[blogathon] Against Pokemon-Style Polyamory

This is the sixth post in my SSA blogathon. Don’t forget to donate!

When I first started exploring and getting into polyamory about a year ago, one of the things that appealed to me about it was this idea of having “different partners” for “different needs.” It made a lot of sense to me and seemed like a rational, ethical justification for dating multiple people with everyone’s knowledge and consent.

You’ll see this rationale repeated and defended in various books and articles about polyamory, and it generally goes something like this: we all have various needs and desires when it comes to sexual/romantic relationships. Often, one person can’t possibly fulfill all of these needs and desires for you. Maybe you have a particular kink that the person you love just isn’t interested in. Maybe you thrive on the excitement of casual sex or brief relationships but still want to have a long-term, serious relationship. So you look for different partners to fulfill your different needs, and the fact that a given partner can’t be everything you want in a partner doesn’t have to prevent you from being seriously, passionately, and healthily involved with this person.

So yeah, that all sounds good in theory. But in practice, it has started giving me an uncomfy feeling over the past year. I couldn’t put my finger on why until I read this great post on Tumblr:

The idea that we should look to a single person to fulfill all our needs offends me, but so does this notion that we each have some exact checklist of needs, and that the path to fulfillment is assembling just the right combination of partners.

Someone reblogged it and added this: “People aren’t Pokemon where you are trying to build a team. Or trying to collect them either :B”

And suddenly, there it was. All of my discomfort perfectly articulated. What I’d encountered was Pokemon-Style Polyamory–the idea that polyamory is about assembling some ideal collection of partners to conveniently fulfill all of one’s needs and desires.

Looks like a pretty strong team!

Looks like a pretty strong team!

There are a number of problems with this idea. First of all, it might not be practically possible. While it’s often said that polyamory requires a lot of self-awareness–which is true–being able to literally make a list of all your “needs” might not be feasible for most people. For people with very specific sexual preferences, it’s possible to be like, “I need a partner who’s willing to Dom me,” or “I need a partner with whom I can explore [X Fetish].” But sexual/romantic relationships are rarely this simple.

Further, except in the case of specific sexual preferences or relationship configurations, how exactly does one shop around for a partner who fits their specifications? Suppose I really love cooking with a partner, but my primary partner doesn’t really like doing that (this isn’t true, he totally loves doing that). Am I really going to go on OkCupid and specify that I’m looking for a partner with whom to go on dates, have sex, and cook meals? While I could certainly do that, the likelihood that anyone else out there is looking for that specific thing is pretty low, and unlikely to work–because most people want more from a partner than just someone to sleep with and cook meals with.

Or to make it even more abstract: suppose my partner’s not the best at listening when I’m going through something difficult that I’d like to talk about (also false, but suppose). How do I go about finding a partner for the specific purpose of being a good listener (and also being, well, a partner)?

So there are at least a few practical challenges to such an approach. I’m not saying it wouldn’t work; just that it would be pretty hard to make it work. I’m sure it’s been done.

The more important challenge to this view, though, is an ethical one. Ultimately, what rubs me the wrong way about this approach to polyamory is that it feels objectifying. Rather than looking for partners in order to be close to people, have fun with them, build lives with them, have a single fantastic night with them, etc., you’re looking for partners to “fulfill” particular “needs.” You’re kind of treating them like objects.

That’s not to say that the end result could never be a mutually satisfying, respectful partnership in which you see each other holistically rather than just as means to ends. But it’s an instrumental view of sex and dating. “I need this, so I will do this to get it.”

Personally, if someone wanted to date or hook up with me because of a specific trait that I have that fulfills one of their needs–say, that I’m a good listener or am willing to do X or Y in bed or like going on dates that involve concerts and museums–I would probably say no. I would feel objectified. I want to be seen as a whole person, as the sum of all of my traits, not just as a way to fulfill a particular need that someone has.

(Of course, many poly folks might say that not being limited to one person–or seeing more than one person–is a “need” that they have, so they are poly in order to fulfill that need. I think that’s a different sort of justification, though.)

Although this view had once appealed to me, when I read that Tumblr post I immediately realized that this is not why I’m poly. I’m not poly because I have different “needs” that I must assemble an optimal set of partners in order to fulfill. I’m poly because I love more than one person at a time. I dream of more than one person at a time. I want more than one person at a time. And it feels awful to limit myself to just one when the world is so full of people to love, and life is so short and so ultimately meaningless unless we create that meaning for ourselves.

