Work Redux: Power and Women

women-power

This morning I attended Pollen’s Work Redux: Power event. It featured some great conversations about women, power, the workplace, hierarchy, community, and what we can do to change the conversation. Like many of these events, I left with more questions than I came in with, but there were also a number of topics that were deeply relevant and didn’t get discussed. So for the next few days I’m going to be posting about elements of the conversation on women and power that seem to be deeply relevant but may get left out more often than not.

The first thing I want to touch on has to do with one of the questions that was asked of the stellar panel that presented. The question was as follows:

“All of the women on the panel are here because they’ve stood up and stood out in some way. How do you deal with blowback from women and/or the community who instead of supporting you, prefer to toe the line and maintain the status quo? How do you create a circle of support to nourish your ideas?”

The answers to this question were insightful, but took the two pieces of the question as separate. When I heard it, I interpreted them as connected: can we create a circle of support that includes those who prefer to maintain the status quo? Is there a way to support and welcome those who may not want your support, or who would rather see you and your ideas go away?

On a related note, one of the presenters mentioned that one of the best ways women can support each other is by pushing each other to do our best, not simply by providing comfort and kind words. A challenge in the sure knowledge that someone will rise up to it may be the best support you can offer another woman. Part of creating a community is asking others to step up and be their best selves, part of which involves having the wherewithal to see what their best selves could be.

These two pieces fit together. While part of dealing with the blowback may simply be stepping up and doing your best work, ignoring the haters, acting professional, and getting the job done, part of it also needs to be challenging haters to be better selves. For the most part, the conversation aimed towards positive actions that individuals can take to move past the difficult people who might want to tell them to go back to the kitchen (or other similarly negative things). It didn’t mention things like responding to negativity or calling someone out when they do something inappropriate.

There are many bad ways to respond to someone who is being negative, and often calling them out can appear to be petty. But when someone says something inappropriate in the workplace, tries to tell you that you shouldn’t use your power, tells you you don’t deserve your position, or in some other way attempts to take your power away from you, calling them out is an entirely appropriate response. Not only that, but calling them out may be an invitation for them to join you in your community if it is done in the appropriate way. It is asking them to be better.

When someone makes a sexist or racist comment in the workplace, it’s important to say “that’s inappropriate” or even “please don’t speak that way around me” if you don’t feel comfortable making a larger statement. Especially if the person speaking to you is from your own community and is tearing you down, ask them why they think the way they do, or whether they think they’re helping or harming themselves with their words. Challenge them. You’d be surprised at how often people know that what they just said was an unhelpful and damaging thing, they just need someone to remind them.

For those people who don’t understand why their behavior is inappropriate, or who may genuinely feel that a woman in power or a person of color in power is unacceptable, it’s important that they hear the opposing voice. There is power in speaking. There is power in simply saying “no”, even if you are not heard. And it’s always possible that you might start a change deep in someone’s mind. You might show them that they can embrace their own power. You might give them support simply by showing them you at your own best. When someone looks at you and says “you can’t be at this table,” and you say “That’s not something you get to say. Yes I can” and proceed to pull up a chair, you have shown them that you are willing to be present and you are modelling what they could be doing.

I suspect that many of the women who fight back against other women in power are afraid. Why be afraid of someone else’s power if you are secure in your own? That makes it even more important to welcome them into the circles of support that we try to build for ourselves. While it’s good to have like-minded people, it’s also good to keep the door open in some spaces for people who just don’t know. Make it known that you’re someone who is a mentor and who is willing to be a shoulder to cry on. Start a dialogue in your workplace, formal or informal, about what you see as sexism or racism in the workplace. Invite everyone and make it clear that all opinions are valued. Listen. Ask questions. Hear what is scaring someone or intimidating them or holding them back.

The women who fight us tooth and nail on our accomplishments are still women. They are still experiencing all the same difficulties that the rest of us are. And it’s up to us to provide community, support, and power to all women, not just the ones we like. While it’s hugely important to think about our own networks and support, we should also be aware of what we are doing to create more opportunities and support for every woman out there. Perhaps the best way to respond to backlash is to kill them with kindness.

We Do It To Ourselves: Misery and Self Help

raccoons

Being unhappy sucks. And yet many times we end up wallowing in our own misery and creating more of it, bringing others down with it, and focusing exclusively on things that make us unhappy. Why do we do it? How can we stop? If you see someone spiraling out of control in a self-destructive spiral can you stop them without getting blown to smithereens yourself?

