Reaching Out for Support When You Have a Mental Illness

[Content note: mental illness]

After having written tons of posts about supporting people with mental illness, I realized that there was a gap–I’ve seen few articles about how to reach out for support when you’re the one with the mental illness. Specifically, how to do so in a way that’s respectful of people’s boundaries.

This is a difficult topic, for reasons that I think are obvious. I don’t want to discourage anyone from reaching out for help, ever. I also want to encourage people to be mindful of others’ needs and boundaries, even when everything hurts so much that that feels impossible to do. Especially then.

Why do these two goals feel like they stand opposed to each other? They shouldn’t. Getting affirmative consent before sharing difficult and potentially-triggering things with people isn’t just good for them, it’s also good for you. Most of us who struggle with mental illness have our moments of panic about imposing on others or being a burden on them. Making sure that we’re actually getting their consent before leaning on them for support can help us with those feelings.

I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve been the depressed and suicidal person who had to reach out for help, sometimes in ways that didn’t really allow people to say no. I’ve also had people reach out to me in ways that made me feel trapped and coerced. So I think I have a lot of empathy for everyone in both of these situations.

This is a huge topic and this post is very long, but it still doesn’t cover all the nuances. This post is focused on the issue of consent and boundaries specifically, so please don’t be too disappointed if it doesn’t cover everything you thought it would. Suggestions for future posts are welcome as always.

Consent, Consent, Consent

The most important thing about reaching out to someone for support with a mental health issue is to explicitly ask for their consent to have this conversation. This means that, rather than sending them a sudden wall ‘o’ text on Facebook, you might first say, “Hey, can I vent to you about depression for a bit? You can respond whenever you have a moment.” Or in person, if the topic hasn’t come up organically in a way that suggests that they’re ready to hear about it, you might say, “Can we talk about some ED stuff I’m going through right now?”

If you want to talk to someone about things that are fairly likely to be triggering–examples include self-harm, suicidal ideation, eating disorders, homicidal ideation, and so on–it’s a good idea to include a content note. In a message or text, that can just look like “TW: anorexia”; in person, you might say, “Can I talk to you about some eating disorder issues I’m having. I might get into detail.” This is important because 1) the person you’re talking to might have their own issues, which you may not necessarily know about; 2) they may be in a space right now where seeing a sudden wall of text about a very serious topic might really stress them out; and 3) regardless, people can often help you better if they have some idea of what you’re going to talk to them about, especially when it’s something pretty serious like that. When I see “Hey, can I talk to you about anorexia?”, I put myself in a different headspace than when I just see “Hey, can I talk to you about some stuff?”.

When you message someone to talk to them about Heavy Stuff and do not give them a warning about the content or an opportunity to politely bow out, understand that you are making it very difficult for them to say no to you, especially if they’re not someone who feels comfortable asserting boundaries (and most people aren’t). You may not intend to make them feel this way, but that’s the effect it often has when you don’t check in to see if it’s okay first.

I’ve gotten sudden walls ‘o’ text while in class, while on dates, when I was just about to fall asleep in bed, while finishing an assignment on deadline, and all sorts of other inopportune times. It put me in a serious bind, because on the one hand I had a really serious message demanding my attention, and on the other hand, I had things that I needed to be doing. When someone suddenly sends me five paragraphs about having an eating disorder and being suicidal, it feels incredibly wrong to say, “I’m really sorry, but I’m busy right now and can’t talk.” I usually do it, but that’s only because I’ve developed very strong boundaries over the years. Most people haven’t.

Another way that you may unintentionally make it difficult for people to set boundaries is by getting their consent for a certain type of conversation (“Hey, got a minute to chat?”) and then, once they agree, making it clearly way more than a minute and more than just a “chat” (“So I’m really really depressed and I think I’m about to lose my job and I just don’t know what to do, I’m almost out of savings and–“). Phrases like “got a minute to chat” and “hey what’s up” are vague, sometimes intentionally so. Once someone gets into a conversation with you, it’s almost impossible to then be like, “Um, actually, I thought this would just be a casual chat; I’m not really available for a conversation like this right now.”

