“He was acting creepy, but she seemed okay with it…”

[Content note: sexual harassment and assault]

This is something I hear from guys a lot–they’ve witnessed another guy in their space or social group acting in a “creepy” or inappropriate way towards a woman, but because she’s smiling or even laughing along, they figure she’s fine with it and they don’t intervene.

I hate to break it to you, but even without knowing the woman in question I can say that there’s a very high chance that she’s not fine with it at all.

Women and AFAB people are socialized from an early age to politely smile, nod, and laugh along in response to men who annoy, scare, and even violate us. Sometimes this is a survival mechanism, like backing away slowly from a predatory animal or playing dead. Every day there’s a news story about a woman or trans person who was injured or murdered by a man after telling him to stop talking to or harassing them. Often, even smiling and nodding isn’t enough.

Even when it’s not a matter of life or death, it’s really difficult to explain to cis men what it’s like when you’ve been trained for your whole life to ignore your own boundaries. For many of us, smiling and nodding isn’t even necessarily a conscious and intentional strategy; it’s a reflex, something that happens as naturally and automatically as breathing. Of course, it’s not “natural” in any meaningful sense of the word. But it feels that way, and that makes it really hard to unlearn.

For many of us–until we do manage to deliberately and effortfully unlearn this shit–telling a man “leave me alone, I don’t want to talk to you” is unthinkable, not just because it’s scary and potentially dangerous but because we don’t even think it. Ditto for just ignoring the man completely. It often takes hours, weeks, or years to realize that a particular interaction was uncomfortable and violating, to finally recognize the discomfort, fear, and anger that had hidden beneath the polite smile all along. That can happen with harassing comments and it can happen with rape.

For most of us, it’s not because we read some articles about feminism and changed our minds. It’s more like realizing that a house that seems stable and well-built actually has crumbling foundations and a rotting frame. It’s not that the crumble and the rot wasn’t there before. We just didn’t see it.

So yes, when you observe a man leering at, making sexual comments to, or otherwise appearing to sexually harass a woman who is gamely playing along, there’s a chance that she’s okay with it or even enjoying it. What’s much more likely is that she’s very uncomfortable, or will soon realize it, but she’s not showing it because she’s been taught not to show her negative feelings towards men or even recognize that they are there.

So let’s talk about “white knighting,” since men are always telling me that they chose not to stand up for women’s safety and autonomy in order to avoid being “white knights.”

First of all, I’m not convinced that accusations of “white knighting” are necessarily being made in good faith, i.e. by women or other marginalized people who are upset that male bystanders tried to help them deal with a harasser or assailant. Most of them seem to be coming from anti-feminist men who are trying to delegitimize and ridicule male feminists. While there are many important conversations to be had about the motivations and missteps of male feminists, none of those conversations are going to be initiated by people who do not believe that sexism exists or that it oppresses people who are not cisgender men. These people are trying to create a safe space to further marginalize and terrorize women and trans people, and male feminists who take these “white knighting” accusations seriously are giving them exactly what they want.

Second, it’s not a choice between “literally do nothing” and “force the woman to accept your patronizing and uninformed assistance.” Yes, there’s a shitty history of men “protecting” women from other men (men they may be interested in) because they assume that women have no agency and how dare another man take “your” woman. We have to push back against that, but without using it as an excuse to let harassment and assault happen in our spaces.

I’ve noticed that men engaging with feminist issues are often frustrated by the lack of clear answers and action steps. They want to fix it immediately and they want to get it right on the first try.

I can’t tell you how to do that. There is no flowchart for exactly how to intervene successfully when someone is being creepy. There are simply too many variables.

Instead, here are some strategies you could try when they seem appropriate.

  • Talk to the women and trans folks in your life about what (if anything) they would want from you if you witness them being harassed. Be proactive about this. Don’t wait for it to happen to them. It already does.
  • If you did notice someone being harassed but didn’t do anything because you didn’t know what to do, check in with them later about their experience and what they might’ve wanted from you.
  • If you see someone you know being harassed, step in and say, “Hey, can I steal you for a moment? I had a question for you.” If they say, “I’ll catch you later,” they’re probably fine. If they come along, ask them if they need an out.
  • If you don’t know the person being harassed, and you’re a man, it’s a little tough. Offering to lead them away is unlikely to feel comfortable for them because they don’t know you either and you could be even worse. If the space has an organizer–i.e. a party host or conference staffer–ask them to check if the person is ok. You could also ask a female friend to do the previous suggestion.
  • If you know the person who is harassing someone, find a reason to pull them away for a conversation. Tell them what you observed and why it’s inappropriate. This won’t be a comfortable conversation, but it’s extremely important and can make a huge impact. One of the biggest contributing factors to sexual harassment and assault is that many men think their male peers approve of it. Rain on that parade.
  • Talk to the organizer of the space. Ask your friend to stop inviting the harasser to their parties. If you’ve observed harassment, you don’t have to wait for one of the victims of it (there are almost certainly more than one) to speak up–they may not, because they have no reason to expect to be listened to. If someone started a fistfight, you’d kick them out without waiting for the punched person to tell you they don’t like being punched.
  • Avoid speaking for the person being harassed–when appropriate, center your own feelings. Tell the harasser that you are uncomfortable with what they’re doing and that it’s creepy and wrong. That’s one way of letting other guys know that you personally disapprove of harassment rather than just wanting to look good in front of women, and helps prevent them from trying to drag the person they’re harassing in to defend them.
  • Review the Geek Social Fallacies and remember that no one is entitled to any non-public space. That’s why you don’t have to wait for an Official Complaint to kick a harasser out of your space. Ask yourself–is this the kind of behavior I want at my event/in my friend group? If not, take steps to make it stop.
  • Confronting harassers is not safe or accessible for everyone. So if you can’t do it, do some of the other things listed here. But you can get better at it by roleplaying with a friend or practicing out loud on your own. This can be a great project for a few progressive guys to do together.
  • Let others know what you’ve observed so they can potentially intervene too if it happens again. Just like those who get harassed, many bystanders stay silent because they don’t want to “gossip” or “trash talk.” But letting someone know what you’ve seen or heard someone doing in your shared space isn’t gossiping. It’s giving people information they need to help keep each other safe.
  • If you interrupt a situation and the person you thought was being harassed says they’re fine, take that at face value. Yes, they may not feel safe telling you or they may realize later that it’s not fine, but you have to respect their autonomy. Apologize for interrupting and let them know you’ll be nearby if they need anything.

It’s important to remember that bystander intervention is fundamentally a harm reduction tactic–it will not remove the problem, just reduce the harm that the problem does. The only thing that will stop sexual harassment (or at least reduce it to its lowest possible baseline) is a massive cultural shift in how we think about sex, boundaries, and gender.

So don’t beat yourself up if you try all of these strategies and nothing seems to “fix” harassment. It won’t. It may, however, make some cool women and nonbinary folks stay in your social group who would otherwise have quietly left, and it may prompt a major attitude shift in a few of your guy friends that will keep them from harassing anyone else. That’s a small win in the great scheme of things, but it’s a massive win for those individual lives.

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“He was acting creepy, but she seemed okay with it…”

Deconstructing Jealousy

Note: This is written from my perspective as someone who practices polyamory from a non-hierarchical perspective, so my personal examples are grounded in that experience. You can mentally edit them to apply them to just about any type of relationship, monogamous or poly, romantic or platonic.

I don’t think that “jealousy” is a useful concept. It’s used as an umbrella term for a variety of negative interpersonally-triggered feelings that are actually quite different from each other. Unfortunately, people don’t always realize this and may communicate about “jealousy” without noticing that they’re talking about different things.

Even worse, some of these things are very stigmatized (some deservedly and some less so), which means that labeling anything “jealousy” gives the whole conversation a negative tone. I could imagine telling a partner that I feel upset or angry, but I would never say, “I feel jealous.” Unless my partner is very aware of the concepts I’m about to discuss in this post, telling them this would shut down the conversation and keep it from going anywhere productive. Where it goes from there depends entirely on whether or not my partner says, “Okay, but what does that mean?”

This semantic ambiguity keeps us in a state of confusion about what “jealousy” actually means for us, what is causing it, and how it can be resolved. Every time we feel negatively about someone else having an experience we aren’t sharing, this gets labeled “jealousy”–sometimes when we don’t even want that experience for ourselves!

I’ve identified six different feelings that are often called “jealousy.” There are probably more than that, but I think that most of the time when it feels much more complicated, that’s because you’re feeling more than one of these at once and that can get confusing. I’ve also given the feelings names to make them easier to write about, but I totally admit that most of the names are pretty clunky and imprecise and honestly I don’t know what to do about that other than try to invent new words, which I’m horrible at. If someone wants to take on that project, have at it.