Well if I knew all the answers to these questions I would not be blogging in obscurity with 100 followers, but I do have a great deal of experience with feeling shitty and so I might as well share the insight I’ve gained.

I think most people get the most frustrated when they realize that they continue to do the same things over and over even if they’re aware that they are not happy when they do those things. It’s confusing and it seems as if there’s no way to change behaviors that hurt you. But there are reasons we get stuck in ruts like this. We make our patterns on the path of least resistance. Oftentimes the things that hurt us now are things that were good for us in the past. It’s extremely easy to beat yourself up for not making positive changes, but the first step to pulling yourself out of “I SUCK” is to remember that none of the things you do now are done for no reason: they all served a purpose at some point, whether that purpose was to protect you from traumatic situations or to re-energize after impossibly long days.

Even now, your bad behaviors are probably doing something for you. You never get off the couch even though it makes you feel miserable and lazy? Well you might be trying to protect yourself from some of the things that have hurt you (that are probably outside your apartment and off your couch) in the past. If you can stop blaming yourself for what you’re doing now, you’ve probably gotten rid of 50% of your judging and negativity (yes, I know you judge yourself for judging. I know all your tricks).

Oftentimes this looks like you’re just inviting negativity into your life, focusing exclusively on the negative, personalizing, engaging in those lovely ways of thinking that are tried and true proven to make you feel like shit! But here’s the secret: it isn’t your fault. In many ways, our brains appear to be wired to develop some of these faults. We have black and white thinking because it was useful earlier in our evolutionary history. Nearly everyone personalizes things. While some of us do it to a destructive extent, it’s not as if we’ve chosen to let our brains do these things. We haven’t “invited” anything. You haven’t even allowed it. It has invaded. Some people do roll over and allow it to continue to dominate and there are ways to weed it out, but I am making angry eyes at all the self-blamers right now.

So what do we do when we’ve consistently put ourselves in negative and destructive environments? How do we make a change? I’m going to be 100% honest here: you don’t do it easily. It takes a butt ton of incredibly hard work, it’s exhausting, you’ll feel worse for a while, and you will complain. You will look more negative for a while because you will constantly be bitching about this hard work you have to do.

Ok, disclaimer out of the way. First, I’d suggest finding a therapist who can help you figure out if your negativity is clinical and might require medication. They can also probably help you determine what pieces of your life are really putting stress on you. And that’s probably the place you want to start if you’re working on eradicating negativity yourself: what is it in your life that makes you miserable? What are your values? What sings to you? Take some time to write out your “must haves” in life, then try to determine what is keeping you from them. A big part of this will be determining what myths exist in your life: these are assumptions that you’ve internalized through your life. They often involve words like “all”, “never”, and “should”. They can be things like “I need to be perfect”, “I shouldn’t feel angry”, “People are not trustworthy”. These are likely those elements of negativity you think you keep inviting into your life. In reality, they’re ways of thinking that made sense at one point in time, but aren’t accurate for your current environment.

So now you know what you want and you know what’s keeping you from getting there. How do you get rid of the myths? Seems easy enough right, just stop thinking it? Except it’s not that easy because the thoughts keep barging into your mind reminding you that you shouldn’t feel that way or act that way, or that person x is really, truly out to get you/hates you/is ruining your life. The answer is that you have to notice whenever those thoughts come into your mind and then intentionally challenge them. This doesn’t mean a simple contradiction (the challenge of “anger is always bad” is not “anger is never bad”), but rather finding some clear experience or fact in contradiction of the myth.

Example time! One of my myths is that if I ever make a mistake everyone will leave me and I will fail at everything and I’ll probably end up prostituting myself on a street corner to get by (this is not meant to be anti-sex work, but rather is the narrative of my jerkbrain). The counter to this is to find one time, any one time in my life, that I made a mistake and it didn’t have horrific consequences. That time I screwed up my GRE and guess what I still got into grad school. That time I made a mistake at work and the whole organization didn’t come crashing down. Any one will do. And every time I get the crawling anxiety and negativity of “I am a complete failure if I’m not perfect” I simply pull out one of these examples and yell down the myth.

