Getting Oriented

In the comments section of an earlier post here, I mentioned that I see polyamory as an orientation. Wes exhorted me to elaborate on that concept, so I will attempt to do so now. But first, I should mention that another commenter (Jessica) referred us all to law professor Ann Tweedy’s excellent article on the subject. I’m going to build on several of Tweedy’s ideas in this discussion, and I suggest you read the article in full.

Tweedy points out that the term “sexual orientation” is a modern invention, and that the words, taken separately, seem to suggest a slippery, almost vague concept:

Rather, based on the ordinary meanings of its two constitutive words, the term “sexual orientation” should refer to any type of settled “sense of direction or relationship” or “choice or adjustment of associations, connections, or dispositions” that relates to “libidinal gratification.”

Of course, that’s not exactly how we use the term in our daily lives, but it’s fairly close. One of the problems of thinking of sex and love in terms of orientation (i.e. innate condition, quirk of birth, etc.), however, is that we immediately run into the “problem” of whether to distinguish between who we are and what we do. Can a person be polyamorous and single, for example? That may sound like a deliberately stupid question, but if being polyamorous means “having multiple loving relationships with the full knowledge and consent of all parties,” a single person may not necessarily qualify. If, instead, one has a polyamorous identity (i.e. a preference for such relationships, even while single), the answer changes.

All people who practice non-normative lovestyles face the dilemma imposed by the who we are vs. what we do distinction. There is debate in the LGBT community, for example, about whether it is acceptable for a gay person to say he/she is gay “by choice.” Earlier this year, actress Cynthia Nixon did just that and was criticized harshly for it. After all, when minority groups fight for civil rights, they often take the position that they’re the same as everyone else (i.e. born a certain way). We all remember 19th century “scientists” who tried to prove that people of African descent were literally a different species as Caucasians. Today, the claim that gay people are different in an essential (and therefore “correctable”) way are used to justify discrimination against them.

The problem, as I see it, with this line of reasoning is that granting civil rights based solely on biological determinism seems to be a dangerous precedent to set. So what if someone is gay by choice? Why should that affect their ability to be protected by anti-discrimination laws, to visit a partner in the hospital, to obtain medical insurance, etc.? If homosexuality (or heterosexuality) is innate, should we test people for it? What, if any, value should we assign to people’s self-identification? Should we require “proof” of sexual orientation? These are all complicated questions, but I tend to advocate a society in which we place as many people, and as many choices as people consensually and nonviolently make, as possible under the umbrella of civil rights.

Which brings us back to polyamory as an orientation. I suppose I could claim that I’ve been polyamorous since birth (or at least since adolescence). We’ve all heard stories of people who became polyamorous in high school or college. I like to tell an anecdote from my own life in which I dated two women at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all parties, back when I still considered myself monogamous. Of course, the way we all justified this arrangement was the same way many single, monogamous people justify dating multiple other people: eventually I was going to have to choose one of them, and I was just getting as much information as possible before making my choice. Nonetheless, the fact that I wanted to date them both (and didn’t want to have to choose, though I told myself back then that I would eventually have to), and that it was very important to me that everyone knew what was happening (i.e. no one was cheating on anyone) makes me think that the conceptual framework of polyamory has been part of my way of thinking for a long time. The anecdote happened almost 20 years ago, and I’ve only identified as polyamorous for 4 years.

I’ve talked to many poly people with similar stories of their pre-poly life. So perhaps some of us “naturally” gravitate to this lovestyle and some do not. The problem, however, is that very little of what I’m saying here sounds like the way people usually talk about sexual orientation. If I were only interested in living in triads, or quads, etc.–i.e. if my erotic imagination always, and only, involved more than two people, or always involved people of more than one gender–that would sound more like the way sexual minorities tend to talk about orientation. In many ways, when I say that polyamory as an orientation for me, what I mean is that the philosophy/ideology of non-monogamy makes sense to me in a way that suggests to me that it’s not merely an idea I like but rather that I’m drawn to it constitutionally (or, as Heinlein might say, I “grok” it). This is why I like Canadian sexuality theorist Nathan Patrick Rambukkana’s statement:

“I believe that though my sexual orientation is straight, my ideological and political orientation towards sex is queer.”

For me–all these years later and you still can’t take the Hegelian/Marxist out of me–ideology and what we tend to call personality are inextricably linked. I’m not going to get into the debate here of which comes first–if you’re interested in a very long discussion on this subject I recommend this episode of Reasonable Doubts–but I think that many of the beliefs/philosophies we hold most dear appeal to us both because they make logical sense and because we have an intuitive sense that they’re right. The skeptical thing to do, of course, is to examine whether one’s “intuitive” response to an idea is reasonable, comports with the facts of the world, etc., but nonetheless some studies are now showing us that ways of seeing the world might be more hardwired than we’d originally thought, and I think that’s interesting (if inconclusive so far).

