Are All Boundaries Valid?

Follow-up to “Boundary Setting vs Tone Policing.”

[Content note: abuse]

When I discuss the importance of respecting people’s boundaries, I sometimes encounter this pushback: “But aren’t some boundaries wrong? What if someone sets boundaries in a way that’s abusive?”

I can think of a few examples of boundaries that someone might place in this category: boundaries around receiving criticism or being educated about a social justice issue, boundaries around providing some minimum level of emotional labor or support to one’s partner, boundaries around which emotions you can handle hearing from someone.

Most of these apply especially/specifically to close relationships, which is usually the context in which people bring it up. Is it really okay to tell a partner that you can’t handle them expressing anger at you? Is it really okay to tell a friend that they can’t tell you if you’ve hurt them? Is it really okay to tell someone that you will not be able to listen to anything they have to say about their mental illness?

In particular, folks are concerned that such boundaries will be set not because of genuine triggers or sensitivities, but out of laziness or neglect–“I don’t feel like dealing with this, so I’m going to set a boundary that says I don’t have to.”

First of all, let’s acknowledge that it’s really hard to distinguish “okay” boundaries from “not-okay” boundaries if we’re judging by how much the boundary hurts someone else. Many (if not most) boundaries have the potential to hurt. It probably hurts people when I tell them to stop giving me unsolicited advice–advice that they no doubt meant as an expression of care and concern, but that I nonetheless find insulting and want them to stop. It certainly hurts me when I want to vent to someone about my problems but they ask me not to because they’re not in a good place to listen. But I don’t think anyone would say there’s anything wrong with these boundaries.

In particular, many people feel very hurt when a partner sets a boundary regarding sex–for instance, “I don’t want to have sex tonight” or “I need to figure some stuff out and don’t want to be intimate for a while.” Some people even consider it neglectful or abusive for a partner to choose not to have sex with them. While that’s obviously really entitled and coercive in and of itself, any boundary can be rejected on similar grounds–“You’re not giving me what you owe me,” whether that thing is sex or open ears or a willingness to adjust based on criticism.

That leads into the thorny issue of what, exactly, we are entitled to from each other, versus what is up to individuals to give or withhold. If your boundary is that you won’t give someone something that they’re truly entitled to, that’s likely abusive. For instance, children are entitled to care from their parents or guardians. If you’re a parent or guardian, your boundary cannot be that you won’t care for your child. (If it is, then you should–and will–lose custody.)

But outside of parent-child relationships, which are a special case, there’s very little that we can persuasively claim to deserve from a specific person–as opposed to people in general. I deserve love and respect, but that doesn’t mean that you–you specifically–must love and respect me. If you won’t do that, I have to find someone else who will.

There are things that we’re entitled to in relationships, such as the right to set boundaries and the right to express how the other person has made us feel. But if the other person sets boundaries like “You can’t tell me if I’ve hurt you,” I don’t think the solution is to try to force them to listen to it anyway. I think the solution is to run away.

But what if you can’t “just leave” because the relationship is abusive? Well, in that case, the primary problem isn’t the person’s “invalid” boundaries; it’s the abuse that keeps you in a relationship that can’t possibly work.

This is why I think that a better question than “Are some boundaries wrong?” is “Are some boundaries incompatible with having a healthy relationship?” Yes, I think some are. I think that if your boundary is that you will not hear the other person’s feelings, including feelings about you and/or the relationship; if you will not provide them even a minimal amount of support and emotional labor; if you cannot handle having boundaries set with you–then you aren’t prepared for a healthy relationship.

And some people pass through periods like that in their lives due to trauma or grief or whatever else, and that’s okay. Their boundaries aren’t wrong. They’re just not particularly conducive to relationships (platonic or otherwise), and rather than shaming them for having those boundaries or simply trampling over those boundaries as if they aren’t there, you should give them space to move through that.

But can’t you abuse someone by setting a boundary?

