Polyamory: Orientation or Lifestyle Choice?

“Is polyamory an orientation or a lifestyle choice?” is the poly-related question I get most often next to “How do I get my partner to try polyamory?” Let’s unpack this.

My answers to this question range from “yes” to “it depends” to “that question makes no sense.” Some people feel that their poly is an orientation, analogous to their sexual orientation. Some people feel that their poly is a lifestyle choice and that they could/would choose differently depending on the circumstances. So, it depends.

But more broadly, I don’t think this question makes much sense or is very relevant. Remember “the map is not the territory”? “Orientation” and “lifestyle choice” are not natural categories; they are concepts that humans created and can define and redefine however they like. We might as well argue whether being gay is bleep or bloop. What do bleep and bloop mean? You decide!

Of course, I’m being slightly facetious, as the terms “orientation” and “lifestyle choice” do have more-or-less accepted definitions. But those definitions are increasingly slippery. The idea that sexual orientation (or relationship orientation, if we’re including polyamory here) is innate and fixed has been challenged. I have myself challenged it, because my sexual orientation has changed. The idea that lifestyle choices are actually choices is also getting challenged by research in psychology and neuroscience that suggests that, while we do choose our behaviors, we don’t choose to be strongly inclined towards certain behaviors and not others. (That’s not even getting into the thorny issue that certain choices are so strongly encouraged or discouraged by societies that they might not feel like choices at all.) That means that even if engaging in polyamory is a choice, wanting to do it might not be.

And that means that the concept of sexual orientation is much more complicated than we thought, too. After all, nobody is forcing gay, lesbian, or bisexual people to have sex with or date people of the same gender. (Quite the opposite, really.) They don’t have to do it. They choose to do it, because they want to. While the idea of choosing not to act on one’s queer desires is mostly homophobic Christian tripe, it is technically true that your sexual orientation doesn’t actually determine your behavior or vice versa. That’s why queer people are still queer whether or not they’ve had any experience with same-sex love or intimacy.

I think that “Is polyamory an orientation or a lifestyle choice?” is a Trojan horse. It’s hiding two scarier questions that most people have a much harder time asking openly. They are:

  1. “Can I force myself into a monogamous relationship even though I prefer polyamory?”
  2. “Do I really have to tolerate these people?”

The first question is what’s usually meant by people who are asking about orientations versus lifestyle choices because they want to be polyamorous but their current or prospective partner wants to be monogamous. This is making them unhappy, so they’re wondering if being poly is like being gay–meaning, sorry, tough luck, you’re gonna have to deal with it–or if it’s like vacationing in Hawaii or going to burlesque shows, meaning that, as fun as it is, you can definitely live without it if you must.

This is where it comes back to my answer, “It depends.” Nobody can decide for you whether or not you can be happy in a monogamous relationship (or in a poly relationship, if the decision is going the other way). Some people can and some can’t. Sometimes you have to try it to find out.

But most of the people who ask me this are already deeply unhappy with monogamy, and already know that if they had their way they’d be poly. Guess what? When it comes to relationships, you can have your way. Anyone who makes you feel otherwise is manipulative at best and abusive at worst. You can leave your monogamous partner and start new relationships with poly people. Yes, leaving that partner may suck, but then you have to decide what sucks more, breaking up or being monogamous. Nobody can decide for you.

So, if the real question isn’t “which arbitrary socially-constructed category should I place polyamory into” but rather “can I be poly/monogamous or not,” then ask the real question, even if it’s scary.

The second question comes from non-poly people who feel uncomfortable, disgusted, and/or morally opposed to polyamory and want to know if they reeeeally have to accept and respect it. But that’s not something you can ask directly in polite company, so instead they go with the shorthand: is it an orientation or a lifestyle?

To understand why this shorthand works, you have to understand what I see as one of the great failures of the LGBTQ rights movement: the concept of respecting/tolerating people’s identities because they are (seen as) inevitable and unchangeable, not because it’s none of your damn business, doesn’t hurt anyone, or–this is the really radical option–because it’s simply part of human diversity and should be celebrated as such. In this framework, it’s wrong to judge people for something they can’t control. Judging them for their choices, however, is fair game.

“They’re born this way,” we say. “They didn’t choose to be gay. It’s wrong to hate them for something they didn’t choose.”

