Honesty is Hard; Rudeness is Easy

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.



Wes here.

On Sunday, I wrote about how honesty is hard in a sexual/dating context. My previous post was an attempt to address what I see as a problem, where people hide their true intent in social interactions due to politeness, social expectation, fear of punishment, or maliciousness. Today, I’d like to highlight one of the misconceptions of that post, namely, that I advocate cold-propositioning in inappropriate situations. The previous post was meant to address what happens in social interactions, which is why the focus was on dishonest behavior.

A few people have suggested to me that the arguments that I make could be used to justify things like catcalling, interrupting, and other rude/unacceptable behaviors, all in the name of “I’m just honestly communicating.” I do not feel that I made any arguments advocating in favor of such things, but if anyone disagrees, I invite reasonable, calm discussion on the topic.

The difference between what I’m advocating and something like catcalling is that catcalling is rude for reasons other than the sexual content. Yelling “nice tits” at a woman on the street is rude because (a) it interrupts whatever she is doing, and she’s given no indication that she is interested in socializing, or that she is interested in your opinion; (b) it’s not designed to start a conversation; (c) it’s clearly meant to intimidate, not actually to compliment.* This behavior is rude because it involved showing nudity to a non-consenting person, and because it violated the conference’s policy on propositioning (but not for any of the other reasons set forth in the post).

Propositioning someone for sex is rude in any case where propositioning someone for any other activity is rude. If it’s rude to ask someone if ze’d like to go ice-skating, it’s rude to ask for sex. Conversely, if it is NOT rude to ask someone to go ice-skating, then I don’t believe it’s rude to ask hir to have sex (unless of course, that person has made clear that ze wishes not to be propositioned in that manner).

What is also rude is saying “wow, that’s really interesting” when you mean “you’re really hot.” It’s rude to say “I would love to, but I have plans” when you mean “I don’t want to.” It’s rude to pretend to care about someone’s problems when you really just want to get in hir pants. In short, it’s rude to communicate things that you don’t mean and/or take active steps to hide the way you really feel/think. They key, of course, is ACTIVE steps. There’s nothing rude about seeing an attractive person and NOT telling hir that you think ze’s hot (and, depending on context, it can be very rude to just go up to someone and announce that). It’s only rude if you’re actively concealing that fact.

When a woman says things like “I would love to, but I have a conflict” or “I wish I could,” (especially to a sexual invitation) these are generally understood by all parties as clear refusals. Some people have taken this to mean that there is no miscommunication involved in such a refusal. But the fact that it’s a refusal is as far as the clarity goes. All refusals are not created equal. Saying “no, I’m not attracted to you” sends a much clearer message than “I would, but I’m very tired.” The former sends the message that sex is not an option for the foreseeable future, the latter send the message the woman in question would like to have sex under other circumstances. Both are refusals, but both contain different information in addition to the refusal.

Couching a refusal in terms of being unable to do something as opposed to being unwilling is generally seen as polite. I do not see it this way. I see it as a lie, and a very unfriendly thing to do to someone. As I said in my last post, hurting someone’s feelings by telling them the truth is a brave and awesome thing to do.

There is, of course, a grey area in between catcalling on the street and admitting your intentions once conversation has been started. It’s hard to say exactly when it’s ok to approach a person, and when reasonable boundaries are being crossed. What I propose is that sexual desires are given the same treatment as any other desire to participate in an activity with someone. I’m serious about the ice skating thing. Interrupting someone reading a book to ask if ze’d like to go rock-climbing (or bike riding, or going for a walk in the park, or playing video games, etc.) with you is rude; just as doing the same thing with an invitation to sexual activity is rude. Asking someone you just met to go rock-climbing is not rude if you’re already engaged in mutual socializing. However, asking someone if ze’d like to have sex in such a situation is often considered rude, which I don’t agree with. It’s also considered rude to see a person as merely a means to partnered rock-climbing, and not as a human with independent desires of hir own, just as the same thing is rude with sex.

I’m not advocating unbridled communication of sexual desires. I’m just saying that if you’re going to communicate, communicate honestly and bluntly. If someone is going to be creeped out by your desire, hiding your desire is not the answer. Ze should be creeped out by your desire if you have creepy desires. Masking them in subtlety and politeness might make you appear less creepy, but really you’re just hiding them.

