The Role of Allies in Queer Spaces

Why do LGBTQ groups, events, and spaces often explicitly welcome allies–heterosexual, cisgender people who support LGBTQ people and their rights?

If you ask most allies (and probably even some LGBTQ people), it’s probably some version of this: “We need allies and their support. Including them in these spaces helps them learn about LGBTQ issues and how they can help. Without allies, this group would just be a segregated bubble and we shouldn’t separate people like that.”

Fair. But actually, the more compelling reason to welcome allies has nothing to do with allies themselves, and everything to do with people who are closeted, questioning, or otherwise not able to be out as LGBTQ.

If your high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance welcomes allies, that means that you can attend even if you’re not sure what your orientation is or aren’t ready to share it.

If the local LGBTQ community band welcomes allies, you can join and make some queer and trans friends even if you’ve only just started questioning your gender and aren’t sure which–if any–steps you want to take towards transition.

If the Pride parade welcomes allies and your parents see photos of you at it on Facebook, you can tell them that you were there supporting your best friend who’s gay–and maybe they’re way more okay with that than they would be with finding out that you’re a lesbian.

And if LGBTQ community center welcomes allies, you can attend with your partner, knowing that the two of you may present as a straight couple, without worrying (as much) about proving to anyone that you’re actually bi. It doesn’t take away the pain of not being recognized for who you are, but at least you don’t have to worry that anyone will ask you what you’re doing there.

So here comes the difficult thing. The uncomfortable piece of this that’s so hard to talk about.

If the main purpose of including allies in certain LGBTQ spaces is actually to provide “cover” of sorts for closeted, questioning, or “passing” individuals, what about actual allies–people who know with relative certainty that they are straight and cis? What’s their role here?

It depends on the space. In groups focused on activism, having actual allies involved can be very important, since they can use their privilege to advocate for marginalized folks. Allies should keep themselves informed on what needs to be done–does your city lack anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ workers? Are city officials being held accountable for police violence against trans people of color? Do local healthcare providers offer competent care for LGBTQ patients? Allies absolutely have a place in all of these battles–although the agenda should be determined by LGBTQ folks, and marginalized groups within that spectrum should especially be included in that. (Yo, LGBTQ groups: you need people of color and trans people in leadership roles.)

But what about spaces focused more on community building or support? Again, it depends. I like the fact that my LGBTQ band welcomes allies because that means that I can encourage straight cis friends to join and play music with us. Although the space is very much queer, having allies present doesn’t detract from that at all.

The reason that works is because the band is primarily a place to make music and have fun, not to meet potential partners (though I’m sure that happens), have deep discussions about gender and sexuality (though that almost certainly also happens), or kvetch about straight allies (I don’t think that really happens).

But when allies show up in places that are more explicitly for emotional support and creating a safe space, it doesn’t sit right with me. It can keep us from having painful conversations that need to be had, because in my experience, most allies eventually fail to restrain themselves from making well-intentioned but cloying comments about “but I accept you for who you are!” and “you just have to be yourself and you’ll find your special person someday.” In fact, even having the conversation I’m having with you right now would be impossible, because allies feel personally attacked by it and jump in with “so I guess we should just avoid all spaces where LGBTQ people hang out, then?”

When allies are present, I’m much more likely to end up explaining exactly why I feel the way I do about a given situation rather than receiving support around it, or having others chime in with their own (relevant) experiences. For instance, when I’ve tried to discuss the issues I raised in this article with allies, they typically say stuff like, “But surely there are other queer women out there who want to date women” or “But if you’re attracted to all genders, what does it matter which gender your partner is?” Fellow queer women and nonbinary folks tend to say, “Wow, that’s exactly how I feel and it’s so painful.” Guess which response is more helpful to me, and which leads to a more healing conversation.

But what bothers me even more about allies in queer support spaces is the reasons they give when asked why they’re there. The ally who says, “My queer friend asked me to join when I asked how I can better support them” is few and far between. Usually they say things like, “I just really care about supporting LGBTQ people” (despite the fact that we establish these spaces in order to seek support from people who share our experiences) or, worse, “I want to learn about issues facing LGBTQ people.”

So here we are, talking about our most painful and personal feelings, while “allies” gawk on silently so that they can “learn” about us. That doesn’t sound like a support group; it sounds like a zoo.

There is, in fact, an abundance of ways for people to learn about issues facing LGBTQ people. There are now hundreds, thousands of books and blogs like this one. There are LGBT centers in most cities that sponsor educational events open for everyone. There are public lectures, readings, open mics, museum exhibits, and other resources in most cities. Just in Columbus, just this past week, there have been so many things to do:

Looking forward, there’s even more stuff:

  • Thursday, September 21 is the monthly Columbus Queer Open Mic at Wild Goose Creative.
  • On September 23, the Ohio History Center and the Gay Ohio History Initiative (GOHI) will be hosting an LGBTQ Community Day, which will feature the museum’s collection of LGBTQ-related historical items. There will also be a screening of Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens, a documentary film about Columbus’ drag scene, followed by a panel discussion with some of the performers.
  • Also on September 23, Bi Local, a group supporting bi/pan/queer folks in Columbus, presents its annual Bi Visibility Celebration, featuring burlesque, comedy, and more.
  • On September 26, BQIC hosts an open mic night.
  • On October 1, the King Avenue United Methodist Church hosts Darren Calhoun, a Black Chicago-based activist, photographer, and worship leader who will discuss the intersections of racial and LGBTQ identity.
  • On October 4, the Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO), an organization that works to eliminate violence against LGBTQ people, will host a training on that subject.
  • On October 19 and 20, the Equitas Health Institute hosts its annual conference, Transforming Care, which focuses on health disparities in the LGBTQ and HIV+ communities. Julia Serano will be speaking!
  • On November 4, the Capital Pride Concert Band, which I play in, performs at the Lincoln Theater.

So there you go. In about a month and a half in Columbus, which isn’t a particularly large or bustling city, you can learn about stopping homophobic/transphobic violence, health disparities affecting people with HIV, Ohio’s queer history, supporting your queer/trans child, how religious spaces can become more inclusive to queer folks, why drag is a haven for some LGBTQ people, how mainstream LGBTQ communities alienate and perpetuate racism against queer and trans people of color, and why Alison Bechdel is a fantastic human being. No need to insert yourself into queer support spaces.