I want to emphasize that if this works for you and your partners and nobody feels used or objectified (unless they want to feel that way), go for it. It’s not my place to tell anyone how to set up their relationships. I don’t think this approach is Bad or Wrong. I just think that this is an approach worthy of thinking carefully about and being cautious about, especially if this is how we explain and promote polyamory to others.

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

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My Oppression Is Not Your Thought Experiment

[Content note: sexual assault]

There seems to be no shortage of people just itching for the opportunity to turn real, tragic human suffering into intriguing little thought experiments for their own amusement or political gain.

This time we’ve got a college professor attempting to make some sort of bizarre claim about drilling for oil using Steubenville and sexual assault:

Let’s suppose that you, or I, or someone we love, or someone we care about from afar, is raped while unconscious in a way that causes no direct physical harm—no injury, no pregnancy, no disease transmission. (Note: The Steubenville rape victim, according to all the accounts I’ve read, was not even aware that she’d been sexually assaulted until she learned about it from the Internet some days later.) Despite the lack of physical damage, we are shocked, appalled and horrified at the thought of being treated in this way, and suffer deep trauma as a result. Ought the law discourage such acts of rape? Should they be illegal?

[...]As long as I’m safely unconsious and therefore shielded from the costs of an assault, why shouldn’t the rest of the world (or more specifically my attackers) be allowed to reap the benefits?

Unfortunately for Steven Landsburg, the author of this rationalization, analogies only work when you know what the fuck you’re talking about.

Sexual assault isn’t wrong (just) because people don’t like it. It’s wrong because we have decided, as a society, that people’s bodies belong to them and only them. You cannot use someone else’s body for your own needs without their consent. You can’t harvest their organs. You can’t force them to get a piercing or a tattoo or a haircut. You (theoretically) can’t force them to have a child or an abortion, although we now seem to be getting closer and closer to forcing people to have children. You can’t compel them to undergo a medical procedure or experiment. You cannot go up to a stranger and touch their body. You cannot punch someone except in self-defense or, again, in a consensual setting. (Of course, all of this completely falls apart when it comes to children, which I think is ridiculous and wrong.) And you cannot use someone else’s body for sex without their consent. Your body belongs to you.

This, at least, is the ethical framework under which we normally seem to operate. It falls apart all the time, of course–with children, as I mentioned, and with pregnant women. It falls apart when we insist on the right to touch a Black stranger’s hair, and it falls apart when the police have been given the authority to use deadly force on innocent civilians. But in general, most of us have come to the conclusion that a just society is one that grants individuals the autonomy to decide what happens to their bodies, and that this power can only be taken away when there’s a compelling reason (i.e. the person is a child who is refusing medical care, the person has entered a coma from which they are extremely unlikely to return and their families now have the final say regarding their treatment, the person has committed a crime and is refusing to cooperate with the police, etc.)

That you feel like having sex with them and they’re unconscious so it won’t hurt them anyway is not a compelling reason. I refuse to debate this point. This is elementary.

Of course, Landsburg’s analogy fails on the other side, too, because people who criticize oil drilling generally don’t criticize it on the grounds of BUT IT MAKES TEH LANDSCAPES LESS PRETTY. But whatever.

This tendency to philosophize over real, painful, tragic issues that some of us are actually trying to do something about shows up all the time. It shows up during pro-choice activism. It shows up during suicide prevention efforts; I can’t count how often someone would appear on some post where I was discussing suicide prevention and attempt to engage me in some vague pseudo-philosophical ramble about whether or not it is truly ethical to prevent people who want to kill themselves from killing themselves, completely ignoring the fact that I am only here writing this by virtue of the fact that there were so many people who really didn’t want me to kill myself, once upon a time.

And it especially shows up when we talk about sexual assault and the proper way to respond to and prevent it.

I have spent a lot of time arguing about sexual assault with people who want to use all sorts of creative analogies about the violation of someone’s body when that person wasn’t (supposedly) doing everything in their power to prevent that violation. It’s like leaving your bike unchained! It’s like leaving your front door unlocked! It’s like leaving your keys in the ignition! In fact, it’s just like taxing someone, because money is just like bodily autonomy, so at best taxation is just as bad as violating someone’s actual, physical body. (Yes, that argument has been put forth in one of my comment sections. No, I won’t go dig it up.)

My body is not a bike. It’s not a house. It’s not a car. It is not money. Using my body without asking me first is not like robbery. It is not like taxation. You know what’s it’s like? It’s like sexual assault, because that’s exactly what it is.

To be clear, I don’t hate philosophy or discussions thereof. I think they can be really fascinating and useful. However, there’s a time and a place, and, in my opinion, an obligation to be sensitive when you’re trying to abstractly discuss things that actually hurt, traumatize, and potentially kill people.

