The Houses with the Signs

trumpsign

#rape #abuse #Trump

It’s a weird time to be living through, this election.

In a month we could have a president who has gleefully admitted to sexual assault, whose ex-wife accused him under oath of brutally raping her. The boring cliche that politicians lie obscures the fact that this particular one utilizes almost every conceivable tactic of psychological abuse, from threats to victim-blaming to gaslighting. Like most rapists and batterers, this one doesn’t limit himself to the kinds of abuse that leave physical scars.

I was driving through a wealthy part of town on my way to see a friend today. I saw Trump sign after Trump sign. A completely ridiculous thought kept popping into my head as I observed the identical blue signs in the fading light: “They think rape is okay.”

House after house of smiling, friendly white people with kids and golden retrievers who think rape is okay.

My high school friends all came from families like these. One of my oldest childhood friends, with whom I’m no longer in touch–his mom has his page liked on Facebook. She is the only person on my friends list who I can safely assume didn’t like the page just to keep tabs on it. She used to take us out for pizza and root beer after ballet class. She thinks rape is okay.

My teenage brother likes Trump. He thinks rape is okay.

He is too young to know what his older sister has gone through. He is old enough to think rape is okay.

Obviously it’s ridiculous. Obviously they don’t literally think rape is okay. Maybe they don’t think he really did it. Maybe they think Crooked Hillary created the tape. (How do you Photoshop a fucking tape?) Maybe they think he did it and it’s awful but what else can ya do when he’s the only one who can make America great again.

But all of that charitable rationalization obscures the fact that there are people who are horrified by the man on that tape and people who are not.

In some of my darkest and craziest intrusive thoughts, I imagine being raped by a stranger on the street, after dark, near one of those houses with the signs. I am convinced that even in that state I would choose a house without a sign to knock on the door and ask for help.

I’m not convinced that the people with the signs understand that rape is real.

I hated him before. I hated him for the racism and the Islamophobia and the fatphobia and the garden-variety sexism and for the homophobic running mate and really for all of it, whether or not it would ever affect me personally. But this is what brings on the ridiculous thoughts about all the houses full of people who think rape is okay, all the people who wouldn’t help me, all the people who, in fact, didn’t.

I think about looking up an old high school friend today on Facebook and finding out that she is dating an old high school boyfriend of mine, who assaulted me over and over during the few months we dated. Nobody knew nearly enough about the dynamics of abuse to even suspect it, and if they had, I’m sure they would’ve blamed me anyway. I didn’t even realize I had been assaulted until years and years later, until quite recently. At some point after the relationship ended, he made fun of me, saying that I’d always “trembled like a scared bunny” whenever we did anything.

I can imagine both of their parents in a neighborhood just like that one, with the signs.

I think about the fact that I can’t vote because the naturalization fees are almost $700.

I think about “sure, Trump’s bad, but I just can’t bring myself to vote for Hillary.”

I think about what it would mean to the women and queers and trans people and survivors in this country for it to be led by someone who cheerfully, repeatedly assaults women.

I think about how I can barely look at people I know or suspect are conservative anymore, because they may think rape is okay.

I think about all the people I grew up with that, after this election, I can no longer trust.

Trump himself may lose and slither back into whatever disgusting sewer he came from, but the people who love him won’t, and I don’t know how I can ever comfortably share a planet with them again.

 

 

 

The Phoenix and the Crucible

The Arch, Northwestern University

The Arch, Northwestern University

#depression #suicide #sexualassault #eatingdisorder

About once a year or two I find myself here again. It’s been a little over two years now. I don’t live in New York anymore. I have a graduate degree now; the diploma hangs in my office along with the one I got here. I joke that it’s the most expensive piece of paper I’ll ever have, but I don’t just mean the tuition. The cost that diploma carried with it weighed even heavier than my six-figure student loans.

Considering how everything happened, I should hate it. It was supposed to be my refuge, the place where I’d finally be able to be myself. Instead I got almost the full catalogue of college hazards: depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidality, disordered eating, sexual assault, sexist shaming and harassment, bullying, homophobia. Almost every adverse event a person of my demographic could experience in college, I did, some of them multiple times.

So now when I think of Northwestern I inevitably picture a kaleidoscope of papercuts that, taken together, tore apart my confidence, self-worth, and desire to live. Getting sexually assaulted and worrying that I’d cheated on my boyfriend. My assailant leering at me across the table at the student group meeting, the student group that wouldn’t deny him a leadership role because, after all, I never reported it. My editor asking me if I’ve seen today’s op-ed in the Daily, the writer of which felt empowered to insult my intelligence because he felt that my blog post was too angry. Losing my best friend when I asked her to stop making homophobic comments to me. My supervisor sheepishly telling me that in their RA evaluations, my residents complained that I dressed inappropriately, presumably to try to get back at me for writing them up when the stink of their pot was so strong in the hallway that I couldn’t ignore it and still keep the job I desperately needed. (“There’s nothing wrong with the way you dress,” she reassured me. The whole thing would’ve been less offensive if there actually had been.) The way the men I slept with treated me afterwards, every single one. (The idea of casual sex is still mildly triggering, and the thought of someone wanting me just for sex is still triggering enough to keep me awake for hours.) The things I put my body through to try to make it look right. Getting groped at parties freshman year; it would be years before I felt comfortable drinking and partying again. Sobbing alone in the snow after a failed exam. Hoping I fucking got pneumonia from it and died. Cataloging all the places on campus where I could kill myself. Winding up in bed with a knife with no memory of how I got there. How humiliating it was to reach out to the one person I had at the time, who could barely conceal their irritation as they tried to make sure I didn’t end that night in the hospital or in a coffin.