But most of the time, this conversation gets shut down before it even really gets going. It happens in four stages:

  1. A queer person brings up the question of allies’ place in a given space/community and says that they’re not entirely comfortable with allies sticking around just to…ally themselves or whatever it is they’re doing.
  2. An ally points out that they’ve learned so much from being in this space, and that if everyone REALLY wants them to leave of course they’ll leave, but that would make them very sad because they’ve been very supportive and have learned a lot and the LGBTQ community can’t make progress if it shuts itself off from allies, and besides, they would NEVER demand excess emotional labor from queer people and expect them to explain everything and so on.

  3. Another queer person points out that we can’t just avoid everyone who isn’t like us forever, and also makes the (in my opinion) much more relevant point that you can’t “ban” allies from a space without also banning anyone who joins as an ally while actually being closeted/questioning/passing/etc.

  4. The conversation is over, nothing is clarified, and nothing changes.

The thing is, everything all of these hypothetical people just stated is true:

  • Many queer people are uncomfortable with the presence/participation of allies in certain spaces.
  • Many allies learn a lot from being in queer spaces.
  • Many allies do participate in queer spaces without demanding excess emotional labor (but of course, sometimes it’s just the fear of those demands that makes some queer people uncomfortable when allies are around, and/or you just don’t want people who can’t possibly GET IT listening to what you’re saying)
  • Many allies would indeed be sad if they were to be kicked out of queer spaces.
  • Many queer people are NOT uncomfortable with the presence/participation of allies in any of their spaces.
  • The LGBTQ community would not make much progress if it shut itself off from all allies (but that’s not what anyone suggested)
  • We really can’t just avoid everyone who isn’t like us forever (but that is also not what anyone suggested)
  • You cannot (enforceably) ban allies from a space without requiring everyone to out themselves, even if they aren’t ready to.

So what’s to be done with this set of conflicting truths?

For starters, these conversations always seem to leave out the obvious fact that there are many different LGBTQ spaces out there. Nobody ever advocated banning allies from all of them. It is okay for some spaces to be for LGBTQ folks only, and others to be open to everyone. It’s understandable that we disagree about exactly which spaces should be which, but that doesn’t mean that anyone is advocating banning allies from everything ever or cutting ourselves off from everyone ever.

Furthermore, while it’s true that enforcing an ally ban would mean making people out themselves, that’s not the only way to achieve an ally-free space. The other way is for allies to choose to stay out of that space.

And when I say “allies,” I don’t mean “people who might be perceived by others as allies.” I mean exactly what I described earlier: people who know with relative certainty that they are straight and cis. They’re not here because they’re questioning their identity. They’re not here because they’re thinking about starting hormones. They’re not here because they really want to have a same-sex partner someday but haven’t yet. They’re here because they are very aware that they are straight and cis and care about LGBTQ people.

Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I do believe that there are allies who are capable of reflecting on this critically, of thinking to themselves, “You know what? My support isn’t the support these folks want in this particular space, my voice isn’t the one that’s needed here, and these folks don’t necessarily want to be ‘learned from’ right now, right here.”

And I do believe it’s possible to create a space that rests gently in what seems to be a contradiction: we know that this space is not a space for allies, and yet we won’t make assumptions about anyone’s identities in this space, and a person who “appears” to be straight and cisgender isn’t necessarily an ally–but nor are we assigning them a queer or trans identity before they claim it for themselves.

In closing, I’m going to address something I hear from allies very frequently, which is that they’ve made the LGBTQ community their main social outlet because other cishet people are likely to be less progressive and respectful of left-wing politics and personal expression (i.e., the straight cis man who likes to wear nail polish or flowers in his hair sometimes).

Leaving aside the fact that the LGBTQ community has many of its own issues with inclusivity and that plenty of progressive people exist outside of that community, I get it. This does tend to be a relatively accepting space compared to the rest of society.

But the reason it got that way isn’t because queer people are somehow inherently, biologically better than anyone else. (Well, the jury’s still out on that.) It’s because we made it that way, and we had to make it that way because we didn’t have any other choice. Queer people are not intrinsically less judgmental or bigoted than anyone else, but we needed a space where we wouldn’t be automatically hated because of how we look or who we’re attracted to. Sometimes, like curb cuts on sidewalks, this benefits people who weren’t necessarily the target audience.

So, my gentle challenge to allies is this: rather than (only) benefitting from the safer spaces painstakingly carved out by others, build your own. Find men who are open to emotional vulnerability and who challenge toxic masculinity. Find women who are committed to platonic intimacy with other women rather than centering their entire lives around the men they date. Find people who shrug at gender roles. Shut down your friends’ transphobic jokes.

“But, Miri, it’s not that easy,” you’ll protest. Believe me, I know. It wasn’t easy for us either.


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The Role of Allies in Queer Spaces
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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?

Creating Something Entirely New: Queerness in Steven Universe’s “The Answer”

Ruby and Sapphire dance in "The Answer."
After two years of not liking Steven Universe, I recently gave it another shot and discovered that I suddenly really like it. (More on that in another post, probably.) My favorite episode was of course “The Answer,” because of its aesthetic and musical beauty and for its honestly profound portrayal of queer love.

Out of curiosity, I googled it to see what other (re)viewers thought. In doing so, I found this utterly bizarre AV Club article, which states that the episode “doesn’t really tell us anything we couldn’t have guessed, or anything that we really needed to know” and “feels like a nice little present to the fans.” The song, “Something Entirely New,” is about “normal relationship things (Ruby says Sapphire is different, she swears, and Sapphire has never fused before, she promises),” which is “deeply color-by-numbers for this kind of love story, but it’s still deeply earnest.” It’s “a standard ‘getting to know you’ montage.”

I hate to be snarky, but to be totally honest, this is what happens when you let straight people write reviews.

What “standard ‘getting to know you’ montage” is about two femme-of-center people abandoning their entire species and planet in order to be together, despite being threatened with death for it? How many fluffy romcoms have you seen where the couple doesn’t even realize that it’s physically or psychologically possible for them to be together, because they have been raised to consider it unthinkable?

