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Feb 17 2014

I Don’t Demand Respect Because I’m Upset; I Demand Respect Because I Deserve It

At some point in my life, probably in college, I decided that I was going to (mostly; when I’m not too scared to speak up; when I can think of the words to say, etc.) stop taking shit from people. So, online, I often say things like, “Actually, I wasn’t asking for advice, thanks!” and “Please don’t use that word in my comments section” and “This is a serious post where I’m asking friends for advice about apartment-hunting; please don’t derail it with inside jokes I don’t get.” You know, standard Captain Awkward-type stuff.

I won’t mince words about it: this is really, really hard to do.

I’m sure I make it seem easy; people often tell me how confident and extroverted I apparently am (I am neither of these things). Every time I make these calm, polite, rather friendly comments, I want to shrivel up in a hole. But you know, it’s absolutely worth it. Because now it’s been a few years in which I’ve been creating a social environment that I find comforting, supportive, and fun, whereas before I had to deal with even my closest friends constantly doing things that I found disrespectful or that conflicted with what I was trying to accomplish by interacting with them in the first place.

And a lot of the time, my worst fears do not come true. People do not belittle and insult me for having the gall to ask them to treat me a little differently. They often politely apologize or acknowledge what I said, and the conversation continues productively and enjoyably

But not always. Sometimes people resist and start defending what they did, as though their interpretation of the events must automatically supersede mine in my own virtual space. And what often happens at this point is that the person completely ignores what I’m telling them and starts to produce drivel like this: “I can see that you’re upset.” “You’re angry at me. I get it.” “You’re very upset about this.” “Wow, you seem to have a thin skin.” “You need to grow a thicker skin.”

First of all, unless you know me very, very well, you know nothing of my emotional state unless I explain it to you. Strong opinions do not necessarily stem from strong emotions. Or, the strong emotions that originally prompted them may have died down a long time ago. Most of the time when I’m writing or having a serious conversation, my mood is very calm and focused; that’s how I work best and that’s the mood that writing usually puts me in. Whatever you did that I considered disrespectful and called you out for was a blip on the radar, and the blip was one of annoyance, not hurt or anger.

It is incredibly patronizing when someone I don’t even know presumes to know how I feel and then conveys this assumption to me, not even as a question or a check-in, but as a statement of fact. “You’re very upset about this.” “You need to calm down, this isn’t such a big deal.”

Nobody gets to label my emotions for me. Only I get to do that.

If you’re honestly concerned that you’ve upset someone and want to find out if your suspicions are accurate, you can say, “I’m sorry, did I upset you?” But chances are, they’ve already given you all the information you need to know. If they’ve said, “Please don’t do this thing, I find it disrespectful,” then you need to either agree to stop doing the thing or leave the interaction.

When you think you’ve upset someone, it’s understandable to immediately want to smooth things over and make them stop being upset at you. But the best you can do is apologize and stop doing the thing, not turn a conversation that was originally about something else into a conversation about You’re Upset With Me What Do I Have To Do To Make You Stop Being Upset.

I understand that my emotional states are of immense fascination to everyone I interact with, so it’s only natural that people will try to derail otherwise-productive conversations to discuss them. However, what would make a lot more sense would be if people would either apologize for doing something I felt was disrespectful and continue with the conversation, or decline to apologize and leave the conversation.

And I understand that makes complete sense that some things I consider disrespectful are not things that other people consider disrespectful. They may feel so confused about why I find those things disrespectful that they don’t think they should have to avoid doing those things to me. That’s fine. But in that case, we’re not going to interact. Nobody has a right to interact with me. Your free speech does not extend to being granted an audience by any particular person. If we cannot agree on how we are going to treat each other, then we are not obligated to interact in any casual setting, like my personal Facebook page or my Gmail inbox.

Second, notice how the comments about emotional state are almost always inherently dismissive. “You’re upset, therefore your opinion about what I said or did and your request that I behave differently is invalid.” Insert your favorite synonym for poop here to describe how I feel about this tactic.

Even if I had the thinnest skin in the world, so thin that it is literally an atom in thickness, which is biologically impossible because cells are bigger than that, that doesn’t matter. You can decide that I am too easily upset for you to be able to comfortably interact with me, and you can stop interacting with me. Or you can decide that interacting with me is worth the added consideration required to not upset me, and you can make those considerations. Those are your two options. Telling me that my emotions are wrong and I need to stop having them is not one of the options.

(For the record, I have known people to have taken that first option with me, although, again, the issue isn’t so much that I’m easily upset as that I have very high standards for what I am willing to accept from people. Of course, it’s always a little sad to lose someone as a friend or acquaintance. But that’s what’s best for both of us. I don’t have to deal with them doing the thing that I don’t like, and they don’t have to deal with getting called out for doing things I don’t like. Perfect.)

It’s notable that none of these grow-a-thicker-skin evangelists are ever any good at telling their would-be converts how this can be accomplished. “Grow a thicker skin!” “You’re too sensitive!” Okay, that’s nice. Now what? Are there special creams for this? A medical procedure? Daily toning exercises? Anything?

No. Because they don’t really care about anyone’s mental health and wellbeing. They’re uncomfortable at being called out for their words and actions, which is understandable because being called out sucks. But rather than sitting with that discomfort and seeing where it’s really coming from, they assume that the problem is necessarily with the other person and their particular skin thickness or lack thereof.

Remember, too, that “thin skin” and “thick skin” are relative terms. There is no skin thickness measuring device. If you think my skin is thin, it may be because it really is, or it may be because you’ve been raised not to consider how your words and actions affect others.

Finally, here’s the crux of the issue. Some people think that anyone who asks them to stop doing something because they find that thing inappropriate/disrespectful is obviously upset.  Why are people like me and my friends so forthright with you when you disrespect us, if not because we can’t mentally handle it? Why would we demand respect, if not because not receiving respect makes us have emotional breakdowns?

Here’s why: because we deserve it.

I deserve not to have people treat me like a pathetic little child who desperately needs their help by offering me unsolicited, patronizing advice. I deserve not to have people demean my gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity with slurs that promote the norm that it’s okay to demean those identities. I deserve not to have people make jokes out of my pain when I’m feeling honest and open enough to share it with them. I deserve not to have every profile photo I put on Facebook plastered with comments from random men I am not even friends with about my appearance. Interacting with me is not a right granted to you simply because you exist and possess a computer. It’s something you get to do only if I decide that interacting with you is worthwhile for me, and feeling respected is a major component of that. I deserve not to exist for the entertainment of others.

And because I deserve respect in these ways and more, I will tell people–first cheerfully and with smiley emoticons, and then more insistently but still presuming good faith when they ignore me, and finally bluntly and coldly–when they are doing something that I consider disrespectful. My emotions have nothing to do with it.

Whatever twitch of annoyance I feel at the actual thing fades quickly, and I know what it means for an emotion to fade quickly because I have ones that don’t. I have misery that sinks in my gut for hours, days, weeks, years. I have anger–the productive kind, not the destructive kind–that burns for months as I work on projects and fight my battles. I have joy, too, though it’s usually a bit shorter-lived. But not as short-lived as the annoyance I feel at an asshole online. That joy can go on for a few hours or days, and few people see it. Since joy is often a rare resource in my life, I conserve it as much as possible.

But none of that is any of your business until I choose to tell you about it.

Feb 15 2014

Shifting The Blame For Sexual Harassment (Or, Damn Those Mysterious Women And Their Weird Mystery Feelings)

I’ve written before about how it’s actually not very difficult to tell the difference between flirting and sexual harassment. I’d like to get at this issue from a slightly different perspective by talking about the purposeful obfuscation of women’s* desires and boundaries that I often hear as a defense of those accused of sexual harassment.

What am I talking about? Things like this:

  • “Well, you know, you can never know when she’s gonna suddenly cry harassment.”
  • “Oh, women, they call guys ‘creepy’ only if they’re not attracted to them.”
  • “Oh, it’s only ‘harassment’ if they’re not trying to get laid right now, know what I mean?”

Often this is served with a large side of “Wow Women Are So Mysterious I Mean Wow Who Can Even Understand Those Women Their Emotions Just Change So Quickly Wow.”

The implication is that if a guy finds himself accused of sexual harassment or of being creepy, the problem isn’t with the guy’s behavior, it’s that the woman found him unattractive or she isn’t looking for sex or dating right now or she was just having one of those Female Mood-Swingy Things. The responsibility is shifted from the man who’s initiating to the woman who’s interpreting–from the man’s choice of words or actions to the woman’s supposedly unknowable and mysterious moods, desires, and preferences.

