No Means No: A Feminist Fantasy.

In the fight against rape culture, many feminists feel we need to work beyond the “no means no” catchphrase toward a more cooperative, positive view of consent, where consent means “yes” instead of just “not no.” I agree with that idea, but I don’t think it’s time to leave behind “no means no,” yet.

Many folks, on an intellectual level, acknowledge that “no means no,” but there are certain parts of our minds that say “well, but maybe it doesn’t this time.” The incredibly sad reason for that is that sometimes that part of the mind is right. There are still people out there who use “no” as a tool for manipulation, for whom “no” is a tease that means “maybe” or means “work harder.” It sucks, but they’re out there. And as long as “no” is used to mean anything other than “I don’t want this to happen, please stop,” we can’t abandon “no means no” for greener, more enlightened pastures.

So, here’s my fantasy. Let’s imagine a scenario, where one person is attempting to use “no” to sexually manipulate their partner. Heck, let’s roleplay it out.

Person A: Hey, do you want to come upstairs?

Person B: (blushing, using engaging body language) No, I don’t know if I should.

Person A: Ok, well, have a good night. (Exits)

Here’s what just happened: person A, the sexual initiator, can tell that person B is being manipulative and deceptive, but has accepted the “no” answer and terminated the encounter. B is probably going to be really annoyed by this. S/he’s going to try to chew out A later, and A is going to say  “but you said no, and I took you at your word.” Thus B will learn not to do that any more.

This is my fantasy, and I say fantasy because I know that for most people instilling a lesson about consent and rape culture is less important than the immediate opportunity for a sexual encounter. But when “no” sometimes really does mean “keep going,” how are we supposed to teach people the universal statement that “no means no?” The lesson becomes disingenuous. So, in addition to teaching people that as the sexual initiators “no means no,” we need to also teach clear communication of consent, and to never use “no” unless you really mean it.

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Preferred Pronouns – Asking a Hard Question

One of my pet projects in my silly little queer poly feminist sex-positive life is to deconstruct ideas of politeness, and thereby better understand why we treat people the way we do, and whether some attempts to be “polite” are actually undermining our abilities to be better people.

As always, I’m leading in with a big grand statement rather than just telling you what’s on my mind. As the title suggests, what is on my mind tonight is preferred pronouns. Knowing which pronoun to apply to a particular person is primarily a relevant concern for the queer community, but it should be an issue for consideration among all American English speakers. (I don’t know a damn thing about etiquette or linguistics in any other cultures or languages, so I won’t even try to speak to them [Haha, speak to them! See what I did there?])

It’s becoming an increasingly accepted practice among the queer community that when you meet a person who is not blatantly masculine or feminine – or, in many circles, when you meet anyone at all – you ask him/her/ze/them for his/her/zir/their preferred pronoun. If you somehow got on my blog and don’t know what I mean by that, here’s a for-instance.

I’ve just met someone at a party. It appears to me that this person is biologically male, but this person is wearing a dress and makeup. The individual is introduced to me as Robin. Robin’s gender is ambiguous to me, so I say to Robin, “Hello Robin, it’s very nice to meet you. What are your preferred pronouns?” Robin then tells me he, she, ze, they, or some variation. Sometimes a person will even tell me “I don’t care.” This discloses to me Robin’s chosen gender identity, thus preventing me from making incorrect assumptions and being offensive.

With me so far? Good.

This is me from the summer after 8th grade. Most of the bullshit from my classmates happened in middle school, but this is the closest pic to that time period that I could find.

This is me from the summer after 8th grade. Most of the bullshit from my classmates happened in middle school, but this is the closest pic to that time period that I could find.

For a long time, I had trouble accepting this custom. When I was growing up, I would have people ask me (or ask my friends) “are you a boy or a girl?” as an insult. I was never particularly androgynous, even at my most pubescently awkward stages. Yes, I admit, I often wore men’s jeans, and by the end of 8th grade I had a short haircut. But my figure was never terribly angular, in the typically masculine way. So that means that “are you a boy or a girl?” really meant, “you’re a very ugly girl.” And I didn’t enjoy that.

Additionally, asking someone for their preferred pronoun made me uncomfortable because I was raised to understand that even if you aren’t trying to be mean, asking someone “are you a boy or a girl?” is rude. And the reason that it’s rude is because you’re telling this person that you can’t tell his/her/zir/their gender just by looking. And, here’s the payoff, not being able to judge a person’s gender by sight is a bad thing. Thus, you don’t ask.

