How to Stop Worrying About “White Knighting”

While I’m on the topic of allies:

Something that comes up a lot when talking to allies about sticking up for their marginalized friends is accusations of “white-knighting.” Most commonly, this gets lobbed at men who speak up about sexism; other men accuse them of being “white knights” and trying to protect women who can very well protect themselves.

Obviously, it’s a disingenuous claim–if I, a woman, tried to ask you not to make those rape jokes around me, you’d just tell me that you hope I get raped. When a man asks you not to make them, you tell him he’s just trying to get laid, or whatever.

So most of the time it’s bullshit. The reason people with privilege need to speak up for those without is because those without are probably exhausted, scared, and overwhelmed with trying to speak up for themselves all the time.

They also face much greater consequences for doing so. No white athlete who has spoken up about police brutality has been quite so viciously excoriated for it as Colin Kaepernick, who literally simply sat the fuck down. The fact that he did so may be part (or all) of the reason he’s currently unsigned. (This did not stop me from putting him on my fantasy team, however.)

Of course, there is such a thing as speaking over marginalized people despite one’s good intentions. (I distinguish that from speaking over marginalized people with BAD intentions, i.e. you don’t care about them.) I do have to roll my eyes at the white men who write impassioned but derivative screeds against sexism or racism, screeds which get shared and retweeted and praised, screeds which earn them podcast interviews and paid speaking and writing gigs that remain elusive for many marginalized people, especially women of color and trans people.

I think that there’s very little a white man can say about sexism or racism that hasn’t already been said better by a woman, trans/NB person, or person of color, and I think that part of the whole “using your privilege for good” thing is elevating those folks’ voices and making sure that they’re the ones speaking on panels and getting Patreon subscribers.

That doesn’t mean shut up. That means, make sure your article is full of links and credits to the people whose shoulders you’re standing on. Don’t accept the invitation to speak on a panel about sexism and racism, unless everyone else on it is a woman or person of color. Don’t respond to the effusive praise with “Thanks! :)” when you know how those same people would’ve responded if you were a woman or a person of color. Respond with, “Thanks, but I could never have written this if I hadn’t read bell hooks/Janet Mock/that woman you called a feminazi last week.”

But where “white knighting” comes up most often is in interpersonal situations. Sometimes, allies call out their friends for making bigoted jokes/claims only to have those friends point to the marginalized folks in the room and say, “Well, they don’t mind, so why are you speaking over them?” Relatively few of us in that situation would be able or willing to say, “Um, actually, I do mind…”

It’s all too easy to end up in a never-ending spiral of an argument: “Why can’t I make that joke?” “Because it’s offensive and possibly triggering to women.” “Well, none of the women here said anything about it!” “Maybe they’re just uncomfortable…” And then sometimes a random woman says,”Well, I certainly don’t care about a bit of politically incorrect humor!” And that’s that.

So, my suggestion is this: don’t try to be altruistic. Don’t see yourself as the brave defender of the marginalized and voiceless. Don’t put yourself in the awkward situation of trying to round up marginalized people who agree with you so that you can speak up for them. Don’t risk speaking for them, either, in the event that none of them actually care.

Speak up for yourself. Does bigotry bother you? If so, why? And if not, why bother?

“Stop joking about rape. I find it offensive.”

“Holocaust jokes aren’t funny. Don’t make them in my house.”

“I don’t want to hear you refer to people that way.”

For me personally, my disapproval of racist jokes has gone far beyond “it hurts Black people’s feelings.” I detest what those jokes represent. I hate the society that those ideas created, much of which continues today. It’s not just that I don’t want my Black friends to live in that world. I don’t want to live in that world. And I think I can say that while still acknowledging that I’m not the one primarily harmed by it. I do have the privilege of looking away, but I don’t, because that would contradict my own personal ethical code.

If you haven’t articulated for yourself a reason to oppose bigotry other than that it hurts other people, you’ll find yourself struggling for words in those moments. What if there aren’t any women or people of color in the room? If you’re not personally harmed by bigotry, then bigotry in those spaces becomes a victimless crime.

You also won’t know how to respond when people inevitably drag out some marginalized person who agrees with them. CNN’s Don Lemon is a Black man who believes that Black men need to stop wearing sagging pants, saying the n-word, and so on in order to improve their situation. (So, textbook respectability politics.) Emily Yoffe and Katie Roiphe are white women who believe that women who claim to be victims of sexual assault sometimes just drank too much, made “bad decisions,” and regret the sex they consented to. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an ex-Muslim refugee from Somalia who wants to reduce immigration to Europe from majority-Muslim nations. Milo Yiannopoulos is a white gay man who…well, the less said about that, the better.

Other than Milo (and maybe Hirsi Ali? Who even knows), none of these are even reactionaries or conservatives; they’re exactly the sort of folks your Totally Enlightened white male friends are likely to come across and marshal to defend their own shitty views, hoping to trap you into defending yourself against charges of “white knighting” instead.

So don’t speak for marginalized people. Speak for yourself, a privileged person who finds bigotry appalling and intolerable.


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How to Stop Worrying About “White Knighting”
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I Still Feel Anxious About Communication Every Day

I get asked a lot about how I set boundaries or communicate my feelings or do anything else in that constellation of terrifying interpersonal tasks.

Sometimes people are looking for concrete suggestions or scripts because they’re simply unsure how to put their thoughts into words. But more often, especially these days, they already know how to do that. So there’s usually something tacked onto their request, almost as an afterthought, although it’s really the main thing on their minds: “How do you set boundaries…without hurting their feelings?” “How do you tell someone they’ve upset you…without having an anxious breakdown about it?”