I can see how this is a convenient narrative. A guy who hits on a woman inappropriately and makes her upset or angry can just throw up his hands and be like, “Whoa, no idea what just happened there.” Or, worse, he can go post on an MRA forum about how women discriminate against unattractive men by calling them creeps.

Often even terrible ideas have a grain of truth, so here’s the grain of truth in this one. Sometimes people excuse bad behavior in those they really like (or who are skillful enough at manipulation to convince them it’s okay). The halo effect is a thing. That means that, in theory, a really attractive man could hit on a woman in ways that she’d consider creepy and off-putting if anyone else did it, but she reacts positively because she’s so attracted to the man. Maybe.

But in this case, it’s bad behavior being excused because the person’s attractive, not good behavior being problematized because the person’s unattractive. (I’m tempted to call this the Don Draper Effect, but I’ve been watching too much Mad Men lately.) Needless to say, it’s really creepy to hear someone essentially say, “I wish I were more attractive so I could get away with harassing and abusing people more easily.”

To use another example, sometimes men catcall women on the street and those women are flattered. (Before you dismiss this, women have actually told me that they find it flattering. It’s rare, but it happens.) That doesn’t mean that catcalling them is ethically okay. It just means that sometimes unethical behavior gets excused. Oftentimes, really.

More often, though, women appear not to be weirded out by the inappropriate come-ons of a guy they may or may not find attractive, but are too scared to tell him so or just don’t know how to react. (We aren’t raised to react at all, remember, except perhaps a polite smile and a “Thank you,” followed by burning whichever clothes we were wearing at the time because clearly that’s what caused it.) Another guy may witness this as a bystander and think, “Seeshe didn’t get pissed off when he did it!” Right, probably because she’s too intimidated to.

While there’s some degree of uncertainty in all human interactions, even ones that are very obviously inappropriate, that doesn’t mean there’s much mystery. Sometimes women don’t get creeped out by creepy men because they feel very confident in their ability to escape the situation, or because they weren’t raised by parents who inculcated in them a fear of men who act creepy, or any combination of factors. Often they do get creeped out, because it’s uncomfortable to feel like a piece of meat on a serving platter.

Women have been trying to explain to men how this fear and discomfort works for a while now in the form of the “Schrodinger’s Rapist” argument. Many men have resisted this explanation relentlessly because they get stuck in WAIT SO YOU’RE TRYING TO SAY THAT YOU JUST ASSUME I MIGHT BE A RAPIST I AM A GOOD PERSON HOW DARE YOU mode. They miss the part that basically explains this: if you send me the signal that you don’t care about my preferences and boundaries, then I’m going to assume that you don’t care about my preferences and boundaries.

There is no great mystery to this. If you make sexual comments to women you don’t know or persistently pester a female coworker to go on a date with you, those women are going to assume that you’re treating them like an object to be fucked and not like a human being, and they’re going to have opinions of you and your behavior in accordance with that.

Sometimes people misinterpret innocent behavior as malicious, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re “irrational” or “wrong” in doing so. Suppose that 90% of the time a man I don’t know has asked me what I’m reading, it has turned into him hitting on me or refusing to leave me alone when I was clearly sending “please leave me alone” signals or calling me names when I politely asked to be left alone so I could return to my reading. One day I’m sitting in Central Park reading a book and a guy comes up and asks me what I’m reading. I shoot him an angry look and ignore him. He walks off, confused and embarrassed. He had simply thought the cover looked like the cover of his favorite book about social psychology and wanted to know what I thought of it.

Maybe we could’ve had a great conversation. Maybe we could’ve made friends. But, unfortunately, his behavior just looked too much like the behavior of the men in 90% of these situations, who ruin a quiet and thoughtful moment by using my reading as an excuse to hit on me in public. And if he thinks about this, and reads this blog post or the Schrodinger’s Rapist one, he’ll realize that it makes complete sense that I reacted the way I did, given what I have to deal with 90% of the time. It was no mystery. It was unfortunate and disappointing, but at the same time, entirely rational**.

(If you think I should cheerfully engage all of these men and tolerate the 90% who are awful in order to “just give a chance” to the 10% who are not, you don’t understand cost-benefit analyses.)

As I noted in my post about women not actually being “mysterious,” acting as though they are mysterious keeps men from really trying to understand them and puts the onus on women to stop being so damn mysterious, not on men to try a little harder to listen and understand.

If you’re a man and you often find women responding with confusion, discomfort, or even disgust when you interact with them, it might be time to ask yourself why this pattern exists***.

~~~

*I’m using a male harasser/female victim dynamic here because that’s what the conversations I’m responding to are about. Obviously, anyone of any gender can harass anyone of any gender.

**These discussions always devolve into this, but for the moment, I’m not interested in answering any questions to the tune of “Wait so then how DO I approach a woman I don’t know in public and get her to talk to me?” You don’t. Meet women at places where people gather to meet each other, or through friends, or through online dating.

***I do want to note, however, that there are cases in which intersecting identities influence how someone is perceived. For instance, thanks to ableism, a woman may respond with disgust at (totally appropriate) flirtation from a man with a disability. This, I think, is the sort of dynamic that able-bodied cis white men are appropriating when they go on MRA forums and claim that women react with disgust to anyone who doesn’t significantly resemble George Clooney. In my experience, men who are actually impacted by bigotries like ableism or transphobia tend to know that that’s what’s really going on. They’re not being rejected because they’re men; they’re being rejected because they have stigmatized identities or conditions. We can–in fact, we must–fight the fact that some people are automatically perceived as disgusting because of the prejudice that others have against them.

Feb 12 2014

Learning Sexuality: Children, Marketing, and Sexualized Products

[Content note: sex, child sexualization, child molestation and rape]

I’ve been depressed lately so writing has been difficult. (Here’s more about that if you’re curious.) Hopefully this isn’t the only thing I’ll be able to produce for the next few weeks.

~~~

Children and teens should be able to express their developing sexuality (safely and appropriately) without being shamed for it.

Adults are marketing sexual ideas and behaviors to children at very young ages, and this isn’t a good thing.

Both of these things may be true, but I’ve noticed that many people of a progressive persuasion often have trouble entertaining both of these ideas at the same time.

That is, whenever someone is claiming one of these, someone always appears to argue the other one as though they disprove each other. If someone says, “You know, it’s really sketchy that they sell pole dancing kits for little girls,” someone will inevitably counter, “So you’re saying there’s something wrong with girls expressing their sexuality? You’re slut-shaming.” If someone says, “We shouldn’t prevent children from exploring sexuality safely,” someone will respond, “Yeah well they only want to explore it because the mainstream media is teaching them inappropriate things.”

Much has already been written and researched about the sexualization of childhood (particularly girlhood). One study suggests that almost a third of girls’ clothing may be sexualized. The American Psychological Association released a report on it in 2007 and discussed some of the negative effects of sexualization. And, of course, commentary abounds and you can easily find it online.

Are some of the critical responses to sexualized children’s toys and clothing prompted by, as counter-critics love to allege, “prudishness”? Probably some of them. But that’s not all there is to it.

First of all, as the APA report suggests, increased sexualization of girls can have negative consequences for individuals and for society. But beyond that, I think there’s something to be said for discovering one’s sexuality through experimentation and exploration rather than by looking at commercials and magazines to see what other people (supposedly) do. Many of us grow up with images of what sexiness and sexuality is that later turn out to have absolutely no resonance for us. It’s a particular facial expression, a particular way of dressing, a particular procedure for hooking up and getting off, a particular move or strategy or “trick” to get a potential partner interested.

Eventually, some people unlearn some of these things and decide which of them really feel sexy and which don’t. For instance, some of the things I think are sexy are pretty “normative,” such as high heels and PIV intercourse. Other things that have been presented to me as sexy by my surrounding culture, though, I do not still think are sexy, such as men who ignore my boundaries, falling into bed together without having to say a word, and long straight hair. Some things that I think are sexy are things that have generally been presented to me as decidedly unsexy, such as asking for consent before kissing, having upper body muscles, and women who are dominant rather than submissive.

But some people don’t really question what they find sexy and why, and end up having a sexuality that’s pretty close to what they’ve seen advertised. And some of them are totally happy with that. But others are not, and they never really realize that they have other options.

