Honesty is Hard

Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.



For the past month or so, the skeptic blogosphere has been talk a lot about harassment at skeptic events. Throughout these conversations, I’ve made a few disturbing observations:

  • People (mostly women) are getting harassed at skeptic events. This doesn’t seem to be occuring at higher rates than at other events, but any harrassment is too much, and we can do better than that;
  • Many people (mostly men) in the skeptic community are not taking this problem seriously. This is also fucked up, and I’m glad it’s getting some attention.

These issues have been extensively documented by Stephanie Zvan at Almost Diamonds.  Everything that I could say on the topic (and how disturbing it is) has been said much more eloquently elsewhere, and I have nothing new to add. Suffice it to say that yes, this is happening, and I hope atheist/skeptic conferences all adopt strong harassment policies, with an emphasis on enforcement.

What I’d like to discuss is a secondary issue (which is not nearly as important as the two identified above, but I think is worth discussing): the issue of harassment has led to a number of discussions about exactly where the line is between consensual flirting and harassment.  These are important discussions to have, I think, but I’m bothered by two (somewhat related) themes I keep seeing crop up in these discussions:

1) It’s wrong to want sex from people without being interested in getting to know them

This is generally couched in reasonable-sounding language like this from PZ Myers:

I have a simple suggestion. Think of sex as something two or more friends do; but also keep in mind that most friends don’t have sex together. When you’re at a meeting, plan to make friends promiscuously, but remember: the purpose first and foremost is friendship, not sex partners.

At first glance, this seems like a reasonable suggestion. Most people prefer to get to know people before having sex with them, and most people would rather have sex with someone they like for nonsexual reasons also. But some people just want sex, and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s not up to us to tell people what their goals should be in a social interaction. Denigrating anonymous men for wanting to “bag a young hottie” (which is Jen McCreight’s paraphrase, not an actual quote from anyone) at each speaking gig sends the sexnegative message that desiring sex with a person you find attractive (which is how I would have phrased it) is WRONG and CREEPY. In addition, speaking about it as something that only men do contributes to the myth of men not being hot. McCreight puts desiring sex with attractive women in the same category as talking only to a woman’s chest, nonconsensual groping, and following a woman to her hotel room. I think that’s terribly unfair. There is nothing wrong with sexuality. There is nothing wrong with desiring sex for purely physical reasons. Resorting to slut shaming is not necessary to discuss harassment. It’s bullshit, and it should stop.

2) Dishonesty is expected, and even encouraged, where sexuality may be involved

This is related to Point 1 by virtue of the fact that if wanting sex is wrong, then people who want sex are going to be encouraged to hide that fact until the socially appropriate time. People who just come out and say they want sex (even in the least coercive and lowest pressure way I can think of) are disrespectful, objectifying, and should be ashamed of themselves. Fuck that. Asking for sex is not seeing a person “as your plaything.” It’s just asking for sex. Objecification only happens if you see the other person’s desires as irrelevant. As long as you are genuinely seeking enthusiastic consent, if you want sex, you ought to ask for it! Hiding your intentions is just being dishonest, not respectful. As one commenter on this blog put it:

I too find smart, interesting people who think about things quite sexy, yet am generally skittish of strangers. I’m also alternately oblivious to and skeeved out by the way flirting (in most mainstream venues) happens most times. Still, I’d far prefer for someone to tell me they think I have great boobs and would like to make out with me than to just hint at it, assuming they are respectful of my possible “no thank you.” I like transparent, respectful asks, and people who ask for consent frequently and sincerely.

In addition to those desiring of sex being encouraged to remain silent, women who are objects of such desire are also encouraged to be dishonest about their refusals. The (true) observation that rapists ignore refusals is used to suggest that women shouldn’t be encouraged to clearly communicate their own desires. The (also true) observation that women are socialized not to clearly communicate a refusal is used to suggest that we should not be encouraging women to break free of that socialization and be more honest about what they want. This is confusing the “is” and the “ought.” The undeniable state of mainstream heterosexual flirting is that men are expected to be the aggressors, that clearly communicating a desire to have sex is disfavored, and that a clear refusal is often met with hostility. None of this is an argument that the status quo is the way things ought to be. We should all be encouraged to be more open and honest about what we want from a social interaction, even if the we may be subject to negative social consequences.