These are the questions I can’t really answer. I guess there’s strategies, ways you can make it easier for yourself and the other person. But you can’t control how other people feel, and often you can’t control how you feel either.

So how do you make myself vulnerable and communicate what you really feel without being anxious about it?

Maybe you can’t.

Here’s a confession: despite the fact that many people identify me as a role model when it comes to communication skills, I am not free of anxiety when it comes to communication.

Sure, it’s better than it used to be. I find that the more I cultivate relationships in which everyone intentionally and honestly shares their inner experiences–so that it’s not just me blabbing about my feelings all the time–the easier it gets. As I build up histories with people who are gentle with my vulnerability and who let themselves be vulnerable too, I gain trust that that vulnerability won’t implode, and that eases the anxiety a bit.

But I can’t tell you how to set boundaries and share your feelings “without anxiety.” I don’t do it without anxiety. I do it with anxiety, every single time.

Every time I set a boundary, I feel afraid that the person will lash out or abandon me. Every time I share negative feelings, especially negative feelings about someone’s actions, I worry that this time it’ll be too much, it’ll be the straw that broke the camel’s back, and they’ll decide that dealing with me and my feelings isn’t worth it anymore. Every time I am honest about my depression and anxiety–which often means letting them out into the open rather than suppressing their symptoms–I fear that people will recoil and withdraw.

I hate telling people they’ve hurt me. There’s no satisfaction or schadenfreude in that for me. I hate knowing that they might feel like bad friends/partners and that their guilt will be painful. Every time, I wish I could keep it to myself and get over it so that we wouldn’t have to talk about it and I wouldn’t have to take that risk. But I have to, or else those relationships will rot from the inside out.

I hate telling people I can’t make time or space for them in the way they’d like. I hate knowing that they might worry that I dislike them, and I hate that, honestly, sometimes I DO dislike them because I can’t like everyone. I hate that a lot of the time, giving them a reason would turn this into the kind of honesty that’s no longer kind or helpful. What’s someone supposed to do with the knowledge that I think they talk about their trauma too much and it exhausts me, or that they talk too loud and fast, or I don’t find them interesting because we don’t really care about any of the same things?

In my communities, we tend to cheer people on in their boundary-setting and emoting, applauding dramatic demolitions and disclosures in the hopes of helping each other feel better about being vulnerable. I’ve been praised for it and heaped praise onto others, relishing someone’s crisp shut-down of an online troll or a thoughtful post about their emotional needs.

But for the most part, real communication isn’t an Upworthy moment. It isn’t You Wouldn’t BELIEVE What Miri Did When Her Partner Accidentally Made Her Feel Like A Piece Of Shit. It’s more like, I’m crying and I hate myself for crying and I hate myself for saying that I hate myself because I’m not supposed to say that anymore and I’m trying to tell you that I hurt.

I suppose I should feel somewhat hypocritical for advising people to be honest about their feelings even though I have panic breakdowns about being honest about my feelings, but I don’t, because it’s not hypocritical. I never said it was easy; I only said it had to be done if you want better relationships than your parents had, or at least ones that don’t look like a TV sitcom.

The good news is that your communication skills aren’t measured by whether or not you can implement them without panicking, crying, or stumbling over your words. They aren’t really measured by anything at all, but if they were, it would be by your willingness to approach that scary swamp and wade around in it, and maybe even get stuck in it sometimes.

Nobody ever said you have to feel good about it.

You just have to do it.

And I can promise that it’ll get easier, and I can also promise that it probably won’t get easy.

I’m coming around to the conclusion that those feelings I described–the fear of abandonment, the guilt, the panic–are, like their cousin awkwardness, just the price of admission to being human. They certainly make it a lot harder to communicate openly, but they don’t make it impossible.

Those feelings are there because they speak to real possibilities. Sometimes you ask someone to stop hurting you and they decide that they’d rather not bother with you at all. Sometimes you try to set a boundary and the person would rather argue about it than respect it and move on. Sometimes you express your feelings as kindly as you can and people still take it personally, feel attacked, and blame you.

The only way to not have any anxiety about communicating is to do it falsely, or to stop caring if you lose people you aren’t ready to lose. Neither of those options appeals to me at all.

So if you could know–and accept–that you’re going to feel anxious and uncomfortable about speaking your truth no matter what, and if you could release yourself from the responsibility of controlling or preventing those feelings, what would you do instead?


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I Still Feel Anxious About Communication Every Day

What’s the Appeal of Anonymous-Message Apps?

When the latest anonymous-message app, Sarahah, was hitting my newsfeed–everyone seemed to have an account–I initially felt that same mixture of revulsion and curiosity that I felt when its previous iterations trended—Ask.fm, Formspring, whatever that Facebook app was ten years ago when there were still Facebook apps. This time I decided to examine the feeling.

I used to say that I don’t participate in these apps because I know that I’d just get unrelenting sexist abuse and then have to wonder which of my alleged “friends” sent it, but this time I realized there’s more than that. There is that, true. You don’t get to be a female blogger for 14 years (that’s more than half my life) without realizing how much of the internet wants to make you feel worthless and small.

But when I’m honest with myself, the compliments feel kind of gross to me, too. All of it feels gross to me. All of it is appealing for some very human reasons–which is why I have no judgment for my friends who choose to take part–but none of it contributes to the type of social interaction I want to have in my life. Even at its friendliest, it impedes direct communication and honesty. It that way, it does the opposite of what it’s supposed to.