At its base, all self help is about retraining your brain so that the bad thoughts aren’t as powerful. But there are lots of other things you can do: figure out what makes you smile more and do that. Make an effort to be more social. Stop hanging out with jerks. Again, all of these things are personal but if you want to feel better you may have to sit down and make yourself a big ol’ chart of “shit that makes me feel bad” and “shit that makes me feel good” and spend your time working towards the latter. This is everything from eating food you like to leaving the job that makes you miserable. However big or small, pay attention to what makes you feel good.

That’s really all the general advice I have for digging yourself out of a spiral of negativity and focus on negative thoughts: you’ve got to be aware of what you’re thinking and willing to redirect your mind. But what about helping others? Can we make things better for other people? I will reveal some of my pessimism here: none of this internal work of redirecting your brain can be done by anyone but you. That means if you want to shut negativity out of your life, you have to do it yourself. That’s the bad news. The good news is that once you start retraining your brain having another person around to distract you, to try new things with, to check up on you, can help tons! Communally, we can make a better mood if each of us individually does our best with our own mood. So if you’re around someone who’s self-destructing, you can suggest positive things, you can refuse to accept their negative mood, you can challenge some of their thoughts, but until they make some internal shifts none of that will be effective.

We don’t invite negativity in, but we do have to kick it out. It’s like a pile of raccoons that decided they wanted to take up residence in the kitchen: we didn’t want them there, but now we have to do the hard work of getting them out. And unfortunately, no one else is going to clean out your kitchen: your neighbor can come over every afternoon and shoo out the raccoons, but they’re just not there often enough, it’s not their space, they can’t build the fence across the door without your permission. Only you can call pest control (get meds), only you can revamp the kitchen so the bastards can’t get in, only you can lock the door when you leave. At the end of the day, you have to take responsibility for the fucking raccoons.

 

Wealth and Health: More Complicated?

audre lorde

It’s no secret that the wealthy in America have better health outcomes than the poor. The disparities can be shocking. It affects quality of healthcare, food, lifespan, and can even affect whether someone will contract an illness after being exposed. There are many conclusions we can draw from this fact (the extreme wealth disparity in our country is not only unethical but is in fact contributing to illness and death, we need universal healthcare, America sucks), but the picture may not be as simple as some articles prefer to paint it as. In fact, the reason that the wealthy are healthier may not simply be because they have access to better healthcare and healthier food, safer environments and less violence, but it may in fact reflect the fact that our society is set up at every level to cater to their needs.

Those who are poor are most often those who are discriminated against for race, gender, sexuality, or disability, things which all contribute to poor health outcomes. Police brutality and the prison industrial complex come down most harshly on people of color. Oddly enough being beaten by the cops and sent to prison aren’t too good for your health. The mentally ill often have their diseases dismissed as “all in your head”, which can lead to loss of jobs, healthcare, housing etc. and bad physical health outcomes. These intersections get ignored when we simply look at class without reminding ourselves that class is affected by other identities.

One article points out that the marshmallow test is associated with positive outcomes later in life, and that those who tend to do poorly on the marshmallow test tend to be poor. But the marshmallow test has been criticized as measuring the skills that make you successful in a white, upper class world, rather than the skills that make you successful in a world where you can’t necessarily trust authority. Most of these studies seem to be indicating that the wealthy are taught the successful ways to navigate the world while the poor are hurt by the way society is set up.

So for those who are poor, you have every right to be pissed off. Society is set up to shorten your life span by creating food deserts, making organic and healthy food more expensive and more time consuming to prepare, by increasing your stress by taking away your choices, by housing you in neighborhoods that are more dangerous and houses that are less healthy, by making gym memberships expensive, and by continuing to not educate or miseducate the poor on what it means to be healthy.

But what can we do? If society is set up to see us fail, how do we take our lives into our own hands and decide WE WILL BE HEALTHY? One of the first things that I’ve found helpful is to reconfigure our conception of our own health: being healthy isn’t just a choice we can make for ourselves personally, it can also be a political statement. I’m sure I’ve posted my favorite Audre Lorde quote here before, but if I haven’t, here it is:

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

I didn’t mean to put that in big ol’ letters, but I’m going to leave it that way because I think it’s that important. When the poor and oppressed among us live longer and healthier, we actively resist the society that wants us to be so downtrodden we can’t resist. The more we can see our choice to be healthy as a gigantic middle finger to a shitty system, the easier it is to make good choices (or at least I think so). A big part of this is forming communities. Cooking takes time and energy as well as money. If you get together with friends and each cook something, then do a big swap so you have a variety of foods for the week, you’ve saved time, probably money (because bulk is awesome), and you’ve provided yourself with the added benefit of social interaction (shown to be good for your health!).