(That’s not even getting into the fact that the show’s depiction of gem fusion is heavily based on consent, which is a concept apparently missing from most romcom filmmakers’ vocabularies.)

If you’re queer, on the other hand–especially if you’re a queer woman or nonbinary person–Ruby and Sapphire’s love story probably felt very familiar to you, but not from the media.

As queer representation in film and television is finally expanding (albeit glacially), there are still very few depictions that feel true to what our experience is actually like. Sure, sometimes there’s the religious homophobic parent or the bullying classmates or the angst about coming out, for whatever that’s worth. Usually it’s just two people falling randomly into bed together without any exploration of how they might’ve gotten there.

What “The Answer” does incredibly well is that it portrays that “unthinkableness” of it, really makes that come alive. It’s something I wrote about recently in my piece on Medium, “What It Feels Like for a Queer Girl“:

It doesn’t matter if the other person is openly queer themselves, even. It’s not just about fear of homophobic backlash or an especially cruel rejection. It’s the pervasive, gnawing, choking feeling that what you want is simply impossible. It feels like trying to make two parallel lines meet. Like climbing all the way to the top of one of M.C. Escher’s dizzying staircases. Every time I’ve expressed desire for another woman — and don’t misunderstand, there have been plenty of times, despite it all — I’ve felt like laughing at myself. Not funny ha-ha, but ridiculous ha-ha, like what the fuck am I doing ha-ha.

To me, being queer is living with this kind of cognitive dissonance forever — that something feels so natural to me, and yet I am convinced of its impossibility, and that conviction is firmer than almost anything else I believe.

With Garnet’s story, Steven Universe uses an allegory to show how difficult it can be to start imagining these new possibilities when you’ve never been allowed to. On the gems’ Homeworld, fusion is only for two or more gems of the same type (and only for a specific, time-limited purpose, like a battle). The first time Ruby and Sapphire fuse, it’s an accident–they didn’t even think that it was possible. They didn’t even think to wonder if it was possible. But as it turns out, it is, and they realize that they like it.

The song that AV Club calls “color-by-numbers” is actually a subtle exploration of that experience.

Where did we go?
What did we do?
I think it was something
Entirely new

And it wasn’t quite me
And it wasn’t quite you
I think it was someone
Entirely new

Trust me, the average hetero couple hooking up in your standard romcom knows exactly what they did.

Ruby: Oh, um, well–I just can’t stop thinking–
Sapphire: So, um, did you say I was different?
Ruby: –and you hadn’t before?
Sapphire: Of course not! When would I have ever?
Ruby: I’m so sorry–
Sapphire: No, no, don’t be!
Ruby: –and now you’re here forever!
Sapphire: What about you?
Ruby: What about me?
Sapphire: Well, you’re here too. We’re here together.

This isn’t about “I’m your first, right?” This is about two people trying to figure out what just happened and why it felt so different from anything they’ve ever experienced. Sapphire is “different” for Ruby because Ruby only ever got to fuse with other rubies. And she “hasn’t before” because sapphires don’t get to fuse at all. On Homeworld, everyone has their role, and they don’t step out of it–until now.

Cotton Candy Garnet explores her new form.
I love this adorable moment when Garnet figures out how her new body moves.

(Later, we find out what happens to Homeworld gems who “came out wrong” or who want to live in fusions–they hide away underground, under threat of capture and shattering.)

So unthinkable is Ruby and Sapphire’s fusion that Sapphire–who can see the future, and up until that moment saw her entire life laid out before her–literally didn’t see this coming. And when it does, it changes everything, costing Ruby and Sapphire their social positions, their home, their friends, their ideologies, and very nearly their lives.

Pretty relatable for anyone who’s ever come out and been rejected.

(Luckily for Sapphire and the lives of everyone she loves, her future vision eventually returns.)

I’m not surprised that lots of folks apparently missed the queer nuances of this 12-minute bit of children’s television, and I’m amazed at what it somehow managed to emcompass in those 12 minutes. I hope that it’s made a lot of other queer folks feel validated, and I hope that my perspective on it helps make our experiences more real to those who don’t share them.

Rose Quarts tells Garnet that Garnet herself is the answer to all of her own questions.


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Creating Something Entirely New: Queerness in Steven Universe’s “The Answer”

Polyamory 201: “Monogamous for the Right Person”

When it comes to relationships, I usually try to let myself rely on my gut feelings a little more than I do in other situations. They tend to be pretty spot-on when it comes to relationships, and ignoring them has usually been pretty regrettable.

One of the things I have a gut feeling about is ostensibly polyamorous people who say that they’d be “willing” to be monogamous…”for the right person.”

Recently I was listening to a new-ish podcast called Hannah and Matt Know It All, in which the titular polyamorous married couple reads advice columns from around the internet and adds their own perspective. Lately they’ve been getting their own listener questions, too. I love Hannah and Matt’s progressive, consent-aware takes on things. Polyamory doesn’t actually come up all that often on the podcast, but recently they did a whole episode on it since they’ve been getting more questions about it.

One question in the episode (at 9:38) was from a woman who prefers monogamy, but is giving polyamory a shot because she’s really into a guy who prefers it. He has another girlfriend too, but he’s also mentioned to her that he’d be “willing to be monogamous for the right person.” The letter-writer is asking for perspectives on polyamory to help her understand it so that she can make this relationship work, but Hannah and Matt (and their guest, Laurel, who happens to be Matt’s girlfriend [cute!]) focus in on that “monogamous for the right person” bit.

Laurel points out that by framing his preferences in this way, the guy in the letter is setting up a competitive situation between his two girlfriends–never a healthy thing–and not-so-subtly implying that if he doesn’t agree to be monogamous with the letter-writer, then…she’s not “the right person.” Ouch.

And there it is. I’d never thought about it in those terms before, but what really bothers me about these “monogamous for the right person” folks is that, intentionally or otherwise, they’re ensuring that any partner they have who may prefer monogamy feels like they have to prove themselves worthy of it.

I’ve met poly people who are okay with monogamy. That’s been many of my partners. But their framing was entirely different. They usually told me that they’d be totally fine just being with me, but that if I want to be polyamorous, that’s cool and maybe they’ll take the opportunity to date other people too. Sometimes they have, sometimes they haven’t.