In conclusion, I’d like to highlight this comment from Ginny:

part of approaching people respectfully is making yourself the vulnerable one. I highly advocate beginning a sexual advance with, “I’m very attracted to you,” rather than putting the other person on the spot by asking if they’re interested. Stating your own attraction puts yourself in the vulnerable position, and doesn’t instantly demand something of the other person.

Good advice! I heartily agree.

*this is a non-exhaustive list. There are probably a lot more reasons why such behavior is rude and/or unacceptable.

12 thoughts on “Honesty is Hard; Rudeness is Easy

  1. I disagree with this comment, because I think it stems from misinterpretinging intentional, reasonable ambiguity as active deception. These are two entirely different animals: there is a good case to be made that we should avoid *deceiving* folks, but people are under no obligation to make the entirety of their communication as stark and unambiguous as possible.

    Addressing some examples in your post: there are very good reasons to avoid overtly rejecting sexualised advances with “I do not want“, or “I don’t find you attractive”. For instance, (1) it can be seen as disrespectful to the counterparty, in a way that introducing some token ambiguity would not be and (2) it commits you to seeing attractiveness in others as something fixed and unchangeable, and categorizing your counterparty among a social outgroup of “unattractive” folks who are not as desirable to interact with. You fall into the same pitfall with regard to “creepiness”, which you ascribe to desires as opposed to problematic (and rude) behaviors. In my view, both sexual attractiveness and ‘creepiness’ result in no small part from active choices and behaviors; and politeness – including, yes, some degree of intentional ambiguity – plays a key role here.

  2. Intentional ambiguity is the same thing as active deception. If you’re intentionally hiding what you think while pretending to say what you think, that’s deception. It’s just not as overt as outright lying.

    I also don’t find your examples compelling. Bluntness can be taken as disrespectful. So can being “too out” about your sexual orientation, bringing a person of the “wrong” race home for dinner, or wearing a swimsuit if you’re not the “right” size. Just because something can be seen as disrespectful doesn’t mean that it *is* disrespectful. There *is* nothing disrespectful about being blunt, and anyone who sees it that way is simply incorrect (unless, of course, there is something disrespectful about the statement other than the bluntness). We don’t bow to unreasonable interpretations in other areas, and we shouldn’t do it here either.

    On your second example, saying “I don’t find you attractive” doesn’t commit you to anything – it’s just a description of how you feel. You’re not committing to feeling that way in the future, but most people (rightly) understand that if someone doesn’t find you attractive today, ze is probably not going to find you attractive tomorrow. It’s descriptive, not proscriptive. Categorizing your counterparty as such, while maybe not the easy to hear, is nonetheless accurate.

    My point about creepiness is that sharing your desires shouldn’t be considered creepy unless you have creepy desires. Of course behaviors can be creepy on their own merits, but a lot of behaviors are creepy because they reveal creepy desires. Think about leaving 17 messages on someone’s answering machine. Totally creepy! But it’s not the act that’s creepy. It wouldn’t be creepy if you left 17 messages your spouse’s voicemail on your anniversary. That’s sweet! It’s creepy from a newly made acquaintance because it reveals that the caller is totally obsessed with the person ze is calling before it’s socially appropriate to have that level of interest. I’d argue that the same thing applies to sex. Sexual overtures are creepy because they reveal the desire of the speaker for sex before the counterparty is comfortable with that.

  3. “Intentional ambiguity is the same thing as active deception.”

    You have not made a case for this. Is is ‘active deception’ to state: “I have found you to be a remarkably interesting person and I’d like to get to know you better socially, but I cannot at this moment confirm or deny any sexual interest on my part, or lack thereof; I may or may not choose to make a sexual proposition in the future.”? Obviously not: I am simply choosing to disclose some information, while leaving some other information withheld. So why is there an issue with *doing the very same thing* in a way that is socially acceptable and commonly understood, by saying “Wow, that’s really interesting.”?

    As for my other examples, you are disregarding the connotational content of these statements. Saying something bluntly *does* often connote disrespect in everyday life when you could have effortlessly chosen a more tactful way of saying the same thing. You may not wish this to be so, but I really can’t see a way around this.