We can also inform ourselves: information is powerful. Know what kinds of foods make you feel good, understand what a balanced and healthy diet looks like (protip: it does in fact involve some fat and sugar), and understand what healthy exercising habits are (regular, but not compulsive). Share information with each other. If you find something awesome and healthy, tell other people about it (Rock climbing! Fun! Exercise! Woot!). Share resources like low cost clinics for physical and mental healthcare. Support those places! Spend some time volunteering for Planned Parenthood or a local clinic that provides similar low income care.

None of this can change the fact that your environment is out of your hands. But we can look out for each other: if one of us spots mold in another’s apartment, we can research how to get rid of it and the potential health risks. If one person works from home and has tons of friends who don’t have time to cook, maybe their friends can throw a few bucks their way and ask them to cook in bulk. Share EVERYTHING (ok maybe not everything, but recipes, tips, exercises, doctors, good apartments, job leads…your community will give back to you if you give to it).

Remember that statistics don’t mean all of us are doomed. They point towards trends but they can’t predict your individual life. If you want to fight those statistics, here are some resources for low-income healthiness.

1. Fitness resources for low cost

http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/fitness/in-depth/fitness/art-20047989?pg=1

http://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/features/6-ways-build-better-body-budget

http://frugalliving.about.com/od/beautyhealthcare/tp/Frugal_Exercise.htm

2. Healthy food for lower costs

http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/cheap-healthy-15-nutritious-foods-about-2-dollars

http://www.nerdfitness.com/blog/2012/12/27/cheap-and-healthy-food/

3.  Low cost healthcare (this should be easier with Obamacare!). I’m going to put Minnesota resources since that’s what I know.

http://www.health.state.mn.us/clearinghouse/public.htm

http://mn.bridgetobenefits.org/MN_Low_Cost_Health_Care_Directory.html

If anyone is interested, I am willing to host resources here and connect others who are interested in improving their health at a low cost. We can build our own communities that provide the same benefits that having lots of money does for the wealthy.

I’m Afraid of Identifying As Asexual

AceFlag

This weekend was the fantabulous Skeptech, a conference about skepticism and technology. As per usual I had a great time and am currently quite exhausted (despite the fact that like a good little introvert I went home before midnight most nights).  I have lots of Thoughts spinning around in my head from the weekend, but for now I’m going to focus on one interaction in particular. In the Twitter feed I got into a discussion with Kate Donovan and Tetyana about asexuality and eating disorders in response to a panel regarding bias and science. Without really thinking, I mentioned that I was afraid my ED would turn out to be the real reason that I haven’t felt sexual in quite some time, and it grew into a conversation about why that would be a bad thing.

The topic was a bit too large for Twitter, so I’ve been pondering it a bit further and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a combination of fearing that I’m relying too heavily on my own privilege, and an internalization of many of the myths about sexual identity and the process of finding one’s sexual identity. I am tentatively taking on the label of “asexual” but I’m terrified that at some point in the future I will feel a wave of sexual attraction and it will turn out that I’ve been lying to everyone and that the real reasons I feel this way are medication, my eating disorder, and depression. Here’s why that seems so scary.

One of the things I worry about is taking the name and label of an oppressed group if I have not truly experienced the oppression that they live. It’s somewhat akin to a white person claiming that they’re racially oppressed. It’s an offensive concept at best, and at worst it muddies and obscures the real struggles that people of color experience, delegitimizing their words and stories and thus making it harder for them to make changes to improve their situation. While asexuality isn’t quite on the same spectrum, I am afraid that I will be claiming their oppression when I’ve existed in privilege. If I say that I’ve had those experiences, that I am oppressed in the same ways they are, but it turns out that I’m really allosexual, straight, cis, monogamous…how hard will it be for others to take the worries of the ace community seriously? I’m also afraid of calling on the resources that have been put together for asexual people because I’m worried I’ll be taking something from those who actually need it.

I believe that these are important fears to have, especially for someone who is as privileged as I am. It’s important to think about whether your future actions and identifications could have harmful repercussions for an oppressed group. I don’t want the ace community to be taken less seriously because I casually started identifying as ace and then nonchalantly went back to allosexual. Aces are already criticized for identifying as queer because they aren’t oppressed enough, because they are supposedly all white, cis, het girls who have privilege shooting out of their asses. I don’t want to contribute to this stereotype. These are important things to consider when thinking about whether to take on a certain identity or not. I don’t want to be the ace whose asexuality is actually a disease, the person that others can point to whenever someone else says “I am ace” as a way to remind them “but what if you’re really not”.