The exception, of course, is when physical safety is in question. If anyone is in doubt about his/her physical safety in an interaction, all of these rules go out the window, and people should do whatever they need to in order to get to safety. That cannot be stressed enough, and it should never be forgotten.

Of course, the flipside of this is that we should stop punishing women for being blunt. A woman who clearly communicates a “no” is not being harsh, she’s being honest. A woman who says she’s not interested in someone (even if s/he hasn’t made any advances) is just being communicative. Hurting someone’s feelings through deception is a dick move. Hurting someone’s feelings by telling them the truth is a brave and awesome thing to do, and we should encourage people to do it.

However, the danger of social disapproval is not a good reason to be dishonest. If your friends will think of you as a bitch for giving a clear refusal, get some new friends. If the object of your affection will see you as creepy for being clear about your sexual interest, that’s not a reason to hide your interest. Honesty often has negative social consequences. It does not follow that dishonesty is justified. If flirting should be about creating intimacy, then it relies on both parties behaving in a trustworthy way (i.e. not lying to each other).
Jadehawk disagrees:

You can’t remove the social context because the social context is what determines how women will respond. they’re not flirting with you in a social vaccum, and pretending otherwise is just fucking stupid. We have to fix the social context first (i.e. not punish women for being above-average-assertive, and instead shut down those why try to punish women for blatantly and “rudely” setting boundaries and even taking initiative themselves), before you can seriously expect women to consistently “help” socially inept guys at flirting by being blunt with them.

I agree that it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to completely go against their socialization, but that doesn’t mean that we should not ask them to do so, or, when we’re discussing behavioral standards, to hold up an against-the-mainstream behavior as ideal. Society socializes us to do many things that we reject. Dishonesty could be one of them. Jadehawk’s view is that women are just brainless products of society’s conditioning, and have no choice in how to act. I think we all have a choice, regardless of what we’re told, or how we’re taught. I don’t think “the social context is what determines how women will respond.” I think women will respond based on their own individual choices, in light of the social context.

To be clear, I don’t think people are always (or even usually) obligated to express their sexual interest or lack thereof. It’s all about your intentions. If you intend to send the message for someone to back off, do it clearly. Don’t use subtle social cues that are open to interpretation. If you want to get to know someone, do that. If you intend to communicate sexual interest, do it clearly. Don’t do it by pretending you want to get to know someone. And don’t pretend you’re interested in sex if you’re only interested in getting to know someone. If you want to get to know someone, and also have sexual interest, then feel free to communicate either or both. My only problem here is dishonesty about one’s intentions.

This also shouldn’t be taken to mean that I think people always have clear intentions. It’s perfectly reasonable to be hours, days, weeks, or years into a social interaction, and still not really be sure what you want out of the interaction. That is actually, I would argue, the mainstream expectation. The problem occurs when people know what they want, and pretend that they don’t.

Flirting is not easy. But if we try, we could make it a little easier.

31 thoughts on “Honesty is Hard

  1. I will never consider myself sex positive.

    You expect people to abandon their social network, friends and connection. Do you not realize how absurd that is? You’re essentially telling people to add even more stress to themselves for gains that may not even outweigh the losses.

    I’ve been able, mostly, to cut myself off from those who dislike my atheism but it took years and would have failed if I didn’t dislike socializing in general.

    “If the object of your affection will see you as creepy for being clear about your sexual interest, that’s not a reason to hide your interest. ”

    Yes. Yes it is. You’re intimidating them and probably (especially if that woman happens to be my wife) adding more bullshit on top of their day.

    Don’t leer at people. Don’t ask to see their breasts. Don’t tell them you could make them orgasm in 2 minutes when their serving you coffee. Don’t stare down their top when they’re talking to you.

    Why should you be allowed to do any of that?

  2. While I am a bit more hardline about some of these issues (therefore I cant say I completely agree) I wanted to let you know I appreciate the message.