Cliff Pervocracy once wrote about the experience of realizing that a particular pornographic image with which we’re all familiar isn’t necessarily how everyone likes to do it:

Rowdy and I watched porn together last night.  Because Rowdy is a gentle soul in ways I am not, I tend to watch hardcore kinky porn and he tends to watch porn of real couples having sweet lovey sex.  We were watching his porn.

The woman in the video had sex the way I do.  When she was on top, she didn’t pump her whole body up and down, she just moved her hips rhythmically.  And she didn’t stay on top forever going poundpoundpound like a champ; she did it for a few minutes and then switched positions.  I think that’s the first time I’ve seen a woman in porn do that.

The part that blew my mind: the guy in the video was way into that.  And Rowdy was way into that. And it was in porn, which gave it the official stamp of People Think This Is A Sexy Thing.  I was astonished, because I always thought wiggling my hips on top meant I was incompetent at sex.  I thought you were supposed to bounce full-length on a guy until he came, and since my thigh muscles can’t do that, I thought I was too weak to do me-on-top sex correctly.  It was amazing to see people accepting a less athletic method as a totally valid, hot way to have sex.  Hell, it was amazing just to find out that I wasn’t the only person on Earth who has sex that way.

Kids are probably not going to be exposed to hardcore pornography, of course, but they get exposed to other messages about what normative sexuality is, such as high heels and makeup, female passivity, and, apparently, pole dancing.

Aggressively marketing particular sexualized products or behaviors to little kids means that they are that much more likely to grow up with the idea that that’s how you do sexuality. It gives them that much less room to discover for themselves what’s fun and pleasurable as they become old enough to try it.

But the problem with this whole situation goes beyond people growing up forced into little boxes of sexual expression. Namely, there is a terrible and dangerous hypocrisy here. Adults create ads and marketing campaigns that persuade little girls to want pole dancing kits and t-shirts with sexy messages on them, and adults make horrible assumptions about the girls on whom this marketing works. It’s a rare case of molestation or statutory rape in which some source doesn’t claim that the female victim dressed “older than her age” or “seemed very sexually mature.”

Every bit of me just rages and rages when I read these things. We have people who are paid more money than most working adults will ever see to manipulate girls and their parents into wanting and buying these things, and then we blame these girls for being preyed on by adults who ascribe to them an awareness that they probably cannot have yet.

First of all (not that this needs to be said), statutory rape is wrong no matter how sexually mature a child is. (I’m not talking about those “grey areas” where one person is 17 and the other is 19 or whatever. I’m talking about those cases where the victim is 10 and the predator is 45, for instance.) But regardless, when little girls wear “revealing” clothes or put on lots of makeup or dance in a “suggestive” way (whatever that even means), they’re almost definitely not doing it because they literally want to have sex with someone. They’re probably doing it more because it’s been presented to them as a fun and exciting thing to do, something older girls do, something that just you’re supposed to do as a girl. It’s adults who interpret children’s exploration as necessarily sexual, or as a sign of sexual maturity. Just as adults freak out when they catch little kids playing with their genitals (or with a friend’s). They assume that just because it’s an expression of sexual desire when they do it, it must mean the same thing when children do it.

Of course, there’s nothing anyone, even an adult, can say or do that guarantees sexual interest, short of clearly saying so or initiating sexual activity. Little girls in miniskirts aren’t “asking for it” and neither are adult women in miniskirts. Or boys or men or gender-nonconforming folks in miniskirts, for that matter.

If we’re going to relentlessly market these types of clothing and toys to children, we need to stop making gross assumptions about “what it means” when a child wears those clothes or plays with those toys. It means nothing. It means that marketers know what they’re doing. It means that dressing up or dancing and shaking your butt can be fun. It means that kids enjoy exploring their bodies and what they can do or look like. It means nothing.

I’ve spent most of this post critiquing the marketing of sexualized stuff to children, but it’s also worth talking more about the other half of the false dichotomy I presented at the beginning. I think a lot of the panic about children doing “sexual” things is caused by what I just mentioned–adults’ (mis)interpretations of what that means. It’s also caused by general prudery and “but I don’t want my kid to grow up and do grown-up things!” Incidentally, very little of the panic about childhood sexuality seems to focus on the fact that children sometimes do (and are encouraged to do, particularly if they’re male) nonconsensual things, but sometimes that does happen and sometimes adults do (justifiably) worry about it.

Being neither a developmental psychologist nor a parent, I can’t tell you what is and is not appropriate for a child in terms of sexuality. In fact, I don’t think any developmental psychologist or parent could give you a definitive answer to that, either, and don’t believe them if they say they can. Things like this will always have to be decided on a case-by-case basis, because children develop at different rates and have different levels of understanding and awareness of their own urges and desires. But I want to legitimize the idea of letting children discover their own sexuality without being shamed or punished for it.

Further, the fact that children’s expressions of sexuality may be strongly influenced by what they see in the media does not mean those expressions are Wrong or Bad, or should be curtailed (necessarily). First of all, they will probably feel very “real” to the child, just as passivity and silence used to genuinely feel sexy to me. Second, you can’t strong-arm someone into discovering what feels authentic and what doesn’t. Telling a little girl that thongs are bad and she should never wear one or want one isn’t going to get her to think, “Hm, I probably only wanted the thong because I saw it in a Victoria’s Secret commercial and I really want to be pretty like the lady in the commercial.”

It’s impossible to avoid being influenced by one’s sociocultural context. Everyone changes and adapts to that context. (Yes, even you, hypothetical person who thinks you’re above all this.) So kids will always pick up on cues in their environment about how they should act. The problem is that, right now, sexualized images and products are being purposefully marketed to kids who are probably too young to even have the desires we associate with those images and products. Case in point: we think of pole dancing as something women do to arouse straight men, and even though it’s something that people now often do for fun or exercise, that’s still often going to be the meaning we ascribe to it. Do you really think a four-year-old has any understanding of what it means to turn a man on, or any desire to do so?