But there is a whole other level of worry that comes on a personal level which is fully wrapped up in the expectations that society has for a woman to be available constantly, for women to make perfect choices, and for sexuality to be a linear progression. If my “asexuality” were actually just a result of my eating disorder, I would actually just be a broken straight person, someone who wants to be able to have sex but isn’t interested because of trauma/disease/stupidity. It’s scary enough if I am asexual to look at the past 10 years of my dating life and think that I’ve spent all that time chasing after the wrong things. It’s even worse if I was just horribly broken and made choices that hurt myself because I am so disordered that I can’t find healthy relationships and wouldn’t even pursue something that would end up being good for me. It’s too cliche to be a girl with an eating disorder who can’t have sex because she’s too self-conscious.

There is a large part of me that is feeling imposter syndrome around this. It’s not necessarily that I think being ace is preferable to being allosexual, but rather that actually finding out who I am feels too good to be true. This can’t be right, I’m too screwed up, I’m too lost, I’m too confused to actually have found some small piece of identity that is truly me. I have spent so much of my life with no identity but my eating disorder that accepting something else as an integral part of me feels wrong in many ways. I suspect that others who are in the process of recovery feel this way when they start to find good things.

Partially it’s that I’m convinced I’ll never know who I am, partially it’s that if something is going to replace the eating disorder in any way it needs to be quite strong, and partially it’s a fear: what if I try to find something that’s really me and it turns out it’s just the eating disorder in disguise? What if every part of me is just my eating disorder in disguise? What if I can’t even trust something as basic as my sexual impulses? This is deeply tied to the mental illness. I’ve been told so many times that I can’t trust things like my hunger cues, or my desires, or the voices in my head. This one must be wrong too, especially if it’s something so out of the ordinary as asexuality. I think it can be really damaging to teach people as part of their recovery that they have to stop listening to things that feel perfectly real and important.

I’m also a rule follower, a big part of having an eating disorder. A perfectionist. Everything must be just so. I can’t make decisions until I explore every possible angle and even then I often can’t because there is no right or perfect answer. The idea that I might identify as something and then find out that it’s wrong is terrifying. I’ll have embarrassed myself, I’ll have gotten the WRONG ANSWER about something incredibly important. I won’t be doing things right, I’ll have screwed up. That would be the worst thing ever, even worse than that time in first grade I got time out that I still remember.

There’s also an element of internalized misunderstanding of how sexuality works. One of the things we’re taught is that you figure out what you are and then you be that thing. Usually you figure it out in high school or college: you “experiment” and then realize you’re gay/straight/bi/whatever. Then that’s your life. It’s fairly simple. You might make one mistake and date the wrong gender or try a poly relationship and realize it’s not for you, but then everything is figured out. This isn’t actually how sexuality works, in reality there’s some fluidity, there’s often a lot more confusion, you may think you’re one thing and then discover a new term or community that you think fits you. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with trying on different sexual identities to see which one feels the most like you.

But I’ve internalized that you figure it out and then that’s it, anything else is wrong or improper or a LIE. You might be repressing part of yourself if you ever end up changing. You’re probably misleading your loved ones. You’ve probably destroyed at least one relationship asking for something, setting boundaries when you really didn’t need to, trying to be something that you’re not: there was no reason to ask for space to try something new if you aren’t going to identify that way FOREVER, and doing so was really quite selfish. At the very least you’re just a really screwed up person who’s flip floppy and shallow and attention seeking because there isn’t any other reason to change. Obviously none of this is true. We all get to ask for whatever we need when we need it, but the implications for my relationships if it turns out I’m allosexual are confusing and frightening.

I think one of the things that makes recovery from an eating disorder so difficult is trying to suss out which parts of your life are you and which belonged to the eating disorder. For some reason coming to the wrong conclusions (even if you can change your mind later) feels like the end of the world. It seems as if more of your life has been stolen from you, as if you’re doing recovery wrong, as if you’re just too stupid to realize that your whole life was the eating disorder.