The question of whether any sexual orientation is chosen or if we are “born this way,” then, may be a false dilemma. We may chose it because we were born that way, for instance. Making a distinction only seems useful if we’re fighting for equal civil rights. Of course, that’s an important thing to do, which makes the question relevant in many aspects of our civil life. But it’s also a double-edged sword, as the Cynthia Nixon example demonstrates. I don’t want to have to pass a polyamory “truth” test, and if a polyamorous gene were detected, I wouldn’t line up to be tested. It doesn’t matter very much to me why anyone’s “libidinal gratification” desires (including my own) tend to lead him/her toward one or another “choice or adjustment of associations, connections, or dispositions.” Just don’t try to stop me from associating freely.

Religious Conversions Happen for Social Reasons

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.



Some of you may have heard of Lea Libresco’s recent conversion to Catholicism. A lot of people have been posting about it, but Chris Hallquist has the best take I’ve seen on the topic:

I was briefly puzzled when I heard about atheist blogger Leah Libresco’s conversion to Catholicism. But I was immediately un-puzzled when I read Dan Fincke’s post on it, which reminded me that “the very premise of Libresco’s blog was that she was romantically involved with a Catholic.” Oh yeah. Duh.

Anger Management

I was struck by many things in the “Godless Perverts” panel video Shaun posted yesterday, but one thing in particular that I’ve been meaning to write more about was the idea of the narrative of redemption through suffering (Maggie Mayhem segues into Charlie Glickman discussing it, starting at around 30:25 of Pt. II). I’m going to try to tread very carefully here as I discuss the ways in which I think this concept is relevant to nonmonogamy, so please accept the caveat that I’m trying to make somewhat broad conceptual associations in order to see if they’re fruitful.

When we “come out” as atheists, many of us face the usual types of reactions. Some people accept our decision right away (or don’t really care–i.e. it’s not really their business how we live our lives); some say they knew all along and are genuinely happy for us; some completely reject atheism and, thus, reject us along with the proverbial bathwater. If I think about people as roughly falling into three camps–true believers/theists, nonbelievers, and “weak” believers (i.e. those who may identify as religious but whose religiosity operates more as a cultural identity, or quasi-ethnicity, than as a dominant life philosophy)–all of these reactions make some sense to me. The true believers are likely to want nothing to do with an atheist (except the ones who might think they can “save” us, but that’s another blog post altogether), and may even feel threatened by an atheists’ presence in their lives (because, as everyone knows, we recruit). The nonbelievers will either embrace our newly-announced identity or be indifferent, neither of which harms us much, though the former can certainly help.

The middle group, though, are the ones who tend to respond angrily. Some people seem to get very angry when I share my atheism (or skepticism of almost any kind, honestly) with them, and I’ve spent some time trying to understand why.

(Big assumption alert)

I think the “weak” believers get angry when we decide to live our atheist lives openly and unapologetically because, at least on some level, they’ve bought into the narrative that pious people deserve to be rewarded and wicked people must be punished. Even though they may not go to church every week, or observe all of the holidays, rituals, etc. required by the most devout members of their religious identity group, they still want to believe that their lukewarm belief–and, often, adherence to at least some elements of their religion’s moral/ethical rules–will gain them a reward. In other words, they’ve given up some things in order to convince themselves that they’re a good “insert religious identity here,” and if atheists are living happy, free, unapologetic lives and not being punished for it, the “weak” believers’ entire ideological framework is in danger of crumbling like a house of cards.

The historically religious narrative of asceticism and punishment leading to reward/redemption is so powerful that, I’m arguing, it has become a powerful secular narrative, even in the minds of those who do not strongly identify as religious. Hence, they often can’t articulate why they’re mad at us. Usually they say things like, “why can’t you just keep that to yourself?” or “did you have to shove that down my throat?” when we’ve done no such thing. They feel threatened because our unpunished existence directly contradicts the narrative not only that they want to believe but that has motivated actual life choices they’ve made, and these choices often involve sacrifices that they would not have made were it not for their belief in the reward/redemption at the end of the narrative.

When we come out, and especially when we openly and honestly live our lives, as polyamorous, we tend to get the same spectrum of response. Some people simply can’t accept our choice, or they may feel threatened that we’ll try to “steal” their partners, etc. This is always sad, but I think we can all deal with it. Some people (often the similarly nonmonogamous) embrace our choice and/or take a “it’s not really my business, but I’ll show tepid support” attitude, or (occasionally) express mild disapproval but tolerance. Again, the latter responses are not my favorites, but I don’t worry too much about them. They might be described as falling into the YKINMK camp, and that’s understandable. The angry responses, however, can be tough to grok. Why do other people get so exorcised over our chosen lovestyle?

