Harassment and Intent: Once More Unto the Breach

I wanted to piggyback a bit off of Shaun’s recent post about shame and shaming. In the comments section, Shaun wrote:

My point was that the emotional shame we feel is often caused by actions which do not seek to cause shaming. I didn’t see the OP making the distinction between the two, so wanted to make sure that this was not another call for people to stop criticizing other people because it might hurt their feelings.

The potential disparity between the intent of a statement or act and its effect on the statement/act’s recipient is, I think, a key factor in most breakdowns in communication. I also think that several of the conversations on this blog and others in the past couple of months have not fully acknowledged the elephant in the room. Charlie Glickman recently wrote his response to the skeptical con sexual “harassment” kerfuffle, and (as I pretty much think of all of Glickman’s writing) he’s spot on.

What this situation brings up for me is the fact that there’s a big difference between doing something to deliberately and maliciously harass someone and offering an unwanted invitation or attention.

Of course, one of the big problems here is that we can’t always know what someone’s intention is in a given social interaction. They might not even fully understand their intention themselves. In addition, when someone says he/she felt “harassed,” we have to take their word for it. I’m not sure we can devise a set of rules that would objectively determine what constitutes harassment in all circumstances, and possibly not even in most. And even if we had such a set of rules, and saw people acting according to them, that still wouldn’t solve the problems because, as we’re all fond of saying around here, context matters. A lot.

While these folks’ actions weren’t appropriate in this setting, I can think of quite a few situations in which it would have been perfectly acceptable to do what they did. Swingers conventions and kink conferences both come to mind. Non-conference events like sex parties or clubs are also places where one might offer a card like theirs and walk away. For that matter, so is Folsom St. Fair. And those are also places where it very well might be “appropriate to hand someone an invitation to group sex if you haven’t already had or discussed having sex.”

I do worry about the possible sex-negativity of Elysa Anders’ characterization of her encounter at Skepticamp Ohio. Anders clearly finds the sexual nature of the invitation upsetting, not necessarily its social nature. She has subsequently said that she became friends with the “sex card” couple of Facebook prior to the encounter, which does not mean she wanted any more than a casual social relationship with them but does mean that she was not opposed to interacting with them in non-sexual ways, despite their status as relative strangers. The fact that adding the possibility of sex into a social situation is always seen as problematic (or its not being problematic is the very rare exception to the rule) suggests a cultural discomfort with the notion of sex as a relatively harmless social activity. I find that assumption to be sex negative.

I want to be clear about what I’m saying here. It seems fairly clear that the couple’s behavior violated the conference’s harassment policy, and I think it was an inappropriate thing for them to do in that context. However, I also think it’s possible that they’re simply the kind of people who see no harm in propositioning relative strangers for sex (i.e. their intent was not to harass). I’m not saying that their intention trumps (or invalidates) Anders’ reaction, but I think it’s also problematic for the reverse to be true. A person’s perception of being harassed is, of course, real to that person, regardless of the “harassing” person’s intent. But I also think that Glickman is right to say that it’s important to work “with people to distinguish between ‘this person did this thing’ and ‘I feel this way about it.'” Sometimes the gap between what a person did and how we felt about it is minute; sometimes it’s wider. Assuming it’s always one or the other gets us into unnecessary trouble. And though we should probably err on the side of caution, that doesn’t mean we’re inerrant.

Finally, Glickman suggests a four-part sequence of events between what happens and how we react:

  • Some event happens, whether by a person’s actions or chance.
  • We filter it through our experience and decide what we think it means.
  • We have an emotional response based on our interpretation of that meaning.
  • Our feelings shape how we respond to the event.

When a social encounter results in one party feeling uncomfortable, harassed, etc., I think it’s important for both parties to consider this chain of events. What in each person’s experience made them believe the interaction had a certain emotional tenor? Is it possible that they’ve both “read” the situation incorrectly? Have they both read it correctly and one person really is being an asshole? Under what circumstances would the same behavior in a different context be (or not be) offensive/harassing? In all cases, I’d argue that assuming both parties are operating in good faith is a better default position than being preemptively distrustful/cynical/defensive.