This is one of the reasons that I wish labels were both more common and less important. Reality is that people probably have some core identity but that they have some fluidity. For some reason taking on a label has reached a level of importance that people view it as All That Defines You. Particularly if you come out or have a few relationships in the mold of that label, you’re never ever allowed to change. If identity labels were more like career labels or relationships, something that’s important but that you can grow out of, it might be less scary to try some things on as you, then realize that you’ve grown into something else. That fluidity is hugely important in reducing the shame that people feel when they realize they might not be what they thought they were. I think we all deserve the space to learn.

 

Trying Something New

I’ve been drawing some blanks lately on topics to write about (so if you have something you think would strike my fancy, please send it along), so I went looking for some writing prompts. I found a fairly fantastic website of them and have looked through far too many pages getting far too many ideas of creative writing that I could be doing.

So I’ve decided to post a bit of this writing here. The first prompt is as follows:

tumblr_moiua0pwSQ1qee12to1_1280

 

While I think this could be a fun exercise for nearly anyone, I think it’s especially appropriate for someone struggling with their identity, with mental illness, or generally with figuring out who they are and what they want. I’d love to hear the three personalities of other people, so please leave them in the comments or write your own post.

The first person in my head is probably a young girl of about five. Vivacious (obnoxiously so), curious, energetic, and full of noise and pep. Essentially the person I was when I was four. This is a person who is interested in just about everything, and when she becomes truly interested in something will probably jump up and down and tell you every little detail and fact about it until she can’t breathe. Then she’ll go play horses. Her theme song is likely “I don’t give a fuck”.

The second is Hermione Granger. Basically exactly. Perfectionistic, practical as all get out, full of ridiculous and strange facts, but also kind of a pain in the ass who never has fun and drives everyone way too hard. Sometimes I like to call her doucheface.

And finally we have a combination of Sartre and the girl from Girl, Interrupted. Existential angst up the wazoo and a whopping side helping of cuckoo. Whereas the other two parts are firmly planted in this world, Sartre Girl is convinced that everything is worthless and barely even here anyway. This leads to a melancholy, cynical air coupled with some element of absurdity.

 

So what do you all think? How would you describe the voices you hear in my writing? Who are your voices?

 

 

What If I Don’t Know?

questions

This week was April Fool’s, and one of people’s FAVORITE jokes on April Fool’s is coming out as gay. Miri, a fantastic beast of a human being, decided to do the opposite yesterday. Her essay is hilarious and you should probably go read it.

But there was one element of Miri’s essay that stuck out to me as potentially damaging for those who are questioning or who (such as myself) are rethinking elements of their orientation and identity. I understand that within the context of the essay this paragraph is about the assumptions of many that bisexuality is fake, however this same rhetoric can be used to delegitimize those who might have questions or be uncertain, and to shut down conversations from those who are simply trying to understand their own sexuality.

“I’m straight because I started seeing guys long before I started seeing women. How could I have really known I was bisexual if I didn’t have “experience”? Unlike straight people, bisexual people do not have the luxury of being born with an innate and immutable knowledge of their own sexual orientation. Nothing–not their turn-ons, not their crushes, not their romantic daydreams–nothing besides Real Sex with someone of the same gender is sufficient to prove for certain that they are really bisexual as they say they are. “

Because here’s the thing: there are some people who don’t have an innate and immutable knowledge of their own sexual orientation. There are some people who feel like they need to try sex to find out if they’re attracted or not. There are people who don’t know what their identity or their orientation is and who take a great deal of painstaking reflection, experimentation, and thought to figure out what it is that they feel they want in their lives. Sometimes feelings just aren’t clear: not all of us get crushes that come screaming at us that WE REALLY LIKE THIS PERSON. Sometimes instead it’s a slight inkling that we want to hang out more or a little bit of anxiety when we see the person.

In fact, even for those who might have a very strong attraction (or lack thereof), life itself can make it extremely difficult to recognize those feelings. As an example, my eating disorder certainly disguised some of my lack of sexual attraction for a long time: it’s easy to simply write it off as “I’m just self-conscious”. I imagine that there are similar intersections with race, gender, class, physical health, or any of the other ways that our lives differ from the basic script of “very white guy falls in love with very white girl, actively pursues, gets married and has babies”.

