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
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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

[book club] Brideshead Revisited: Chapter One

The cover of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.
I’m doing a book club! Read my other posts about Brideshead Revisited here.

When we last left Charles, he was a middle-aged army officer who had just arrived at Brideshead, a place of such deep personal significance that he’s literally left speechless when he realizes where he is. Now he takes us back in time 20-25(?) years to his student days at 1920s Oxford, where he first met Sebastian Flyte, whose family lived at Brideshead and with whom he would quickly become entangled.

Young Charles comes from a middle-class(-ish?) family and is studying Intellectual Things(?) at Oxford and is interested in art. Honestly, much of the Oxford-related parts were really hard for me to fully understand because there are constant references to Oxford culture–perhaps specifically 1920s Oxford culture–that I don’t understand, and can sometimes resolve with a Google and sometimes not. For instance, I learned that Eights Week is some big rowing competition thing that still happens at Oxford every year. I also learned that back then Oxford students basically had servants whose job it was to clean their rooms for them. Also, even a not-filthy rich student like Charles had “rooms.” Rooms, plural! Not one shitty little dorm room that you share with a random roommate!

Charles fills his rooms with art, books, and wine, although he acknowledges that they’re not as nice as what he would like to say he could afford. In fact, Charles freely acknowledges that he ends up spending way too much on unnecessary things (so much so that he has to spend his summer vacation at home with his weird-ass dad–the horror!). I think Charles is struggling with something familiar to anyone from a modest or low-income background who suddenly finds themselves surrounded by really rich people, which is that being relatively poor tends to hurt worse than being absolutely poor.

Longchamp Le Pliage tote bag
This fucking thing haunted my college experience

It’s hard to feel sorry for Charles for having to have reproductions of art rather than originals hanging in his multiple rooms and “meager and commonplace” books rather than “seventeeth-century folios and French novels of the second empire in Russia-leather and watered silk,” but when you’re a young person on your own for the first time and you’re trying to fit in with an entirely different social context than you grew up in (something that definitely described my own painful college experience), things like that can suddenly take on huge significance. When I was in college, I felt awkward and out of place because I couldn’t afford Urban Outfitters clothes and Longchamp bags, which everyone else seemed to have, but now I’m amazed that I ever gave a fuck and also regretful that I went to a school with such a lack of socioeconomic diversity that that ever became an issue.

Initially, Charles falls in with a bunch of similarly middle-class and intellectual friends, the kind he’d always had at school. But although he enjoys their company and loves college life, he remembers, “I felt at heart that this was not all which Oxford had to offer.” Indeed, everything changes for him when he meets Sebastian: “At Sebastian’s approach, these gray figures seemed quietly to fade into the landscape and vanish, like highland sheep in the misty heather.”

Charles’ and Sebastian’s first meeting is literally a scene out of a gay 1920s British romcom, if such a thing existed. Charles is chilling with his friends in his multiple fucking rooms–ground-floor rooms against which his older and wiser cousin warned him for the exact reason he’s about to discover–and drinking wine. They hear drunk people stumbling around outside, and suddenly one of them approaches the open window, looks at Charles, and proceeds to literally throw up right into the room.

One of his friend apologizes for him in what I can only imagine is a typical Oxford manner: “The wines were too various. It was neither the quality nor the quantity that was at fault. It was the mixture. Grasp that and you have the root of the matter. To understand all is to forgive all.”

Anyway, Charles’ room-servant dude (they’re called scouts, and his name is Lunt) is pretty irate at him in the morning because, yes, scouts cleaned up your vomit for you at Oxford, but when Charles returns later that day, Lunt says that “the gentleman from last night” sent a note and literally enough flowers to fill up the whole room. Guys. Can we talk for a sec about how adorable that is.

Sebastian with his teddy bear and his impeccable fashion sense, as portrayed in the 2008 film.
Sebastian with his teddy bear and his impeccable fashion sense, as portrayed in the 2008 film version of Brideshead Revisited..

Charles had already known Sebastian by reputation, and that reputation is that he’s hot as hell and that he carries his teddy bear, Aloysius, with him everywhere and talks to/about it as if it’s real. Seriously. Apparently he once went to a barber shop to buy a brush for Aloysius, not to groom him with but to spank him with. Like, he told this to the barber. Anyway, I love that in this social context a dude can be known all over the college both for being hot as hell and for talking to his teddy bear that he carries everywhere.

So of course I have to speculate about what’s up with the teddy bear. I think some readers would be tempted to consider the whole thing an affectation, a way to get attention by being ~~~so weird~~~ and ~~~so edgy~~~ and even kind of ~~~fucking with traditional masculinity~~~. But I don’t actually know exactly what traditional masculinity looked like for this particular segment of 1920s Oxford. Clearly Sebastian does get a lot of attention on account of the teddy bear, but Charles seems to think that he’d be getting it regardless. His family is kinda famous and weird, and he’s hot, and he’s rich, and he has a ton of friends and drinks a lot and throws up into people’s rooms.

There’s also the theory that Sebastian actually has a delusion that the teddy bear is alive and all that, but I don’t think so. He doesn’t seem to show any other signs of delusional/hallucinatory thinking. He doesn’t seem any more out-of-touch with reality than any other rich college student would be. Besides, this would be the most boring answer, and Waugh is not a boring writer.

I do think it’s part affectation–I think Sebastian likes being seen as the weird guy who carries a teddy bear everywhere–but there’s more to it. Even now it’s already obvious that Sebastian uses Aloysius as a way to admit to feelings that are otherwise difficult to admit and perform actions that are otherwise difficult to perform. For instance, in his apology note to Charles, he writes, “I am very contrite. Aloysius won’t speak to me until he sees I am forgiven, so please come to luncheon today.” (Oh yeah, that too–in the note, he invites him to lunch. CUTE.) Although Sebastian is apologizing, he displaces the agency from himself onto Aloysius. The teddy bear isn’t speaking to him, so he has to seek forgiveness from Charles. See, it’s not because he really wants forgiveness for himself; it’s all because of Aloysius.

So, long story short, Charles starts hanging out with Sebastian and his teddy bear and all his cool friends. It’s not without reservation, though, at least not at first. He goes “uncertainly,” with a “warning voice” telling him not to. “But,” he says, “I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at least, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that gray city.”

What the heck is he talking about? Excitement? Romantic love? Belonging? This is one of the passages folks cite when arguing that Brideshead Revisited is at least in part about a queer relationship (though there’s a lot more evidence for it than that), but I don’t think Charles is talking about just that, and more importantly, I don’t think he realizes himself what exactly he’s talking about. He’s chasing a feeling, a feeling that he gets in connection to Sebastian. He’s drawn to him for a lot of complicated reasons–some to do with family, some to do with class and money, some to do with social status, and probably some to do with attraction.

There are a lot of moments so far in the book that can be interpreted as hints that Charles and Sebastian are falling in love with each other–the fact that Sebastian becomes possessive of Charles and doesn’t want his family to “take” him away, the fact that Charles refers to Sebastian as “entrancing,” the fact that Charles has spring break plans with one of his soon-to-be-former friends but recalls without any guilt that he would’ve ditched him at a moment’s notice if Sebastian had invited him somewhere.

I doubt this view will surprise anyone who’s read anything I’ve written about art and literature, but I don’t think that “Do Charles and Sebastian like each other That Way?” is a particularly valid or interesting question when we’re talking about fictional people. The more valid and interesting question is, “Which different readings of Charles and Sebastian’s relationship can we justify using the text, and how can we justify them?”