Of course, LGBTQ folks themselves have almost all moved on from this reductive and ultimately damaging mythology. But we share responsibility for promoting it in the first place, because now it’s become mainstream and is actively preventing acceptance of marginalized identities that are seen as chosen rather than innate.

That’s a rant for another blog post, though. The point is that when non-poly people ask if polyamory is an orientation or not, what they’re often implying is this: “If y’all didn’t choose to be this way, then I guess I can accept that because it’s not your fault. But if you did…”

Even if polyamory is as much a choice as which color of nail polish to get at the salon, you still shouldn’t judge people for practicing it–first of all because it’s got nothing to do with you, and second because it’s a valid relationship style that should be affirmed like any other. I celebrate any choice that makes someone happier and healthier and doesn’t harm anyone else. That’s why I celebrate (ethical) polyamory.

The question “Is polyamory an orientation or a lifestyle choice” is boring and irrelevant to me because it’s just sorting words into other words. It’s the semantic equivalent of taking a pile of books and putting them into arbitrary stacks rather than actually reading the books. If you find semantic arguments interesting, by all means, have at it. But I think most of the people who wonder about this question are not interested in semantics so much as in figuring out what kind of life they can have, or want to have.

Labels are useful for a lot of things, but they won’t answer that question for you.

Some interesting related reading:

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Polyamory: Orientation or Lifestyle Choice?

For Allies Who Feel Like Everything They Do Is Wrong

Something I hear regularly from progressive men:

“I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do as a feminist/ally. Some women say I should be fighting for women’s rights, but others say that that’s not my battle and that instead I should apply feminism to work on men’s issues–but others say that that’s appropriation and ‘what about teh menz.’ Some say I shouldn’t be a ‘white knight’ and defend women against sexism, but others say that it’s my role as a person with privilege to stick up for those without. They don’t even agree on whether or not I can call myself a feminist. The only thing they agree on is that I should listen to marginalized people, but no matter what I say or do, a marginalized person will disagree. Maybe I shouldn’t even bother, since no matter what I do I’m doing it wrong.”

(Substitute “men” for “white people,” et cetera.)

I sympathize with this. When a bunch of people are telling you what to do with an air of authority and they are telling you to do contradictory things–speak out, shut up and listen, stand up, have a fucking seat–it makes sense that you might just give up.

Here are some thoughts that might help you figure it out.

1. There is no activism rulebook.

One reason marginalized people are giving you contradictory messages is because there is no activism rulebook. This isn’t a board game where you just have to play by the rules (with perhaps some minor variations permitted) and follow the path to the end. That’s why the very topic of this article is so frustrating to many activists/marginalized people–when they feel like would-be allies are asking them for a concrete, simple step-by-step guide to fixing oppression (an act of unpaid intellectual labor, by the way), they feel like these would-be allies don’t really want to do the work themselves. They want to color-by-number, not paint originals.

There are a lot of legitimate disagreements among activists about what the best way to do activism is, and what the most important issues to focus on are. Should we try to get marginalized people into positions of power in politics and business, or should we work on dismantling those institutions? Should we be calm and friendly, or angry and confrontational? Should we work within flawed institutions to make them better, or should we create new ones? Should we address the “low-hanging fruit” issues (i.e. same-sex marriage) first in the hopes that they will make the more difficult issues more accessible, or should we go straight for the most urgent, least “sexy” problems? Should we work on acquiring “allies,” or should we say fuck it and make direct change ourselves? Do you catch more flies with honey or vinegar?

While there’s data on some of these and, I think, more compelling arguments in favor of some rather than others, the point is that experienced and knowledgeable activists disagree. So of course you’re getting told different things. There is no activism rulebook.

2. Marginalized people don’t all agree with each other.

There are many reasons why different marginalized people have different (but equally strong) opinions on activism and allies’ place in it. They might have had different personal experiences. They might have different intersecting identities. They might have different political and philosophical values that inform their approach to social justice.

People who share a marginalized identity are not all alike. When allies demand a Unified Field Theory of Ally Activism from them, they’re actually engaging in outgroup homogeneity bias–otherwise known as stereotyping. Of course women are giving you totally different opinions on how to fight sexism. Women aren’t all alike.