And while I didn’t understand at first–it always seemed like polyamory versus monogamy is a divide you’d fall clearly on one side of–it eventually made more sense.

For these folks, unlike for me, monogamy doesn’t feel like a suffocating trap. And for these folks, unlike for many monogamous people, polyamory doesn’t feel like getting cheated on or left behind. So they’re happy to do either one, and if either one is particularly important to their current partner, that’s what they go with.

But it wasn’t a matter of “monogamous for the right person.” It was a matter of, “I don’t really care, so let’s do what you prefer.”

While I hate to play No True Poly, something reads a little weird about the idea of labeling yourself as polyamorous while searching for The One Partner To Rule Them All or whatever. Back when my parents were getting together, I think folks just called that “dating.”

In fact, I read a book about the history of dating recently and it turns out that this idea of being monogamous before you get engaged (or close to it) is actually fairly new. It used to be that people–especially young people who aren’t ready for marriage–commonly dated several people fairly casually until they felt a special connection with one of them and chose to invest all of their romantic energy into that.

When I was in high school and still dating monogamously, my parents thought it was totally bizarre and kind of unhealthy that teens took “exclusivity” so seriously. What, they asked, is the point of forcing yourself into a relationship that has all the trappings of engagement when you know you’re not even remotely likely to stay with this person after graduation? It’s like the worst parts of commitment and none of the best.

I didn’t get it then, but I see the point now.

Obviously, I don’t think that preparing for marriage is the only valid reason to be monogamous. Plenty of people like monogamous relationships whether or not they’re intending to take things up the escalator. But “monogamous for the right person” implies that your choice to be monogamous isn’t really about you and your comfort level or preferences; it’s about your partner and whether or not they’re “right” to bestow this great honor upon.

I don’t think there’s really a way to have a healthy committed relationship with someone who identifies as “monogamous for the right person.” If you prefer monogamy, and you’re hoping that you and this person will be “the right people” for each other, you still have to go through a waiting period while this person dates around and figures out which (if any) of their partners is “the right person” to be monogamous with. It’s literally The Bachelor with a faux-progressive veneer and probably not even on a beach.

And if you prefer polyamory, then there’s no point in wasting your time, because sooner or later this person will either want monogamy with you–and that’s a non-starter–or they’ll dump you for someone else.

The only way this really works is if you’re only interested in something casual, and it doesn’t bother you too much if the person ends up cutting things off to be monogamous with someone else. That’s not polyamory. That’s casual dating.

Regardless, waiting around for your partner to either dump you or to dump their other partners is not a healthy polyamorous situation. Polyamory is not about worrying that your partner will “pick” someone else, or trying to decide which of your partners to “pick.” It’s about being open to multiple loving relationships.

Sometimes that means that one day, for whatever reason, you find yourself committed to just one person, and they are committed only to you. But if you’re looking for a monogamous relationship, then you’re a monogamous person. Own it.

I can only imagine there’s a huge overlap between “monogamous for the right person” poly people and “wow my partners are just so jealous of each other all the time, I can’t deal with all this drama, why can’t you guys just get along” poly people. That’s because cultivating jealousy, like managing jealousy, is a skill, and it’s one that people deploy somewhat intentionally, even if they don’t realize exactly what they’re doing.

The way that we make polyamory work on an ethical and psychological level is by reminding ourselves and each other that being with multiple people does not mean that anyone is better or worse or enough or not enough. It means that, just as we may love more than one friend, child, parent, sibling, cat, or sourdough bread recipe, we can also love more than one partner—for whatever definition of “love” you’re using.

“Monogamous for the right person” blows that right up and destroys the sometimes-fragile trust that polyamory requires. These folks want you to laboriously prove to them that you’re The One. Forget it. As polyamory shows us, there are plenty of wonderful humans out there to love.

And cats. Also cats.


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Polyamory 201: “Monogamous for the Right Person”

“How can you be both an atheist and Jewish?”

I get this question so often (especially online) that now you get an entire blog post just on this topic!

So, here’s how.

1) Judaism is a religion, but being Jewish isn’t necessarily.

Jewish people have at various times considered ourselves and been considered by others a faith, a nationality, an ethnicity, a race, and a culture. While the distinctions between some of these categories are blurry–and some of them are recognized mainly by anti-semites–that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

For instance, the fact that groups such as Nazis and Soviets considered Jewish people a separate and inferior race has obviously had a huge effect both on Jewish history and on how many Jewish people see themselves. To use the obvious example, Hitler didn’t hate the Jews because they worshiped the wrong god or because they didn’t eat cheeseburgers; he hated them (among other reasons) because he considered them genetically flawed and therefore dangerous to his vision of a perfect Germany.

(Weird how Nazi types can never seem to decide if Jewish people are genetically flawed or genetically so fucking good at money shit that we literally run the whole world. It’s enough to give a Jew an identity crisis, for fuck’s sake.)

Anyway, Nazis and Soviets don’t get to define us–we do. And for many of us, the significant things about being Jewish have less to do with prayers and more to do with food, music, language, ethical values, history, overcoming oppression, bad jokes, holidays, drinking alcohol, arguing all the time, and so on.

Because Jews have historically tended to marry and have children with other Jews–not just for religious reasons but because non-Jews have typically wanted nothing to do with us–Jewish people are particularly susceptible to certain genetic abnormalities, and there are certain phenotypes particularly associated with Jewish people (i.e. My hair, olive skin color, and facial structure) just like there are with other ethnicities.

None of this means that all Jewish people are culturally, physically, or historically identical, and it’s extremely irritating when people use that as evidence against anything I just said. (It’s also extremely irritating that non-Jewish people feel the need to argue with anything I just said, period.) There are also distinct ethnic subgroups that evolved after Jewish people were expelled from the area now known as Israel/Palestine. The Ashkenazim, like me and my family, are the ones who ended up in Eastern Europe. The Sephardim settled in Spain and Portugal and were exiled from there in the 15th century. The Mizrahim hail from the Middle East and Central Asia. There are also smaller groups, such as the Beta Israel from Ethiopia and the Kaifeng Jews from China.