I’m not sure. Most definitions of abuse focus on the fact that it is an attempt (intentional/aware or otherwise) to control another person. Depending on the type of abuse (and they often go together), an abuser might control their target’s finances, location, body, property, behavior, emotional expression, or even (in the case of gaslighting) their perception of reality. Abuse is too much closeness, not too much distance.

What is a boundary? The most basic way I can define it is that a boundary is a condition I get to set about how others will interact with me–how (or whether) they will touch my body, how they will speak to me, what our relationship will look like, what kinds of things we will do together. Some people see boundaries as rules we set for other people, but I see them as conditions: do this [wear a barrier/discuss your STI results/check in with me every step of the way/let me know who else you’re sleeping with and what safer sex methods you’ve used with them], or else I will not have sex with you. Don’t do this [scream/call me names/talk about your sex life/comment on my body/use the wrong pronouns], or else I will not interact with you. You do have the option of disregarding my boundaries, but then I have the option of cutting off contact with you.

When conceptualized this way, boundaries cannot possibly be abusive because they do not control any aspect of anyone else or their life–except where it intersects with mine. Controlling what you do with your money is abusive; controlling what you do with my money is not. Controlling what you do with your body is abusive; controlling what you do with your body when it is interacting with my body is not. Telling you that you are not allowed to feel angry at me is abusive; telling you how I can handle hearing anger is not.

Generally, abuse harms because it destroys the healthy distance between one person and another, replacing one person’s thoughts, preferences, choices, and perception of reality with the abuser’s. When boundaries hurt, they hurt because they create distance, and it’s more distance than you wanted.

Obviously there are some murky areas here. For instance, some people are triggered even by appropriate expressions of anger because of past abuse. I’ve had times when even if a partner said to me calmly, “It made me angry when you made that comment about [thing],” that would be way too much. Had I known the language of boundaries, I might have tried to tell them that they cannot tell me that they’re angry with me.

I don’t know what to say here except that that’s your challenge to work through. As I said before, I don’t think that healthy relationships are possible if you restrict which emotions people are allowed to express to you. I also think that there will be potential friends and partners who accept such terms, and whether that’s healthy for them or not is their business.

Even if boundaries themselves can’t be abusive, the boundary-setting process can be. There’s a huge difference between, “I’m sorry, I’m not in a good place right now to listen to what you’re going through” and “Leave me alone, I don’t care about your stupid feelings.” There is also a huge difference between treating the person’s needs as valid and reasonable–but just not meetable by you in that moment–and treating them as invalid and unreasonable. If you’re invalidating your partner’s experience, that’s abusive.

If you’re concerned that you’re not getting this right, try checking whether or not you are taking responsibility for your own boundaries: “I can’t because I’m not in a good place right now” versus “I can’t because you’re too emotional,” for instance. No, they’re not too emotional. You are not currently able to process their emotions with them.

Usually when someone insists to me that boundaries can be abusive, the examples they give aren’t really boundaries at all. That’s not out of bad faith–abusers are really great at making their preferences seem like needs and your needs seem like preferences or inconveniences or even abuses in and of themselves. Here are some examples of boundaries that are not actually:

1. “My boundary is that you can’t have sex with anyone but me.”

I’m sure this is an unpopular opinion for any monogamous folks reading this, but bear with me for a sec. This isn’t a boundary because it is an attempt to control another person’s behavior outside of your personal bubble. In that way, it’s no different from saying “My boundary is that you can’t be friends with anyone but me.” Now, this may be a reasonable request in a monogamous framework, but that doesn’t make it a boundary. That makes it a request that the other person has to voluntarily agree to meet, and if they’re cool with meeting it, no problem. (A big problem with how most people practice monogamy is that it’s not truly voluntary because it’s considered the unspoken default. More on that in a future post.)

There are ways to restate this as a boundary: “I cannot have sex with you if you’re also having sex with other people because it makes me uncomfortable/because of STI risk/etc.” “I cannot be in a relationship with anyone who wants multiple partners.” While some may argue that the difference is semantic, I would argue that the difference lies in whose responsibility it ultimately is to meet your needs. Does your partner have to stop having sex with others whether they want to or not, or do you need to find a partner who is interested in monogamy?

