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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Warning: ALL of the spoilers ahead]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Defense of Having Big/Serious/Difficult Conversations in Writing

This post grew out of a conversation I had with Chana Messinger and was also influenced by this great old Wired piece that has resurfaced on my social networks lately.

You may not think that, in this day and age, the value of digital communication still needs to be defended. Maybe it doesn’t. But the idea that “big” discussions about “serious” interpersonal matters must be reserved for in-person conversations (or, at the very least, for the telephone) is still pervasive. (Witness the constant hand-wringing in forums and magazines over whether or not it’s acceptable to break up with someone via text or email.)

I think it’s considered “common sense”–an unspoken assumption–that Important Interpersonal Conversations are best conducted in person. Wherever there is “common sense,” there are lots of fascinating insights to be gleaned about our societal values and norms. So I want to shake this idea up a bit.

Disclaimer first. The purpose of this article is twofold: 1) so that I have something to show friends and partners who want to understand why I prefer to communicate the way I do, and 2) to challenge some assumptions about text-based communication and give people something to think about. Note the conspicuous absence of “3) to convince you to stop communicating the way you like to and to do it my way instead.” Sometimes when writing about the pros or cons of something, it’s hard to avoid giving the impression that you Unilaterally Recommend the thing you’re giving pros for or that you Unilaterally Reject the thing you’re giving cons for. The only communication style I Unilaterally Recommend is the one that works for you, helps you get your needs met, and treats others with respect and dignity.

So, with all that said, let’s make a case for having difficult and/or serious conversations in writing.

My personal preference for it stems from a few things. First of all, I just really fucking love writing. It’s been my preferred method of communication and self-expression since I learned how to do it. For me it’s both a creative outlet and a practical tool. The way I analyze and process my own life is often by imagining how I would narrate it if I were writing about it.

Second, I grew up with the unfortunate combination of very curious and perceptive parents, high emotional expressiveness that’s very difficult to hide or subdue, and clinical depression. This means that my feelings were often bad (to the point of being socially and culturally unacceptable) and usually very obvious to everyone around me.

As a result, I place a very high value on what I call emotional privacy. Emotional privacy just means being able to keep your emotions private unless/until you want to reveal them. Although I haven’t studied this or talked about it with enough people to know, I would guess that emotional privacy is not something you think about a lot unless you have a mental illness, have difficulty controlling your emotional expression, or have very nosy friends, partners, or family members.

When I was depressed, and to a lesser extent now, it was impossible for me to communicate about difficult things like relationship breakups or disagreements without showing emotions, and the emotions I showed were often considered excessive and unacceptable and “wrong” by people. So I learned to value communicating in a way that allowed me to hide them until I chose to reveal them in a more appropriate way than bursting into tears–for instance, by saying, “I’m really upset that you’d end things this way,” or “It pisses me off that you’re being so critical.”

One of the most common reasons people give for why you should have these conversations in person is that this allows you to read the other person’s body language, facial expression, tone, and so forth. It’s true that these things can be very helpful in understanding someone. But it’s also true, at least to me, that people don’t always want you to be reading them in that way.

Think about it. If you ask someone if they’re upset and they say “No,” but their nonverbal cues suggest otherwise, that probably means that they’re indeed upset but don’t want to tell you that right now. (I think it’s totally fine to choose not to tell someone that you’re upset at them, with caveats.) Why should you have access to information about someone’s emotional state that they don’t want you to have? Why should your desire to know how they really feel trump their desire to choose whether and when to share their emotional state with you?

When I’m discussing something difficult with someone, I want emotional privacy. I want to be able to choose when and how to tell them what I’m feeling. Because I, like many people, do not have perfect control over my emotional expression, this makes text-based communication preferable.

But it’s not just about me. I want to extend this right to the person I’m communicating with, too. While I always care about and want to know how people are feeling, especially when we’re talking about something serious, I want them to tell me how they’re feeling when they’re ready to.

For me, this is especially key when it comes to breakups. The common wisdom is that it shows “respect” to someone to drag them out to a restaurant or some other public place or even your home, break up with them, force them to process those emotions right there in front of you, possibly cry in public, and then go home alone. I find this absolutely baffling. I think that the kindest thing you can do when breaking up with someone is to give them privacy and to let them choose whether or not to respond to your message or see you again or share their reaction to the breakup with you.

Another advantage of text-based communication is that it facilitates the act of thinking before speaking (or writing, as the case may be). Unfortunately, American culture still largely considers silence and pauses during conversation to be “awkward,” so people feel the pressure to fill them up. People may also speak impulsively. With text, email, and instant message, there are different norms about how quickly one needs to respond, and you also have the benefit of seeing your words take shape as you type them–before you send them off into the world. With face-to-face conversation, we typically don’t get to rehearse.

I want the freedom to write and revise and rewrite what I want to say before the other person sees it, because this helps me be the best communicator I can possibly be. I want the person I’m talking to to have this freedom too.

Text-based conversations can also be paused in ways that in-person conversations cannot. “I’m not thinking clearly right now and need to take a break. I’ll text you when I’m ready to talk again.” “Hold on, I need to step away and think about this for a while.” These are things that are certainly possible to do in person, but harder, especially because unless the two of you live together, you probably had to go somewhere to talk to each other.

Further, text-based conversations have the amazing feature of (usually) being saved in writing and accessible later. No more arguing about who said what or started what or brought up what. No more mentally kicking yourself because you spaced out and didn’t really hear what the person was saying but feel bad about asking now (although, if you’re in this situation, you should definitely still ask). No more awkwardly asking for a repeat if you’re hard of hearing or still learning the language or the other person has an accent. And if–hopefully you never have to deal with this–the person harasses, abuses, or threatens you, you have a record of that.