As a useful exercise to help you develop your empathy, try to figure out what’s causing the marginalized people you know to disagree with each other on something. For instance, I’ve found that most of the women and nonbinary people who strongly believe that men shouldn’t claim the “feminist” label are those who have been most harmed by “feminist” men who have infiltrated their spaces to get laid or feel special. Trying to actually understand the disagreement can take you from throwing your hands in the air and whining that “I guess I can’t do anything right” to acknowledging that people’s personal experiences shape their political views and that’s okay.

3. Marginalized people are not born with a magical complete understanding of their oppression.

“But you always say to listen to marginalized people!” you may protest. Yes, I do. Marginalized people are uniquely qualified to comment on their particular marginalization because they’ve lived it. Because they’ve lived it, they can explain to you exactly what it’s like and how it’s affected them. And because they’ve lived it, they’ve often done a lot of thinking and learning about how oppression works on a systemic scale. Your average woman probably understands sexism better than your average man, and your average person of color probably understands racism better than your average white person. (Caveat: research has not been conducted. At least not by me. But I feel pretty confident about those claims.)

But experiencing something firsthand doesn’t necessarily confer understanding of how exactly it works. Just because you can drive a car really well doesn’t mean you know how cars work, or how to fix a car that doesn’t work. Having a lot of experience with broken-down cars will gradually lead you to learn much more about how they work than someone without that experience, but it’s not going to be complete. And just because you can fix a passenger car doesn’t mean you can fix a semi.

And remember intersectionality. The reason many marginalized people do activism that is not intersectional and fails to account for the members of their group who are even more marginalized is because being a white woman doesn’t magically teach you what it’s like to be a Black woman or a trans woman, and being a cis gay man doesn’t magically teach you what it’s like to be a bisexual genderqueer person (and look at who we’ve primarily got leading feminist and LGBTQ movements). Many male allies get confused when, for instance, a Black trans woman tells them something about feminist activism that contradicts something a cis white woman said. Although the Black trans woman isn’t necessarily “more right” than the cis white woman, it’s quite likely that she’s getting at a piece of the puzzle that the cis white woman can’t see and hasn’t educated herself about. When someone who faces multiple forms of marginalization is telling you they disagree with you or someone you trust, listen up.

4. Listen to a wide range of opinions from marginalized people.

The dynamics I discussed above are why you should expose yourself to different voices as an ally. Some men read a few cis white women on feminism and think they’re done. No, they’re not.

Worse, some men listen to a few women who claim that short skirts and alcohol cause rape (yes, there are many women who buy into these myths because it’s comforting) and then feel validated in their belief that people can prevent their own assaults. Remember what I said about marginalized people not having a magical understanding of their own oppression?

You’re always going to find Black people who claim that young Black men just need to pull their pants up and be nice to the cops, and trans people who think that you’re not “really” the gender you identify with until you’ve had The Surgery, and women who don’t think they should have the right to vote, and so on. If these are the only marginalized people you listen to, you’re going to make a lot of other marginalized people pretty angry at you, and for good reason.

5. Listen to those further left than you.

I think that paying attention to opinions that seem way too “radical” can be a valuable exercise. First, you might find that you agree. Second, even if you don’t agree, you’re going to learn a lot about the dynamics you’re trying to address.

For instance, I once read (and was at times frustrated by) the book Against Equality, a radical queer response to same-sex marriage activism and other attempts to include queer people in traditional institutions. I’ve thought for a long time that same-sex marriage should never have become the focus of the LGBTQ rights movement–for many reasons–but I just couldn’t get behind some of the claims made in that book. For instance, some of the authors believe that not only should we not have focused on marriage equality and repealing DADT, but that we should actively avoid expanding these institutions to include queer people because these institutions are bad and harmful and therefore queer people should not join them.

I found that incredibly patronizing, and I also think that that excuses discrimination for the sake of a perceived greater good (namely, queer people not getting involved in marriage or the military). However, I also think that reading these essays gave me a new perspective on the potential harms that institutions like marriage might do both to queer people as individuals and to the LGBTQ rights movement as a whole. I may not agree that we should actively prevent queer people from being able to get married (and, anyway, that ship has sailed in the years since I read that book), but I know more now. And if I were an ally, I would be better prepared to do activism that actually helps rather than harms.