First of all, do not attempt to insert yourself and your philosophical theorizing into spaces where people are trying to do activism. Philosophy can and should inform activism, of course, but when someone’s discussing rape prevention, that’s not the time to start pontificating at them about what rape really means and isn’t it just like a theft of property and whatnot.

Second, this is tangential to the main idea of this post, but very relevant anyway. Take special care when playing devil’s advocate. Tell people what you’re doing. Tell them you’d like to work through some possible counter-arguments and allow them to refuse. Why is this important? Because it’s so incredibly draining and hurtful for activists to be asked to listen to the same offensive and basic arguments over and over and spent their time and energy arguing against them, only for you to conclude with, “Oh, whatever, I was just playing devil’s advocate.” Cut that shit out.

Third, know what you’re talking about! Landsburg clearly didn’t. Or, if he did, he still managed to completely minimize that in favor of his convoluted view of rape-as-bad because people just don’t liiiiike it, in which case, should it really be illegal if it doesn’t cause them “Real Harm”? After all, it’s not illegal to call someone a poopyhead! So there. (I may be editorializing slightly.)

Fourth, take care that your philosophizing is not unintentionally contributing to the problem that you’re discussing. There is a long history of rationalizing away sexual assault, and Amanda Marcotte notes in her post:

Colleges in this country are suffering from a  rape problem that is all too real and not some kind of cutesy thought experiment. Rapists and their enablers are known to seize on claims like the one Landsburg is kicking around here, that it doesn’t count if you didn’t have to beat the victim to subdue her. In fact, one of the witnesses who saw the Steubenville rape but didn’t try to stop it used exactly that excuse: “It wasn’t violent. I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I thought it was forcing yourself on someone.” Having a popular professor casually endorse this rationalization through wanky and ultimately irrelevant thought “experiments” isn’t just offensive, but could be dangerous as well.

In other words, your fun little thought experiment might actually make things worse. It’s not just a fun little thought experiment, really, because ideas and attitudes have consequences out in the real world, into which Landsburg might consider venturing sometime.

On “Sincerely Held Religious Beliefs” and Being a Counselor

Via JT, here’s a new bill that recently passed in the Tennessee State Senate Education Committee by a 7-2 vote:

Republican state Sen. Joey Hensley encouraged fellow senators to pass SB 514 to “prevent an institution of high education from discriminating against a student in the counseling, social worker, psychology programs because of their religious beliefs.”

Hensley’s bill would protect any student who “refuses to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief.”

Here’s another relevant quote:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

I don’t have to cite this one, right?

Forcing public universities to allow their graduate students to use their religion to avoid doing what they’re supposed to do is absolutely “respecting an establishment of religion.” And, contrary to the apparent opinions of the seven senators who voted yes, allowing public universities to require their graduate students to do what they’re supposed to do does not constitute “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion unless you view your counseling work as a form of religious worship. Hopefully, nobody does.

All of this relates to the larger problem of people believing that the First Amendment gives them the right to do a crappy job at work without being fired. When you’re choosing a career path, you should consider, among other things, whether or not you are willing to do the things that your chosen job requires. For instance, I started out college planning to be a journalist, but I realized that pestering people (especially survivors of traumatic newsworthy events) for interviews went against my personal ethical code. Rather than expecting the profession of journalism to adjust itself to my ethical code, I found a different field.

If you are unwilling to help people simply because of who they love, don’t become a counselor.

If you are unwilling to drive a bus simply because it has an ad about atheism, don’t become a bus driver.

If you are unwilling to give someone their prescribed medication simply because it will prevent them from getting pregnant, don’t become a pharmacist.

If you are unwilling to perform an elective surgery on someone simply because it will change their assigned sex, don’t become a plastic surgeon.

If you are unwilling to teach actual science simply because it includes evolution, don’t become a science teacher.

When I was applying to my social work program, I read through the list of requirements for acceptance. I needed a B.A. from an accredited college/university, at least 60 credits in the liberal arts, a decent GPA, and so on. There was also a list of attributes that social work students should have: empathy, interpersonal skills, and a bunch of others. On the list was also this:

The social work student must appreciate the value of human diversity. He/she must serve in an appropriate manner all persons in need of assistance, regardless of the person’s age, class, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation (or lack thereof), gender, ability, sexual orientation and value system.

There you have it. It’s a requirement. If I’m unwilling to do it, I shouldn’t go into the field.