My answer is that mononormativity operates as a secular form of the historically religious narrative of suffering leading to reward/redemption. Here I’m defining “suffering” extremely broadly. In the case of monogamy, what I mean is that monogamous people deny often themselves the pleasure of multiple intimate relationships (these need not be sexual–remember that many monogamous people believe that even having close friendships with people other than one’s spouse is a form of cheating). This sacrifice has a cost, but it also has a reward. Monogamists feel a kind of secular piety, a sense that they’re doing the right thing. Moreover, they tend to think that the sacrifice is the very thing that gives the monogamous dyad its special status.

I’ve seen this sentiment over and over again in online forums and in conversations with “devoutly” monogamous people. People have told me that I just don’t understand what “true” love is because I’m not giving 100% of myself to each of my relationships (because, you know, it’s mathematically impossible and all that). People seem to feel the strong need to prop up their own lifestyle choices and to devalue mine, even though my being polyamorous doesn’t in any way directly affect their monogamous relationships. So why should they be angry? I think they get angry because they believe that my successful, happy, unapologetic polyamory does threaten their relationships. If they’ve sacrificed to be monogamous, they must be rewarded and, conversely, those who deviate from mononormativity must be punished. Our lack of suffering does not compute.

I’m not suggesting that this is a new phenomenon, or that it’s unique to polyamory. Quite the contrary. Normativity in all of its forms elicits this desire for secular piety on behalf of its adherents. Deviation from the norm is systematically demonized, most notably in popular culture (which is overwhelmingly heteronormative, sex-negative, pro-theist, etc.). If gay/polyamorous/freethinking people live their lives openly and happily, how can “normal” people maintain the fiction that their ways of living are worthy of praise and reward (especially in the absence of something as dramatic as an actual intervention of a deity, the full wrath of a state apparatus, etc.)?

I’m also not saying that people who obey normative rules are bad people. In fact, I think their obedience is largely due to their desire to be good people. And I also believe that they are aware of the sacrifices they make for normativity. Thus, they experience a real sense of loss when non-normative beliefs/practices are shown to be completely benign (or, gasp, rewarding). Studies of loss aversion have shown fairly consistently that humans tend to react much more negatively to losses than they react positively to gains. This is not only true in economic situations but in social ones as well.

Some people surely feel that monogamy involves no sacrifice at all. Given the statistics on infidelity within monogamous relationships (over 50%), I’m not sure we can fairly say that a majority of monogamous people see things that way, but certainly many do. I don’t think they get mad when we say we’re polyamorous and show that we’re happy that way.

However, I believe that most monogamous people are “weak” monogamists. They are monogamous by default, without ever really knowing alternatives exist. I say this, by the way, as someone who for more than 30 years thought exactly the same thing. “Weak” monogamists are aware that closing off a large part of our humanity (love/sexuality) to all but one person for our entire lives causes us suffering. In order for that suffering to be bearable, they must believe that the reward outweighs the sacrifice. This, for me, explains their often visceral reaction to our living (and loving) openly.

Polyamory challenges our culture’s dominant, cultural narrative about love/sexuality because it shows that stable, committed, loving relationships are still possible when all parties involve have other stable, committed, loving relationships. And challenging people’s dominant cultural paradigms, especially when those people haven’t examined those paradigms very deeply (one of the pernicious things about normativity is that it seems, to most members of a society, simply to be “natural,” not culturally constructed and reinforced)–makes people angry.

Misanthropy and Stockholm Syndrome

So, I am sometimes a bit misanthropic.  I want to like people, but they so-often disappoint me.  I try and give people the opportunity to impress me, and will give some benefit of my doubts about their ability to do so, but I have a streak within me which is pretty pessimistic.

Not always though.  Some days I really, genuinely, like people.  Even the stupid and oblivious ones.

So, today I was thinking about the nature of socialized behavior; etiquette, social politeness, etc.  You know, those largely non-articulated rules about how we interact, behave in public or at parties, etc.  To begin with, I grant that such socialized rules are important for both pragmatic and moral reasons (which is not to say those two things are not related; they are).  They are not all stupid or harmful, but I think there is always room for improvement and I think there are ways we can either request or demand that such such socialization needs to be pushed one way or another.  Not that anyone has to agree or comply, but that maybe they should at least consider the criticism.