Obviously, you can read the whole thing is Totally Not Gay At All and simply an allegory about wishing you had been born someone and somewhere else. It’s not that Charles is in love with Sebastian, it’s that he’s in love with the idea of him, with the idea of being so at ease in the world (this is an example of Charles’ naiveté and tendency to project things onto people–I don’t think Sebastian is at ease anywhere or with anything much at all), with his own idealization of Sebastian’s family, with Catholicism (I’m told this is going to play a massive role in the book, and is actually what Waugh intended for the book to be about, not that that means we have to agree with him).

You can also read their relationship as a romantic friendship, which means it falls into that interesting historical space where you cannot assign labels like “gay” or “straight” to people who did not use those labels. (I’m not entirely sure that 1920s Oxford lacked them, however; another character who becomes prominent in the next chapter was apparently thought of as “a homosexual,” but nevertheless, romantic friendships are probably impossible to categorize using modern sexual orientation terms.)

To me, the fact that you can’t really “know” if a romantic friendship was Actually Just Dudes Being Pals or Actually Totally Gay is part of what’s so fascinating about the concept. Sure, it rankles that part of me that hates and fears queer invisibility. But on the other hand, I love the idea of people engaging freely (or somewhat freely) in same-sex play and love under cover of what was actually a genuine and meaningful friendship. I also love how valuable those relationships must’ve been even when they involved no sex whatsoever, and I love how they subtly pushed back against the idea that the Serious Romantic Couple should be at the center of our interpersonal lives, and I love how they showed that the distinctions we now draw between Liking Someone As A Friend and Liking Someone That Way and Being Attracted To Someone are a lot less clear and obvious than most of us are comfortable admitting.

Anyway, I love romantic friendships and I love the reading that Charles and Sebastian have one.

On the other hand, you can definitely also make the case for a more explicit relationship, especially considering the jealousy stuff and Charles’ focus on Sebastian’s looks and other stuff that comes up later in the book that I won’t get into now. The 2008 Brideshead Revisited film actually took this route and had them kiss, although obviously movies can and do reinterpret the books they’re based on in lots of ways.

But honestly, every time I try to draw a line between what it would look like if Charles and Sebastian Liked Each Other That Way versus if they were Just Really Good Friends, I can’t. Yes, at that time it was probably pretty normal for friends–including men–to express their friendship in grandiose romantic terms. And at that time–meaning 1945–Waugh could not have published a book with explicit gay sex in it anyway. So did they or didn’t they? I have no idea, but it sure is fun to think about.

People interpret their own feelings based on their social context and the narratives they subscribe to about what different feelings mean and how people are supposed to interact. In a liberal American city in 2016, two men feeling the way Charles and Sebastian may have been feeling might decide that they’re into each other, and they might go on dates and have sex and eventually become boyfriends and move in together and get married and host really fun parties and have kids. (Or not.) In a conservative Christian small town in Texas in 2016, two men feeling the way Charles and Sebastian may have been feeling might decide that there’s something wrong with them, that they need spiritual help, that they’re sinful, or that, fuck it, we’re gonna meet up in the park late at night and hook up, or leave this fucking town entirely.

Of course, people can and do switch up these narratives all the damn time–otherwise there wouldn’t have been any queer people fucking in most of the world until recently–but it’s hard. Based on my read of this book so far, a man at Oxford in the 1920s could openly pursue sex or love with men and become known as The Campus Homosexual and be subject to lots of ridicule (but still find a social group, it seems like), but otherwise he was probably going to interpret any sexual/romantic feelings for other men in a different way–especially if he is also, like Charles, attracted to women.

So, long story short, Charles and Sebastian meet and become fascinated with each other and do whatever it is they’re doing. At the end of the chapter, Sebastian borrows a car from a friend and takes Charles home to Brideshead–not to meet his family, apparently, but to meet his former nanny.

From the start, Sebastian is acting kind of sketchy about his family. “Don’t worry,” he says about them to Charles, “they’re all away. You won’t have to meet them.” As if he’s concerned about Charles here rather than himself.

When Sebastian visits his nanny, he finds out that his sister Julia is actually staying at the house and is about to come home, at which point he mysteriously rushes Charles away. “What are you ashamed of, her or me?” asks Charles. Sebastian responds:

“I’m ashamed of myself. I’m not going to have you get mixed up with my family. They’re so madly charming. All my life they’ve been taking things away from me. If they once got hold of you with their charm, they’d make you their friend not mine, and I won’t let them.”

This is fascinating given that Charles and Julia eventually fall in love. (Sorry, spoiler. You can’t really avoid them when talking about classics. If it makes you feel any better, I had half the book spoiled for me just by reading the introduction, and anyway you don’t read these books for the plot.) What has Sebastian’s family already taken away? How much resemblance does his perception have to reality, or to their perceptions? Hopefully this is something that’s going to get clearer later.

Before leaving, Sebastian shows Charles the Brideshead chapel. When they enter, Sebastian crosses himself and does some other churchy stuff that you’re supposed to do, but when Charles copies him he gets “cross” and demands to know why Charles did that. He responds that it’s good manners, and Sebastian says, “Well, you needn’t on my account.”

What’s up with that? Charles and Sebastian haven’t discussed religion yet (at least, not in view of the reader), and as far as I know nothing’s been said about Charles’ religion. Yet Sebastian seems to assume that he’s faking, and finds that offensive, annoying, or both. I’m guessing that back then you sort of knew who was Catholic and who wasn’t because shit like that would’ve come up in conversation, but I still find it interesting that Sebastian doesn’t appreciate Charles doing the churchy stuff that you’re supposed to do. Maybe he sees him as encroaching on his territory or trying to get involved in parts of his life that he doesn’t want him to be “mixed up” with, just like his family. Maybe he’s lost his faith himself, so seeing someone else pretend at it is irritating.

In any case, Sebastian’s definitely annoyed at Charles for showing what Sebastian perceives as excessive interest in his family. Charles explains that he’s curious about people’s families because his mom died in the war (World War I, presumably) and he has no siblings, so it’s just him and his dad and the aunt that his dad “drove abroad” so she’s not really around either. So now it kind of makes sense that Charles idealizes Sebastian’s family and is totally fascinated by it even though he literally knows nothing about them besides whatever random gossip he may have heard at Oxford.

But then again, why Sebastian’s family specifically? Charles tells him that he’s “rather curious about people’s families,” but we haven’t seen him show any interest in anyone else’s families, certainly not those of his friends that he’s abandoned now that he’s got Sebastian. Soooo. Since I favor the queer reading myself, it feels to me like he’s doing that thing people do when they have a crush on someone and they’re desperately curious to know everything about them. That, mixed with Charles’ probably-genuine bitterness that he never really got to have a “normal” family (whatever the hell that is) and his wish to sort of become part of someone else’s.

Chapter One establishes the sort of person Charles was going into his young adulthood, the life he created for himself at Oxford, and the way he first became fascinated with Sebastian and his family. I find myself wishing that the class difference were a bit more fully explored, but maybe that’s coming later. (Maybe it’s not the only thing that’s coming later? Eh? EHHHH? Fine, I’ll show myself out.)


Reminder: comments are open! Please feel free to comment if you’re reading the book or have read it previously.

For more about queer readings of not-specified-queer characters, here’s my take on that in a much more modern context.

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[book club] Brideshead Revisited: Chapter One

Selfishness is a Valid Response to Entitlement and Boundary Crossing

At first it sounded like a typical argument where my siblings are concerned.

Little Brother: “[Little Sister], give me your phone.”

Little Sister: “Why?”

“So I can take a photo.”

“Use your own phone.”

“Mine is out of battery. Give me yours.”

“No. That’s your own problem.”

“Give me your phone!”

“Noooooo.”

“Come on. I just want to take some photos. What’s the big deal? Just give me your phone.”

“I SAID NO.”

“Where is it?”

“It’s in Mom’s bag.”