    I don’t like feeling as though I have to be disingenuous to people about my intentions, conversations like that make me feel like a people user.
    I want to be upfront and honest, because to me that is the most respectful thing possible, and in turn I want people to be upfront and honest with me.

    So thank you for this.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed your post and I am in complete agreement with the spirit of what you have to say. Honesty is scary, but our social interactions would be so much less confusing and hurtful if we did away with obscuring our desires – which I believe we typically do because we have been taught that wanting sex with another person outside of a relationship is shameful. But let’s face it, the by-product of being coy about either wanting sex, friendship or both from a person – or not wanting to pursue such a proposal – is confusion. Confusion usually leads to some since of misguided hope, or a feeling of being misled, which when it crumbles is far more challenging to deal with than any emotional reaction to honesty.

    I am a “hunter” insomuch as I enjoy initiating new encounters. While I find my assertiveness to be personally entertaining, it certainly seems to scare or intimidate a lot of men, especially since I usually take the blunt approach (i.e. “I find you very attractive”, provide a brief back story since I am in an open marriage, and “would you have any interest in exploring each other sexually”). It is rather frustrating that my behaviour is read as so aggressive and unfeminine, usually it is only the most lucid and self-assured men that can handle me. But back to socialization; if women were further encouraged to clearly express their desires, (or lack thereof), to potential prospects, as a society I think we would make great strides forward in both sexual equality (in our sexual interactions) and sex positivity.

  4. @Julian – as I said, I don’t expect people to go against social convention. I just wish that they would, and have no problem saying so. If their friends are going to abandon them because they start speaking in plain language about their desires, then their friends are assholes.

    It’s telling that you think expressing sexual interest in a social situation is the same as aggressively and explicitly hitting on your waitress. There is a world of difference there.

  5. @ChaChaChica – I’m struggling to identify our areas of disagreement. Part of my frustration is that behavior like yours (honest and open) is considered strange and unfeminine. My hope is that if we consistently encourage people to be more open & honest about what they want, such behavior will be seen as normal and expected.

  6. As an observation, I’d posit that part of our dishonest/veiled/high sensitivity to clear, direct statements of intent is an American phenomena. This is true for all communication, regardless of genders.. men will say things to men like “oh your party? I’m not sure if I can make it” instead of “No, I won’t be coming”. Parents who see other parents smacking their kid don’t involve themselves- it would bt impolite to nose in! It is moreso for women, in terms of social expectation (and you rightly observe this does not make it /right/).

    I lived in Germany for several years. They do not speak in the overly-polite, delicate way that Americans do- this includes the women. I got positive and negative sorts of reactions from many a german woman (including the one I lived with for a year). This was jarring at times, but overall I absolutely loved the clarity, maturity, and efficiency of that sort of communication that BTW does not foreclose on respect and politeness.

    I do not know if this is considered “unfeminine” in Germany, but it if is.. no one told the women I interacted with.

    It is the case that some parts will not likely change- males are always the aggressors by default et cetera. But things could most definitely be better than they are. Thanks for your essay!

  7. “People who just come out and say they want sex (even in the least coercive and lowest pressure way I can think of) are [considered] disrespectful, objectifying, and should be ashamed of themselves.”

    Somewhat unfortunately, I think that “the least coercive and lowest pressure way” of proposing sex is a lot more nuanced and confusing than you seem to allow for. The fact of the matter is that maintaining plausible deniability and discretion in such matters is helpful, and acts as a signal that one is being considerate and committed to respecting rightful boundaries.

    Is it hypocritical to tell someone “hey, I don’t really mean to disturb you but would it bother you to please pass me the salt? Oh yes it would be rather awesome if you could get around to doing that sometime.”, as opposed to “Me Bobo salt you me salt you salt give give.”? Perhaps so, but we use rules of politeness anyway in order to smoothen our day-to-day social interactions. Such rules will be all-the-more important in the sexual sphere which is known to be fragile and vulnerable: dismissing them outright is wrong and unhelpful.

  8. @Guest – maintaining “plausible deniability,” like most etiquette rules, is a way of hiding what you’re really thinking, or how you really feel.

