On Coercion and a Different Social Ethic

One of my favorite bloggers once wrote a post about the idea of “consent culture” as an alternative to rape culture. After describing various ways to help create a culture of consent surrounding sex, she brilliantly expands the idea to social interactions in general:

I think part of the reason we have trouble drawing the line “it’s not okay to force someone into sexual activity” is that in many ways, forcing people to do things is part of our culture in general.  Cut that shit out of your life.  If someone doesn’t want to go to a party, try a new food, get up and dance, make small talk at the lunchtable–that’s their right.  Stop the “aww c’mon” and “just this once” and the games where you playfully force someone to play along.  Accept that no means no–all the time.

This hit home with me in a very personal way. As a shy, withdrawn child who preferred to do things her own way (who, by the way, grew into a friendly, outgoing adult who still prefers to do things her own way), I experienced this from parents, friends, and total strangers on a constant basis.

Is it as bad as sexual coercion? Of course not. But social coercion can leave its own scars–of feeling inadequate, dependent, and not in control of one’s own circumstances.

Social coercion is something I try very hard to both avoid having done to me and to avoid doing to others. It fails the test that I try to live by as much as possible, which I call the Asshole Test. The Asshole Test is simple–would another person who happens to witness what you’re doing right now think you’re an asshole? If so, you’re more likely than not behaving like one. (Probably with exceptions.)

Would you want to be that person who’s always trying to strong-arm people into doing things “for their own good?” I wouldn’t.

I’ve heard plenty of arguments against this view of social coercion. Here are a few:

1. It’s for their own good. This is the most common justification I’ve ever heard people give for trying to wheedle others into doing things. “But he always orders the same dish! Shouldn’t he try something new?” “But that guy keeps looking at her and she’s too shy to go over and talk to him!” “But they never go out! They need to go to the party and have fun!”

Here’s the thing. Assuming the object of your coercion is old enough to think for themselves (I’ll get to the subject of young children later), only they know what’s best for them. You don’t. Maybe they’re working up the courage to do what you’re trying to get them to do and just need more time, or maybe they don’t want to do it at all. Regardless, it’s not for you to decide. Once someone says no, accept that that’s their answer.

2. But they’ll be glad they did it! First of all, nobody knows that from the get-go. I’ve been manipulated into doing things I ended up enjoying, and I’ve been manipulated into doing things I’ve regretted for years and years. Some of the people who pushed me to do the latter things have been some of the people I’m closest to, and even they turned out to be wrong.

Second, even if they’re glad they did it–even if they’re thanking you–that doesn’t make it right. If it did, then we’d be getting into a Machiavellian sort of friendship ethic in which the ends satisfy the means. I just can’t get on board with that.

But more importantly, it’s the precedent that’s set that matters. You’re not really doing your friend any favors, even if they end up loving whatever it is you made them do, because you’re not teaching them to do it for themselves. You’re teaching them to do it to please you, to keep your friendship, to avoid looking bad in front of you and your friends, or just simply to get you to shut up.

You’re teaching them that, ultimately, their choices have to be moderated by the people they interact with. You’re teaching them to rely on you for direction rather than on themselves. You’re teaching them a lot of negative things that you shouldn’t really want to teach your friends.

3. So what, parents can’t force their kids to eat their vegetables? This is a stupid argument. But yes, I’ve heard people use it, including some of the people who’ve responded to my post about this on Tumblr. I’ve also heard teenagers try to justify their acts of rebellion this way.

Our society–and probably most societies around the world–have already established the precedent that, sometimes, parent-child relationships can have a different dynamic from other sorts of relationships. A parent can (within reason) take away a child’s computer as a punishment. But they cannot do so to their spouse. A parent can prohibit a child from eating certain foods, but they can’t do so to a friend. And that’s not only because they’d never be able to enforce it–that’s because it would be abusive to try to control the life of another adult in such a way.

There are definitely situations, though, when things that many people think are acceptable to force children to do are simply not. Another of my favorite bloggers, Yashar Ali, handles this point beautifully in his piece “Now…Give Your Uncle a Kiss.” Yashar, Holly (the author of the “Consent Culture” piece), and I all agree that coercing children into showing physical affection for other people is wrong.

But where do you draw the line?

When I have children someday, I think I know where I’ll personally draw it. I think it’s acceptable to coerce children into doing things that are unequivocally necessary for their health and safety, such as eating vegetables or avoiding talking to strangers. I think that, within reason, it’s acceptable to coerce children into doing things that are necessary for them to have a happy, successful life, such as doing their homework and using manners.

Beyond that, though, things get hazy, and every parent must set their own boundaries.

An easy way to tell whether you’re coercing a child for the right reasons or not is to examine your own motives. If you demand a child to eat her vegetables, it’s not because you’re going to be personally offended if she doesn’t; it’s because she needs them to be healthy. If you demand a child to mingle with your guests, it’s probably because you don’t want to be embarrassed by his shyness, or because you want your guests to be impressed by how smart he is, or because your personal ideal for people is that they be outgoing. It’s not for his health, safety, or happiness.