[Little Brother looks for Mom’s bag, but she had taken it with her when she left to use the restroom.]

“Why did you leave it in her bag?”

“None of your business. It’s my phone.”

“You should’ve taken it out of her bag before she left.”

“It’s MY PHONE.”

[Mom arrives.]

“Mom, give me [Little Sister]’s phone so I can take a photo.”

“NOOOOOOOO”

Mom jumps in: “What’s wrong with you? He just wants to take a photo. Why are you being so selfish?”

“I just…I don’t want him to use up all the battery…he shouldn’t have used up his whole phone charge on Pokemon Go…”

“But he’s only going to use it for a few minutes!”

On and on it went.

If that’s all you heard, you might assume that my sister really is a petty and selfish person. Is it that hard to lend your phone to a family member for a few minutes so they can take a photo of a beautiful sunset?

What you wouldn’t know is that my sister is in fact a remarkably selfless and caring person. When it’s me or our parents asking, she never hesitates to help us out, lend us some of her very limited money when we’ve forgotten to bring cash, provide words of support that sound remarkable coming from an 11-year-old, give fashion advice, join in our joys even when she personally doesn’t care about the thing we’re happy about, and ask if we’re okay when we seem like we’re not.

Leaving aside the fact that it’s still her phone and she still gets to decide who gets to use it and for what–a very important fact that I’m only leaving aside because I’m writing about something else–our brother has a pattern of entitled, demanding behavior towards her. He treats her time, belongings, and energy as if they’re his to take. Unfortunately, that happens a lot to selfless and caring people.

Because of that pattern, my sister has stopped being as giving with our brother as she used to be. Often she angrily refuses to do even tiny favors for him, like letting him borrow her phone for a few minutes to take some photos. Occasionally he makes his requests in a more appropriate way, but sometimes she still reacts with knee-jerk irritation and, raising her voice, tells him no.

Watching the argument unfold, I couldn’t help but remember myself in some of my past relationships. Only I wasn’t being asked to lend a phone or fetch something from the kitchen; I was being asked for emotional labor, for support, for validation, for “can you just remind me again that you really do like me,” for “can you please explain to me again why you’re not interested in [sex thing] because I mean it’s fine that you don’t want to do it but I just want to understand.”

At first, I gladly provided what was asked for, even though, if I were really honest with myself, I’d admit that I didn’t always like the way the requests were made. But over time, the quantity of emotional labor expected was just too high, and–more importantly–I felt that my partner felt entitled to it. Although they would never be so obvious about that entitlement as my younger brother was in his–they’re much too well-versed in feminism for that–in other ways, subtle ways, they made it clear that they considered that labor to be my obligation as a partner and that if I couldn’t or wouldn’t provide it, I was doing something wrong.

Once I realized that my partners thought that it was my job to do emotional labor for them, I started rapidly losing the desire to do it. I started saying no more often, although I was never as blunt about it as my sister is. I would say, “I’m sorry, I’m not in a good place to listen right now.” (True.) I would say, “We’ve already talked about how you feel like I don’t really like you and you’re not good enough for me, and I don’t think there’s anything else I can do to make you feel otherwise.” (I didn’t add that they were well on their way to turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy, though.) I would say, “I already explained that to you. If that explanation didn’t suffice, another one won’t help.”

Even now, even to myself, I sound selfish and cold. But so does my sister, out of context. Neither of us is selfish or cold. What we are is exhausted. What we are is tired of being unable to set any boundaries. What we are is totally done doing things for people who have never, ever asked us what we need.

And before you judge either of us as selfish based on a few snippets of conversation, ask yourself what could happen to make someone act and talk that way.

When someone’s reserves of compassion get drained like that, they start setting boundaries that are much stricter and tighter than what they would’ve been otherwise. No, you can’t borrow my phone for even a few minutes. No, I don’t want to listen to your feelings at all. No, I honestly don’t even have enough emotional energy to give you a compliment to make you feel better about yourself.

That slow draining away of compassion is so hard to notice and understand that many of us don’t even realize what’s happening or why. When pressed for explanations, especially couched in language that naturally makes us feel defensive–“Why are you so selfish?” “Why don’t you even care enough to ask me about my day?”–we stumble around in the dark until we think we’ve found something. “I don’t know, I just don’t want him to use up my phone battery.” “I’ve just been having a hard time lately.” “I guess I just don’t want the kind of relationship where we support each other all the time and talk about stuff like that.” (Oh, how false that last one turned out to be. I’m in a relationship like that now and it’s wonderful.)

Asking people questions that start with the word “why” is dangerous precisely for that reason–it puts them on the spot and forces them to come up with an explanation (not all of us are comfortable answering “I don’t know” to a question about our own internal processes, even though that would be the honest and accurate answer). The confabulation that often results is rarely intentional or conscious. Unless someone already has a clear and self-aware understanding of their actions–not likely in emotionally charged situations like this–“why” questions are more likely to hurt than help.

Maybe in that moment, my sister really did feel that she was worried about her phone’s battery draining. When our irritated mom demanded an explanation, her brain helpfully supplied one. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the real answer was that…she just didn’t want to. She really, strongly didn’t want to. Because others’ entitlement often shuts down our desire to help them, and when we’re constantly afraid that our boundaries will be ignored, one strategy that many of us feel compelled to use is to start loudly, bluntly stating and defending those boundaries, as if to remove any plausible deniability from the person who continually crosses them.

Believe me, I’ve seriously considered the possibility that I’m just selfish. I even bought into it for a long time, until I got into some relationships where I’m able to give gladly of myself and where I find that the more I give, the more I want to give. Yes, with certain partners I got to the point where I couldn’t bring myself to even the smallest act of emotional labor (at which point those relationships obviously collapsed). Yet with others I would drop what I’m doing to bring them food when they’re sick or listen for hours to their worries.

What’s the difference? No, it’s not How Much I Like Them; I was head over heels for all of them at some point, and besides, I often do lots of emotional labor for people who are practically strangers. The difference was entitlement. When people act entitled to emotional labor from me, I stop wanting to do it. When they treat my emotional labor as an act of love that I get to choose to give, I want to give it more and more.

These days I’m not optimistic about rescuing relationships that have broken down to such a point. If every request for emotional labor that your partner makes causes you to feel overwhelmed, irritated, or angry, then that relationship isn’t working out. If your partner is refusing every request for emotional labor no matter how respectfully and non-entitled-ly you make it, then that relationship isn’t working out. I don’t know whose “fault” it is and it probably doesn’t matter. But if you’re more optimistic than I am, I suggest getting counseling as a couple. Otherwise, things tend to devolve counterproductively into “Well, you’re just selfish and never want to do anything for me!” and “Yeah, well, you ask for too much and act entitled to it!”

These days I’m also trying not to label myself with negative character traits. Personality is fluid and entirely context-dependent. Some people bring out the worst of my selfishness; some people bring out the best of my selflessness. I’d rather be involved with the latter people.

All relationships are, in one way or another, built on emotional labor. When my roommate listens to me vent about my workday and I feel supported, that’s emotional labor. When my mom is worried about a sick relative and I worry with her and make her feel less alone, that’s emotional labor. When I pick out a present for a partner that’s exactly what they wanted and it makes them feel closer to me, that’s emotional labor.

But none of these things mean anything if they’re forced, if you feel like the other person will resent you for not doing them. If saying no isn’t a real option, then the yes is meaningless. (That applies to way more than just sex.)

My sister and I have in common a fierce and uncompromising selfishness towards people who cross our boundaries and demonstrate entitlement. I’m trying to stop beating myself up for that, and I hope she takes my example.