5. Listen, but make up your own mind.

What all of this comes down to is that, yes, you should listen to marginalized people, but they can’t do your thinking for you. They especially can’t do your acting for you. You’re going to have to take ownership of your opinions and actions, even though that means that someone will disagree. Someone will always disagree.

“But marginalized people say that I disagree with them because of my privilege.” Yes, sometimes. But I distinguish between two sorts of disagreement–the knee-jerk “no this feels bad stop saying that” sort of disagreement, and the thoughtful, considered sort where you actually sit down and discuss ideas with people and process those immediate feelings that you had and decide, no, this isn’t what I believe. If you’re constantly experiencing that immediate disagreement with marginalized people’s ideas–that disagreement that makes you want to lash out in anger or ignore what they’re saying–lean into that discomfort and figure it out. But not all disagreement is that.

Decide whose opinions you most respect, make sure that those people aren’t always the most privileged members of a particular marginalized group, and discuss with them. For instance, I find that the people whose opinions I most respect are the people who crave justice and not vengeance, who love nuance, who openly admit when they’re doing activism out of self-interest (I don’t trust anyone who says they never do that), who frequently criticize the groups they belong to, and who are comfortable with changing their minds. If someone like this disagrees with me, I put a lot more stock in that than if it’s some random internet person who enjoys name-calling.

But, yes, people will disagree, people will dislike you, people will use social justice language to discredit your opinions. Sometimes their use of that language will be valid, and sometimes it’ll be a form of weaponization. You won’t always know, so consult with someone you trust to be both kind and honest, and keep going.

Your primary goal as an ally needs to be something other than getting anyone’s approval. You’re not here to get people to like you. You’re here to get shit done.


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For Allies Who Feel Like Everything They Do Is Wrong

You Are Responsible For Yourself, We Are Responsible For Each Other

One of the principles I try to live by is that we are all responsible for our own emotions. What this means to me is that, while assholes obviously exist and while we should be able to ask our friends, partners, and family for help when it comes to managing our emotions, ultimately it’s not anyone else’s job to keep us from having negative feelings.

My experiences with depression have shaped that view and without them I probably wouldn’t feel so strongly about it. Depression taught me that just because I feel hurt doesn’t mean someone is hurting me. When I broke down sobbing because a partner wanted to end our conversation so that they could go hang out with their friends, they weren’t hurting me. When I felt like shit about myself because a friend got a job and I didn’t have a job, my friend wasn’t hurting me. As a teenager, I would’ve tried to get that partner or that friend to comfort me, or even blamed them for “making” me feel bad. As an adult I’ve learned that while it’s not fair that my brain is the way it is, it’s still ultimately my responsibility.

If depression taught me that I have to take responsibility for my own emotions, polyamory gave me a chance to practice. Polyamory–at least, when practiced with self-awareness–upends the idea that just because you feel jealous, then your partner is “making” you feel jealous*. In traditional monogamous relationships, even just hanging out with a friend of the same gender as your partner can be considered unfair and wrong because it can cause your partner to feel jealous**. In polyamorous relationships, people are intimate with multiple partners and those partners are expected to take responsibility for any jealous feelings they happen to have–even if they ask for support in managing them.

It’s important to distinguish between asking for support and making someone else responsible. Asking for support might sound like, “I want you to go on that date you’re so excited about, but I’m feeling insecure and it would help me a lot if we spent time together afterwards.” Making someone else responsible might sound like, “I don’t want you going on that date. You’re never this excited about anything we do together” or “You’re making me feel like shit. Don’t you care about me?”

Unfortunately, some people think that being responsible for your own feelings means that you don’t get to ask anyone for help with them–or that you shouldn’t be mindful of the people you care about and how they feel. That’s usually the pushback I get when I talk about my rules-free approach to polyamory: “So, what, you’d just go on that date even though your partner’s sitting at home and crying because they feel so bad about it?” Well, no. First of all, I try to avoid dating people who have that much difficulty with me dating other people, because that sounds like an issue of incompatibility. But sometimes things like that happen randomly, and in that case, yes, I would probably stay home. Not because we have a “rule” that my partner can “veto” my dates, but because I love my partner and care about them and I have chosen–even though it’s not my obligation–to stay home and help them feel better.