If someone tells you that no, they cannot talk/listen right now, respect that answer, even if it feels unfair or unreasonable. They may in fact be lazy. They may in fact be selfish and callous. They may in fact completely not understand what you’re going through and if they did then they’d listen. They may in fact just be shallow people who want everything to be sunshine and daisies all the time. They may be all of those things, but they still deserve to have their boundaries respected.

The Importance of Being Specific

Consent is one reason why, when you’re reaching out to someone for support, it can be helpful to be as specific and clear as possible about what you need from them. (I say “as possible” because that can be really difficult when you’re in a moment of crisis.) If they know what they’re being asked to do, then they can actually consent to it. But taking a moment to think about what you need from others right now will help you, too–it’s easier to get what you need if you know what that is and ask for it:

“Hey, I need to just vent at someone about some depression stuff. Would you be able to listen for a bit?”

“I’m feeling down and it would be helpful to distract myself. Could you come over and play video games with me?”

“I’m feeling unsafe tonight. Is it ok if I spend the night at your place and just do my own thing with someone else in the room?”

You may, like me, be concerned that if you let people know you’re having a hard time, they’ll try to offer you types of help that you don’t need. In that case, it can be a good idea to be clear about what you’re not looking for, too:

“I’m going through a really rough time. I don’t really want to talk about it, but could we just chat for a while about something else?”

“I’m having a really bad day. I’m not really up for talking to anyone, but could you send me some cute animal videos?”

What if you want support but have no idea what would help? In that case, being specific is clearly impossible. I think it’s better to be transparent and say something like, “I’m feeling really bad and to be honest I don’t know what would help right now. I just wanted to reach out to someone.” Hopefully, your support person might have some ideas about how to help or what to say.

The reason this sort of transparency is helpful is because otherwise, the person might assume that you do need something specific and you know what that is, but that they need to somehow intuit it. Or they may ask you what they should do, which can be stressful for you to have to respond to.

As a more long-term strategy, though, it might be helpful to try to figure out what other people can do that would help you feel better, so that you know what specifically to ask for from them. If you have a therapist, they can help with that project. If not, you can ask others who struggle with similar issues (maybe on a support forum if you don’t know anyone personally) what works for them. Just because you have similar issues doesn’t necessarily mean the same things will work for you, but there’s a good chance you’ll find something.

Why This Can Be So Hard

Back to the issue of boundaries. For many of us, the pain of mental illness is so strong that it’s hard to empathize with someone who says it’s too much for them to hear about. Resentment can build. You think: “They can walk away from this conversation, but I have to live with this my whole life.” When someone is unable to listen to us talk about how awful we’re feeling, that can kick up those feelings of resentment.

But just as we ask our friends, partners, and family members not to take it personally that we have a mental illness, we should try not to take it personally when they have their own feelings and limits. There’s a reason psychologists have a concept called “vicarious traumatization,” and a reason why therapists and social workers have such high burn-out rates. Of course, you may not be asking them to do anything close to what a therapist does, and they may not experience it as “traumatization,” but the point is that being very close to someone’s pain can have an impact. In addition, your support people may be dealing with their own mental health issues, which you may or may not know about. They may want to listen to you, but may be unable to because of what it brings up for them.

One last thing I want to say about this is that for me personally, depression made it really difficult to see how my own pain was hurting others. I don’t mean in that awful way that we talk about, where people take our pain as a personal insult or expect us to be happy all the time. I mean that seeing someone you love in pain hurts. Legitimately. But when I’m depressed, I think I’m so awful that I don’t understand how anyone could possibly care that I’m hurting–even though I reach out to them with the hope that they’ll listen. (Mental illness causes many such contradictions.) And when they say that they care so much that it’s really difficult for them to hear about it, it sounds like they’re insulting and patronizing me, presumably to “get out” of having to listen to me. That this perception is often wrong is something that I had to recover from the worst of it before I could understand.