Well, I’ve reached a point in my life where I understand that gender is not a binary, that people don’t have to fit into an either-or world, and that even if a person wants to live in a concrete male or female gender identity, it doesn’t have to present itself through typical masculine/feminine visuals. What that means is that to look at a person and not be able to judge gender right away is not a negative reflection on that person. When I see someone and I can’t tell if that person is a man, a woman, neither or both, it doesn’t mean that person is failing at his/her/zir/their gender by being visually ambiguous. And therefore, asking someone about preferred pronouns respects his/her/zir/their personal choice to select a gender identity, and expresses my willingness to accept that identity, no matter what it is.

The important difference, I think, is that I’ve developed the understanding that gender identity is a choice. And by that I am not trying to invoke nature/nurture arguments, but simply to say that it doesn’t matter what a person looks like, or what kind of genitalia that person has: whatever identity a person discloses to me, that’s the truth.

Edit: I was looking so hard for this image when I wrote this post last night, but wasn’t able to get my hands on it. This has been the best visual aid for gender identification that I’ve ever come across. No, I didn’t create it, and unfortunately I don’t know who did or I’d be happy to give appropriate credit.270873_168099213351707_1010752796_n

The Objectification Spectrum, and Where Flattering Meets Rude

This is obviously not my first post about objectification, consent to be gazed upon, or the concept of respect regarding sexual gazing. These are pet subjects for me, but I don’t want to re-cover ground I’ve already trod upon. However, I had a recent experience that made me question when and how one can and should give consent to being physically objectified, and the responsibility of the gazer in such situations.

Right, so that was incredibly vague. Here’s what happened:

A few weeks ago I went to a private BDSM play party, wherein I was generally comfortable and among friends, but the party was sufficiently well-attended I certainly didn’t know everyone. I was naked save for a piece of body jewelry, and received a lot of friendly comments toward my recently finished tattoo. At one point in the evening, a couple of men were standing behind me, one commenting on my tattoo, the other commenting on my body, making jokes to the effect of “oh, she has a tattoo? I didn’t notice.” They couldn’t have been more than a foot away, and I heard every word they said.

I was extremely uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable not because they were enjoying looking at my body, but because by commenting on it while so close to me, they either completely forgot that I was a person who was capable of hearing them, or they didn’t care. This I did not appreciate. I confess to being shy, and therefore generally unhappy with being spoken to by strangers, but at that close range I would much rather be spoken to than spoken about. I felt that my personhood was somehow being taken from me by being so freely commented upon without any nod to my living presence near them.

So, the next question in my mind was, what would have been the right way for that scenario to unfold? I suppose ideally, these men would have introduced themselves, and then shared their opinions with me, rather than simply near me. Second best would be to keep their comments to themselves until I was out of earshot, because while it’s generally considered rude to talk about other people, at least by avoiding being overheard they would be acknowledging that I am a person who can hear.

The other – much more complicated – question is, where on the spectrum does some kind of spoken communication need to happen to constitute consent? I’ve said before that I believe to make something visible is consent for it to be seen. To be looked at does not require explicit consent. Obviously, any thoughts that go along with looking also don’t. I can fantasize about whomever I want, whenever I want. Look at any part of me that you can see without touching – that’s fair game. Think your free personal thoughts about what you see, as innocuous or lewd as they may be.

But what comes next? To give consent of any kind involves some kind of spoken interaction, so it seems like speaking to someone should be a free action (to steal a term from RPG’s). On the other hand, street harassment often takes the form of words and is certainly not okay. I absolutely love this comic I found on the subject:

street_harassment1

Comic by Barry Deutsch – click through to read.

I’m constantly thinking about where lines are drawn, and the distinction here between what is a compliment and what is harassment gave me a lot of food for thought. It’s (mostly) not the words that make the difference. If a person at the aforementioned party approached me, made eye contact, and said “I think you have an incredibly hot ass,” I would not be threatened. I might be a little awkward, but I’d be flattered. It might even “make my day.” But when someone calls those words out to me on the street, it makes me very nervous.

The easy answer is that the line is about motivation, but since we can’t know someone else’s motives, it’s not a workable solution. I don’t know if the person talking to me wants to pick me up, assault me, or just offer me a compliment in passing. I can’t know, in either circumstance.

I really wanted a big “ta-da!” to close this out, but I’m honestly stymied. I can tell you with certainty that verbally expressing sexual desire toward a woman is not inherently harassment, but I can’t tell you exactly what is. Especially because there’s also a realm in between acceptable and unacceptable, and that is “rude.” What the men at the party did to me was rude. It was not harassment, but it wasn’t ok either. It was rude, which is somewhere between the two.

While I may not have a pretty bow to wrap this up in, I will say this line of thinking is making me realize how difficult it can be for men to honestly express their sexual desires toward women. If I was a good person who was often in fear of being labeled a predator, I’d err dramatically on the side of caution, and would thereby probably not have any sex ever. The lines are blurry, and as a woman I’m generally viewed as less threatening and therefore less likely to accidentally find myself on the wrong side of the line. As a woman, that line is interesting to contemplate. If I were a man, it would terrify me.