Of course, with counseling things can get a bit tricky. If a counselor realizes that their personal bias may prevent them from working appropriately with a given client, it is their responsibility to refer the client to another counselor. Not to just say, “Sorry, can’t help you,” but to try to ensure that they get the help they need somewhere else.

Furthermore, counselors should not attempt to practice outside of their expertise, so if a client shows up with problems that you have no idea how to work with, you should also refer them to someone else. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should refer out every LGBT client who comes your way, of course, but if they’re struggling with issues like coming out, dealing with homophobia, or trying to have children, and you have no experience counseling LGBT individuals facing such issues, this is probably not the client for you and you are probably not the counselor for this client.

But there’s a fine line between being unable and being unwilling to do something. There’s a difference between lacking the training or experience you’d need to work with someone and simply not wanting to work with them because you disapprove of their “lifestyle.” There are plenty of “lifestyles” of which I suppose I “disapprove,” but all that really means is that I wouldn’t want to do the same thing and don’t necessarily understand why someone would. That doesn’t mean I can’t still affirm that person as a human being worthy of sympathy and help.

I don’t know how it is everywhere else, but in the programs I’ve looked at, graduate psychology students who are interning tend to work with clients on a sliding scale, which means that these interns are often the only type of counselor that some people can afford. The silver lining of a bill like this is that these clients, who may already be disadvantaged, will be spared from homophobic counselors.

However, the bill’s language does not suggest that it was written to protect LGBT clients, but rather homophobic counselors. And crucially, the bill contradicted advice from psychologists, social workers, and those who oversee graduate psychology programs. They noted that programs could lose accreditation, that part of the job of a counselor is to put their “sincerely held religious beliefs” aside when they do their work. But no, the Religious Right won out again.

Quotes from some Tennessee senators are very telling:

Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, couldn’t understand why psychology departments aren’t teaching their students how to pray away the gay with homosexual clients.

“So if someone were to, say, come in and—I’m just going to throw an example out there—say they were a homosexual and a person did not believe that was a natural act and they suggested, say, change therapy?” Campfield asked. “Would that be something you could allow a student to do?”

Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, said, “I would think that you should be up front and truthful and tell them if they are doing wrong and try to counsel them to do what’s right. That really disturbs me.”

I have sympathy for people whose sincerely held beliefs, religious or otherwise, make it difficult for them to do what they need to do. As I said, I’ve been in that boat. And a certain amount of accommodations for religious people at work and school is, I believe, reasonable. It’s not a huge deal for professors and employers to allow people to occasionally miss a day for a religious holiday or to wear religious garments. It is a big deal for them to exempt students and employees from a crucial part of their training or job.

Allowing people to freely observe their religion does not necessitate bending over backwards to allow them to keep doing jobs with which their religion clashes. Sometimes you just gotta get another job.

Besides, such counselors are free to go practice at any of the many religiously-affiliated counseling centers that exist in this country, which is a topic for another post.

Is It Wrong To Help Someone Cheat?

A while ago, a great blog called Polyskeptic had a post about the ethics of helping someone else cheat. Dan Savage had said on an episode of his podcast that it’s definitely not okay, and Wes of Polyskeptic disagreed.

Wes brings up some good points about what exactly is wrong with cheating, and it’s not the sex itself:

The poly community has, shall we say, an unconventional view of cheating. We tend to say that the problem with cheating isn’t the sex, it’s the lying. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having sex with a person in a relationship. The problem is that when a monogamous person cheats, they are being dishonest with their partner. The harm is caused by the betrayal, not by the sex.

The problem with the standard advice is that, once the proposition has been made, the harm has already been done. By turning down the proposition, you’re turning a cheater into merely an attempted cheater. Is that really any better? To my mind, it is not. When someone attempts to cheat, the betrayal has already occurred.

He goes on to say that simply refusing to help the person cheat is not in itself morally good unless you also inform their partner that they propositioned you, because the harm has already been done by the proposition itself. But people have no moral obligation to protect others’ relationships, and since helping the person cheat wouldn’t make the situation any worse than it already is, you might as well do it.

Dan Savage’s preferred option – rejecting the cheater – is premised on the idea that you have a responsibility for the health and quality of that relationship. As I’ve explained above, rejecting the cheater is, at best, not helping the relationship, and at worst harming the relationship. If you accept that you have a responsibility for that relationship (what I call the “be a hero” option), the only moral choice is to inform the cheater’s partner (or at least make reasonable efforts to do so). Any other choice makes you an accomplice to fraud. If you truly think you have an obligation to that relationship (which I don’t think that you do), your obligation must be to ensure that it isn’t being conducted under false pretenses.  Otherwise, you’re helping the cheater to hide their cheating.

