying to start an atheist club at your high school in South Carolina, for instance.

And with activism, as with any big project, you have to break it down into smaller steps. Sometimes the immediate step isn’t “solve the problem,” but “get people to agree that a problem exists,” and then “show people how the problem impacts others.” Trying to skip one of these steps is like trying to, say, plan a renovation for a building without first taking note of what’s wrong with the building currently, or even getting anyone else to agree that a renovation is needed.

And guess what? If you do genuinely see the problem that’s being described to you, you’re already ahead of most people. If you’re talking about the problem with people, you’re already “doing something” about it. Talking is doing, not only because it educates others, but because that’s how the doing ultimately gets done.

It’s understandable that people find it uncomfortable to listen to really sad stories about really sad things happening to people. Some might even find it triggering or otherwise detrimental to their mental health. At this time, you have a decision to make, and only you can make it for yourself: are you able and willing to deal with this discomfort? If not, you owe it to yourself (and perhaps to others) to step back. Don’t attend the panel, take a break from the book club, stop reading blogs for a while. It’s not your fault that you’re feeling this way, but it’s not others’ responsibility to stop sharing things that need to be shared, either.

But if it’s not an issue of triggers or mental health, then I think that people should make an effort to learn to sit with discomfort without needing or demanding immediate relief from it. Yes, it feels a lot better when someone finishes their presentation or blog post with, “Want to help make a difference? Just donate to our fund/write to your representative/spend a few hours volunteering with us/sign this petition!” Sometimes that’s how a difference gets made, but sometimes it’s not.

It’s uncomfortable to listen to stories of oppression and injustice, and it should be. That’s a feature, not a bug. These stories are not shared to make you feel good, and they’re not always necessarily being shared to “inspire” you to action. More often than not, they’re shared because this is information you need to know to be a good citizen (and a good person). If you take the time to understand the issue, you might find that potential solutions start coming to you, and that you don’t need someone to include a bulleted list of action items in their PowerPoint. You might even feel compelled to implement some of these solutions. You may even succeed.

The people who respond in this way, the “okay just tell me how to fix it” way, are not always men, but they usually are. That’s probably because men are socialized to fix things, and their security in their own masculinity often rests partially on their ability to fix things–not just the broken toilet or the leaking roof, but things in general. It happens on the macro level and the micro level: for example, all the male partners I’ve had who would neither allow me to talk about my depression without trying to fix it, nor ask me to please not share it because it’s too frustrating. They would insist that I share it, and they would insist on trying to fix me, and they would fail, and so would the relationship.

Social problems are similar to depression in that they are complex and require patient and knowledgeable effort from people who know what they’re doing. There is no quick fix for any of these things.

If you’re a man and you find yourself demanding immediate solutions when social problems are described to you, ask yourself if the way you’ve been brought up as a man might be impacting your reaction to the situation. The fact that a feeling stems from gender roles doesn’t make it wrong or fake, but it does mean that the problem isn’t with the person who’s refusing to give you a ready-made solution, but with the lessons you were taught about being a man.