Self-Forgiveness

Reading this, you may realize that you have overstepped boundaries in the past. (Or maybe you already knew this.) Mental illness can make people feel like they’re horrible and deserve to die, and realizing that you have overstepped boundaries may exacerbate this.

Try to be gentle with yourself. Mental illness can provoke boundary-crossing behavior, and while it’s important not to use this as an excuse not to work on it, it also means that you’re not a terrible person, and you can get better–both in terms of boundaries and in terms of your symptoms themselves.

Talking about this issues presents what The Unit of Caring refers to as a competing access needs problem. Some people will really benefit from this advice. Some people may already be so terrified of violating boundaries that they almost never ask for the help they need. (This may be surprising given that I wrote this post, but I’m squarely in the latter group.) Mental illness also complicates matters in that people may simultaneously be excessively terrified of crossing boundaries, while also sometimes crossing boundaries!

If you feel that implementing this advice will do harm to you, then don’t implement it. However, I would posit that it would actually be helpful for most people, because my core message here isn’t “You should be Very Very Careful about not violating anyone’s boundaries,” but rather “Hey, here’s how to reach out for help in a way that respects people’s boundaries.”

Supportive People Who Aren’t Really

One reason you may be terrified of crossing boundaries is because you may have done your due diligence and followed all this advice and then still had people tell you that you’ve overwhelmed and burdened them and they never wanted to help you this much but felt obligated to. There’s a lot going on here, such as:

  • Poor boundaries on the part of those people
  • People being used to passive communication and reading unspoken messages into your words that you never put there (such as, “If you don’t help me I will hate you/hurt myself/etc”)
  • A duty-centered view of relationships (believing that being your friend/partner/family member obligates them to help you whether or not they want to or can safely do so)
  • Simple ableism: believing, however implicitly, that your mental illness makes you so weak and helpless that they are ethically obligated to help you, no matter at what cost to them

The plentiful existence of people who act in these ways makes it difficult to talk about boundaries and mental illness. If we’re constantly accused of being burdensome and asking for too much no matter how careful we are, that can easily obscure the fact that sometimes we really do reach out to people in ways that make them feel like they can’t say no. But remember: both of these things can be true, and are true. They sound contradictory but are not.

There’s no simple way to fix this problem. If you’re not sure whether or not you’re being mindful of boundaries, it might be worthwhile to consult a friend that you trust to be honest and ask them for feedback. And if you notice that there are people in your life who keep telling you that it’s okay to vent about your feelings or to ask them to take you out for ice cream but then it turns out that they never wanted to help you and only did it out of a sense of obligation, it might be time to downgrade these people from “friend that I ask for mental health support” to “acquaintance that I talk about Marvel films with.”

Whatever their reasoning for not being honest (or not being aware enough of their own needs to be able to be honest), it’s not a healthy dynamic. It’s the sort of dynamic that leads many of us to feel like such awful burdens all the time. It’s the sort of dynamic that can make it really difficult to take this blog post seriously, because if people are constantly calling you a burden when you’re not, you may not be able to recognize the ways in which you might actually be crossing boundaries.