  1. Possessiveness: “I want you all to myself.” / “I should have this, not you.”

Thanks to the way our culture teaches all of us to think about romantic relationships, I spent my adolescence convinced that if someone really loves me, they won’t need anyone else. Sometimes I got irrationally jealous if my boyfriends had close female friends, because I thought I ought to be “enough.” The idea of polyamory would’ve been appalling to me at the time because, honestly, I just didn’t want to share. I didn’t think that anyone else should “get” what I’m “getting.”

This is probably the most toxic form that jealousy takes. Unlike the other five feelings that I’ll discuss, this one places the blame on the other person for “making” you feel jealous by taking more than they “ought” to take, or by having something that you “ought” to have instead.

This is also what many people think of when they think of the word “jealousy,” which causes them to attach a strong negative stigma to a feeling that may or may not originate from possessiveness.

Possible cause: Feeling entitled to all of someone’s romantic/sexual attention, believing yourself more “worthy” of certain things than others, generally having unrealistic ideas about how relationships ought to work

Possible solution: You’ll probably want a therapist for this one, because you’ll need to work on some really deeply-seeded beliefs about people and relationships. In order to stop feeling possessive, you have to really internalize the idea that you are not entitled to anything from anyone, and that just because you’re not the only/central person in someone’s life doesn’t mean the relationship is worthless or they don’t care about you. You deserve good things, but so do other people.

  1. Envy: “I want to have this too.”

I always envy my male partners their relationships with women. While I’m sure it feels anything but easy for them, they aren’t carrying the weight of institutional and internalized homophobia and biphobia and a lifetime of invisibility, of feeling like what you want isn’t even real, valid, or possible. Men have scripts for meeting women and forming relationships with them; women don’t, not really. That’s starting to change, but it didn’t start to change fast enough for me.

So, I will probably never have uncomplicated feelings when the men I’m dating date women. It’s not because I don’t think they should get to do that if I can’t, or even because I’m interested in those specific women. It’s because I wish I could’ve grown up feeling like asking out and being in a relationship with a woman is a normal, totally achievable thing that’s completely valid for me to want. I wish I could’ve grown up with older girls giving me advice on how to ask girls out to prom. I wish that when I met a woman I liked, there was a statistically significant chance that she’s even attracted to people of my gender.

While I’m sometimes envious of female or nonbinary partners dating other women, it’s not quite the same because I know that they’ve had to overcome exactly what I do, or even more. I’m envious but it’s more an envy of awe than of sadness and regret. I envy men in a different way because it’s just so much easier for them, and often they don’t even know it.

Possible cause: Having unmet needs or unfulfilled desires in your own life, especially if you feel like there’s no way for you to meet/fulfill them.

Possible solution: Rather than focusing on the people who have what you want and don’t have, figure out if there are ways to make those things more likely to happen for you too. Reach out to others for advice and support. Learn new skills. Although getting what we want often feels impossible, especially for those of us who struggle with depression, it often isn’t. When it is, a therapist can help you find ways to cope with that grief–and grief is often what it feels like.

  1. Insecurity: “I feel bad about myself, and this reminds me of that.”

Reading or hearing about people’s very serious, very committed relationships frequently triggers my insecurity in a way that others would probably label “jealousy.” But that doesn’t make much sense to me–I don’t really want a relationship like that, at least not at this stage in my life. The problem, though, is that I ultimately believe that I am Bad At Relationships and that I’ll never be able to commit to someone in such a serious and meaningful way, and that I just don’t have the capacity to love someone that way. I also kinda hate myself for how badly I need space and independence, and how much I therefore avoid any enmeshment in my relationships. Seeing evidence that others can do it just reminds me of all my relational failures and makes me feel really, really shitty and down on myself.

Is it jealousy if I don’t even want it, but maybe want to want it, but I’m not even sure if I’d even enjoy it? I dunno. I do know that it’s not as simple as looking at what someone else has and wishing I had it too (or instead). I just want to be “normal.” It has very little to do with those people’s actual relationships and everything to do with my own insecurities that have been around since long before that couple started posting sappy stuff on Facebook.

Possible cause: Having some unresolved negative feelings towards yourself that get kicked up when good things happen to someone else.

Possible solution: Work through those feelings on your own, with a therapist, or with a friend who agrees to be a source of support. Learn how to better align your perception of yourself with reality–there’s a good chance you’re not nearly as bad at Thing as you think. (Yes, this applies to me too.) Do things that make you feel good about yourself, which may or may not have anything to do with the thing you feel bad about. (For instance, I feel good about myself when I write, take long bike rides, cook, and hang out with friends.)

  1. Lacking: “I’m realizing I want/need more time/attention/etc from a particular person.”

Recently I found myself feeling “jealous” of a friend who’d been talking to me about their partner a lot. Specifically, I was “jealous” about the fact that their partner often plans and initiates interesting new activities for them to do together. I quickly realized that the “jealousy” wasn’t because I wanted to be with my friend’s partner, or with my friend, or because I begrudged them those fun things they did together, or because I felt bad about myself, or even because I was missing any particular thing from my life that my friend has. I do fun things too.

But it made me realize that I would really love it if my own partners made more effort to plan interesting new things to do together rather than letting me make the plans, or falling into whatever our default for that particular relationship is. I feel really cared about when someone thinks of a cool thing for us to do and suggests it and, if I agree, makes it happen. And although it does happen for me sometimes, it doesn’t really happen as much as I would like, and it took listening to my friend to realize that.

(Have I communicated that to anyone? Noooo. But at least I know now.)

While for me the feeling was triggered by a friend, the way this often happens is that your partner starts seeing someone new and does more/different things with that new partner, and you realize that you actually haven’t been getting quite what you wanted from this relationship. It may look from the outside like you’re “just jealous” about their new relationship, but it’s not that simple. You’re realizing what your own needs are, and what you’re currently lacking.

What I’ve called lacking is pretty similar to what I’ve called envy, but the difference is that lacking is attached to a specific person/relationship. For instance, I might feel envious because I wish I had a good job like my friend does, but I might feel that my relationship is lacking because I’m not seeing my partner as often as I’d like.

Possible cause: Having some unmet needs in your relationship(s).

Possible solution: Identify what it is that you need and let that person know. If they’re unable to meet that need, decide if you need to end the relationship, work on changing your expectations, or (if appropriate) try to find ways to meet that need in some other way.

  1. Hurt: “I’m not okay with the way this happened.”

Some of my most painful and confusing experiences with “jealousy” were when a partner did something that hurt me, and it happened to involve another partner. For instance, I once had a partner for whom I was their only partner at the time. I mentioned that I had been in a poly discussion group where we talked about such relationships–one of us is seeing multiple people, but the other is seeing only one–and they surprised me with: “Well, actually…I do have another partner.” Record-scratch. That’s how I found out that they’d had another partner for…weeks? Months? And never told me because…reasons? It wasn’t “cheating,” since we didn’t have “rules,” but I was shocked and hurt that given the overall seriousness and commitment of our relationship, they wouldn’t think that that’s an important thing to at least mention.

Honestly, I never felt okay about that other partner after that and I never wanted to hear anything about them. The relationship started to unravel soon after that. It’s not that I didn’t want them to date anyone else–I’d actually spent the whole relationship hoping that they would, so that it’d feel more equal and they’d be able to reach out to someone besides me with those types of relationshippy needs. But I just wasn’t okay with the way it happened. I felt hurt, ignored, overlooked. I kept thinking, “If I’m not someone they’d even talk to about something so awesome that’s happening to them, what sort of relationship even is this?” No longer a very close or healthy one, as it turned out.

This is a huge pitfall for many couples and friends because it’s so easy for the non-”jealous” person to dismiss it as jealousy and have a convenient excuse to ignore the hurt they caused. And it’s not just romantic poly contexts in which it happens! For instance, if a friend cheated on an exam and got a better grade than I got after studying really hard and taking the exam honestly, I’d be pretty upset–not because I’m “jealous” of their higher grade, but because I’m not okay with the way this happened. If a friend started dating someone new and blowing me off to hang out with them instead, I’d be pretty upset–not because I’m “jealous” of their new relationship, but because I’m not okay with the way it’s happening.

Possible cause: Feeling disrespected, ignored, insulted, or otherwise hurt by someone’s actions.

Possible solution: Let the person know how you feel, and/or end the relationship if you feel hurt enough that you no longer want to continue it. Let the person know if there’s anything they can do to repair the hurt.

  1. Disconnection: “I want to reconnect after feeling separated.”

For many poly couples, disconnection and reconnection are part of a normal and healthy cycle. A partner goes on a date with someone new, or flings themselves headfirst into an exciting new relationship, and we feel an ache of (hopefully-temporary) separation. It doesn’t exactly feel good–it may actually feel really sad sometimes–but ideally, it feels okay. This type of “jealousy” is how I might feel waiting for a partner to let me know how a first date went, or accepting that we’re going to see less of each other for a while because they’re getting really invested in someone new and spending lots of time with them.