Obviously, looking for solutions to problems is a Very Good Idea in general. But in this specific way, during these specific times, it may not be a good idea. It would be nice if every problem came with a prepackaged bulleted list of Next Steps, but that’s just not life. Don’t let your earnest wish to see the problem solved keep you from listening to the people dealing with the problem.

~~~

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Miri’s Survival Guide to Moving Across the Country Alone in a State of Terror and Panic

I have known I was going to write this post ever since I first stood in my stifling Chicago apartment looking at a bunch of empty boxes and thinking, “Wow, moving is going to be difficult! I’d better take good care of myself and give myself time to be a little sad and process things.”

Juuuust kidding. What I actually thought was, “Fuck me I hate this why am I doing this why am I such an idiot this is what I’ve always wanted fuck these boxes I don’t want to put my shit in these boxes I’m going to get Chipotle now.” And so I did.

Unfortunately, when it comes to emotional self-care, I’m a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do kinda gal. I’m working on it. But, to paraphrase a John Green character slightly, if you don’t say the honest thing, it never becomes true. I’m writing this as much for myself as I’m writing it for you–I’m giving myself permission to need the advice that this post provides.

I was and remain incredibly lucky. I moved not out of necessity, but out of passion. I had a loving family with the resources to help me move, and even more family who welcomed me when I got here. I moved to my favorite place ever. It continues to amaze me every day. Not everyone is so lucky when they move, but given how difficult a time I still had with it, I figured maybe someone might benefit from this advice.

To be clear, this is not a post about the logistical/practical side of moving. It’s a post about the emotional side of moving. I’m the last person who should be talking about the former, but maybe only the second- or third-to-last who should be talking about the latter. So latter it is.

Care for yourself.

I don’t just mean in the typical self-care ice cream/chocolate/funny movies/bubble baths way, although that can also help. (Good luck getting a New York bathtub to cooperate with that, though.)

What I mean is to be kind and gentle with yourself, just like you’re (hopefully) being with the fragile things you’re packing up.

Sometimes before and during and after the move, I had to talk to myself sort of like a child. “Okay, we’re going to get in the minivan and drive for a very long time. No, we’re not coming back. We’re going to a new place.” “I know this apartment feels weird and scary right now, but this is where you live now. I promise you’ll start to like it when you get used to it.” Sometimes that was the only way I could handle thinking about the immensity of the changes that were happening. Sometimes you need to let yourself be a little kid again.

But other times I was very bad at this. I berated and blamed myself endlessly, guilt-tripped myself for not being more grateful for the opportunity, played the sort of endless games of “But you TOLD me you wanted to move” and “Didn’t you SAY this was where you wanted to live” that I absolutely despise other people playing with me, and would never try to play with someone else.

Finally I had to ask myself how I would treat a friend who was moving to a place they loved but was having a lot of trouble coping nonetheless. What if it were one of my partners? What if it were Kate? What would I say to them?

I felt so ashamed when I realized that I was speaking to myself as though I resent myself. I realized that even if a random person from my friends list whom I barely know messaged me and shared concerns like the ones I had, I would still be infinitely kinder and more patient with this person to whom I have no connection and owe nothing than I was being to myself. There was no good reason for this.

Be as kind to yourself as you would to anyone you love and value.

The internet is probably your friend.

If you’re reading this, you probably use the internet at least a fair amount. Congratulations!

During this transition, just like all the previous difficult times of my life, the internet kept me sane. Not only did it help with all the logistical stuff, but it gave me something to “come home” to when home didn’t feel like home. (I mean, home still doesn’t really feel like home.) There were definitely days when I came home, threw my stuff down, closed the door to my room, went online, and talked to my friends. And the amazing thing was, the internet is the same internet no matter where you are. The same people I talked to when I was in Chicago were still there. I watched Grey’s Anatomy on Hulu in Chicago and I watched it here in New York. I read the same blogs. I listened to Citizen Radio. Finally, something in my life was stable!

It’s important not to go overboard with this, but use it if/when you need to.

But remember to go out and try to put down roots.

I am, again, incredibly privileged to live in New York. As soon as I got here I started seeing the friends and family I already had here, and quickly made a bunch of new friends. I went to lectures and films, I tentatively ventured to some Meetups (although there are still tons of interesting ones I haven’t gotten to), I went to parties I got invited to, I saw friends in neighboring cities that were once a plane flight away but now just a $30 roundtrip ticket and a 2-/3-hour bus or train ride away.

And, as always, I went out alone to explore the city. Wandering around as an inhabitant of the weird space between tourist and New Yorker is fun.

But even when you’re not sure you really want to, try to get yourself to do social things at least sometimes. In my experience, the most amazing friends/partners will appear in your life in a way that seems random, but really isn’t. Maybe you go to a party that’s totally boring except one of the people you talk to there mentions offhand a cool-sounding Meetup group and you look it up and go to it and meet a cool person who doesn’t become a super close friend but who does eventually invite you to a poetry reading where you meet someone awesome who becomes one of the people you cherish the most.

This process can be extremely frustrating. But, given enough chances, it will work.

BUT try not to fall victim to FOMO.

I got FOMO bad. Real bad. I have, in the short time I’ve been living here, somehow managed to convince myself that if I don’t do every single thing to which I am invited and/or hear about then 1) I am a Failure and 2) I will never make good friends and find my people.

Something that helped was hearing my friends talk about when they moved to new places. Some of them didn’t do social things for weeks or months, either because they couldn’t handle it emotionally or were too busy with whatever they moved there for or just couldn’t find anything to do. And yet, somehow it ended up working out. Now they have friends and partners and communities and activities. You don’t have to Create Your Entire Life all at once.

So there were also nights when I made myself stay in because I was exhausted and I needed it. I fidgeted at my desk or in my bed and told myself that I have a very long time to do All Of The Things, and that doing All Of The Things at once is not worth it if I’m exhausted and miserable. 

If you need to, get some perspective.

I’m lucky to have a family of immigrants whose stories are horrific and hilarious and inspiring enough to have kept me going at times. My aunt told me about how she moved to New York from Russia years ago and spoke no English and had no money, and ended up doing the same long walk from Battery Park to Central Park that I once took in the summer heat with no cash to spare for a bottle of water or for the bus. She worked cleaning houses before she was able to pass her medical licensing exam and become a successful physician. My mom told me about moving to Israel from Russia right before I was born and living in one of the worst neighborhoods in Haifa, while pregnant with me, taking care of my then-8-year-old brother, and trying to find work. And, of course, not speaking any Hebrew.