    I don’t understand your hypothetical. What’s hypocritical about asking someone to pass the salt? Is there something dishonest in that statement? Using the word “please” is just a way of acknowledging that the other party has a right to refuse, which is true, and something you ought to acknowledge.

  9. Well, perhaps “dishonest” is not the right word, but that statement does not _read_ as a request for salt. Taken literally, it reads as a request for info – asking whether some thing would “bother you” coupled with a statement asserting that some other thing would be “rather awesome”. This circumvention is used as a politeness device, and your interpretation (I’m simply requesting that you pass me the salt, but I’m being polite about it in order to acknowledge our respective social standing) has to be learned as part of our culture.

    I am asserting that we should expect to see similar politeness norms operating all the more strongly in the sexual sphere (although the detailed description will generally differ from our generic “politeness” rules, for rather complex reasons I won’t address here), and that there is nothing artificial or undesirable about this.

  10. @Guest

    What if I were to reply by saying that rather than assert what we should do, perhaps you should politely request information about whether we would be bothered by a potential suggestion for people to be “polite,” and that it would be rather awesome if we did? That would be silly, wouldn’t it? I am not offended by your assertion, I just find it wrong. Asking the question less directly (more politely) doesn’t change my perspective, it can only obfuscate what your view is and create potential misunderstanding.

    There is nothing impolite about asking a direct question or request. Of course it should always be expected that the question or request will not lead to the response you want, but this attempt to be as indirect and “polite” as possible is largely unhelpful and creates unnecessary ambiguity. The view that there is something wrong with directness is, frankly, irrational (assuming our goal is to communicate clearly and get real, meaningful, answers). It is a part of our culture’s value set–along with things like not judging other people (which is impossible)–that simply makes no sense.

    I think we, as a culture, need to grow out of these values.

  11. @Marrlorie – thanks for that video! I liked it a lot.

    @Guest – in terms of Pinker’s presentation, I think we’re talking about different concepts. You’re talking about the early concept of phrasing a demand in terms of an information-gathering question, so as to preserve the communality relationship structure (whereas a demand would only be appropriate in a dominant structure). There is no confusion there. Both parties know that it is a request for salt. It’s just phrased in a way that acknowledges the relationship.

    What I’m talking about is the later concept of indirect communication which serves to hide our knowledge. The “you can’t take it back” concept, where we don’t want to show all of our cards, because then the other party knows that we know what we know (did you know that?). Indirect communication, in that sense, is still about hiding things. In the sense of a proposition (“would you like to come see my etchings?”) it’s about maintaining the pretense that A is not really asking for sex, and B is not really refusing. It keeps the knowledge individual, not mutual. Indirect language, as I argued above, and as Pinker seems to agree, is all about concealing our knowledge or intentions.

    This, of course, is only a fraction of what I was addressing in the OP. Indirect language is annoying and confusion-creating, but there are also situations in which people actively and intentionally send dishonest messages (i.e. saying “maybe” when you mean “no”), that are encouraged by our culture as “polite.”

  12. top stuff, I like the use of informal language and fully appreciate the sentiment. Could say more but you and others seem to have covered it satisfactorily and I’m sleepy, still, this sort of thing needs to be talked about as much as possible, thank you.

  13. “but this attempt to be as indirect and “polite” as possible is largely unhelpful and creates unnecessary ambiguity.”

    Wha? Are we advocating for sexual positivity or Radical Honesty here? These are two _very different_ things, and the social trade-offs involved are extremely complex. I am quite confident that mixing them up casually will _not_ lead to good results. Besides, wfenza has admitted that politeness norms serve at least one useful function: “acknowledging that the other party has a right to refuse, which is true, and something you ought to acknowledge”. And yes, my understanding is that viable politeness norms will sometimes _require_ a measure of ambiguity. I can’t give a proper explanation here, but (IMHO) there’s more to it than what Pinker talks about: “active and intentional confusion” will also be used for signaling reasons.