Sexuality and attraction are far more complicated than we give them credit for. Attraction doesn’t feel the same to everyone. Our sexual desires are not all the same. Not only do you have to determine who you’re attracted to (men, women, other), but you have to figure out what you actually want to act on, how attracted you are, what type of attraction it is, whether you’re attracted to multiple people or not and in what ways, what relationship style works best for you…each of these things can be clear or muddy, can be specific to one person or very generalized, can be affected or obscured by other things in your life. Maybe you are actually quite poly at heart, but you’ve grown up in a culture that deeply prioritizes jealousy as a healthy and good emotion and now even the concept of being attracted to multiple people doesn’t make sense.

I think sometimes it’s easy to forget that if you’ve never seen a template of what your sexuality might look like that feels right to you, you often just assume that you’re basically the same as what you’ve seen. You might have some weird feelings that don’t quite fit, but it’s fairly easy to write them off as something else, especially if there’s anything else about you that’s outside the norm.

This is not the narrative that we hear from those who talk about GLBT issues. We often hear “I knew I was different” or “I tried to be like other people but it felt completely wrong”. And that’s true for some people. But for some people, muddling through doesn’t feel completely wrong it just feels a little bit off. By no means do I think it’s inappropriate to assert that some people know right away. But for some people it’s really hard to figure out what the heck they are. It’s fairly invalidating to hear over and over that your sexuality is an innate drive that you just “know” because of your daydreams and crushes and attractions. What if it’s a hard process of learning to listen to your emotions, your boundaries, your likes and dislikes? What if you actually really don’t know you like/don’t like something until you try it?

Just like there’s no one way of having a relationship, there’s no one way of figuring out what kind of a relationship you want. I think it’s quite possible that some people’s identities are more fluid than others, just like some people are far more committed to a national identity or a career identity than others. It’s important that we learn to validate the experience of “knowing” without simultaneously implying that everyone should know, or that identities which are a little gray (like demisexual or gray asexual) don’t get blown off as special snowflake syndrome or stealing the real queer identities. The identities that are more indicative of uncertainty are just as valid and just as real: being straight up confused is a valid identity!

I seriously doubt that anyone is intentionally invalidating people who aren’t sure of their sexual identity, but simply using a little more care in how we talk about sexuality and being willing to multiply the possible experiences rather than close them off can go a long way towards validating those who are already confused.

Mistaking Romance for Sex: Intersections of Mental Health and Sexuality

love

Yesterday I discovered a new blog about asexuality and spent some time diving into the archives. As someone who is still trying to sort out their identity I spend a lot of time asking myself if the experiences of other aces resonate with me, and as I read a theme started to pop up: an inability for ace individuals to understand or empathize with sexuality or sexual desire, and because of this difficulty with understanding flirting or innuendos.

At first glance this sounded nothing like me, but when I wasn’t paying much attention something hit me: I am deeply incapable of telling when people are hitting on me or flirting with me. I can tell when other people are flirting with each other, and I understand the types of things that one is supposed to do to be considered “sexy”, but I’ve never had any clue how to do them myself and when others try to flirt with me it often goes flying right over my head. For most of my life I’ve assumed this is because I have cripplingly low self-esteem, and I was one of those people who could never imagine someone flirting with me. But now another possibility had presented itself: what if I never noticed or could flirt because I have always tended towards asexuality?

This was the first of a series of realizations that perhaps having a sexual orientation/identity other than straight, allosexual, monogamous, CIS etc. and having a mental illness might lead one to misinterpret one’s emotions and attractions, or may mean that one’s presentation of their identity looks significantly different from others’. It may make it a little harder to parse what exactly your identity is.

Here’s the thing that’s been bothering me for a while: how is it that I suddenly can identify as asexual when I happily identified as allosexual without even a thought that I might be chasing the wrong things for almost 10 years of active dating? I certainly don’t think I was repressing any feelings of asexuality. I actively pursued relationships because I felt attracted to people. I have been actively sexual and enjoyed the experience at times. How can I be asexual if I never felt any confusion about what sexual attraction was, if I never felt as if I was missing out on a feeling that everybody else had, if I never felt that something wasn’t working about my allosexual identity?

But then I read one person’s musings on the fact that it makes sense for them to be aromantic and asexual becuase they rarely feel the feelings that are supposed to be “romance” or “sexual attraction” (e.g. nervous, excited, obsessive, racing thoughts). They say:

“I’m a pretty chill person. I don’t get excited, overjoyed, scared, or stressed out much. Most of the time, I just feel calm, comfortable, and slightly positive about life. My emotional reactions are quieter, shorter, and fainter than most people’s (except for laughter – I laugh a lot). It’s not that I suppress my emotions, I just don’t feel them very strongly in the first place. I’ve been like this ever since I was a child.”