If you are coercing a child into doing something, though, they should always know why. And no, it’s not “because I said so.” Kids are naturally curious and one should take these opportunities to teach them things. For instance, tell them what kinds of vitamins and minerals can be found in healthy food, and what these nutrients do for the body. Kids should know that even though their parents can make them do things sometimes, they’re doing these things for themselves and not for their parents.

4. But persuasion isn’t coercion. Good job, you understand the English language. But seriously, I know it’s not. It’s not rape either, as some people on Tumblr misconstrue the argument.

Persuasion is like coercion’s younger, cheerier sibling. It’s usually harmless, and healthy, secure adults can easily ignore it if they want to. But it’s irresponsible, I think, to keep trying to persuade someone to do something while placing the burden of deflecting those requests onto them. Some people have a lot of difficulty saying no. They want to make you happy, they want to keep your friendship. I talked about this a bit before.

It’s very, very hard to tell
when persuasion turns into coercion. That’s why I personally avoid trying to persuade people to do things, period. You could say that if they genuinely agree with you, then they’ve been persuaded, but if they go along for other reasons, they’ve been coerced. I don’t really know. Unless you know someone extremely well, you can’t tell what’s going on in their mind, and sometimes you get it wrong even if you do know them extremely well. That’s why I try to play it safe.

And, finally, the most odious and dangerous excuse of them all: 5. But sometimes they want to be coerced. This is a bad excuse when it comes to sex, and it’s a bad excuse when it comes to social interactions.

This is where clear communication is essential. Some people really do want to be convinced to do things. Other people don’t. If you have a friend who always turns down your requests initially but then relents, why don’t you ask them why? Say, “So I’ve noticed that when I ask you if you want to do x/y/z, you always say no at first but then you change your mind. Is it because you feel pressured by me, or because you just needed some convincing?”

And then let them speak for themselves.

What I’m proposing is a different sort of social ethic. In this ethic, we not only respect people’s autonomy by not explicitly forcing them to do things, but we also free them from more subtle types of influence. That doesn’t mean we have to hide our desires and preferences, though. Instead of the “aww c’mon” and “just this once” that Holly writes about above, we say, “I wish you’d come along, but I’ll understand if you’d rather not.” Or “I think you’d like it if you tried it, but it’s totally up to you.” Or “That’s fine, maybe next time. Let me know if you change your mind.”

I think part of the reason why people have so much resistance to this sort of thinking is because we don’t like to take responsibility for things. It’s nice to think that we can just say and do whatever we want to other people and that our words and actions will have no real, lasting, and possibly negative effects on them. It’s nice to think that we’re all fully independent of each other, and that if someone says “yes” to something, it’s for one reason only–that they genuinely, from-the-bottom-of-their-hearts mean “yes.”

But there are ties that bind us to each other. Weak ties for acquaintances, stronger ties for friends, and stronger still for family and romantic partners. Respecting these ties means, among other things, recognizing the fact that you have an effect on this person, that you are not entirely independent of this person.

You don’t have to respect these ties. Unless we’re talking about sex, of course, you won’t be a rapist if you disrespect them. There are no legal consequences, and often there won’t even be any personal consequences, because not everyone recognizes when they’re being manipulated.

But that doesn’t make it right.

Dating Dangerously

Three weeks before my senior prom, I asked my best friend to be my date. I was sure he had feelings for me and I wanted him to know that I returned them, and that I hoped that things would go farther. Awesome! I thought. Asking people out is so easy!

Not so fast. At first, my best friend said, “Maybe. I’ll have to think about it.” Three days later, his maybe morphed into a no. I was, needless to say, extremely confused.

Traditional dating wisdom would attribute this unfortunate turn of events to one of only two possible causes: One, that my friend had simply lost interest in me; and two, that he still liked me but just didn’t want to go to prom with me for whatever reason. In the first case, there was obviously nothing I could do and I should just move on–okay. Makes sense. In the second, well, obviously my friend is a sissy who doesn’t have the guts to act on his feelings, and therefore I should just move on because he would clearly make a crappy boyfriend anyway.

Well, I immediately threw out both of these explanations and decided to ask my friend why he said no. Turns out that he’d been worried that, as I’d recently ended a relationship, our going to prom together would look bad. I respectfully disagreed. To this day, I still don’t understand what was going through my friend’s mind, but he soon changed it and decided to take me to prom after all.

And in fact, we soon started dating seriously and continued to do so for nearly two years, at which point we broke up and remained best friends.

The point of this lengthy and seemingly unnecessary foray into my personal life is this: I would’ve missed out on a hell of a lot if I’d just done things according to tradition. Because according to tradition, first of all, I should never have asked my friend out to begin with. After all, if a guy doesn’t ask a girl out himself, clearly he’s either not interested or, again, a sissy. Second, when I received the answer “no,” I should’ve realized that my friend was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Just Not Interested.

And then, not only would I have spent my senior prom awkwardly taking pictures of my girlfriends and their dates, but I would also have foregone nearly two years of a serious, loving relationship.