It’s an interesting argument, but ultimately I disagree.

First of all, for many monogamous people, wanting to cheat is not at all the same thing as actually cheating. Back when I was monogamous and thought about this sort of thing a lot, I knew that even though I would be really hurt if my boyfriend tried to cheat but wasn’t able to, I would be even more hurt if he tried to cheat and actually did. It’s not really logical, but for some people it really is about the sex.

Somewhat similarly, there are plenty of poly folks who are completely fine with their partner(s) seeing other people but nevertheless don’t want to know when they’re having sex with someone else, or even who those people are, because it’s unpleasant for them to hear about and makes them feel jealous. So it’s completely possible to be okay with the fact that your partner slept with someone else, but not necessarily with the knowledge that they actually did.

Second, Wes’ argument presumes that being rejected in an attempt to cheat can never be an illuminating or transformative experience for someone, that the person will just shrug and carry on trying to find another person to cheat with. That’s not necessarily the case. Sometimes you fall for someone else, ignore the problems in your current relationship, pursue a fantasy in your mind with this new person, and finally try to cheat with them. Being told “no” can be a wake-up call that causes you to realize that you want to stay committed to your current partner, that you need to work on your relationship with them, or that you need to leave them.

Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work that way. Some people never do develop that self-awareness. But if I had a chance to help someone develop it by not helping them cheat on their partner, I’d take it.

The idea that refusing to help someone cheat without informing their partner about the proposition is harmful is also strange to me. If you’re an “accomplice to fraud” if you don’t cheat with them, how are you not one if you do cheat with them? While informing their partner would arguably be a more “moral” option than just doing nothing, it also overrides the couple’s right to conduct their relationship without your interference. And, yes, it’s too much effort for most people to do even if they wanted to. How would you even get the person’s partner’s contact info?

Whether or not it’s ethically wrong to help someone cheat, there are tons of reasons it’s at least practically a bad idea. If someone’s willing to betray someone’s trust, they’re probably also willing to lie to you about STIs and birth control, for instance. And although you may not be pursuing a monogamous relationship with this person (at least, hopefully not, since they’re with someone else), even casual, open arrangements can involve violations of trust. That’s why even poly folks tend to have such a thing as “cheating.”

In any case, I can’t quite agree with the view that other people’s relationships are absolutely not your responsibility and that if you happen to participate in fucking up someone’s relationship, it doesn’t matter because it’s not your job to preserve people’s relationships. Obviously you don’t carry nearly as great a responsibility for other people’s commitments than the people who have made those commitments, and obviously helping someone cheat isn’t nearly as wrong as cheating, but the idea that we’re all just individual little islands and carry no obligations to each other seems way too libertarian for me.

Personally–and you don’t have to agree with me or do the same thing–if someone asked me to help them cheat, I would say no, and I would strongly urge them to either ask their partner for an open relationship or think about what’s causing them to want to cheat. I would urge them to do that, and that’s it. I wouldn’t play counselor or mediator, I wouldn’t look up their partner on Facebook and let them know what happened. This would be my way of trying to leave the world and these two people in a slightly better state than I found them.

Who Is To Blame For A Suicide?

Yesterday I was driving around in my hometown and listening to the radio. The DJs did a segment on the suicide of Jacintha Saldanha, a nurse in a hospital where Kate Middleton was being treated, who was pranked by some radio DJs and tricked into giving out Middleton’s medical information.

The DJs on my hometown station put a caller through and asked for her opinion. She said that it’s not at all the DJs’ fault that Saldhana clearly had issues and that they shouldn’t have lost their jobs because of what happened. Furthermore, it was “irresponsible” of Saldhana to kill herself and leave this whole mess behind.

Lesson one: never listen to the radio in Dayton, Ohio.

Lesson two: people have a lot of trouble with grey areas and blurry lines.

(Of course, I mostly knew both of these things already.)

It seems to be very difficult for people to form an opinion on this tragedy that isn’t extreme. Some say that the DJs were just doing their jobs, the prank was completely harmless, just a bit of fun, and Saldanha was messed up and crazy. Others say that the DJs are terrible people and should be blamed for Saldanha’s suicide. The latter seems to be the minority opinion.

I don’t think that the truth always lies between two extremes. In this case, though, I feel that it does.

Suicide is a complex phenomenon and the suffering that causes it–and that is caused by it–makes it even more difficult to comprehend. A particularly painful fact that the friends and families of people who kill themselves sometimes have to face is the fact that suicide often has a trigger. Sometimes, that trigger is other people.