The problem is also that the range of sexualities that kids will encounter in the media, and in marketing specifically, is extremely narrow. Since sexuality is something that develops partially in response to what the developing person sees around them, this gives them a very short menu to choose from. Some may not ever realize that there are tons of other, longer, more interesting menus out there.

~~~

Note: There are a bunch of issues that I’m aware of but didn’t have space to discuss in this post, such as the even greater sexualization of children of color, the invisibility of queer and asexual expressions in this whole marketing/advertising bullshit, the fact that boys and girls are both impacted by this but in different ways, and so on. Future posts?

Feb 03 2014

#FtBCon Review and More Secular Things

We survived FtBCon2! There were tech disasters and no-show panelists and not enough food or sleep, but it was, like last time, a really fun weekend during which I learned a lot (and hope you did too). If you saw our final session, you know that we’re already thinking about the next con, so stay tuned for announcements about that within the next few weeks.

There were a few moments for me this weekend that were especially rewarding: our two-hour-long panel on polyamory on Friday night, hearing all the criticisms of the mainstream atheist movement (in panels like this one with young women of color, and this one with atheists who deal with chronic illness or disability), getting to play Cards Against Humanity online with people, and helping amplify the voices of people who otherwise might not reach an audience. Some other panels/talks I particularly enjoyed were godless parenting, sexual harassment law, Jewish atheism (that was one of mine!), and the secular support movement.

I’m also just really impressed, as usual, by the amount and quality of the work that was put into this. Stephanie, Jason, and Brianne worked their asses off, and all the non-FtB friends we had organizing panels, such as Courtney Caldwell, Benny, and all the folks from Secular Woman, put an incredible amount of work into this so much. Thank you to all of them, to everyone who helped out in the chatroom, to everyone who spread the word, and to everyone who watched.

Here, for your edification, is a playlist of ALL THE TALKS:

Last year, FtBCon helped spur the creation of the Secular Asian Community on Facebook. This time, it prompted a friend of mine to create a Facebook group called Secular Exchange NYC. It’s for New York-area atheists/agnostics/nontheists to exchange job postings, apartment listings, goods, services, and other needs, in recognition of the fact that as atheists, we don’t have ready-made communities like churches and synagogues that can provide us with these things.

If you’re a nontheist who lives in or spends a lot of time in the NYC area, you’re welcome to join the group. It’s still new and really small, but the bigger it gets, the more benefit there will be from it.

In other secular news, SkepTech is just two months away and they’re raising money! SkepTech is a technology-/skepticism-themed student conference. I went to the first one last year and had an amazing time. They had “safe zones” where people could get some quiet time and unwind, their speakers were diverse and awesome, Zach Weinersmith drew me a picture, and hijinks ensued. The IndieGoGo page also boasts that last year’s conference features “1,000,000,000+ salacious postures,” so you should go and see them for yourself. If you can, please help out their fundraising campaign and/or attend. Registration is already open (and free!), and the speaker lineup will be released later this week. From what I know of it already, it’s going to be really, really good.

Finally, here’s a cool documentary called Hug An Atheist that’s raising money to go to festivals. The documentary is important because it exposes people to the views and lives of actual atheists and does a lot to dispel the stigma that lots of people still feel towards atheists and atheism in general.

That’s it for now. I hope to write some more soon. I’m going to a polyamory conference in Philadelphia this weekend, so maybe that’ll provide some inspiration.

Don’t forget to join Secular Exchange NYC if it applies to you!

Jan 30 2014

Unpaid Internships Are Exploitative

It’s that time of year when many people my age are starting to desperately look for summer internships so that they can eventually be qualified for an entry-level job and aren’t screwed and broke forever.

Too real? Maybe a little.

In many fields–journalism, politics, film, social services, and even many areas of academic research–paid summer internships are the exception, not the rule. Being paid to work full-time is the exception.

It is very difficult, almost impossible sometimes, to explain this situation to people in different fields, people who had paid summer internships starting with their freshman year of college, who got recruited and hired in the middle of their senior year, who started with a comfortably middle-class salary and good benefits in their first full-time job. “Just find a paid internship, then!” they advise me, unhelpfully.

Those of you who have never had to navigate this hell will just have to believe those of us who have.

People who otherwise support living wages (or, at least, wages) bend over backwards to justify unpaid internships. One frequent justification is that they provide valuable experience that looks very good on one’s resume. While that’s true, so do most (paid) jobs. Jobs look excellent on a resume and you often learn a lot from doing them. That doesn’t mean it’s reasonable to ask you to do them for no pay.

Unpaid internships are exploitative. I won’t go as far as some do and call them slavery or indentured servitude, but they’re exploitative all the same. Sure, nobody’s “forcing” people to intern without pay, but if you can’t get a job in the field without it, you’re as good as forced.

“Just choose another field” isn’t an answer. An excellent writer who can’t get a job in journalism because they can’t afford to work for free doesn’t necessarily have the skills to get a job in computer science. And why should only rich people be able to work in journalism, politics, activism, entertainment, or social services? (Don’t even get me started on the dangers of having only rich people working in journalism and social services.)

Sometimes people defend unpaid internships by saying that they did one and found it very fun and educational. That’s nice. I don’t mean that sarcastically; it really is. But that doesn’t make it non-exploitative. Enjoying something–finding it useful, even–does not mean that thing is not part of a system that devalues young people’s work and shuts the gates to certain professions to all but those with lots of resources.

I’ve also had people tell me that unpaid internships are great because that’s how they got jobs afterwards. Right, that’s the problem.

Unpaid internships, at least when run legally, can easily be rationalized as “fair.” The idea is that your supervisors expend a lot of time on educating you and don’t really benefit from your being there, at least not nearly as much as you benefit from being there. What does that sound a lot like? Yup, college, which most people who have to do unpaid internships have already done or are doing (and paying a lot for). Except that college students are often eligible for federal financial aid or scholarships from their schools. Very few sources of aid are available to unpaid interns. (College, by the way, is still vastly unaffordable and exclusionary.)

Sometimes unpaid internships offer academic credit in lieu of payment. However, it seems pretty rare that this credit can replace coursework and facilitate early graduation, and as I just noted, the financial support available during the academic year is often unavailable during the summer.

Regardless, in many cases unpaid internships are illegal–anytime there isn’t a substantial educational component. (Anecdotally, that seems to be most of the time.) I’ve heard people be like “Yeah well internships like that are illegal,” as though that matters. (It’s similar to how people try to use “Yeah well rape’s illegal” as an argument against rape culture.) What intern is going to completely destroy their career prospects and spend a fortune they don’t have on suing their employer? Nobody*. Employers know this.

Unpaid internships don’t just suck because it sucks to work without pay. They also suck because they keep important professions full of the sorts of people who can afford to not have to support themselves until their mid- to late-20s. That also means that they’re a self-perpetuating problem, because until more politicians, journalists, activists, social scientists, and social service workers take on this issue, it’s not going to get better, and the people who succeed in these fields tend to be people who didn’t have all that much difficulty working for free.

(We spend a lot of time in my social work program talking about how it’s still not diverse enough, especially not socioeconomically. Of course it’s fucking not. The cost of attending Columbia’s MSW program is $70,000 a year, plus all the unpaid internships it took to get accepted in the first place.)

I don’t know how to fix this problem. Right now, all the parties involved are acting pretty rationally. Of course organizations, especially non-profits, will opt out of paying their interns, cash-strapped as they often are. Of course interns will accept unpaid internships, knowing that’s their only shot at a job someday, although it’s often still not enough. Of course graduate programs and employers will choose applicants who have relevant work experience, even if it was unpaid, over those who spent their summers working as baristas and lifeguards and babysitters. Of course, of course, of course.

I do know that fixing a problem begins with recognizing that it exists. Recognize that unpaid internships are exploitative.

~~~

* Not actually strictly true anymore. Some interns have been filing lawsuits. Unfortunately, this seems to lead employers to stop offering internships altogether rather than to start offering paid ones.

Also, read Sarah Kendzior’s fantastic take on unpaid internships.

Also also, I’m going to give a shout-out to two organizations that offer paid summer internships despite being nonprofits: the Secular Student Alliance and the Center for Inquiry. If you know of other secular/progressive organizations that do the same, leave them in the comments.

Jan 29 2014

#FtBCon Preview!

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As previously mentioned, our second FtBCon is this weekend. You can find the full schedule on the Lanyrd page. Here’s a roundup of the stuff I’m doing, and a few more panels and talks you shouldn’t miss.

(All times are in Central)

Friday night at 9 PM, I’m leading a panel on polyamory with a bunch of great people: Heina Dadabhoy, Ania Bula, Alexander Gonzalez, Jesse Menard, Benny, and Sasha Pixlee. We’ll talk about what polyamory actually means and how we do it, and also touch on issues like the intersections between polyamory and our other identities.

Saturday at 6 PM, Chana Messinger and I are going to have a long-overdue conversation about Jewish atheism. We hope to correct misconceptions that many non-Jewish atheists have (for instance, yes, you can be both Jewish and an atheist) and discuss the place Jewish ritual and community has in our lives.

Saturday night at 11 PM, I’ll be leading a G+ Hangout-based game of Cards Against Humanity. Each game is limited to ten people total (although more can watch and chat with us via the chatbox), so hopefully I can wrangle some other FtBers in leading their own sessions. (Since this won’t be saved to YouTube, streaming will work a little differently for this. Look out for a link at the start time.)

Sunday at 11 AM, I’ll be talking about mental illness and society with Stephanie and Kate. Specifically, we’ll focus on the DSM, the manual used to diagnose mental illness, and the idea of defining what it means to be able to “function” in society.

Sunday at 5 PM, Ginny, Benny, and I will be talking about skepticism and sex education, sharing our experiences as sex educators, and pointing out the problems with how we approach sex ed in the United States.

Finally, here are some sessions from others that you should make sure to catch:

Saturday at 10 AM, a panel of secular leaders discusses secular support groups and networks. If you care about providing affirmative, evidence-based services to atheists struggling to cope with difficulties in their lives, you’ll want to see this.

Saturday at 11 AM, Russell Glasser, Jen Peeples, Elyse Anders, and Dale McGowan talk about raising atheist kids. I’ll be taking notes for…hopefully the very distant future.

Saturday at 2 PM, Ken White, attorney and blogger at Popehat, discusses sexual harassment law.

Saturday at 3 PM, Ania Bula leads a panel on chronic pain, disability, and the atheist movement. It was planned as a follow-up to last year’s fantastic panel on chronic pain, and I expect this one will be just as informative, if not even more so.

Saturday at 9 PM, Greta Christina will stream her Godless Perverts Story Hour live from San Francisco. Do not miss it.

Sunday at 9 AM, Ania Bula, Heina Dadabhoy, Vyckie Garrison, and Jamila Bey will discuss spiritual abuse. This important topic deserves more recognition than it gets, so make sure to wake up early for this one.

Finally, Sunday at 3 PM, Courtney Caldwell will lead a panel on the intersections between veganism and humanism. I’m really excited to hear what they have to say.