The truth is, scripts and stereotypes make dating simpler. Rather than actually having to figure out how the other person feels–or, you know, ask them–you can just rely on a mental flowchart to help you. He didn’t offer to pay? He either lacks manners or just isn’t that interested. She invited you into her apartment? She wants to have sex.

Dating scripts also make it much easier to negotiate a timeline. (FYI, if you don’t know what I mean by “scripts,” here’s an unfortunately crappy wiki page about this sociological term.) A guy once said to me, “So, this is our third date. When are we going to kiss?” As if my kissability expires after the third date. Although people undeniably differ in how slowly or quickly they like to go, the very idea that things should progress according to a set schedule makes it easier for people to pick potential partners. If someone takes less time than you to be ready for something, then clearly they’re “easy” and you shouldn’t bother with them. If they take more time than you, then clearly they’re “prudish” and…you shouldn’t bother with them.

I met a guy once who all but bragged to me about how he was once seeing a girl, and the first time they made out, he tried to take her shirt off. According to his account, she “totally freaked out”–that is, not only did she decline to let him remove her shirt, but she also apparently didn’t do this in a nice enough way. Leaving aside the issue of the woman’s possible lack of manners, this guy decided that she wasn’t right for him purely because she wasn’t ready to remove her shirt and he was. In fact, even though she wanted to see him again after that, he ignored her calls without any further explanation.

And that was much easier than asking her to tell him how she felt, or simply apologizing and waiting for her to remove her own shirt when she was ready to. Was it possible that the girl was really unable to satisfy his needs, and that he’d do well to move on? Sure. But he didn’t ask. Perhaps her reaction was due to memories of a painful past experience, or maybe he pulled on her shirt too hard and startled her, or maybe she suddenly remembered that she’d worn her ugliest bra that day. It could be anything, and not all of those possibilities necessarily involve her being unsuitable girlfriend material.

Traditional gender roles and dating practices are also restrictive when it comes to men’s behavior. As a girl, I’ve grown up hearing entire lists of how men who wish to date me ought to behave. They should always offer to pay, and they should always walk me back to my apartment after a date, even if it adds half an hour to their walk home. They should be willing to spend time with me any evening I want, and they should always help me with homework, take me grocery shopping if they have a car, carry my bags, move my furniture, fix my computer, buy me gifts, and initiate everything sexual without any reassurances from me. And, of course, they wouldn’t be even remotely interested in seeing any other girl. Only me.

So imagine my surprise when I started dating and encountered the following paradox: plenty of guys wanted to date me, and they seemed quite interested. Hell, sometimes they even wrote me love letters. But, for some reason, none of them were willing to do everything on that list of perfect boyfriend behaviors. They’d ask me to text them when I got home safely rather than offering to walk me back. They’d tell me that they had plans with friends on Saturday night, but could maybe hang out on Sunday. When we ordered food, they’d quietly let me pay for my own stuff, which I gladly did. Sometimes, to my initial chagrin, they even admitted that I wasn’t the only girl they were interested in.

Of course, there were two possibilities. Either, as traditional wisdom would indicate, these guys don’t “really” like me that much, or traditional wisdom is simply wrong.

Luckily for my love life, I decided that the truth lay in the latter.

But that makes it a bit more difficult, doesn’t it? I can’t rely on these clear-cut categories to figure out who’s really interested and who’s just passing the time. If there’s something I’d like a potential partner to do for me, I have to actually ask rather than assume that they’re just going to do it.

If I truly believed that a guy has to be a paragon of masculinity in order to be an acceptable boyfriend for me, making decisions about dating would be easier, because I’d just ditch all the guys who didn’t fit that mold. But of course, in the long term, I’d only end up ditching my own chances to find someone who’s right for me.

Conventional dating scripts are being challenged all the time, but they still cling to life in the form of movies, TV shows, Cosmo, and many other bits of culture. They also continue to drive the actions and desires of many people, albeit not of me and the people I hang out with.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is that they make things so deceptively easy. Dating outside of the conventions seems riskier, scarier.

But in reality, it’s not. There’s so much joy and freedom in writing your own rules, or forgetting rules altogether. It opens up the possibility of meeting someone who likes to play by the same rules, or lack thereof, as you do.

The Friend Zone is a Myth

This week’s Daily Northwestern column.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, many of us are probably thinking the same thing : Dating is hard.

And it is, especially in college. People who look for serious relationships (as opposed to casual dating or hookups) face plenty of challenges, such as jam-packed schedules, breaks away from campus, study abroad semesters, plenty of temptation, and, of course, the constant specter of graduation.

Some might say that friendship is another one of those challenges. The concept of the “friend zone” isn’t a new one. On UrbanDictionary.com, where it was the “Word of the Day” back in October 2011, “friend zone” is defined as “What you attain after you fail to impress a woman you’re attracted to. Usually initiated by the woman saying, ‘You’re such a good friend.'”

Despite the gendered definition that UD provides, I’ve heard both girls and guys claim that their crush rejected their advances because they were “just such a good friend” or because they “didn’t want to ruin the friendship.”