Of course, supportive people are difficult to come by and it can feel counterintuitive to stop going to these people for support when they seem to be acquiescing. (And if you ever feel like it’s a matter of life or death, please, do whatever you need to do to keep yourself safe.) But they’re not, in fact, supportive people. If they were, they would properly set boundaries with you in a way that’s compassionate but still assertive. Pretending to consent and then blaming you for believing them is an unkind and unsupportive thing to do.

~~~

If you are in crisis and do not feel safe, and none of your support people are available to talk to, please call 911, go to the ER, or call one of these hotlines if you don’t feel safe doing the first two things:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
  • The Trevor Project (for LGBTQ youth)
  • Trans Lifeline

Reading Nonverbal Cues Without Making Assumptions

Sometimes when I talk to people about the importance of reading nonverbal cues–in sexual situations and also in general–they tell me that they avoid doing so because they don’t want to “assume.” Paying attention to people’s nonverbal cues feels to them like making assumptions about people’s internal states based on very limited information.

Not wanting to leap to unwarranted conclusions about people’s thoughts and feelings is an admirable goal, but I think there’s a misconception at work here about what reading body language means in a practical sense, and I think that pop psychology is partially to blame. We’ve all seen those Cosmo and Psychology Today articles that are like “Ten Ways To Tell If He’s Into You Based On His Eyebrows” or “Your Kids May Be Lying To You: Just Check The Position Of Their Feet To Know For Sure.”

As exciting as it may be to literally read people’s thoughts and intentions based on the position of their feet or eyebrows, I’ve yet to see any actual research evidence for any of this.

Even psychology textbooks spread this false “mind reading” meme. I’ve seen sentences like “We are all expert mind readers! For example, this study shows that people can generally tell if a person in a photo is angry or happy.”

No wonder some people think that when I ask them to pay attention to things like body language and tone, I’m asking them to do the impossible and read minds. And no wonder some people also think that when I ask them to pay attention to things like body language and tone, I’m asking them to leap to wildly specific conclusions like “This person’s tone of voice suggests that they are sad and not really paying attention to our conversation because they’re thinking of their mother who’s in the hospital.”

Here’s how this works in a more practical sense. Yesterday morning I took an Uber to the airport. It was 5 AM. I had had about four hours of bad sleep. The following conversation ensued:

Driver: Where are you going?

Me: LaGuardia.

Driver: Which terminal?

Me: 3.

Driver: *laughs loudly* Oh, no, LaGuardia’s terminals are A, B, C, D. You’re thinking of JFK!

Me: Whoops. It’s C then.

Driver: Where are you traveling to?

Me: Ohio.

Driver: Where in Ohio? Cleveland? Columbus?

Me: [city].

At this point the conversation ended, and we didn’t speak again until we arrived at my airport and he wished me a safe trip and I wished him a nice day. I presume it ended because I was answering as briefly as possible and my tone was completely flat. I was literally only giving the driver the information he was asking for (whether because of social norms or because of a need to get me to my destination) and volunteering nothing more. I wasn’t reciprocating my driver’s cheerfulness and bubbliness at all.

Maybe I hate small talk. Maybe I’m exhausted. Maybe I’m sick. Maybe I’m feeling really anxious about flying. Maybe I’m on my way home to see a seriously ill family member (thankfully, I was not). Maybe I just personally hate this driver with all my heart and do not want to say a single word more to him than is absolutely necessary. Maybe I hate all people. Maybe I have depression.

The cool thing is, it doesn’t matter! The driver correctly picked up on the fact that, for whichever of many possible reasons, I wasn’t feeling like talking, so he stopped trying to talk to me after that brief exchange. No mind reading was necessary. All he had to do was pay a minimal amount of attention.

The conversation could’ve gone very differently. Sometimes when I am in fact less tired and physically miserable, I do engage Uber drivers in conversation because I like talking to people. It could’ve just as easily been like this:

Driver: Where are you going?

Me: LaGuardia!

Driver: Which terminal?

Me: 3, I believe.

Driver: *laughs loudly* Oh, no, LaGuardia’s terminals are A, B, C, D. You’re thinking of JFK!

Me: Oh, oops! That’s the one I usually fly out of. I meant C.

Driver: Where are you traveling to?

Me: [city], Ohio. I get to see my family this weekend!

Driver: That’s wonderful! Do you get to see them often?

Me: No, not too often, so it’s always special when I do. Does your family live nearby?

And so on. I’ve had a lot of conversations like this.

And for all the driver in that parallel universe knows, maybe I’m just in a cheery mood. Maybe I love small talk with strangers. Maybe I’ve been feeling really lonely and just want to connect with someone, anyone. Maybe I just drank two coffees and have energy that I just need to use somehow. Maybe something about this particular person appeals to me and makes me feel like chatting. Who knows? Clearly I’m interested in having a conversation, so he would feel comfortable continuing it.

Incidentally, many people would consider the way the conversation actually went to be a “failure”: either because I “failed” to respond to this person’s attempt to engage me in conversation, or because the driver “failed” to keep trying to get me “out of my shell” or whatever. I’m not exaggerating; some people really do think this way. Some people would ask me why I didn’t just have a friendly chat with the nice man. Other people would ask him why he’d just stop trying and let his passenger sit there in silence.