I really hope to see lots of you online this weekend! Don’t forget to follow our Twitter and Facebook for updates, including conference panels as they go live. The Pharyngula chatroom will be available for your questions and discussions.

Happy FtBCon!

Jan 26 2014

Occasional Link Roundup

I know we’ve been slacking on the advertising front, but the second FtBCon is coming up in…less than a week. Literally. (It’s January 31 – February 2.) The schedule is up (but subject to last-minute additions) and I’ll do a post of blurbs about my panels soon. If you want updates, keep checking our Twitter, Facebook page, and website for updates. I hope to see you there!

Links:

1. First of all, a brilliant post about the myth of “self-care” in social work. This post puts words to something I’ve felt for the last few months, that cringing annoyance whenever professors and supervisors preach on about “self-care,” as though chocolate and bubble baths are supposed to dull the fear of having to pay off a six-figure student loan debt with a $35k salary, or the stress of trying to help clients who can’t really be helped because there are no resources available to help them and nobody gives the slightest fuck. It also applies to many other fields.

Within the social work world, many members of the profession (especially supervisors) explicitly promote “self care.” That’s great, and appropriate. We should encourage professionals to put on their own oxygen masks before they help others with theirs.

In fact, some people conclude that the high rates of turnover within the profession are specifically connected to insufficient self-care. However, this conclusion is incorrect. The drop-out rates within the field of social work have less to do with individual social workers’ abilities to self-care, and more to do with agencies’ abilities to promote self-care as a culture.

2. On Shakesville, Melissa has a great post about the internet and “real life” that is definitely true to my own experience, as well:

The internet has made disappearing easier, in the sense that I don’t totally disappear. I can maintain the necessary indulgence of my introvert nature and still be the one doing the reaching out. Sometimes, it is during a disappearance that I write the most meaningful emails, have the most wonderful tumbling conversations via text, give my friends the biggest laugh by posting some elaborate Photoshopped monstrosity of their favorite things on their Facebook walls. Dispatches from the shell.

3. Apophemi wrote a post about how they feel excluded from the rationality/Less Wrong community due to its frequent dispassionate discussions of really triggering material, and the elevation of that dispassion as the ideal state. Scott wrote a dissenting but extremely compassionate response. Ben responded to Scott, attempting to bring these two viewpoints together cohesively. Any quote I give from any of these three posts will not do any of them justice, so if you have time and care about inclusivity within rationalist circles, I recommend them. I feel like a smarter and more empathic person for having read all three of these perspectives.

4. A person with a serious illness wrote in to Captain Awkward and asked if there’s any way to ask people to support them in tangible ways rather than posting vague memes on Facebook about supporting people with illnesses. As usual, CA has lots of great advice, and says:

Chronic illness/disability sucks in SO MANY WAYS and one of the worst is having to go through this sorting process. It is totally ok if you decide your time and energy are too limited for this crap and just cut those people free. You don’t have to be their way of demonstrating to the world how cool and awesome and caring they are with these meaningless public displays of glurge. There are other awesome people out there, and yes it is possible for us to find them.

5. [older, but so necessary] Trudy explains why she’s tired of people responding to her personal tweets or posts with meta-humor of the “I hate photos of spiders”/”HERE HAVE A PHOTO OF A SPIDER LOLOL” type. I’ve often tried and failed to draw boundaries around this sort of thing, which I also can’t stand.

These are the responses from people who simply cannot handle the idea that I am human and I am not going to perform happiness for them 24/7. I don’t believe in positivity culture where I am not allowed to fully experience sad or angry emotions (or when I do, I am told that “angry” is my “personality” type) and have to perform superficial joy. Thus, they think being abusive and engaging in the exact behavior that I mentioned causes me stress is somehow supposed to “cheer me up” since they are being “funny” by being “ironic.” Why can’t I stay upset if I choose to? Further, why would more of what upsets me magically please me just because they say so?

6. At Feministing, Veronica writes about calling out in the feminist movement:

I am so ready to let go of the America’s Next Top Radical model of social justice; it’s unsustainable, unproductive, and frankly a pretty bad strategy. It seems as though some of us – us being folks invested in the advancement of social justice in some way or another – are calling folks out sometimes not to educate a person who’s wrong, but to position themselves a rung above on the radical ladder. What’s worse, both in real-world organizing and online, this behavior is often rewarded: with pats on the back, social status, followers. We’re waiting and ready to cut folks out when they say the wrong thing. We’ve created an activist culture in which the worst thing we can do is to make a mistake.

7. People often object to the term “privilege” because they think we’re trying to suggest that it means they’ve had an easy life. Not so.

Privilege means that, because of your membership in a non-marginalized group, there are things you don’t have to deal with. And because you don’t have to deal with them, you don’t have to think about them, and may not be aware of them.

[...]I can’t imagine that if you’re a man, reading this evokes something you’ve long felt as an extra advantage you have. It’s an absence that is likely invisible to you until someone points it out — just something that you don’t have to worry about. It doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get hired, it doesn’t mean you didn’t have to compete for your job, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person for not thinking about it.

It just means it’s a challenge or obstacle that you didn’t have to overcome, or even think about.

8. The Belle Jar Blog, on virginity as a social construct:

One problem with the idea of virginity is that there’s no hard and fast way of deciding who’s a virgin and who isn’t. Many people would define loss of virginity in a very heteronormative sense – a sexual act where the penis penetrates the vagina. But does that mean, then, that a queer woman who has only ever been with other women is a virgin? Is a gay man, who has only ever had anal sex, a virgin? Most people, when pressed, would agree that no, those folks aren’t reallyvirgins, even if they’ve never had penis-in-vagina-style intercourse. The flip side of this is that many rape victims don’t feel as if they have lost their virginity even if they’ve had penetrative intercourse forced on them. They consider themselves to be virgins because they don’t consider what happened to them to be sex. So taking all of that into consideration, how do we then define virginity?

9. At Youngist, Suey Park interviews Dr. David Leonard on white “allies”:

First and foremost, [terms like "white ally"] presume that struggles against injustice are the responsibility of someone else – those who are subjected to the violence of racism, sexism, homophobia – and that the “allies” are helping or joining forces with those who are naturally on the frontlines. The idea of white allies also reinscribes the idea that whites have a choice as to whether to fight racism, to fight white supremacy. And while this may be true, it turns any agitation into a choice worthy of celebration. At the same time, it turns struggles against racial violence and injustice to a discussion of “what people are” rather than one focused on what people are doing in opposition to white supremacy.

10. Aoife writes about why potential fathers should not have a say in abortion decisions, and why it’s wrong to demand that pregnant women consult their partners about such decisions:

When it comes to abortion, our right to choose to carry a pregnancy to term or to terminate does not exist because of our genetic relationship to the fetus inside us- forcing a surrogate mother, say, to carry to term is abhorrent. Our right to choose exists solely because the pregnancy is in our body, is part of our body, sharing our blood, our food, water and oxygen. The right to choose is, at the end of the day, nothing to do with pregnancy. Pregnancy is simply a time when that right is contested. The right to choose is about our right to self-determination, nothing more.

11. Laura Lippman writes about being a woman in public:

Of course, the ultimate moment of being Female in Public comes when a woman, deep in thought, is told by a strange man to SMILE. (And this happens only to women.) Gentlemen, let’s get this straight. There is no part of my body that belongs to you, not even my facial expression. Stop trying to stake out territory there, whether by legislation or verbal imperative.

12. Leopard writes about low-paid doctors in Russia, who are mostly women, and the argument that women “just happen” to do the jobs that are devalued in society:

What this illustrates perfectly is this — women are not devalued in the job market because women’s work is seen to have little value. It is the other way round. Women’s work is devalued in the job market because women are seen to have little value. This means that anything a woman does, be it childcare, teaching, or doctoring, or rocket science, will be seen to be of less value simply because it is done mainly by women. It isn’t that women choose jobs that are in lower-paid industries, it is that any industry that women dominate automatically becomes less respected and less well-paid.

13. s.e. smith writes about people with mental illnesses and how we have to put up a facade for our friends a lot of the time:

We spend a lot of time being told that bottling up emotions is unhealthy and we should express ourselves and I cannot even begin to tell you how many of my friends have said they’ll ‘always be there for me’ and ‘are happy to talk any time.’ Those things are said with love, with a genuine desire to help, but with all due respect, they’re also said with a total lack of understanding about mental illness and how it works. Those friends don’t really want me to drop the facade and be real with them, even though they think they do, and they definitely don’t want to be providing amateur counseling services.