Finally, text-based conversation can be a lot easier for people who are dealing with shyness, introversion, or social anxiety (or other mental illnesses). Some people use this fact as an excuse to dismiss text-based communication as being for “cowardly” people who just want to “hide behind the computer screen” and blahblah, but I hope I don’t need to explain why I find this completely asinine. People have varying levels of comfort with things. In general, increasing your level of comfort with something as ubiquitous and necessary as in-person communication is great, but until you find a way to do that, you still need a way to communicate effectively.

Remember, though, that you need not have any clinical condition to find it easier and more comfortable to communicate in writing. The fact that you simply prefer it is legitimate in and of itself. You do not need an “excuse.”

There are, of course, challenges and pitfalls with text-based communication. They can be corrected for to varying degrees.

One such challenge is the occasional difficulty of understanding what exactly someone means by something they wrote. While there is (contrary to common belief) tone on the internet, it is of a very different nature than verbal tone. For instance:

  • “I can’t believe you did that.”
  • “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU DID THAT”
  • “I can’t believe you did that. :(“
  • “i cant believe u did that”
  • “I can’t believe you did that :P”
  • “I can’t believe you did that! :D”

All of these things convey different things, and some have more meaning in them than others. When communicating in text, capitalization and emoticons can be extremely important, even if you’re used to thinking of those things as rude or childish somehow. A well-placed emoticon can change everything:

  • “How are you?” “Fine.”
  • “How are you?” “Fine :)”
  • “How are you? “Fine :-/”

(Some of my greatest difficulties in text-based communication have been with people who do not use emoticons.)

Beyond such relatively easy fixes, however, it’s important to master simple phrases like these:

  • “It sounds like you’re saying ______. Am I interpreting correctly?”
  • “I don’t understand what you mean by ______. Can you clarify?”
  • “What does it mean when you [use that emoticon/phrase/punctuation/etc.]?”

If any of this sounds really standard and normal, that’s probably because asking for clarification and checking in to make sure you understood is a very important communication skill that will come in handy for in-person conversation, too!

In fact, I’m going to posit that, while the challenges of understanding each other in text-based communication are slightly different than those in verbal communication, they’re not significantly greater, if at all. It’s obviously false that verbal communication never creates misunderstandings. In fact, because verbal communication tends to fly by much quicker and does not naturally include lulls that facilitate reflection (as text-based communication does), it’s probably less likely that the participants will even realize that a miscommunication has occurred. With text, you’ll be reading it, and you’ll find yourself thinking, “Wait, what does this actually mean?” And then you can ask!

Another disadvantage is that it’s impossible to physically comfort someone during a difficult conversation if you’re doing it in writing. Obviously. While there isn’t really a good way around this, online expressions like *hug* help. So does simply saying, “I wish I could hold you right now” or something like that. But obviously, it’s not the same.

In general, good text-based communication, just like good verbal communication, requires mastering a number of different speaking/writing/listening/empathizing skills. I think people sometimes assume that communication is not a “skill” because humans are “wired” to communicate. Yes and no. I’m not sure that humans are “wired” to communicate things as complex as we regularly try to do now, and even if we were, it’s still the case that different individuals learn different styles of speaking and writing, and it’s important to realize that what may read to you as _____ may read to someone else as totally not _____.

I have conducted the majority of my “serious” conversations via writing since I was 14. My emails, IM logs, Facebook messages, and texts chronicle flirtations and new relationships and breakups and makeups and first “I love you”‘s and negotiations and arguments and sexual boundary settings and everything else that is part of the process of forming, defining, maintaining, and (sometimes) ending friendships and relationships of all kinds. I can honestly say that many of these friendships and relationships could not have happened in any other way. There is a certain magic to falling in love with someone through their words.

Maybe you’re of a different generation and this all seems kind of sad and pathetic to you. That’s okay. But to me, it’s part of what makes my life so rich and colorful. Maybe I’ll grow to prefer in-person communication as my social networks solidify and I stop moving around. But for now, writing will be the way I do it.

There’s Nothing “Sad” About Online Sex

Many pearls have been clutched over the actions or inactions of the various women involved in Anthony Weiner’s latest fall from grace (pearls that could’ve really been spared for Weiner himself). Susan Jacoby, with whom I generally agree on things and whom I respect very much, wrote an article for the New York Times that focuses on the motivations that the recipients of Weiner’s photographic gifts had in engaging in these online flirtations with him:

People ask how Mr. Weiner’s wife, the soulfully beautiful and professionally accomplished Huma Abedin, can stay with him. My question is why hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of women apparently derive gratification from exchanging sexual talk and pictures with strangers.

[…]The morality of virtual sex, as long as no one is cheating on a real partner, is not what bothers me. What’s truly troubling about the whole business is that it resembles the substitution of texting for extended, face-to-face time with friends. Virtual sex is to sex as virtual food is to food: you can’t taste, touch or smell it, and you don’t have to do any preparation or work. Sex with strangers online amounts to a diminution, close to an absolute negation, of the context that gives human interaction genuine content. Erotic play without context becomes just a form of one-on-one pornography.

[…]As a feminist, I find it infinitely sad to imagine a vibrant young woman sitting alone at her computer and turning herself into a sex object for a man (or a dog) she does not know — even if she is also turning him into a sex object. Twentieth-century feminism always linked the social progress of women with an expanding sense of self-worth — in the sexual as well as intellectual and professional spheres. A willingness to engage in Internet sex with strangers, however, expresses not sexual empowerment but its opposite — a loneliness and low opinion of oneself that leads to the conclusion that any sexual contact is better than no contact at all.

As a feminist, I find it infinitely sad that many people are still unable to grasp this basic truth: what gets you off is not what gets others off, and vice versa, and that is okay. So Jacoby doesn’t get the appeal of online flirting/sexting. That’s totally fine. But she leaps to huge assumptions about the women who do get the appeal: that they’re turning themselves into sex objects, that they’re “lonely” and have a “low opinion” of themselves, that they’re settling for some substandard type of sexuality.