Their stories of awful landlords and crumbling apartments and culture shocks and exploitative jobs makes me grateful, despite all the difficulties, to have been able to move here relatively easily.

Your mileage may vary with this strategy, because hearing other people’s tales of woe may not necessarily make you feel better about yours. For me, it often doesn’t. But the way my family members tell these stories and the fact that I can see how far they’ve come since then gives me a good dose of perspective.

One thing that I’m really sensitive to, personally, is condescension. I had more than my fair share of Adults being really (unintentionally, but still really) condescending and giving me patronizing advice that I didn’t ask for and telling me that I was Doing It All Wrong. So go to people you trust for things like this. My family was great about it. Random people on my Facebook, not always.

Speaking of which, now is a great time to enforce your boundaries.

While enforcing boundaries is always important, it becomes especially important when moving, when so many other things are out of your control. It’s not too much to ask of your friends and acquaintances not to do things that really bother you, whether it’s bombarding you with patronizing unsolicited advice or constantly asking for updates on how packing’s going or (if they live in the place you’re moving) pressuring you to make plans to see them when you’re not ready to yet.

My own personal issue was that, as soon as I started making plans to move, and especially as those plans drew nearer and nearer and especially after they happened, a large portion of my Facebook friends list decided that I would be their Official Repository for “Humor” Articles About How Much New York Sucks. How expensive it is. How shitty the apartments are. How hard it is to find them. How annoying the subway is. (It’s not even that annoying.) How rude New Yorkers are. (They’re not even.) I try to think that people thought I’d find this funny because I can relate rather than doing it to piss me off. Unfortunately, though, it turned out to be a huge anxiety trigger. Because guess what! I do have doubts about moving here. It is hard sometimes. The housing situation really is a little dismal. Shit really is expensive. Do I really need to be reminded of this? No.

The entire genre of LOLOL WOW LOOK AT THIS CRAZY STUPID NEW YORK SHIT LOL NEW YORKERS ARE SO WEIRD LOL articles really needs to die out, in my opinion. But until it does, I didn’t want any more of them posted on my wall. So I told people that and explained why, and enforced that boundary whenever people broke it afterward. It made my life just a little bit happier, at no cost to me or anyone else.

If you’re someone who likes routines (and most people do), create some as soon as possible.

When you move to a new place it might be tempting to Try All Of The Different Things to try to get yourself to feel more comfortable and at home. Sometimes this can be really helpful and fun, but sometimes what you need to feel at home is routine.

That’s why I quickly established My Gym and My Deli and My Work!LunchPlace and My School!LunchPlace and My Cafe. My School!LunchPlace is Chipotle, which people make fun of me for because why would you move to New York and just eat at Chipotle. Cause it makes me feel comfy, okay? I will probably eventually get tired of my love affair with Chipotle, or its CEO will say something really bigoted, and I will stop going there and start enjoying food from Every Country In The World. (For real, right next to the building where I have class is a Mediterranean place, an Ethiopian place, an Italian place, an Indian place, a Chinese place, and a Japanese place. And that’s without walking a few blocks to where Harlem begins.)

Routines help me feel like a resident rather than a tourist. In a city of tourists, that feels nice. Knowing exactly where to stand on the platform so I get on the train at such a spot that when I get off the train I’ll be right by the stairwell that will take me to the next train I need is cool. So I stand on the platform in the same spot every time.

Relatedly, unpack as soon as you can. Unless it’s too stressful. Then don’t.

Typically, I find that unpacking helps me feel at home and gives me fewer things to worry about, since I can finally stop living out of boxes and start knowing where all my shit is. But this time was a bit different, because it was very difficult to fit everything into my limited storage space, and every time I tried to unpack I just got terribly anxious. If this happens to you, let go of any perfectionism you may still have after moving across the country alone in a state of terror and panic (that tends to really cut down on the perfectionism) and let things just lie in boxes or piles on the floor. There will be time enough to put all of the thingies where they need to go.

Avoid reminders of your past home when you need to.

The wisdom on this goes both ways; some people feel comforted by such reminders, while other people, such as me, break down crying in public. That happened today, which is actually what prompted me to finally write this post and stop putting it off.

It was the first actually cold day of the season, and the first snow. There’s a Target near where I work and I needed to get some stuff. Tights. A pillow. Whatever. I found the Target and walked in, and the glass door slid shut behind me, and suddenly…I was home.

I don’t mean home as in a shopper’s paradise, although that too. Home home. The Target was laid out exactly the way the one back in my hometown in Ohio was, with the women’s clothes and the accessories just to the left of the entrance. I walked over to some purses and scarves and just stared stupidly at them. I remembered doing my college shopping four years ago. I remembered buying Pokemon cards for my little brother. I remembered when my ex-boyfriend and I bought identical folding sphere chairs. I remembered clothes shopping with my mom. I felt like I could do a 180 and walk right back out and be in the sprawling wasteland of a parking lot with the mall across the street and the pool down the road. I could get in my parents’ car and drive home (driving?!) and my family would be there waiting for me.

If you’ve never walked aimlessly through a nearly-empty Target crying and not being able to breathe properly, I don’t really recommend it.

It just felt so stupid. It’s a stupid fucking generic store. They have them everywhere. I’ve even been to plenty of other Targets in plenty of other cities and states, without any bouts of Sudden Crying. But there it was.

I bought my shit and left the store without my coat on, thinking that maybe the sudden cold would make me snap out of it. It didn’t. The wind reminded me of Chicago and I just cried even harder. I put the coat on and went to the subway. I cried all the way back to Manhattan, half-napping part of the time. By the time I got to Times Square, I felt like I was back in New York again and not wallowing in some Midwestern past, and I felt a little better.

The point of that whole story is: I’m probably not going to go to Target again. At least not alone, or at least not until I’ve settled in better. It’s not worth it. I almost want to, because that stupid store is the only place in the five boroughs that has ever given me that visceral I-could-walk-right-out-into-Ohio feeling. I know I could chase that feeling if I let myself, but I won’t. I moved here for a reason. I left that place behind.

But remember where you came from.