I remember reading a young adult novel called Thirteen Reasons Why a few years ago. The novel is very serious for a YA book, and the premise of it is that a teenage girl, Hannah, has killed herself and left behind a set of audio recordings in which she explains to every person who was implicated in her mental troubles what it was that they did.

One was addressed to a guy who found a poem she wrote and spread it all over the school. Another was to a guy who took photos of her through her bedroom window. By the end of the book you get a picture of a girl who was just completely used and marginalized by almost everyone she interacted with.

And yet–this is the part that some readers, judging from the reviews, didn’t get–Hannah is not supposed to be a wholly sympathetic character. You’re meant to feel sorry for her, but her actions are meant to make you uncomfortable. The tapes she leaves behind seem a bit vindictive. And at the end you learn that two of the major triggers for her suicide were that she failed to stop a rape at a party and that she allowed her friend to drive drunk–and hit and kill someone.

So, who’s to blame for Hannah’s suicide? Her classmates were cruel, yes. But they didn’t know what she was going through. And she could’ve saved herself a lot of guilt had she intervened and stopped the rape and the car accident, but can you really expect a terrified teenage girl to do that?

The point of the book, to me, is this: you can’t blame anyone. It’s comforting to think that you can, but you just can’t.

Similarly, the Australian DJs who pranked Saldanha could not have known what would happen. In fact, even now we don’t really understand. Although she reportedly left a suicide note, we don’t know what it says, and we don’t know what kinds of personal struggles she might’ve had leading up to her death. To their credit, the DJs have said that they’re heartbroken and sorry.

But blaming Saldanha is sick and cruel.

And while I don’t blame the DJs for her death, I still think they shouldn’t have done it.

The thing is, we live in a world that presumes that everyone is “strong” and mentally healthy and capable of dealing with whatever life throws at them without falling apart. This is why people like Saldanha are blamed and exhorted to “just work on their issues,” even after they’ve died.

We assume that people are always capable, for instance, of refusing repeated sexual advances, ignoring social coercion and proselytism, dealing with mental health issues without ever being taught how, overcoming pervasive racial inequality, facing the humiliation (and, sometimes, terror) of street harassment, suffering through targeted online hate campaigns, refusing to believe it when magazines tell them they must be thin, and so much more. We expect them to do all this without anger, because anger is “counterproductive.” So, of course, is mental illness.

We expect people to conform to an ideal that includes emotional strength, confidence, and resilience, and we refuse to concede that few people are able to live up to this ideal all of the time. How much do we expect a person to bravely, stoically handle? I’m not sure there is a limit.

The DJs assumed, whether consciously or not, that Saldanha would either see through the prank or be able to deal with the international attention she would receive for falling victim to it. As it turned out, she was not.

At The Daily Beast, Kent Sepkowitz writes:

With the recent focus on bullying sparked by suicides of young people who were hectored as outcasts, a new or newly articulated risk factor for suicide has gained currency: humiliation. Though certainly related to hopelessness and to real or threatened financial embarrassment, humiliation is its own very private experience, with its own equally private triggers. How and why certain events might brutally transgress honor and dignity in one person yet the same events barely touch the next, remains inscrutable. In this particular tragedy, it seems a sense that she was being publicly ridiculed—humiliated—somehow pushed Ms. Saldanha over the edge, an edge previously defined and maintained by her tremendous pride in her work.

Why do we expect people to deal with public humiliation for our own entertainment?

I would hope that rather than limiting the discussion to what these particular DJs should or should not have done, we expand it to talk about the exploitation and degradation that modern media thrives on. That these DJs would even think to go through such trouble to obtain someone’s private medical information is ridiculous. That there is a market for that information is ridiculous. I’ve long believed that celebrity gossip is unethical, but when it sets off a chain of events that ends in a suicide, that becomes even more apparent to me.

Not only is it impossible to blame any individual person in this awful story, but to do so would be to miss the point. Something in our culture–in the ways we relate to each other and in the ways we expect each other to be strong–is broken.

If I absolutely had to lay blame on something, it would be that.

HoboJacket’s Casual Classism: Ethical Humor and Objectifying the Homeless

Elite college students being snobby and idiotic isn’t really newsworthy, but a group of MIT students went above and beyond the standard this past week.

The students thought it’d be funny to give local homeless people jackets from Caltech, MIT’s rival, in order to “show the true value of a Caltech degree.” And then, to practice their coding skills, they actually made a website called HoboJacket where you can donate to do just that.