    OTOH, I think “maintaining the pretense that friends do not ask for sex” (what Pinker uses as his example of common vs. stratified knowledge) is one thing that might _not_ matter much in a more sex-positive social environment. Friends-with-benefits arrangements obviously exist, and are no less successful than other friendships (on the contrary, they do often lead to intimate relationships).

  14. As a member of the culture we find ourselves in, it’s hard for me to picture asking someone for sex as casually as asking them to pass the salt. Assuming that salt isn’t nearly as bad for us as the armchair “doctors” claimed, perhaps there will come a time when a request for sex is on par with a request for help adding a little flavor to our food. Maybe I was given hangups to prevent me from having more hookups, but most everyone else was too. It’s hard to judge from where we stand.

    Still, there is a big difference between asking someone to pass the salt and reaching across the table with a fork and trying to eat off of the plate of a person we don’t know very well. That’s really bad manners.

  15. #21, I obviously agree: and my point was not that one should be as simple as the other. Rather *given* that our social norms (which are designed to make social interactions smoother) endow even so simple an action as asking someone to pass the salt with some circumvention and subtext (although we do filter this out in everyday life, and read the polite request as what it actually is), we have no grounds at all to suggest that similar devices should be unimportant in the sphere of sex and intimacy, and every reason to think that they should be more important. Importantly, this point applies *even though* we think that current norms and attitudes are “sex negative”, and more positive attitudes should replace them.

    All that said, I support your implied project of helping our friends and associates with their self-control in salt-related matters. So, if anyone makes such a request in the future, tell them that you would never endanger their health in such a manner, and that the very suggestion makes you feel ashamed. (This also applies to any stranger who should have the gall to ask you for a smoke in the street. Just say “no way, smoking is bad for you”. Hopefully, they’ll be thanking you for helping them switch to a healthier lifestyle.)

  16. “This is related to Point 1 by virtue of the fact that if wanting sex is wrong, then people who want sex are going to be encouraged to hide that fact until the socially appropriate time. People who just come out and say they want sex (even in the least coercive and lowest pressure way I can think of) are disrespectful, objectifying, and should be ashamed of themselves. Fuck that. Asking for sex is not seeing a person “as your plaything.” It’s just asking for sex. Objecification only happens if you see the other person’s desires as irrelevant. As long as you are genuinely seeking enthusiastic consent, if you want sex, you ought to ask for it! Hiding your intentions is just being dishonest, not respectful.”

    Yes and no. I agree in principle that asking shouldn’t be an issue if you’re doing it honestly and are entirely respectful of the other persons’ right to refuse. However, context matters.

    Say someone’s told you they’re in a monogamous relationship, but you don’t know them that well, and you don’t know if the relationship is open at all. You could ask that person if they’re available for hooking up, and be asking an honest question. That person, however, might interpret it one of two ways. Either you’re asking if their relationship is open, or you’re asking if they’re willing to cheat. Even if you meant the former, it’s your responsibility to clearly distinguish your question from the latter.

    The same type of distinction goes for propositioning in general. In our culture, it’s not unreasonable in many circumstances for people to assume that the average propositioner may not take rejection gracefully. This is a sucky reality, but it is a reality, the same as the average propositioner in my monogamy example is reasonably likely to be asking for cheating. So though I agree that propositioning someone purely based on attraction shouldn’t be considered a bad thing, there’s an important caveat: it’s the propositioner’s responsibility to take cultural context into account and not proposition until they’ve made it safe for the propositionee to assume they do respect their desires and will take rejection gracefully. Sometimes it’s as simple as adding, “No is an acceptable answer”, to the end of propositions. Sometimes it may take more than that.

  17. Random thought on part of your thoughts from a passer-through: I think you mis-represent McCreight’s position on the matter. I read her comment not as putting ” desiring sex with attractive women in the same category as talking only to a woman’s chest, nonconsensual groping, and following a woman to her hotel room”, but as pursuing women as notches on a belt as being equivilent to such. a more full paraphrase from her that includes important connotation I think would be (which I got from your link to her post): “had goals to bag a young hottie at every speaking gig they did.” Thats not a healthy desire of sex, thats desiring notches on one’s belt, and a fairly objectifying and kinda scummy goal.

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