I spent many useless years trying to shed Ohio and the Midwest from my identity like so many useless outgrown and unfashionable clothes. In college, I remember being extremely proud whenever anyone told me that I looked or sounded like I was from New York, which was often. And in my junior year when I was taking Hebrew, I was practicing with my teacher and asked her how to say, “I want to be from New York.” She said, “You mean, ‘I want to live in New York.'” I said, “No, I don’t just want to live there. I want to be from there.” (The correct translation, by the way, is Ani rotzah l’hiyot meh-New York.)

I am not from New York. I am never going to be. That ship sailed 22 years ago when I was born in Israel (not too shabby a place to be from), and sank somewhere in the deep sea when my parents bought a house in Ohio. So it was. Instead of a childhood in Central Park and the Met and Rockaway Beach, I had a childhood reading in my backyard and hiking and going to the pool and riding my bike for miles and miles. Oh, and unlike kids here, I never had to take a fucking exam just to get into middle school. Could’ve certainly done worse.

Even if your move is not quite like Miri’s Brave Quest To Finally Be In A Place She Belongs, you might still be struggling with the desire to fit into your community versus the desire to remember where you’re from and the way you lived there. As you get to know new people, tell them about your old life and what your past homes were like. Let people understand you as the product of all the experiences that led up to your move to this new place, not just the new ones you’re having with them now.

It’s tempting sometimes to see moves as opportunities for total reinvention, and I definitely had a bit of that going on. But sometimes that can feel very isolating, like there are huge pieces of you that you didn’t bring with you when you moved. So bring them.

Stop Telling Harassment and Assault Survivors To Go To the Police

Note: Yes, this is prompted by something that happened to me this weekend. But I’ve been thinking about it for a while and it applies to many events and situations, so I’d rather the comments section didn’t dissolve into a discussion of me and my specific (frankly rather mild) situation. I’m doing fine. However, the snark is on high for this post, so please do take what I just went through into account before complaining about my “tone.” 

So, let’s talk about when someone gets harassed or assaulted and they make it public (whether to friends and family or, like, public-public) and everybody always comes out with the same line: “Oh my god! You need to go to the police right now!”

Stop, rewind. Please stop saying this. I know it’s well-intentioned. I know you want us to be safe. Please stop saying it anyway. It does more harm than good. Let’s talk about why.

First of all, it’s unsolicited advice. Unsolicited advice is frequently annoying, especially when it’s coming from internet randos I don’t even know and who shouldn’t presume to know me. As is often the case with unsolicited advice, it completely ignores my situation as a young woman who’s just started grad school and is terribly busy and has few social supports in the huge new city into which she’s only recently moved. Do I look like someone who has the time and resources to pursue a court case right now? If we’re being honest, I haven’t even had time to call my doctor and ask her to rewrite a prescription I need, let alone spend hours having a lovely tête-à-tête with a cop who tells me I was probably asking for it by being a woman and existing.

So I don’t need your advice. Sometimes people respond to this with “Yeah well if you didn’t want advice why’d you post it online?” Oh, you know, many reasons. In my specific case, it was to highlight a ridiculous flaw in Facebook’s moderation system, to bring attention to the abuse faced by virtually any woman who writes online about feminism (or does anything online, let’s be honest), and to get some emotional support.

Emotional support, by the way, is not (necessarily) advice. Emotional support is, “I’m really sorry you’re going through this.” “You don’t deserve to be treated that way.” “How are you doing?” “Do you need some distractions?” “Whoever did this is a really shitty person.” “This wasn’t your fault.”

As I said, I’m personally totally fine and I didn’t need to vent to anyone or anything. But I appreciated it when people said things like this to me. Many victims do. You do not need to pile advice on us to show us you care! There are better ways.

Second, any person over the age of 5 is aware of the fact that the police are a thing that exists. We don’t need to be told to go to the police any more than a hungry person needs to be told that maybe they should consider eating some food. I mean, really, do these people think we’re not aware that we have the option of calling the police? (I’ll grant that maybe sometimes people may not know that certain acts, such as blackmail or death threats, are a crime. But sexual assault? And still.)

So if you tell me to go to the police, you’re sort of (unintentionally) treating me like an idiot. Yes, I know that the police exist. And guess what? A dozen other people already had the same idea you did, so if I didn’t know about the police before, I sure do now.

Third, going to the police is not effective. It’s just not. So you’re giving me advice that is not helpful. The stories of what happens to women who report harassment or assault to the police are plentiful and really sad. Yes, sometimes it works out well. But generally, either nothing happens, or the women get revictimized by the police. (Sometimes, the police also do this.)

I have been sexually assaulted and sexually harassed and threatened with rape and death. At no point have I seriously considered reporting any of these things to the police. I am not an irresponsible or uninformed person, so please trust me when I say that I have good reasons for not even considering the police as an option.

Fourth, telling a victim over and over to go to the police sends a message. And, unfortunately, that message is generally not “I care about you.” That message is, “It is your duty as a victim to go to the police, or else you’re being irresponsible and immature and making me worry about you and failing to prevent your attacker from hurting others. You are not responding to your harassment/assault in the right way.”

Did you mean to say that? Probably not. But I’m telling you right now that this is how many victims are going to perceive it. When someone becomes the victim of a gendered crime (or any crime, but we’re talking about specific crimes here), that is a time to consider this person’s needs first and foremost. You may indeed be very worried for them. You may wonder what this means for you or others you care about. It is tempting to treat the survivor as though they and they alone hold the power to stop these crimes once and for all in their hands, and all they have to do is pick up the phone and call the cops.

It’s telling that many of the people who told me to go to the police this weekend and who received a curt response from me (curt, not nasty or abusive) immediately took it personally and lashed out, whining about how rude I was and how I didn’t appreciate that they were worried about me. (Keep in mind that these were total strangers on the Internet, not friends or family or anyone else entitled to my emotional energy.) Of course. Because it was about them, and not me, all along. It was about their understandable need to contribute to the conversation and feel useful and tell a young woman what they, as older and wiser adults, thought she needed to do.

At no point was there any acknowledgement from these people that I was dealing with fucking death threats and maybe wasn’t in the best emotional state to be sweet and cheerful about rejecting their unasked-for, completely unhelpful advice.

That’s how I knew it was never about me.