But I think that our interaction was a complete success. I was able to enjoy (insofar as I was able, at 5 AM) a nice, quiet drive. While I obviously can’t presume how the driver felt, his body language and tone when we said goodbye at the end of the drive suggested that it went just fine for him too. Nobody had to bend over backwards out of a sense of obligation or politeness.

Unfortunately, while this experience isn’t entirely rare for me, it’s not as common as it should be. I have had people who know me far, far better than this driver–enough to know that I generally dislike small talk and that I tend to be extremely fatigued, for instance–try to engage me in small talk despite monosyllabic responses, flat tone, and closed body language from me. Some of these people intentionally wanted to cross my boundaries in this way, but not all of them.

And I’m specifically talking about the ones that didn’t. I’m talking about the ones who on some level expected me to directly state, “I do not want to have a conversation with you right now” before they would stop trying to have a conversation with me. On some level, they thought that reading nonverbal cues is unnecessary because direct, effective communication means that I should have to verbalize “I do not want to have a conversation with you right now” every time someone tries to engage me in a conversation that I don’t want to have.

Maybe this seems like a reasonable assumption, but in that case, as an experiment, keep track for a day or several how often someone makes small talk with you (or something else in that vein) when you’d rather they didn’t and wish they would stop. Imagine if they never, ever stopped unless you either left their physical vicinity or said, “I do not want to have a conversation with you right now.”

It would be exhausting. It would be completely exhausting if every time I’m too tired, stressed, worried, sad, physically uncomfortable, focused on something else, or otherwise mentally occupied to have a conversation, I had to explicitly state this or else the person would continue trying to have a conversation with me.

And here’s the thing–you don’t have to have any idea at all what’s going on with me to pay attention to the fact that I’m acting like I don’t want to talk right now. You don’t have to read my mind. You just have to notice, “Huh, they’re not making eye contact and they’re answering monosyllabically.”

At that point, a number of things can happen. You can just stop, like the driver from this morning did. You can say, “Sorry, it looks like this isn’t a good time. Catch me later if you want to talk?/Should I leave you alone?” Often the response will be something like, “Yeah, I’m just really tired right now. I’ll talk to you later.” Or it might be, “Sorry, I’m just a little out of it. Keep talking, I’m listening.”

No discussion of nonverbal cues and the importance thereof is complete without an acknowledgment of the fact that some people have a lot of difficulty with this. That’s okay! That’s why it’s so important to provide resources that help people learn how to read nonverbal cues, because otherwise many people just assume that this is something we all “naturally” know how to do. But we don’t, for all sorts of reasons such as neurodiversity or cultural differences. For instance, if I grow up in Russia and learn how to read nonverbal cues as a Russian person, I may not be as effective at it if I suddenly move to the United States.

And it’s also important to note that we may misinterpret nonverbal cues from certain categories of people because of preconceived notions we have about those people. The nonverbal cues of disabled people may be inaccurately perceived as angry. The nonverbal cues of (white) women may be inaccurately perceived as insecure or uncertain. The nonverbal cues of Black men may be inaccurately perceived as threatening.

In general, if you know that you have trouble interpreting nonverbal cues in useful ways, you can supplement that with direct, verbal communication. That can look like, “I’m not sure if you feel like talking right now or not. It’s okay if you don’t, but can you let me know?” Or it can look like, “Hey, I have a lot of trouble reading nonverbal cues. If we’re ever talking and you don’t feel like talking anymore, can you please say so directly so that I don’t accidentally keep bugging you?”

I want to be careful and not hold nonverbal cues up as some perfect, ideal way of getting information about people’s needs and feelings. There’s a reason why people are cautious about nonverbal cues and wary of making assumptions based on them.

However, refusing to observe and respond to nonverbal cues also puts a lot of pressure on anyone who wants to exit a social situation or be given more physical space or be left alone or whatever. It’s reasonable to assume that someone who doesn’t make eye contact, closes their body off from you, answers tersely, and generally shows no interest in continuing a conversation probably has no interest in continuing a conversation. But if you’re unsure, you can always ask.

Your “Jokes” About Sexist Harassment

[Content note: sexual & online harassment]

This was originally a Facebook post I made last night. A lot of people asked me to make it public and shareable because they’ve been looking for the words to express the same thing. I decided to repost it here without editing it, since people liked it this way. So apologies in advance for the rawness and lack of polish; it was pretty spontaneous.

Pull up a chair, this is going to be lengthy.