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Selfishness is a Valid Response to Entitlement and Boundary Crossing

[book club] Brideshead Revisited: Preface & Prologue

The cover of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.
Sidenote: did they really dress like that? If so, maybe I was a (male) student at 1920s Oxford in another life because DAMN.

Remember that book club thing I said I was doing? Well, I’m doing it! And I’m starting with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisitedoriginally published in 1945 and revised by a rather contrite Waugh in 1959. (More on that later.)

As I said, I chose this book primarily because my mom said I should. (She said it’s “smart.”) But when I looked it up, I realized that this book is right up my alley for several reasons. First of all, Downton Abbey, a show I love, has been compared favorably to it (though others dispute the comparison). Second, it is a not a novel primarily about romance between a man and a woman (although it can definitely be said to be about romance–again, more on that later). Third, it’s a novel that deals heavily with nostalgia, which regular readers of this blog will know is a bit of a struggle for me.

It doesn’t even matter that it’s about 1920s/-30s British aristocrats. After seeing the film (which he calls a “travesty”), the late Christopher Hitchens wrote about the almost-universal appeal of the book:

Why does this novel have such a tenacious hold on the imagination, even of people who have never been to England or never visited a country house?

Well, to answer that first and easiest question, it is entirely possible to feel nostalgia for homelands, and for periods, which one has never experienced oneself. This applies to imagined times and places as well as to real ones: Waugh uses the phrase “secret garden” and also – alluding to the Oxford of Lewis Carroll – to an “enclosed and enchanted garden” reachable by a “low door in the wall”. The yearning for a lost or different upbringing is fairly universal, and one of Brideshead’s keys is precisely the one that unlocks the gate to it.

When I talked to people I know who’ve read the book (including my mom), most of them were unable to recall many (or any) specific details of the plot or characters. They just said that it left them with some sort of good feeling. I find that response fascinating because it parallels how nostalgia often works–we don’t remember many details (though our brains will sometimes fill them in without us realizing it), but we remember the way it felt, and the way it felt can be very difficult to convey in words.

This brings me to Waugh’s fascinating preface to the novel, which he wrote in 1959 when he revised the book. In it, he explains that he wrote the book quickly while on leave from the military during World War II. He writes, “It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster–the period of soya beans and Basic English–and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.” In other words, the novel reads like a restaurant review written by a starving critic, because war starves people of many things besides food.

But, Waugh says, he didn’t want to cut out all these passages entirely because that would completely change the book. Instead, he asks readers to try to understand the perspective he was writing from.

Now that the war is over, the nostalgia and romantization with which Waugh describes aristocratic life seems a little silly because the things he feared would be lost forever are back more so than ever:

It was impossible to foresee, in the spring of 1944, the present cult of the English country house. It seemed then that the ancestral seats which were our chief national artistic achievement were doomed to decay and spoliation like the monasteries in the sixteenth century. So I piled it on rather, with passionate sincerity. Brideshead today would be open to trippers, its treasures rearranged by expert hands and the fabric better maintained than it was by Lord Marchmain. And the English aristocracy has maintained its identity to a degree that then seemed impossible….Much of this book therefore is a panegyric preached over an empty coffin.

I love this, because I think it would be tempting for many writers to claim that their works present Real Timeless Truth rather than a version of the truth that is informed by that author’s position in society and in time. Waugh doesn’t succumb to that temptation; instead, he freely admits that the style of the novel feels “distasteful” now that the war is over and things have more or less gone back to the way they were. He concludes the preface by stating that the book “is offered to a younger generation of readers as a souvenir of the Second War rather than of the twenties or of the thirties, with which it ostensibly deals.”

Of course, all literature–all art in general–is an artifact of its time, and should be read that way. If you had no idea that this novel was written by someone on medical leave from a war in which they’ve been seriously injured, it wouldn’t really make sense. The only way it makes sense is with that framing.

Speaking of framing, though, you don’t actually need to know that much of Waugh’s biography to understand the context of the novel because the prologue conveniently frames it for you.

In the prologue, we’re introduced to Charles Ryder, 39-year-old army officer and narrator, who is apparently in the process of realizing that being in the army kind of fucking sucks and there’s no point to any of it. Nothing much happens in the prologue other than that Ryder and the rest of his company are dismantling their camp because they’re being sent to another location, but they don’t know where or why. Once they get there, though, Ryder realizes that he’s been there before, and at that point he starts remembering stuff that happened over 20 years ago and that’s when the novel actually starts.

Honestly, the prologue was a slog and I barely got through it. I had a hard time understanding even the basics of what was going on because I don’t understand a lot of military lingo (especially not military lingo from decades ago and a different continent), and because the narration itself was sort of lackluster and unclear. Which, I think, is kind of the point. As boring and dreary as the prologue was to read, I later saw that it served to set up a really clear contrast between Ryder’s wartime experience and his memories of Sebastian and Brideshead. Also, I think it was an opportunity for Waugh to vent some of his own frustrations with army life.

There was one particular passage that really struck me, where Ryder describes his lost love for the army:

Here at the age of thirty-nine I began to be old. I felt stiff and weary in the evenings and reluctant to go out of camp; I developed proprietary claims to certain chairs and newspapers; I regularly drank three glasses of gin before dinner, never more or less, and went to bed immediately after the nine o’clock news. I was always awake and fretful an hour before reveille.

Here my last love died — There was nothing remarkable in the manner of its death. One day, not long before ‘this last day in camp, as I lay awake before reveille, in the Nissen hut, gazing into the complete blackness, amid the deep breathing and muttering of the four other occupants, turning over in my mind what I had to do that day — had I put in the names of two corporals for the weapon-training course? Should I again have the largest number of men overstaying their leave in the batch due back that day? Could I trust Hooper to take the candidates class out map-reading? — as I lay in that dark hour, I was aghast to realize that something within me, long sickening, had quietly died, and felt as a husband might feel, who, in the fourth year of his marriage, suddenly knew that he had no longer any desire, or tenderness, or esteem, for a once-beloved wife; no pleasure in her company, no wish to please, no curiosity about anything she might ever do or say or think; no hope of setting things right, no self-reproach for the disaster. I knew it all, the whole drab compass of marital disillusion; we had been through it together, the Army and I, from the first importunate courtship until now, when nothing remained to us except the chill bonds of law and duty and custom. I had played every scene in the domestic tragedy, had found the early tiffs become more frequent, the tears less affecting, the reconciliations less sweet, till they engendered a mood of aloofness and cool criticism, and the growing conviction that it was not myself but the loved one who was at fault. I caught the false notes in her voice and learned to listen for them apprehensively; I recognized the blank, resentful stare of incomprehension in her eyes, and the selfish, hard set of the corners of her mouth. I learned her, as one must learn a woman one has kept house with, day in, day out, for three and a half years; I learned her slatternly ways, the routine and mechanism of her charm her jealousy and self-seeking and her nervous trick with the fingers when she was lying. She was stripped of all enchantment now and I knew her for an uncongenial stranger to whom I had bound myself indissolubly in a moment of folly.

Apparently this neatly parallels what Waugh himself went through in the army, but I think there’s more to this than just his military experiences. He had also divorced his first wife in 1929, so he presumably knew something about falling out of love. (Fun fact: his first wife was also named Evelyn. Just, you know, for maximum confusion.)

But I don’t think that the extended metaphor is overblown when it comes to Waugh’s/Ryder’s relationship with the army, either. I don’t have any military experience and I’ve always had a really difficult time understanding what drives people to war (both on the macro and the micro scale), which renders a lot of classic literature kind of incomprehensible to me. But when I look at the military as a particular type of group–a tribe–it makes sense. You can devote yourself entirely to your tribe, and you can become disillusioned with your tribe, trapped in it, desperate to leave it. The fighty-shooty parts don’t make any sense to me–like, why would you do that?–but the drive to belong, to be part of something greater than yourself, and to try to make that relationship work even as it’s obviously falling apart isn’t exactly unfamiliar.