After feeling that way, it’s normal to want to reconnect with a partner in some way that’s meaningful for both of you. Some people like to see a partner after they get home from a date with someone else (assuming it doesn’t last the whole night, obviously). Sometimes I just need a hug or some reassurance that I still matter. You could write this off as clinginess or insecurity if you want, but I don’t think it is. It’s normal to want to connect with people you love after having been separated or disconnected in some way, even if that separation or disconnection was totally voluntary for both of you.

Possible cause: Feeling separated from your partner because they’ve been doing something else that doesn’t involve you.

Possible solution: Figure out what would be a meaningful way for you to reconnect with them, and ask them to do that. If you want, you could even instate it as a ritual for the two of you.

Obviously this is all very much a work-in-progress, and not all of the feelings I described or the language I used to describe them might resonate with your own experience. In that case, I encourage you to deconstruct “jealousy” for yourself and figure out what it actually means for you so that you can communicate more effectively.

I could probably expand all of those little “solution” bits into full articles, so use those as jumping-off points, not as Complete Certified Therapist Advice.

Also, do not do a Google Image search for “jealousy.” It will be upsetting.

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Deconstructing Jealousy

You’re Not Entitled to Friendship: Further Complicating the “Nice Guy” Concept

Read first: “Having Feelings About Rejection Doesn’t Make You a ‘Nice Guy.’

Alex and Sam are friends. At some point, Alex realizes they have a crush on Sam. Alex lets Sam know how they feel, but Sam says they don’t feel the same way and they’re only interested in a platonic relationship. As a result, Alex decides to end the friendship.

What do you think of Alex and their decision?

In many progressive spaces, there’d be a lot of derision towards Alex, especially if Alex is a guy and Sam is a girl. Terms like “Nice Guy” and “Friend Zone” would come up, the latter in the sarcastic sense. (“Oh, poor Nice Guy, probably off whining on Reddit about getting friendzoned!”) Alex would be accused of being manipulative and entitled.

Sam themselves might be upset, which is reasonable when you lose a friend. They might claim that Alex only wanted them for sex and now that that’s off the table, there’s no need for them to keep Sam around. They might claim that Alex is obviously trying to get back at them for saying no to a date or hookup.

But just as Alex isn’t actually entitled to sex or romance from Sam, Sam isn’t entitled to friendship from Alex.

I didn’t include any information about Alex’s internal process in that vignette, but many folks might imagine that if I did, it would go something like this:

Alex and Sam are friends. At some point, Alex realizes they have a crush on Sam. Alex lets Sam know how they feel, but Sam says they don’t feel the same way and they’re only interested in a platonic relationship. Alex feels angry and humiliated. “I can’t believe Sam won’t even give me a chance after how good of a friend I’ve been,” Alex thinks. Alex decides to totally cut Sam off, hoping that maybe once Sam sees how it feels to be rejected, they might change their mind. And if not, at least they’ll be even.

Given these details, I’d definitely agree that Alex is acting in an entitled and manipulative way. Yes, Sam isn’t entitled to Alex’s friendship, but Alex’s reasons for ending the friendship are not about setting their own boundaries or constructing their own relationships as they see fit. It’s about punishing Sam, manipulating their emotions, and controlling their experience.

It’s creepy, boundary-crossing, abusive behavior.

On the other hand, you could also fill out the story this way:

Alex and Sam are friends. At some point, Alex realizes they have a crush on Sam. Alex lets Sam know how they feel, but Sam says they don’t feel the same way and they’re only interested in a platonic relationship. Alex feels crushed, but respects Sam’s decision. Alex hopes to stay friends, but realizes that they’re heartbroken. Every time Sam posts on Facebook about going on a date or talks excitedly about their crush, Alex feels depressed, sometimes even resentful. It’s interfering with Alex’s life and with their ability to move on and get over the crush. Alex realizes that they’re not in a good place to be a real friend to Sam at this time, and that in order to heal from this heartbreak, they’re going to need distance. Alex decides to end the friendship.

Comparatively few people would insist that Alex is doing anything wrong here. Alex is taking responsibility for their own emotions by setting their own boundaries, and while this may hurt Sam, it’s ultimately what’s best for both of them. Nobody should have to stay in a friendship that’s making them feel depressed. Nobody should have to stay friends with someone who can’t help but resent them.

The problem is that from the outside–for instance, from that first vignette, which I wrote in a way that only gives an outside perspective–you can’t tell the difference. When all we see is someone’s outward behavior, it’s all too easy to use tropes like the Nice Guy to automatically fill in those missing details. Often we don’t even realize we’re doing it, and we end up shaming someone for having boundaries.

Okay, one might argue. Obviously if you’re feeling heartbroken and depressed, that’s a good reason to end a friendship. But if it’s not that bad, you should stay in it.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you can probably guess what I’m going to say about that: there’s no such thing as a “wrong” boundary. But I’ll tack on this clarification: “setting a boundary” means altering your social or physical environment in order to protect yourself or alter your own emotions. If you’re doing it in order to make someone else feel a certain way, or do a certain thing, then that’s not setting a boundary anymore. That’s manipulating.

So, ending a friendship because it makes me sad, or because I don’t feel like being in it anymore, is setting a boundary. Ending a friendship in order to hurt someone or convince them to want me after all is being manipulative.

Here’s another vignette:

Alex and Sam are friends. At some point, Alex realizes they have a crush on Sam. Alex lets Sam know how they feel, but Sam says they don’t feel the same way and they’re only interested in a platonic relationship. Alex respects their decision, and also realizes that with Sam, they were specifically interested in a sexual/romantic relationship. They’re not interested in a platonic relationship with Sam. In order to be honest with both themselves and with Sam, Alex ends the friendship.

How about that?

For some folks, this would be unacceptable even if the previous vignette wasn’t. Even though Alex isn’t ending the friendship to “get back” at Sam or manipulate them in any way, something about it still feels…off. It feels “wrong” to want someone “just for sex” (or dating) and to not want them as “just a friend.”

I can’t grok this, personally, because I’m demisexual and I literally cannot desire someone sexually or romantically if they’re not a friend, or if we’re not at least already emotionally connected in some meaningful way. But even though I can’t grok it, I don’t actually see anything wrong with it.

For instance, I have friends that I enjoy seeing one-on-one, and friends that I enjoy interacting with as part of a group, and friends that I’d enjoy in either context. But there’s nothing wrong with preferring to interact with a particular person one-on-one, or as part of a group. I have friends that I like playing games with, and friends I don’t like playing games with. I have friends I like watching movies or TV with, and friends I don’t like watching movies or TV with. I have friends that I’d happily invite to a loud party with drinking and dancing, and friends that I don’t really want to see in that context for any number of reasons.

Just because you want to have sex with or go on dates with someone, doesn’t mean you must also enjoy having a purely platonic friendship with them. It certainly doesn’t mean you “owe” them that friendship just because they want it, whether or not there’s any unrequited attraction happening.

Here’s the problem, though. If you become friends with someone just to see if that’ll lead to what you actually want, which is a sexual/romantic relationship, then that person may reasonably assume that you’re interested in being friends with them unless something significant changes (i.e. your mutual interests fade, you have a fight and don’t want to interact anymore, you move apart, one or both of you experiences a period of growth that leads them to change up their priorities and friendships, etc). On some level, any type of relationship other than a very casual sexual fling is built on that trust. We understand that things may change and the person may decide to end the relationship (well, provided we’re not being extremely idealistic and/or denying others’ boundaries and agency), but we allow ourselves to safely assume that it’s going to continue for at least a while, and that if it does need to end, then that person will be honest with us and will care about our resulting hurt feelings.

So, when you end your friendship with someone who has said no to a romantic/sexual relationship with you, they may perceive that as extremely hurtful and objectifying, because up until this point you’ve been doing a very good imitation of someone who’s interested in a friendship. It won’t seem like too far a stretch for them to assume that you’re trying to punish them, or that you were dishonest about your interests in an attempt to “get” them into a romantic/sexual relationship. And, in a way, you kinda were dishonest.

“But if I approach a near-stranger and tell them I’m interested specifically in dating/sex, of course they’ll say no, because they don’t know me!” Honestly, I don’t really know what to tell you. I don’t think that effective and ethical social interaction means always being 100% open about everything we want–I might ask someone on a date without specifically stating that I’d like to have sex with them, and just see where the night goes–but if getting what you want requires misleading people, that’s not right. Maybe it’d be better to search for what you want in the kinds of places likely to have other people who are also interested in that, such as Tinder or OkCupid.