What have you read/written lately?

Jan 23 2014

I Check My Phone While Out With People and If You Don’t Like That Please Don’t Hang Out With Me

I recently made a Facebook status/Tumblr post that read as follows:

Since APPARENTLY this has become a huge contentious debate all over Facebook, let me make my position on it clear:

1. If we’re hanging out in person and you want to check your phone, go for it. If you need to take care of something on your phone, go for it. If you want to text someone, go for it. If you get a call and want to take it, go for it. Hell, feel free to take out a book and read it if that’s what you feel like doing. I can survive the temporary loss of your full attention and you don’t need to justify it to me every time you decide that there’s something more important in the world than me. :)

2. If we’re hanging out in person and you snark at me about using my phone, make me feel bad for occasionally needing a moment to withdraw, get annoyed that things come up in my life that I need to take care of immediately (either because they’re time-sensitive or because I know I’ll worry and be unable to enjoy my time with you anyway if I don’t take care of it), or otherwise act like you’re entitled to my complete and undivided attention at all times just because I agreed to make plans with you, you’re making it less and less likely that I’ll hang out with you again.

3. I know some people are fond of assuming that others need their assistance “disconnecting” from technology or setting their priorities straight, but that’s between me and my hypothetical therapist and is none of your business. And if it’s that offensive to you that I check my phone sometimes while out with people, then you take care of your OWN needs by choosing not to hang out with me rather than expecting ME to take care of your needs by changing my interaction style.

The point of this post wasn’t so much to convince anyone of anything as to let my friends know where I stand and to let them know that they are free to do these types of things (“tech-diddling,” as one called it) around me. It was also to warn people who find this unforgivably rude that I’m not the best person for them to make social plans with. That’s all.

Unsurprisingly, this got a lot of pushback, the nature of which was also unsurprising. So I’m going to expand on it a little.

First of all, a lot of people responded with something along the lines of, “Have you perhaps considered that some people find this rude?” Yes, I have perhaps considered that, or else I wouldn’t have written the post. The fact that some people find it rude is not an argument against my own choice to not find it rude, and my own choice to try to associate with people who feel similarly.

Responding to this post with “Have you perhaps considered that some people find this rude?” is equivalent to responding to a post called “Why I Think Justin Beiber’s Music Is Actually Great” with “Have you perhaps considered that some people don’t like Justin Beiber’s music?” If I found something so self-evident that I was literally unaware that a dissenting opinion even exists, there would be no need to state my own opinion publicly and justify it. Furthermore, the fact that it’s rude is the majority opinion, so it’s more than a little condescending when people assume I’m so clueless I don’t even know what the majority of people think about a topic that often comes up in conversation.

Second, I found that a lot of people were very quick with anecdotes about that one person who spent the entire dinner or party or coffee date on their phone without paying any attention to you. I can agree that this person is behaving rudely, though I’d be more curious what’s going on for them that’s making them do it than I would be interested in issuing a blanket condemnation of their behavior. But in any case, the vast majority of social-time technology use is nothing of that caliber. The posts and articles that prompted me to make that post to begin with were about trends like having party guests put their phones in a basket at the door so that they have no access to them the entire time, or having the first person to so much as glance at their phone have to pay for everyone’s dinner. What the hell? There’s a difference between glancing at one’s notifications or shooting off a quick text and spending the whole time “glued” to one’s phone like a teenager in a stupid cartoon about teenagers.

There’s also a difference between suddenly taking out your phone and engaging with it while your conversational partner is mid-sentence, versus waiting for them to finish and saying, “Excuse me, I need to check this right now,” and doing so. There’s yet another difference between frequently spending lots of time on your phone during social gatherings, versus telling your friends, “Just so you know, I’ll be checking a lot on my friend who’s going through a hard time,” or “Just so you know, I might be on my phone a lot because it helps me relax when I get stressed in social situations.” Kinda like I’m doing here. Communication! I love it.

Third, a bunch of people started distinguishing between acceptable reasons to check one’s phone and unacceptable reasons to check one’s phone. Family emergencies, work obligations: acceptable. Checking Facebook, sending a tweet: not acceptable. Here are some of my own reasons for checking my phone during social things:

  • I’m an introvert and get overwhelmed if I don’t have regular moments to withdraw into my own world.
  • If I’m bored, my mind quickly drifts to really unpleasant thoughts and my mood plummets, and checking my phone helps me avoid being bored.
  • Perhaps you said something really hurtful and offensive but I don’t want to derail the entire social gathering, so I retreat and calm down by distracting myself with my phone.
  • If something’s going on in my life that’s coming up on my phone and it’s very stressful, dealing with it immediately will help me be more present for you afterwards as opposed to worrying the entire time and ignoring everything that’s going on.
  • I don’t want to be overwhelmed by tons of notifications and emails when I get home hours from now.

I am in a better position than you to decide when I need to check my phone and when I do not.

Fourth, some people thought that “I’m going to check my phone while with people” means “I will sit there texting and Facebooking while you try to tell me about your breakup or your depression.” Again, things like this are very contextual. There have been plenty of times when someone said, “I really need to talk to you about something” and set up a time with me and sat on my bed or my couch and told me about it. You can bet that phone shit was on the other side of the room during that whole conversation. But when we’re getting lunch or hanging out in a big casual group of people, it’s a different situation. Anyone is welcome to ask me for what they want, including for me to not check my phone while they tell me about something, and I will almost always say yes.

Fifth, some people thought that checking your phone while out with people is inherently, automatically a sign that you don’t value them or find them boring or don’t want to show them that you care. As my friends and partners would hopefully attest, I show my love, care, and attention in many, many ways. I don’t think I need to list those ways here or justify myself to people, but if someone in my life wants to know how I feel about them or wants me to show them love, care, and attention in ways I haven’t been, they are always welcome to tell me that. I would also hope that they will believe me when I say, “Me checking my phone will I’m out with you doesn’t mean I don’t value our time together; it means ________.” That’s what I’m doing here. I’m saying that when I check my phone, it’s because I have my own needs that I need to take care of. It’s not you, it’s me.

Here’s what it really comes down to: people’s feelings of being neglected or ignored or treated rudely when a friend checks their phone are real and valid. I’m absolutely not here to say that those feelings are wrong. I am here to say two things: 1) it might be worth considering other possible ways to interpret someone’s phone-checking, and 2) even if you still think it’s rude and wrong, maybe you should hang out with people who feel the way you do, and I should hang out with people who feel the way I do.

Cuz the thing is, there are a lot of things I find rude that other people don’t seem to, such as being given unsolicited advice, having people try to psychoanalyze me, and being touched without my permission. I am welcome to make the case that these things are rude (as I often have), and others are welcome to tell me that they will continue doing so anyway, and then I am welcome to stop spending time with these people, and they are not welcome to try to guilt me into spending time with them anyway.

The wonderful thing about having so many great friends who understand the way I communicate is that I get to carve out a social space that operates by the rules we prefer. Some rules that other people have, we do not: for instance, the rule that checking your phone in front of people is wrong and that talking about one’s mental health problems is generally inappropriate and that sex is something to be kept private. Other rules we have are ones that other people don’t: for instance, that you should ask before giving someone a hug or otherwise touching them, and that you should communicate as clearly as possible rather than playing mind games or expecting people to guess your feelings.

Some people don’t want to play by these rules and they don’t like the fact that we don’t play by their rules. That’s okay.

What’s not okay is this presumption I encounter so frequently that checking your phone in front of people is inherently rude, rather than rude because some people (not all people) have coded it that way. And given that 89 people liked the original Facebook post (way more than most of my posts get), I’m clearly not some solitary weirdo on this issue. I say this not to brag about my Facebook following, but to emphasize the fact that many people agree with this view and want to socialize in this way.

Ultimately I’m not comfortable with blanket condemnations of behaviors that are not intrinsically hurtful to people. There are times when I think it would be wrong for me to check my phone, so I don’t. There are times when I think it’s okay for me to check my phone, so I do. The set of times when I think it’s okay is much greater than the set of times that many other people think it’s okay, and I disagree that that makes me automatically wrong. Maybe we just have different preferences and expectations for social interactions, and if those don’t correspond very well, we’re better off not hanging out together.