Something I’ve noticed during my awkward and at-times painful immersion into Western culture is that white Westerners often view people and relationships in a very acontextual way. They dislike the idea that some actions (such as lying or violence) might be unethical in one context but ethical in another. They dislike the idea that someone might seem one way in one social context, and another way in another. That, to them, feels like dishonesty or “not being true to yourself,” even though that person might experience all of their many facets as equally authentic (or inauthentic, for that matter).

In this view, others’ opinions of you aren’t really supposed to matter–sure, those opinions might hurt or feel good, and they might impede your social/professional/romantic life or enhance it, but the truth of who you are is who you know yourself to be. Others’ feedback can be helpful to you in understanding that, but the context of that feedback isn’t particularly important. That means that the identity of the person giving it isn’t particularly important, either.

I used to see it this way, or tried to, when I used these apps back in high school. If someone sent me an anonymous message saying that I’m ugly and need to change my hairstyle, I would seriously wonder if I should change it–even though that message might’ve come from someone I know to be a bigot. If someone said that I’m arrogant and full of myself, I thought, maybe I am–even though that message might’ve come from a sexist man who thinks that all women are arrogant if they aren’t simpering, apologetic damsels.

With these anonymous message apps, we’re meant to feel bad when someone insults us and to feel good when someone confesses they’ve had a crush on us for years–but for me, nowadays, those things mean absolutely nothing when divorced so entirely from any sort of social context.

Someone out there thinks I’m ugly. Someone thinks I’m their soulmate. Someone thinks I’m not nearly as smart as I apparently think I am. So what? I’m pretty sure I could go through the dictionary, find every adjective that could possibly be applied to a human being, and find someone, somewhere, out of all the thousands of people I’ve interacted with in some way throughout my life, who would describe me using that word.

So what?

I would feel positively gleeful if a sexist man I can’t stand thinks I’m ugly, and I would feel horrified if my boss has been in love with me for years. I would feel devastated if someone I’m interested in thinks I’m ugly, but delighted if they’ve been in love with me for years. (Well, maybe. That’s a bit much. But the point stands.) But when you take identity out of it, these anonymous messages are really just random blips of language floating in a void, totally context-free and mostly meaningless.

But besides the fact that it doesn’t really mean anything, I also think it’s harmful to healthy communication and relationships. To start with the obvious example, if you’re still hanging around on my friends list even though you can’t stand me, that’s not a healthy situation. You should unfriend me. If we are good friends and you’re upset or angry about something I did, and you don’t feel like you can tell me directly, then something’s very broken in our friendship. Either I haven’t created a safe space for my friends to hold me accountable for hurting them, or you have such a negatively distorted view of me that you don’t trust me to accept accountability.

Either way, something is fucked up and messaging me anonymously about it won’t fix it, not least of all because I won’t even know who it is that I’ve hurt!

Likewise, if you want to express that you have a crush on me but you don’t want me to know it’s you, something’s weird. What’s the point of anonymously telling someone you’re interested in them? Obviously nothing can actually happen. They can’t let you know that they’re interested too, and you can’t find out that they don’t think of you that way so that you can start moving on. Sending an anonymous message gives you the illusion of having “done something” about the feeling, except of course you really haven’t—even if you vented to a friend about it, you’d at least be getting some commiseration about it from them. This way, all you’re doing is inflicting some mildly frustrating curiosity on your recipient.

Most people who enjoy using apps like Sarahah enjoy them because of the thoughtful compliments they sometimes receive, often detailed explanations of how the person felt inspired or supported by whoever they’re complimenting. I find these messages really sweet, but I wonder–again–what the point is of sending them anonymously.

If my friends feel inspired or supported by me, of course I want to know, because it feels nice and because I want to keep doing what I’m doing right. But if they don’t tell me who they are, then I can’t connect their praise to any actions on my part. And if they don’t feel comfortable telling me directly, again, I have to wonder why that is.

When I found myself wanting to make a Sarahah account, I realized that what I really wanted was a social landscape in which I can trust people to say what they mean and mean what they say. A landscape in which people (compassionately, if possible) let me know if I’m harming them rather than seething silently about it, and tell me when I make their lives better rather than assuming that I’m confident enough not to care about compliments.

And, sure, it’d be nice if someone I like turned out to have a crush on me. (But in a totally O. Henry-esque twist, my conversations about this with a friend who has similar views about it as I do led us to tell each other that we’re both interested in each other. No anonymous apps needed.)

But Sarahah won’t bring about that kind of trust and openness. If anything, it’ll only harm it further.

The more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I was with the ways in which Sarahah weaved itself through my newsfeed. It was like the junior high cafeteria all over again, but digitally. Folks would post screenshots of anonymous crush confessions, inviting the sender to “let me know who you are! ;)” as friends tried to guess their identity in the comments. They’d post criticism, too—fair and unfair—and their friends would fill up the comments with furious denunciations of the anonymous critic and how they “have no idea what they’re talking about, you’re one of the kindest people I know.”

It seemed less about “feedback” and more about connecting with the (non-anonymous) people responding to it, which I suppose isn’t surprising—like I said, anonymous messages don’t really facilitate any actual connection.

After grappling for a while with the question of whether or not to make an account, I ended up sharing some of these thoughts on Facebook and inviting my friends to reach out directly if they had anything to say to me. A few did.

But the best thing—the only thing, really—that I can do to create the types of social interactions I want is to model them myself and to continue showing myself to be the type of person that others can safely give feedback to. And that is maddeningly difficult and slow-paced, and I don’t blame anyone for reaching for anything that seems like a shortcut.