Actually, if you’ve read anything else by Jacoby, this should not be that surprising. I read her book The Age of American Unreason recently and, although I loved the book overall, learned a lot, and laughed out loud a few times, I was also shocked by how many of her arguments hinged on the notion that digital technology is…not bad, per se, but at the very least problematic in ways that non-digital technologies and mediums are not.

Interestingly, Jacoby also insists firmly that e-books are a failure, and notes that serious readers could never enjoy them. The book was published in 2008, before e-books really got off the ground. Nowadays I know nobody who can afford and access e-books but has chosen not to; although I (and many others) still prefer paper books, the e-book market has definitely exploded and Jacoby’s opposition to them looks a little silly 5 years later.

Anyway, I could write a whole post critiquing Jacoby’s views on technology, so I’ll just say that her take on online sex is not surprising at all. But it suggests a certain empathic blind spot, an inability to see that different folks like different strokes.

These two sentences are the ones I especially disagree with: “What’s truly troubling about the whole business is that it resembles the substitution of texting for extended, face-to-face time with friends. Virtual sex is to sex as virtual food is to food: you can’t taste, touch or smell it, and you don’t have to do any preparation or work.”

The view that online communication is a sad, pathetic attempt to “substitute” artificial interaction for genuine interaction is prevalent in many books and articles about digital technology. Cell phones, texting, iPods, tablets, instant messaging, online forums, blogging, and more have all been accused of being mere “substitutions” for “real” interaction, and virtual sex is clearly cut from the same cloth.

Here’s the thing, though. The several things:

  • Not everyone has access to a supportive, in-person community, including willing sexual partners who are into the things you are into. For most of my college years, I did not.
  • Anything, digital or not, can potentially be used to avoid meaningful human interaction: alcohol, drugs, books, schoolwork, work work, hobbies, exercise. The problem isn’t the medium; it’s the fact that a person feels so isolated from their community or so incapable of connecting to people that they turn to these things instead.
  • Although being physically with people, especially if sex is involved, obviously has huge advantages, interacting with people online also has huge advantages that Jacoby is ignoring, especially for people who are shy or picky. It’s a tradeoff and we should trust adults to be able to make their own decisions about whether those tradeoffs are worth it for them.

I’ll expand on each of those points. First of all, people who clutch pearls about digital technology “replacing” in-person interaction are all going off of the assumption that everyone has in-person interaction to replace to begin with. While it’s sort of a truism that Anyone Can Find Friends If They Just Try, that’s really not the case. The fewer privileges you have, the less you fit into the community you happen to be living in, the less likely it is that you’ll be able to find close, supportive friends and partners in meatspace.

Although I’m very privileged and lucky in many ways, I screwed up my choice of college and ended up somewhere I didn’t fit in at all. For many years, my most meaningful connections with people were online. Those friends kept me sane last summer when even the few friends I had at school were gone. Why should I assume that my fairly shallow-by-comparison meatspace friendships mean more than these close, loving, but far-away friends?

Second, technology can be used unhealthily and/or as a means of avoidance, but so can lots of other things. As a child, I was painfully shy and had a lot of trouble finding common ground with other kids. So I read a lot. And I didn’t even read novels, which might’ve helped me understand people; I read nonfiction about science, mostly. I literally took encyclopedias to birthday parties and read them instead of playing with other kids.

Was I using books to avoid people? Absolutely. Was anyone disturbed by this? Not really, because I wasn’t using the dreaded technology. On the other hand, though, my parents and teachers were probably right to let this fly. I got older, met kids who were as nerdy as I was, and made lots of friends and started dating and gradually became more comfortable with groups of people. Nowadays I’m still an introvert, but a very friendly one who’s fine with public speaking and code-switching and all sorts of other formerly scary things that adults have to do socially.

The point is that it’s not always easy to tell whether or not someone is using something as “avoidance,” but even if they are, that’s between them and their therapist. Jacoby simply leapt to the conclusion that the women who do sexual stuff online are avoiding “real” sex and that they’re “lonely” and have low self-esteem, but there isn’t any data to warrant these conclusions.

Third, Jacoby is only looking at the disadvantages of online sex, not the advantages. This gives her a skewed image of what it’s like. Everyone is, I’m sure, familiar with those disadvantages, so I’ll list some advantages I can think of:

  • It’s much less risky, especially for women who know they’ll get blamed if they’re assaulted while meeting with a partner.
  • It’s possible to interact with partners who don’t live near you.
  • You can try out different sexual personae and identities, which is especially useful for people who are unsure about their sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • You can have the thrill of doing something that’s taboo.
  • It’s easier to schedule than in-person dates.
  • There’s less pressure if you’re shy or unsure what you want.
  • You don’t have to worry about STI transmission or pregnancy.
  • For some people, showing sending nude photos of themselves or being naked in front of a webcam is simply hot, so the technology becomes the actual medium through which arousal happens.

That’s why I think the biggest flaw of this article is that Jacoby didn’t interview anyone. Yes, it’s an op-ed, not a story, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your research. Had Jacoby asked at least a few people who have sex through technology why they do it, she probably would’ve yielded answers other than “Because I’m lonely” and “Because I have no self-esteem.”

But even if those were the answers, again, the problem isn’t the Internet. The problem is that we do, in fact, live in a society where many people are lonely and have low self-esteem. We should help them. And in the meantime, if meeting sexual partners through the Internet is helping them, why the hell not?