I think the friend zone concept is mostly bunk. First of all, the fact that many relationships do start off with the couple being good friends shows that friendship itself isn’t exactly a cold shower.

Second, the friend zone seems like a convenient (if well-intended) excuse that people use when a friend whom they see as nothing more expresses romantic interest. After all, it’s never pleasant to have to tell a good friend that, for whatever reason, you just don’t see them as boyfriend/girlfriend material. And often people might not know the reason for that lack of connection: Maybe they just didn’t click with the person, or there wasn’t chemistry, or whatever you want to call it.

In such a situation, it makes sense that someone would say something like, “I just don’t see you as more than a friend.” And it makes sense that the person they’re rejecting would conclude that the friendship is the problem.

But it’s not. The problem is the person just doesn’t like them that way.

Of course, some people do choose not to date a friend they have feelings for because they don’t want to jeopardize the friendship. However, such people are probably simply valuing friendship over romance for the moment, and that’s their choice — it doesn’t mean becoming their friend was a bad idea.

Sometimes the friend zone explanation arises when a person puts a lot of energy into being a good friend to someone they’re interested in and gets frustrated when their emotions aren’t reciprocated. Since humans are wired to find patterns, the natural assumption is that the friendship caused their crush not to like them back.

However, as important as it is, being a good friend doesn’t entitle you to someone’s romantic attention. In fact, nothing entitles you to that.

It makes me sad when I see advice columns in women’s magazines exhorting them not to act like good friends to the men they like for fear of getting “friend zoned.” These columns generally advise women not to do anything overly friendly, such as worrying about a guy’s health or listening to him talk about his problems. Caring actions like these might prompt the dreaded “You’re such a good friend” comment.

However, unless you’re looking for the most casual of flings, friendship first makes a lot of sense — it allows you to get to know the person well before getting too invested, it helps them understand your boundaries, and it allows you to make sure that both of you are looking for the same thing from each other.

Especially at our age, people vary a lot in terms of the sorts of sexual and/or romantic relationships they’re looking for. Some just want to hook up, some want to date several people, some want an exclusive partner until distance forces them to separate, and others are looking for something serious and long-term. Getting to know a potential partner as a friend first is a great way to prevent hurting each other when you discover that your goals diverge.

Besides, if it never develops into anything more, having a new friend never hurts anyone.

This Valentine’s Day, ignore the cliched advice and go with your gut. People are either going to like you, or they’re not. But they’re more likely to like you if you treat them well.

"I really want to screw you, but you have so much baggage."

A guy actually said that to me once.

He may have been the only person I’ve ever encountered who was willing to verbalize his shallowness and ignorance, but he’s far from the only one who thinks that people need to be perfect before you can get involved with them.

That idea runs rampant in our culture, and it’s not only men who are to blame. Advice columns for women under 30 often exhibit what I call the “Dump His Ass” effect–anytime a woman writing a letter mentions virtually any imperfection in her crush or boyfriend, the advice columnist usually responds with some form of “dump his ass.” Still has feelings for his ex? Dump his ass. He’s insecure? Dump his ass. Doesn’t like your friends? Dump his ass.

(Of course, there are plenty of offenses for which a person of any gender should almost certainly be dumped, such as sexual harassment or assault, emotional manipulation, being a flaming racist/sexist/etc, and so on. I’m talking about much more minor sorts of flaws.)

Common wisdom seems to suggest that before one can get involved with another person in a healthy and stable way, they need to do things like “work on themselves” and “learn to love themselves” and “figure out who they are.” Leaving aside the fact that for most people, working on yourself and figuring out who you are is a lifelong process, there are some people who are never going to “love” or be comfortable with themselves. I am one such person. Do I not deserve to ever have a partner?

Similarly, people are expected to be “happy on their own” before they can be dateable. That’s preposterous. If you’re 100% happy being single, why would you need a serious partner in the first place? Why is it considered unhealthy to really, really want someone to share your life with?

As someone who has had “baggage” virtually since birth, I have never not been aware of the fact that American culture considers people like me undateable. However, the idea that we’re also unfuckable is a pretty new one to me.

Why? Why do people need to be perfect before we’ll have anything to do with them?

It might surprise some people to know that everyone has flaws and psychological baggage; it’s just a matter of getting to know them well enough to figure that out. And yes, other people’s baggage can sometimes cause you trouble. You know what? Tough titties. You have two options: grow up and deal with it, or avoid getting to know anyone.

Incidentally, the guy I quoted in this post’s title eventually overcame his reservations and spent quite some time harassing me for sexual favors. After I refused, he looked at me and said, “You know, I couldn’t ever see you as my girlfriend. I’d need a girl who’s sweet and kind.”

Now who’s the one with the baggage?

Why You Should Date a Feminist

Now don't tell me you wouldn't date Obama.

Men, this post is for you.

I’ve been told by trusted sources that potential suitors may read my blog and find themselves intimidated by my feminist ideas. I would never want to discourage a potential suitor until I discover him to be deplorable, so I’m offering up this post as an olive branch of sorts.