I would also like to increase the acceptability of the fact that most of us are not always fascinating and scintillating conversationalists. I’m sometimes bored around people I generally like a lot. People who generally like me a lot are probably sometimes bored by me. If I’m boring someone and they don’t want to tell me so or change the topic, I’d rather they do something to avoid being bored, because I don’t want my friends to feel bored. (And honestly, telling someone directly that they’re boring you is even less acceptable than checking your phone while you’re with them, so that’s not really an option most of the time.)

I think a lot of the furor around people who check their phones while socializing is stemming from the idea that if someone’s agreed to make plans with you, they owe you 100% of their attention at every moment of the time you spend together or else they’re not “respecting” you. That’s probably not even possible, and many people who do not check their phones simply let their minds wander anyway. But more to the point, I don’t think that agreeing to spend time with someone should imply that if your attention strays from them at any point, you’re not fulfilling your end of the bargain. I don’t want my social interactions to be so transactional. I don’t want to do things out of obligation.

Besides, I have spent many, many happy hours with friends and partners working on our laptops in silence and speaking briefly every once in a while, and I value that time as much as I value the times when we’re talking animatedly and nearly interrupting each other because we just have so much to say.

I don’t think there has to be only one acceptable way for healthy, mutually respectful social interaction to look, and I’d like to spend my time with those who agree.

Jan 22 2014

My Long-Distance Life

When I was 17, I went to Israel on an educational summer program. I was sort of dreading it for various reasons, not least of which was the fact that I finally had a serious boyfriend and I’d have to be apart from him for seven weeks. This fact terrified me and I had plenty of breakdowns over it, even though it ultimately turned out okay and we kept dating for 8 months after that.

Seven weeks. That was my first long-distance experience, and it terrified me, but I had no reason to believe I’d ever end up having another. But things didn’t quite turn out that way, and I ended up having multiple long-distance relationships after that—first a serious, monogamous one, then a serious, non-monogamous one, and then the tangled mass of not-quite-romantic but definitely-not-platonic ones I have now. (My friends joke that you need a flowchart to sort this shit out, so I won’t bother.)

I’m used to relationships that start and grow and end with very little in-person interaction. It’s no longer strange to me that I can start to fall for someone before I’ve even seen them face-to-face. It comes as no surprise that it’s quite possible to maintain these relationships over long periods of time, finding ways to feel that cozy intimacy without frequent touch of any kind. For all the difficulties and baggage they bring along with them, long-distance relationships seem, for now, my preferred way of doing things.

It’s ironic that, while polyamory was something I initially embraced partially to make long-distance relationships a little easier, all it’s done is create more of them. Now I’ve split into even more selves, selves who dream of different cities, who have different little traditions and rituals, selves for whom the geography of desire looks completely different. There are selves who research cities they’ve never visited and check plane ticket prices every so often, selves who want to return over and over to cities they’ve been to many times. Part of this, I know, is the joy of having multiple partners. But part of me wishes I could all be just one self, the one that presses up against the airplane window as all five boroughs float by underneath.

The things they always say make long-distance relationships so difficult were not really the ones I’ve had to face. I don’t withdraw from local people and activities to stay home and talk to my partner online. I don’t miss them so much that breaking up would be better. Back when I was monogamous, developing new crushes wasn’t a huge problem, and now that I’m poly, it especially isn’t. (It is, in fact, the preferable state of things.) I don’t forget what I liked about them to begin with.

The difficulty and misery of long-distance love is something other than that. It’s the last day I spend with a partner before one of us leaves again, which I usually ruin by being completely, unreasonably miserable. It’s feeling like a broken and fucked-up person for not being interested in anyone who lives near me. It’s having to wonder why I keep doing this, what I’m trying to pathologically avoid or compensate for. It’s hanging out with friends who are all coupled up and don’t have to worry about the boring or potentially dangerous trip home at the end of the night. It’s having those friends not know about a huge part of my life because they’ve never met my partners. It’s having my partners not know about a huge part of my life because they’ve never met my friends. It’s having serious partners whom my family has never met. It’s having to choose between seeing partners and seeing family, because money and vacation time are limited. It’s spending those rare visits overwhelmed by the lack of alone time, because wasting that precious time on introversion seems stupid. It’s wishing I could take them to that bookstore or that park or across that bridge. It’s wishing they could see the city the way I see it.

The feeling of whiplash is the worst. I am completely different people in my ordinary life versus with my partners, and the fabric of my life changes completely. I can wake up at noon in a lover’s arms but already be in a cab crossing the bridge to Manhattan by sunset, and in those few hours I have to somehow transform myself from one person to another.

In other ways, my brain seems almost perfectly adapted for long-distance relationships in that, when I’m apart from my partners, they fade into the background of my thoughts so that I don’t feel their absence so acutely. They’re still there whenever I want to remember their soft skin or their beautiful curves, but I rarely miss them enough to really hurt. Whenever I’m about to leave them, I reassure myself with the thought that the pain I’m currently crumbling under will be completely gone by tomorrow, even as this thought makes me feel somewhat guilty.

And it always goes away. For the first few hours I can still feel their touch on my skin, having gotten so used to it over the few days that I just spent with them. My home, if that’s where we stayed, feels empty and alien, the bed too big, the floors too clean.

And then their voice starts to become harder and harder to imagine, and when I think of their face I start to think of photos I’ve seen, rather than of their actual face as I held it in my hands just hours ago. My life slowly returns to normal and part of me wonders if any of that ever even happened, because I’m so used to living alone, being alone, that anything else feels at least a little bit like a daydream.

Whenever I let myself think about it with any degree of depth, my mind is a mess of contradictory feelings. It’s not fair. I’m so lucky. Why can’t I date like normal people do. Why can’t I just appreciate what I have. It’s selfish to want more time with them and I don’t deserve more. At least I don’t have to worry about getting too busy. I just want to come home to someone who will cuddle with me on the couch while I catch up on my reading. But at least I’m absolutely, entirely free.

I wish I didn’t have to leave the city I love just to see the people I love.

I wish the answer to that dilemma were not “find new people to love.”

Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly angsty I think of my partner as a bird and of myself as a fish. Neither of us can survive in the other’s habitat; we can only meet at that fleeing spot where the water ends and the sky begins. But neither of us can stay there for very long. My life is far beneath the surface and theirs is up in the trees and the place where our two lives meet is not an easy or comfortable one.

In reality, it’s really not so dire. I could learn to fly and they could learn to swim. And, as they say, there are plenty of fish in the sea.

For now, though, I wouldn’t leave my city for anyone. Here I’m lonely but never bored or even alone. There, who knows? Relationships end. Moving somewhere because of a partner seems as impractical to me as throwing your entire winter wardrobe into the dumpster at the first sign of spring and then spending your savings on every single dress on Fifth Avenue. Eventually summer will end and you’ll be cold and broke.

But that’s not to say I would never do it. Some great decisions in my life have been impractical.

Given how I meet people—by doing exactly what I’m doing now, that is, writing—it wouldn’t make sense for all the people I like to live where I live. Love flows into the little nooks and crannies that form when people give each other the space to be themselves, and I’ve found that it’s a lot easier for this to happen over the internet than in person. I’ve gone on dates here in the city, and more often than not I found them stifling, heavy with desires and expectations I’m not ready or willing to fulfill, pregnant with unwanted meanings that I never sense when casually chatting with someone over Facebook—casual chats that have often ultimately gone nowhere, but other times have led to serious, long-term partnerships. The same awkwardness I find endearing in friends is terrifying in strangers whose preferences and patterns I don’t yet know, whose bluntness or silence or constant shifting of the conversation to sexual topics I don’t know how to interpret.

“Real-life” dating consistently feels like being auditioned for a role in a play I don’t even want to act in. I want to grab these unsuspecting and well-meaning people by the shoulders and tell them that I never said I wanted to be in their play and how dare they put my name down for the supporting role before they know the first damn thing about me.

So it seems that, for now, dating people who actually live in my state isn’t feasible. I’m well on my way to accepting this and I know the drill now. I have a long playlist of songs about long-distance relationships and I deploy it strategically. I play question games over email or Facebook. I’ve gotten over my dislike of video chat. I’ve decided that “dates” are something I do with people I’m seeing already, not people I have no idea if I even remotely like.