    I also don’t see how a categorization decision of the kind you posit here can be described as “accurate”. Again, what matters here is the connotation and the unwritten side-effects of making that particular decision. It is true that we feel attraction to others to varying degrees, and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging this. Nonetheless, overtly categorizing someone in the “unattractive” box will cause you to see her, perhaps unconsciously, as less of a compelling person to interact with socially, or even sexually. This is a non-trivial concern, but one that is easily solved once made aware of it.

    “Think about leaving 17 messages on someone’s answering machine. Totally creepy! But it’s not the act that’s creepy.”

    Yes, it is. Consider a person who is totally obsessed with her new acquaintance, to the same degree as the creepy person who left 17 messages in someone’s voicemail. Yet, being a thoughtful person who understands the social consequences of her actions, she refrains completely from interacting with her acquaintance in inappropriate ways even though this requires suppressing her original desires to some extent. I posit that this person is not being creepy in any significant sense, despite having the exact same desires. (You may argue that her desires are not the same because she has suppressed them and decided to act differently. But this would be a total conflation of desires vs. acts, so the point would be moot.)

  4. I think you misunderstood my intention with the “wow, that’s really interesting comment.” The rudeness comes in when you pretend to be interested, when you don’t actually find it very interesting at all. There’s nothing wrong with revealing some information and not revealing other information. The problem is that nobody talks like your hypothetical. People don’t say “here is the information I am conveying, and here is what I am not conveying.” And often, people convey false information. Are you disagreeing that our rules of politeness are designed, in large part, to obscure our true feels and encourage dishonest words and actions?

    Our culture generally does see bluntness as disrespectful. My whole point is that this is stupid, and our culture should see bluntness as communicating a much higher level of respect than the pretty lies of etiquette. The way around it is to change the way we think.

    If I’m not attracted to someone, that person is unattractive in my estimation. That’s not forcing hir into a box, that’s just what the word means. That will most certainly make that person less compelling (to me) to interact with sexually, and possibly socially, depending on other factors. What’s the problem with that?

    A person who resists the impulse to leave 17 messages on a crush’s answering machine is, yes, less creepy, because ze has shown that ze has some minimal respect for the other party’s boundaries. However, it’s still creepy to have too high a level of interest in someone too soon. That desire can manifest in various ways, but just having that level of interest, especially if the other party doesn’t share it, shows poor judgment and would probably creep the other party out if ze knew about it. Hiding it just means you appear less creepy, not that you are less creepy.

  5. I’ve been thinking about your first post on dishonesty and this one for a while and I think I’ve finally come up with the issue that makes me uneasy.

    You begin by saying “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….There is nothing wrong with desiring sex for purely physical reasons.”

    I agree with that. But I then have problems squaring the rest of your argument with that premise, because if my only reason for wanting sex with someone is purely physical, then, baring a few specific circumstances (sex parties, for example) I cannot know the other person’s interests and views. And “I find you attractive and would like to have sex with you” seems like an awful lot to dump on a person without warning.

    Let me use your own example to explain what I mean. You say “Interrupting someone reading a book to ask if ze’d like to go rock-climbing (or bike riding, or going for a walk in the park, or playing video games, etc.) with you is rude….Asking someone you just met to go rock-climbing is not rude if you’re already engaged in mutual socializing.”

    Well that depends. If I’ve been talking to someone at a party for half an hour or an hour, but the topics have been politics and art and I suddenly say “I find you physically fit and want to go rock climbing with you” I think the other person would be perfect in his/her rights to be surprised, put off and to consider me terribly rude. Why? Because there was no previous suggestion that the person was interested in rock climbing at all, let alone rock climbing with me.

    Now it is entirely possible that you meant the “mutual socializing” would include flirting and even discussions of sexual topics that make clear to both parties there is a mutual attraction. And in that case I absolutely agree that a blunt/honest/forthright declaration of interest is (or should be) welcomed, whatever the outcome.