(And again, if you say “Could you stop having sex with anyone but me?” and they say “Sure!”, then there’s no issue.)

In my view, framing monogamy as a boundary is one of those murky areas and I’m not really comfortable with it. The idea that your boundary can be what other people do with other people doesn’t sit right. The only reason most of us view monogamy as a valid boundary is because of the privileged status that romantic-sexual relationships hold in society. As I said, most people would recognize it as abusive to tell your friend that they shouldn’t have any friends but you.

2. “My boundary is that you can’t be angry at me.”

This isn’t a boundary because it’s an attempt to control another person’s feelings. Feelings and expressions aren’t the same thing; someone can feel angry at you without expressing that in a way you’re not okay with. Other people get to feel however they feel, and so do you. As soon as you get into the Dictating How Other People Get To Feel game, you’re well on your way to establishing an abusive dynamic.

3. “My boundary is that I feel unsafe if you don’t support me/have sex with me/agree with what I say/comfort me after you’ve set a boundary with me/etc”

This is a very insidious type of emotional abuse that, unfortunately, proliferates in progressive/feminist communities. The language of “feeling unsafe” is co-opted, usually by men with their female/femme/AFAB partners, to get your partner to do what you want.

First of all, your boundary cannot be that someone has to do something for you. That’s not a boundary; that’s you wanting someone to do something for you. And that desire may be very legitimate, and you may want it very badly, and you may indeed feel very bad (or even, in your perception, “unsafe”) if you don’t get it, but that doesn’t make it a “boundary.”

Second, you may only be interested in relationships where support/sex/agreement/comfort are things that generally happen, and you can leave relationships that aren’t meeting your needs, but you can’t claim that a partner who is not meeting your needs is violating your boundaries and you cannot try to require your partner to do any of those things. That’s such a perversion of what boundaries and bodily/emotional autonomy are all about that it makes me shudder.

This brings me right back around to how I started this article. Are some boundaries invalid? Is it invalid to say that you’re not okay with being called out, or listening to someone’s emotions, or supporting someone with their mental illness?

Let’s flip that around. Is it okay to say that someone else must listen to your call-outs or emotions or mental illness details? Is it okay to say that just because you’re angry at someone, they must hear that out?

Because if we say that that boundary is invalid, we’re saying that it’s okay to violate it because it’s not really a boundary at all. We’re saying that if we see a “no trespassing” sign on land that we know we’re allowed to access, we can legally and ethically disregard that sign and go there anyway.

On the other hand, we can say, “Your boundaries are valid, but I don’t see how I can have a healthy relationship with you that way, so I need to leave.” We can say, “I cannot date someone with this particular set of boundaries; thanks for warning me.” We can say, “If that boundary changes, let me know.”

It will be tempting to create a hierarchy of who gets to set particular boundaries and who doesn’t. “Okay,” you might concede, “if you have a Real Certified Trauma™ or Mental Illness™ then you can request that people not call you out or talk to you about being angry at you. Otherwise, sorry, you gotta do it.”

But here in the real world, there is not a single traumatized or mentally ill person who has not at some point believed that their trauma or illness is not real or valid. Most of us are still battling that fear every single day. Informal mental illness accommodations like these must be available to everyone or else very few of the people who need them will use them. There is no certification process for trauma or mental illness, and if there were, it would probably be monstrously unfair.

It’s also a rare woman or AFAB person who has not lived a lifetime of gaslightling. We are very quick to tell ourselves that we must not really feel the way we feel, and even that we must not have really experienced what we’ve just experienced. Boundaries must be easy to set, and they must automatically be treated as valid, or else they will never get set.

So, in conclusion: yes, there are complications to All Boundaries Are Valid. There are complications and nuances to everything. All Boundaries Are Valid is Boundaries 101, just like Atoms Consist Of Protons, Neutrons, and Electrons is Physics 101. You don’t need to get right into quarks and positrons and whatever-the-heck right away, especially if you haven’t yet learned about protons, neutrons, and electrons.