These subgroups differ in lots of ways, including language, customs, and religious observance. Ashkenazi Jews traditionally speak Yiddish, name their children after relatives who have passed away (this explains both my first and middle names), and pronounce Hebrew differently than other groups of Jews. Sephardi Jews traditionally speak Ladino (and potentially tons of other languages depending on where exactly they were from), name their children after living relatives, and sometimes face racism from their Ashkenazi cousins, which is bullshit, but there ya go.

I could go into a lot more detail about non-religious aspects of being Jewish, but that’s a good start.

2) Belief in god isn’t particularly central in most Jewish communities and practices.

If you’re not Jewish, you may not believe me if I told you that in my many years of attending Jewish services, celebrations, and events in a variety of different traditions and communities, the subject of any individual’s belief (or lack thereof) in god hasn’t ever really come up. But it’s true.

While Jewish prayers and texts obviously reference god copiously (usually with terms like “Hashem,” “Elohim,” “Adonai,” and other clever ways to avoid using god’s actual name which is forbidden), individual belief in god isn’t central to most Jewish conceptions of how to be a good person. That tends to focus more on doing good deeds, not breaking commandments, and generally not being an asshole. I say “most” because of that whole thing about two Jews, three opinions. Jewish rabbis and scholars disagree with each other on just about every single detail of Jewish history or practice, and while certain views get a lot more consensus than others, the idea is that you’re supposed to argue about it.

So while there are probably rabbis out there who would say that I’m a bad person–or even “not a Jew”–because I don’t believe in god, they are in the minority and you’d probably have to go to certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn or Jerusalem that I honestly try to avoid in order to find them. I’ve never had a rabbi take issue with my personal beliefs. I’ve never been questioned about my personal beliefs at synagogue, or expected to express or defend them. I have never had a Jewish person of any level of observance react negatively to finding out that I’m an atheist; many of them simply say that they’re atheists too. The one time I clearly remember telling a rabbi that I don’t believe in god, it simply led to a friendly debate in which the rabbi challenged me to explain the mathematical improbability of life on earth. (You may not agree that it’s mathematically improbable, but regardless, nobody told me I was going to hell.)

The vast majority of rabbis and other Jewish leaders that I’ve interacted with did not express or even show any sign of judgment or dissatisfaction with me about my beliefs or level of observance. They simply wanted me to participate to whatever extent I felt comfortable, because they liked seeing more young Jewish people get involved in the community and help it grow and improve.

3) Because I fucking said so.

Here I have to admit that I find it irritating as all heck when random people (usually on OkCupid, usually with a skeptical tone) ask me “how” I can be both Jewish and an atheist. First of all, it’s eminently googleable. Try it.

Second, even if all of that stuff I just wrote wasn’t a well-known and accepted viewpoint within most Jewish communities–why does it matter?

People identify how they identify. There are also many atheists from Muslim and Catholic backgrounds who still include that in their personal identity, although they usually call it “ex-Muslim” or “lapsed Catholic.” But that’s because Islam and Catholicism don’t have a long tradition of secularism dating back centuries. Within Islam and Catholicism, atheists don’t get a prominent voice. As far as I know, there are no secular mosques or churches within Islam and Catholicism. There are secular synagogues, and rabbis who lead them.

Point is, many people who were raised Muslim or Catholic but who no longer believe in god still identify with various aspects of those cultures, whether it’s giving up something difficult for Lent, celebrating Eid, or simply acknowledging that their upbringing affects them even today and that whether or not they believe in god, they still care deeply about their religious families or about issues facing those religious communities.

Religion isn’t the only category in which some people have complex and seemingly contradictory identities. There are bi dykes and lesbians who sometimes date men and nonbinary femmes and people who identify with different genders depending on the day and mixed-race folks who call themselves “Black” in certain contexts and “mixed-race” in others and asexual folks who have sex and biromantic homosexuals and homoromantic bisexuals and straight queers and married poly people and Jewish atheists. Sound confusing? Good! It’s not supposed to be simple.

Identity is complicated because humans are complicated. The vast majority of the times you feel like someone’s identity is contradictory, it’s probably because you’re defining words much more narrowly than they are.

If you think that “Jewish atheist” makes no sense, chances are you have a very narrow and ahistorical view of what it means to be Jewish (and probably what it means to be an atheist, too). Chances are I’m one of the first Jewish people you’ve ever really talked to about what being Jewish actually means.

And I get that. I do. But I’m getting pretty tired of having to justify an identity that feels obvious to me and to provide evidence of my own existence.

Every time I hear “but how can you be both Jewish and an atheist,” it feels extremely invalidating. The way this question is usually phrased implies strongly that the correct answer is “you can’t,” and that I’m somehow mistaken about one or both of these identities, and that you, a person with no Jewish background and clearly very little Jewish knowledge, know better than me.

Here’s a fact: polls and studies consistently find that about half of Jewish people are agnostics, atheists, or otherwise doubters of god’s existence. Less than half of Jewish people consider themselves “religious.”

Jews who openly question god or deny god’s existence are hardly unknown and include Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Franz Kafka, Isaac Asimov, Howard Zinn, Neil Gaiman, Stan Lee, Stanley Kubrick, Baruch Spinoza, Peter Singer, Noam Chomsky, Saul Alinsky, Hannah Arendt, Elie Wiesel, George Soros, Mark Zuckerberg, Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim, and Albert Einstein.

So I think I’m in pretty good company, and I don’t need to be corrected when I say that I’m a proud Jewish atheist.


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“How can you be both an atheist and Jewish?”

Canaries in Coal Mines: Early Warning Signs of Abuse

Yes, I’m still alive and writing! I’ve spent the past few months enjoying life with medication for my sleep disorder and focusing on stuff like hiking, building friendships, baking bread, and learning how to ride a motorcycle. To that end, I’ve recently started a separate blog to document some of those adventures. But now I’m back with a Real Blog Post.

[Content note: sexual assault and abuse. Another note: This post discusses some dynamics common to many forms of violence and abuse, of which sexual assault is obviously a subset. This isn’t to conflate sexual assault with abusive relationships in general, but rather to acknowledge that they often go hand-in-hand and that most sexual violence involves someone the survivor knows.]

All too often a friend or client with a long history of abusive relationships or sexual violence asks me, “Why does this keep happening to me? How can I break out of this pattern?”