So, here’s why you should date feminist girls like me.*

  1. We split the check. Now, I’m not gonna lie–I don’t speak for all feminists, but I personally appreciate when a guy offers to pay for me. Sometimes I even accept. However, that doesn’t mean I expect it. Hell, sometimes I even pay for the guy.
  2. We won’t use you as a free plumber/computer technician/mover. I can unclog my own toilet, fix my own computer, and–usually–schlep my own shit up the stairs. Why? Because rather than sitting around looking pretty and helpless, I’ve enjoyed figuring out how to do that stuff myself. (Case in point: I once ran Linux (Ubuntu, if you’re interested) on my laptop for an entire year just for the hell of it.)
  3. We’re great in bed. Most–though of course not all–feminists refuse to buy in to the idea that a woman is only sexy if she’s either a shy, girlish virgin or a porn star. We recognize that sexiness is an attitude, not a set of genetically inherited traits. We understand that there’s nothing shameful or dirty about sex.
  4. We don’t expect you to be rich. I’ve dated (or at least crushed on) guys who’ve majored (or worked) in anything from business, economics, biology, and pre-med to philosophy, history, English, and psychology. I’ve been into guys whose parents are lawyers and guys whose parents barely make ends meet. Because I don’t see dating as a way to become financially secure. I can do that for myself.
  5. We will never subject you to monologues about our physical flaws. (Or, at least, we’ll do so very rarely.) After many years, I’ve finally stopped thinking I’m fat. But it’s not because I got any thinner or got an expensive therapist. It’s because I’ve finally realized that even if I were fat, that would in no way diminish my worth as a human being–and that’s an idea I can thank feminism for. Once I realized that, I finally stopped pinching my stomach and analyzing my thighs, and got to work thinking about the stuff that matters.
  6. We don’t buy into the whole Valentine’s Day shebang. Every February, I discover magazine advice columns full of letters from men terrified that they won’t be able to provide the “perfect” Valentine’s Day experience for their girlfriends, fiancées, or wives. Well, gentlemen, you don’t have to worry with me. I appreciate Valentine’s Day gifts and usually give them myself, but I have no special expectations for that day aside from a hug and a kiss.
  7. We don’t need you to be super ripped and athletic. Most feminists recognize that there are soooo many interesting things a person could do with his/her life aside from trying to look good. I like to date people who are passionate about something. If they’re passionate about sports, cool. If they’re passionate about something totally different and don’t have much time for sports, still cool.
  8. We care about things. Now, I realize that for some men, this is a dealbreaker. But I truly believe that most guys like it when a girl actually cares about things that happen in the world and has plenty of interests. I have lots of flaws, but one word that’s never been used to describe me is “boring.”
Of course, no discussion about dating feminists would be complete without an examination of the stereotypes associated with them. Many people unfortunately think that feminists are rude, uncaring, etc. Obviously, I don’t think that’s true. But a better argument is this–don’t you also know non-feminists who are rude and uncaring?

Not every feminist woman will be right for you. That much, I hope, is obvious. I’m not arguing that you should date women just because they’re feminists. Rather, I’m arguing that you shouldn’t write them off just for that reason.