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What’s the Appeal of Anonymous-Message Apps?

Polyamory 201: Cultivating Jealousy

The idea that jealousy stems from personal insecurities rather than the actions of the person you’re jealous towards is a common introductory polyamory mantra. It’s important because we’re all coming at this from a culture that centers and compels monogamy (and an unhealthy and coercive extreme of it at that). One of the tenets of mononormativity is that in romantic relationships, people “make” each other jealous. You are jealous because I smiled at a cute person at the bar. I’m jealous because you spend almost as much time with a female friend as you do with me.

This mentality allows people to blame each other for their own feelings and, sometimes, pressure each other to change their behavior. I’m jealous because you spend almost as much time with a female friend as you do with me, so you’re not allowed to see her anymore except at social events, and if you do it anyway, then you have “broken a rule” and are obviously in the wrong.

While some people are probably able to make this work, they run a high risk of developing resentment towards their partners and making the issue worse rather than better. Instead of addressing why I have such a problem with you being friends with women, now I’m jealous about another of your female friends. I don’t want you seeing her that much, either.

Because this approach to managing jealousy is so common, it makes sense to encourage people to first look for the roots of jealousy in the fertile soil of their own insecurity. But once we move on from Polyamory 101, we need to acknowledge the fact that others’ actions can cultivate jealousy even in people who otherwise wouldn’t have felt it. Sometimes this is unintentional, and sometimes it isn’t. Some people try to artificially create jealousy as a way to control others.

First, a caveat that jealousy is a loaded and imprecise term that makes it really difficult to communicate effectively. That’s why I wrote this piece about different feelings that are often called jealousy. I’m using “jealousy” as an umbrella term here.

Unclear communication

Say I’m at a bar with my (nonmonogamous) partner, and while I’m off ordering a drink I notice them flirting pretty obviously with someone. After the person leaves, I sidle up to my partner and say, “Soooo, who’s that cutie you were talking to?”

There are basically two types of people at this point. One would say, “Oh, their name is Sam and they came over to compliment my Star Wars t-shirt. Think I should ask for their number?”

The other would say, “What? That was nobody. I don’t know them or anything. Why?”

Yes, even in poly relationships.

If you’ve ever had a partner get weird and cagey at you like that, you know that it’s a magical jealousy-inducing elixir. Sure, not everyone would care, but even I–with my solo poly, no-rules approach to things–would wonder why my partner is dodging the topic as if they have something to hide. Maybe I should feel bad about it.

Sometimes people get cagey like this because they’re still recovering from mononormative contexts in which virtually any interaction with a member of their preferred gender(s) needs to be shrouded in secrecy (not that caginess is effective there either). No matter how friendly or playful my tone, any variation on “Who’s that person you were talking to”/”Are you interested in them” sounds like an accusation and the learned response is to shut down.

Unfortunately, there is probably no way to have a healthy and transparent nonmonogamous relationship without occasionally asking a partner about someone they might be (or are) interested in, so you’ll probably have to work on that.

And, of course, people who have been in abusive relationships in the past may have learned to keep their cards close to the chest. But my argument isn’t that it’s always your fault; it’s that this communication style can cause jealousy even in folks who have worked through their insecurities.

Some people do it on purpose. They know that hedging and obfuscating is a way to create jealousy–which, of course, they can then blame on their partner. “I said it was nothing. You’re acting crazy.” The more subtle ones do it differently: “I’m so sorry. I should’ve been more clear with you. Of course you’d feel that way.” But then they simply do the same thing over and over.

In a healthy nonmonogamous relationship, someone’s desire to know more about their partner’s other interests/partners is treated as healthy and normal. While there are obviously things that you’re entitled to keep to yourself–especially when they involve another person’s privacy–trying to hide crushes or flirtation from a partner is a sign that something’s wrong. And if someone keeps basic information like “I’m interested in dating that person” from their partners and then turns around and blames them for feeling weird about it, that’s a red flag for abuse.

Comparison

Say my partner Alex also dates Sam. During a date with Alex, my chronic illness flares up and I regretfully ask if we can go home early so I can rest. Alex agrees, but sighs and says, “I wish this didn’t keep happening. At least with Sam I get to stay out late and have fun.”

Would you blame me for being a little jealous of Alex and Sam’s relationship?

That example was also horrifyingly ableist, but not all comparisons are so obviously awful. Say Alex likes smoking pot with their partners and finds it a really fun and meaningful way to spend time with someone. They ask if I’d be interested, and I say, “No, I’m not comfortable with pot.” Alex says, “Huh, really? I had no idea. Sam loves it.”

Alex probably didn’t mean anything by it, but saying no is already difficult for many people, and drugs are a difficult subject for a lot of people, and in this context, a lot of people would feel a little slighted. If I said no to something a partner asked me to do with them and they responded by immediately letting me know that another partner likes doing it with them, I’d wonder if they’re trying to pressure me, or subtly let me know that if I don’t do this thing with them, then something’s missing from our relationship.

Of course, in reality, poly people often do different activities with different partners, or admire different traits about them. I really love dancing, and during times when I didn’t have any partners who liked dancing, it was really nice to start dating someone new who does. In fact, it’d get a little boring to date a bunch of people who all like to do the exact same things.

But comparing people to each other, even if you mean no harm by it, is a really tricky area. The fact that Sam likes smoking pot has nothing to do with the fact that I just declined to. The fact that Sam is able to stay out really late has no bearing on whether or not my physical condition allows that.

That particular example is also a good illustration of how comparison can become coercive. If you’re comparing partners in order to make them feel bad about themselves, you’re not just triggering jealousy–you’re also abusing them.