I also feel that if you do find yourself having misled someone about your interest in a friendship (or any other sort of relationship), you should own that and accept accountability for it. It’s hard for me to suggest what this might look like, though; I’m probably a bit unusual in that I prefer people I’m not super close with to just ghost on me rather than to inflict on me some tortured and patronizing conversation about how I’m totally a great person and it’s not anything I did wrong but you just don’t see us as friends or whatever.

But most people aren’t me and would appreciate some clarity, closure, and accountability. If you know you’ve hurt someone by appearing to offer friendship and then withdrawing it when you didn’t get what you were actually looking for, apologize.

More to the point, I want us to be clearer about what the problem is with being a “nice Guy,” or whatever you want to call it. The problem isn’t having feelings about getting rejected. The problem isn’t deciding not to be friends with someone who has rejected you as a partner. The problem isn’t only being interested in someone as a partner rather than as a friend. The problem is not having personal limits about how much involvement you can handle with someone you have painful unrequited feelings for. The problem is not being unable to magically wish away those feelings.

The problem is believing that anyone owes you any sort of physical or emotional intimacy. The problem is also habitually misleading people in your attempts to find the types of relationships you want.

The problem is also expecting anyone you reject as a partner to simply have no feelings about that and continue being your friend as if nothing had happened. Sometimes that’ll happen; if you’re fortunate/unfortunate enough to be my crush, you’ll find that I feel very little about that sort of rejection because I prioritize sex and romance so lowly, and am almost always happy to continue the friendship unchanged unless you were cruel or awkwardly vague about rejecting me.

But, as with the weird ghosting preference, that’s not nearly everyone.

It must be okay to end friendships that you’re no longer comfortable, interested, or invested in. Otherwise, you get this:

Alex and Sam are friends. At some point, Alex realizes they have a crush on Sam. Alex lets Sam know how they feel, but Sam says they don’t feel the same way and they’re only interested in a platonic relationship. Alex feels crushed, but they don’t want to hurt Sam or look bad to their friends by trying to get some distance. They continue the friendship, forcing themselves to act happy when Sam dates other people and pretending not to be heartbroken.

Although Alex still likes Sam very much as a friend, it’s impossible to prevent resentment from creeping in when Alex is forced to hide their emotions and constantly put themselves in painful situations (presumably for Sam’s sake). Eventually, that resentment starts bubbling up through passive-aggressive comments or mixed signals that Alex doesn’t even mean to make and may not realize they’re making.

Sam feels confused and hurt. They sense that Alex is deeply unhappy, but whenever they try to bring it up, Alex just says that everything’s fine and of course they’re happy for Sam and Sam’s new partner, what kind of horrible friend wouldn’t be? The conversations get nowhere, Alex is never able to be honest both with themselves and with Sam, and the friendship is never quite the same again.

Rejection hurts. It hurts whether it’s platonic, familial, sexual, romantic, or professional. It hurts when someone you want to date doesn’t want to date you, or when someone you thought was a friend decides they aren’t.

That is a pain to walk towards and through, not to run away from by trying to create rules about what is and isn’t an acceptable reason to end a friendship.

From a personal perspective, I do feel very wary of people who seem to have left a trail of confused and hurt ex-friends in their wake. I see that as a red flag. That they may have had perfectly good reasons for ending those friendships does not increase my interest in becoming one of those ex-friends.

If that pattern seems to describe you, that may be something to explore on your own or in therapy. But the solution isn’t to just force yourself to stay in friendships that don’t fit, harming yourself and probably others in the process.

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You’re Not Entitled to Friendship: Further Complicating the “Nice Guy” Concept

Why Would Men Fear Women With High Sex Drives?

There’s a study going around online about how men in relationships with women get worried if their partner is “too horny.” The actual study, it appears, is much more complicated, but I can’t read it because I no longer have institutional access to research papers. Hooray! Regardless of what’s in the study, though, this is how it’s being reported, so that’s what I’m responding to. The Mic headline reads, “Study says straight men worry if their girlfriends are ‘too’ horny, because sexism,” and the article goes on in that vein.

I don’t doubt that there are men out there who think their female partners’ sex drive is inappropriately high simply because they believe that women ought to be practically asexual, or at least pretend to be for the sake of modesty, and that anything other than that is “emasculating” or whatever.

However, it strikes me as extremely uncharitable to assume that that’s all there is to it given what else we know about men and sex: they’re expected to want it all the time, and they face severe social consequences for refusing sex or having a low sex drive.

In that context, having a partner with a high sex drive would be terrifying because they feel like they can’t say no to sex they don’t want.

That’s not to say that men who face this issue haven’t subscribed to a bunch of sexist myths–they have, it’s just that the myths are hurting them, too. These men may have expected their female partners to be mostly disinterested in sex because Everyone Knows Women Don’t Actually Like Sex, and because of that belief they never expected to have to set any boundaries around sex–and therefore never learned how.

Some otherwise-progressive people are dismissive of this issue because they think that women and trans people are the only people who have any valid difficulty with boundaries, and that if a man can’t tell a woman “no” when she wants to have sex, that’s his own problem.

I disagree in two ways. First of all, even if men don’t actually face any tangible consequences for turning down sex, the point is that many of them feel that they do and that’s what makes the issue valid. Second, plenty of men have told me that they have actually experienced shaming from other men and from women as a result of being insufficiently interested in sex. Until we make such shaming completely unacceptable, some men are naturally going to have difficulty setting boundaries around sex.

When you feel like you have no way out of a shitty situation, it makes sense that you would start to blame the other person. So for men who:

1) are dealing with an imbalance in sexual interest in their relationship–an imbalance that leaves them wanting less than their partners do;

2) feel that they have no right to say no, or that they can’t say no without being shamed; and

3) don’t have the language to conceptualize this problem as a problem of sexist gender roles, it makes sense to blame their female partners and pathologize their higher sex drive.

If their partner is the one with the problem–namely, that her sex drive is inappropriately high–then there is no problem with themselves, and no problem with “The Relationship” (when defined as an entity separate from the people in it, which isn’t how I view it at all but is how many people view it). Then there is no need to ask the difficult questions about whether or not consent is really happening, and whether or not your partner actually accepts you and your sexuality, and whether or not anything needs to change other than your partner’s inappropriately high sex drive.

There is certainly no need to think about unpleasant stuff like gender roles and feminism.

While it probably really sucks to be in a relationship where you feel like your partner wants way too much sex and you can’t really say no but you don’t want to leave them because you otherwise like them, maybe that’s not quite as scary as contemplating the idea that the entire way we traditionally conceptualize gender and sexuality is just totally wrong, and not quite as scary as setting your boundaries for the first time and facing the probable shaming and criticism that you’ll get for it. (Unfortunately, that’s a common reaction when anyone of any gender sets boundaries, and it will continue until you painstakingly extricate from your life everyone who is unwilling to respect your boundaries. And no, “Fine, we won’t have sex, but I’ll ridicule you for telling me ‘no’” doesn’t count as respecting boundaries.)

This is why people of all genders need feminism–or substitute another, made-up word that means “challenging gendered stereotypes, establishing physical and emotional autonomy for everyone, and ending gender-based oppression” if you don’t like the one I use–even if not all feminists themselves understand this. Many women can’t or don’t want to acknowledge that men also experience sex-related boundary violations, perhaps because they think that acknowledging that means denying that women and trans people experience oppressions that cis men don’t. They do.

But nobody is entirely free from compulsory sexuality in our culture. Women and feminine people are expected to have sex to please their partners; men and masculine people are expected to have sex because they’re supposed to have an insatiable appetite for it. Boundaries, autonomy, and asexuality get erased no matter what someone’s gender is.

The Mic article concludes, “[The researcher] hopes this study will inspire some men to reconsider ending a relationship in the early stages — especially if their girlfriends simply want to have sex more often than they do, because that’s just plain dumb.”

I hope that these men are able to have frank and open conversations with their partners about sex, boundaries, and differences in desire. But if their partners are unable to respect their boundaries, then ending the relationship might be exactly what’s needed.

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Why Would Men Fear Women With High Sex Drives?

Some Totally Unsolicited Advice About Forum Moderation

If you moderate any sort of online forum, I have a suggestion for you: ban all snarking about “well if you’d bothered to search the forum before posting you would’ve found the answer to that” and “why don’t you just Google it.”

The damage done to a community by people sometimes posting easily-googleable 101 questions is far outweighed by the damage done by the silencing effect that occurs when people are scared of being ridiculed for asking a damn question.

Yes, it is annoying when someone posts a question that’s been answered tons of times in the forum. It’s annoying when someone posts a question that’s considered too basic for the purposes of that particular space. But is being annoyed a good enough reason to make people afraid to ask questions?