In a way, it’s a brilliant idea. The students get to practice valuable skills and diss a rival school while simultaneously performing a nominally charitable act. And then, just as Tucker Max did with his solipsistic Planned Parenthood donation, they and their defenders can claim that anyone who disagrees with any part of their methods doesn’t really care about the homeless, puts ideology before practicality, and, worst of all, can’t take a joke.

The criticism, of course, was plentiful. The students literally used homeless people as props to make a (fairly inane and classist) point, and while the joke was supposed to be at Caltech students’ expense, what it really accomplishes is objectifying homeless people. As Laura Beck at Jezebel wrote, “Being homeless already carries enough social shame, it doesn’t need your help. The barb at the end of the particular stick you’ve built is that homeless people are gross and dirty and making them wear clothes with rivals logos somehow degrades the logo.”

This, of course, is where a certain type of liberal comes out and protests that “Yeah well at least it’s getting them jackets/what are you complaining about/would you rather they went without clothes/if that’s what it takes to get people to donate then that’s just how it works.”

Raising money is hard. Duh. Sometimes gimmicks are necessary. Sometimes these gimmicks will be controversial. However, I believe that ethical humor is humor that punches up, not down, and I believe that if you can’t do something ethically, you shouldn’t be doing it. Leave it to someone who can.

And nevertheless, many non-profits and charities are able to solicit donations without exploiting existing social inequalities. If you really believe that you need to use marginalized people as props to attract attention to your cause because “that’s just how it works,” that probably says more about you than it does about the psychology of charitable giving.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that we objectify and dehumanize the homeless. A research study that I was coincidentally assigned to present in one of my neuroscience classes yesterday comes to this conclusion*. The researchers scanned people’s brains with an fMRI machine as they looked at photos of different types of people–the elderly, the rich, the disabled, the homeless. Only for homeless people and drug addicts did the medial prefrontal cortex–a part of the brain that activates when analyzing people as opposed to objects–fail to activate.

Before you rush to give this some sort of evolutionary explanation, remember the way our brain functions is not set in stone by genetics and biology. We are probably not born viewing homeless people as any different from other kinds of people. That’s something we learn, and that’s something to which the brain adapts. And even if we were born that way, the cool thing about being a sentient being is that you can choose to override the signals your brain sends you. That’s why people can choose to be celibate, go on hunger strikes, become doctors and treat sick people, and overcome “natural” fears like snakes and heights.

My point in discussing this study is not to excuse the MIT students’ actions by claiming that they were compelled to do what they did because that’s the way their brains function. Rather, it’s to show that this is not an “isolated incident,” as people love to claim when someone does something insensitive and awful. The objectification of homeless people is real and supported by evidence, so casting this as a silly college prank is inaccurate and socially irresponsible.

Although the students initially dismissed criticism of their project by comparing it to Facebook’s origins as a tool to objectify women (an overly ambitious comparison, I’d say), they eventually understood what they did wrong, apologized, and took the site down. Honestly, that’s great, and they deserve credit for listening to their critics.

But I still wanted to write about this because, as I mentioned, it’s not an isolated incident. This particular type of prank might be, but the prejudice inherent in it is not. It’s worth discussing. It sheds light on how we view the homeless, which should in turn inform how we attempt to help them.

Of course, in my view, donating clothing to homeless people is kind and important but does not address the roots of the problem. The problem, unfortunately, is structural, and we can’t really talk about homelessness without talking about the pervasive economic inequality that our society has.

*Harris, L.T. & Fiske, S.T. (2006). Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuroimaging responses to extreme out-groups. Psychological Science, 17(10), 847-53.

“Women just need to learn to say no.”

[Content note: sexual assault]

Every time people talk about coercive sex–you know, the kind where someone manipulates someone into having sex with them as opposed to physically forcing them–the concern trolls come out in droves.

“You can’t expect men* to only ask once!” they prattle. “Women* just need to learn how to keep saying no! It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there! If you don’t learn how to stand up for yourself you’ll get screwed over!”

The asterisks are there because these Very Concerned Individuals never seem to realize that sex doesn’t just happen between men and women. Neither do they realize that men aren’t the only ones who rape, and women aren’t the only ones who sometimes have trouble repeatedly saying no. But since these are the objections that they continually spew forth, these are the objections I will have to address.

Here’s an Imperfect Analogy™. If everyone were trained in self-defense, we would be able to prevent the majority of muggings and “stranger” rapes (except perhaps the ones involving weapons, but let’s ignore that for a moment). After all, just about anyone, regardless of body type and fitness level, can learn how to defend themselves with a trained instructor. Got a physical disability? Just get over it. Get panicky when you have to fight? You’re a pansy. There’s no need to discourage mugging and assault because people should just learn self-defense. And if you don’t learn self-defense, well, you’re not taking responsibility for yourself and it’s not our job to keep you from getting yourself mugged or assaulted.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, after all.