I had to stop myself from continuing to write that paragraph, because there are so many of those stories and eventually it would just seem gratuitous. But that was my life for four years. It *was* gratuitous.

What ended up destroying me even more than all that was how casually cruel my classmates were. These people will be your network for life, we were all told. I met plenty of great people, but of course what I remember most is the cruelty. Being emotionally vulnerable and open at Northwestern is all but an invitation for people to gleefully rub salt in your wounds. I don’t know how I managed to not only stop myself from becoming hard and calloused, but to celebrate my vulnerability even louder. This sort of writing I’m doing right now came from that. I do it in defiance of my classmates’ vicarious embarrassment, their averted glances, their ridicule, their patronizing advice that I should become someone else. Fuck you. Instead I became even more of myself.

Yet I can’t hate it. I came out of that crucible like a fucking phoenix. By senior year–the only year I even remotely enjoyed–I had become more or less who I am now, the version you know and love, or at least tolerate. For whatever it’s worth, college is where I finally became someone people could actually like.

(Even now, I question that. Did I become someone people could finally like, or did I become someone *I* could finally like?)

(I feel like almost everything about me now comes from what happened then. I’m so adamant about boundaries because of how mine were crossed. I’m a feminist because of the unrelenting sexism. I’m an anti-racist because no matter how bad I had it, I saw how much worse the students of color had it. I’m a therapist because none of the ones I went to back then could ever help me. I hate casual sex because of how I was treated during and after it. I hate pot because after I was essentially forced to write those residents up for it or else lose my job, they and their fucking frat brothers decided to harass and bully me for it for my remaining THREE YEARS of college. Over a fucking recreational drug. I always think about that when people say that pot is a harmless drug. Harmless to whom? It harmed me before I ever even tried it.)

And you know, maybe I could’ve had a college experience that wasn’t almost entirely horrible and still become someone I respect. Maybe I would’ve still become a therapist, a sex educator, a progressive writer and activist, an unstoppable defender of human dignity and autonomy. Maybe I would’ve. Maybe I wouldn’t have. Maybe I’d be a journalist covering the tech startup scene. Maybe I’d be a professor and researcher. Maybe I’d still be someone great, just in a different way. Maybe there are many paths that lead to the same place, or maybe I would’ve gotten lost in the shortcuts and detours.

That’s why I regret it and I don’t, and I miss it, and every time I walk through Ohio State’s campus back home I remember the full ride that was waiting for me there–the path I didn’t take–and I imagine who I’d be if I’d spent the past seven years in the city that has made me so happy and healthy at last.

I can’t hate it. I miss it like I miss everything and everyone that ever hurt me when I really thought they wouldn’t. I miss what it represented before the dream became reality, and then nightmare. And I miss the parts of it that were truly good. Because for all that my darkest times happened there, it was also there that the worst of the fog lifted for good.

So I walk through the arch with a shudder, but not for the last time: I know I will pass through this place again, and again, and again.

The Importance of Naming Emotional Labor

Recently my boyfriend thanked me for doing emotional labor for him.

As in, he actually used that phrase: “I appreciate all the emotional labor you’ve been doing for me.” And then he apologized for not doing as much in return. (I disagree, actually: I think it’s been quite balanced.)

It was an interesting moment in that it illuminated the empty space around it–the space where all the emotional labor I’ve done for others, previous male partners especially, has gone unacknowledged.

I told him that nobody had ever thanked me for that before.

Sure, people have thanked me “for listening” or “being there for me,” and that was obviously meaningful. But few have ever done so in a way that acknowledged the work involved–the emotional labor. Nobody has ever used that term.

It’s not that I do it for the gratitude. I don’t support my friends and partners to get something in return, or so that they feel deeply indebted to me or any other power play-type shit like that. I do emotional labor for the simple reason that it feels good. Same reason most of us do anything, at the root of it.

But it stops feeling good when I feel like I’m expected to do it, especially if I sense that I’m expected to do it because of my gender. It stops feeling good when rather than directly asking me for what they need, they try to passive-aggressively coax it out of me. It stops feeling good when they demand tons of emotional labor and then half-heartedly return the favor by offering me types of emotional labor they know I don’t want. (For instance: I don’t like talking at length about my problems. Stop offering to listen and then considering your share of the work done.)

Issues like that surrounding emotional labor have plagued most of my relationships with men. In fact, they’re what ultimately ended most of my relationships with men.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the few partners I’ve had who understands the term emotional labor and is able to use it to acknowledge a pattern in our relationship is also one of the few partners I’ve had with whom I did not experience (at least not yet, and not in my perspective) a noticeable imbalance in it.

It’s hard to value things that we have no language for even thinking about, let alone speaking about to each other. As I mentioned, there are words and phrases that get at little pieces of what emotional labor is–“being a good listener,” “being considerate,” “good manners,” “sensitivity”–none of them really address the fact that it is work, and work takes effort. Considerate and sensitive is something you are. Emotional labor is something you do.

When you name emotional labor for what it is, you’re able to treat it as valuable. That doesn’t just mean literally thanking someone for it–I’d felt completely happy with the emotional labor I was doing for my boyfriend before he explicitly thanked me. The thank-you was nice, but what’s even nicer is the way he responds to my emotional labor with increased intimacy and vulnerability, the way he makes an effort to figure out what sorts of emotional labor I might appreciate from him and do those things, and the way he treats my emotional labor as mine to give rather than his to take. That requires an understanding of what it is that’s being given or taken.