Theoretically, the way this sort of shaming is supposed to work is that everyone realizes that they should search the forum/check the FAQ before posting. If it worked that way, that’d be nice, although you’d still be using nastiness and ridicule to make people comply, which is a dubious way to build community. But practically, that’s not what happens. Instead, people (especially people who have not been socialized to be confident) do Google, and do check the FAQ, and then think, “Well, I’m probably missing something, and I don’t want them to yell at me for not searching well enough.”

And then they don’t post. And then they don’t get their question answered and they don’t learn more about the topic. And then they quietly disengage from the community, and you never even notice that they’re gone, and you never even know that you’re missing their unique perspective and talent. Instead, your group is overrun with people whining about each others’ poor google skills and making fun of each other–and not in a friendly way.

But then how can we stop people from posting repeat questions?

As a moderator, you can never completely prevent people from doing something you don’t want in your space, but you can make it less likely and you can control what happens afterward.

  • Include “search first” in your rules.
  • Encourage other members to respond to 101 questions with reminders, not ridicule. (“Hey [name], this question has already been answered in this forum. Please use the search feature. Thanks!”)
  • Create a FAQ and make it easily visible and accessible. Forum search features are often crappy and not everyone has the time or energy to wade through pages of irrelevant search results.
  • Simply delete posts and ban users who post these types of questions. It’s kind of extreme, but it may be most appropriate for something like a safe space for marginalized folks or a 300-level social justice space where basic questions really detract from the group’s purpose.

Here’s the thing–if you don’t want your forum to focus on answering questions that have already been answered or that are considered too low-level for the purposes of that space, the last thing you should want is for those questions’ threads to fill up with snark and ridicule of the poster’s lack of Google skills. All that does is promote continued engagement on that post (and a toxic form of engagement at that, although that’s just my opinion) and keep the post at the top of the group feed. It contributes to the exact problem that the snark and ridicule is supposedly meant to prevent.

Except, of course, that’s not really what it’s meant to do at all. In my experience, people who get something out of ridiculing others frequently come up with all sorts of post-hoc justifications for their behavior, but what they’re mostly doing is venting emotions without much forethought. You feel annoyed or angry, so you lash out. Only later do you produce rationalizations like “Well, they’re ruining the purpose of this space by posting those questions and I want them to stop.” I’m skeptical that very many of these people thought, upon encountering the offending post, “Huh, I wonder what would be the best way of stopping posts like this from happening.”

But it’s annoying!

Yeah, as I said, I’m not arguing that it’s not. But I think that a big part of the reason it feels so annoying is because of the assumptions we make about others’ motivations–assumptions that we usually have no evidence for.

Many people see a repeat question and think, “Wow, this person respects me and my time so little that they would make me re-answer something that’s already been answered.” Sure, that could be it. Or it could be that they did try searching but didn’t use the exact right search terms (a common issue for topics as diverse as social justice and coding). It could be that they’re in a hurry to get the answer and figured someone would be willing to point them in the right direction. It could be that they’re on their phone and the search box isn’t even visible in the mobile version of the page and they figured there wasn’t one. Look, it could really be anything. It doesn’t have to mean laziness and disrespect.

But they’re forcing me to answer their basic questions and I don’t want to/don’t have the spoons/can’t be everyone’s free [subject] tutor!

I’ve already written about this dynamic as it applies to social justice conversations online. But I think some of that applies much more broadly, in that many people mistake a statement about a need for a demand that that need be met–or, worse, an obligation to meet that need.

When someone asks a question, it’s safe to assume that they want an answer to that question. (Ok, fine, unless it’s a rhetorical question. Let’s not get technical.) They may even need an answer to that question. They may even feel entitled to an answer to that question from you–yes, you specifically.

But usually we don’t know what a stranger on the internet feels entitled to versus what they would simply like to have, if possible. And sometimes we assume that they feel entitled because that’s what we’re used to, or because we’re not fully confident about our own boundaries or our own ability to maintain them.

Much of this difficulty comes from Guess Culture, which we all struggle with to various extents. In Guess Culture, a question can indeed be an implicit demand for an answer, and in Guess Culture, ignoring someone’s question (even if posted on a public forum) can be a Wrong Thing To Do.

Probably the most common way people deal with situations where they feel like someone is demanding something from them that they can’t provide is to try to invalidate that person’s (perceived) need. After all, if their need is wrong or if they are wrong for asking for it to be met, then we’re not wrong for refusing to meet it.

So, you’re in a forum and someone posts a question that’s already been answered a hundred times, or is obviously too basic a question for this forum, and you’re just exhausted of answering these questions, and you resent being (implicitly) demanded to do it, and how could they expect this constant free tutoring from you–so clearly they’re in the wrong for posting it, and that means it’s okay to lash out at them and make fun of them, because after all they hurt you first.

I think what would help avoid these toxic cycles is to remember that the fact that someone has a need doesn’t obligate you to meet it, and the fact that you can’t meet someone’s need doesn’t make it invalid.

So, if you’re exhausted by these questions and they make you feel resentful and used, ignore them. Hide them from your feed. Block the people who posted them. If you think that someone has a pattern of misusing a group by trying to extract an unfair amount of intellectual labor from its members, talk to the mods about maybe banning that person. Mods, pay attention to those patterns; just because someone means well doesn’t mean they aren’t turning your group into a toxic space.

And that goes just the same for the people who think it their personal mission to comment “well if you’d bothered to use the search feature–” on every other post. Mods, ask yourselves what kind of group environment this contributes to and what it accomplishes. Do you want a group where everyone’s ridiculing each other all the time, or a group where shit gets done, whatever that means for your particular space?

In short, I see all sorts of cons and no pros to allowing this sort of interaction to happen in online forums. (Besides maybe some nebulous commitment to Free Speech and Anything Goes, but I don’t see much value in that when it comes to closed online spaces.) My advice as a longtime group moderator and participant is to ban this toxic and useless behavior.

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Some Totally Unsolicited Advice About Forum Moderation

How To Feel Better About Ending Relationships

At Everyday Feminism, I wrote about ending relationships:

The hardest breakups I’ve gone through have been the ones I’ve had to initiate myself.

Like most women, I’ve been socialized not to trust my own gut feelings, and the days or weeks (or, in a few sad cases, months) leading up to those breakups were full of second-guessing and invalidating myself.

Did I really have to leave such a nice person? Were things really that bad?

As embarrassing as it is to admit how long it sometimes took me to do what needed to be done, I’m not exactly surprised – my brain couldn’t stop debating itself long enough to say the words.

Most resources for dealing with breakups are aimed at the person who’s getting dumped. That makes sense – having someone break up with you is often really painful, and it’s often a more sharp and surprising sort of pain than what I’m going to talk about here.

But being the one who realizes a relationship needs to end and takes action to end it can also be really hard.

My intention isn’t to compare these two experiences – most of us have gone through both and might have very different perspectives on which is relatively easier or harder. Point is, they both suck.

Since there’s less out there on doing the actual breaking up, I want to use this space to affirm those of you who are struggling with it.

Breaking up is hard to do – but these affirmations can help.

1. You Don’t Owe Romantic or Sexual Interest to Anyone

Many people, especially women, are socialized to feel like the mere fact that someone likes them means they have to try to like them back. If someone likes us, we see it as a favor – and it’s only polite to return favors.

This can cause a lot of us to end up in relationships we never really wanted to be in. It can also make it really difficult to end relationships that we no longer want to be in.

Just because you’re a feminist, that doesn’t mean you’re completely finished unlearning the many ways in which you’ve been taught to prioritize others before yourself – I know I’m not.

If you’re having a hard time ending a relationship you know you don’t want anymore, it might be because some part of you still feels like owe your partner that relationship.

In those moments, it can be helpful to remind yourself that you don’t owe any sort of intimacy to anyone, ever, no matter how much they want it.

Read the rest here.

How To Feel Better About Ending Relationships

The Collective Gaslighting of the Trigger Warning Debate

I consider emotions to be a valuable source of information. When I noticed that I was getting much more emotional about the trigger warning debate than about most of the topics I write about–sensitive and personal as they often are–I knew something was up.

Both the content and the tone of the debate has been making me feel very angry, frustrated, and hopeless. The anger is a different sort of anger than the one I sometimes feel when engaging with discussions about sexual violence, homophobia, or other issues–issues that affect me much more strongly and urgently than trigger warnings. That anger is one of passion; this is one of defeat.

I don’t even really need trigger warnings very much. I am no longer a student (thank literally every possible god), and in the situations where I do find trigger warnings very helpful, they are typically provided, because the people in my life care about accommodating people with trauma and mental illness backgrounds.

So why the anger and hopelessness? Why the “taking it personally,” as some 3edgy5u conservative dude would probably love to accuse?

I realized that the debate on trigger warnings has largely turned into a sort of collective gaslighting.