New Relationship Energy

NRE–that feeling when you’ve just started crushing on or dating someone and you’re kind of obsessed with them and want to see them and talk to/about them constantly–is a big driver of jealousy. Long-term relationships eventually settle into a comfortable rhythm where you’re not necessarily desperate to constantly see, talk to, and have sex with each other–even though you’re probably very much in love and an integral part of each other’s lives.

When a new partner comes along, you may suddenly find yourself putting energy and attention into that relationship to a degree that you haven’t been with your preexisting partner(s). Suddenly you’re staying up all night to talk and have sex, telling everyone who will listen about this awesome new person you’re seeing, and responding emotionally to their every text or call in a way that you just wouldn’t when it’s someone you’ve been with for years. (I just can’t imagine myself screaming “OHMYGOD THEY JUST TEXTED ME” to my roommate when I’ve been dating them for two years, you know?)

For many people, NRE is normal and natural. There’s nothing wrong with feeling that way, and it can feel awesome. (Other people, like me, kinda hate that feeling, but that’s a separate issue.)

However, it can also bring up complicated feelings for the non-NRE partner. Maybe I’ve been kind of wishing we had sex more often and trying to find a way to bring it up, but now you’re having sex with someone else more in a week than we do in a month. Maybe I’ve wanted to have an occasional date night at a nice restaurant, but you said it’s not worth the money…but now you’re having those kinds of dates with someone else.

Even if you know your partner doesn’t “owe” you anything, it can still hurt when you’ve been communicating your desire for more/different connection and not getting it–and now your partner is doing that with someone else. It can also make you aware of needs and desires that you didn’t even realize you had. Maybe you’ve always thought of yourself as an introvert and a homebody, but your partner describes an exciting date spent dancing at a club and you realize that you want to try that, too.

Often, the NRE partner has no idea their non-NRE partner is feeling this way, and an honest conversation can go a long way in helping them meet each other’s needs despite the NRE.

Some people, though, really do have a pattern of going “OOH SHINY” and ignoring/neglecting a preexisting partner in favor of a new one. Needless to say, it can be really, really destabilizing when a committed partner suddenly drops off the face of the earth because they’re interested in someone new. If that describes you, you might be better off dating casually or doing serial monogamy rather than polyamory.


In all of these examples, jealousy is a canary in a coal mine. The root of the problem isn’t that someone is feeling jealous. It’s that someone feels like their partner is keeping things from them, comparing them unfavorably to others, or tossing them aside in favor of someone new.

If you’re in one of these situations and you treat jealousy like a personal problem for the jealous person to “work on,” you miss an opportunity to address what’s really going on. You may also miss a major red flag for abuse–as I’ve discussed, some of these behaviors can become abusive if they’re part of a larger pattern of controlling someone else.

If you’re unsure whether or not that’s happening in your relationship, here are some troubling signs to watch out for:

  • Your partner insists that your jealous feelings are entirely your own problem to work on, and refuses to change anything about their behavior or help you through this process. (Even in non-hierarchical contexts where it’s not expected that people will prioritize one partner over another, partners should still support each other emotionally insofar as they have the capacity to. “That’s your problem, deal with it on your own” is, at best, a red flag.
  • Your partner psychoanalyzes you in order to blame you for your jealous feelings. (“If you’d stop comparing everyone to your one ex who cheated on you, maybe you wouldn’t feel this way.)
  • Your partner holds you to a higher standard than they hold themselves. For instance, when they feel jealous, they expect you to change your behavior, but when you feel jealous, they expect you to work through those feelings without any changes from them.
  • The particular things your partner does that trigger jealousy always seem to happen right after an argument–especially an argument that ends with you doing something they don’t want you to do.
  • The particular things your partner does that trigger jealousy always seem to be a way to get you to change your behavior somehow. (For instance, see my first example under “comparison.”
  • Your partner gaslights you–denies your experiences or reality. If you saw them talking to someone at the bar and they literally deny having talked to anyone at the bar, that’s pretty fucked up.
  • Your partner refuses to provide the sort of basic information nonmonogamous people need to know to maintain safety and healthy boundaries. If they won’t tell you how many other folks they’re seeing or what their level of physical involvement is with those people, you can’t make the decisions you need to make about your sexual health. Even if you’re using barriers for all forms of sexual activity, you deserve to have some sense of what your risk level might be. Someone who keeps this information from you is either completely unprepared for any sort of healthy relationship, or is actively trying to control you. This isn’t cool or mysterious or edgy; it’s controlling and dangerous.

Just like everything useful and catchy, the idea that jealousy originates entirely within the jealous person eventually outlives its usefulness. To make an ethical nonmonogamous relationship work–especially if you’re doing it without rules and hierarchies–you’ll have to examine jealousy in a more nuanced way.


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Polyamory 201: Cultivating Jealousy

The Intersection of Guess Culture and Sex is Rape Culture

[Content note: sexual violence]

In discussions about “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a Christmas song in which a man persistently pressures a woman to stay at his house instead of going home to her family for the night, many consent-aware people point out that given the time period in which the song was written, it should be interpreted as playful, fully-consensual banter.

Even the line, “Say, what’s in this drink?” is meant as a jokey reference to how strong the alcohol is rather than the way we read it today–an implication that date rape drugs are involved. Viewed in its proper context, the song is actually a celebration of female sexual agency–something that wasn’t exactly condoned at the time–because the woman in the song is clearly looking for excuses to stay with the guy she likes.