I’m sure, though, that most people who have virtual sex don’t do it because they have no self-esteem. They do it because it’s fun, because it turns them on, because they haven’t met anyone who lives in their area yet, because they don’t want to deal with risky situations, because it lets them be someone other than who they are in person, and any number of other reasons. Human behavior, especially when it comes to sex, is much more complex than Jacoby suggests that it is, especially when you consider that what seems pathetic and sad to one person may be empowering and life-altering to another.

~~~

Cautionary note: none of this is to suggest that all sex is automatically Good and Empowering and Problem-Free just because someone has chosen it. My point is only to push back against the idea that there’s something inherently wrong with/pathetic about online sex. Jacoby may be correct to worry about sexual objectification, but it seems patronizing to me to insist that women who are having a good time are actually objectifying themselves and this is therefore “sad.” A thorny issue, to be sure, that will probably warrant its own post.

Guy Leaves Internet For A Year, Finds That That Doesn’t Solve All His Problems

A writer named Paul Miller has done what most people could probably only dream of–he completely unplugged from the Internet for an entire year, hoping to find out “what else there was to life.”

A year later, he returned, only to tell us this:

I was wrong.

One year ago I left the internet. I thought it was making me unproductive. I thought it lacked meaning. I thought it was “corrupting my soul.”

It’s a been a year now since I “surfed the web” or “checked my email” or “liked” anything with a figurative rather than literal thumbs up. I’ve managed to stay disconnected, just like I planned. I’m internet free.

And now I’m supposed to tell you how it solved all my problems. I’m supposed to be enlightened. I’m supposed to be more “real,” now. More perfect.

But instead it’s 8PM and I just woke up. I slept all day, woke with eight voicemails on my phone from friends and coworkers. I went to my coffee shop to consume dinner, the Knicks game, my two newspapers, and a copy of The New Yorker. And now I’m watching Toy Story while I glance occasionally at the blinking cursor in this text document, willing it to write itself, willing it to generate the epiphanies my life has failed to produce.

I didn’t want to meet this Paul at the tail end of my yearlong journey.

I think it’s worthwhile commending Miller for two achievements that must people might not be able to manage (and no, neither are quitting the ‘net):

1. Despite making quitting the internet to find a better life a huge part of his public identity, Miller told us the truth about what really happened. Many people in this situation would lie, quietly back off the subject, or try to put some sort of spin on it to suggest that they were still right all along.

2. Despite making quitting the internet to find a better life a huge part of his personal identity, Miller overcame confirmation bias and realized that his internet fast wasn’t helping. Many others would probably engage in enough mental jujitsu to keep believing whatever’s most consistent with their beliefs and identity–in Miller’s case, that quitting the internet helps you find a better life.

For me, the most poignant bit of Miller’s article was this: “So much ink has been spilled deriding the false concept of a ‘Facebook friend,’ but I can tell you that a ‘Facebook friend’ is better than nothing.”

First of all, this is true in a literal sense. Casual online buddies can’t replace those close, inseparable friendships where you bond over cheap wine, campy television, and political rants at 2 AM. They just can’t. But they give you people to talk to, bounce ideas off of, grab coffee with (if you live near each other), get restaurant recommendations from, and meet other people through.

Second, sometimes “Facebook friends” grow to mean more to you than any meatspace friend can. My “Facebook friends” have been there for me when nobody else has. That’s the biggest reason I’d never pull a stunt like Miller’s.

Technology like the Internet is a tool. With a few exceptions, any tool you can think of can be used adaptively or maladaptively, helpfully or harmfully. It’s not always clear which is which, because it’s very contextual.

What if I told you that I literally spend HOURS a day at the computer? Many consecutive hours. Many people, especially people of older generations than me, might be horrified.

But what if I also told you that I work out for an hour almost every day, see friends in person a few times a week, and spend most of my online time talking to close friends, reading things that interest me, and writing?

That starts to sound pretty different.

It may very well be the case that some people for whatever reason are just incapable of using the Internet adaptively. If they go online even for a bit, they end up losing hours playing mindless games or refreshing Facebook or watching YouTube videos. For those people, purposefully cutting down (or even eliminating) Internet time can be helpful, at least until they learn how to manage it effectively.

However, I think the reason Miller wasn’t successful at this is because it’s rarely helpful to view personal development as denying yourself something rather than giving yourself better alternatives and forming good habits to replace the bad ones.

For instance, diets often fail because people get miserable at the thought of everything they can’t eat. Ice cream. Chocolate. Pizza. Popcorn. Soda. Carbs. Red meat. If you keep trying to eliminate Bad Things rather than implement Good Things, you’ll probably either find yourself eating a really shitty but sweets-and-pizza-free diet, or you’ll find yourself falling off the wagon.

This is sort of what Miller did:

My plan was to quit my job, move home with my parents, read books, write books, and wallow in my spare time. In one glorious gesture I’d outdo all quarter-life crises to come before me. I’d find the real Paul, far away from all the noise, and become a better me.

Perhaps this is because he didn’t quite identify what was so wrong with his life with the Internet (at least, not in the article; maybe he did to himself). But if he had, he could’ve instead set concrete goals about how he would fix it without necessarily going offline cold-turkey: “Try one new Meetup group per month.” “Call so-and-so every Sunday.” “Install software that limits my time on Facebook and Tumblr.” “Unsubscribe from all my RSS feeds.” Whatever tips your cow.

Psychologically, setting goals like these is much more useful and much more likely to produce results than “Quit the Internet and chill at my parents’ and stuff.”

And with the dieting analogy, what I’ve personally found much more useful than trying to “diet” or “cut down” on things I eat is to just give myself healthier alternatives. I decide that I’m going to buy bell peppers, which are delicious. I think about how much I love olive oil and I put it on my pasta instead of butter. And sometimes I still eat shitty things, but it’s ok because a lot of the time I’m working on eating non-shitty things.