I don’t doubt that there are people who do what he does without having ever heard the term “emotional labor,” but that’s doing it on the highest difficulty setting, in my opinion. Clearly he’d been thinking about this for a while before he said anything to me, and that meant that in his head he’d been organizing things under the heading “emotional labor that my girlfriend does for me” and “emotional labor that I do for my girlfriend.”

I would be curious to see what those lists look like for other people, with their partners and friends. What they think emotional labor is, what they don’t think it is. To me, it’s a combination of things most people would want to do, such as showing concern if your partner’s had a rough day or picking out a gift that’ll make your partner feel loved, and things most people probably wouldn’t want to do, such as pretending to be happy so that your partner isn’t upset by your negative emotions and reminding your partner for the millionth fucking time to do the thing they promised they’d do.

Those seem like totally different things that don’t belong in the same category, but they do, because it’s not about whether it’s positive or negative. It’s about whether it requires effort and energy. It’s just like any other work in that way–I have tasks at work that I love and tasks at work that I hate, but regardless, they’re all work and I want all of them to be seen and acknowledged.

Knowing what emotional labor means and feeling comfortable using the term in context is a great way to start seeing and acknowledging the less-tangible ways in which your partner supports you.

 

Towards an Authentic Male Sexuality

#sex #BDSM #rapeculture

I want more men to (re)claim their sexuality. By that I don’t mean that I want them to boast about how big their cock is* or many women they’ve fucked or how many times each one of those women came. What I mean is that I want to see more men learn to be comfortable with their sexual selves, especially when expressed in ways other than aggressiveness, dominance, and emotional numbness.

I want more men to think of themselves as attractive, or potentially attractive to someone. Yes, many individuals of all genders struggle with their body image and those struggles are valid, but when it comes to men, there’s rarely any acknowledgment that a man’s body can be beautiful or sexy at all. I’m tired of this “women are the fairer sex” bullshit. I want more men to think of their bodies as capable of getting someone hard or wet. I don’t want men to become objectified or expected to fulfill extremely narrow beauty norms like women are; I want them to be able to think of themselves as desirable and fuckable if that thought appeals to them.

That will not be accessible for some men, just like it’s not accessible for all women or nonbinary people–especially when you consider race, disability, and other intersecting identities. There’s no moral obligation to love your body or find it attractive. But right now, our main cultural message about men’s bodies is that they’re laughable at best and grotesque at worst; that the problem with dick pics isn’t that they’re often unsolicited but that yuck who would want to see that; that nobody could ever really want to fuck a man, which is why it makes sense that men have to use coercion to “get” sex. (And that homosexuality is “unnatural,” and that there must be something horribly wrong with women who actively pursue sex with men…) What if men’s bodies can actually be beautiful, can actually be sexy?

I want more men to get to know their own bodies and desires. Nine times out of ten when I ask a man, “What do you like?” or “How do you want to be touched?”, he says, “Oh, whatever you want” or “We can just have sex” or “Just being close to you feels good.” While this may be genuine for some men, I think most are uncomfortable sharing any desire besides to fuck, or they don’t even know.

I don’t buy our cultural myth that men’s sexuality is “simple” while women’s is “complicated.” (Where would that even leave trans/nonbinary people?) While I think that people with penises sometimes have a more obvious or clear path to orgasm, that’s not the case for all of them, and orgasm isn’t necessarily the goal, and maybe there are other paths they might discover, ones that are more…scenic.

I want more men to masturbate not with the goal of reaching orgasm as quickly as possible so they can feel relief from sexual tension, but with the goal of discovering what feels good, or weird, or interesting. I want them to try out different fantasies and watch different types of porn. I want them to try masturbating while reading erotica. I want them to try taking time to touch other parts of themselves first, before ever touching anything that can lead to orgasm.

I want to hear from men more of the things I hear from the women I sleep with–“I like my nipples licked, but not pinched”; “That’s a bit too much pressure, can you use less?”; “Please don’t touch me there because it’s triggering”; “I get turned on when you kiss the back of my neck.”

Feminist men often fall into the trap of thinking that the opposite of male sexual entitlement–the opposite of men using other people’s bodies to get themselves off without any concern for that person’s consent or desire–is to focus entirely on their partner’s pleasure and deny any preferences of their own. No. The opposite of male sexual entitlement is two (or more) people working together–playing together, rather–to create the experiences they want. If you’re the kind of sub who’s only interested in pleasing your partner, that’s one thing. But that’s not the only way to be a consent-aware man. You’re allowed to have your own sexuality.

Most of the men I’ve ever been with did not see themselves as potentially sexy to anyone, not even me. They did not have much of an understanding of their own sexuality; I imagine that even a few weeks into those relationships they knew my sexuality better than their own, because I communicated it. It is very difficult to have a healthy sexual relationship with someone who on some level doesn’t believe you could actually want them. I felt like I had to try and prove it to them constantly, and that emotional labor would quickly end up being too much.

My healthiest sexual relationships have been with people who knew their bodies and their sexual selves–even as that knowledge is, of course, constantly changing and developing. They weren’t magically free of any insecurity, shame, or confusion about their own bodies and desires. But when I said “You make me so hot” or “I want you now” they believed me. They had a sense of their own sexuality that was more complex than just “I want to have an orgasm” or “I want my partner to have an orgasm.” It could be, “Wow, I have a body that feels things, isn’t that amazing” or “I want my partner to feel punished” or “I want to feel humiliated and then comforted” or “I want to feel like my partner has all the control even though I know that actually we both have all the control” or “I want it to feel like my partner and I are writing a story together” or “I want to look at my partner’s face while I fuck them” or “I want to look at my partner’s ass while I fuck them” or “Tonight I feel bad and I just want to be comforted.”