And most of the time, I’ve had nothing to say. The feminist perspective is that, because you are never to blame for violence or abuse, any “prevention” thereof has to focus on the perpetrator. Implying that there’s a way for you to keep yourself safe(r) by changing your own behavior is victim blaming.

As a response to our nauseating cultural tendency to interrogate survivors about their behavior and insist that they stay safe by dressing like nuns and locking themselves indoors (preferably with an armed guard), this makes sense.

But as I look at the scared but determined person sitting in front of me, asking me these questions, it seems incredibly unhelpful to say, “Well, it’s not your fault that this happens. The only person who can prevent abuse is the abuser. There’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

Okay, now what? Are folks supposed to just sit around patiently waiting for us to replace rape culture with consent culture, teach everyone bystander intervention, establish real consequences for sexual assault, and ostracize all abusers from our communities?

Drawing the line between actual prevention advice and victim blaming is challenging, but it can be done. For starters, don’t give unsolicited advice, and especially don’t give unsolicited advice to someone who’s just disclosed to you that they’ve been the victim of someone else’s fuckery. That’s the sort of thing that makes you really come across like you’re blaming, whether you meant to or not.

Second, recognize that prevention strategies may not be accessible to everyone, every time. The leap from “this might help” to “you have an obligation to do this or else it’s your fault” is really more a hop than a leap in our culture. I think of it like this–many people learn defensive driving so they can try to avoid accidents caused by another driver. But just because you didn’t spot the warning signs of a collision this time doesn’t mean you’re now to blame for a crash caused by someone else. They’re still at fault. Their insurance still pays. The story is still “wow, some asshole totally ran a red right into my car” and not “I fucked up and failed to see that someone in my peripheral vision wasn’t actually decelerating as I drove legally through a green light at or slightly above the speed limit.”

And sometimes there are no warning signs.

Third, acknowledge that the vast, vast majority of advice intended to prevent sexual or emotional violence is bullshit. Most of it focuses on irrelevant factors that the advice-giver has a personal fixation on, such as what people wear or how nice they are to their abusers, and has nothing to do with reality. A lot of it demands that people drastically curtail their lives and freedom for what is, at best, a small increase in safety. For instance, if you stop going out and socializing, you’re probably less likely to encounter a would-be assailant or abuser because you’re not socializing, but at what cost?

Any prevention advice worth listening to has to begin from the premise that sexually and emotionally violent behavior is caused by the person who perpetrates it, and that if they’ve decided to behave that way, you can’t stop them by dressing some particular way or placating them somehow. What you can do is learn to recognize the red flags for such behavior and stay as far away as you can from people who display it.

Most resources about abuse focus on pointing out the signs that a relationship is abusive–for instance, they damage your property or pets, try to isolate you from friends or family, and so on. These signs are important and you should familiarize yourself with them, but the whole thing with abusive relationships is that they’re really hard to get out of. A lot of folks who have been in abusive relationships say that they were caught off guard–“When we first started dating, he was so sweet and loving. I never knew he had this side to him.” Abusers often wait quite a while before revealing their abusive traits and behaviors. By then, their partner is invested in the relationship and leaving would be difficult.

By in paying attention to how abusive people behave, I’ve noticed that they often start giving off red flags a lot earlier. Like, as soon as you meet them, in some cases. Most of us Just don’t see them as red flags. We may even see them as quirky, charming, or romantic.


1. Crossing boundaries. Abusers will often deliberately cross small boundaries to see how you respond. Many of us are vigilant about this when it comes to sex, but it happens in a lot of other contexts. Pushing you to talk about something you’re not ready to talk about, pressuring you to try activities that you’re scared of or uncomfortable with, calling you and apologizing when you said you needed space, showing up uninvited or as a “romantic” “surprise”–basically the plot of any romcom. Some of these things may be totally okay in a context where they’ve been mutually agreed-upon, but otherwise they indicate that your preferences aren’t that important to the other person.

A lot of people think that these small boundary crossings are no big deal even if they’re uncomfortable with them, but that’s because our culture often encourages us to ignore our own gut feelings about people. When people deliberately ignore your stated boundaries, that tells you a lot about who they are. Assume they’ll continue to ignore them, in ways big and small.

2. Making you uncomfortable as a “joke.” Some people seem to find it funny when others are scared or uncomfortable. I suggest staying far away from these people. There’s a huge difference between playing practical jokes on people in order to amuse everyone involved and actually relishing seeing them in discomfort, even if it’s momentary. Most people have a visceral negative reaction to seeing others in pain or distress. Those who have a positive reaction instead are likely to make you feel like crap in order to feel good themselves.

3. Blaming you for others’ choices. One way that red flags for abuse can show up very early on in a romantic relationship is when someone blames their partner for the fact that someone else flirted with that partner or asked them out. It’s a disturbingly common dynamic in monogamous relationships between men and women–the guy sees or hears about another guy asking his girlfriend out, and tries to deal with his jealousy by blaming her and accusing her of having somehow provoked it.

For many people, it’s normal to feel some type of way if someone else hits on their partner. But blaming their partner for a choice someone else made is controlling. And while this is already disturbing in and of itself, it also slides really easily into other, more overtly abusive dynamics. Abusers often blame their own behavior on their victims–“If you weren’t so ______, I wouldn’t have to yell at you.” Abusers often convince themselves that some people (i.e. them) can’t be expected to control their own behavior, and that others should be expected to control it for them.

4. Using double standards. Do they get irritated at you whenever you’re late, but expect you to tolerate their own tardiness? Do they suddenly become tired or busy whenever you want to vent about something, even though they vent to you all the time? Abusers have a way of making others feel like nothing they do is good enough. One of the ways they do this is through double standards.

Aside from blaming others for their own behavior, as I discussed above, abusers will often find all sorts of excuses for their lower standards for themselves. “My job is really stressful; you can’t expect me to listen to you complain when I get home from work.” “I can’t not yell when I’m angry; it’s one of my mental illness symptoms.” You, on the other hand, will not be forgiven for anything, even if you also have a stressful job and a mental illness.If you want your partner to be okay with your lack of punctuality or willingness to listen to them vent, it’s unfair to expect those things from them. They may obviously still choose to be punctual or listen to you, but that’s different. You can also agree as a couple about what exactly to expect from each other. Just because I need you to take care not to wake me up when you come home late doesn’t mean you necessarily care about getting woken up when I’m the one coming home late. But if someone expects from you by default things that they have no intention of expecting from themselves, that’s a red flag.