I don’t use that word lightly. Gaslighting means denying someone’s thoughts, feelings, or perceptions so that they end up doubting their own reality. It’s not the same as arguing with someone’s opinions or with their interpretations of their perceptions. If a patient sees a doctor and says, “I have a headache and I think it must be brain cancer,” it’s not gaslighting for the doctor to say, “Well, I doubt it’s cancer. Let’s check it out.” It is gaslighting for the doctor to say, “Oh, come on, you’re probably just imagining it. There’s nothing wrong with you.”

So before you jump in with Just Because We Disagree With You About Trigger Warnings Doesn’t Mean We’re Abusing You Oh My God, I’ll draw a very fine distinction.

Yes, not all anti-trigger warning arguments are gaslighting. For instance, it’s not gaslighting to say, “I hear that you want this accommodation, but we can’t provide it because [reasons].” It’s not even gaslighting to say, “I hear that trigger warnings help you, but the research shows that they may do more harm than good in the long-term.” I still disagree with that, because the classroom is not the place for exposure therapy and exposure therapy cannot proceed without informed consent and trigger warnings. But at least that doesn’t deny anyone’s internal experiences.

What’s gaslighting is when we say, “We need trigger warnings in order to be able to engage with content rather than automatically shut down,” and you respond, “You’re just trying to avoid engaging with difficult content.”

If people are telling you that they are trying to engage with trauma-related material and you insist that they’re actually saying that they want to avoid it–or literally ban it from being taught–you are gaslighting them. You are insisting that you know better than they do what’s inside their own heads. You are pretending that they said something other than what they actually said, making them doubt their own thoughts and words.

That gaslighting has affected me. I’ve spent months, years, however long this bullshit debate has gone on, wondering if I’m just being unclear, if something in the words I’m using somehow communicates “I want to ban trauma-related material from college classrooms and I want students to never engage with it,” because that’s what people keep telling me I’m saying. Literally, I would write out all these in-depth articles like I always do and people would comment “So you just want to stop professors from teaching anything that ‘triggers’ you” or “But it’s important to engage with challenging material.” As if I ever even implied that it wasn’t.

There is nothing wrong with my communication except perhaps that I’m too charitable. The problem is that people insist that I literally spoke or wrote different words than the ones I actually spoke or wrote. They don’t even say, “I know you said this, but I think you really meant [blahblahblah].” They simply proceed with the argument as if I’d said, “Professors should not teach material that may trigger students” or “Students should feel free to avoid any reading assignment they find challenging without any consequences.”

I also wouldn’t care that much if it were only happening to me, because then I probably would just write it off as a quirk of my writing style. But I’ve been seeing it all over the internet. It happens in comment threads on Facebook and it happens in opinion pieces published in major outlets.

#NotAll anti-trigger warning opinions are framed in a gaslighting way, but many are. And no, it’s not enough to claim “Well some students at [university] do actually want to ban everything triggering from the curriculum,” not only because I have yet to see any evidence that that’s happening but also because they aren’t who you’re arguing with. If you’re presenting me with a claim I disagree with, then I need to argue with the claim you made, not with another, barely-related claim. (In fact, the idea of including trigger warnings in syllabi is literally incompatible with the idea of banning triggering material from the curriculum. It makes no sense to advocate for both of those things. If someone is advocating for trigger warnings, then by definition there is something still there to be warned about.)

I am willing to grant that in many of these arguments, the gaslighting is probably unintentional because their reading comprehension is simply that bad. Obviously if you can’t understand what someone is arguing, you are liable to argue against something other than what they argued. But 1) it doesn’t have to be intentional to be gaslighting, and 2) I simply can’t believe that all of these journalists and professors are that bad at reading.

I also don’t want to imply that every time you misunderstand someone’s argument and argue against something other than what they said, that’s gaslighting. It definitely isn’t. But when someone is including their personal experiences as part of their argument–a perfectly valid thing to do when the topic concerns mental health and education–then you need to respond to their argument without denying their own experience.

If I say: “I need trigger warnings so that I can engage with material related to sexual assault without shutting down and dissociating,” here are some responses that are gaslighting:

  • “You just want to avoid difficult material.”
  • “So you’re saying that professors shouldn’t ever teach anything related to sexual assault.”
  • “Come on, I’m sure you’re making it sound worse than it is.”
  • “Yeah, well, a college classroom can’t be your therapy session.”

Here are some responses that are not gaslighting:

  • “That’s valid, but we can’t require professors to include trigger warnings because that goes against our policy.”
  • “I hear you, but my concern is that other students will use that as a way to skip readings not because of any personal trauma, but because they just don’t want to confront that subject.”
  • “Sure, sexual assault is a common trigger and easy to warn about, but how could we possibly implement trigger warnings that account for all of our students’ various traumatic experiences?”
  • “But some students say they find trigger warnings harmful. How would you accommodate them?”
  • “Is there any other way the university community could support you without requiring that professors implement trigger warnings?”

I don’t agree with all of these hypothetical responses, but they at least do not rest on a willful misinterpretation of what I said. If I say I need trigger warnings to engage with something, then it’s not your place to disagree with that unless you are a mental health professional working with me and you have strong evidence that I’m misinterpreting what’s going on, and even then that is a conversation to be approached very, very carefully.

(In fact, as a therapist, I often have to gently nudge clients into letting go of interpretations that are not accurate or helpful. But as a therapist, I also have access to a lot more information than most other people do. I don’t have to claim that my client is lying; I can just make observations about their own statements and behavior. For instance, if a client who has a substance use problem and has relapsed says, “Actually, I can control my use,” I don’t need to disagree with their experience. All I have to say is, “I hear that you feel in control of your use. I’m wondering how that fits with what you told me about last week, when you drank enough to black out and say some things to your partner that you regretted.” And guess what? If I have no evidence that they can’t control their use, then I nod and ask them to tell me more about that and keep my baseless assumptions to myself.)

You might disagree that this type of discourse is harming anyone, even though it operates as gaslighting. Maybe it hasn’t harmed me all that much, all things considered. But I still wonder why we shouldn’t aim for debates in which people respond to what was said rather than continuing to read from their own personal script that they wrote before even engaging in the debate.

That’s why I don’t argue about trigger warnings anymore. (No, this isn’t me having an argument with you. This is a blog post and my comments are still closed.) I’m tired of being gaslit and I’m not going to allow it to continue.

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The Collective Gaslighting of the Trigger Warning Debate

What Do College Administrations and Crappy Poly Couples Have in Common? Not Taking Responsibility for Their Decisions

Now that we’re deep in the latest irritating round of internet hand-wringing over college students and their political correctness, I’m watching again this dynamic:

Students want something. They want a “controversial” (read: openly hateful towards women, people of color, etc) speaker disinvited from a campus event, or they want a designated safe space, they want a professor investigated for what they perceive to be a Title IX violation, or whatever. They advocate for this via newspaper editorials or marches or signs. The administration agrees and does the thing. Then the administration and the media blame the students for the action as if they had the power to make it happen themselves rather than simply argue in its favor.

And I’m thinking, where have I seen this before?

Oddly enough, I have seen this before in polyamorous relationships.

It happens like this: John and Jane are in a serious open relationship that involves a pretty high level of emotional support. Jane and Jill are also partners, but a little more casual. Jane has a date with Jill tonight, but John is having a pretty bad day and would like her to reschedule it and stay home with him instead. He’s not telling her to cancel, but makes it clear that he’d really prefer it if she did and that his mood will probably get even worse if she doesn’t. Jane wants to be supportive of John, but she doesn’t want to cancel on Jill at the last minute because that’s not fair to her and implies that John is more important to her. At the same time, she also doesn’t want to feel responsible for John’s even-worse mood or risk the possibility that this will erupt into a fight later.

So Jane does what many poly people do in this situation. She cancels with Jill, saying, “I’m sorry, but I can’t go tonight because John’s having a bad day and he wants me to stay home.”

It may seem like a totally reasonable thing to say, but notice how it conveniently displaces the responsibility for the decision entirely away from Jane and onto John. It’s not that she doesn’t want to go on the date; it’s that John doesn’t want her to.

In fact, it would’ve been more accurate to say, “I’m sorry, but I’m going to cancel tonight because John is having a bad day and I want to be there for him.” Jane didn’t cancel because John forced her to. It’s not that she “can’t go tonight”; it’s that she is choosing not to go because she wants to stay home with John. This can be spun in either a positive or a negative direction: on the one hand, she’s staying home because she cares about John’s feelings and doesn’t want him to feel even worse; on the other hand, she’s staying home because she wants to avoid having a difficult conversation with John about these types of situations and she doesn’t want to deal with her own feelings about potentially making John’s bad day even worse.