And it hit me: I am the exact opposite. I have all the feelings of being romantically attracted to someone ALL THE TIME. I am always nervous and obsessive and excitable and have huge swings of emotions. I am hyper-romantic.  When I fall for someone I fall HARD. And because I have this overwhelming attraction to someone on a romantic level, I think that I’ve always just assumed that I was also attracted physically: I mistook my hyper romantic attraction for sexual attraction (just another minor consequence of compulsory sexuality and the tendency of our society to conflate romance and sex).

The thing is, I can’t imagine anyone who didn’t have extremely strong emotions doing this. Strong and sudden and whole body feelings of “want”. I can’t imagine anyone who didn’t get taken away by their emotions would ever find themselves so romantically attracted to someone that they’re convinced the want is actually a want for sex.

But that desire, that feeling of “need” is the same kind of feeling I might get towards my fluffy cat, or a beautiful picture, or a philosopher I find particularly fascinating (often with some added element of “I just want to hang out with you all the time” that indicates romance). Genitals don’t come into the picture. It’s simply the strength of the emotion that got to me.

And here’s where we come to mental health. Because that tendency to get utterly overwhelmed by emotions is one of the borderline personality disorder traits that I have. The tendency towards obsession and anxiety is part of my generalized anxiety disorder and eating disorder. The particular intersection of this intense emotion and a society that says “if you love someone you want them in your pants” may have fooled me into thinking that what I wanted was sexuality when in reality I wanted deep connection, a special relationship with someone, care, romance.

It’s fairly obvious to me that as a society we don’t spend a whole lot of time being careful about the ways we speak of attraction: you LIKE someone or you don’t. And if you do then you want to date them. And if you want to date them then you want to have sex with them unless you’re not “ready” or you’re repressed or you’re too self-conscious, then you’ll want to have sex with them at some unspecified point in the future. This means that if someone feels any sort of strong emotion towards another person, they feel pressured to identify as “attracted”. Additionally, the identity that goes with attraction is not supposed to be fluid: if you feel any attraction towards the same sex, you’re gay. Any attraction towards the opposite sex, you’re straight. Any attraction to both, you’re bi. Similarly, if you have any desire towards one overarching relationship, you’re monogamous and if you have any desire for more than one partner you’re poly. End of story.

If you combine this with any sort of mental illness, it seems like a recipe for confusion and frustration, because often mental illness means emotions and desires express themselves in all sorts of new and interesting ways. Example: for those with BPD, deep amounts of care for someone often mean that you spend a lot of time “testing” them (for fear they’ll leave you) by doing odd things like not calling or talking until they do so first. I would imagine that for someone with OCD it would be difficult to distinguish feeling obsessed from feeling attracted. For those on the Autism spectrum, sensory stimulation can be overwhelming. How to tell if you’re sex-repulsed or simply experiencing a sensory overload?

When you perceive the world differently from others, or experience emotions differently (more or less heightened) than others, how can you tell what category you fit into? How do you see the parallels between your own desire (or lack thereof) and the desires of others? Especially because mental illness can make it difficult to understand and effectively manage your emotions, the “all or nothing” approach to dating and romance seems to be perfectly suited to further confuse the issue and lead to misunderstandings of identity. Almost everyone feels some amount of attraction to all kinds of people. Almost everyone feels some element of desire for stability and some for freedom and new experiences.

How do you interpret these feelings if a. you’re not stellar at identifying your feelings in the first place b. your feelings tend to be significantly stronger or weaker than other people’s c. you tend towards all or nothing thinking d. you’re not very good at coping with emotions or making healthy decisions when in the grips of emotions? How do you incorporate the feelings you have into a sense of identity when your feelings might change rapidly or you don’t want the things that are supposed to be a part of “attraction” (or you want more, e.g. kink)? And if you’re already struggling with relationships, boundary setting, expressing needs, or simply being effective at communicating, how do you learn to create your own kind of relationship rather than using the template that’s already available?

Now none of the elements of understanding identity are unique to those with mental illness, but what mental illness can do is obscure things and simply make life a whole lot more complicated. It can also amplify certain emotions or diminish others, so that the attraction or repulsion you feel might be HUGE or barely noticeable.  And all that makes it a lot harder to parse out what kinds of relationships are good for you and what kinds of relationships you want.