(Not to put too fine a point on it, but that passage could well have been written by some of my friends currently/formerly in the secular movement.)

One more thing to note about the prologue is Ryder’s frequent mentions of young douchebag Hooper, a new addition to the company that everyone loves to hate. He really does seem pretty horrible–while passing by the local mental hospital (I’m not going to bother using the term Waugh uses), Hooper notes that Hitler would execute all of the patients and that “we can learn a thing or two from him.” Okay, yuck. Fuck you too then.

But I don’t think that’s why everyone else hates him; there’s something more to it that I’m not really understanding because I’m missing some cultural context. Ryder does some pretty epic burns on him, noting at one point, “Hooper had no illusions about the Army–or rather no special illusions distinguishable from the general, enveloping fog with which he observed the universe.” Based on what I know of Waugh, Ryder probably also hates Hooper because he tried to avoid military service, and I think that’s the sort of thing Waugh would find disgustingly cowardly (of course, who’s he to talk? He asked to be let out of the army to write this novel). He acknowledges that despite being ” a man to whom one could not confidently entrust the simplest duty,” he rarely complains and does his work very efficiently.

Shortly it becomes a little clearer what Ryder’s real issue is, and that’s all the meanings he’s attached to this one man:

In the weeks that we were together Hooper became a symbol me of Young England, so that whenever I read some public utterance proclaiming what Youth demanded in the Future and what the world owed to Youth, I would test these general statements by substituting ‘Hooper’ and seeing if they still seemed as plausible. Thus in the dark hour before reveille I sometimes pondered: ‘Hooper Rallies’, ‘Hooper Hostels’, ‘International Hooper Cooperation’, and ‘the Religion of Hooper’. He was the acid test of all these alloys.

Ryder’s preoccupation with Hooper and his youth is interesting in the context of the rest of the novel, in which he thoroughly explores exactly the types of things that old folks tend to ridicule and berate young people about. Somehow Ryder is symbolically connecting Hooper to the loss of his own youth. Maybe he sees him as cowardly, ignorant, and inept compared to himself and Sebastian at that age. I honestly have no idea, but given how much of this prologue Ryder spends observing and discussing Hooper, I’m willing to bet that he’ll somehow come up again in the novel. (How, given that it takes place decades before Ryder and Hooper meet? I have no idea.)

As I mentioned, the prologue ends when Ryder arrives at the company’s new camp. He asks what the place is called and he goes silent, “for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror’s name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight.”

In the next chapter, a significantly younger Charles Ryder meets Sebastian Flyte in a rather explosive way, and they sort of fall in love. So, if you’re reading, I hope you’re enjoying it as much as I am!

(Reminder: comments are open! Please feel free to comment if you’re reading the book or have read it previously.)

Up next: Chapter One.


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[book club] Brideshead Revisited: Preface & Prologue

Social Media, Mental Illness, and Vulnerability

“Wow, uh…you’re very open online.” I still hear this from people every so often.

“Yup,” I say, because I don’t assume it was meant to be a compliment.

And it’s true. On my Facebook–which, by the way, is not public–I’ve posted regularly about depression, anxiety, sexuality, sexual harassment and assault, body image issues, interpersonal problems, and other various struggles, big and small, that make up life. Don’t get me wrong–I also post plenty about food, cute animals, books, and other “appropriate” topics for online discussion, although I’ve noted before that there really is no way to win at social media (including refusing to play at all).

People who don’t know me well probably assume I do it “for attention” (as if there’s anything humans don’t do for some sort of attention, one way or another), or because I’m unaware of social norms (they’re not that different where I come from, trust me), or simply because I have poor impulse control. Actually, I have excellent impulse control. I’m not sure I’ve ever acted on impulse in my entire life, with perhaps the sole exception of snapping at my family members when they get under my skin. I know plenty of people who have destroyed relationships, lost jobs, or gotten hospitalized as a result of their impulses. I get…speaking rudely to someone for badgering me about my weight.

Being open about myself and my life online (and to a certain extent in person) is something I do strategically and intentionally. I have a number of goals that I can accomplish with openness (or, as I’ll shortly reframe it, vulnerability), and so far I think it’s worked out well for me.

A lot of the good things about my life right now–and, yes, some of the bad–can be traced back to a decision I made about five and a half years ago, when I was a sophomore in college. I had recently been diagnosed with depression and started medication, which was working out great and had me feeling like myself for the first time in years. (Yeah, there were some horrible relapses up ahead, but all the same.)

I wrote a very candid note on Facebook–later a blog post–about my experience and how diagnosis and treatment had helped me. At the time, I did not know anyone else who was diagnosed with a mental illness–not because nobody was, but because nobody had told me so, let alone posted about it publicly online. While I obviously knew on some level that I wasn’t “the only one,” it felt that way. I certainly didn’t think it would be a relevant topic for my friends. Mental illness was something experienced by Other People and by weird, alien me, not by any of the happy, normal people I knew.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. In response to my post, tons of friends started coming out of the woodwork–both in private messages and in the comments of my post–and talking about their own experiences with mental illness. An ex-boyfriend texted me and apologized for dumping me years prior for what he now knew was an untreated mental illness. Acquaintances and classmates turned into close friends. Circles of support were formed. I started speaking out more and gradually became recognized as an advocate for mental health on campus, and eventually started a peer counseling service that is still active on campus today, three years after I left. These experiences pushed me away from the clinical psychology path and towards mental health services, leading me to pursue internships, my masters in social work program, and now, what looks to be a promising career as a therapist.

All because of a Facebook post that many would consider “TMI” or “oversharing.”

Well, not all because. I don’t know what path my life would’ve taken if I’d made different choices, not just with coming out as a person with depression but with all kinds of things. Maybe I’d still be here, or somewhere similar. But I can’t possibly know that–what I do know is that the decision to make that Facebook post had very far-reaching and mostly positive effects on my life.

This isn’t a “you should come out” post; I don’t do those. I’m writing about myself and why I’m so open. This experience, and others that followed, shaped my perspective about this. So, here’s why.

1. To be seen.

That’s my most basic reason and the one that comes closest to being impulsive. But basically, I don’t like being seen as someone I’m not. I don’t like it when people think my life is perfect because I only post the good things. It hurts when people assume I have privileges I don’t, and when people think I couldn’t possibly need support or sympathy because everything is fine. If I didn’t post about so-called “personal” things,  people would assume that I’m straight, neurotypical, and monogamous, and the thought of that is just painful.

2. To filter people out.

I don’t expect everyone in my life to support me through hard times or care about my problems. Some people are just here for when I’m being fun and interesting, and that’s only natural. However, posting about personal things on Facebook is a great way to filter out people who not only aren’t interested in supporting me, but who are actually uncomfortable with people being honest about themselves and their lives. Otherwise, it’s going to be really awkward when we meet in person and you ask me how I’m doing and I say, “Eh, been having a rough time lately. How about you?” Because I do say that. Not with any more detail than that if you don’t ask for it, but that’s enough to make some people very twitchy because I didn’t perform my role properly.

I don’t want anyone in my life who thinks it’s wrong, weak, or pathetic to be open about your struggles. Because of the way I use Facebook, they don’t tend to stay on my friends list for long, and that’s exactly how I want it.

3. To increase awareness of mental illness.

When I post about my experiences with depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, it’s not just because I want people to know what’s going on with me personally. I also want them to know what mental illness is. When I published that post about depression I mentioned earlier, I didn’t just get “me too” responses–I also got comments from people who said that they’d never had depression and struggled to understand what it’s like, but that my piece helped. Some people took that knowledge and applied it to their relationships with depressed friends, partners, and family members, which I think is great.