Our deeply anti-sex culture undoubtedly impacts women and nonbinary people more than men, but male privilege–as protective as it is in some ways–does not extend to automatically giving men the ability to engage with sexuality in an authentic, healthy way. They’ll have to work hard to learn that just as the rest of us do. To see sex as a collaboration rather than a competition or a game to be “won”; to see their own bodies as vessels for pleasure rather than tools for domination; to see their partners as partners rather than opponents or targets or prey; to see desires other than fucking as valid rather than irrelevant or shameful–those are just a few of the challenges I want to see men to embrace.

Encouraging men to get in touch with their bodies and desires might seem like a weird way of fighting rape culture, but in my experience all of the toxic messages we get about sex and gender go very well together, and fighting rape culture means fighting all of them.

~~~

*Not all men have cocks and not all people with cocks are men; not all men want to fuck women and not all people who want to fuck women are men. However, it would’ve been equally presumptuous to write this article about cis/straight men only, because trans/queer men probably experience many of the same pressures of toxic masculinity and much of this probably applies to them as well, regardless of what genital configuration they happen to have.

**Another important note: this was written from my own experience and social position, based on the struggles I’ve observed in the people around me. If it doesn’t resonate with you, that doesn’t make it “wrong”; maybe your social position is just different.

Oh, To Be Young and Chronically Fatigued

#ableism #ageism #chronicillness

I want to talk for a moment about the intersection of age and ability, in the admittedly limited way in which I experience it.

I have chronic fatigue. No, not diagnosed. Does it matter? I’m exhausted almost all day every day, no matter what I eat or how much I sleep or what I do during that day or how much stress I’m under at the moment. All I ever want to do is sleep.

In some situations, I can be very active; I like walking, biking, swimming, dancing, and probably a lot of things. In other situations, I can barely walk a mile without feeling like I’m going to collapse. Stairs are always a challenge, even just one flight. Even when I lived in a fourth-floor walkup and made that climb every single day, it never got any easier. That’s how I knew something was up. If you exercise every day, aren’t you supposed to get stronger?

Anyway, I won’t bore you with all the details of my fatigue; I only started giving them because people don’t believe me when I simply say “I have chronic fatigue” and often don’t believe me with all the details, either, so if you respectfully disagree that I have a problem, just stop reading, I guess. My “condition,” whatever you want to call it, is one of those things that I try to avoid talking about unless it becomes an issue. It becomes an issue when people ask me to do things that I can’t, or when people make casual but (in my opinion) inappropriate comments like “You look so tired” or “Why do you look so tired.”

I’m officially a Young Person in my 20s, which means that people look at my accordingly young appearance and assume that I must feel as great as I look. And so I dread telling anyone over 30 that I have chronic fatigue, because they inevitably start with:

  • “But you’re so young!”
  • “Wait till you’re my age!”
  • “How could you possibly have fatigue at your age?”
  • “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
  • “At your age you should have all the energy in the world!”

That last one is what kills. Yes, that’s the fucking point. I should feel better. I should have energy. But I don’t. That’s why I have chronic fatigue. That’s literally the whole point.

My other favorite is when they say, “If you feel so bad now, what on earth are you going to do when you get to my age?” Why do you think I’m fucking terrified of getting older, to say nothing of getting old? Do you think I’m excited at the idea of feeling even more fucking shitty? Do you think I have this figured out? How am I supposed to do that when the only advice I ever get is “eat more vegetables” and “exercise more”? (Already tried both.)

A lot of times, older people (by which I mean, older than the person they are currently speaking to) like to think they have some sort of monopoly on poor health, pain, fatigue, and suffering. I don’t really care to speculate on the psychological appeal of this, but suffice it to say that I don’t get it. When I’m struggling, it brings me comfort to know that other people share those struggles and understand. It brings me no comfort to loftily proclaim that nobody can possibly know the True Depth Of My Struggle, least of all because they’re not Old Enough.

Medically speaking, people my age can very much have chronic fatigue for a variety of reasons (the reason it’s so hard to treat is because there can be so many potential causes, and some aren’t really treatable anyway). This isn’t an Old People Thing or a Middle-Aged Adults Thing. Y’all don’t own fatigue and I’m pretty done with having to fight these ableist and ageist attitudes when I’m already exhausted.

I Don’t Actually Get Monogamy

#polyamory #what some might classify as being judgmental of monogamous people

When polyamorous people talk about polyamory and monogamy, we often feel obligated to add little disclaimers like “but of course polyamory isn’t for everyone, some people just prefer monogamy and that’s fine!” or “of course, I understand that for some people monogamy is what’s best!”

To be honest, I say these things because I have to, not because they feel genuine. Yes, I do understand that monogamy works just fine for many people and that they prefer it, but I don’t grok* it. I don’t actually understand why monogamy is preferable. I just know that it is, because people say so and I believe them when they talk about their own feelings and experiences.

Sure, I’ve heard all the reasons; this isn’t an invitation to leave them in the comments. It’s simpler, there’s less negotiation and coordination involved, less awkwardness with family and in-laws, don’t have to deal with jealousy (except when you do), don’t have to worry they’ll leave you for someone else (except when you do), you get more time with them, you get to feel like you’re The Only One For Them, even though they probably had other partners before you and may have others in the future.

In that sense, many of monogamy’s supposed advantages seem illusory or conditional at best, which is part of the reason I can’t grok it.

But the other reason is that like…it still involves telling your partner what they can and can’t do with their body and time and relationships. That makes as much sense to me as telling my best friend that I don’t want her to have any other best friends and if she wants a different one then we have to stop being best friends with each other. Many of us tried that in elementary school, probably without much success or mutual happiness.