I’ve written often about the tension between getting the nuances exactly right and giving people information they desperately need. This is another example. Most of the people I write for have a lifetime of gaslighting and boundary violations behind them. Right now, they need to hear that their boundaries are valid. Once they’ve mastered that, we can get into the quarks and positrons of it.


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Are All Boundaries Valid?
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You Don’t Need Your Partner’s Agreement to Break Up With Them

I hear some version of this very often, usually from women:

“I want to break up with my partner, but they don’t want to so I guess we’re staying together for now.”

“I want a divorce, but my husband wants to keep working on the marriage, so I’ll try it.”

“I tried to end my relationship, but it didn’t really ‘take.’”

Sometimes people want to break up and then they change their minds. But often, they don’t really change their minds–they just believe that breaking up, like getting together, is something that has to happen by mutual agreement.

It doesn’t. You can end a relationship (platonic, romantic, and/or sexual) at any time, with or without your partner’s agreement, with or without explanation, with or without “working on it” first, with or without meeting with them face to face, with or without apology.

“But ending a relationship without any of those things is a dick move!” Maybe? But the majority of the time I see it happen that way, it’s happening that way for a reason. The dumper may feel unsafe around the dumpee, they may know or suspect that the dumpee will try to pressure them into staying if they sit down for a conversation about it, they may have already told the dumpee many times that they will need to leave if things don’t change, and now they’re done.

It’s definitely easier if both partners agree that it’s time to end the relationship and what their interactions should look like going forward, and it’s great when that happens. But you can’t force it. If there’s a disagreement, the partner who wants less intimacy gets their way–not because the other partner’s desires aren’t valid, but because doing it any other way is a boundary violation. If you want us to hug and I don’t want to, then we don’t hug. If I want us to go on a date and you don’t want to, then we don’t go on a date. Otherwise, I would be forced into a hug I don’t want and you’d be forced into a date you don’t want, and that’s not okay. It’s not okay for anyone to be forced into a relationship, either.

Here someone often brings up “compromise.” You want physical intimacy with me and I don’t. What you really want is sex, but since you know it’s clearly wrong to pressure someone into sex, can’t we “at least” cuddle? If I wanted to, sure. But as I said, I don’t want physical intimacy with you at all. Cuddling isn’t a “compromise.” It’s a violation of my boundaries.

Likewise with ending relationships. Sometimes both exes want to stay friends after the breakup, and that’s great. But sometimes, only one of them does, and it becomes easy for the other to pressure them into a friendship as a “compromise”–especially if the person who wants the friendship is the person who just got dumped. “Can we at least be friends, then, if you won’t date me anymore?” “Fine, I guess.”

Charitably, I could say that the reason this happens is because people are modeling their breakups on their other Big Relationship Decisions, most of which involved mutual agreement or at least compromise. In healthy relationships, people take all the big steps–becoming “official,” moving in together, getting engaged, whatever–because they both really want to. Maybe to them that means that a breakup should only happen when they both really want to, too.

Healthy relationships also involve some amount of compromise, because needs don’t always perfectly align. If I really want to go out with my friends but my partner is sick and can’t cook dinner for themselves, I might stay and make dinner for them–not because I want to stay home and cook rather than going out with my friends, but because I care about my partner and want to help them.

If you’re really used to making these kinds of decisions–and most people in serious relationships are–then deciding to break up can feel similar. You’re pretty sure you want it to be over, but your partner reeeeeally wants you to stay, so you figure, “Well, I could stay for a bit longer, or I could stay as a more casual partner,” but then “a bit longer” turns into “indefinitely” and “more casual” turns into “exactly the same as it was before, except with more resentment because I thought things were going to be more casual and you’re still expecting them to be the same.”

Less charitably, though, there are some bigger issues going on. First of all, many people still think of relationships in terms like “obligation” and “duty,” which makes them very difficult to end or change. If you feel that you “owe” your partner a romantic relationship because they’re so nice to you or because they want it so much, how are you supposed to end it?