So, give it a try. Don’t let my mom be terrified for my romantic future. You wouldn’t do that to her, would you?

~~~

*Disclaimer: I don’t claim to speak for all feminists. However, this list is applicable to most feminists that I’ve personally met and/or read the writing of. If you’re a feminist and some of this doesn’t apply to you, that’s perfectly fine. I still consider you a feminist. Don’t worry.

I'm Not Sorry

[TMI Warning]

As a person with a mental condition that often drastically affects interpersonal relationships, I’m a total pro at apologizing. I do it practically every day. Here’s a sample of depression-related things I’ve apologized for lately:

  • crying
  • being too tired to meet up with a friend
  • being late
  • leaving early
  • getting upset when a friend acted insensitively
  • needing to talk to someone
  • saying something negative
  • needing to go be alone for a bit
  • writing something emotional
  • being unsure of whether a friend really cares about me or not
  • not understanding a joke
  • not being dressed well/not having makeup on
  • taking criticism too harshly
  • not wanting to be in a big group of people
  • not wanting to drink
  • being quiet
  • not having an appetite

Now, I realize I should be counting my blessings for the fact that I now have friends who understand me and my brain enough to be able to accept those apologies–in high school it was much worse. But at the same time, I’ve become acutely aware of how inauthentic I’m being when I apologize for the various ways in which my depression manifests itself. Sure, I’m sorry if the way I am makes life difficult for people or makes them uncomfortable. But apologizing implies that I could’ve avoided the situation had I been more attentive or considerate, just like when one apologizes for, say, forgetting a friend’s birthday or for spilling hot coffee on someone.

I can’t avoid being fatigued or upset or sensitive, though, any more than a diabetic can avoid needing insulin shots.

Of course, most people who don’t know me very well don’t even know that I’m depressed. Thankfully, I’m not required to wear a scarlet letter “D” on my shirt. But even if they do know, I feel compelled to apologize every time my behavior deviates from that of a healthy person, just to remind them that I’m well aware of the fact that the way I am can be an inconvenience for people.

The truth is, though, that insofar as “I’m sorry” means “I messed up,” “my bad,” “this is on me,” “I should’ve known better,” “I should’ve tried harder,” “I should’ve been a better person,” and the like–I’m not sorry. It’s not my fault. I couldn’t have stopped it. There’s nothing I could’ve done. I’m getting treatment and trying my best to recover, and that’s as much as I should be held responsible for. I’m not even to blame for not getting treatment sooner, because I was a kid and had no idea there was anything wrong with me. I’d been told “that’s just how you are” all my life.

I wish I could stop apologizing for having an illness. But until people understand it well enough to react to my apologies the way they’d react to an asthma sufferer who apologizes for getting out of breath, I can’t.

I’m still not sorry, though.

Who Has it Worse?

There’s a game we progressives sometimes inadvertently play. I like to call it “Who’s More Oppressed?”

You can probably guess what I’m talking about here. It’s the tendency of social justice-oriented people to engage in lengthy polemics regarding “who has it worse.” Is it Black lesbians? Is it transsexual Hispanic men? Is it lower-class white teenage mothers?

In fact, some (quite liberal) friends and I recently tried to figure out which identities the hypothetical most oppressed person in the world would have. (I’ll leave the conclusion up to your imagination.)

I encountered a less dramatic form of this argument recently on (where else) Tumblr. A male user had responded to a graphic against slut-shaming with the comment, “Try to nail every girl you know? Douchebag. Try to be civil with every girl you know? Fuckin friend-zoned. It works both ways.”

A user named, of course, “stfuconservatives” reblogged the post and added some commentary to it, claiming that being called a slut is worse than being “friend-zoned” and that women have it worse than men. Further comments on that post agreed with stfuconservatives and generally bemoaned the preponderance of sexism in this world.

Let’s step back for a minute. Yes, being called a slut is awful. Nobody should ever call someone that. Period.

Besides which, what this guy wrote and the way in which he wrote it is definitely quite presumptuous and entitled-sounding. However, for the sake of argument, I’ll play devil’s advocate and take his perspective. First of all, he never said that this men’s issue is worse than being called a slut is for a woman, which is what the responders claim he says. But in fact, he specifically says, “It works both ways.” What does that NOT imply? That men have it worse. This man never said that he finds it appropriate to call a woman a slut, or that he doesn’t think this is a problem. Let’s not put words into his mouth.

Furthermore, why this immediate assumption that this man’s claim does not deserve attention? Several commenters immediately point out that they themselves have never “friend-zoned” a guy for being nice. Perhaps not. But this issue is one that I have heard mentioned by guys many, many times, and it strikes at the heart of the conflict between masculinity and sensitivity that most (if not all) American men have to face. This culture glorifies the “Bad Boy,” and men are taught from an early age that being a man means being callous and aloof. Rape culture permeates through our society, teaching men that inducing women to have sex with them is a worthy goal.

On a personal level, every “nice guy” I know has experienced at least one situation in which a girl he liked picked an asshole over him. In fact, when I was younger, I did this all the time. I don’t know why women do it. But it happens. There’s no need to pretend that this isn’t an issue, because it is, and it should be addressed.

Finally–and this relates to a topic I’ll be addressing in a later post–the name “stfuconservatives” (means “shut the fuck up, conservatives,” for those who aren’t familiar with chatspeak) is just so damn wrong. How will progressives benefit from silencing those who disagree with us? Argument and debate not only causes us to strengthen our ability to defend our own views, but it also reminds us that we might not be right about everything, and that many different perspectives exist in the world. These perspectives should be valued, respected, and engaged with.

But back to my original point. What good, exactly, does it do to argue about who has it worse? Why can’t we acknowledge that even groups that we associate with privilege can have issues, and that different kinds of privilege operate in different social contexts? There are so many different kinds of prejudice and stereotypes.