Some monogamous people say that they’re not controlling each other at all because neither of them happens to want any other partners. That’s, obviously, legitimate, but then I don’t see why they’d need to have a rule that says they can’t be with other people. Rules are made to keep people from doing things they want to do but shouldn’t do for whatever reason, and are  completely superfluous if nobody actually wants to do the thing.

The real test would be this: what if tomorrow or next month or next year, one of them meets someone else they want to get involved with? Would that be an actual open discussion, or would it be shut down with “no you can’t do that,” or never even brought up at all because a “no” would be expected?

Personally, I like to construct relationships (and other life things) in ways that allow for the fact that I will inevitably grow and change in ways I can’t predict at all. I understand that this isn’t important for everyone, but I can’t grok why it wouldn’t be.

Maybe part of the confusion is that “monogamy” seems to mean both “we are not allowed to have other partners” and “we do not have other partners.” There isn’t a perfect correlation between those, though. Plenty of couples who’d be open to having other partners nevertheless don’t because they haven’t met anyone or they haven’t had time or the stars didn’t align or whatnot. (And, of course, plenty of couples who are not “allowed” to have other partners nevertheless don’t, and this often gets called monogamy even though it technically isn’t.)

The important distinction to me isn’t “do you have more than one partner right now,” but “do you insist that you partner commit to only be with you.”

I can actually see myself in a situation where I happen to have found a person who I fit so well with that I lose interest in dating others (though I think this is very unlikely), but I don’t see why that means I should tell them that they shouldn’t want to date others either. So what? They can do what they want. I can do what I want.

Many people talk about it being “unfair” if one person in a couple dates others and the other doesn’t, but I don’t see what’s unfair about that as long as the latter person isn’t being “banned” from dating others. Nothing will ever be fully “equal” in a relationship–even if the relationship itself is egalitarian, one person might have a better, more fulfilling job, or make more money, or have much more supportive family, or have more friends and social outlets, or be more skilled at certain important things, or more social privilege. Yes, these things can be difficult to navigate and can cause jealousy and resentment in a relationship, and all of that has to be brought out into the open and worked on. But it doesn’t make sense to solve these problems by forcing the partner who’s more fortunate in some way to give that fortune up.

What I do get is when someone’s mental illness makes aspects of polyamory triggering or otherwise unmanageable. I do disagree with the popular narrative that mental illness and polyamory are always a bad mix–for some of us, it’s monogamy that’s incompatible with mental illness–but clearly for some people they are. I can definitely grok not being able to do something because your mental illness won’t let you, and then to be unwilling or unable to change that. (Even if it can be changed with therapy or whatever, not everyone has the time, money, or energy to do that work.)

But I don’t know how I could ever ask my partner to just dump all their other partners (that’s what it means what you “become monogamous” or “close the relationship,” though it’s rarely spoken of in those terms) for the sake of my mental health, which is my responsibility. If my partner offered of their own accord to stop/not start seeing other people, that might feel different, but asking them to–with the implication that if they don’t agree, they’re to blame for any worsening of my mental health–seems manipulative.

On the other hand, sometimes you have to be manipulative to save your life.

Most polyamory-or-monogamy decisions aren’t a matter of life and death, though, or anywhere close to it. Some people can’t be poly because it would make them miserable and wouldn’t be worth it, but most people who choose monogamy seem to do it without seriously considering polyamory, and if they do consider it, they dismiss it immediately as being “too difficult.” That’s what I can’t grok. If I were seriously considering telling a partner what they can and can’t do with their own body and free time, I would want to make damn certain that it’s for a really, really, really good reason. (Although, honestly, if I wanted that badly to try to control someone, I would probably leave them.)

I don’t usually say any of this, not only because it makes people mad at me, but because it’s not nice and nobody asked my opinion. I don’t evangelize polyamory; honestly, the last thing we need is more poly people who don’t really want to be poly or who haven’t thought about it thoroughly. There is nobody I want to date who insists on monogamy, so I definitely don’t have a dog in the fight. I am happy for my happily monogamous friends. Et cetera et cetera.

What I think is notable isn’t that I don’t “get” monogamy, but how many people don’t “get” polyamory, and say so–frequently, loudly–without any pushback. How many times have I heard “Wow, I could never do that,” “But how would that even work?”, “But how could you truly love someone if you’re okay with them sleeping with someone else?“, “I had a friend who tried that once and they were miserable and quit it after a few months,” “That’s just wrong,” “Why can’t you just be satisfied with one?”, “That just sounds so awful!”? Many times. Except, unlike me, they won’t even say, “But I believe you when you say that it’s what works for you.” They usually deny, if implicitly, that my own feelings are valid at all.

And usually, nobody calls those people “judgmental” or “self-righteous,” and nobody accuses them of trying to “evangelize monogamy,” and nobody writes screeds about how “annoying” they are, the way they do about polyamorous people. Monogamy is invisible; polyamory is marked. That’s why anything that polyamorous people say about polyamory is given extra scrutiny in a way that the things monogamous people say about monogamy are not. Moreover, many of the things monogamous people say about monogamy aren’t even interpreted as Defenses Of Monogamy. They’re just “obvious.” They’re just “how things are.” Monogamy needs no defense.