Glickman also suggests that if we hurt someone, regardless of our intent, we should be willing to “apologize and make amends,” and I think this is good advice as well. One of the reasons I think this discussion has taken some ugly turns in the blogosphere is that several writers (mostly men) have essentially said that the “offending” parties in these examples ought not to apologize for their actions. I don’t really understand this position. If you’ve hurt someone, it doesn’t really matter if you meant to hurt them. They’ve been hurt. That hurt exists, even if you believe they’re being irrational. You can, of course, choose not to apologize. You can say, “it’s your fault for misinterpreting my intent; I didn’t do anything wrong, so I won’t apologize for your reaction,” but that’s childish and staggeringly arrogant (it implies that you couldn’t possibly be wrong, for starters). I don’t think childishness and arrogance are good methods of having productive social encounters/relationships.

The God Particle was Framed

Last week, mostly in the comments section of my post on the difficulties of defining words clearly and universally, to everyone’s satisfaction, Wes and I discussed (among other topics) the importance of rhetorical framing. CERN’s recent announcement of the near-certain discovery of the Higgs-Boson (a.k.a. the “god particle”) has elicited surprising reactions from theists, and I think framing explains their response.

Some of you may have seen this Twitter feed making the rounds. When I first saw it, I was puzzled. How can theists claim that a discovery that demystifies a major, previously unanswered, question about the physical world is bad for atheism? I considered the possibility that the Twitter feed was a joke (and it may still be, though I think it’s serious), but then I came across other christian apologists making the same case. Many theists do, indeed, see this discovery as proof of their god’s existence. But why?

The answer, at least in part, is that apologists have reframed the term “god particle.” Fifty years ago, when physicist Peter Higgs hypothesized his eponymous boson, it was simply called the Higgs boson. The metaphor of a “god” particle comes from nobel laureate Leon Lederman’s 1993 book, The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What is the Question? In most press accounts, the phrase is bracketed by quotation marks, a rhetorical move meant either to indicate words/phrases that are being used in ways that might differ from their denotative meanings or to show potential biases of the word/phrase’s originator. When Rush Limbaugh called Sarah Fluke a “slut,” people reported that Rush had used that word to describe her, not that they were using it themselves.

By placing it in quotation marks, the mainstream media, then, frames “god particle” as a term that could at least be open to debate. I think they do this with varying degrees of success, and using the term at all gives it credibility that scientists wish it would not have. I think there’s plenty of blame to go around here. Scientists generally do a poor job of framing issues in the public discourse. Perhaps this is because they see language in general, and the language of the media especially, as needlessly slippery, and they do not want to engage in discussions involving terms/concepts that are not clearly, objectively provable. In a way, that’s what I’d expect of scientists: it’s what makes them good at science. However, it also reflects a type of black-and-white thinking that doesn’t always help factions make their rhetorical points.

But the media is also to blame for assuming its audience needs figurative language to understand complex ideas (though figurative language is certainly useful for this purpose, one must choose one’s metaphors carefully), for so readily and uncritically using normative (in this case theistic) figurative language, and for not doing the minimal amount of research needed to know that Leon Lederman himself thinks the term “god particle” is problematic. On this last point, I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to let Dr. Lederman off the hook. He has joked that his idea to call it the “goddamn” particle was shot down by editors, but he has also said that he used the term “god particle” because the Higgs boson was “so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive.” It seems Dr. Lederman could think of no better way to communicate uncertainty than appeal to a deity, so he may have been foist by his own petard (along with the entire physics community, which is no stranger to using theistic metaphors to make its points).

Christian apologists, however, have used framing to remove the quotation marks completely. For them, “god particle” is not a metaphor but a descriptor. They refer to biblical passages like Colossians 1:15-18:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him.

For apologists, then, the discovery of the Higgs boson particle is the discovery of the “invisible God.” This line of apologetics lauds scientific discoveries like the one at CERN as proof of the validity of the teleological argument. The problem, of course, is that they’re begging the question. The mere fact that we’re able to see a logical order to the material world does not prove that an unseen “logical” creator of that world exists. Whether or not that creator exists, our observations will be the same.