I don’t think there’s anything “wrong” with quitting the Internet entirely; I’m not one to begrudge people like Miller their idealism and grandiosity. But it’s clear that the Internet is something that some people really do have a lot of trouble with because it sucks them in and interferes with their “real” life, so it’s important to find strategies that actually work. I’m not sure that going cold-turkey is something that works for many people.

SkepTech Impressions

This weekend I was at SkepTech, from which I’m just now recovering (very little sleep or good nutrition happened this weekend). I had a fantastic time.

As a disclaimer, most of the SkepTech organizers are good friends of mine, so perhaps I’m biased to some extent in seeing the conference positively. In any case, I loved it. I thought it was extremely well-organized for a free, student-run conference in its first year. There was a good mix of established and indie speakers. The venue was well-chosen. The atmosphere was vibrant, curious, and a little geeky. In that sense it reminded me a lot of Skepticon, of which I was also a huge fan.

A snazzy homosexual Jew goat.

Best slide of the con, courtesy of Jesse Galef.

On a personal note, seeing my friends was absolutely amazing. The fact that most of the people I love don’t live anywhere near me is kind of always a thorn in my side, but I’m incredibly lucky that every once in a while I get to spend a whole weekend learning and having fun with them. Hanging out with so many fantastic writers–Jason, PZ, Greta, Stephanie, JT, Brianne, and others–was also really great. The quality of the conversations and debates I had this weekend made coming home a sort of culture shock.

I didn’t meet as many people as I would’ve hoped, but part of that was that I already knew so many of the people there, and it’s kind of a tough sell to make yourself go and introduce yourself to new people when there are so many fucking awesome people you already know.

Anyway, a few specific things I liked:

  • The Twitter wall. The organizers had a laptop with Tweetdeck hooked up to a smaller screen off to the side of the main screen, which displayed both the official SkepTech account feed and the hashtag feed. Although some might argue (legitimately) that this is distracting, I found it a huge help in several ways. It boosted a feeling of community; instead of looking at their phones people could look at the screen. It was also interesting to watch it while I was speaking on my panels because I got to see what the audience was reacting to the most out of what I was saying. Furthermore, I often have difficulty following lectures (let’s just say I’m not an auditory learner), and when I spaced out for a few seconds, I could just check the Twitter wall and catch up on what I missed. The organizers were also really adept at using this well; when a few trolls started spamming the hashtag to say crap about SkepTech (ironically, this happened right during the talk on how to use social media effectively), the organizers quickly hid the spammers on their account so that we wouldn’t see them in the feed. (To clarify, though, you can’t actually ban/block someone from using a hashtag. You can only hide them from your own account, so if you’re using that account to display a Twitter feed for an audience, the audience won’t see them either.)
  • The hangout zones. You could tell there were a few introverts involved in the planning of this conference because outside of the auditorium and behind the tabling area, there was a huge space full of comfy chairs and couches where you could go to get away from people for a while, labeled “Safe Space Hangout Zone.” I saw plenty of people taking advantage of it throughout the conference. (Personally, my introversion kind of turns off when I’m at a con, but I still used it a few times when I needed to deal with some personal stuff.)
  • SkepTechs in the Pub. After Saturday’s talks, we all went out to a nearby pub to hang out, which was planned by the organizers beforehand. Although there was a little bit of a snafu with people under 21 nearly getting kicked out (not good for a student conference), they ended up being allowed to stay. We had plenty of space to sit and people mingled and there was an amazing Les Mis sing-off between JT and my friend Jesse. Good times were had by (hopefully) all.
  • The harassment policy. Yup, there was a pretty detailed harassment policy. As a result I felt like my comfort and safety were being taken seriously by the organizers and that I would have someone to go to if things went wrong. But they didn’t. In fact, I’ll just state for the record that the harassment policy did absolutely nothing to prevent all kinds of after-hours fun that occurred, and I’ll leave it at that. :)

And a few specific things that could be improved:

  • Dinner/lunch breaks. They were only an hour long each, which meant that you could either go to a chain restaurant, eat really quickly, or miss the talks immediately after the breaks. I opted for the latter, which I regret, but eating properly is really important to me. Although longer breaks would mean fewer talks, I think that would be a worthwhile trade-off in the future. That way nobody needs to choose between missing a great talk and eating poorly (or not at all).
  • Starting/ending on time and leaving room for questions. Although the conference generally ran by the schedule, there was a talk or two that actually started a full ten minutes early, and a few that started and/or finished late. There also didn’t seem to be any consistency in terms of leaving room for questions. Some speakers got tons of time to answer questions from the audience, and some didn’t get any. One of my panels took a single question from the audience and the other took none. This is unfortunate because getting to ask questions helps audience members be more engaged (not to mention learn more), so in the future I’d suggest asking speakers to plan on leaving a certain amount of time for questions.
  • Moar people! For a first-year conference, the attendance was great. I don’t know exactly how many people were there because I am not one of the organizers and I cannot count. But there were quite a few. That said, there was a lot more space that could’ve been filled, and I also think that the conference could’ve been promoted a bit better. I’m sure that next year will bring a larger audience regardless.
  • Diversity. Yeah, yeah, I know. We’re always harping about diversity. Of the 14 speakers (not including the people who were only panelists), only three were women and one was a person of color. (To be fair, there was supposed to be one more woman speaker, but she ended up being unable to attend.) As I said, I think the organizers did a fantastic job of getting some really great speakers, and it’s only their first year. But going forward, I hope there will be more attention paid to promoting inclusivity, and that the speakers of color that they do bring will get to speak about something other than race. Otherwise it’s a little like, “Yo, come tell us how to fix our shit.”
  • The Minnesota weather. Because fuck that.
A lovely self-portrait of Zach Weinersmith.

Zach Weinersmith of SMBC Comics drew me this pretty picture!

My favorite talks:

  • Stephanie was awesome in her talk on psychometrics. It really got me thinking about the gendered ways in which we define and diagnose mental disorders. Blog post TBA.