I suppose my inability to grok monogamy is a failure of imagination or open-mindedness, but in any case, there’s not much I can do to change it now. Monogamy is ever-present in every book I read and every movie and TV show I watch, almost every conversation about dating and relationships that I hear outside of my own social circle, every magazine cover promising to help me find The One. If I don’t get it now, I probably never will. The least I can do is to not be an asshole to monogamous people (which means, as I said I do, believing them when they say monogamy is what they prefer), but also to continue showing people that polyamory isn’t really that weird, and it doesn’t feel awful at all, and here’s how to do it responsibly if you’re interested.


*Grok means to understand something intuitively, or through empathy. I use that word in this post to distinguish my failure to “get” monogamy from an actual belief that monogamy is wrong or ineffective or whatever. It’s not. I don’t think it is. I just can’t actually put myself in the shoes/brain of someone who prefers monogamy.  Another possibly-helpful way to say this is that I believe that monogamy can be preferable, but I don’t alieve that monogamy can be preferable.

Sexual Orientation Can Change

#sex #BDSM #queerphobia/biphobia

Hey, did you know that sexual orientation can change? Mine did!

I was bisexual for years, throughout adolescence and college and half of grad school. Like many bisexual people, my attractions to different genders weren’t identical or equal: I tended to be more attracted to women, but everyone I’d fallen in love with or had a serious relationship with had been a man, so I wondered if I could ever love a woman at all.

Well, I could and I did. Perhaps because of that experience, perhaps not (probably not, in retrospect), my patterns of attraction started shifting.

I’d always experienced a certain…apathy about men when it comes to sexual attraction, but I figured that was just attributable to demisexuality. The only way I could ever want to fuck a man would be if I sort of made myself do it the first time, and then afterwards I’d usually really want to. Sometimes I even thought about men when I masturbated. But it was always tenuous and fragile thing. When I saw male partners after a long time apart, it would always take me at least a few hours to want them again. They’d expect me to throw myself into their arms at the first greeting, but honestly, in that moment I usually didn’t want to touch them or look at them at all. Eventually I would “get into it” again.

But starting about a year ago, even that started slipping away from me. The idea of having sex with men started to fill me with dread, then revulsion. At first I thought I could have mostly-asexual relationships with them, but then I realized that I couldn’t even really experience crushy-type feelings with them anymore. (My last crush on a guy was probably over a year ago, unless you count Jon Snow.)

How much of this is political and how much of it is “biological”? Truly, I have no idea. Maybe I would feel differently about this if every single relationship I’ve ever had with a man, no matter how casual or how serious, didn’t fall apart in the same tangled mess of unexamined assumptions about gender roles. Somehow, no matter progressive they are, it’s only a matter of time before it’s my job to take care of their feelings, and they’re feeling sad because I’m not interested enough in sex or moving in together or whatever, and they’re trying to take charge of my mental health for me without my consent, and “I just don’t understand why you’d even want to be with me,” and on and on and on. Worse, they keep insisting that they’re not trying to get me to change my desires or behavior, but then they consistently act in ways that seem designed to get me to change my desires or behavior. Seriously, anyone would lose interest after all this.

And maybe it doesn’t matter. Even if these negative experiences somehow caused me to lose all ability to even imagine fucking a man without feeling nauseous, I mean, the nausea is still real.

People really don’t like to hear about all this. Straight people get terrified of being “turned” gay; gays and lesbians are terrified of being “turned” straight; bisexual people hate me for “confirming” the stereotype that bisexuality is “just a phase,” since I guess I ultimately did “pick a side,” didn’t I?

I feel that. But it’s not my job to make sure that the things that happen to me are politically expedient for The Movement. It would be awful if someone decides to use my experience as “proof” that bisexual people are all going to “pick a side” at some point or that maybe we really can turn queer people straight, but even though it would be awful, it wouldn’t be my fault. I can’t singlehandedly stop queerphobia, not even if I make sure that my feelings and experiences always align with what’s most politically advantageous.

It would be convenient if I could somehow convince myself (and others) that I was Really A Lesbian All Along. And I do wonder if I would’ve been, were it not for the social conditioning that caused me to believe that I desperately Need A Man. But again, it doesn’t really matter. For ten years I genuinely felt that I wanted to be with men, romantically and sometimes sexually. Now I don’t.

There are exceptions, though. I sometimes enjoy sex with men in the context of a threesome with another woman. I sometimes enjoy cuddling with men. Sometimes, men who exhibit a certain combination of Dom-ness, sweetness, and great progressive consent-focused politics can really turn me on. But the idea of looking for Doms specifically is horrifying, because very few of them have those other two qualities. I’m not looking for some controlling, hyper-masculine asshole who’s actually deeply insecure on the inside. I’m looking for someone who knows how to make me feel good and has the confidence to make it happen. I’m looking for someone who knows how to fuck without me having to patiently explain every little detail. I’m looking for someone who actually knows what he wants and gets it rather than prefacing every single sexual encounter with “But what do YOU like?” (Please do not assume my preferences are universal. I’m a kinky sub, and even then not all kinky subs like what I like.)

But those men are very rare, and even then I’m not sure I’d necessarily want to have a relationship with one.

I don’t really have much of a label nowadays; I tend to use “gay,” “queer,” or “homoflexible” depending on the context. I know I’m not comfortable claiming the word “lesbian,” since most of the interactions I’ve had with lesbians about this suggest that they want nothing to do with me unless I either 1) agree to never ever fuck or date a man again, or 2) can qualify for their bullshit and often transphobic-in-context “Gold Star” rule. Well, I can’t, so you can keep your label, I shan’t sully it with my ambiguous sexuality.

(#NotAllLesbians, surely, but you can’t deny that as a community, they haven’t been very supportive or welcoming to women who can’t always define their sexuality.)