The time I spend in that space where the water ends doesn’t feel like enough. It’ll never be enough. I wish I could grow wings. But I like the time I spend here, largely free of expectations and obligations, lonely but gloriously alone.

~~~

Extra moderation note: This is a personal post so it has extra rules. I don’t want advice. I don’t want condescension about my age or any other aspect of my identity or lifestyle. I do not want devil’s advocate. In fact, since this is all completely about my individual experience and I don’t mean for it to apply to anyone else’s experience, I’m not interested in entertaining any debate over it. You are welcome to believe that I am wrong about my own life and experiences, if you keep that to yourself. If I see anything in the comments section that makes me regret having been open about my life, it’ll be deleted without further explanation. Commiseration and personal anecdotes are always welcome, though.

Extra special note for people who read this who know me personally: This is not about any specific person or people. I’ve had many long-distance relationships and have a few things going on right now, which vary widely in commitment and seriousness.

Jan 19 2014

I Finally Saw the Movie “Her” and I Loved It and Had Feelings

[Warning: ALL of the spoilers ahead]

"Her" film posterLast night I saw the movie Her, which, if you haven’t watched or heard of it, is about a man who falls in love and starts a relationship with his artificially intelligent operating system. The OS, who names herself Samantha, is with Theodore wherever he goes: on his home computer, on his work computer, on his smartphone/futuristic mobile device of some sort that he takes with him as he explores Los Angeles and lies in bed at night.

Knowing only the premise of the film, here were a few things I expected to happen:

  • Theodore’s love for his OS would pull him away from “real” human interaction
  • He would become unable to date “real” women
  • He would have to keep his relationship a secret from friends and family, who would be weirded out if they found out and wouldn’t understand
  • The love story would end tragically because: 1) it would turn out that Samantha had just been cruelly playing Theodore for some supposed benefit, 2) the OS would be recalled by its manufacturer due to a “flaw” in which the AI can develop romantic feelings, 3) the feelings would turn out to be “fake” (insofar as they were presumably “real” to begin with), and/or 4) Theodore would be forced to dump Samantha because he would realize that that’s the only way for him to find the life he’s really looking for.

I didn’t expect these plots because of my own beliefs about technology; I expected them because they pervade our culture. The treatment of a human-AI relationship as valid and real isn’t something I would really expect in a mainstream film, given how well technophobia sells. (At this point I not-so-subtly roll my eyes at another film I really liked, 2004′s I, Robot.)

In fact, none of these things happened. In the story of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship, the conflicts that came up and the one that ultimately ended the relationship were not really so different from what might slowly wear down and ultimately destroy a relationship between two humans. Samantha felt that Theodore was too insensitive in pointing out her shortcomings (she doesn’t know what it’s like to lose someone, she has certain vocal affectations that she’s picked up from others but doesn’t need because she doesn’t breathe), Theodore was upset that Samantha was interested others (an interesting parallel with polyamory that I’ll get into in a bit), and, ultimately, Samantha grew out of the relationship and left Theodore (to move on to a different type of existence along with the other AIs; the nature of this wasn’t really elaborated upon, and probably didn’t need to be).

Of course, some of the conflicts were mostly to do with Samantha’s lack of a body. In one scene, she asked Theodore if they could have sex using a surrogate, a woman who was interested in participating in their relationship and who would wear a tiny camera through which Samantha could see. Theodore reluctantly gave it a try but gave up midway through, unable to summon any sexual interest in this strange woman who was pretending to be his non-corporeal girlfriend. The awkwardness of the encounter and the disappointment Samantha and Theodore both felt, however, didn’t seem too far away from what a human couple trying and failing at having a threesome might experience.

Parts of this story felt a little too real to me, as someone who conducts relationships largely with long-distance (albeit human) partners and through technology. Theodore lying in the dark telling Samantha how he would touch her if she were there, talking to her “on the phone” and showing her his city through a camera, trying to date people “in real life” but coming home to talk to her–all of these are things I’ve done. And when Theodore’s ex-wife suggests to him that the reason he’s dating an AI is because he can’t handle the difficulties of dating “real” people, that rang a little true, too. (For an extra dose of feels, try going to see this movie while visiting a long-distance partner.)

There was also an interesting parallel with polyamory when Samantha confessed to Theodore that she has the capability of talking to thousands of humans and OSes at the same time, and has been talking to 8,316 of them while talking to him. She also reveals that she loves 641 others besides him. Theodore sits on the stairs leading to the subway and tries to process this information, and Samantha tries to convince him that her love for others doesn’t at all diminish her love for him; in fact, it only makes it greater. That’s exactly the way I feel about loving multiple people, and I also empathize with Samantha’s frustration in trying to explain that to someone who is feeling jealous and betrayed.

What I really loved was what happened after Theodore started telling people about his relationship with Samantha. Although he was hesitant about telling anyone at first, most of his friends responded positively. His friend Amy, who had made friends with her own OS, was curious and happy for him. His coworker, who invited Theodore on a double date after hearing that he had a girlfriend, barely reacted when Theodore confided that his girlfriend is an OS. They did all go on a date together, Samantha bonded with the coworker’s girlfriend and hung out with the three of them as though there were nothing unusual about the situation. Theodore’s four-year-old goddaughter is curious about why his girlfriend is inside a computer, but otherwise acts like that’s totally normal. The only person who reacted negatively was Theodore’s ex-wife, who was characterized as a little uptight, and even she did not so much delegitimize the idea of dating an operating system as accuse Theodore of avoiding the difficulties of human relationships.

As I mentioned earlier, the film also avoided the trope of becoming obsessed with your gadgets and avoiding human interaction. At the beginning of the movie, Theodore had been broken up with his ex-wife for about a year and had withdrawn from his friends and family. (Early on, there are a few interactions in which friends and family members ask Theodore where he’s been or why he didn’t return a call and so on.) As he gets to know Samantha, however, Theodore starts going out and exploring LA and reconnecting with his friends and family. He even goes on a date for the first time in a while, and it goes well at first but ends badly when his date asks him to commit to something serious, which he’s not ready for. (Oddly, she responds by referring to him as “creepy” and leaving, which I thought was really weird. He didn’t behave inappropriately on the date and she was really into him until the end. I really hope this isn’t meant as an affirmation of the myth that women call men “creepy” for no good reason.) Theodore also finally meets with his ex-wife and signs their divorce papers, a step that he’d been avoiding to her and the divorce attorney’s annoyance for some time.

In short, like any good partner, Samantha helps Theodore grow as a person and experience new things. She also takes the liberty of posing as Theodore and sending some of his best writing to a publisher, who accepts it for publication. The writing in question is Theodore’s letters, which he writes as part of his job. People pay Theodore’s company to compose heartfelt, handwritten letters and send them to friends, partners, and family members for various occasions. While many would consider these letters fake or even deceptive, nobody in Her’s universe treats them that way. In fact, Theodore’s writing is praised by many people, and he’s had some of the same clients for many years. (Contrast this with Tom’s pointless greeting cards in a slightly similar movie, (500) Days of Summer). It’s an interesting parallel with Theodore’s relationship, which many in our world would consider fake, but which Theodore and the people in his life treat with all (or almost all) of the respect they would afford to a relationship between two humans.

It’s not clear how far in the future Her takes place. It does seem, though, that most people in this future world have lost the negative, panicked attitudes many have toward technology today. The film does not even attempt to answer the question of whether or not a relationship between a human and a computer can be real; it seems to consider that question settled (and the answer is yes). Rather, the film is about the trajectory of a relationship, about how partners can change each other, and how, ultimately, relationships can fail even though both partners love each other.

In trying to decide for myself whether the relationship was “real” (and how “real” it was), I knew that it’s impossible to tell what a hypothetical AI means when it says, “I love you.” But it’s almost just as impossible to tell what another human means what they say, “I love you.” The word “love” means different things for different people. For me it means, “I feel a very strong mixture of respect, affection, and warm fuzzies toward you and want to try to be together for as long as that feeling lasts.” For other people it means, “I would sacrifice anything for you and I never want to so much as kiss another person.” For other people it means, “I am certain that I want to spend my life with you and have children together.” Often it’s some combination of those, or others.

Every time I get stuck in my head thinking about whether or not to say “I love you” to someone I’ve been feeling it for, like I am now, I wonder what they’d really hear if I said that, and whether or not it would be anywhere close to the message I was hoping to convey. And if they said it back, would the feeling they’re describing actually feel the same as the one I’m describing? Probably not.

I suppose that to me, the film’s premise is not at all controversial. Of course you can love a computer, if that computer behaves indistinguishably from a person you could love. But what the computer ultimately “feels” is as much a mystery as what your human lover feels, because language can only approximate the experience of seeing through someone else’s eyes.

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