  • Brendan Murphy talked about the neuropsychology of quitting and included a few tidbits on how to support people who are considering quitting a goal or project (here’s a hint: don’t implore them to “just keep trying”!).
  • JT talked about “hacktivism” and gave examples of things he’s done as an activist, including trolling Brother Jed. I think the best advice JT gave is to have fun with your activism–it encourages people to join and breaks down stereotypes about atheists (and, really, any other kind of activists).
  • My two panels–one on sex in cyberspace and one on meatspace vs. online activism–were super fun.
  • Ben Blanchard’s talk on using social media effectively was extremely useful. You might get a bit of a laugh out of it. :)

Anyway, tl;dr, conference was super fun and well-organized, and I can’t wait to come back next year. If you live in Minnesota or nearby, you should too!

Come to Skeptech on April 5-7!

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m going to a new student conference in at the University of Minnesota this April. It’s called Skeptech and it’s being organized by Campus Atheists, Humanists, and Skeptics (CASH) at the U of M and the Secular Student Alliance at St. Cloud State University.

The lineup of speakers is fantastic and includes PZ Myers, Greta Christina, JT Eberhard, Stephanie Zvan, Jen McCreight, Hemant Mehta, and Zach Weinersmith, the author of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (among many other really cool people).

There will also be a bunch of panels, two of which I’ll be speaking on! The first one is called “Sex in Cyberspace: Porn, OkCupid and the Internet“:

Dating online can be confusing. Grindr, okcupid, craigslist, and other media apps are all different ways technology has merged with sex and dating culture. How has this changed the way we hook up, the way we present ourselves, and how we relate to other potential partners? And what about porn—how can we be ethical consumers? And is online consent any different that “real life” consent?

The second is called “Real World vs. Cyberspace Activism“:

The panel will focus on a problem every activist has—how do we delegate time? Is it better to blog and be active online, or to spend more time volunteering in-person? How are the two approaches different or similar? Which is ultimately more effective? The point of this panel is to recognize the pros/cons of cyberspace and meatspace activism, and to figure out how we balance the two (if balancing them is even the correct response to begin with).

The organizers definitely managed to give me two subjects I have a lot of Feelings and Opinions about. I’m one of those people who’s endlessly frustrated by the way flirting and dating work online, and yet I somehow managed to meet my partner over Facebook (it’s a funny story). I think that the internet can be very empowering, particularly for people whose sexualities have traditionally been stigmatized and marginalized, but we also bring some of the worst parts of “the real world” with us when we go online.

As for the second panel, I find that I’m often having to defend the idea of online activism (it’s not all “slacktivism,” I promise!), but some of the most important activisty things I’ve done have happened mostly offline. I think that the internet can facilitate real-world action in ways that we take for granted sometimes, and I also think that it provides a space for activism for those who face serious social consequences for doing it out in the “real world.”

Anyway, that’s all I’m going to say for now lest I give away everything I’m going to talk about at the panel, but if you have any thoughts on either of these subjects, go ahead and share them in the comments.

And, most importantly, consider coming to Skeptech if you can! Registration is free. :)

There Is No Universal Definition Of “Cheating”

A very disturbing thing I found here.

Every time I read a women’s website or magazine these days, I come upon a headline that demands to know, “IS THIS CHEATING?!?!” Is sending flirty Facebook messages to someone else cheating? Is sending them nude pics cheating? Is flirting cheating? Is there a chance you could actually be cheating on your boyfriend and not even realize it?

Technology seems to exacerbate these existential questions because it keeps giving us new ways to violate our partners’ trust (but, on the flipside, it keeps giving us new ways to be sexual). Coming up to someone in person and stripping naked is one thing; sending a nude photo of yourself to them is another (or feels like another). And so we have to have these endless conversations about what exactly cheating is.

Here’s the thing, though. If you’re reading a magazine article to find out if you cheated or not, you’re doing it wrong, because it can’t answer that question for you. The only person who can tell you that is your partner.

Nobody else can tell you what “cheating” means in your particular relationship because it’s different in each one. In monogamous relationships, most people take the “default” definition of cheating, which includes any sort of sexual contact with someone else. But even then, what about flirty Facebook messages? What about “emotional cheating,” when you have feelings for someone else (even if you don’t act on them)? Some people count these things as cheating; others don’t.

Monogamous relationships can have a lot of wiggle room, too. I’ve known many couples in which one partner is straight and the other is bisexual, and the straight partner doesn’t mind if the bisexual partner hooks up with people of their own gender (as long as it’s just hooking up). Long-distance relationships can also have certain “rules” for what the partners can do while they’re apart.

In non-monogamous relationships, there’s an even greater variety of configurations and definitions of cheating. Some couples restrict which types of sexual acts they can do outside of the primary relationship, or they specify that sex without barriers outside of that relationship would be cheating. Some people form triads or group marriages and forbid all sexual contact outside of that established group. Some decide that you can only hook up outside of the relationship at certain events or in particular spaces, or if your primary partner is present and either watching or participating.

Meanwhile, in other non-monogamous relationships–for instance, mine–the boundaries aren’t about specific acts or people, but rather about communication. If my partner or I act secretively about other people we’re seeing, we’re cheating. If we’re not considerate to each other in terms of making plans with those other people, we’re cheating.

But people don’t just come to these agreements by separately reading Cosmo articles about what cheating is and then never discussing it.

So, if you’re unsure of what counts as cheating in your relationship, you have three options:

1. Say nothing and avoid all activities that could possibly be considered cheating, thus potentially missing out on some great opportunities;

2. Say nothing and do whatever you feel like doing while convincing yourself that your partner wouldn’t see it as cheating, thus potentially, you know, cheating on your partner;

3. Ask your partner what they would like the boundaries of the relationship to be.

