An Open Letter to Harassers: The Volatile Space Between Desire and Action August 9, 2013Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: confession, desire, harassment, sexual harassment
This post is a combination of a confession as well as an angry rant about the phenomena of harassment. If you have not been following, there is a summary here by Greta Christina. I will say that this issue has been especially emotional for me, because I recognize many of the patterns of behavior within myself, and they are attributes I have long tried to re-direct into healthy directions. This is an attempt to show that there are many powerful feelings we must contend with, as humans, but that there is a better way than the traditional harass and hide behind the wall of silence and shame that harassment puts victims behind. There are better ways to pursue what we want, and to get it some of the time, without hurting people.
While I don’t really look to meet people much, sometimes it just happens. Sometimes you meet people you like at a conference or at work, sometimes they read your blog and then start chatting you up, and sometimes there is just a person in your life who, after being around for some time, starts to become a person you really care about or desire strongly. In some cases, they reciprocate your interest, and sometimes they don’t (or they do but perhaps not in all the ways you would like). And when it works out, it’s great! When you meet someone and have chemistry flowing both ways and both can fulfill desires together, it’s a great and beautiful thing. We should pursue those things in those circumstances.
But then there are the times when you aren’t sure. You are into them, they seem (logically) available, respond to you positively (or so it seems to you), and you want the relationship to go further. Of course, you should communicate your interest (this is sometimes hard for me, being human and all) and you should be comfortable with a yes, a no, or a maybe. Also, you should be comfortable with a “yes, but…”, because sometimes shit gets complicated.
Welcome to life among humans.
Today, I want to talk about what it is like to not be able to realize one’s desires. More specifically, I want to talk about when your desires are not shared by the object of said desires and yet the desire persists and you feel compelled to act on it. This is a phenomena that occurs everywhere, to many people. But even as a polyamorous person there are all sorts of reasons I might not be able to fulfill my needs or desires. Whether it is because the person you desire is monogamous, too far away, or they just aren’t into you in the way that you want them to be (or at all). Whatever the reason, there are ways to handle this situation well, and ways to seriously fuck it up (such as dick stumping). And in the worst of situations you don’t stop pursuing your unrequited desires and you end up harassing people. That shit needs to stop; like yesterday.
Yay for timely and topical content!
If you meet someone who compels you think some sexual things–for whom you have some deep, primal, natural urges for–it can sometimes be difficult to hold it all together around them if it’s not wanted or shared. The feeling of wanting to act on it does not merely go away because it’s not reciprocated. It would be great if it would, but for many people (including myself) it does not go away easily. Wanting to act on it becomes a distraction, in some cases, and that distraction will often fade in time, but for some….
For some, this becomes a challenge or a goal to achieve rather than a place to re-direct one’s intentions and behavior. I urge those people to reconsider this reaction because in many cases this impulse is the origin of some behavior–i.e. harassment–which will not be appreciated or appropriate. I’m saying that if ze is not interested, this is not a cause to break out your charm, your powerful intellect to convince them otherwise, or your position of power to leverage their behavior. I’m saying, find another way to interact with this person, if at all, if you can’t keep the unwanted thoughts at bay.
Clearly, many people don’t take this advice.
I understand that the emotions pushing you towards satisfying your desires are powerful, but those desires are not aimed at objects; they are aimed at subjects. You must remember that these people have their own minds, goals, and desires that may not have anything to do with you. If you are unwilling or unable to do so, then perhaps you should keep your distance and think about something else. If you are a decent and respectful person, someone else may reciprocate to similar desires, or they may not. Life is unfair sometimes. If you keep pushing in a direction that isn’t working, you can only get short term inflated desires at the cost of hurting other people.