(And as a sidenote, when communicating that to the person I’m canceling the date with, I would take responsibility for my own actions. Some poly people pull out lines like “Sorry, I can’t go out with you tonight because [other partner] doesn’t want me to,” so that they can conveniently make their other partner out to be the villain even as they supposedly change their plans to care for them. I would say, “Sorry, we need to reschedule because I need to support someone who’s having a hard time. Seeing you is important to me too–what other day would work?” I would not, unless I know it’s okay with my other partner, go into detail about why they need support. That leads too easily into crap like “Oh, you know [other partner], they just get soooo jealous, so I’m always having to stay home and comfort them…” Ick.)

I’ve heard from other poly people that there are, in fact, a lot of poly folks out there who do claim that “you are responsible for your own emotions” means “so I will never do anything to help you through them.” Personally, I haven’t interacted with any–probably because I tend to obsessively avoid asking anyone for support in the first place–but I believe that they exist.

I guess if I had to pick one approach for myself, I’d choose extreme independence rather than controlling people to cope with my emotions. But thankfully, I don’t have to. To me, the corollary to “We are all responsible for our own emotions” is “We should be mindful of our impact on others.”

At first, that might seem like a contradiction. Which is it? Am I supposed to deal with my own hurt feelings, or are you supposed to avoid giving me hurt feelings in the first place?

I think it has to be a little bit of both. I think that in a world where people are careless or intentionally cruel with each other, dealing with your own hurt feelings is going to be a massive burden. I think that in a world where people refuse to place the ultimate responsibility for their feelings upon themselves, trying to take care of others is going to be a massive burden too. The only way this works is if we meet in the middle.

That’s true on a micro level, too. If you’re in a relationship with someone who doesn’t seem to care about how you feel or about avoiding making you feel bad, then no amount of taking responsibility for your own feelings is going to make you feel okay about being in the relationship. You’re going to feel hurt all the time, and you’ll get resentful, and you’ll start to wonder if you’re “crazy” for feeling this way, and your partner may or may not be gaslighting you with crap like “I didn’t ‘make’ you feel anything; you’re responsible for your own feelings.”

Likewise, if you’re in a relationship with someone who thinks it’s your job to keep them from feeling bad, then no amount of caring for them is ever going to solve the problem, because while you can do your due diligence in making sure you don’t hurt them, you cannot keep another human being from feeling bad ever. (Even if you could, that would be way too much work.) You’re always going to feel like nothing you do is ever enough (because for them, it isn’t), like you’re a terrible partner and a terrible human being in general, like you’re no good at relationships.

In a healthy relationship, partners trust each other to care about each other’s feelings and act accordingly, but they don’t feel like they’ll be helpless if their partner happens to be unavailable to support them at any given point in time. (Yes, I recognize that some people think that it’s perfectly healthy to actually depend on one partner and no one else for support, to the point that you actually believe you will not be okay without that support. I just disagree.) If you actually believe that you cannot manage your own emotions without your partner, it will be very difficult for you not to manipulate them.

And in a healthy relationship, partners know that they will support each other when they can, but they do not feel entitled to that support. In that mindset, a partner who chooses not to support you at a given point in time is not (necessarily) doing something wrong or withholding something that is deserved. In that mindset, you support your partner because you care about them and you want to, not because that’s your duty as a partner.

If you’re having disagreements in a relationship (romantic or otherwise) about how someone’s actions are making someone else feel, you may be disagreeing about something more fundamental: your beliefs about what share of the responsibility of managing one’s feelings belongs to the person having the feelings versus the person who triggered*** the feelings.

At that point, it may be more useful to discuss that underlying disagreement first, and see if you can agree on what responsibility you have to each other to manage each other’s emotions.

* There <em>is</em> such a thing as deliberately acting in a way that elicits jealousy from others. But that's not the subject here, except insofar as it obviously falls under things you should not do if you're taking the "being mindful of your impact on others" part seriously. ** #NotAllMonogamy. Obviously monogamy is not incompatible with taking responsibility for yourself, but <em>traditional</em> monogamy tends to discourage this. *** My use of the word "triggered" rather than "caused" is intentional here--I use those to mean slightly different things. If you say something mean (intentionally or otherwise) to someone, you cause them to feel bad. If you choose to spend the night with your friends rather than with them and they feel upset at you because they're lonely, you didn't cause them to feel bad. What caused them to feel bad was their loneliness; your actions were just the trigger.