    However, I’ve read both your posts twice now and I don’t find any explicit mention of this middle step of establishing mutual interest. And I think that by skipping over the explicit description of this step, you create a sense that you think people should be able to shift the conversation to a desire for sex just because they have that desire. After all, you started this whole thing by stating that people should be able to want and express the desire for sex based on purely physical reasons. Physical reasons, to me at least, means an attraction to a person based on his/her body, separate from (and usually before) any of the mutual socializing.

    So, in brief: If a guy says “I want to have sex with you” after a half an hour of talk about non-sexual topics–I’m going to be pissed off and think he’s a creep, no matter how well he takes me “hell no.”

    If that same guy spends an additional half hour engaged in playful, light, polite, subtle flirting and I respond with the same, and then he says “I want to have sex with you” that’s entirely different.

    And I don’t consider the time spent flirting to be dishonest or manipulative. I consider it to be establishing interest before tossing out what is, in our culture, a very intimate request.

  6. @Annalisa – You’ve noticed the absence of the middle step because I don’t find it necessary. Part of socializing with another person is giving up some measure of control of the topics on which the conversation stays. If we’ve been talking about art and politics, but I’d rather talk about rock climbing, are you really saying that I should just go talk to someone else before finding out if you’re interested in rock climbing also?

    you create a sense that you think people should be able to shift the conversation to a desire for sex just because they have that desire

    I do have that sense. Assuming only two people in the conversation, conversation is a two-way street. If I’m bored with the topic, and want to shift it to a topic that interests me, why shouldn’t I? Do I have an obligation to continue talking about the topic at hand? Should I just end the conversation if I’m bored? If you’re not interested in my suggested topic, you can offer a different topic, or end the conversation. Are you saying that, if I’m tired of talking about politics, and would rather talk about sex, that I should just stop talking to you? Or that I should continue talking about politics?

    Another example – say a woman is really into swing dancing, and wants to take swing dancing classes with a buddy. Say she notices my sweet dance moves at a mutual friend’s wedding (this happens a lot), and thinks that I might be a good partner. Would it be rude of her to come up to me and say “hey – I saw your dance moves. Any interest in taking a swing dance class with me?” Now, the thing is, I pretty heavily dislike organized dance classes. I have no interest in this at all, which would have been evident if she had brought it up in a subtler way before asking. But what’s the harm in asking? I can just say “no,” and if neither one of us is an asshole about it, no harm done.

    Now consider this – instead of asking me to go swing dancing, she compliments my impressive hat (this also happens a lot), even though she’s not that interested in hats, but was looking for a conversation starter. Say we get into a conversation about hats, the duration of which she’s really thinking about swing dancing, but is too polite and/or afraid of rejection to just ask about it. And say she dances around the topic for 45 minutes or so, puts out a few feelers, and finally asks in the more polite way. I refuse, and suddenly, she doesn’t want to talk about hats anymore. She wants to go look for another swing dancing partner. I’m going to be pissed! I just had a conversation under false pretenses! I think that sort of behavior is very rude. She could have saved both of us a lot of time just by asking about swing dancing in the first place.

    Of course, that would probably not happen. Asking about swing dancing is easy. But it happens all the time with sex, and I think that sucks. The better situation for both parties is that if one party’s primary goal is looking for a sex partners (or dating partners, or someone to make out with in the bathroom, or just someone to flirt with for the evening), ze makes that clear at the outset. Hiding your intentions in a social interaction just wastes time and creates confusion.

    I’d also just like to reiterate this from my original post:

    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.

  7. It’s SAFETY BEHAVIOR to say “I would love to, but I have plans” when you mean “I don’t want to.” Because there are a significant fraction of ENTITLED MEN who need to be lied to convincingly before they will take “no” for an answer, they won’t listen to a simple indication of preference, and might well explode into violence when faced with one. “Sorry, I have to go meet my boyfriend now” is SAFER than “I’m not interested”. The former will make him think in terms of negotiating or competing with a male equal, he’s more likely to back down and look for easier prey. The latter might well cause the man to say things like “what the fuck, bitch, you think you’re so special?” and assault or intimidate her, because he thinks his maleness outranks her femaleness, and she owes him sex if she’s not otherwise occupied with a man.

    You are owed NO TRUTH from someone whose safety is at risk. If this hurts you, turn your anger on male entitlement.

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