Some personal confessions here; for me, the anticipation of a fulfilled fantasy is a powerful motivation and even an aphrodisiac for me. It’s related to the feeling of NRE, except that it can happen even with people I’ve known for years, and even with people with whom I’ve already fulfilled some desires with (hopefully two-way desires). Thinking about someone for whom I have strong desires can be a powerful experience, and the idea of acting on that desire is exciting. But I always am aware that this excitement might be solely mine, and so I tend to be cautious in trying to act on my desires if I am unsure about how it would be taken. And with few exceptions, usually for the good*, I have succeeded in this caution.
I’m sure I’m not saying anything ground-shaking here. I’m sure that much of this is shared by many people. Human beings are complicated, and our desires sometimes seek to push us in many directions which are potentially inappropriate. We need to be able to distinguish our desires, which are not a problem in themselves, from our actions, which can be problems.
Of course I’m polyamorous, which adds a layer of complexity to this issue. With polyamory the desire for variety and new experiences is somewhat mitigated by the presence of the people we have relationships with, but not always. Sometimes a different specific person, action, etc which you desire cannot be satisfied by just anyone. Desires, needs, etc are not like a universal fuel that can fill you up by spending time with any person, at least not with all things. Sometimes specific people evoke unique feelings and satisfy specialized desires that other people, even the people closest to you, simply cannot provide. In healthy expressions, this can take the form of a specific kink that a specific person shares with you, a hobby or interest that you associate with a particular person, etc. It can also be as simple as you have been fantasizing about a specific person and only that person can fulfill that desire. Thus, being polyamorous is not a cure for this problem; harassment happens within polyamorous circles as well. Being open is not automatic consent, after all.
Sometimes your specific desire will never be fulfilled. No matter how hard you work, how much you try, or how long you wait. Sometimes you must leave the desire aside, and do something else. You cannot allow yourself to rationalize coercion as being acceptable because your desire is too strong (“I can’t help it, baby, you just turn me on so much”). You cannot rationalize harassing people because you think you can hide it (“whose going to believe you, anyway?”). You cannot do these things and expect to be a decent human being. Your desires, no matter how intoxicating and compelling, are not excuses for bad behavior. That is selfish thinking.
The object of your desire may never reciprocate, and you must be comfortable with that. It is important to allow your fantasies to have some freedom to indulge themselves, but you must remember that if that fantasy involves another person it may not be possible to satisfy and so maybe you should indulge another fantasy. If your fantasy is reciprocated and possible to act upon with consent, then that’s wonderful. Fulfilled fantasies and anticipation rewarded are wonderful things which we should cherish, as they happen infrequently (unless you get really lucky). But when it becomes clear–and we need to be watching for, and asking questions concerning about, this–that the desire is not reciprocated, we need to be prepared to shift our focus immediately and appropriately.
These days, I find myself in a situation where I have some hopes, fantasies, and anticipations which may (or may not) come to fruition over the next few months. I find that I am enjoying the hoping and imagining, but I also have to keep in mind that some of these hopes may never materialize because they may not be shared or possible. And while that may disappoint me, I can survive this without emotional implosion (or dick stumping) because I have many kinds of desires.
The people I have sexual desires for are more than sex objects for me. In addition to thinking about them sexually (and I do), I also try to also develop non-sexual desires which include them. If they don’t want to get busy doin’ it, then we can be friends and allies. Will that suck a little? sure. But I must approach people for whom I have desires with the attitude that even if all my desires cannot become real, there are all sorts of ways that the people that I desire can be important parts of my life, short of my hopes. And sometimes this may mean that we simply go our separate ways too. That has to be OK as well.
If the only desire I have for someone is sexual, I better be damned sure I communicate that and be ready to hear a “no” before setting myself up for a situation I’d like to act on it. If my hopes are multi-faceted, I can allow the relationship to just be what it is. If they want to bone (yeah, I went there), then we can bone. If they want to be be friends, close or not, then that is something I can appreciate as well. But there is no room for coercion here. There is no room in my life for pushing in a direction that is pushing back against me. There is no room in my life for harassment. There is no excuse for harassment, with all the varieties of people, interests, and things to do in the world. There is a healthy way to pursue your desires, and harassment is not one of them.