Second, women in particular (and, by extension, people perceived as women) are usually socialized to prioritize their partners over themselves. For many people, that means that even if you really want to break up, a partner’s strong desire to stay together overrides your desire to leave.

Finally, many people are manipulative and controlling in their relationships. I’m not just talking about abuse, although the line between these behaviors and abuse can be very difficult to draw. A manipulative and controlling partner can easily make it seem like breaking up with them is a grievous and unacceptable offense, not a necessary step that you need to take for your own self-care and wellbeing.

So when I hear things like, “I want to leave but they want to keep working on it, so I’m staying,” that raises a red flag. Why do their preferences override yours?

I’m often hearing about how so many people “these days” just quit relationships at the first sign of trouble rather than trying to “work on it.” From where I’m sitting, I don’t see a lot of that. I see people deciding that they’re no longer invested or safe in certain relationships, so they end those relationships.

If you still love and care about someone and want to be with them, but you’re having issues in your relationship, it might be worthwhile for you to try to “work on it.” (But even then, you don’t owe them that.) If you no longer want to be with that person, there is no “working on it” to be done. You can’t “work on” the fact that you don’t love someone and don’t want to see them anymore. You can’t force yourself to want something you don’t want. And even if you could, you don’t owe them that.

“But what about the people who suddenly up and quit a perfectly good relationship without even talking about it?” What about them? Jerks gonna jerk. I’m less worried about occasional jerks than I am about an entire society full of people, especially women and people perceived as women, who feel obligated to stay in relationships they don’t want. Besides, any relationship that someone wants to end is not a “perfectly good relationship.” If it’s a relationship you don’t want to be in, it’s not good, even if the reason you don’t want to be in it is 100% about you and your own issues.

I should mention: getting dumped sucks. (Usually.) You deserve support if you’re going through that. But the person who just announced that they no longer want to be in a relationship with you doesn’t owe you that support, and they especially don’t owe you any further intimacy just because it hurts you to lose that intimacy. It sucks and I’m sorry, but you’ll need to find support somewhere else and in some other form.

And if you’re the one sitting around waiting and hoping that one day your partner will finally agree with you that it’s time to break up, know this: you don’t need their agreement.

It takes two to tango, but only one to leave the dance floor.


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You Don’t Need Your Partner’s Agreement to Break Up With Them

5 Ways to Navigate Consent with a Partner Who Has Trouble Setting Boundaries

New Everyday Feminism piece!

More than I regret any of my nos, I regret quite a few of my yeses.

To this day, I don’t understand why I’ve said “yes” to some of the things I’ve said “yes” to. Even after I discovered feminism and sex positivity, I kept agreeing to intimacy – physical and emotional – that I didn’t want, or quickly realized I didn’t want. The longer I went without admitting that I didn’t want it after all, the harder it became to speak up.

It didn’t help that when I did speak up, my partners were often confused – and even angry. “Why didn’t you just tell me before?” is something I heard often.

If that sounds a little like you – I hear you. You have a long journey ahead of you, but you’re not alone in making it. These resources can help.

And if that sounds a little like your partner, this article is for you.

Navigating a relationship with someone who has a hard time saying “no” challenges your ability to respect both your partner’s boundaries and their autonomy.

You want to trust their words and take them at face value, but you know from experience that that’s not always possible. You can do your best to create a safe space for your partner to let you know when they’re not okay with things, but they may not be ready to meet you in that space yet.

If your partner is a woman or is perceived as one, they are especially likely to have difficulty with this. Our society teaches women that their boundaries are invalid in many ways.

However, people of any gender may have a hard time setting boundaries because it’s not easy even in the best of circumstances. People with a history of trauma or abuse may have grown up with the belief that their boundaries won’t be respected no matter how hard they work at setting them, so why bother?

As much as you might want to, you cannot undo the things that made your partner who they are. You can work with them to build a relationship that honors that history while also helping them to heal.

Here are five ways you can try.