Fifth, law enforcement is a deeply problematic institution that some people choose not to willingly engage with. I won’t say too much about this here because it’s just too immense a topic to cover in a paragraph or two. But yes, I have some ethical qualms about working with a police force that, in my city, fines women for carrying condoms (must be prostitutes amirite?) and profiles people of color with its stop and frisk policy. Sometimes contact with the police is unavoidable, and I would obviously call them if I were facing an immediate risk of injury or death as opposed to some dumb random Facebook death threat.

Stop telling harassment and assault survivors to go to the police. Stop treating us like we don’t know what’s good for us. Stop acting like the police are a panacea to all the world’s evils. Stop making it about you. Stop. It’s our turn to speak.

Flirting and Sexual Harassment: Not Actually the Same Thing

I could do a whole series on harmful and irrational responses to sexual harassment claims. First we had the “but it’s a learning opportunity!” defense, and now there’s this sort of thing: “But people are going to flirt. We’re all sexual beings*. We’re all adults here and should be able to deal with some harmless flirting. Grow up.”

Let’s be clear: flirting and sexual harassment are not the same thing. I have been flirted with many times. I have also been sexually harassed many times. The difference is whether or not the person is treating me like a human being with her own agency, with her own preferences and desires.

If you’re cornering me at a bar or party and leering about what a “dirty girl” I must be and we’ve never spoken before, you’re sexually harassing me. If we’re acquaintances and meet up for lunch and you smile in that particular way and say, “You know, you’re really pretty,” you’re flirting. If you’re my friend–just a friend–and I ask you to help me carry some boxes and afterward you say with a knowing smirk, “So, don’t I get a little something in return for this?,” you’re sexually harassing me.

Different people may have different boundaries. You may not know what those boundaries are. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, or that you have no responsibility to figure out what they are, or that the people you’re attracted to are required to be okay with any sexual comment or approach you choose to make because “we’re all adults here.”

In communities of geeks, nerds, gamers, atheists, and others who have probably been social outcasts at some point in their lives, accusations of sexual harassment often lead to defensive claims that it was “just flirting” and that the person being accused of harassment is actually just socially inept and didn’t realize they were doing anything wrong. It’s easy to use social awkwardness as a cover for predatory behavior. We’re just awkward! We didn’t really learn social skills as kids! We didn’t do this whole dating thing until our 20s! And so on.

First of all, it’s crucially important to understand that playing innocent is something sexual harassers do to hide their tracks. When caught in the act, they protest that they were “just flirting” and it was “all in good fun” and that they “have no idea what [target] is so upset about.” They pretend to be socially awkward and inept, and that they just “didn’t realize” that their actions would make others feel violated and uncomfortable. They claim that there was a “miscommunication,” although evidence suggests that people are quite good at communicating about boundaries, even if they do so using veiled language.

Accepting prima facie this idea that claims of sexual harassment result from one person being “awkward” and the other person not giving them the benefit of the doubt is harmful, because it allows predators to use awkwardness as an excuse.

But let’s for a moment grant that some people may genuinely not realize that what they’re doing constitutes sexual harassment. They just have bad social skills or learned all their flirting techniques from Mad Men or read a few too many PUA forums. What now?

Well, here are some ways to tell if your “flirting” is edging into sexual harassment territory. It’s not an exhaustive list, and answering “yes” to some of these questions doesn’t necessarily mean you’re harassing someone. It just means you need to be careful and self-reflective.

  • Is this person someone you’ve never interacted with before?
  • Is your “flirting” overtly sexual (i.e. making explicit comments about their appearance, talking about what you’d like to do with them sexually) even though this person has never expressed sexual interest in you?
  • Are you the one doing most of the talking? Is the other person turning away, looking around for other people, giving you monosyllabic answers?
  • Are you in a position of power or authority relative to the person you’re talking to? Are you a conference speaker or organizer, a well-known person in the community, a manager or supervisor at work?
  • Do you have the ability to create consequences for this person if they don’t return your interest? The question isn’t whether or not you will, because they can’t read your mind. The question is whether or not you can.

Primarily, sexual harassment is not about your intentions. It’s about how others perceive your intentions. Others may perceive your intentions as being creepy or dangerous either because they actually are creepy or dangerous, or because you’re not doing a good job of communicating your intentions. And that’s on you. If you’re concerned that people will misread you as being creepy, communicate! Say, “So, I find you really attractive. Want to come back to my room later? If not, no worries.” And then let them say no.

Good flirting requires being good at reading people–their tone, their body language, their word choice, their facial expression. Some people are not very good at reading people. That’s okay! Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. However, the fact that you have a particular weakness does not mean that it’s other people’s job to deal with and work around that weakness. If your social awkwardness makes people feel uncomfortable and violated, it is your responsibility to change your behavior, either by learning better social skills or by communicating more clearly so that people don’t get the wrong impression of you.

This is why it’s so infuriating to hear people making excuses for themselves or their friends that go like this: “But he’s just really socially awkward; it’s not his fault.” “Give her a break, she’s just kind of a weird person.” No. Give people more credit than that. People can change.

For instance, here are some great resources for people trying to develop their social skills, especially when it comes to flirting and dating:

(Feel free to leave more in the comments.)

It’s not always clear where the line between appropriate and inappropriate flirting lies, but that doesn’t mean the line doesn’t exist. If you’re trying to flirt with someone and you don’t know where that line lies, it’s your responsibility to find out. (“Hey, is it cool that I said you’re really pretty? I can totally stop if it’s weird for you.”) It’s not the other person’s responsibility to alert you once you’ve already crossed it, made them feel unsafe, and ruined their evening.

I think the most difficult thing for people to understand about this is that it’s not about intent. When someone with whom you’re not close starts hitting on you, you can’t possibly know how they will react if you ignore or rebuff their advances. You can’t possibly know if they’re just hitting on you for innocent fun or if they’re going to try to get you in bed by whatever means necessary.

Anyone who blames you for not knowing and refusing to assume good intent is being creepy. They’re saying that not hurting someone’s feelings matters more than keeping yourself safe. It does not.

In any case, consensual, mutually enjoyable flirting is a really fucking awesome thing. Let’s not devalue it by pretending that sexual harassment falls under its umbrella.