Wes and I have both discussed tangential issues to this in recent days, and as you, dear reader, can see I believe that the line between acceptable and unacceptable social behavior needs to be adjusted somewhat.  Our expectations about how to interact and think about things such as sex, religion, and honesty (you know, the fun stuff) should be re-examined.  Religion needs to be fair game for criticism rather than given special status and treated with kid gloves; sex needs to be though of as less dirty, wrong, or guilt-inducing and thought of as a fun activity between consenting adults; and we need to be more honest, openly, with what we want/think and how we express ourselves.

So, what if we were to think of culture–those sets of rules, languages, and shared mythologies–as a sort of psychological captor? We are, from a sociological and anthropological point of view, held hostage by our socialization.  I don’t want to draw the analogy too closely, because it will come apart at the seams at some point, but I think that there is a comparison to be drawn between being stuck somewhere as a hostage and being stuck, psychologically, in our cultural milieu.

We did not choose our culture.  We did not choose the family we were brought up in, the religion (or lack thereof) we were raised within, and we did not choose the values which we acculturated into.  Whether those things are good or not, the fact is that to some degree our personality, opinions, and the ways we interact are not of our choosing.  And it is possible that they are irrational or harmful.

(And, if in fact in free will is an illusion, none of it is chosen.  I will leave this issue aside in this post and assume, for the sake of exploration of an idea, that we have some measure of choice.  If we don’t, it doesn’t matter anyway.)

But despite the fact that we (as in, our culture generally), usually, do not choose our values and behavior rules, we often defend them.  This is true for most people, I think.  And while there may be some amount of cultural transcendence which is possible, especially through exposure to other cultures and ideas (which gives us perspective to compare ideas, even if not wholly objectively), we are perpetually stuck in our own subjectivity.

My concern is with a phenomenon which I have observed for many years now, especially as I studied anthropology, religion, and sexuality.  We defend expected social behavior, almost without realizing we are doing it or that there may be another way to think about such things.  In our culture, there are values about “respecting” people’s beliefs, not challenging or criticizing personal ideas, and lying (sometimes “framing,” which is not always bad) to protect people’s sensitivities.  Now, in some cases, these values may be rational, but as I have seen them practiced by many well-meaning people they are often mere survival mechanisms for bad ideas.

If your goal is to be rational and skeptical, you should have a value of truth.  You should want to find out if your ideas are likely to be true, and have little compunction about challenging whether other people’s ideas might be true.  But our culture does not value truth in this way; we are taught to be respectful of people’s beliefs, we are taught that white lies are preferable, and we are taught about “good” things like faith, monogamy, and that sex is dirty and only appropriate under certain restrictive circumstances; namely monogamy.

Our culture defends these ideas like an abused lover defends her abuser.  They are not all bad, they really care about us, and they are good for us because we are so broken, incapable, etc.  And when people hear about atheism, polyamory, and sex-positivity they often exhibit signs of fear, insecurity, or guilt and then hide behind them and defend them.  They defend their cultural conditioning which holds them captive, defending that culture as moral, civil, or even as comfortable.

Our culture needs to start being more comfortable with discomfort.

Criticism is not uncivil.


But Ultimately Honest Communication is Key

Unless you’ve been living under a rock where you have no internet access and, for some unknown reason, haven’t been reading Polyskeptic, you might have noticed a lot of discussion lately about the tension between being expressing sexual/romantic interest in people and creating a safe space for all to feel comfortable in places like conferences (and really anywhere).  That is quite the oversimplification and I encourage you to read the posts I linked to if you haven’t already.

I thought that perhaps I should weigh in, but I don’t really have a lot to say that hasn’t already been said.  I am in the “Directness is better and preferred” camp of social interaction.  I didn’t used to be…I used to spend a lot of time either not saying things or coming up with excuses so that I didn’t have to say no (and I’m not even talking about rejecting people’s sexual advances.  I’m talking about how I used to speak to my friends).  In the past few years I have made a real effort to be honest even when it is difficult (which is usually is).  In addition, I greatly admire people who are blunt and honest.  To me, dancing around subjects isn’t cute or desired.  In my experience, overly polite communication is unsatisfying and relatively ineffective.

But instead of writing an entire essay about this philosophy, I thought I would write about a recent example of A+ blunt, honest communication being the best way and why I think that this should be everyone’s goal in a perfect world.

I met Alex at a BBQ.  Yes, I met the Alex that now writes for Polyskeptic at a BBQ.  BBQ’s are awesome apparently because you meet awesome attractive people who also happen to be highly intelligent and equipped with mad writing skillz.  Perhaps that’s just this particular BBQ, but I’ll take it.