The thing about framing, though, is that it’s not always the same as misunderstanding–or, more insidiously, misusing–language. In the case of “god particle,” the problem is that the phrase’s two constituent words are abstract enough to allow myriad interpretations. The word “god” has almost a dozen definitions and “particle” has five. The definition of “particle” is particularly flexible, so it’s not altogether surprising that apologists would see “all things…that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers” as being made up of “one of the extremely small constituents of matter.” Somewhat ironically, the definition of “particle” with respect to English grammar is “a small word of functional or relational use.” In other words, a particle itself doesn’t belong to a clear category: it is not easily quantifiable. To the extent that it fits into a linguistic structure, its role in the logic of that structure is unknown/invisible, or at least not categorizable.

I’m not saying that I think apologists are right to see the discovery of the so-called “god particle” (see, was the “so-called” so hard to use?) as proof of a deity’s actual existence, of the universe’s “intelligent design,” etc. But I think that Leon Lederman’s choice of words was problematic, that the media’s dissemination of his phrase (utterly divorced from its original context, mind you–Lederman was worried his phrase might offend theists) was irresponsible, and the scientific community’s inability (or lack of desire) to frame the debate in a way most advantageous to its own case contributed to apologists’ declaration of victory.

Atheists (or materialists, secularists, etc.) see the world in a way that we believe is fundamentally right, but we don’t have the power of cultural normativity–and its concomitant ease of rhetorical framing–on our side. As a result, we must be especially vehement in pointing out the ways in which dominant groups use framing to buttress their hegemony. We must understand, however, that framing is a technique we also use. Demystifying framing is necessary in order to understand how it functions, but demystification alone does not necessarily change the rules of the rhetorical game.


Pandora’s Dictionary

I began writing a response in the comments section of Wes’ recent post, and it fairly quickly spiraled out of control and into something that probably should be a post in its own right, so I’ve decided just to post it. But I have a couple of caveats:

1) I’m a bit concerned that we’re overloading the blog with one discussion. While I think it’s an important discussion to have, and one that is not being had much in the polyamory community, I know we also like to write (and you, dear reader, like to read) about other topics.

2) I don’t want to create (or perpetuate) the kind of rhetorical cycle of assertion, counter-assertion, attack, and defense that can sometimes sidetrack discussions, especially on the interwebs. On the other hand, Wes’ post (for me at least) further problematized this issue, and I’d like to explore how/why I think it did so.

3) I disagree with a lot of what Wes said, and I’d like to be clear on where, and more importantly why, I think his argument could be stronger. The problem with arguments about semantics is that they tend to devolve into arguments over definitions. This can be interesting as a purely rhetorical exercise, but I’m not sure it always leads to greater understanding. I have challenged some of Wes’ definitions, just as he challenged some of mine, Shaun’s, Loving More’s, etc. And if Wes wanted to respond to this post, he could certainly parse the definitions of my definitions. This can go on reductio ad absurdum. I really don’t want that to happen.

At the core of Wes’ criticism is his three part statement:

Polyamory is not sexual….polyamory is not an orientation….being poly is nothing like being GLB.

I think he is wrong on all three counts here.

1a) It’s a mistake to disqualify “sexual” because the definitions of polyamory do not mention sex. Isn’t sex implicit in the terms “romantic” and “intimate”? I’m not saying that all intimate/romantic relationships must be sexual, but sex is one of the things that tends to differentiate what we call romantic/intimate relationships from other relationships. If this weren’t the case, we wouldn’t need the word “polyamory” to describe a different class of relationships than, say, intimate but platonic friendships.

Under Wes’ definition of polyamory (“relationships, honesty, and intimacy”), all but the most closed relationships would essentially be polyamorous, thus rendering the word nearly meaningless. Or, to put it slightly differently, monogamous people also have multiple loves. They love their siblings, for example. or their children. We all acknowledge that “loving” is the proper word to use for these relationships. The type of love that is not permitted in monogamous relationships is “romantic” love, which is usually erotic/sexual in nature. If we’re going to have a separate category to describe polyamory, it has to describe something other than relationships that already exist.