Where does all this leave me? Confused and lonely, mostly. I feel powerless to find solidarity among others who have had similar experiences, even though “used to date/fuck men and no longer interested in dating/fucking men” seems to describe many queer women. But there’s no label for it, so I don’t know how to find them.

Although some of them still identify as bi, in practice, I don’t find that I have much to say in bi spaces. Almost every bi woman I know is either in a serious relationship with a man, or is looking for a serious relationship with a man. Therefore, most bi women I encounter are often talking about dating and fucking men. Of course, that’s 100% their right: they’re still just as queer, no matter what some bullshit xoJane article says, and they don’t owe anyone any proof of that. But it does mean I don’t feel that I have much in common with them, and right now I really need spaces where men are decentered. I just really need to not hear about fucking men for a while. (Both in the adjective sense, and in the verb sense.)

I love blogs like Autostraddle for this reason, but in terms of finding community and people to talk to, that’s a lot harder. I don’t think most of my friends (let alone my partners) really understand what’s going on with me, and I don’t know how to explain it any better than I’ve already done.

To be fair, I don’t really understand what’s going on with me, either.

I will delete any comments that tell me that I’m wrong about my identity, or otherwise try to invalidate my personal experience.

Yes, that includes telling me I’m “actually bisexual.”

I Am Proud Of Myself For

I hate the concept of “humblebrag.” I can see how it might be irritating to see someone saying something positive about themselves but then covering it up as “no big deal” or as if it’s actually a negative or whatever, so in theory, I can see the purpose of this term. But in practice, I usually see it used as a way to shut down women and other people who haven’t historically had access to the idea of bragging in a positive context, or calling attention to themselves in any way that’s not considered shameful or out of place. So.

Further, there’s a cultural component to this. The idea that it’s generally a good thing to call attention to your accomplishments and express pride for them is a pretty Western idea. (Not to imply that all Westerners agree with it, obviously, just that it’s associated with individualistic cultures.) My upbringing discouraged me from expressing pride for myself, and not just because of gender. In my family we don’t feel “proud” of ourselves. We do what needs to be done, we achieve, we accept compliments graciously, but we certainly don’t express pride.

I had this illustrated to me at a pretty young age. I had a parent-teacher conference in elementary school and my teacher required me to tell my parents one thing I wanted to work on and one thing I was proud of myself for. I stumbled over the awkward English phrases, sensing that my parents found the exercise ridiculous.

And they did. For years after, at dinner parties and family gatherings, they mocked “these Americans” who asked me to do such a silly thing. “I am proud of myself for!” they mimicked, laughing. If wasn’t just unusual to them; it was so ridiculous they couldn’t relate the incident with straight faces. Of all the Russians they told that anecdote to, every one laughed.

Later on they would occasionally say “We are very proud of you” on certain occasions, like when I graduated from college or otherwise achieved something important. Although we speak almost entirely in Russian, that was a sentence they only ever said in English, almost tongue-in-cheek, always with the unspoken implication that this is what “these Americans” would say at such a moment, and, after all, we live in America now. They never said it in Russian. I don’t even know how to say it in Russian, because I’ve never heard it or read it in a book. I certainly don’t know how to say “I’m proud of myself,” either.

And I want to be clear: as much as my parents mocked the idea of stating your own self-pride, they never withheld actual love or pride for me. It was just expressed differently. And I was expected to show self-pride through confidence, assertiveness, and self-motivation, not with phrases like “I am proud of myself for.”

What y’all call “humblebragging” is what to us is just…talking about yourself. There is no other way. “Humility” is a word many Westerners use with a negative connotation, but for other people, it’s an essential trait. When I see the snarking about “humblebragging,” I see another reminder that you think that your values are the only valid ones. I resent the constant implication that I have to act exactly like you even though my heart rests in a home where your language is only used either to discuss computer problems or as a joke.

“I am proud of myself for.” It took years to even be able to understand the meaning of this phrase, and I’m glad I did. But yes, it’s hard to throw away my upbringing. I certainly won’t do it just to avoid the ridicule of some Facebook asshole.

Talking About Talking About Being Gay

I’ve started to worry that I talk about being gay too much. Like there’s something unseemly about it, like it’s some embarrassing relic from an older time–a time I didn’t even live through–when one had to talk about such things to make them visible. A time when legalized same-sex marriage was an idea so fantastical as to be laughable, not a plain reality in all 50 states.

All around me I see queer people–gay men, lesbians, bi and pan folks–who do not talk about queerness and being queer all the time. If they think about it all the time, they have the propriety not to say so. Often, I don’t even realize that people I know fairly well are queer until I’ve known them for ages, not because they aren’t out in the ways that matter to them, but because they don’t seem to feel the need to talk about it all the time like I do.

I feel extremely silly and immature about the fact that I constantly talk about being gay. It’d be easy to write off my embarrassment about this as internalized homophobia, but it’s also pretty obvious that other queer people don’t do it so much. I fear their judgment much more than I fear the judgment of straight people. I fear that they think I’m passing through some pathetic stage they’re long done with, a stage in which you have to talk about something all the time because it’s new to you.

Of course, it both is and isn’t new. I was bisexual for ten years. But for the first five of them, I didn’t tell a single person. I wrote it in my diary exactly once. Even after I finally started coming out, it took years before I met other queer people, so there was really nothing to say, and nobody to say it to. If it’s true that there’s some queer developmental stage that I haven’t finished going through yet, can you really blame me? Blame it on Ohio.