As is the custom these days, we became Facebook friends days after the BBQ and began “liking” each other’s status updates and posting witty comments on each other’s walls.  I pointed this out to Wes and he coined the phrase “Flirtbooking”.  After a few days of this, I was wondering whether it was, in fact, flirtbooking, and being interested I decided to just come right out and say something.  Long story short, we made a date for last weekend.

After the initial “Ooh! Shiny new person! How exciting” wore off, I started to fret.  It is no secret that I am close to a few self-proclaimed, unapologetic sluts.  I equate this, and many of their other attitudes, as very sex positive.  I have spent a large part of my life being terrified of sex for various reasons and so the confidence and comfort it takes to be this way is something I admire.  Of course, it’s really the confidence and comfort I admire over the actual sluttiness, but it all kind of goes together in my mind.

I suppose that I can say that I have been going through an awakening of sorts over the last few years.  I have become less negative in general, and part of that has been about gaining a positive, healthy point of view about sex.  I have been feeling so much better about it that I thought that it would be possible for me to emulate the things I admire so much.  And yet, there I was fretting about what I was supposed to do on this date if I was going to be all sex positive and stuff.  I kid you not when I say that I actually sat there wondering how best to serve the feminist movement, the poly movement, and the “let’s stop demonizing sex” movement with my actions on this date.  I was barely thinking about how I actually felt and what I wanted to do.

Finally, after many conversations with Wes and Shaun, I realized that I don’t have to be the revolution and the best way to serve any of it is to do what I want.  That’s basically what every revolution is about anyway: Changing society so that more people can be free to do as they please while respecting everyone’s autonomy and agency.  Or something.  The point was that I knew that I felt completely uncomfortable with the idea of hooking up with someone I barely knew, no matter how good at making cheese related puns via text message they were.

So we went out and it was a great time and we talked about a whole lot of things.  I told him about an incident last year that was very upsetting.  It was the closest experience I have ever had to an assault and I realized as I sat there fretting for days that I am still very affected by it.  There was nothing about Alex that was creepy.  Nothing he was saying or doing was indicating to me that I had anything to fear, but I assumed that I should fear and it was a great source of conflict for me.

I came home and was still conflicted and it was all because I was remembering what one asshole did a year ago.  The date with Alex went quite well and I was excited and happy about that, but I was also terrified of making another mistake as I had before in trusting too easily and assuming that no one who knows me and gets to be with me like that would ever hurt me.  And I realize that this is, quite unfortunately, something that many women deal with constantly.  I was lucky in that I had gone 30 years of my life without ever dealing with any kind of thing like that, and I am astounded at the effect that it had on me.

So this week rolls around and we start talking about when we’d like to go out again.  I’m going to put the text messages here (Alex has given me permission to write about all of this):

Alex: I’m free Friday.  Have the whole house to myself, in fact. I might even do some weeding/cleaning if someone’s coming over. J

Me: Hmm, I will let you know.  Have to see if I can have the car and such. J

What was really happening after I sent that message was that I was having a bit of a freak out.  Again, I was completely conflicted.  I knew that I was interested in Alex, and attracted to him…but I didn’t know if I wanted to be in a situation like that.  I talked to Wes about it and he calmed me down saying that if I don’t feel comfortable, then it’s probably premature to be alone with him in his house.  So after that I did the only thing I could: Be clear and honest.

Me:  So here’s the thing.  I definitely like you.  I am definitely attracted to you and all that good stuff.  But, I also think I should get to know you better before I’m in that sexy a situation.  Last night I went through a lot of difficulty remembering everything about the incident I told you about.  Sex requires a lot of vulnerability for me, and I need to trust you.  I don’t think that will take long.  I don’t really see a reason to be scared of you…but I’m scared in general.

He completely understood, saying that he likes showing off his house and that his couch is more comfortable than the dark park we were sitting in before but that going out would also be lovely.

The next day he wrote me a really impressive email explaining himself.  It was impressive for a few reasons.  First, he talked a lot about how he could understand how his proposed plan may have seemed creepy even if that wasn’t his intention.  He admitted that he trusts people pretty easily but that him trusting people will likely not result in some sort of grave consequence.  He explained that he is interested in me for more than one reason.  But he also didn’t say that was uninterested in sex.  He made it very clear that he is attracted to me and would be pleased with that eventuality.

That last part is important.  He could have easily said, “What?  NO! The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind.” Or something that would be a less obvious lie like, “No, no, no, I was inviting you over just to watch Aqua Teen Hunger Force.”  Because he was upfront and honest about everything, I know that the rest of the things said in the email weren’t bullshit.