For what it’s worth, I’m glad that I’m a woman, and I can act as kind and generous with men as I want without them relegating me to the status of friend (and nothing more). I’m glad that when it comes to dating, being the person I truly want to be–caring, sensitive, and witty–actually helps me get dates and find relationships, rather than hurting my chances.

Ultimately, I think it’s unfair to make any claims about who has it worse. Each of us sees the world through our particular lens. In terms of things like access to employment opportunities, salaries, historical discrimination, and reproductive justice, women undoubtedly have it worse. But how about being expected to get a job that can provide for a family? How about being drafted to fight in wars? How about being expected to show little emotion, to know how to do practical things around the house, to love sports and be athletic, to propose marriage?

Who has it worse is irrelevant. Let’s fight for social justice without trampling on any group, whether it’s traditionally “privileged” or not. What this comes down to is choosing to speak, write, and argue in ways that are inclusive, rather than exclusive. Like it or not, about half the world is men. There’s no need to make them feel like we don’t care about their viewpoints.

Mea Culpa

mea cul·pa. Latin. through my fault; my fault (used as an acknowledgment of one’s responsibility).

Apologies have an interesting social function. I think that many people underestimate their power because they don’t necessarily “fix” the harm that was done, but in my opinion that’s an overly simplistic view of things.

Many people have trouble saying sorry. Some think that an apology is unnecessary if the harm done was accidental or unavoidable. (Possibly they also argue that accidental implies unavoidable.) Others think that there is no need to apologize if they believe they behaved correctly and that the other person should not have been offended or upset. There are also people who don’t believe in apologies because they don’t actually “fix” anything. And still others–the largest group, I believe–simply don’t like the feeling of apologizing, so they avoid it altogether.

But why? Maybe because apologizing puts you in a vulnerable position. It forces you to admit, implicitly or otherwise, that you were wrong. It forces you to confront the fact that your actions sometimes have unexpected negative consequences and that people often see your actions very differently than you do. It also opens up the possibility that the other person will reject your apology, and nobody likes rejection.

I definitely used to belong to this group of people. I hated apologizing. It felt crappy and even after I did it, I still felt like the other person was going to hold a grudge.

I’ve grown up since then, though, and now I give out apologies like some people give out hugs. I apologize for everything that I might’ve done wrong, from accidentally cutting someone off as we’re walking into a classroom to not answering a friend’s text in a timely way to seriously upsetting someone. I apologize even for things that many people don’t think require an apology. And it feels great. I feel like my respect and consideration is a gift, but unlike the gifts you buy, I can give out as much of this one as I want.

From this, and from the pain I feel when others don’t extend me the same courtesy I extend to them, I’ve started slowly figuring out exactly what the function of apology in human society is. It’s a social lubricant–and I don’t mean in the same way alcohol is. It’s a social lubricant in the sense that it keeps relationships going smoothly and provides a way for people to let each other know that they care about and respect each other. An apology rarely fixes the problem that it caused, but it lets the person who was harmed know that the other person still cares.

For instance, several weeks ago I posted something on Facebook that a friend of mine found offensive (it made fun of her future career) and she posted a really angry comment on it saying that she was offended. I honestly found her response completely overreactive and entirely too public. Nevertheless, I set that aside and acknowledged that she was upset and wrote her a message apologizing and explaining that I hadn’t meant to offend her. She responded with an apology for her overreaction and accepted mine. And everything went on just as it had before.

But if at any point during this interaction–if I’d decided that her overreaction absolved me from having to apologize, or if she’d decided that my apology retroactively justified her overreaction–then things wouldn’t have gone so well. In the first case, she would’ve been stuck with a grudge against me, and in the second, I would’ve felt taken advantage of, like my conscientiousness had simply been abused.

Apologizing is one thing that I believe I do very well, so it’s difficult to understand why others can’t do it too. Like listening, writing, and reading critically, it’s one of those skills that are lacking in American society. I think it’s because people fail to recognize the power that a simple apology can have, and I wish there were a way (aside from writing slightly presumptuous blog posts) to show them they’re wrong.

A Point-by-Point Assessment of "10 Reasons to Date a Depressive"

[TMI Warning]

Thought Catalog had an interesting post yesterday called “10 Reasons to Date a Depressive.” It’s sardonic and irreverent but actually brings up a few good points about depressives (and dating them). I’m going to analyze the piece point-by-point and add my own (as usual, very serious and scholarly) commentary.

1. Anything you leave with them will be right where you left it, no matter how long you leave it. Pending suicide, hospitalization or just deciding to go somewhere else while in a melancholic haze, the depressive avoids doing, well, things.

Yeah, this is pretty true. I think I’m unusual in that I force myself to clean even when I’m feeling awful (because it helps), but many depressives don’t.

2. Borrowing money has two advantages. Depressives do not expect you to pay them back. It’s probable they don’t even remember lending it to you, after a while of nothing mattering.

Partially true. We do often feel like people are always going to take advantage of us (i.e. by not paying us back), but we never forget. We hold it in the back of our minds and feel resentful.

3. Cheap date. Most depressives who want to live at least a little are on some sort of antidepressant. The chemicals in most antidepressants increase the potency of alcohol. You may end up with vomit on you while they tell you stories of their missed opportunities. But then again, you may not. It’s good to stay optimistic around depressives, for obvious reasons. Also, most depressives don’t eat much.