The Rules – Constant Communication in Polyamorous Relationships

This blog was originally posted in Life on the Swingset on June 19, 2012.

I live by two non-negotiable rules in my relationships, which are the foundation for my sense of security and trust with any other human being and the starting point from which all other relationship boundaries are built. The rules are, “Talk about everything, all the time,” and “No surprises.” The first rule is the most important, as the second is something of an offshoot from it, but these are the standards to which I hold myself and the people with whom I surround myself.

Talk about everything, all the time. This sounds like the simple answer that is always given when someone is offering relationship advice. “Talk to your partner!” “Communicate!” In a way, yes, that is what it is. But this rule is a lot more than that. I apply my rules not only to my romantic partners, but to anyone in my life whose opinion and trust are valuable to me. When I say, “talk about everything, all the time,” I really mean that I want to know everything. Not all news is good news, and not all bad news has a solution, but allowing anything to go unsaid leads to secrets and, potentially, lies.

Rather than vague admonitions, I’ll offer you an example. In my previous post regarding grey areas of affection, I referenced a person in my life who falls into a nebulous category. He is in a monogamous marriage, but he and I share an acknowledged chemistry which we play upon to our mutual advantage. From a certain perspective, a person might argue that it would have been wiser for us to leave any attraction or interest unspoken, because to mention it is acknowledging its existence and asking for trouble for the person in the monogamous situation. My counter-argument is that to leave the attraction unspoken and “understood” is first off assuming that both people understand what’s going on, which is not necessarily true. Second, to avoid that conversation prevents an honest and useful discourse regarding the emotional and physical boundaries of the relationship. Relationship boundaries are tailored to the people involved, and if two people aren’t fully honest with each other, they can’t set boundaries that will keep them both emotionally satisfied and secure.

I once heard a person in a monogamous relationship say that she felt betrayed by a partner’s interest in someone new not when that emotional attachment occurred, but when it was acknowledged. Her partner told his outside interest that he had feelings for her, they discussed it, and accepted that it was mutual but couldn’t lead anywhere. His partner felt that if he had said nothing to this girl, she would not have felt betrayed by him, because to express the emotion makes it somehow more real. I can understand the visceral, emotional urges that make this sound like a really good idea. If he hadn’t told her, then they could just keep being friends and pretend like nothing was between them. The trouble with pretending, though, is that it’s a whole lot like lying. While this guy’s girlfriend might have felt more secure if he kept his outside feelings a secret, he would have been betraying his friend by concealing his true feelings for her. How we treat our friends is based on how we feel about them. That sounds incredibly obvious and inane, but if we aren’t honest about how we feel about one another, we can’t develop legitimate relationships. Imagine the opposite – if a friend secretly despised me, that would have to come to light or our relationship would be poisonous.

Another issue that I find disconcerting is the idea of leaving something unspoken and understood. This idea is that you and another person both know something about your feelings toward one another, but you intentionally don’t address it directly. I refuse to leave anything “understood” between myself an a person that I care about. I am easily confused and misled by subtlety, and I would rather be utterly gauche with my bluntness than misunderstand someone’s intentions. I have often said that I would be much happier if a person who is interested in me would simply state it point-blank to my face than try to hit on me, gauge my reactions, and move slowly. This is because I will assume that everyone falls slightly on the positive side of neutral in their feelings toward me unless I am explicitly told otherwise. This means hitting on me is a generally ineffective strategy. The end result on more than one occasion has been that a person assumed I had no interest and moved on, when in fact I had no idea what was really going on. This is a frustrating problem that is, I think, incredibly easy to alleviate.

Talking about everything all the time is also the best way to implement the “no surprises” rule. I have shared quite a few details with my partners that have, in retrospect, turned out to be trivial, because I am trying to stave off the possibility of a surprise in the future. For example, if I’ve been flirting with someone but I’m not sure if real mutual interest will develop, I still tell my partners about it. Because I think they would rather know about flirting that doesn’t lead anywhere than have the reverse happen: Surprise! So-and-so asked me out, or so-and-so and I made out at the bar last night. When I used to maintain an online dating profile, I would tell my husband about anyone who I exchanged more than two or three messages with. The vast majority of them came to nothing, but I would rather be overly cautious. Unexpected changes seriously mess with my comfort level, so I do my best to avoid pushing them onto anyone else, and I expect the people around me to do the same. While my partners have the right to seek both physical and emotional relationships with anyone they deem worthy, if I were to find out after the fact that one of them had a sexual encounter that I had no forewarning of, I would be devastated. If a person I considered a close friend revealed that they had an emotional or sexual attraction to me that I was not made aware of, I would be offended. Surprises are never good for me.

With the exception of presents, presents are good.