Now, I could have responded to his text thusly: “Oh, well, it looks like I won’t be getting the car, so getting to your house will be difficult.  Why don’t we meet in the city?”

Perhaps he would have replied immediately that this plan sounded good.  But he also, more likely, could have replied that there were public transit options or that he could come get me or various other solutions.  By not saying my real concern, I have given him a fake stumbling block that is easy to overcome.  I, like many of the people I adore, are solution finders, so if you lie about the problem and the problem is something we can solve, the conversation gets very drawn out.  If I was committed to not hurting his feelings therefore refusing to say that going to his house at this juncture is scary to me, we would have gone back and forth until I would have been forced out of exasperation to tell him the truth OR “give in” and put myself in a situation I don’t really want to be in, be all weird about it, and possibly shame myself into doing something I am “supposed to do” because, well, I’m the one that agreed to come over. (Again, he gave me no indication that anything like that would be an issue, but I had left over fears).

In addition, because I chose to be honest with him, it started a really good conversation.  Both of us apparently had moments in our email exchange where we were afraid to hit send because we thought that sharing that much about the inner working of our minds might be a turn off, but we clicked send anyway and have gotten that much closer to really knowing something about each other.  As such, I am looking really forward to going out on Friday, and not just because we’re going to get to make fun of hipsters at Barcade.

I have chosen to share all this because I think it’s a good example of two people who ARE in fact interested in dating and that it all could have gone to hell if we didn’t choose to really speak to each other.  I know that it’s different than some random person coming up to you at a bar or at a conference, but I think it highlights why honesty and straightforwardness can be so very important and so rewarding.  Sometimes being very upfront, on both sides, can lead to changing the conversation to something both people can be happy and comfortable with, and that can lead to even better things.

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.

Shifting the standards of communication

I said this in a comment to my last post:

The standard social rules, as I understand them, privilege a worldview of monogamy, heterosexuality, and a stance leaning towards sex-negativity. I would like the standards to shift towards polyamory, pansexuality (or at least bisexuality), and sex-positivity. How far should the standards shift? I don’t know. That’s the discussion I want to have (Generally, not necessarily here and with you. Unless that conversation interests you).

This, I think summarizes my primary issue with the whole harassment policy/sex-positivity issue I have been talking about recently.

The way we communicate in this culture has been devised, probably organically, in a world of  conservative sexuality; hetero-monogamo-sexnegativity.  That is, the rules about how we flirt, express our desires, arose in a world where you had to first determine if the object of your desire is single, interested in your gender, etc.

In an ideal world, it should not matter.  If a person directly and respectfully expresses interest, it should not matter if they are married, monogamous, and like only people of not-your-gender.  It should not matter if they are asexual.  They can simply say that they are not interested, and the world simply moves on.

Granted, it is tiring having to say no many times (just like its tiring explaining what “atheism” and “Polyamory” are many times), but it is better than not expressing what we really want, clearly and unambiguously.  That’s my view.

If we get used to directness, it will eventually becomes as natural to us as our current standard of indirectness and politeness.  As Nietzsche said;

that may be a strange and insane task, but it is a task

Harassment and sex-positivity

So, Wes put this post up about how honesty is hard a couple of days ago. And, as usual, people seem to get pissed off about what Wes says.  No news there.  It’s one of the things I like about Wes; while I don’t always agree with him, he does not sugar coat his opinions.  He has strong and often unpopular opinions and he does not veil them, and I find this attribute respectable.

Speaking of which, a commenter of that post embedded this video, which I shall put here because it is quite good, and creates a language to talk about communication in this context:

Speaking of comments; since Wes linked to a post by Jadehawk in his post, Jadehawk has subsequently posted a response to Wes.  I read it today, and my impression is that emotions are getting in the way of clear communication and understanding (it happens), and I posted this comment (currently awaiting moderation):


I think that there is a bit of misunderstanding occurring here.  I know Wes fairly well, and I think you may be misunderstanding the message intended in his post.  I cannot speak for him, but being around him frequently and sharing more than a few opinions with him, I can say that your representation of him here is at least partially in error.  Libertarian? lol….

In my view, lack of clear communication is indeed a form of dishonesty.  What seems clear to a communicator is not necessarily clear to the listener.  And while I personally try to be generous with interpretation, sometimes a follow-up direct question is relevant to make sure I am getting the intended message.  I didn’t see you asking for clarification above where ambiguities in language could have led to you understanding Wes’ intentions better.  I saw you running with less-than-ideal interpretations.  I don’t think you did so intentionally.