~~~

*We are not all, in fact, “sexual beings.”

How to Be a Responsible Devil’s Advocate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: added a link to this relevant post.

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

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

Here’s the short answer: you don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Touching People Without Their Consent: Still A Problem Even If It’s Not Sexual

Since I’m always blathering on about consent, including consent in non-sexual situations, I’ve noticed a common belief that a lot of people have. It can basically be summed up like so:

  • If you’re interacting with someone sexually, you need their consent. (Duh.)
  • If you’re interacting with someone of the gender to which you’re generally attracted (i.e. you’re a straight man interacting with a woman), you should be careful and get their consent before you touch them.
  • BUT! If you’re interacting with someone of a gender to which you’re not attracted, or you’re interacting with a family member or a friend and so the situation is, in any case, “not sexual,” THEN you don’t need their consent and you should feel free to hug them, touch them on the shoulder, or even grope them “as a joke.”

The reason this is on my mind right now are two articles, and my life in general.

One article is by Ginny over on the Polyskeptic blog. She recounts a disturbing incident in which another woman wanted to get a better look at the tattoo on the back of Ginny’s shoulder and proceeded to lift up the strap of her tank top in order to do so–without consent. A man nearby told the woman off, but she responded that it’s “just the shoulder” and “I just really like tattoos.” And then:

But something the guy said, or maybe just the way I was sitting there rigidly instead of turning around to engage in friendly conversation made the woman realize she was maybe being a tad inappropriate, so she let go of my clothes and patted me soothingly on the arm and said some half-apologetic patter. To which I didn’t really respond because I was still in my “I am so weirded out right now and your soothing pat is STILL YOU TOUCHING ME” frozen zone. And I think by this point she got that I was really uncomfortable, so she broke out the magic words to make it all better: “It’s okay honey, I didn’t mean anything by it, I mean, I like men, ha ha.”

She didn’t realize that which gender(s) she happens to be attracted to is completely irrelevant.

The other piece is on Role/Reboot, and is written by a gay man who witnessed the following scene:

Last Thursday night as I was coming home from work, I noticed a fellow gay man who I have seen around Washington, D.C., at various nightclubs and bars. As we both entered onto the metro, we sat in seats relatively close to a young woman. The woman, who appeared tired, smiled at both of us and put headphones in her ears. In D.C., this is usually a plea to subtly ask someone to allow you to reach your destination in peace without being disturbed. Since I understood this unwritten transit rule, I respected it and pulled out an article to read. Unfortunately, my brethren took this as an invitation to engage in a one-way conversation.

Slowly moving into the seat next to her—despite no one else occupying his space—he began touching her clothing and body and commenting on the “fit” of her dress. Then he proceeded to touch her hair since he “loved how long her locks were” and “wished he had hair like hers.” Unamused by his male privilege and what he considered to be compliments, she politely said thank you and asked if he could quit touching her.

Obviously not appreciating this young’s woman rejection of his “compliments,” he immediately referred to her as a “bitch,” and told her “it’s not like I want to have sex with you—I’m gay.”

Of course, women are not the only victims of this. On the June 14 episode of Citizen Radio, Jamie Kilstein recounts a scene he witnessed on the subway in which two white women–clearly tourists–sat next to a Black man who had headphones on. They tried to talk to him, but he either didn’t hear or ignored them (reasonable in New York City). So one of the women put her hand on his knee and made a comment about it being a “tight squeeze” on the subway, and he immediately responded, “Don’t touch me.” There didn’t seem to be anything sexual about the situation, but that doesn’t make the woman’s behavior any less inappropriate. (While I don’t want to read too much into this, it definitely makes me think about the entitlement that many white people feel to touch Black people, especially their hair.)

A slightly different but similar thing happens with friends and family. People–especially children–are often shamed and guilt-tripped for choosing not to show physical affection for family members, even ones they do not know well or necessarily feel comfortable around. The assumption here is that being someone’s family member entitles you to physical affection from them, just like being someone’s partner entitles you to sex from them. While plenty of people hold one of these assumptions but not the other (generally the first but not the second), they are cut from the same cloth. And that cloth is the belief that social ties entail a duty to provide physical affection, and that if you do not provide it, you are being a bad friend/child/sibling/partner/etc.