I wish that all people felt the same. Because while I share many of the desires and impulses which I imagine those who have been harassing also feel, I have enough compassion, respect, and consideration to not allow those desires to control my behavior (and I hope it stays that way). That is, all the hardware and software for harassment exist within me, but somehow I have grown past that and learned to use those desires in healthier ways. How unaware, how selfish, and how cowardly…how flawed and human…do these people have to be to have kept up the behavior for so long?
I will not allow myself to rationalize trying to “convince” or coerce people to fulfill my desires. I will not convince myself that I’m just wearing down their uncertainty about what they really want (ugh). That is a mistake I learned early, and which ended up hurting someone I cared about many years ago. And so rather than having an awesome and interesting friend, I have a person who will not talk to me anymore. I have acted in such a way that they no longer trust me, let alone consider me a friend anymore (let alone a lover). What did my attempts accomplish? And what have the many people, now being named in the skeptic community, who have harassed people they worked with accomplish? At most, it gave them a power rush at pursuing, at the cost of another person’s happiness.
For these and many other reasons those people who have acted poorly have my sympathy, but not nearly as much sympathy as I have for those they mis-treated. My anger is directed at you, harassers, but that anger is mostly fueled by the potential for the same that exists within me. I am angry at our many human flaws, because they are what hurt us. Knowing that had I had a different past, one where I was not exposed to introspection, compassion, and (yes) feminism early, I might have been more like you is humbling and terrifying. I hope you will all take this as a learning experience, rather than as a time to dig deeper and make excuses through lawsuits and further lying and hiding behind a system that has protected you (and myself) for so long.
We need to keep challenging ourselves to be better as individuals, as skeptics, and as a culture. I hope that those being named–and more importantly those not named or those just getting started or who somehow have avoided being called out–will take this as a moment of transformation, rather than rationalization and defensiveness. After all, we have enough people out there rationalizing their poor behavior already. We don’t need more swelling their numbers.
A final word, about polyamory.
Polyamory is about more than romance and sex. The fact is that the women in my life for whom I have hopes are people I genuinely like and want to be closer to, to varying degrees. If that means we are friends and allies and not lovers, that is a positive things as well (if not a little sucky). Polyamory is not merely about having more lovers. It can also be about shifting the way we see desire and how fluid our desires and relationships can be.
There is no need for rush, no compelling anxiety, to pursue a desire now and here if one’s concept of relationship is based in allowing oneself to love, and be loved, by the people in your life as is shared with them. There are many people that exist in my life, many of them for whom I have strong physical and emotional desires. But there is no compelling reason to rush towards those desires if they are not reciprocated. Yes, I feel an anxiety and need inside, but I don’t need to act upon it if it is not shared. I allow the relationships to be what they are, when they are, because if they are not interested in sharing my desires my pushing will not change that (and if it does, it never brings us closer). And if they are to change their mind, that will happen by earning their trust by being a decent person, rather than pushing them away through harassment or unwanted solicitations.
While swimming in the sea of the backlash of sexual harassment which has been plaguing the skeptic community of late (again, summary here), I can’t help but think how terrible it is that some people cannot see others around them to whom they are attracted as more than just fantasies to try and procure. If the people who find themselves wanting what may not be possible would understand that there is more to the fantasy than just sex, especially when that is only possible through coercion, then sexual harassment would be vanishingly rare ( oh, what a nice world that would be!). Of course, part of the problem, at least in some cases, is probably the desire to conquer, to have power, and to coerce is more powerful than basic empathy. If that’s the case, then I don’t know what the solution is.
I fear that some people share many of the inner desires that I do, but do not share the capability for empathy that I have. That is a truly scary thought.
*A point of honesty; I have times in my past crossed appropriate lines, and these acts haunt me from time to time. The important thing here is that we learn from these actions and grow as people, rather than hide them and allow them to become a secret that we hide from, until they are exposed. There are quite a few people in the Skeptic community who may wish they had considered that a long time ago, these days.