And while that latter alternative might seem monstrous to many people, it’s not as unreasonable as it seems and it is in fact how many people, for instance me, prefer their relationships to work. I have been the person feeling crappy and knowing that I would feel better if my partner canceled their plans and spent time with me, and yet I wanted them to keep their plans anyway. I wanted them to go despite my feelings. I wanted to have the opportunity to practice coping with the feelings alone. Sometimes they did keep their plans, and sometimes they decided that they’d rather cancel and care for me, but either way it was a mutually informed decision and nobody was pressuring anybody. You may not want your relationship to work that way and that’s fine, but that doesn’t make it a ridiculous way to do relationships.

Jane probably isn’t being intentionally obfuscating when she cancels with Jill using that wording, but on some level she wants to have her cake and eat it too. She wants to avoid the negative consequences of leaving John alone at home–such as feeling bad because John is sad and potentially having a fight about it later–but she also wants to avoid the negative consequences of choosing to cancel on Jill at the last minute, such as feeling bad about being flaky and potentially having a fight with Jill about how she being flaky. So she makes it seem like canceling the date wasn’t really her choice, that she had to do it because of John and his feelings.

(Later on, she will be surprised and angry that Jill and John aren’t getting along, and will probably blame it on “jealousy,” when in fact she’s been accidentally playing Jill and John against each other all this time by blaming one for her own decisions regarding the other. Given that framing repeated over a period of time, I wouldn’t blame Jill for thinking of John as “that guy who always makes my girlfriend cancel our dates,” or John for thinking of Jill as “that girl who would apparently totally flip out if my girlfriend canceled with her to help me through a really shitty time [whether or not she actually would totally flip out].”)

What Jane needs to do if she wants two healthy relationships is:

  1. talk to John about how the two of them will handle times when he needs support and she may not be available to support him, such as other friends/partners, activities, professional help, or being able to text her while she’s out or reconnect later that night or the following morning, and make sure to clarify what sorts of expectations each of them already has about these situations. Does John actually expect her to cancel her plans at the last minute, or did he just want to express his feelings, get some empathy, and see if maybe canceling the plans was at least an option? Does Jane feel like the emotional labor she is doing for John is balanced with the emotional labor he does for her? If John would like her to be willing to cancel other plans to support him, is he willing to do the same for her? (By the way, even if Jane doesn’t necessarily want that type of support from John, it’s still important that both feel that things are balanced.)
  2. talk to Jill about how the two of them will handle times when Jane feels an obligation to another partner that conflicts with her commitments with Jill. How does Jill feel about being canceled on? Maybe she honestly doesn’t care. (Even if she doesn’t, this is something Jane will need to regularly check in on, because feelings change and it will be hard for Jill to suddenly say, “Hey um actually, I’m no longer okay with being canceled on even though last month I told you I was.”) How can Jane reassure Jill that she cares about and values her in the aftermath of having to cancel to take care of John? If Jane and Jill are interested in growing their intimacy and commitment, how will this work if Jane always prioritizes John first? Can it work? Can Jane rethink how she thinks of commitment and priorities? By the way, are there times when Jill would really appreciate it if Jane would consider canceling plans with someone else in order to support her? Or is that a privilege only John gets?
  3. own her decisions and take responsibility for their consequences. That means that even when someone’s feelings influence her a certain way, she needs to acknowledge that the decision was hers to make. If your partners are making you feel like you have no choice but to accommodate their feelings, that’s a red flag for abuse.

Wow, that sounds like a lot of work! Well, it is, and I hope that John and Jill will contribute equally to that work by fully engaging in these conversations with Jane when she starts them, being upfront about their feelings and expectations, and being as willing to compromise as Jane is.

Ok cool story, but what does it have to do with college campuses?

College administrators are in a bind when it comes to student activism. They don’t want to come across like they’re ignoring it, especially when it’s very loud and angry. But they also don’t want to do the thing the students are asking for, because it will be unpopular among their colleagues and/or people who write for Atlantic and New York Times. So they do the thing the students are asking for, but then make it seem like the students somehow “forced” them to do it. (Y’all, seriously, if campus newspaper op-eds had that kind of power, I’d have kept writing mine for longer than a semester.)

Sometimes the administration doesn’t even have to make that implication, because national media does it for them. This is how we get articles written by people who have not been on the campuses in question or interviewed the students involved, claiming that student activists “caused” a speaker to be disinvited or “made” professors add trigger warnings to their syllabi. (In fact, the most unpopular speaker disinvitations and trigger warning demands to be featured in the media have overwhelmingly not actually happened, and yet the students are ridiculed for even asking for it*. So much for Free Speech. Oh, what’s that you say? “Free speech” only applies to governments regulating speech? That’s not the definition of the term you were using a minute ago. And if we’re talking about chilling effects, the large-scale ridicule of student activism certainly constitutes one.)

I understand that college administrators may perceive students as having an enormous amount of power. After all, they can say whatever they want (there’s that pesky free speech again) and theoretically ruin the university’s reputation. They can, I suppose, transfer themselves and their tuition money elsewhere. But practically speaking, they’re probably not going to transfer (if anything, students whose needs as survivors of violence or as marginalized people are ignored may quietly drop out of school altogether). I’ve never heard of a university catching serious media flak for inviting a controversial speaker or refusing to add trigger warnings to syllabi; if anything, they are regularly praised for this by publications as influential as, y’know, the New York Times. (The linked article includes some balanced voices, but I think it’s pretty obvious just from the headline which direction it leans in.)

My impression as a former college student who’s been watching these debates play out for years since is that universities often acquiesce to student demands because they are uncomfortable with the discussions that those demands create. I’m not saying that all student demands are valid, well-argued, or charitable–I think that a few invalid, poorly-argued, or uncharitable claims are to be expected from people who are in school to learn how to think and debate. But will you as an educator join these discussions and use them as learning opportunities, or will you shut them down, either by categorically refusing the students’ demands or by accepting them just to get them to shut up?

I suppose if a university administration wanted to try to resolve the issue rather than sweeping it under the rug, they could take a similar approach as I suggested for that poly couple. Administrators could meet with student activists to try to understand what they’re asking for and where they’re coming from. They could also meet with other stakeholders, such as professors or a speaker if there’s one involved, to get their point of view. If they reject students’ demands, they could do so without invalidating their feelings or opinions–for instance, instead of “DON’T EXPECT ANY CODDLING HERE” they could say, “We understand that [controversial speaker] may express opinions that are considered harmful and oppressive by certain students, and we acknowledge the hurt this causes. However, we’ve decided to invite the speaker because [reasons] and we encourage students to decide for themselves whether or not to attend. Students who are looking for support are welcome to go to [counseling services, Women’s Center, LGBTQ safe space, etc].”

Lest it seem like I’m unfairly dumping on college administrators here–I’m sure many of you are lovely and do a great job. Just like many poly couples are lovely and don’t pit their partners against each other. But some do, and that’s who I’m writing about. If the shoe fits, and so on.

Nothing that I’ve suggested here is at all easy, but just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not important. Just because something will not be attainable every time doesn’t make it any less of a best practice.

And by the way, just as Jane may be in an abusive situation where John really does make her feel like she has no choice but to acquiesce to his demands, there are situations–although they are rare–when students can act in a similar way. For instance, if students make threats of violence against a speaker, it is completely reasonable for the speaker to cancel, for the university to choose to cancel the speaker, and/or for law enforcement to get involved. Obviously, don’t make threats of violence; I don’t give a fuck how much you hate the person.

However, both administrators and speakers sometimes misperceive students’ power in significant ways, just as Jane may assume that John’s stating his feelings constitutes a passive-aggressive demand in and of itself. (Unfortunately, people who are accustomed to passive communication tend to see it everywhere they look.) For instance, sometimes administrators or speakers cancel events because they know there will be protesters, even though no threats of violence have been made and the protesters have stated an intention to peacefully hold signs, hand out pamphlets, or whatever. This is not the same as students “forcing” anyone to cancel anything. They are exercising their First Amendment rights. If you’re an ~~~edgy~~~ “””controversial””” speaker who can’t handle people holding signs at your speech, then maybe you shouldn’t be a speaker.

And while John and Jane might each have some sort of power over the other, when it comes to the administration-student relationship, the administration holds an overwhelming amount of the power. Students, even otherwise-privileged students, can’t practically do anything besides write op-eds or march with signs if a university administration is determined to do things they don’t like. All they can really do is be annoying. But being annoying isn’t the same as forcing someone to do something.

tl;dr Abuse and coercion are things that happen, but otherwise, strongly expressing a desire isn’t the same thing as forcing someone to fulfill that desire. That applies to relationships and campus activism and probably a lot of other things.

*Similarly, a Northwestern professor raised hell online because she was investigated and then cleared for an alleged Title IX violation. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work? Someone accuses someone of something, an investigation happens, and, if the accused is deemed innocent, they’re cleared? Yet somehow this is still Political Correctness Run Amok or whatever.