1b) The other problem with focusing on the word “sexual” in “sexual orientation”–and now I’m taking the opposite position to the position I took in 1a (which is a problem with semantic arguments, as I said in my introduction)–is that many people object to the idea that one’s orientation/preference be described primarily in terms of sex. Wes said that sexual orientation “until recently was used almost exclusively to mean the sex and/or gender to whom a person is attracted.” The “until recently” part is important. One of the reasons the term “sexual orientation” has ceased being primarily a description of sexual (i.e. libidinal) desire is that focusing exclusively on the sex (i.e. what we do) neglects other important elements of the state of being the term “sexual orientation” sought to define (i.e. who we are). The APA’s definition clearly considers both “sense of identity” and “membership in a community of others” as important elements of sexual identity.

This cuts both ways. If we can’t qualify people for a certain sexual orientation for not having certain libidinal desires, we can’t disqualify people for having them. In other words, we can’t say polyamory is not an orientation because it’s not about the sex.

2) Wes’ analysis used one definition of “orientation” to the exclusion of others. As I pointed out, one definition of the word is “choice or adjustment of associations, connections, or dispositions.” That has nothing to do with “physical desire.” But I’d also argue that for some people, polyamory is a physical desire. How would we categorize someone who was only attracted to couples, or groups of people, for example? They wouldn’t fit our usual definitions of hetero, homo, or bisexual, and even pansexual wouldn’t exactly fit. We would have a different way to describe their sexual desire, and polyamorous might fit well there. I realize, of course, that this is an extreme example, and such attraction is probably exceedingly rare, but wouldn’t we have to say that such a person had a poly orientation?

Or what about someone who wants a d/s relationship? They may not have a gender preference for their partner, and they may not want a sexual relationship (or not a primarily sexual one anyway), but they absolutely need their partner to be dominant and they want to be submissive. I think it would be correct to call this an orientation, even a sexual orientation, even though one’s “object” of desire does not fit into our traditional models (hetero, homo, bi, pan, etc.). I realize that I may be stretching the definition of “orientation” nearly to its breaking point, as I did with “sexual” above, but that’s essentially my point. These definitions are slippery precisely because their constituent parts are not easy to define clearly, and because romance, intimacy, and sexuality are extremely complicated ideas that resist easy categorization.

3a) I don’t think it’s a good idea to say that “Being GLB is about the type of person to whom you are sexually attracted.” LGBT people have worked very hard over the few decades to dispel the perception that it’s all about “teh gay sex.” Surely for many people it’s partially (or even mostly) about the gay sex, but I think we all pretty universally agree now that when we say someone is heterosexual, homosexual, etc. we’re not just talking about the people with whom they have sex (or want to have sex). So while it may be true that polyamory is not the same as sexual orientation when we consider the number of partners polys seek, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that polyamory is similar in kind to what we’ve traditionally called sexual orientation when it comes to disposition toward those partners. Wes said that using the language of the LGBT community implied a false equivalence. I disagree. I don’t think poly and other orientations are exactly equivalent, but I think it’s fruitful to examine the ways in which they may be similar.

3b) If socio-political gain is polyamorists’ primary goal, I really don’t think aligning ourselves with the LBGT community could fairly be described as an attempt to “coopt the sympathy that the GLBT community has built up.” How much sympathy is that? Is it really politically useful? Discrimination against LGBT people is still rampant in the U.S. And to the extent that we practice non-normative lovestyles, I think that we ought to align ourselves with the LGBT movement, not because it’s politically expedient but because we have affinity with them. Polyamory queers relationships norms in much the same way that being gay, pansexual, transsexual, etc. queers gender/sex norms. I don’t think that’s a false equivalence at all.

I’m not sure anyone would say that polyamory is absolutely a sexual orientation in exactly the same way being LGBT is an orientation. Similarly, I don’t think it’s a good idea to dismiss poly as categorically not an orientation. I tend to describe poly as an orientation for me because I find that the concept of sexual orientation most closely describes the way I feel about my own sense of polyamory’s role in my life. I suppose we could try to invent a new word to describe how polyamory operates as a description of “who we are” rather than an explanation of “what we do,” but that would take more time, and chutzpah, than I have right now (or may ever have).

