I Am Not Less Human Because I Will Never Have Kids

If you have not heard this, then you are a lucky person: when you have a kid, you realize what love really is. Or some variant of that, that implies that the love a parent feels for their child is better, more, and utterly different from any other kind of love out there. In some cases, this is even put on par with an integral human experience, or used as a way to hold parents above others, as more loving, more compassionate, more…HUMAN than other people.

I am so over this bullshit.

Every single human being on the planet experiences things differently. As an example, people with Borderline Personality Disorder (myself among them) experience emotions more quickly and more strongly than most other people. “Normal” people (sad lives that they lead) will probably never experience joy on par with the joy that I have felt, or experienced Arthur Miller as the transcendent thing that I have. I personally have never felt compersion, although my friends tell me that it’s an amazing and powerful experience.

We all have different experiences, and beyond that, we have brains that process those experiences differently. It is patently absurd to posit one experience as the most/best version of an emotion, and far beyond that to connect any particular experience with an essential humanity. This is the same kind of bullshit that says romantic love is better than nonromantic love. We cannot put an hierarchy on what kinds of relationships are the most powerful and  meaningful, because (holy shit) people are different and experience things differently.

You have no idea how powerful other people’s emotions are. Perhaps you got a big old dose of baby hormones when you had your kiddo and you bonded really well. Some parents don’t, and they treat their kids like crap or neglect their kids. Some people have brains that feel ALL THE THINGS ALL THE TIME without any babies involved. Simply because YOU experienced love in a new and different way because you had a kid doesn’t mean that EVERYONE will or that EVERYONE is missing out on something until they have a kid. Saying so is condescending and presumptuous.

Intensity of feeling is not a marker of a life well lived. We already have enough myths that say having kids is necessary for a woman to live a good life. We do not need to buoy up the egos of moms at the expense of people who choose not to have kids or who cannot have kids. We are not defined by the children we do or do not have, and those children do not turn us into completely different (better) people.

Not only that, but deciding for other people what experiences are important and meaningful is condescending and presumptuous. It is perfectly fine to say that for you, having a child changed your life and your emotions. It is not acceptable to tell other people that this will or should happen to them. Perhaps it is true that biologically momfeels are different from every other feeling. That does not make it better or more important. Literally every feeling is unique. Get over it.

The Semantics of Rape

I’m baaaack! Sorry it’s been so long, but with GISHWHES and a week on vacation without internet, there was no way I was going to be posting. I’m happy to be back in action though, and so I decided to take on a topic that I’m sure will piss some people off. Hooray! I want to give you a basic template for determining if a rape has occurred, and who is culpable.

Let’s talk about drunk sex.

Or rather, let’s talk about rape, because drunk people cannot consent and people who have sex with nonconsenting people are committing rape.

Or rather, let’s talk about what it means to “have sex with” someone. That phrase seems really simple, but it can obscure quite a bit. When you hear that phrase, do you imagine that one person is acting on another, or that two people are doing something together? Sometimes I hear it used to mean one, sometimes the other. That is a huge problem for dialogues around consent and rape, because the difference between those two parsings is the difference between sex and rape.

Most of the time we can tell if one person is the active participant or if both people are actively participating in sex. We don’t always talk about rape that way. We don’t necessarily talk about the things that the rapist did. We talk about the things the victim did: did they run away, did they fight, did they scream. But we don’t talk about who is initiating contact, who escalates from kissing to touching, who removes clothing, who initiates penetration, etc. Those are usually pretty good markers of who is an active participant in an encounter (there are obvious exceptions, particularly in BDSM situations, but those exceptions almost always require pre-negotiation or a pre-existing relationship that uses non-verbal and mutually discussed cues to indicate if someone is consenting).

Where many people get confused is when alcohol comes into play. How does consent work between two drunk people? Aren’t we all raping each other because pretty much all of us have had sex while drunk?

I think things are both more confusing than many feminists want to realize (it is not just as simple as “consent is easy, any time a penis touches a vagina while people are drunk a man has raped a woman”) and less confusing than most other people want to recognize (we can figure this out, I promise). It hinges on those two meanings of “having sex with.” Most people want there to be a single metric to understand if a rape occurred and who did it. Typically that is consent: who was capable of giving it, who gave it. When alcohol is in the mix, I think we need to have a two step process instead. Step 1: determine who could consent. Step 2: determine who “had sex with” whom. Rape is not just the presence or absence of consent: it is continuing to engage in sex without the presence of consent. So we need to determine both pieces. That can be tricky when we’re not willing to talk about the nitty gritty of what it actually looks like to be an active participant in sex, and who was being active.

A big disclaimer: this DOES NOT mean victim blaming. It DOES NOT mean that if a person was active up to a point and then stopped being active, they were “having sex” the whole time. It DOES NOT mean that any prior sexual activity is relevant. What it means is using the actual facts to determine who was the aggressor. He took off her pants and she did nothing? He was having sex with her. She pulled him upstairs and grabbed his dick? She was having sex with him. While it sucks for victims to have to relive what has happened to them, it is also important to know the details of what happened, and that is true of any crime. This is not an excuse for cops or other officials to act as if a victim is a criminal or to force them to recount it over and over. A victim should give a detailed account once, and that should be good enough, unless they have left out a detail, or someone is confused.