It seems weird to write this section now, because so many people in my life have themselves been diagnosed with mental illness or are very knowledgeable about it through supporting others with it. But when I first started being open online about depression, that definitely didn’t describe my social circle, and I’d like to think that my openness is at least part of the reason for the difference.

4. To reduce the stigma of mental illness.

I don’t just want to make people aware of what mental illness is like–I want them to stop thinking of it is a shameful thing that ought to be kept secret. Since I’m fortunate enough to feel safe coming out, I think that’s a powerful action I can take to reduce that stigma. The more people see my posts about depression and anxiety as normal, just like posting about having the flu or going to the doctor, the less they’ll stigmatize mental illness.

Of course, stigma–and the ableism that fuels it–is a broad and systemic problem with intersectional implications that I don’t even pretend to be able to fix with some Facebook posts. But I do what I can.

5. To reduce the stigma of vulnerability, period.

Not everything “personal” that I put online deals with mental illness specifically (although, when you have lifelong depression, everything does tend to come back to that). I write a lot about homesickness, my love for New York (and the pain of leaving it), issues with my family, relationships, daily frustrations and challenges, and so on.

Not everyone wants to share these things with their friends (online or off), but many people do–they’re just afraid that nobody cares, that they’ll be seen as weak, or that there’s no room for this kind of vulnerability within the social norms that we’ve created. That last one may be true, but there’s no reason it has to stay that way.

As Brené Brown notes in her book that I recently read, vulnerability isn’t the same thing as recklessly dumping your personal problems on people. I’ve also written about guidelines for appropriate sharing, and how to deal when someone’s sharing makes you uncomfortable.

The point isn’t to completely disregard all social norms; some of them are there to help interactions go smoothly and make sure people’s implicit boundaries are respected. The point is to design social norms that encourage healthier interactions, and while I’m sure there are some people who can healthily avoid divulging anything personal to their friends, I’m not one of them and my friends aren’t either. So for us, reducing the stigma of vulnerability and encouraging openness about how we feel is healthy.

6. To create the kinds of friendships I value. 

Being open online doesn’t just filter people out–it also filters people in. Folks who appreciate vulnerability read my posts, get to know me better, and share more with me in turn. I’ve developed lots of close friendships through social media, and not all of them are long-distance. In fact, a common pattern for me is that I meet someone at a local event and chat casually and then we add each other on Facebook, at which point we learn things about each other that are way more personal than we ever would’ve shared at a loud bar or party. Then the friendship can actually develop.

I’ve been very lucky to find lots of people who appreciate this type of connection. People who don’t always answer “how are you?” with “good!”, who engage with “negative” social media posts in a supportive and productive way rather than just ignoring them or peppering them with condescending advice or demands to “cheer up!” People who understand that having emotions, even about “silly” things, doesn’t make you weak or immature. People who understand that working through your negative/counterproductive emotions requires first validating and accepting them, not beating yourself up for them or ignoring them.

So, that’s why I’m so open online. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to read it. But I’m not alone in it, and it’s becoming less and less weird. It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, I was the only person I knew with depression. Not only do I now know many, but I’m also so much more aware of all sorts of joys and sorrows I haven’t personally experienced–all thanks to my friends’ openness online. For a therapist–hell, for a human being–that’s an invaluable education.


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Social Media, Mental Illness, and Vulnerability

Thoughts on Reading Classics + Book Club!

A shelf of Great Books.

Ever since I learned to read at the relatively late age of 6, books and I have been inseparable. I’ve read 944 books since I started tracking about ten years ago, and I read more often and more extensively than almost anyone I know who is not required to read as part of their job.

I read fiction and nonfiction; I read novels, short stories, and comics; I read books for children and for adults (and for everyone); I’ve tried most genres (but strongly prefer speculative fiction); I can also read in Russian (but rarely do, because I’m too slow at it to satisfy my own impatient curiosity); I’ve read works in translation from French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Hebrew, and Yiddish (and have many others I still want to try); i do, however, have one glaring fault as a reader: I have a very hard time with most of what could be considered Good Literature, and a resulting insecurity about my ability to grapple with difficult (fictional) texts.

It would be tempting for someone with my set of political beliefs to write off the entire idea of Good Literature, of classics. I do think that the way we determine what’s Good and what Isn’t is deeply flawed and subject to our own biases, just like everything else we do. The reason it looks like a bunch of white Western men certainly isn’t because nobody else ever wrote anything of value (although they probably didn’t do as much of it as they do now, because access).

But I don’t believe that there’s no distinction between literature that has something complex and important to say about our world and ourselves, and literature that doesn’t, not because it’s Bad but because that’s just not its purpose. Even as a teenager I recognized that there was a difference between the pleasure I got from reading The Catcher in the Rye and the pleasure I got from reading the Gossip Girl books. Yet I read both, and loved both.

I also think there’s a difference between literature that fades from memory once it goes out of style, and literature that stands the test of time and is called “classic” for that reason. Those Gossip Girl books are already almost forgotten, but Harry Potter hasn’t been and probably won’t be for a very long time. Those of us who lived through the anticipation and the midnight release parties and the fanfiction got to witness the birth of a classic. That’s one of the most incredible literary experiences I’ve ever had.

And yet, actually reading classics–not of the Harry Potter variety–is something I have a very hard time convincing myself to do. All the classics I’ve read were either required for a class (to be fair, some of those were college classes I chose to take) or strongly suggested by my parents in a way that made me want to just get it over with.

With a few exceptions, such as the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Vladimir Nabokov, and J.D. Salinger, I couldn’t stand most of these books. I especially hated Grapes of Wrath, An American Tragedy, The Jungle, A Farewell to Arms, and every single Dickens book I ever picked up. I couldn’t get more than a chapter into Three Musketeers and hated all the excerpts of Moby Dick I had to read in English class (thankfully they didn’t make us read the whole book).

Some of these I’m convinced are just really bad writing (Dickens comes to mind). But I also think that a big part of the problem was my own failure to grasp the writer’s intent or find any other reason for that book to exist. What’s this trying to tell me? Why was this written? I’m a writer, so I know how much blood, sweat, and tears must’ve gone into these books. What made that effort worth it? These were questions I couldn’t answer.

And yes, there’s no Correct Answer there. That’s not the point. The point is I couldn’t think of any answer at all.

I started thinking back to my high school English classes, which were formative in many ways. My teachers were great when it came to encouraging enthusiasm for literature, but they were ultimately stuck in the framework that most high school English classes use: assigning books and then testing us on our understanding of the plot, the overall themes, the new vocabulary words, and, of course, what all the symbols meant. (You can imagine the authors rolling in their graves.) We never really learned how to think about the bigger questions: what do you think the author was trying to do with this book? How well did they do it? What could they have done better? If you didn’t know who wrote this book, what clues might help you guess? How is the author’s perspective informed or limited by their social position? What did you get out of reading this book? How did it change you?

I got to college hoping for some better instruction in critical reading, but “instruction” was mostly lacking at Northwestern, which is a research institution where undergrads are an afterthought. Professors expected us to already be able to do the kind of analysis they made their careers on, and I had no idea what that was. I got A’s in those classes mainly because nobody else could really do much better than me, and none of us knew what we were doing.

Most of what I know about literature comes from discussions with my parents and from reading other people’s essays about literature in magazines or online. My parents had a very different experience with books; they say that they were never taught to think about literature in school either, but only because in the Soviet Union, the skill of analyzing and critiquing books was something you just absorbed from your surrounding culture. They learned it the way children learn to speak. They can impart some of that to me by doing it with me, but they can’t teach it because they were never formally “taught.”