I can see why that third option might feel awkward or uncomfortable. If you ask your partner, “What are our boundaries as a couple? What could I potentially do that would make you feel like I cheated on you?”, there’s a chance that your partner will interpret that as you “looking for permission” to get involved in some way with other people. But if they understand the importance of communication in relationships, they’ll see it for what it is–an attempt to make sure that you’re on the same page and that neither of you will be hurt by a misunderstanding about relationship boundaries.

That’s also why it’s a good idea to have that discussion at the beginning of a relationship rather than once it’s been going on for a while, but late is definitely better than never.

The great thing about a discussion like this is that it also allows for discussing things that aren’t “cheating” per se, but nevertheless feel like a violation of boundaries. For some people, it’s not “cheating” if their partner flirts harmlessly (as in, with no intentions for anything else) with someone else, but they wouldn’t feel comfortable if their partner did that right in front of them. For some people–it’s hard for me to imagine this myself, but I’ve heard of it–it feels “wrong” somehow if their partner dances with someone else at a party. Some people would want to know if their partner develops a crush on someone else, but that doesn’t mean it’s “cheating” if they do. Nevertheless, finding out that their partner has been keeping a new crush secret would feel like a violation of trust.

All of these nuances can be made clear by a conversation about boundaries.

Prescriptive definitions of cheating (i.e. “this is what cheating must mean for everyone”) don’t serve anyone. They keep people stuck in a very restrictive version of monogamy (not that there’s anything wrong with monogamy, as long as you consciously choose it). They allow for misunderstandings that hurt people, such as when one partner thinks flirting with others is okay and the other feels like it’s cheating. They prevent people from creating their own relationship models that work best for them, and encourage them instead to conform to the dominant cultural conception of what a committed, “faithful” relationship is.

Edit: A reader and fellow blogger, Patrick, noted that the part of this post that deals with relationships between straight and bisexual people might be reinforcing the stereotype that all such relationships involve an agreement that the bisexual person can hook up with others of their gender. I definitely don’t want to reinforce that stereotype, so I asked him how I might have rephrased that in a way that was clearer and less stereotype-y. He suggested this:

“I’ve known many mixed-orientation couples (one partner is straight and the other is bisexual), and in some of them the straight partner doesn’t mind if their partner hooks up with people of their own gender (as long as it’s within their negotiated boundaries).”

I like this phrasing a lot more, so I decided to append this here. A huge thank-you to Patrick for pointing this out and suggesting an improvement. :)

Yahoo's New Female CEO Isn't a Feminist: Does it Matter?

Marissa Mayer is unquestionably a badass. But she’s wrong about feminism. (Photo credit: Giorgio Montersino)

This piece was also published on In Our Words.

Yahoo! has a new CEO. Her name is Marissa Mayer and she is 37 years old, making her the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Mayer’s accomplishments in her career are incredible and she deserves credit for them. However, to some extent, so does feminism.

Mayer was born in 1975, as the women’s movement was really starting to take off. But at the time, it was still controversial for a woman to wear pants rather than a skirt, let alone to cohabit with a boyfriend, work outside the home after marriage, and so on. However, Mayer was able to benefit from the gains of feminism: she attended college (and not just any college, but Stanford University) and became Google’s first female engineer.

On the same day that Yahoo! announced Mayer as its new CEO, Mayer and her husband announced that they are expecting a baby. In a time when pregnancy-related workplace discrimination is still very real, this is momentous. And don’t think for a moment that this happened in a vacuum.

So, does Mayer identify with feminism, given all of her achievements? Nope:

I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist. I think that I certainly believe in equal rights, I believe that women are just as capable, if not more so in a lot of different dimensions, but I don’t, I think have, sort of, the militant drive and the sort of, the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that. And I think it’s too bad, but I do think that feminism has become in many ways a more negative word. You know, there are amazing opportunities all over the world for women, and I think that there is more good that comes out of positive energy around that than comes out of negative energy.

This viewpoint seems to be very common among successful women in the U.S. these days; I’ve heard it from many of my female peers at Northwestern. Yes, women can do anything men can do; yes, women should have equal rights, but do we really need to be all, like, negative about it?

First of all, there’s a certain amount of irony here. Feministing‘s Chloe writes, “Marissa, it is too bad that feminism has become a negative word. You know what’s also too bad? Your failure to acknowledge that without feminism, you could never have become the CEO of Yahoo.”

Second, what Mayer said that she believes is exactly what feminism is. Feminism is the idea that women and men should have equal rights, and that women and men are essentially capable of the same things, despite the physical differences that may exist between them.

Beyond that, everything’s up for debate. Different feminists believe entirely different things. Some very radical, separatist feminists believe that women should choose to be lesbians and to associate only with other women. Most don’t believe that. Many feminists see feminism as a place to address related issues, like racism, homophobia, and class issues. Others don’t. Some feminists supported the Equal Rights Amendment. Others didn’t. Some feminists are angry and bitter (and, often, rightfully so). Others are cheerful and friendly. Some feminists hate men. Others love them, and still others could take ’em or leave ’em. Some feminists are lesbians. Others are straight, bisexual, or something else. Many feminists are women. Some are men. Others don’t identify as either men or women.

Despite this incredible diversity of opinions, lifestyles, and identities, many people, including those who support equal rights for women, insist on distilling feminism only into its most unpleasant stereotype. This is a classic strawman fallacy, and, the way I see it, it’s an attempt (if an unconscious one) to avoid discussing the real issues. It’s unfortunate that Mayer has chosen this path.

However, as Amanda Marcotte points out in her post at Slate, Mayer’s refusal to identify as a feminist might be the only option for a woman who wants to get ahead in the corporate world:

Women are correct to believe that direct confrontations with sexism result in people turning on the “complainer” instead of blaming the person who acted sexist in the first place….Taking that on just isn’t for everyone, even for a powerful woman who is unquestionably willing to suffer for the ultimate success of her corporation. Someone who would rather do what’s right than what’s profitable simply isn’t going to climb very high on that corporate ladder.