1. Remember That Only Yes Means Yes

When you’re involved with someone who has a hard time saying “no” directly, it’s important to be aware that responses like “okay,” “that’s fine,” or “I guess” probably do not mean “yes” – especially not when combined with non-responsive body language, lack of eye contact, and a monotone.

Unless your partner has made it clear to you that they intend for these types of response to communicate consent, it’s safest to treat them as “no”s.

Many people have pushed back against the enthusiastic consent model. Asexual folks and sex workers especially have argued that consent need not be enthusiastic to “count.” Nonverbal consent can be established between close partners, too (and can also be quite enthusiastic itself).

While it’s important to listen to these narratives, we shouldn’t use them as an excuse to ignore potential signs that someone is not really consenting. If you’re not sure what it means when your partner responds to you in a particular way, ask.

Read the rest here.

5 Ways to Navigate Consent with a Partner Who Has Trouble Setting Boundaries

Polyamory: Orientation or Lifestyle Choice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Some interesting related reading:


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Polyamory: Orientation or Lifestyle Choice?

For Allies Who Feel Like Everything They Do Is Wrong

Something I hear regularly from progressive men:

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

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

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

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

1. There is no activism rulebook.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Listen to those further left than you.

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

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

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

5. Listen, but make up your own mind.

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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For Allies Who Feel Like Everything They Do Is Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. It Often Fails at Intersectionality

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

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

Identities Formed By Trauma Are Still Valid

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault]

A common way that people invalidate certain marginalized identities is to claim that they developed as a result of trauma.

When I write it out that way and think about it outside of the context of any current civil rights movements, it sounds completely bananas. How could attributing someone’s identity to trauma possibly invalidate it? Isn’t it common sense that going through trauma often changes people permanently? Would anyone consider it invalid for a veteran to be afraid of fireworks or for someone who survived a flood to avoid going swimming?

As it turns out, when trauma gets tangled up with marginalized identities, all common sense flies out the window.

The problem is that many people will only accept marginalized identities if they view them as unchangeable, unchoosable, and biological in origin. Consequently, many advocates for people with marginalized identities believe that the only way to increase acceptance of marginalized identities is to present them that way. (This includes many people with marginalized identities themselves, as we do not come out of the womb with a perfect understanding of our identities any more than we come out of the womb with those identities already in place.)

If not for the fact that many of us grew up already steeped in the Born That Way narrative, I think more people would see this as the massive insult that it is. In this view, being [insert marginalized identity here] is only okay because they didn’t choose it, the poor things, they were born that way, and if they could change it, they would! Few liberals will say this out loud, but even tolerant people often maintain the belief that marginalized identities are inherently inferior and that of course those people would choose to be normal if they could.

That is insulting and oppressive.

Continue reading “Identities Formed By Trauma Are Still Valid”

Identities Formed By Trauma Are Still Valid

How to Get the Most Out of Therapy

Drawing of a therapy session in progress.
Credit: Guy Shennan

When you spend a lot of money on things, they usually come with an instruction manual to help you use them in the most effective possible way. Unfortunately, therapy doesn’t.

A common misconception about therapy held by many laypeople (and, unfortunately, some therapists) is that all you have to do as a client is show up and then…some vague hand-wavey magic stuff happens, and then the client gets better. Many people think of therapy like this:

  1. Go to therapy
  2. ???
  3. PROFIT

Really, though, it’s more like this:

  1. Go to therapy
  2. Establish some rapport with the therapist before you can delve into the serious stuff
  3. Sometimes be really uncomfortable
  4. Have a lot of meta-conversations with your therapist–that is, talk to the therapist about the process of talking to the therapist
  5. Do homework (in some types of therapy)
  6. Get called on your shit by the therapist
  7. Be uncomfortable again
  8. Make changes in your life outside of therapy
  9. PROFIT

As a therapist, it’s tempting to say that you should just show up and let the therapist do their job and you’ll feel better. Sometimes that’s exactly how it works. But ultimately, you can only get as much out of therapy as you put into it.

Continue reading “How to Get the Most Out of Therapy”

How to Get the Most Out of Therapy