Given my own cultural background, I have a lot of sympathy for this interpretation because it’s exactly how I was brought up to expect these things to go. I’ve had consensual, fun interactions of this sort with partners. It was how I always interpreted the song growing up.

But as others have pointed out, even this interpretation means that women cannot say “yes” to sex directly and that’s nothing to be celebrated. That’s part of the problem. If men cannot expect women to say “yes” directly–if they’re taught that sometimes, “no” actually means “yes”–that creates way too much room for misinterpretation and sexual violence.

I’ve written about Guess Culture here a lot. The type of interaction presented in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a great example of Guess Culture. The man in the song never comes out and says that he wants to have sex. In fact, he never even directly asks the woman to stay the night. Instead, he encourages her to stay later than she meant, have another drink, it’s so cold outside, you wouldn’t want to go outside in that, imagine how bad I’d feel if anything happened to you…

Likewise, the woman neither says, “I really want to stay over but I can’t this time,” nor “I’m not interested in you that way, I’m leaving.” Instead, she’s supposed to understand that the man is implying that he wants to have sex, and he’s supposed to understand that…this is where things get a little hazy. Critics of the song say that he’s supposed to understand that she’s actually not interested but won’t say so directly because she’s been socialized not to and doesn’t want to hurt his feelings. People who think the song is fine say that he’s supposed to understand that she really wants to stay, perhaps even intends to, but feels obligated to first present this list of “excuses” to show that she’s a “good girl” who won’t just jump right into bed with someone.

And like I said, it could totally happen that way. I’ve had it happen that way. Maybe the specific people in this song are an established couple for whom this is an established consensual pattern. (But just because they’re an established couple for whom this is an established pattern does not necessarily make it consensual.)

The problem is that:

There is no way for the man to know if she’s saying yes or no.

And when your “yes” looks and sounds exactly the same as your “no,” you’re not communicating effectively. When your “hey, I’m really worried about you going out in this weather, please crash here for the night” sounds exactly the same as your “I’m having sex with you tonight whether you like it or not,” you’re not communicating effectively. But if you would like to violate people’s boundaries, having the latter sound exactly like the former is very clever.

That’s who this communication style is primarily serving.

When people say that we live in a rape culture, we don’t mean that all rape is considered permissible in all circumstances, or that all sex is rape, or even that all sex without clear and explicit consent is rape. What we do mean is that our culture normalizes sexual practices and ways of interacting that sharply increase the likelihood that people will have sex with someone without their consent–that they will commit sexual violence.

One of the ways this works is plausible deniability. In our culture, someone can say something like, “But I totally thought they were into it! I thought they’d say no if they actually wanted me to stop!” and people treat this as evidence against sexual assault. Someone can intentionally violate someone’s boundaries and say the exact same thing and get away with it.

That’s why “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is kind of terrifying regardless of the context it was originally written in, or the feelings of the hypothetical people in the song. In real life, a woman in that situation might feel wanted, cared about, and flirted with. Or she might feel pressured, coerced, and trapped. As the other person in that interaction, how are you supposed to know? You can’t.

I get that many people find these interactions fun and exciting. I get that it’s how many of us were raised. I get that even I might momentarily feel kind of unwanted if I playfully say, “Oh, I don’t think so, I really have to go…” and a partner immediately says, “Oh ok I’ll take you home right now then!” I get that for many of us, women and folks socialized as women especially, it can be hard to believe that someone really wants us if they don’t seem to “fight” for it.

But mind-reading is a hell of a flimsy hook to hang your bodily autonomy on.


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The Intersection of Guess Culture and Sex is Rape Culture

Niceness and Kindness

When deciding how to act, I find it helpful to distinguish between niceness and kindness.

To most people, those are probably synonymous; Merriam-Webster uses “kind” as part of its definition for “nice.” I’m probably the only person who defines these words the way I do, but that’s okay. I’m aware of how other people use them, and that allows me to be clear with others. But when I need to be clear with myself, my definitions are much more useful.

To me, niceness is making others feel good or comfortable. Niceness is being polite. Niceness happens in those moments when the way you want to treat someone aligns well with the way they want to be treated by you. Niceness is when both of you walk away from the interaction with a smile on your faces.

Kindness is being genuine. Kindness is looking out for someone’s long-term growth or needs. Kindness may be nice, but it doesn’t have to be. For instance, helping someone move into a new house is both nice and kind. Telling someone that they have hurt you may not be nice, but it is kind–both to yourself and to them, because it allows them to improve and to preserve their relationship with you if that’s what they want to do.

Obviously, there’s a lot of overlap between nice and kind. But just like authentic, meaningful, and productive interactions don’t always feel good, interactions that feel good aren’t always authentic, meaningful, or productive. If a coworker irritates and frustrates me by trying to start conversations with me early in the morning before I’m ready to interact with people, I may choose to just be polite and smile back and chat with them rather than letting them know that this isn’t a good way of interacting for me. They get to leave the conversation feeling good, but neither of us has moved forward in any way.

And a lot of the time, that’s okay. It’s tempting to elevate kindness above niceness as the clearly superior way of interacting, but it’s not. First of all, kindness tends to involve a lot more emotional labor. We may not always have the capacity for that, or be willing to spend that energy in a particular situation. Second, kindness may not always be the wisest course of action. Telling my coworker how I feel about early-morning conversation may help them be more considerate towards me and maybe others too, but it can also cause unnecessary workplace conflict and give me a reputation for being cranky and unfriendly. That sort of thing is always an individual’s call to make–for you, getting someone to stop bugging you at 8 AM may be important enough to risk that, but for me it isn’t.