It is not a lack of impulse control that is at issue here, as I see it.  What is at issue here is that we need to be honest with ourselves with what we actually want, and if we are going to seek a desire that involves another person, we need to be unambiguous about it. That is, once we have decided that this is not a time to reign in an impulse we have (assuming, indeed, that we have free will), we need to be direct about it because veiling our intentions is a form of lying, even if it a common and socially accepted form of lying.  The question is whether this socially accepted form of lying is something we, as rational, skeptical, people, should perpetuate or not.  I think the answer is no, and you may or may not agree with me. That is a discussion worth having.

So, I think we all need to be direct and honest, to not veil our interest, and to learn (as a society) to get used to hearing and answering that honesty (Have you sen The Invention of Lying?).  And while this does not have to include cold hitting on, it may include that.  And I agree that a conference about atheism/skepticism is not be the best place for such cold approaches, if that is indeed what a person wants there is nothing disrespectful about doing it.  It just is unlikely to succeed, so a smart person may put off, temporally, that expressed desire  That is, they do not pretend to have another goal, they just might put off communicating it until introductions and other conversational things are established.  I personally would not coldly approach someone for sex, as my desires do include to get to know someone a bit better before asking for such a thing, but I certainly would not think less of a person for doing otherwise than what I personally want.  I find such directness refreshing, mature, and very respectable.

Some people’s boundaries exist elsewhere.  Some people WANT or even DEMAND direct and blunt questions, and others want some issues to be rarely if ever addressed.  The issue of whose boundaries we accept as the default is not so easy as you seem to argue above.  Why defer to a lower threshold of boundaries, which infringe on those with higher thresholds?  A case needs to be made for that (And I accept that such an argument may exist.  I just have not seen one I find convincing).

The issue is this.  There is a real tension between the important issue of harassment by disrespectful people and sex positivity.  The reason this tension exists is that there is a continuum that stretched from assault on one extreme and enthusiastic consent on the other.  In the middle are things like harassment, being extremely annoying, being amusingly annoying, finding the proposition interesting but not compelling, considering the proposition seriously, accepting it, etc.  The line between unwanted attention and wanted attention will differ, greatly, for different people.

For example, a person coming up to me and putting their arm around me, telling me they think I’m cute, and inviting me to their room for sex crosses no line for me.  It does not matter their gender (I’m heterosexual and male), attractiveness, etc.  I will either say no, perhaps (and discuss what we’re into to see if we’re compatible), perhaps some other time, or “yes! let me get my stuff and I’ll be right with you.”  (Yes, yes, I have privilege which makes this situation non-threatening to me, but I know many women who feel the same way).  For other people, this situation would be harassment.  That’s a problem.

Because leaving out extreme examples, there will be cases where what I find acceptable is considered unacceptable by others.  Clear, unambiguous, blunt questions and answers are the only way to be sure.  And because of our social values of politeness, this is, indeed, hard.

But I am not Wes, so I cannot speak for him.

And, indeed, I am not Wes.  I imagine that he would have a different answer than I would, and we may ultimately disagree about this issue. Disagreement is not bad, however.

My major concern here is that in this larger discussion about how to implement harassment policies (and I think that the OpenSF policies Greta linked to there are quite good), we may possibly run into a real tension between harassment and healthy sexuality.  For example, in the G+ hangout video from a few days ago, the question was raised about whether speakers at conferences should be encouraged or even barred from having sexual relationships with attendees:

You don’t have to watch he whole video, but you should if you are interested in this topic.  The relevant bit starts around 53:10 of the video, where Dan Finke raises the issue about Jen McCreight’s suggestion about having speakers be “out of bounds” (Dan’s wording) for sexual activity at conferences.  Watch the conversation for yourself, and you will see that some people agree with this suggestion.  I agree with Rebecca Watson’s view, that there should be no barrier between any adults at conferences about sexual activity, while others (namely PZ himself), seem to agree with Jen.

This demonstrates, for me, that there is a real tension in this conversation about where the practical and possibly ideal line between harassment and appropriate sexuality in the skeptical/atheist community exists.  This conversation is not just about dealing with harassment–although that issue is the primary and essential issue which needs to be addressed.  But this conversation is also about the line between appropriate and inappropriate sexual activity even where harassment does not exist, and we need to admit that this is part of the issue.

Do I have any certain answers? No.  Do I think that this discussion will lead towards a de-sexualization of conferences? No.  Do I think there will be continued issues about where the line between inappropriate/appropriate sexual activity is? Yes. Do I think sex negativity and sex positivity are relevant issues to discuss in relation to the larger issues? Yes.

Harassment needs to be dealt with unambiguously, swiftly, and as openly as possible without unnecessarily naming specific people.  If and when we successfully deal with implementing harassment policies, there should be more conversation about the problem of sexual activity, appropriate times and places for it, and the issue of differing boundaries and how to deal with them.