I would agree. Not everybody has to be Super Social Justice Warrior (although I’d like to see more people at least not hold the movement back). Given Mayer’s career goals, it makes sense that she chooses not to align herself with feminism, and I can’t blame her as an individual.

That said, I do wish she wouldn’t promote the same tired stereotypes about feminists having “a chip on the shoulder” and “negative energy.” Are there feminists like that? Yes. Is feminism itself like that? Depends on who you’d ask. I would say no, because I’m involved in countless feminist circles online and in real life, and our discussions there are fun, productive, and extremely connecting experiences. It’s certainly more “positive” than sitting around and pretending everything’s fine with the world when you don’t really feel like it is.

Of course, there’s a good chance that Mayer already knows all of this. It’s quite possible that her statement about feminism was entirely a political one, something she said to make sure that the men she’ll be leading don’t feel too threatened.

I can’t blame her for making that choice, but she shouldn’t have had to make it–because our culture should not be so militantly averse to serious (and, sometimes, uncomfortable) discussions.

Don't Blame it on the Tech

[Snark Warning]

A modified version of this piece also appeared as my column in the Daily Northwestern.

Technology gets a bad rap.

You wouldn’t think so–obviously, we all love it–but in a way it does.

You can’t really go a day anymore without encountering a book, article, or person spewing some variation of the following: “Oh, these days, everyone’s just so plugged in to their laptops/iPods/iPads/iPhones/Kindles/Blackberrys/etc,” always with a tone that combines whininess with nostalgia.

Sometimes it’s in the context of promoting physical activity, face-to-face interaction, getting out into nature, ink-and-paper books, live music, or any other number of virtuous things. Sometimes–paradoxically, since this usually appears online–it’s in an article about some brave soul who has eschewed Facebook, email, or–gasp!–the Internet altogether. Sometimes it’s embedded in smug pieces with titles like “Why I Don’t Have a Smartphone” or “Why I Don’t Text My Boyfriend.”

For a while, I really couldn’t figure out what it is about these remarks that drives me so far up the wall. I thought perhaps it was the repetition and sheer clicheness of such comments, or just my contrarian nature.

However, I think I’ve finally figured it out. These lamentations annoy me because I read them, accurately or otherwise, as attempts to shift responsibility for running our own lives off of ourselves and onto the technology that we willingly invent, purchase, and use.

In other words, it’s not that I can’t be bothered to spend time with my family. It’s that the evil Apple device prevents me.

Of course, I exaggerate. Most people don’t really feel like they can’t control their technological activities (although there are exceptions). But I do get the sense that gadgets get an unfair amount of blame.

I also think that people often choose to cut themselves off from technology, at least temporarily or partially, rather than learning how to achieve some sort of balance in their use thereof. What else explains the preponderance of browser extensions and desktop software that blocks “time-wasting” websites or programs? If the only thing preventing you from typing www.facebook.com in the address bar is a special browser add-on, you’re not actually learning how to control your urges in the moment they arise.

I also know of people who literally deactivate their Facebook accounts or have a friend change the password during critical academic periods. Of course, part of me just wants o say, more power to them. But another part wonders why people can’t just restrain themselves from going to the website.

In other words, Facebook doesn’t waste your time. You waste your time.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in connection with what I wrote about in my last post. When I observed Shabbat this past weekend, that meant I had to spend 24 hours without using any technological device.

Aside from the fact that my nephew was born that day and I really wanted to check in with my family, I can’t say that the obligatory technology fast affected me much. I didn’t die of boredom without the Internet, but neither did I revel in the feeling of being “free” from all that pesky technology.

Ironically, I think this trend started off as a contrarian one. At some point within the last decade or two, some skeptic probably wrote an article to the tune of, “You know all that technology we think is so awesome? Yeah well it’s not.” (In fact, that person is probably Nicholas Carr.)

But now I’d say that this has become a mainstream opinion–one that I don’t necessarily disagree with, but one that seems completely oversimplified to me. I don’t believe that there’s anything special about today’s technology that causes it to sap all of our attention. As with most social trends and problems, I believe that what’s going on here is actually much more complex.

For instance, everyone loves to bemoan the fact that people now communicate mostly through technology. There’s the old cliche about texting or IMing someone who’s just in the next room–or in the same room, and the preponderance of college students who use Facebook to run their entire social lives.

But what’s really happening here? Could it be that the expectation for young people to go away to college, move frequently, and put off making permanent bonds with others until later is driving the increased emphasis on digital communication? Could it be that most people never learn effective communication skills and thus feel more comfortable talking to others from behind a screen? Or, perhaps, that technology takes away the fear of rejection that people face when they try to, say, invite someone to hang out in person or come up and engage them in conversation?

I’m really just throwing out suggestions here, because I don’t know. But I do have a very strong sense that technology is really just the medium through which already-existing problems in our culture and our psychology are being revealed.

For instance, everyone hates the nasty trolls that seem to inhabit every website with open commenting. However, the Internet and the anonymity it provides do not cause trolling; they simply allow it. What probably does cause it are boredom, frustration, and a general inability to empathize and care for people you cannot see or even imagine. And those are problems that reside within ourselves, and not within the technology we’ve constructed.

Technology makes an easy target. It’s new, it’s hard to understand, and it’s changing our culture faster than we can churn out books and articles that analyze it.

But it bothers me that choosing to disconnect from technology has acquired a moral value, and that we bitch and moan about technology instead of some of the larger, deeper problems with our culture.

Those problems are much harder to tease out and analyze. It’s easier to just write a piece blaming everything on iPhones.

But gadgets come and go. Culture usually does not.