I’ve been having a lot of problems lately with men being really unintentionally insensitive in discussions of harassment against women. Yes, I always have problems with this, but lately especially. I’m not talking about Asshole Sexist Men; I’m talking about good, well-meaning male friends and acquaintances. So I guess this is sort of a vaguebook, and I’m sorry for that, but I don’t feel like having an individual private conversation with every single guy who does this. Moreover, this is not an individual problem. This is a systemic problem. I refuse to accept the burden for it in private.

First of all, a lot of you have been trying to make jokes on my posts about harassment. Before you comment on my status about sexual harassment about how I should create this or that elaborate weapon or do this silly thing to distract the harasser or “just do this!” or whatever, pause and remind yourself that this is not your fun swashbuckling fantasy tale, this is someone’s actual real motherfucking life. A lot of us feel like we’re hunted like animals whenever we’re out in public or at a conference or basically anywhere. Ask yourself, “If I felt like a walking target every day of my life, if I had been a victim of violence and threats of violence multiple times, if I knew that I would be blamed entirely by my family and by the authorities for any violence that I experience, would this silly joke actually cheer me up?” The answer is *generally* no.

Do I find jokes about sexual harassment and other sexist issues funny? Sometimes. You know when they’re at their most funny, though? When they’re made by people who have actually lived this reality. I joke about my own harassment sometimes, and other women joke about their own harassment sometimes, and all of us tell stories to each other to try to support each other and keep our heads high.

Remember: you don’t need to “lighten the mood” or “cheer me up” when I post about experiencing harassment. I don’t want that. First of all, my mood’s *fine*. Second, you probably don’t know me well enough to know how to cheer me up.

If you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything. Or say something like this:

– “I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. *hugs*”
– “Let me know if you’d like some help getting your mind off of it.”
– “It’s ridiculous that you still have to deal with this in 2014; I’m going to go donate to [anti-sexist organization] now.”
– “Thank you for posting about this. It’s important for me to know that this happens.”

Most importantly, your role as a man who cares about women is not necessarily to talk at us. TALK TO OTHER MEN. Call them the fuck out when they catcall women. Call them the fuck out when they make sexist jokes. Call them the fuck out when they talk about fucking their last hook-up and ask them if she’d be okay with having all that info shared with a big group of dudes. Call them the fuck out when they say they’d never date that girl because she fucked them and therefore she’s too easy. Call them the fuck out when they objectify women, not just in sexist ways, but in racist, homophobic, and otherwise oppressive ways. THIS is your job. Your job is not to tell me how to handle being harassed, or to somehow *make* me stop feeling bad about being harassed. That is a job for me, and for close friends and partners that I have trusted to help me with such things.

And here’s another similar thing you should probably stop doing. When I’ve written something great and you like it, and rather than just telling me it’s great and leaving it at that, you decide to go ahead and be like “Too bad the Slymepit’s totally going to accuse you of _______” or “Oh you’ll get the MRAs furious over this.” WHY DO YOU GUYS SAY THIS. WHY. The only way I survive as a writer is by refusing to think about the fact that there are people who actually want me DEAD because I support gender equality. (If you still fucking think this is hyperbolic, I don’t even know what to say.) The only way I survive is by refusing to think about the fact that they make lists about how to rape me and my friends, they make crude sexual photoshops of us, they go on and on and on and on until we all gradually drop out of public online life.

If you want me to keep writing, STOP doing this weird half-gloating half-bemoaning thing about how I’m going to get soooooo much harassment for what I just wrote, fuck those sexist assholes, amirite? If you want me to keep writing, don’t talk to me about the harassment. Talk to the harassers about the harassment. Talk to Twitter and Facebook about the harassment. Talk to journalists about the harassment. Stop talking to me about it. Unless I bring it up myself because I want support.

Guys, the bullying and harassment women writers experience is HORRIFYING. Do you understand that? Do you *actually* understand it, like on the visceral level where your own gut just twists at the thought of it? Do you understand that this isn’t something to throw around all like “Hey great post, shame they’re going to threaten to rape you because of it!”

Maybe you can’t understand it on that level. Maybe it’s impossible to understand something you haven’t experienced on that level. So if you don’t, you’d best be reminding yourself of that every single time you’re about to engage with someone on the topic. Remind yourself that as a man your words carry extra weight. You didn’t ask for them to, but they do. Learn to tread more carefully.

One last thing: if you recognize yourself in what I’ve written, please do not message me with “Now I feel bad” or “Now I’m worried I might have done this.” I’m not here to make you feel better about having (accidentally, well-meaningly) overstepped my boundaries. I am here to set those boundaries. I’m not asking for apologies. I don’t want to discuss this with you in private, or else I would’ve contacted you about it in private. When you make jokes or comments that I find particularly hurtful or unhelpful, I’ll usually tell you right then or there, so there’s no need to worry that I’m keeping anything to myself.

If you’ve read this far, I’m impressed and grateful, so thank you.