So, in short, I’m on my own. I don’t like feeling like I missed out on learning an entire mode of thinking that could help me appreciate even more books than I already do, so I’m going to teach it to myself, using this blog and the books themselves.

My idea is to choose classics that I consider challenging and read them chapter-by-chapter, posting my thoughts on each chapter as a blog post. I won’t limit myself to “analyzing” them in a particular way; I expect that I’ll blend thoughts about writing style, authorial intent, philosophy, and social criticism with my own ramblings about the characters and their annoying flaws and my frustration with the bad decisions everyone is making. (So many bad decisions. No, don’t go fight in the war, wars are bad. She’s not interested in you, dude. You probably should not talk to your kid that way. Stop arguing over this petty bullshit.)

To make things a little more interesting, I’ll open up the comments on those posts (and on this one) so folks can read along and join the discussion. Keep in mind though that all the reasons I closed comments still absolutely apply, so please do me a huge favor and focus your comments on your experience with the book and your thoughts about it rather than on criticizing and nitpicking my experiences.

I don’t have any sort of real process for choosing books right now other than “things my parents think I would benefit from reading,” so my first book will be Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Others I may read include Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. If you’d like to suggest books, feel free to do so in the comments of this post. I’m looking for stuff that’s classic and challenging, but not impenetrable. (If you’re wondering what I’d categorize as impenetrable, I’d say probably something like Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, which I got approximately nothing out of.)

I’m calling this a book club because that’s the closest term I can think of for what I’m going to do, but it very well might end up being a book club of just one and that’s totally fine. I wish it were easier to discuss books with friends, but the reality is that most people in my social circle who enjoy reading do not prioritize it and do it rarely. That’s something I hope will change as I get older or meet new people.

I do hope that this encourages at least a few people to read some new books. If you have a hard time motivating yourself to read, I put together this list of suggestions last year.

Hopefully I’ll start yelling about Brideshead Revisited by next week at the latest, but knowing myself, I can’t make any promises.


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Thoughts on Reading Classics + Book Club!

For Poly Folks Who Desperately Need Autonomy

I recently discovered this amazing piece by Nora Samaran about relationships, gender, and autonomy that has really resonated with me and many of my friends. Go read it.

Here are some of the key points I took away from this article:

  • If you’re afraid of being relied on, you’ll probably treat your partner inconsistently and any “acts of care” that you will do for them will feel inauthentic.
  • If you treat your partner like their needs are unreasonable and unmeetable–like they’re “crazy”–they are much more likely to act “crazy” with you. That same person, with a partner who treats their needs as reasonable and meetable, might seem a lot more stable. (Sidenote: this is one of several reasons I absolutely refuse to listen to any “crazy ex-girlfriend” stories from guys.)
  • Sometimes, in order for your partner to feel comfortable with distance, you have to establish real closeness first.
  • A common way that people (especially men) deal with their own fear of attachment, closeness, and interdependence is to blame their partners for having “unreasonable” needs or wanting “too much.”  This is gaslighting.

I encourage you to read (and reread) the entire article. It seems to be making a huge (positive) impact on many people I know.

That said, I have some deep disagreements with the author–not necessarily about any of these main points, but about the basic philosophical place that she comes from. We do relationships very, very differently.

For instance, one of the main ideas in the article is that autonomy is not something you “take,” but something you “build.” The author seems to believe that the default for healthy relationships is interdependence and intertwinement (to an extent that I would personally consider codependent), and she states that the reason she is able to trust her partner is because he has repeatedly met her needs no matter how inconvenient or difficult that was for him. Only then has he “built” autonomy; only then does she “give” him that autonomy; and only then does he “get” to do something like go away for weeks for a job without her being upset about it.

I see things the other way around. The default is independence and autonomy. The default is that we are each a ship at sea, setting our own courses, and we get to choose when and how and for long long to dock in someone else’s harbor. True, we don’t “take” autonomy, but that’s because we already have it.

For me, it’s interdependence that gets “built.” It requires immense trust for me to become more interdependent with someone else. If you want that from me, you first have to create a safe space for it.

And for me, I don’t “give” autonomy to anyone. They already have autonomy, and they have it no matter what I say or do or what our relationship is. They get to choose to reduce certain aspects of their autonomy if they want to, but ultimately it–just like their time, their body, and their emotional reserves–belongs to them.

The difference in our philosophies was made very clear to me in this paragraph about her breakup with the partner she had written about:

What we are no longer giving each other is sex, romantic feeling, and partnership – we are no longer committing to live together or have children together or make our lives in the same geographical location. His new girlfriend and eventual life partner will have priority decision-making power over how close he and I can be. We cried and grieved those parts.

I had such a viscerally negative reaction to this I almost had to stop reading, despite how much I had loved the article up until then. No. No no no. I would never accept someone having this kind of power over me, whether they are my partner or my ex’s partner. I would never accept a friendship or relationship with someone who agrees to let someone else control our closeness.

Moreover, I would never, ever want to exercise such a power over someone else. When I imagine one of my partners having as close and meaningful a friendship with an ex as this author has with hers, and I imagine telling that partner to destroy that closeness, I honestly feel that it would be monstrous of me. I can’t even imagine wanting to do that. Such connections are so rare, so precious, so difficult to build–who the fuck are we to tell others to destroy them for the sake of our own comfort?

But I get that given the way most people do relationships, that’s perfectly reasonable. It’s a common monogamous dictum that you get to control (though most people wouldn’t use that word) your partner’s relationships with their exes.

More to the point–Samaran’s conception of emotional safety is that it develops when (and only when) partners are able to meet each others’ needs every time they’re asked to. But what if they can’t? What if they cannot be available on demand like that? What if they have other partners–hell, what if they have friends, family members, jobs, passions, responsibilities–that matter just as much? What if the author’s partner, during his camp when he was mostly unavailable, wasn’t able to take even that half an hour to be with her? What if he had his own mental health issues that impacted his availability? What if romantic relationships are not your primary focus, but one of many domains of your life that you balance? What if you do not agree that your romantic partner (just one) will be your first (and, really, only) priority?

Do people like me just have to give up on feeling emotionally safe, and on building emotional safety for our partners?

I don’t think so.

I think Samaran creates a false choice between fully meeting your partner’s needs every time and saying (in her words), “My needs matter and I will meet them regardless of the impact on you.” She is correct that we must treat our partners’ needs as “normal, healthy, [and] eminently meetable”; I don’t think she’s correct, at least not for people like me and my friends and partners, that we must be able to commit to this:

“So, if I actually need you, you’re always there, right?” I ask.

“Of course,” he says. “Look, I really need to be able to focus on being here. But if you really need me, of course you can just come by the desk and ask where I am and I’ll come help with whatever you need.”

(I do appreciate how honest her partner is here about how it will impact him if she does need to access him during the camp. But what if he were unable or unwilling to be available during that time? Would that make him an emotionally unsafe partner? I think she might say it would. I say it wouldn’t.)

(Also, I may be misrepresenting the article unfairly; at times the author seems to imply that she doesn’t need her needs to be completely met in order for trust to develop, but at other times she implies that she does, and that she needs her partner to always put her first. In any case, though, the article is clearly based on a style of Primary Relationships that I don’t do myself.)

[Edit: I’m having a great chat with Nora on Twitter and she clarified that she does not mean that you have to fully meet your partner’s needs every time; we both agree that that’s too high a bar. But Wired for Love, the book she cites, does claim that. Seems that we both disagree with that aspect of it!]

So. I’m not trying to criticize how Samaran personally does things because that’s her own business, but this piece left me (and a bunch of people I know) totally unsure of how to incorporate these insights into a poly framework, and specifically a poly framework in which individual autonomy, not any particular relationship, is what’s “primary.”