I also disagree that broadening our definition of the term “polyamory” weakens it. Having too narrow a definition can be just as problematic. For example, polyamorists often exclude swingers from the proverbial club (pun intended) because swingers don’t have multiple “loving” relationships. But that categorization privileges certain kinds of “love” relationships (actually, it privileges one kind whose definition is nebulous but which nonetheless one is supposed to know when one sees it) over others. Most swingers I’ve known develop intimate relationships with play partners that I would consider “loving,” even if the putative definition of “swinging” requires that the relationships be strictly sexual. The truth is that a lot of swingers (and some self-identified polys) exist in a liminal space between the strict definitions of “swinging” and “polyamory.” Perhaps the umbrella term “open relationships” is useful here, but that can open an entirely new Pandora’s box.

As with so many things, our lives and loves cause us to color outside the lines. I say we should embrace the ambiguity.

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.

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.

Opening Up About OpenSF

Annalisa and I spent the last week in San Francisco. In part, we wanted to have a nice vacation: I had never been west of Chicago and we had not traveled together for any real length of time for a while. But one of the major reasons for going was also to attend OpenSF, a conference on nonmonogamy, open relationships, and polyamory organized by Pepper Mint. The conference (and related events) lasted from Friday until Sunday, and I’d like to take a bit of time to talk about some of the interesting panels I attended and some of the people I met in and around the conference itself.


Friday was essentially a welcome/orientation day. Pepper gave an opening address and initiated an interesting icebreaker activity, for which I am thankful because it forced me to meet some new people right off the bat. One of my goals for the conference was to socialize, but walking into a room of strangers, almost all of whom live in the San Francisco Bay area, was daunting for me. I learned an important lesson this weekend: I am extremely bad at approaching people I don’t know, even for casual, “low stakes” chat/interactions. Once I’ve been introduced to people, or compelled to interact with them, I think I’m actually a fairly gregarious person. But the initial awkwardness of “how do I approach that person, and what do I say?” is a huge anxiety trigger for me.

Luckily, the icebreaker required us to move from table to table, each time beginning with a new group of people and a “prompt” question that we were all asked to answer in front of the group (if we chose to answer: enthusiastic consent was a theme of the con, so anyone could opt out of any activity without judgment). Pepper provided excellent questions (“What do you hope to get out of the con,” “What is one of your wildest or most unusual poly moments,” etc.), and I felt mostly at ease meeting 20-30 new people in 15 minutes or so. It was a fun activity, and I might adapt it for use in the classroom.

After the welcome address, many con guests left to attend an off-site lecture/dance/play party. Sadly, I was unable to register in time for the sold-out event, but a group of other event castaways organized a rousing game of Cards Against Humanity, to which I was graciously invited. There I met Dylan of the Life on the Swingset podcast–who had brought a large contingent to the con–and several other people I would see throughout the weekend.


Saturday was a day of panels, beginning with Charlie Glickman’s talk, “Sex, Shame, and Love.” For me, this was a highlight of the convention. Glickman discusses shame as a “tent” or “cloud” of emotions, any of which can disconnect us from people with whom we have relationships. One of his most important points, though, and one on which he disagrees with many writers on the subject (and some of his own psychologist colleagues), is that shame is not always detrimental. For Glickman, feeling shame is an important indicator that we’ve broken a communication/relationship “bridge”–yes, he used a lot of analogies–and need to mend it. Awareness of our feelings of shame is the first step in repairing the relationship (I should probably note here that one of the key relationships we can damage with shame is our relationship with ourself). Glickman elaborates on these concepts herehere, and here (among other places).

Most people in romantic/sexual minorities face shame at some point in their lives, often daily. I found it refreshing to hear someone talk about shame’s adaptive value and about avoiding a shame “spiral” (i.e. being ashamed of feeling shame, which only leads to more shame). As an anxiety disorder sufferer, I found in Glickman’s philosophy some useful coping mechanisms.