How does this relate to the three stories I linked to? Well, many people apparently believe that once you take sexual attraction out of the equation, there’s absolutely no reason for someone to be uncomfortable with being touched (in nonsexual ways). If a gay man sits next to me on the train and starts touching me, I have to be okay with that because he’s not interested in me that way. If a straight woman starts lifting up my clothes to see parts of my body that I covered up, I have to be okay with that because she’s not interested in me that way. If a family member wants a hug and a kiss from me, I have to provide them because, well, obviously it’s not “like that.”

(False, by the way. While I am fortunate to never have experienced incest, plenty of people have.)

For starters, I’m really glad that some people have realized that you shouldn’t touch strangers without their consent if there’s a possibility that you’re sexually attracted to those strangers. But why can’t we expand that to people of all genders, whether you’re attracted to them or not?

There are plenty of reasons why someone might be uncomfortable with being touched, regardless of the sexual orientation of the person touching them. Some people have triggers as a result of past trauma. Some people just don’t know your intentions because they don’t know you or your sexual orientation, so they don’t know if you’re a friendly stranger expressing physical affection because…I don’t know, you like to do that? or if you’re someone who intends to harass and/or assault them. And, most importantly, some people–many people, I’m sure–just want to be left the hell alone by strangers. Sometimes being touched by someone you don’t know is just unpleasant, scary, and uncomfortable.

Furthermore, if we accept “but I’m not even into [your gender]” as an excuse for nonconsensual touching by well-meaning folks, that also leaves it open as an excuse for actual predators to use.

Your desire to touch someone sexually or nonsexually for whatever reason does not outweigh their desire not to be touched. It doesn’t matter why they don’t want to be touched; that’s their business. Just like you wouldn’t touch a bag or a purse that belongs to someone else, don’t touch a body that belongs to someone else–which, by definition, is every body except your own.

[guest post] Undigging the Hole: FOFISSAMO

While I continue to recover from what I did to myself to celebrate finishing college, CaitieCat is back with some advice about apologizing.

So you’re in a mess.

You said something in public that might have used a bit more thought, a bit more empathy, and now you’re in a hole. And people being what people are, instead of climbing out of the hole with the help of the people we’ve hurt, many of us will instead turn to digging deeper, insisting that all we have to do is dig a little deeper and then people will get it and think we’re decent people again. Some of us will bring in backhoes to really get down to the dirt.

By digging the hole, I mean frantic excuses, insistences that your best friend is such a person and that you totally let them use your bathroom and everything, screams of “reverse prejudice” and the like. As a public service, then, allow me to offer this simple four-step algorithm for Undigging the Hole. I call it FOFISSAMO, as noted in the title of the post, as a pleasantly pseudo-Italian mnemonic.

FOFISSAMO stands for:

  1. Find Out

  2. Fix It

  3. Say Sorry

  4. And Move On.

Now here’s what I mean, specifically, by each step in undigging the hole you’re in.

Find Out

Finding out. People HATE the finding out step. Ron Lindsay called it being silenced, for instance, ironically while he used a privileged platform, with a  captive audience provided, to make the complaint. So my first step is simple, despite how much people hate the thought: Shut Up And Listen. If someone’s telling you what you did hurt people, the first impulse of the moral person should be “listen to them”, not “deny that you hurt them”, “insist they’re being oversensitive”, calling them any form of Nazi, or any of the frequently-used other responses we see.

Just pay attention. Attend closely to what the person is telling you about why what you did is a problem. Treat them as a human being, worthy of the same amount of attention you expect to receive yourself. Trust that they know what they’re talking about, the way(s) that they’ve been hurt by what you did, and just as you hope your words are taken in a good and gracious light, give them that same respect. There’s a reason the Golden Rule can be found in almost any civilization’s development.

Yes, it will probably be uncomfortable. You will be feeling embarrassed that you hurt someone, embarrassed to be called on it in public, and often defensive. Remember that this is their time; you had yours when you did the hurtful thing.

Once you know what the problem was, and if it’s amenable to this, then the second step is…

Fix It

If there’s a way you can undo the harm you did, do that. If there’s a way to mitigate the knock-on effects, do that too; an example from other circumstances – if your mistake in making a bank deposit causes someone else to incur fees related to their unexpected banking error situation, you offer to cover those fees, right? Same thing here.

Often there’s no way you can actually do much to fix it, so your next important step is…

Say Sorry

This is probably the simplest part, and also the hardest. Apologize. An apology, to be effective, takes the following form (parenthetical parts are optional/situation-dependent):

I am sorry (for having hurt you/run over your dog/dehumanized you/made you feel like crap/used a slur – even unknowingly, telling them that part comes later!)”.

Don’t say, “I’m sorry if I hurt anyone,” because you already know you did. That was what step 1 was for.

Don’t say, “Mistakes were made,”: own your shit. “I made a mistake” is a much stronger and better statement for this.

Stay away from these things.

Just: “I’m sorry (I hurt you).” If you can include a statement here of exactly what you did wrong, preferably specifically and openly addressing your mistake as a way of acknowledging that you’ve learned and will try to not repeat it, you’ll be doing well.

Which brings us to Step 4…

And Move On

By this, I don’t mean “force the other person to drop the subject”, or “ignore them when they try to help you understand how not to do it again”.