~~~

Addendum:

Actually, I think I just answered one of my own questions: namely, why people do the whole “oh maaaaaan you’re gonna get so much harassment over this”

I think some of y’all buy in a little too strongly to the whole “if they hate you then you’re doing something right” thing. For the record, I disagree with this principle. I disagree with it partially because Tea Partiers tell themselves the same thing all the time, but also because it’s not how I measure my success.

Do you think I’m proud of the fact that people have made forum threads just to talk shit about me? I’m not. I don’t view it as a sign that I’m doing something wrong, either, but I definitely don’t take it as proof that I’m doing something right. Those forum threads don’t happen “because I’m right”; they happen because sexism.

So, if you’re hoping to encourage me by being like “OH MAN YOU’VE GOT SO MANY PEOPLE PISSED OFF,” it won’t work. That’s not encouraging. The way I know I’m doing something right is when people send me long private messages about how my writing changed their life (this happens fairly often), or when someone says that they used my article to try to explain something to their boyfriend and he finally got it! Or when people say “I thought I was the only one.” Or when people say, “You know, I was kinda on the fence about this, but you helped me make up my mind.” Or when people say, “That article was so beautiful I cried.”

I’m not trying to brag; people say that stuff to me often enough to really, really mean a lot. So if you WANT to encourage me, say something like that, if it’s true for you. Don’t expect me to LOL with you over how angry people are about what I wrote.

~~~

DISCLAIMER: The Author in no sense intends to imply that All Men are responsible for the aforementioned Conflict(s) or Issue(s) as described in this Text. The Author reiterates that Not All Men commit the Offense(s) detailed in the Text, and that the Text is not intended to apply to or be addressed to All Men. The Author hereby disclaims any binding responsibility for the emotional well-being of such Men who erroneously apply the Entreaty(ies) contained within this Text to their own selves. The Reader hereby agrees to accept all responsibility for any emotional turbulence that arises as a result of the perusal of this Text.

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***.

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*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.