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You Are Responsible For Yourself, We Are Responsible For Each Other

5 Microaggressions Secular People Often Hear – And Why They’re Wrong

Another Everyday Feminism piece! EF doesn’t have much material on secular identities and Christian privilege, so I’m trying to expand it!

There are a few defining moments that come to mind when I think about my journey to (and through) atheism. And one of them came when I was seventeen, on the phone with my then-boyfriend, who had said he had some “concerns” about our relationship.

This can’t be good, I thought. He finally came out with it: “Well, it’s just that I don’t think I can be with someone who doesn’t believe in anything.”

I knew exactly what he was talking about. We’d argued about religion plenty of times before, and I knew how important Catholicism was to him.

But “doesn’t believe in anything?” I believed in plenty of things. I believed in science, in altruism, in the goodness of people, in the importance of family, friendship, and culture. That’s “nothing?”

Back then, I didn’t have the language and the confidence to push back against what he was implying. I didn’t even identify as an atheist, because I’d never met an out atheist before and probably didn’t realize that identifying that way was a real option for me.

I knew I didn’t believe in god, but I mumbled something about how I do believe in some sort of vague power that controls the universe (probably thinking to myself that that “power” was the laws of physics), and that seemed to satisfy my boyfriend.

It took me a long time – much longer than that particular relationship ended up lasting – to understand my own reaction and to forgive it.

For a while, I thought that I’d been cowardly, or even that I’d lied. But in the moment, I’d really believed what I was saying. And later on, I understood that high school me lived in a social context where openly professing atheism was absolutely not okay.

It wasn’t until later that I learned about privilege, oppression, and microaggressions. These concepts helped me understand a lot of the dynamics that feminists often discuss, such as sexism, racism, transphobia, and other ways in which our society marginalizes certain people based on their identities.

They also helped me understand my experiences as a Jewish atheist growing up in a society where Christianity is privileged and all other forms of belief and nonbelief are marginalized.

Read the rest here.

5 Microaggressions Secular People Often Hear – And Why They’re Wrong

Why ‘Can I _____ and Still Be a Feminist?’ Is the Wrong Question to Ask

Here’s a new Everyday Feminism piece that I’m particularly excited to share, as I’ve been thinking about this topic for ages.

“Can I be a feminist and still wear makeup?”

“I’m a feminist, but I still shave my legs.”

Changing your last name to your husband’s is anti-feminist!”

If you’ve talked about feminism with other feminists, you’ve probably heard statements like these – and maybe even made them yourself.

For many new feminists, analyzing and critiquing individual practices like these is an important first step towards understanding how sexism works in our world.

It’s important to notice how gendered expectations impact and harm all of us, and it’s perfectly normal to wonder how much of what you love to do – whether it’s cooking or wearing feminine clothes or taking care of children – was actually shaped by the sexist messages you’ve been taught since birth.

But focusing on questions like “Can I wear makeup and still be a feminist?” can prevent us from moving our analysis forward and understanding the fact that sexism isn’t just about what individual people choose to do or not to.

It’s also about how institutionalized oppression impacts which choices are available and encouraged for different types of people.

Here are three reasons why “Can I _____ and still be a feminist?” is the wrong question to be asking – and how we can get past it.

1. It Often Fails at Intersectionality

Is it “feminist” for a woman to wear dresses, high heels, and makeup? Some feminists would say no, because she’s “conforming” to traditional standards of femininity or “playing to the male gaze.”

But what if she uses a wheelchair? What if she’s fat? Disabled women, fat women, and many other women and non-binary people who experience additional forms of oppression have traditionally been denied access to femininity. These people are often desexualized and expected to hide their bodies with baggy or utilitarian clothing.

There’s no male gaze for them to “play into” because it’s widely assumed that no man would ever want to gaze at them.

For someone like that, dressing in an unabashedly feminine way can be a way to make themselves and their bodies visible, to demand attention in a world that prefers to avert eyes.

How about getting married to a man and changing your last name to his? Definitely anti-feminist, right? Maybe from the perspective of a white middle-class woman.

Read the rest here.

Why ‘Can I _____ and Still Be a Feminist?’ Is the Wrong Question to Ask