Since I don’t really drink, I wouldn’t know about this. However, it’s worth pointing out that not only are some antidepressants potentially fatal if taken with alcohol, but it’s also a really bad idea to drink if you’re depressed (alcohol itself is a depressant, and so on and so forth). If you’re dating a depressive, please don’t encourage them to drink.

4. Avoiding the meet the family situation. Depressives usually hate their family. And depressives don’t want to meet your weirdo brood. That would interrupt days-long, pensive thought-loops. These are necessary for doing nothing.

Not true for me, but definitely true for some.

5. Sex. As with most things it’s a double-edge sword with the depressed. They may get wasted (easily, see above) and fuck some of that anger out on you or they may get wasted and spend the night in the emergency room. It is worth the risk, though, if only to do it once. Intoxicated sex with a highly-medicated depressive is liken swimming with dolphins.

Actually, many depressives lose interest in sex as a result of their condition, and many antidepressants can lower sex drive or inhibit orgasms as a side effect. Also, from what I’ve heard (but thankfully never experienced), drunk people in general are TERRIBLE at sex.

6. Drugs. Depressed people love to self-medicate. This often means unlimited beer and usually pills and pot. If you’re into speedy drugs though, you’re out of luck. Depressives are terribly uncomfortable with bouts of increased energy.

I wouldn’t know.

7. Poor memory and attention. Lucky for you, poor cognitive skills are a sign of depression! Depressed partners won’t remember things, like cruel words or mysterious sheet stains, and there’s less of a chance they’ll notice when you do stupid shit.

Only partially true. We definitely have poor memory and attention, but we will ALWAYS notice when you do stupid shit, ALWAYS freak out about it, and ALWAYS remember it.

8. A lot of quiet time. If you’re into quiet (though not usually the peaceful kind), depressives are for you. If they aren’t quiet due to overwhelming internal existential dread, you’re getting the silent treatment for whatever you most recently said or did that crushed their identity.

Haha. This is completely true. If you’re going to date a depressive, make sure you’re not one of those people who needs to be talking or doing something all the time. We like to sit around and think.

9. Sensitivity. Depressives are very sensitive people. This will work well for you when you are sick or lose your job or any time you need someone to feel sorry for you. Or maybe you saw a squirrel outside and then looked away and when you looked back it was gone and for a second you were slightly glum. Anything. Just don’t expect any actual help. Depressives are already too weighed down with pain to do physical activities.

So so so so true. Whenever one of my friends or family members is upset, I literally feel it in my heart. I would drop anything to help someone. Even if it’s not something that I personally would be upset about (for instance, one of my friends gets very upset about bad grades and I don’t really), it’s like my feet instantly go in their shoes. Most depressives I know are the same way. Of course, though, sensitivity also has the flip side of making people very easily hurt, which is one of the hallmarks of depression.

10.You are now awesome! When with depressives, usually a mess of bodily and foreign clothing stains, bloodshot eyes and plenty of hopelessness to share, you are truly a joy to all of the senses. So, even if you don’t want to invest in dating a depressive, just spending a little time with one can go a long way to making you feel better about yourself.

Honestly, from what I’ve heard, spending time with depressives makes you feel much more shitty than good. So don’t do it for that reason.

Love vs. Work

“Some women choose to follow men, and some women choose to follow their dreams. If you’re wondering which way to go, remember that your career will never wake up and tell you that it doesn’t love you anymore.”

— Lady Gaga

As much as I respect and admire Lady Gaga, this is some of the worst advice I’ve ever heard, because it’s incredibly misleading.

First of all, it’s probably just as easy to lose your career as it is to lose your partner. Here are a few examples:

  • a pro football player permanently injures his leg
  • a writer gets depressed and loses her creativity
  • a doctor loses a malpractice suit and is no longer allowed to practice medicine
  • a politician becomes disenchanted with the system in which she works
  • an artist starts losing his vision
  • a lawyer at a prestigious firm gets burned out

And so on.

Furthermore, if it were the case that everyone who puts aside relationships for the sake of their careers ends up doing what they love most and getting paid millions for it like Lady Gaga, perhaps her advice would hold up. But for most of today’s young people, who sacrifice love and dating for the sake of working 60-hour weeks and making comparatively little money, the choice isn’t really such an obvious one.

Second, it’s exactly this mentality that prevents people from making the sort of commitment that prevents relationships from breaking down. I’m not saying all relationships (and marriages) are made to last, but putting your career first every time is one way to make sure they don’t. I know students here who will break off perfectly good relationships because 1) they can’t deal with spending one summer apart, and 2) they’re so obsessed with getting the perfect summer internship that they don’t even try to end up in the same city together. Of course, one could argue that college relationships don’t matter much (though I’d never argue that, personally), but people keep acting like this long after graduation. For instance, by doing as Lady Gaga recommends and choosing careers over relationships.

I feel like sentiments like this one are an overblown response to the old-fashioned way of looking things, which was that a woman should sacrifice all of her ambitions for the sake of a marriage. Obviously, I disagree with that completely, but I feel like asking women to sacrifice all of their relationships for the sake of their ambitions is just as one-sided and faulty way of looking at things. Statements like this one construct these two aspects of adult life as diametrically opposed when they really aren’t. Plenty of women manage to have fulfilling careers and loving marriages. It just takes a bit of work, that’s all.

The truth is that nothing in your life is ever going to be perfect, all the time. When your relationships aren’t going well, an interesting and meaningful career can help you get through it. But what about when your career isn’t going well?

In short, yes, balancing love and work is difficult. That doesn’t mean we should just opt out of that balance altogether and pick one over the other. It’s unfortunate that people like Lady Gaga, whom many young women consider a role model, has made it sound like we need to abandon one of these important things for the sake of the other.