I mean, don’t spend your time trying to weaken your apology by offering excuses. If the injured party wants to talk about how you got there, great, do what they want. But don’t spend time trying to make it not have happened, don’t spend effort on pretending you didn’t fuck up. Just follow their lead and leave it behind when they’re ready to.

Remember, when you bring it up again to re-apologize or get them to recognize that you’re really truly a decent person and totally not like those other people who do or say racist/sexist/transphobic/ableist/whateverist things, or whatever your motive is, you’re not putting only yourself back in that spot of shame and unhappiness, you’re reminding the person you hurt that they were hurt by you. That’s not going to make it easier for either of you to move on.

The important part in this step is to remember that you’re not the injured party here. Take your cue from how the injured party reacts. Let them drive the process, if they want to. And if they don’t, drop it when they do.

So there you have it. FOFISSAMO. Find Out, Fix It, Say Sorry, And Move On: Undigging Holes Since 2013.

CaitieCat is a 47-year-old trans bi dyke, outrageously feminist, and is a translator/editor for academics by vocation. She also writes poetry, does standup comedy, acts and directs in community theatre, paints, games, plays and referees soccer, uses a cane daily, writes other stuff, was raised proudly atheist, is both English by birth and Canadian by naturalization, a former foxhole atheist, a mother of four, and a grandmother of four more (so far). Sort of a Renaissance woman (and shaped like a Reubens!).

“I’m the REAL Skeptic”: On Begging the Question

Things you need to stop doing in debates: framing your position as “rational/skeptical” and the opposing position as not “rational/skeptical.” What I’m talking about specifically are rhetorical moves like these: “Some hysterical people think sexual harassment is a huge problem, but I’m going to be rational about this.” or “I’m an actual skeptic, so I’m not going to whine about some so-called ‘rape culture.'”

Of course, some positions are truly anti-skeptical and/or irrational, but in that case, you can show why they’re not with evidence. For instance! “Anti-vax is an irrational position because all the evidence shows that vaccines are really useful, and no credible study shows that vaccines cause autism.” Or! “It’s not very skeptical to say that mental illnesses are just made up by Big Pharma. Have you spoken with people who have mental illness? Have you researched its neuropsychological correlates?”

But it’s not sufficient just to say something like, “I’m a Real Skeptic so I believe X.” or “You only think Y because you’re being irrational.”

First of all, even assuming for a moment that you, personally, are thinking rationally/skeptically, the fact that your opponent disagrees with you does not necessarily prove that they are not thinking rationally/skeptically. Shockingly enough, rationality and skepticism, when applied to the same issue, can still lead to wildly different conclusions! Some people have studied the evidence and think religion is good for mental health in general. Other people have studied the evidence and think religion is bad for mental health in general, or that its good effects are moderated too much by other factors. Some people have studied the evidence and think that it depends. All of these positions may be products of rational thinking. However, one or more of them may still be wrong, because rationality is not a panacea. It’s just a useful process that often produces good results.

Second, by painting yourself as a True Skeptic/Rationalist and your opponent as a hysterical over-sensitive irrational whiner, you’re engaging in a cheap rhetorical ploy that doesn’t actually 1) prove your point or 2) falsify your opponent’s point. It simply attempts to curry favor to your side through the use of buzzwords like rationality and skepticism.

What you are doing, oh person who probably loves to bloviate about logical fallacies, is begging the question. “I am a rationalist and you are not because my position is right and yours is wrong. My position is right and yours is wrong because I am being rational and you are not.”

Somewhere within whatever issue you’re attempting to needlessly obfuscate lie falsifiable claims that you’re simply ignoring. For instance, if rape culture does not exist, you would not expect rape to be treated more leniently than other crimes. But it is. If rape culture does exist, you might expect rape victims to be blamed for their rapes more frequently than other crime victims are blamed for the crimes committed against them, and they are. If rape culture does not exist, you might not expect people to feel sorry for rapists who have their “lives ruined” by being accurately accused of rape, but they do. If rape culture does not exist, you might expect all rapes to be treated as equally “legitimate,” but they are not. The point is not which of us is being “rational” about this and which of us is a “True Skeptic.” The point is, in which direction does the evidence generally go?

And when scientific evidence has not been accumulated yet, there are still ways in which you can think rationally about the issue. Someone yesterday demanded me to find them statistics on the frequency with which white people touch the hair of people of color without their permission. First of all, if you expect such a study to come out of an American research university, you simply don’t understand how underrepresented people of color are as university faculty, and how unlikely white people are to just spontaneously choose to study an issue such as this (although perhaps it’s happened, I’m not a human research database). Second, riddle me this: if it is not the case that white people frequently touch the hair of people of color without their permission, why does basically every person of color say that this has happened to them? Why have many of them written blog posts and articles about this? Do you think people of color just got together in some secret cabal to plan a conspiracy in which they accuse white people of constantly touching their hair without permission? If so, what motivation do they have for doing this? You’re a Skeptic/Rationalist, aren’t you? By all means, propose an alternative hypothesis to explain this!

Calling yourself skeptical/rational is not enough to make you so. Calling your opponent anti-skeptical/irrational is also not enough to make them so.

P.S. This is only tangentially related, but if you’re a man arguing with a woman and you’re leaping to call her “hysterical” and “irrational,” pause for a moment and consider the historical and cultural implications of this.