One other session of note on Saturday (they weren’t all gems, though I can’t say I thought any one was particularly terrible) was on “Poly Theory.” Joy Brooke Fairfield, a Stanford graduate student, gave a staggeringly expansive and eloquent talk about establishing a branch of cultural studies called poly theory (in the vein of feminist theory, queer theory, etc.). She also expanded on Deleuze and Guattari’s metaphor of a rhizome to describe polyamorous relationships. Contrasting her conception with the traditional linear (or arboreal) relationship model–we can see the arboreal model in family trees, corporate organizational flow charts, etc.–Joy argued that our relationships more resembled the root system of rhizomes. Rhizomes lack a central or ultimate root but rather expand from node to node in many directions. If we imagine ourselves each as nodes, we can see how we connect to other nodes, and those nodes to still others, in a complex but interconnected system. It is an elegant, non-hierarchical way to look at groups of linked relationships, polyamorous or otherwise.

After Saturday’s sessions, I got to try Poly Speed Dating. It was a lot of fun, if chaotic. I wonder if something like this would work in our area?

After speed dating was a dance party at Love Triangle dance club, a poly-friendly club in San Francisco’s Mission District. I was heartened to learn that the Mission has not one but several clubs that cater to nonmonogamous folks. Again, I wish our city/region did a better job of providing safe spaces for nonmogamous people to gather to socialize. My overriding feeling all weekend long was that this was one of the first times in my life that I’d found a group of people with whom I fit in totally. Even though I met theists, omnivores, and even (gasp!) political moderates, I felt a deep, almost instant common bond. We’d all wrested loose the shackles of monogamy, and that’s a remarkable thing.


The fatigue of late Friday and Saturday parties began to show for most con guests (and even some of the presenters) Sunday, but the day did bring a few highlights.

Tristan Taormino‘s keynote speech was an enthusiastic call to arms. She made several important points, one or two of which I will write about in more depth another time. Briefly, though, she called on the LBGT community not to throw polys under the proverbial bus in their fight for marriage equality. Conceding our opponents’ post hoc and slippery slope arguments hurts both our causes.

In addition, Taormino called on those of us who have the privilege to be “out” as nonmonogamous to live our lives as openly as possible. One of the things that prompted me to start writing for this blog was that I realized that I am fortunate enough to have a job for which I will not be fired for being polyamorous, a supportive and loving family, economic and emotional security, etc. I really must live my life openly, if only to show other people that people like us not only exist but are happy, healthy, and thriving.

I liked a few of the early Sunday panels, but I was really impressed with Cunning Minx‘s afternoon session on creating a non-threatening, attractive online dating profile (i.e. how not to be creepy guy). While her advice was useful, even for those of us who already consider ourselves non-threatening/non-creepy, I was particularly struck by her polished, stimulating, and well-organized presentation. You would be amazed at how many presenters were not particularly well-organized. We’re lucky to have Minx as an advocate/representative/colleague/peer, and I was glad to have met her.

I was also able to meet Dossie Easton, whose inscription in my copy of “The Ethical Slut” left me smiling with fanboy glee.

Monday and Beyond

I’m still processing the experience of OpenSF–and I expect I’ll share some of the fruits of that processing with you in the weeks and months to come–but right now I feel overjoyed to have spent three days among fabulous, non-judgmental, like-minded people. I increased my polyamory vocabulary, something I wasn’t sure was possible nearly four years into my own poly life. And I left San Francisco, and return home, eager to be more of an activist and particularly to advocate for more sex-positive events and safe spaces in our own city. I think we can do it, but I’ll probably need a bit of help. Who’s with me?

The False Analogy

I am a Professor of English, and though that means that I get to teach literature, creative writing, and even an occasional course in public speaking, my bread and butter is first year composition (i.e. English 101 at most colleges/universities). The thing I emphasize most in composition courses is critical thinking. It’s more important than perfect grammar, good organization, and even a strong thesis. Thinking critically is what allows one to write effectively. It’s far and better to struggle to find the proper words for one’s excellent thoughts than to express vapid ideas quickly and easily, even if they’re expressed eloquently. On this I assume we can all agree.