The ability to say “no” over and over despite wheedling, manipulation, and implied threat is not that different from the ability to disarm an attacker, target vulnerable body parts, or block a punch.

That is, the ability to defend yourself emotionally is not that different from the ability to defend yourself physically. We are not born knowing how to do either of those things.

Furthermore, just as some people have physical disabilities that prevent them from being able to fight off an attacker, some people–many people, in fact–have mental disorders that make it difficult for them to say “no” over and over. Just as some people panic and freeze rather than fighting back, some people are terrified by unceasing social pressure and do whatever they can to make the pressure stop–even if that means relenting to it.

This is not consent.

This. Is. Not. Consent.

Now, here’s where the analogy breaks down. Humans are psychologically wired to give in to social pressure. It makes sense, because acquiescing to the demands of others–especially others who are stronger than you–helps groups and societies run smoothly. The amount of research evidence for this is astounding, which is why I think everyone should be required to take a psychology 101 class. Stanley Milgram famously showed that most people are willing even to cause extreme pain to someone just because a person in a position of power is telling them to.

How is this relevant to (heterosexual) sexual encounters? Because men typically hold the reins. Men buy drinks and dinner, men invite women on dates, men initiate sex. Men are usually physically stronger. Women are likely to see their male partners as being in a position of power. And understand that this isn’t really a conscious thing–most women don’t think, “Gee, this guy has social and physical power over me, so I’d better do what he says.” It’s subtle. Subconscious. It sometimes makes “no” the hardest thing in the world to say.

And about buying drinks and dinner. This activates what psychologists call the norm of reciprocity. When someone does something nice for you–even if you didn’t ask for it–you may feel a strong urge to do something nice for them, especially if they’re asking you too. Lots of salespeople use this to their advantage, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that our dating system is set up this way.

Add to this a culture that claims, over and over, that a woman’s agency means little. Think of that “romantic” scene in The Amazing Spiderman, when Peter ropes Gwen in with his web and essentially forces her to kiss him. Think of the movie (500) Days of Summer, in which Tom uses a different type of coercion–he repeatedly badgers Summer for a relationship even though she’s told him many times that she’s not looking for one. Think of that Yale fraternity’s infamous chant, “No means yes, yes means anal.” Think of pickup artist (PUA) subculture, which literally teaches men how to coerce women into sex. Think of the expectation that a girl who’s asked to a high school prom by a guy sleeps with him afterwards.

Think of the irony of teaching women that they shouldn’t say no while demanding that they learn how to “take responsibility for themselves” by saying it.

And remember that many women–especially (and tragically) those who have already experienced sexual assault–make the assumption that “consenting” to sex is better than taking the risk of having it forced on you. If someone won’t take “no” for an answer, relenting may seem like the safer option. Remember that. Remember that this is not consent.

It’s absolutely true that women (and anyone else) can learn how to override their psychology and stand up to social pressure. But it’s true in the same way that it’s true that they can learn self-defense. It takes a long time–years, maybe–and lots of effort. It probably requires working with a professional or at least reading some useful books on the subject. You can’t just wake up one morning and “choose” to have a new personality.

And yet, that’s never what these concern trolls actually say. There is no advice about getting a therapist or improving your confidence. There is no acknowledgement that these things are difficult and take time. There is no compassion. There is only “Yeah well, she needs to learn how to say no. Not his fault she was such a pushover.”

That’s how I know that none of this is really about your supposed “concern” for these women. If you refuse to condemn people who use coercion and instead condemn people who allow themselves to be coerced, you are, to put it bluntly, on the wrong side.

In that case, here’s a challenge for you. Why is it so important to you that people be permitted by our social conventions to pressure, manipulate, and coerce each other into doing things–sometimes deeply personal and vulnerable things? Why do you insist that women can just magically “grow a backbone,” but that men can’t just stop coercing them?

And if the reason is that you think you’re being “realistic” and “pragmatic” because “things will never change anyway,” then I challenge you to direct fewer of your efforts at blaming victims of sexual assault, and more of them at actually fighting sexual assault.

Putting the burden on others to resist your attempts to get your way–rather than putting the burden on yourself to leave unwilling people alone–is deeply unethical. It is selfish. It prioritizes your desires over the needs of others.

No means no. A single no means no just as much as five of them do. We should only need to say it once.