Trying to insert kindness into situations where it’s not warranted and wasn’t asked for can also mean giving people unsolicited help or advice. You may think it’s kind to rush over and help a stranger at the gym when you see them lifting weights improperly, but they may see this as intrusive, nosy, and rude. On the other hand, if you’re a personal trainer, letting your client know their form is off is definitely the kind thing to do (not to mention part of your job), even if it makes the client feel embarrassed or frustrated. The difference is that your client consented to have you comment on their workout; the stranger didn’t.

The reason these redefinitions are so important to me is that they create space for me to be good to other people without necessarily making them happy. A lot of the discourse on boundaries attempts to reclaim the idea of selfishness as a positive, and while I find this extremely valuable, I also think it sets up a false dichotomy in which setting your boundaries is “selfish” (whether that’s a positive or a negative) and doing what other people want is “selfless” or “nice.”

While setting boundaries can hurt people’s feelings and is therefore not exactly a “nice” thing to do, it is a fundamentally kind thing to do–not just for yourself, but for them. When you set a boundary with someone, you are giving them important information that they need. You are helping them figure out how to maintain a healthy relationship with you. You are trusting them and letting them get to know you better. You are relieving any anxiety they might’ve had about whether or not they were crossing your boundaries–now they know for sure, and can avoid doing it in the future.

Similarly, breaking up with someone or saying “no” if they ask you out on a date may hurt them, but it’s also the kinder choice. The alternative is leading them on or confusing them when you already know you’re not interested. That’s why making it a goal to always make people feel good–that is, prioritizing niceness–can actually be very harmful in the long run, both to yourself and to others.

I mentioned earlier that too much kindness, or kindness at inappropriate times, can look like trying to help people when they don’t want it or in ways they don’t need. Too much niceness looks like trying to manipulate people’s emotions by keeping them from ever being upset–specifically, upset at you.

Excessive niceness can also be extraordinarily unkind. If you continue a relationship you don’t want to be in so that you don’t hurt the person’s feelings, that prevents them from coping with the truth, moving on, and maybe putting their energy into finding someone who actually wants to be with them.

Sometimes I like being nice. Doing little polite things for people or making small talk with a coworker may not be particularly genuine actions–especially not these days when I’m pretty depressed–but they make people feel at least a little bit good and as a result I feel good too.

Sometimes I decide that being nice is not my priority. As a therapist, I can’t always be nice. However gently I hold clients accountable for harming themselves or others, it’s not going to feel good. As a partner, I can’t always be nice either. However hard I might try to keep the terseness out of my voice when I say I’m too tired for something or that I need to stop what we’re doing, some part of my pain or irritation will seep through and that’s okay.

Some people don’t deserve either niceness or kindness from me, but distinguishing those two things helps me avoid mistreating people when there’s no need to. Just because I can’t be nice to them doesn’t mean I can’t be kind; just because I can’t be kind to them doesn’t mean I can’t be nice.


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Niceness and Kindness

How Should We Respond to Passive Communication?

[CN: probably skip this one if you think passive communication/Guess Culture is good/acceptable/necessary.]

One of my biggest interpersonal struggles is deciding how to respond to passive communication from others.

A resource from the University of Kentucky Violence Intervention and Prevention Center defines passive communication like this:

PASSIVE COMMUNICATION is a style in which individuals have developed a pattern of avoiding expressing their opinions or feelings, protecting their rights, and identifying and meeting their needs. As a result, passive individuals do not respond overtly to hurtful or anger-inducing situations. Instead, they allow grievances and annoyances to mount, usually unaware of the buildup. But once they have reached their high tolerance threshold for unacceptable behavior, they are prone to explosive outbursts, which are usually out of proportion to the triggering incident. After the outburst, however, they may feel shame, guilt, and confusion, so they return to being passive.

In their book on polyamory, More Than Two, Eve Rickert and Franklin Veaux define passive communication this way:

Passive communication refers to communicating through subtext, avoiding direct statements, and looking for hidden meanings. Passive communicators may use techniques such as asking questions or making vague, indirect statements in place of stating needs, preferences or boundaries. Directly asking for what you want creates vulnerability, and passive communication often comes from a desire to avoid this vulnerability. Passive communication also offers plausible deniability; if we state a desire for something indirectly, and we don’t get it, it’s easy to claim we didn’t really want it. Stating our needs means standing up for them and taking the risk that others may not agree to meet them.

Although I understand that cultural/social/familial norms differ, I’m strongly against passive communication, Guess Culture, and anything else in that vein in my personal life. (My opinion is that those things are often harmful to others too, and much of this blog is based on that opinion, but that’s up to you.) I come from a family and a culture that thrives on Guess Culture, so I’m not coming at this from some hyper-individualistic American perspective. My perspective is that I’ve seen firsthand the harm this communication style does and I refuse to participate in it anymore.

But refusing to participate is complicated for two reasons. One is that when you’re raised with something like this, you’re inevitably going to fall back into it, especially when you’re hurt, angry, or otherwise not firing on all mental cylinders. That’s compounded by the fact that I’m still very close with my family, which means that I have to communicate the way they do when I’m with them. The result is that I get plenty of practice at communicating passively, even though I try to be more direct with my family than I used to be.

The second reason is that other people use passive communication too, and it’s not always practical, possible, or desirable to just cut all those people out of your life. Sure, I find some people toxically passive-aggressive and avoid having anything to do with them, but most of the people I encounter who communicate passively are, like me, just trying to get themselves out of that mindset and they’re going to slip up from time to time. To me, that’s not something to dump a friend or partner over.