5. Expressing bigotry towards people like you. If you’re in a relationship with a bigoted person, they may say things like, “You’re not like other girls,” or “I don’t even really see you as black.” They may say hateful and demeaning things about marginalized people and follow that up with, “But you know I don’t mean you.”

But that’s not how bigotry works. They may really see you that way–for now–but the moment you step out of line, it’ll be, “I thought you were different” and “Come on, don’t be like that.” Given the way bigotry and stereotypes work, your partner will probably use them against you whenever you try to set boundaries or advocate for yourself.

When you’re involved with someone who hates, fears, or looks down on people like you, it becomes your never-ending job to prove them wrong–even if you don’t realize you’re doing it. I’ve known a lot of people who were shocked when, in the middle of a heated argument, their partner suddenly spat out words they’d never heard them use–“whore,” “f****t,” “n****r,” “cunt.” I clearly remember a few moments when I suddenly transformed from a girl, a woman, a partner, into a fucking bitch. I knew then that to them, I was always just a step, a word, from being “like other girls.” From being a “fucking bitch.”

That’s why bigotry towards people like you is a red flag, no matter how kind and respectful they’re being towards you right now. And bigotry towards one marginalized group is good evidence of bigotry towards others.

6. Gaslighting. So much has already been written about gaslighting that I won’t give it much space here, but in a nutshell: gaslighting is denying and invalidating your feelings and experiences, making you feel like you could be wrong about your own perceptions. Gaslighting isn’t the same thing as disagreeing with you about your interpretation of something (“Are you sure this means she hates you? It sounds to me like she’s upset at you for what you said”); it’s disagreeing with you about something that you have knowledge of and the other person doesn’t (“I’m sure he didn’t really do that; he’s a nice guy”; “Come on, there’s nothing to be so upset about”). Gaslighting is usually pervasive in abusive relationships and it’s one of the main ways they function–by making the person being abused distrust or ignore their own perception of reality in favor of the abuser’s.

But gaslighting can also come up in subtle ways when you’re first getting to know someone, before they have enough influence over you to gaslight you “successfully.” Like I discussed above with boundary crossings, we often ignore these apparently-harmless interactions. For some people, especially men, gaslighting is practically a style of social interaction (especially when they’re interacting with women). While it may never escalate into something that would actually harm you, it’s at the very least annoying and at worst, potentially a very red flag.

A great way to test this when you’re first meeting someone is to tell them a story about a time you were hurt by someone, and how you felt. For maximum effectiveness, choose a story that involves someone that that person might identify with. If you’re on a first date with a white cis guy, tell him a story about a white cis guy. Watch him get really uncomfortable and start pulling out rhetorical moves such as, “Aren’t you overreacting a little?” and “It can’t have been that bad.” Then tell him it’s not going to work out and sashay away.

7. Saying one thing and doing another. 

One of the most destabilizing traits of many abusive or otherwise unsafe people is that they will repeatedly tell you what they intend to do and then do the opposite. It’s sort of a gaslighting-adjacent behavior in that it leaves you really confused and uncertain of whether or not they really did agree to whatever it is they said they’d do.

As an extreme example, I’ve known people who would ask their partner to put on a condom, and the partner would reply “Oh of course” and then literally proceed to have sex without the condom. But it also happens in non-sexual situations and with other types of boundaries, and although the person will often try to chalk it up to a bad memory or their own confusion, that’s rarely it. I once asked a partner to stop doing certain things that I found patronizing and described exactly which behaviors I took issue with, and that partner would agree to stop doing those things, but by next week would be doing them again.

I mean, could it be a memory issue? I suppose so. But if you can’t trust someone to remember your clearly stated boundaries, that’s a problem.


All of these behaviors could be (and frequently are) explained away as some combination of good intentions, mental illness symptoms, genuine miscommunication, garden variety human hypocrisy, and more. Doing a few of these things doesn’t automatically make someone an abuser.

But I encourage folks to move away from questions like “Did the person mean to be hurtful/controlling/etc” and instead ask questions like, “Does this work for me? Can I be in a healthy relationship with someone who acts like this?”

Assume, too, that these behaviors will escalate. Small boundary crossings will probably turn into bigger ones. “Oh, come on, I’m sure it wasn’t that bad” turns into “How dare you accuse me of this horrible thing I never did.” “When I saw you sitting all alone and looking so beautiful, I couldn’t help but to come and talk to you” turns into “You can’t expect me to control myself when I’m turned on.”

Setting firm boundaries right away rather than waiting till later can help truly well-intentioned people improve their behavior, and convince the ill-intentioned ones that you’re onto them. “I don’t appreciate pranks like that.” “Stop asking me to try this [food/activity/drug/sexist TV show/etc]. I said no.” “Actually, you weren’t there; I was. I know what I experienced.” “Whoa, that’s pretty fucking racist and I don’t care if you think I’m an exception to that. I’m leaving.”

Feeling uncomfortable setting boundaries is normal and okay; it takes practice. But if you feel unsafe setting boundaries–if you’re actively worried that the person will yell at you, become physically violent, gaslight or guilt-trip you, or so on–that’s a red flag in and of itself. We will all need to set boundaries at some point in every close relationship, and in many casual or professional ones, too. If you have the option to avoid someone that you feel unsafe setting boundaries with, I suggest taking that option.

But we can’t avoid all abusive people forever; unfortunately, many of us will experience abusive family members, friends, partners, bosses, or others. Blaming people for “letting” abuse happen is one way that many people try to cope with that reality, but it doesn’t work and it’s unjust.

Sometimes, though, gut feelings and a good knowledge of how abuse works can help us NOPE out of potentially shitty situations before they develop. Hopefully this helps someone.


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Canaries in Coal Mines: Early Warning Signs of Abuse

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

“You’re the reason Trump got elected!”

[Content note: high sodium]

Existing around other progressives right now often feels like being back in elementary school. “You’re the reason Trump got elected!” “No, you’re the reason Trump got elected!” “Your mom‘s the reason Trump got elected!” (Ok, that last one may actually be true.)