One of my favorite lessons in critical thinking is the lesson on logos, pathos, and ethos. A key part of that lesson involves identifying logical fallacies. I suspect that I’ll talk often about logical fallacies in this blog, since they’re not only one of my personal areas of interest (and frequent perturbation) but are ubiquitous in our mass culture. One of the most common logical fallacies is the false analogy. A good analogy, of course, compares two similar things, usually using “like” or “as,” and the comparison is often striking, thought-provoking, or entertaining. A false analogy fails because it purports to compare two similar things but does not adequately consider their dissimilarity/ies.

I recently came across this image on my Facebook feed:

An iPad is like a church marquee…

I think the logical first question is: how is faith like WiFi? The image claims that they’re both “invisible” but that they have “the power to connect you to what you need.” Is that so? Let’s break this down.

We should probably start by examining the word “invisible.” WiFi is invisible in the sense that we can’t actually see radio waves move through the air. Faith is a subjective state of mind, so we cannot fairly say it is visible to the naked eye (perhaps we could quibble about whether evidence of subjective states is literally visible via something like a FMRI scan, but I’ll concede the point here). But I’m not sure “not perceptible by the eye” is the best definition of “invisible” in the context of this slogan. More likely, its author meant “withdrawn from sight,” or perhaps even “not perceptible or discernible by the mind.” But that’s where the analogy begins to fail. WiFi is not imperceptible/discernible by the mind. We know exactly how it works. We can’t actually see it working (in a manner of speaking), but it’s not mysterious in any way. Faith, by definition, is a belief in something unknown. We don’t have to believe in WiFi. It simply exists.

In addition, there are ways in which faith is very visible. Outside of an atheism convention or meetup, one would be hard pressed to find a room full of people who did not show their faith outwardly. Christians wear crosses around their necks, some Jews wear yarmulkes, some Muslims wear the hijab, etc. WiFi can also hardly be said to be invisible. When was the last time you were in a public place that didn’t advertise a nearby WiFi hot spot?

But the second part of the slogan is equally fallacious. I suppose if we “need” the internet–would it be hypocritical of me to post on a blog about our use of the web as a want rather than a need?–WiFi connects us to something we need. But even that is probably giving the WiFi too much agency. We connect to what we need. WiFi is just a mode of obtaining that access.

In what way, then, does faith connect us to “what we need”? In the context of this slogan, it’s a hard question to answer because the referent of “what we need” is absent. I think we’re meant to assume that some sort of god is what we need. But does faith connect us to that god? I don’t see how it does. Faith might be said to allow us to conceptualize the notion of a god/gods, but believing in something (or someone) doesn’t actually connect us to it. If we assume that the deity of the Abrahamic religions exists, and if we assume that the scriptural texts of those religions are true, we could argue that Yahweh/Allah/Jesus/etc. demand that we have faith in them in order for us to get to heaven. Getting to heaven would be one way to connect with the deity. If that’s how we’re meant to interpret the slogan, though, we have another problem: it begs the question (which is a logical fallacy for another blog post).

In short, then, WiFi may be invisible and aids in our connecting to something we want, but faith is often visible and only connects us to something we need if we make a ton of assumptions. It’s actually a pretty awful analogy, pithy though it may seem at first blush.

Now you may wonder why I’d spend so many words (approaching 1000) on a silly internet image. The typical reader/viewer would probably have a quick reaction (positive or, as I did, negative) and move on. The slogan is certainly not meant to invite deep analysis. But that’s precisely why we must examine it deeply. Often the things that resonate the most with us are the things that seem to be “simple” common sense. We respond quickly/viscerally when a new idea/image either slots easily into an existing schema or confounds us by not fitting anywhere into our existing way/s of thinking.  We must resist the temptation to put new ideas into either category too hastily. That’s the only way for us to do the hard work of separating propaganda and dogma from ideas that are worthy of debate and serious consideration. It also allows us to see new ideas in all their nuance and complexity, when those things are present.