So, when I sense that someone is upset with me because they’re dropping little hints but won’t say anything directly, or when I tell someone about my weekend plans and they sigh and wistfully say, “That sounds so fun, I wish I had someone to do that with…”, I honestly don’t really know what to do. Ignoring the subtext seems like a jerk move, but taking the bait teaches the person that this is an effective (and acceptable) way to communicate with me. All that does is set up a situation where they never feel like they have to actually state their feelings and desires directly, and when I have to constantly read between someone’s lines like that, I will eventually fuck up, and they will be upset and resentful that I didn’t magically know what they felt or wanted.

You might think I’m exaggerating–what’s the big deal with inviting someone along to do Thing because they seem sad that they don’t have anyone to do Thing with?–but in my experience, passive communicators don’t choose just one thing to communicate passively about. Furthermore, it traps me into communicating passively, too, because being direct with passive communicators often backfires. When I was younger, I used to ask people things like, “Are you asking to be invited?” or “Are you saying you have a crush on me?”, only to be met with angry denials and dismissal.

As it turns out, many passive communicators seem to wish people could read their minds right up until they actually do. Instead, you end up swept up into that sort of game-playing right along with them. Most of our popular cultural scripts around sex and romance rely on this–you can never come right out and say that you like someone, and you can’t ask them if they like you, either.

Some passive communicators are hoping that you’ll ask them, though. The typical example is someone who silently huffs until you ask them why they’re upset. Then they’ll insist that it’s “nothing” and you have to keep asking until they finally unleash a whole list of things you’ve been doing for weeks or months that upset them and you had no idea. (Although the sexist stereotype is that this is a “female” thing to do, I assure you, it’s quite gender-neutral.)

It can feel like a jerk move to ignore the fact that someone seems to be upset at you, and it can seem like a very small deal to ask them if you’ve upset them. The problem is that when this becomes a pattern–and with people who habitually communicate in a passive way, it will–it creates a very unequal burden of emotional labor. Rather than just being responsible for listening to them, respecting their boundaries, owning your mistakes, and communicating your own needs and feelings, you are now also responsible for laboriously extracting theirs from them like a dentist performing a root canal.

Some people are totally fine with that dynamic. I, however, am not.

(Some people who are totally fine with that dynamic later realize they’re completely overwhelmed by the disproportionate emotional labor, but that’s a separate article.)

But there are times when being receptive to passive communication is an ethical imperative, and that’s when it comes to setting boundaries.

Because of the way that most women and many people of other genders are socialized, many of them end up uncomfortable or even unable to state boundaries directly. It’s a skill we have to relearn as adults. (I say “relearn” because most little children have no trouble with this. It’s only as they get older that they learn that saying “no” is somehow wrong.) That’s why “no means no” was insufficient as a sexual assault prevention slogan–many people don’t say “no” directly. Instead, they communicate their “no” passively–through silence, closed-off body language, uncertainty, and all sorts of other signals that are definitely not meant to communicate a “yes.”

In my personal life, I prefer to interact with people who are able to tell me directly when they want me to stop doing something or when something isn’t working for them, because for me that’s a major part of trust and intimacy. But if someone communicates a boundary indirectly, I respect it anyway–possibly checking in about it later, if appropriate, so that I can make sure I understood correctly and didn’t cross any other boundaries.

So if I ask someone if they want to have sex (to be frank, this almost never happens, but let’s pretend it does for the sake of example), and they say, “Well, I don’t know…I have to get up early tomorrow…” I just go ahead and consider that a “no,” even though it’s technically a passive way of communicating “no.”

That’s an easy call because I consider boundaries so important. But with anything other than that, I just don’t think the excess emotional labor is justified.

Refusing to read double and triple meanings into people’s words is also a way of pushing back against my own upbringing. Because, yeah, I’m really tempted to do it. My parents taught me to do it, not just by example but through direct teaching (“Maybe she said that because she’s secretly upset that you didn’t invite her to your birthday party.”). I’m also really good at it, which is both a blessing and a curse. (As I said, people rarely like it when they realize how well they’ve been understood when what they really wanted was to obfuscate.) So at some point I have to say enough and just opt out.

I also hope that it encourages people to be direct with me. The ones who can’t do that decide that I’m oblivious, selfish, or both and fade out of my life; the ones who decide that they want what they want from me badly enough to ask for it directly, ask for it directly.

Any discussion of passive communication and its nasty cousin, passive-aggressiveness, inevitably elicits rationalizations and justifications for this kind of behavior. Maybe that’s what they learned growing up. Maybe they were abused and this is their way of coping. Maybe they don’t think their desires are valid so they feel too ashamed to ask for them directly. Maybe they have social anxiety and can’t bear rejection. Maybe they can’t trust me enough to risk being direct.

Look, I’ve been through a lot of that and I get it. But just because a particular behavior once made sense as a response to a particular environment doesn’t mean it’s still adaptive or reasonable. And it definitely doesn’t mean I’m obligated to do harm to myself in order to accommodate it. Maybe if you trust me so little that you can’t be direct with me, then we have no business being friends or partners.

Passive communication doesn’t work for me. Except for boundaries, which I will always go far out of my way to perceive and respect, this is not a communication style that I can sustainably use (or have used with me).

I’m genuinely sorry if that makes anyone feel like they can’t interact with me, but not sorry enough to ever go back to being a passive communicator.


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How Should We Respond to Passive Communication?

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

[Content note: sexual harassment and assault]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Some Totally Unsolicited Advice About Forum Moderation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s annoying!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Some Totally Unsolicited Advice About Forum Moderation

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