Some people who were apparently personally responsible for Trump being elected: trans people who want to use the right bathrooms, anyone who objects to being called a slur, radical leftists, center-leftists, Hillary supporters, Bernie supporters, college students concerned about cultural appropriation and pronouns, people who don’t want to be friends with people who think they don’t deserve basic rights, people who won’t cut off their Republican relatives or scream at them at the dinner table, anyone who doesn’t want to “just give Trump a chance,” anyone who wasn’t ready to Burn Down The System and Start the Revolution on November 9, anyone who is gasp invested in political issues that affect them personally due to their social category, Meryl Streep, and Meryl Streep’s fans.

An Archer meme reading, "Do you want Trump? Because that's how you get Trump."
This is what y’all sound like.

For good measure, some Republicans have jumped into this infantile blame game, too, which is a tad bit rich considering that Donald Trump was the candidate they nominated and all.

We have got to stop abusing each other like this.

Because that’s what it is. It’s undeniably abusive to fling Trump’s election at someone to shut them (and their opinions/feelings/boundaries/activism) down. We are facing, at best, 4 or 8 really difficult years, especially for marginalized people. At worst, we’re facing partial or complete dissolution of our democracy and the creation of an autocratic state. How about think fucking twice before blaming anyone who didn’t vote for Trump for that.

Everyone’s hurting, and when people are hurting they often look for ways to blame themselves, ways to blame others, or both. That’s natural. But your need to blame someone else and my depressive guilt and self-loathing are a terrible combination. Stop.

First of all, I’m extremely skeptical of any explanation of Trump’s election that can fit into a tweet, and I think you should be too. Whenever I say this I get the usual assload of glib responses, but that belies the fact that necessary conditions aren’t always sufficient conditions. Trump won because of sexism. Trump won because of racism. Trump won because of fake news. Trump won because of gerrymandering. Trump won because of the electoral college. Trump won because of the steady erosion of voting rights by Republicans. Trump won because of that whole motherfucking “alt-right”/Gamergate/manosphere septic tank that’s been gradually filling up online. Trump won because people in the Rust Belt are losing jobs and they believe that liberals/immigrants/Jews are to blame. Trump won because a lot of people hate liberals and wanted to hurt them. Trump won because Bill Clinton has no self-control and this apparently reflects on his wife for some reason. Trump won because of The Russians. Trump won because of James Comey. I could keep going.

Unless you personally created all of these conditions, you literally cannot be “the reason Trump won.” And if you want to actually understand what the fuck happened, you can’t just choose one or two of these as The Ultimate Reason and ignore all the rest.

Second, many of these claims function to obscure the truth rather than reveal it. For instance, “Trump won because of trans people who want to use the right bathrooms.” Obviously, you shouldn’t blame Trump’s election on trans people and if you don’t understand why that’s wrong I don’t know how to convince you.

However, it would probably help us understand what happened if we view Trump’s election as part of a backlash of the sort often happens in response to social change. One example is the backlash against the feminist movement, which Susan Faludi describes in her appropriately-titled book, Backlash. Another is the possibility that Obama’s presidency has caused a racist backlash–not really because of any of his specific actions or policies, but because many white people are furious at the existence of a Black President.

There’s no reason to assume that other recent advances in social justice couldn’t have provoked similar backlashes–although, really, it’s all kind of the same one–and perhaps developments like national same-sex marriage and increased media attention on trans rights have functioned the same way.

This doesn’t mean trans people are “to blame,” though. Regressive backlashes may be inevitable. The only way to avoid them is to avoid social progress. So if you’re a well-meaning white liberal who is tempted to decry “identity politics” as the cause of the situation we’re currently in, think about what you’re actually advocating. You are advocating against social progress.

And if you want to be accurate, don’t say that Trump won because of trans people and bathrooms. Say that Trump won because many Americans are still that offended at the idea that trans people are people, among other things that shouldn’t be controversial.

Regressive backlashes may be inevitable, but that doesn’t mean that Trump’s election or his policies were inevitable. For instance, Comey could’ve actually done his fucking job. Or, we could’ve collectively taken GamerGate as the warning that it was and started taking steps to recognize and respond to this type of rhetoric years ago.

Who knows? What does it matter now? Our benchmark now shouldn’t be doing what would’ve prevented Trump from being elected if we’d done it ages ago; it’s doing what will keep the damage at a minimum, protect our institutions (flawed as they are), and ensure a fair election in four years that elects basically anyone else.

Finally, it’s pretty damn fallacious to blame Trump’s election on someone’s response to Trump’s election, which is what a lot of these comments come down to. Trump cannot have been elected because of people protesting his election, or people disengaging from politics because of his election, or people yelling at bigots because of his election, or people doing anything else because of his election.

Of course, that’s not what’s literally meant. What’s literally meant is, “Because of the sort of person that you are, and because of the way you’ve been acting, you deserve to have this happen to you.” That’s where the abusiveness of it really comes in. Anyone who’s ever lived with an abuser knows it. “I wouldn’t have to hit you if you weren’t so stubborn.” “I only yell at you because you won’t shut up and listen to me.”

In fact, it’s not just a certain type of liberal white man who reasons this way about Trump; many of his voters apparently did. As I discussed in a previous article, many of them chose to vote for him in order to punish liberals for such impudence as enacting healthcare reform. “If you’d just stop trying to pass laws that allow you to survive, I wouldn’t have to do this to you.”

This is abusive, and I’m not letting anyone get away with it anymore.

The truth is that we all bear some responsibility for what happened. We could’ve volunteered (more). We could’ve resisted racism and Islamophobia, a lot more. We could’ve donated more money–well, some of us. We could’ve gotten involved in local politics. We could’ve listened better to all the people of color who knew what the fuck they were talking about.

That’s not the same as saying that this was your–your, you specifically, you who is reading this right now–fault. That’s the beauty and the curse of collective responsibility. We should’ve tried harder, and now we’ll have to try even harder than that.

But anyone who tells you that this election happened because of you and the type of person that you are and the things you care about and the way you set your boundaries is not only literally wrong; they are manipulating you to be less like you and more like them. If we are to accomplish anything of what we need to in these coming years, that’s the type of manipulation we will have to resist.


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“You’re the reason Trump got elected!”

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