I think that the skeptic.atheist community is full of smart and capable people, but  I also think that our culture is rife with ideas about communication which are compatible with conservative (or at least out-dated) modes of sexuality.  We need to think about how the relationship between how we communicate and how we think about relationships affects us.  The conservative hetero-monogamous model of sex is steeped in polite, veiled communication which is quickly becoming obsolete, and I don’t think the atheist/skeptic community is fully aware of this.

One of the first things I learned about how to be polyamorous (which is true even if you are not), is that you need to communicate your needs and desires directly, and that you need to be able to say yes or no clearly, according to your desires. We need to practice saying no, saying yes, and asking for and hearing what is wanted.

Saying “no” can be hard for some people.  Saying “yes” can be hard for others.  Asking for a clear yes or no is hard for most people.  We need to get over this value of ambiguity as a society if we are to grow up, whether we are privileged or not.

As I keep saying, the atheist/skeptic community has a lot to learn from the polyamory community.




The Making of Me, and what makes people gay

In class this weekend we watched The Making of Me, a documentary by John Barrowman in which he goes on a quest to find the reasons why people in general, and himself in particular, might grow up to be gay. It’s not a bad film — Barrowman himself is charming, no surprise, and it’s fun to get to see some of the researchers and methods that are employed in elucidating this question. The scientific logic is horribly sloppy in some places, as is pretty common with mass-market presentations of scientific research, but it does give a good layperson’s overview of the biological causes researchers are looking at right now, and how they’re tested and examined.

Barrowman says at the outset that he wants to find an innate, biological gause for gayness rather than something that traces to social influences. His investigation is pretty heavily colored by this bias throughout, as he shows much more persistence in looking for a “nature” cause rather than a “nurture” one. The bias toward a biological cause is something I’ll discuss further at the end of this post.

Casting aside Barrowman’s cursory investigation of “nurture” causes, one thing I appreciate about the documentary is that it makes clear that there are likely multiple biological pathways to becoming gay, some genetic, some due to the in utero hormonal environment. From what we know so far, it seems that no single biological factor is either a necessary or a sufficient condition for gayness. (This is a good point to mention that the documentary doesn’t talk about lesbians at all. Since it’s very focused on Barrowman personally, it’s excusable here; the overall research gap between the study of gay men and the study of lesbians is less so.)

One thing that’s notable throughout the film is the conflation of male femininity with gayness. This is tricky and probably has a lot of sociopolitical folks up in arms. A lot of people see gay and transgender identities as existing on a continuum, with trans people just being “gayer than gay.” The documentary doesn’t do anything to forestall this misconception, so let me do it here: being a man who is attracted to men is very different from being a male-bodied person with a female gender identity. Even if the two have similar biological roots, the way they manifest in the conscious brain are quite different. Gay men, in general, have no desire to become women, and a female gender identity isn’t fulfilled by a gay male lifestyle.

That said, there is a strong link between childhood gender nonconformity and adult homosexuality. Of individuals who will be gay as adults (both male and female, although the effect is stronger for females), they are much more likely to be gender non-conforming as children than their peers. The gender non-conformity doesn’t necessarily persist into adulthood: Barrowman is hardly your stereotypical swishy gay, but he sure did love his Sonny and Cher dolls as a kid. My favorite hypothesis for the actual roots of sexual orientation draws on this correlation — but I’m going to leave that as a teaser for now.

Ultimately Barrowman claims that he’s found what makes him gay. What that actually means is that he’s found one biological trait in himself that’s been linked with a higher likelihood of being gay (I won’t spoil it here.) He goes home to his partner, happy because it’s been “proved” that he was born gay, that it wasn’t a choice. This would be one example of the ludicrous scientific logic I referred to, but my real objection is this: he lets the assumption go unquestioned that if being gay was a choice, people who condemn gays and lesbians would have a better case for their judgement.

There is no good case that preferring same-sex partners is an inferior trait. If underpopulation was a danger in our society, there might be an argument, but that is manfestly not the case. It is very hard to study the psychological health of gays and lesbians, and the families they create, without encountering the confounding factor of the psychological abuse and social counter-pressure that nearly all these individuals and families face through their lifetimes. But there is no evidence that a life with same-sex partners, in a socially supportive environment, is any less healthy than a life with other-sex partners.

Saying “I had no choice!” avoids addressing the argument that, if you did have a choice, it might have been a bad one. I’d have loved to see Barrowman stand next to his lovely partner and say, “I’m gay, I have a fantastic life, and even if it had been a choice, I wouldn’t have chosen any differently.”