And when I realized I was no longer bisexual, that was new, too. People are even less aware of the fact that orientation is fluid than of the fact that bisexual people are real. I felt that I needed to talk about it. I needed people to know I wasn’t bisexual anymore. I needed them to understand what that meant. needed to understand what that meant. (I still don’t.)

But I also realize that I’m probably mistaken to assume that the only reason other queer people don’t talk so much about being queer is because it’s boring old news to them and they don’t think about it anymore. Maybe they’re not comfortable talking about it, but wish they could. Maybe they’re as envious of me as I am of them.

Sometimes I think–I hope–that it’s a good thing that I talk about it so much, because maybe I’m helping straight people learn not to assume that everyone is straight and not to always see everything through that lens. Maybe some of the stuff I talk about is even interesting to them–how I’ve internalized some stereotypically male ways of relating to women (because that’s the only sort of attraction to women that I’ve ever really been exposed to), how weird I feel seeing sexualized images of women that are nevertheless clearly meant for men, how it’s quite possible to have parents who are both homophobic and secular, so please stop blaming homophobia on religion, thank you very much.

But most of the time I can’t shake the feeling that I’m doing something childish. I’m told that worrying about what to label yourself is somehow passe, because “labels are for soup cans.” I’m told that we’re equal now. I’m told that “it doesn’t matter if you’re gay, straight, bi, neither.”

If it really didn’t matter, I wouldn’t feel so weird and wrong. So as long as that lasts, I’ll be talking about it, embarrassing as it is.

Minding the Gaps

#depression

After finishing grad school in May, I had nothing to do until I found a job, so I came home to Ohio to live with my family until something happened. At first, I was dreading the shit out of this and even had an enormous breakdown on my first night back home, because you know, what’s the point of living if you’re not in New York and all that.

But then I discovered that it wasn’t so bad. I read a lot. I biked and swam and laid out by the pool. I went to Columbus and sort of even had a social life there. Getting everywhere wasn’t such a fucking trek, and people actually had time to hang out with me. The days grew long and the corn grew tall, and I was having a nice enough time to start thinking about why I’d moved to New York in the first place.

(This isn’t some Ohio version of Sweet Home Alabama, especially since there’s no childhood sweetheart involved. Yuck. [But did you know that there are in fact queer women in Ohio? I didn’t.] I may in fact end up staying here, but it’ll be for job reasons, not life reasons.)

I made the decision to move to New York at a very particular time in my life. I was very depressed, I had no sense of belonging or community and few (if any) stable friendships, I was pretty convinced that I would never find a partner who wanted anything other than occasional casual sex, and I firmly believed that no matter which field I chose, work would be a miserable lifelong slog that I would hate. I had pretty much given up on fixing any of the above problems. It just seemed like a given.

Maybe on some level I thought that moving to a place like New York would allow me to finally find the friends I’d been longing for all my life–people like me certainly didn’t fit in in the Midwest. But more than that, I thought that moving to a place like New York would make my loneliness more or less irrelevant.

Where else would I be so utterly unremarkable as a queer progressive Jewish atheist? Where else could I blend into the crowds, even late at night? Where else would there always be things to do, even if I had to do them by myself? Where else could I walk for miles and still not reach the edge of the city? Where else is it socially acceptable to cry on the subway? Where else can I safely go wherever I want without the protection of some dude? Where else could I stay out all night if that’s what I wanted to do? Where else can you go when you have no friends and don’t belong to anything or anyone?

What I honestly couldn’t consider at the time was that one day I might have friends, and communities, and even partners. I thought I had to pick a place to live based solely on how happy I could be there entirely alone. Being alone in New York is better, in my opinion, than being alone anywhere else.

That is one of the clearest examples I’ve ever had of the way depression warps your thinking. Depression made me assume that I would never have these things that I wanted, so I would have to create my life while keeping in mind that there would be these obvious holes in it. Mind the gaps. Move to a city where nobody will notice that you have no stable attachments to human beings outside of your immediate family. Who needs community when there are museums and parks and bookstores?

(Of course, that doesn’t mean that moving to New York was the wrong choice, or that staying there would be the wrong choice now. I may have chosen it for some pretty fucked-up reasons like I will never ever have actual people in my life who give a fuck about me, but the fact remains that New York is an amazing place, especially for a queer atheist. I love it more than any other place I have ever been.)

By the time I actually moved to New York, my actual life circumstances had been much better for about a year. I had friends and partners and communities, and there was no reason to assume I would lose all of them anytime soon. But I’ve stayed stuck in that way of thinking. When I initially contemplated moving to Columbus (since finding work there is much easier) my whole brain recoiled at the thought. It made me nauseous. I imagined driving to work and working and driving home and maybe stopping by Kroger for some groceries and then sitting in my apartment (admittedly much nicer than any I could afford in New York), alone, all night, with nowhere to go because there is nothing to do.

Of course, that’s not how anyone I know actually spends their time in Columbus. They go to meetup groups (or run meetup groups), play in bands and orchestras, go to bar trivia, watch sports, play tabletop games, ride bikes, take classes. Yeah, you probably won’t have that great a time if you try to walk 14 miles through Columbus in one day, like I’ve done several times in New York (alone, of course). There is no Central Park. There are much fewer museums and I’ll see them all pretty quickly. There aren’t a dozen or more indie bookstores, and certainly no Strand. There’s no Starbucks on every corner where you can go read or write alone. It’s not beautiful.

To live in Columbus, I would have to do something very scary, which is actually allow myself to rely on other human beings for connection and fun and a sense of belonging.

Three years ago, depression would’ve said that that’s completely impossible for someone as awful and despised as me.

Now I know better.