Here are some thoughts I had:

1. Just because you can’t meet a need doesn’t mean it’s an unreasonable need.

One of the ways we cope with our own feelings of helplessness in the face of loved ones’ unmeetable needs is to try to delegitimize those needs. If you have real needs that I can’t or won’t meet, that makes me a bad partner(/friend/family member). I don’t want to feel that way, so maybe your needs aren’t legitimate after all, so there’s nothing wrong with me not meeting them.

Of course, this mental process usually isn’t so conscious. I think most people who do it don’t realize they’re doing it.

As Samaran writes in another piece, gaslighting doesn’t have to be intentional to be deeply harmful. If your defense mechanism against feeling powerless to help someone is to make that person feel like they shouldn’t have even asked or needed that in the first place, you’re gaslighting them and that’s abusive. You need to own your own limitations and take responsibility for them rather than blaming the other person.

Which brings me to…

2. You must own your boundaries and limitations.

There’s a huge difference between saying, “[I’m sorry], I’m not in a good place to listen to you right now” and saying, “I can’t listen to you because you’re too emotional.” Both might feel true to you–your own current state of mind may limit the amount of strong emotion you can hold space for from others. But the root cause here isn’t your partner’s emotions; it’s your limitations.

Yes, it’s true that if your partner were less emotional in that moment, you might be able to listen to them. But when you set a boundary and implicitly blame the other person this way, you’re telling them that their feelings and needs are wrong. The message your partner hears is, “My partner won’t support me because I’m too emotional,” rather than what they should hear, which is, “My partner can’t support me right now because they need to take care of themselves.”

3. Not meeting needs doesn’t mean disregarding needs.

There’s a dangerous false dichotomy that a lot of relationship advice reinforces, and Samaran’s article does this as well. That’s the dichotomy between “meeting your partner’s needs” and “not giving a fuck about your partner’s needs.”

I’ve noted before that every time I talk about my autonomy-based form of polyamory, the first question I get is “So what you don’t even care if your partner is sitting at home alone crying while you’re on a date?” Of course I care. And if that’s really how it would be, I probably wouldn’t go on the date. But it wouldn’t be my duty to not go on a date, and it can’t happen every time I have a date, and I would not choose to continue a relationship with someone who regularly gets that upset about me going on dates because it doesn’t sound like we’re compatible.

If you’re unable or unwilling to meet a partner’s need at a particular point in time, that doesn’t mean that you’re saying, as Samaran writes, “My needs matter and I will meet them regardless of the impact on you.” It might mean saying, “My needs matter but yours do too–what solutions can we come up with?” It might mean saying, “I hear that this is hurting you, but this is something I need to do. Is there any way I can help you through it?” It might mean saying, “Let’s do what you need this time, but later let’s talk about what we can do to make sure that next time I can do what I need.”

4. You might be able to find comfort in your partner’s care and concern for you, even if they can’t meet your need.

Say I have a very intense job that doesn’t really allow for many (or any) breaks to chat on the phone with someone. Say I have a partner who really needs to be able to call me during the work day if they’re having a hard time. Say that, due to the limitations of my job, that’s an unmeetable need at this point.

How would my partner feel if I said, “Sorry, can’t do that. I already told you that I’m very busy at work. We can talk about it when I get home”?

How would my partner feel if I said, “I’m sorry, I really wish I could be there for you during the day, but my job just doesn’t allow for that. I’ll be there for you after work if you want to talk then”?

If they’re anything like most people, they’d probably feel pretty different in those two scenarios, even though I’m still declining to meet their stated need and offering the same alternative. What I’m doing is the same, but how I’m doing it is totally different.

If you’re someone who, like Samaran’s examples of men who aren’t ready to be relied on, treats every request for your care as overwhelmingly too much, you are liable to respond in that snappy, detached way from my first example. And that’s going to really hurt your partner, and they may come to the conclusion that they feel hurt because you aren’t meeting their needs, not because of the way you aren’t meeting their needs. This will lead to arguments about how you aren’t meeting their needs enough, and you will respond that you can’t and why can’t they understand that, and it’ll be a mess. (I may or may not have been on both sides of this at various times.)

Whereas if you respond to unmeetable needs not only by treating them as valid (as I discussed above) but also with real compassion and concern, that may go a long way in healing your partner’s pain at having their needs unmet.

5. Compromise is key.

If you can’t meet your partner’s need, what’s the next best thing?

In my work phone call situation, it might be that they can text me while I’m at work and I’ll respond as I’m able. It might be that they can call and leave me a long voicemail that I’ll listen to as soon as I’m done–that way, they can at least talk their feelings out and know that I’ll hear it even if I’m not responding right away. It might be that we set aside time that evening to cuddle and talk. It might be that they find a friend or another partner who can talk during the work day, even though they’d rather have talked to me. It might be that they work on finding a therapist who can help them develop other coping skills that they can use independently. It might be that once a week, I set aside my brief lunch break to talk to them on the phone during the work day.

It doesn’t have to be a choice between “fully meet your partner’s needs” and “ignore your partner to suffer alone.”

6. Patterns tell the truth that individual cases don’t.

Everyone has bad days, bad weeks, bad years. There will be times when your partner comes to you for support and you snap “Leave me alone, I can’t deal with this right now.” As Samaran writes in her article, these things happen and they can be repaired–as long as they don’t become patterns.

When I talk about the importance of taking care of yourself and your needs before others–putting your oxygen mask on first, as I sometimes refer to it–someone often says, “Well, my partner is always putting themselves first and they never seem to have any time or energy left over for my needs.”

That’s a pattern. If your partner consistently can’t or won’t meet your needs, maybe you’re not compatible. (Or, in a polyamorous/non-elevator framework, you might be compatible in a different way than you’re trying to be–for instance, as good friends who have sex, or as occasional lovers.)

And because it’s painful to acknowledge that you might just be the wrong partner for someone, it’s tempting to say that they’re “selfish” or “detached” or “not ready for relationships,” when in fact they might make a great partner for someone who isn’t you and has a different set of needs and expectations.

7. We’re not bad people for not being able to meet each others’ needs.

In the first point, I wrote about how people try to delegitimize others’ needs as a way to protect themselves from feeling bad for not needing those needs. Rather than resorting to gaslighting, we should remind ourselves that our goodness is not tied to what or how much we give others. My own philosophy is that goodness is about respecting and valuing others (and, more broadly, valuing your community, humankind, and our planet). I am good as long as I treat people with respect and remain mindful of my impact on them and on the broader systems and ecosystems in which I exist. None of this requires me to do what others need or want all (or even most) of the time. You are free to develop your own philosophy (especially if you, like me, are an atheist who is not provided with any preformed religious answers to these types of questions).

If you detach your sense of your own goodness from meeting others’ needs all of the time, you might find that you have an easier time meeting those needs, because you’ll have less anxiety about it. When we hang a whole bunch of baggage onto an otherwise-simple task, it becomes much impossibly difficult. What have you attached to the acts of care you do for others? Do you feel like doing (or not doing) those acts makes or breaks you as a Good Person?

That might seem like it’s going in the opposite direction of Samaran’s article that inspired this post–and maybe it is–but I think that one of the great paradoxes of life is that sometimes you have to let go of something in order to get it. If you’re struggling with feeling like you can’t meet anyone’s needs, try to let go of feeling like you have to meet those needs and it might become actually doable.

Moreover, we have to stop telling ourselves that we either have to be there for our partners all of the time or we’re not supporting them at all. Open yourself up to other ways of supporting and of being supported, and try to let go of the myth–perpetuated by a culture that glorifies and centers romantic relationships–that partners are the only ones who have any meaningful support to give.


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For Poly Folks Who Desperately Need Autonomy