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What Do College Administrations and Crappy Poly Couples Have in Common? Not Taking Responsibility for Their Decisions

10 Things Sex Positivity Is Not

Over at Everyday Feminism, I wrote a piece defining sex positivity by what it isn’t.

Put two feminists in a room together and you’ll have three definitions of the term “sex positive.” For all that we love to use this label, it’s hard to agree on exactly what it means.

To me, sex positivity has always been about two things: 1) affirming that sex can be a healthy part of human life that shouldn’t be shamed or stigmatized, and 2) affirming the choices others make regarding sex, even if those choices are different from the ones we would make (as long as those choices are consensual).

And by the way, the “healthy part of human life” part doesn’t mean it has to be part of every human’s life – more on that later.

But all of that probably sounds pretty vague. Sometimes it’s easier to define a term by what it isn’t than what it is.

My aim here isn’t to negate the fact that some people use the term “sex positivity” differently than I do. Disagreements about meanings are inevitable when it comes to feminism and social justice.

Rather, I aim to envision a sex positivity that is inclusive and intersectional, one that welcomes folks with a variety of identities, experiences, and perspectives. Sex positivity isn’t just for straight, cis, able-bodied white women. It can – and should – be for everyone, even people who aren’t interested in sex themselves.

Here are some common things that people think are sex-positive, but really aren’t, necessarily:

1. Liking Sex

If sex positivity were as simple as enjoying sex, there’d be a lot more sex-positive people. Alas, it’s not that easy.

Plenty of people who love sex nevertheless judge and shame other people for the way they have sex.

Plenty of people who love sex are queerphobic and transphobic, and that’s not compatible with any sex positivity I want anything to do with. Plenty of people who love sex coerce others into having sex with them, which proves that they don’t really believe that others should get to do what they want with their own bodies and sex lives.

As sex educator Charlie Glickman writes, “The fact that someone enjoys sex doesn’t necessarily mean that they can honor and celebrate sexual choices and practices that they don’t do.”

On the flip side, the fact that liking sex isn’t synonymous with sex positivity also means that you can be sex-positive without liking sex at all – as long as you support people who do. Disliking or being uninterested in sex is part of the spectrum of human sexuality, so any sex positivity worth its salt affirms that.

Read the rest here.

10 Things Sex Positivity Is Not

Abusers Don’t Abuse Everyone

[Content note: sexual harassment, assault, and abuse]

If you’ve hung around in poly communities* for a while, you’ve probably seen this dynamic:

A man (or, very occasionally, someone of another gender) gets accused of sexual harassment, assault, or abuse. Along with all the usual disparagement and skepticism towards the accuser, this man’s other partners come out of the woodwork to defend him, describing (sometimes in great detail) their relationship or sex life to “prove” that he’s a consent-aware and safe person. The fact that he did not harass/assault/abuse these individuals is used as evidence that he did not harass/assault/abuse anyone else, either.

To start with the obvious, even the most heinous, ill-intentioned person rarely manages to harm every single person they interact with. While the fact that someone has harassed, assaulted, or abused someone is strong evidence that they will do it again–most sexual predators are repeat offenders–the opposite is not necessarily true.

The idea that a “real” sexual predator will inevitably prey on every single person they are involved with comes from the idea that people who harass, assault, and abuse are unable to control themselves, that they are rapid beasts who lunge at every available target. As knowledgeable folks have already pointed out many, many, many times, that’s not how the overwhelming majority of sexual violence works. At all.

I’m not inside any sexual predator’s mind, so I can’t tell you how any particular individual decides who to try to harass, assault, or abuse and who to pretend to be a good person to. But I’ve watched quite a few of these situations unfold and what they all had in common was that the accuser was young, relatively unknown in the community, queer, non-white, and/or marginalized in other ways, whereas the current and former partners stepping up to defend the accused were well-known, well-respected, often older members of the community it happened in.

What’s going on with that?

What’s going on is that people who want to hurt people pick people that they doubt will feel empowered to speak up, and who will be much less likely to be believed if they do.

I have watched several men that I’ve been involved with or otherwise close with get accused of sexual violence towards others. Aside from that split-second of shock I inevitably experienced when I first heard the accusation, I had no trouble at all believing it–not because of who they are (in front of me, that is), but because of who I am. In the circles these men and I both run in, I doubt anyone would feel empowered to abuse me. I have a widely-read blog and am very highly respected, especially as a voice about these issues. Also, I’m cis, white, and socioeconomically doing okay. The two times I’ve been harassed by members of my community, I spoke up and was immediately believed and supported, and those men lost many of their connections within the community as a result. If someone assaulted or otherwise violated me and I blogged about it, it would probably be disastrous for them.

Of course, that’s not to say that privileged and respected people are never impacted by sexual violence, that they’re always believed and supported, or that they always find justice. Thanks to rape culture, nobody is guaranteed support if they experience sexual violence, and there’s nothing anyone can do (or should have to do) to prevent it. But privilege certainly helps, and so do all the visibly-awesome friends I have. Predators target vulnerable people, and that vulnerability is never their fault.

So it doesn’t surprise me that I–the well-known blogger who writes constantly about boundaries and sets them loudly and publicly all the time–would not be anyone’s first choice as a target for abuse. If I refused to believe that someone who had treated me respectfully and consensually had done the exact opposite with someone else, I’d be ignoring everything I know about how sexual predators work.

Just like abusers aren’t uniformly awful to the people they’re abusing–if they were, it’d be much easier to leave–they aren’t uniformly awful to everyone else. They’re often charming, beloved by their friends, and professionally successful. And yes, in a polyamorous context, that can even include other partners.

I get that it’s really painful to watch someone you love, someone you’re intimate with, be accused of horrible things by others. People will refer to that person as “a rapist” or “an abuser” and those labels don’t feel true to you because it wasn’t your experience. But look–anyone who rapes is a rapist. Anyone who abuses is an abuser. They don’t have to do it to every single person they’re involved with for that to be true. In fact, they only have to do it once.

This is the juncture at which many progressive, feminist Always-Believe-The-Survivor types really stumble. I get that it feels like you have counter-evidence. I get that it feels that if everyone only knew how sweet and loving and totally consensual he is with you, it’d be obvious that the accusation is false. But it only feels that way because believing that someone you love did something terrible is painful, and your brain’s trying to find ways to keep you from having to believe it.

Believe The Survivor isn’t just for when the survivor is someone you like and the accused is someone you don’t, or someone you don’t know. It’s for every time someone accuses someone of sexual violence and there’s no actual evidence that they’re lying, because most accusations of sexual violence are true and because acting otherwise without reason is dangerous.

Victim blaming is dangerous not just because it harms survivors and keeps them from speaking out, but because it sends a powerful message to sexual predators that they can do what they do with impunity. Think, then, about what it says when someone gets accused of sexual violence and a chorus of their other partners shows up to claim that the accusations must be false because “Well I’ve been with him for years and he has never been anything other than respectful of my body and boundaries, and based on everything I know I just can’t see him doing something like this.” Think about what it says when we treat these arguments as in any way valid.

What it says is that if you want to commit sexual violence and never be held accountable, all you have to do is make sure that you’ve got a partner or two that you behave consensually with. That way if you ever get accused of anything, your other partners will be available to express their genuine shock and use your good behavior to shield you from your bad behavior. You won’t even have to defend yourself.

We can short-circuit these tactics by treating any accusation of sexual harassment, assault, or abuse as valid regardless of the accused person’s previous behavior towards other people–or, in fact, towards the accuser. As I mentioned, being inconsistent and alternating between abusive behavior and “normal,” “loving” behavior is one way abusers trap people into relationships with them.

It’s time to start treating patterns like these as the norm rather than the exception. That’s why I’m actually the opposite of surprised when someone who’s accused of sexual violence turns out to have one or more partners who defend them with “But he didn’t abuse me.” He probably didn’t because he didn’t think he could get away with it with you, or because he wanted someone to be able to shield him the consequences of his violent behavior towards others.

*To state the obvious, the issues I’ve discussed here aren’t limited to poly communities and many people have difficulty believing that someone who treated them well abused someone else. But I’m writing about this in the context of polyamory because that’s the context I’ve been observing it in, and because poly people (obviously) tend to have multiple partners at the same time. That means that if someone abuses some but not all of their partners, those other partners are able to openly be like, “But hey, I’m dating/fucking this person and I haven’t had anything like that happen!” In monogamous contexts, that wouldn’t really work unless someone’s exes came forward, but that seems…unlikely. In this way, polyamorous communities are unfortunately able to perpetuate rape culture in an additional way: “Well, she’s the only one who’s had any problems with him. Maybe it’s something to do with her.” Never mind that the accuser is almost never actually the only one. They’re just the only one who happened to come forward.

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Abusers Don’t Abuse Everyone