I will in a future post discuss how we teach young people to both be active participants in sex, EVEN IF one person is more assertive or you’re doing a sub/dom scene, or one person likes receiving. But for now, let’s accept that we do a shitty job of talking about mutual assertiveness in sex, and recognize that who is doing what is an important part of discussing rape.

Ok.

So step one: if only one person can consent and sex occurred, their partner raped them. If both people can consent, then great! Go to step two to help determine IF both people consented. Can neither person consent? This is the situation that most people seem greatly concerned about, especially in college campuses. What happens if both people are drunk?

Step two: was this a mutual encounter and everyone could consent? Great! You’ve had sex, and no one raped anyone!
Could everyone consent, but only one person acted while the other didn’t reciprocate? This is probably a red flag. It could have been negotiated this way, but encounters that are entirely one sided should probably get you to look a little more closely at them, whether they’re your own or whether you’re an official trying to decide if someone was raped or not. Get some more information about who says they consented.

Now we get to the one that EEEEEVERYONE is interested in. What if no one could consent? What if everyone was drunk? Here’s where it becomes incredibly important who actually actively participated. If only one person was active, then they are the only rapist. It doesn’t matter that sex involves two bodies, if only one person is making it happen, EVEN IF both people are drunk, then only that person is culpable. We cannot assume that that person was the man because that’s bullshit. We have to ask who did what to determine who was the aggressor. Many people get caught up on step one (which really isn’t that confusing) and forget about step two (which sometimes can be confusing, and is awkward to talk about, and really sucks for victims, but is necessary).

If both people are drunk and actively participating, then they both violated each other’s consent and are both culpable. We can discuss whether it’s possible for two people to rape each other or what the harm is in this situation, but it’s NOT the same as when one drunk person takes advantage of another drunk person. These are the situations that I worry are obscured when feminists use metaphors or parallels to other crimes that someone can commit when they’re drunk: most other crimes do not also come with a high likelihood of the criminal being a victim as well. When a feminist says that a drunk rapist is still a rapist, just like someone who drives drunk is still culpable, they miss that sex always involves two people, and that we do need to take the time to ask if both people were actively involved.

This is why we can’t just say two that two drunk people had sex with each other. That phrase obscures that sometimes it’s a one sided action and sometimes it’s mutual. That’s why many people are so concerned that their child or friend or acquaintance is going to be held responsible for a mutual encounter, instead of recognizing that the majority of the time we are talking about encounters in which only one person was active. In fact, it’s incredibly common for rapists to intentionally get their victims drunk and themselves remain barely buzzed so that they can use the confusion around the phrase to defend themselves. Those situations are the reason that feminists and other activists are so concerned with alcohol and rape. So please, if you find yourself wondering why one person is being held responsible for “drunk sex” but not the other, look at who actually did things. You might learn something.

 

 

Engaging in Problematic Practices

Last weekend I got engaged.

I am INCREDIBLY excited. I put together a silly Pokemon scavenger hunt proposal. I made my boyfriend (fiance!) do a lot of goofy things and eat a lot of delicious food. I bought an oversized ridiculous fake ring to propose with. It was tons of fun, and I look forward to our wedding containing similar elements of party, fun, and goof.

Marriage is an institution with a lot of problems. It’s heteronormative. It prioritizes monogamy over polyamory or other forms of relationships. It puts romantic relationships and biological relationships on a pedestal, and helps us as a society to prioritize them over platonic friendships or chosen families. Already, we’ve had people ask us if this means we’ve changed our minds and want kids.  I’ve talked in other places about feeling conflicted about marriage, and about the ways the history of marriage is a serious pile of shit. It feels different now that this isn’t a hypothetical question, now that it’s a plan in my life, now that it’s something that I’m actually going to do.

I’m suddenly asking real questions about how my actions will affect other people, like is it ok for me, a straight, cis person, to wear a rainbow engagement ring? (after much deliberation with friends, decided that the one I chose was not appropriative or harmful). Is there a way that I can incorporate my support for all kinds of love and families into my ceremony (still no idea, suggestions welcome)? What does it mean for my relationship with my fiance? Do we divvy up labor fairly? Do we have an egalitarian relationship? Do we live out our feminist values in our actual life? What does it mean in terms of monogamy? Will people start asking us about kids more often (yes)?

It’s odd, because marriage is a Big, Important kind of an event, and it makes you ask these questions. It makes you spend time wondering if it’s the right fit for you or for the world. But there are a thousand smaller decisions that I make all the time that involve engaging in problematic or even negative practices. Literally all of us spends are lives swamped in sexist, racist, bigoted shit, and we rarely think twice, even if we are social justice warriors. Since I’ve gained weight I’ve started wearing more covering clothing. That’s problematic as fuck. I’m ashamed of having a not skinny body (I would not call myself fat). That’s internalized fatphobia. But I don’t question it, because it’s a tiny decision that doesn’t get shoved in my face. I simply do it because it feels comfortable to me, and it works for my life. I don’t put on a bikini and fight fatphobia every day. I don’t even question my clothing decisions from a feminist perspective because they’re just a part of life. And honestly, because it doesn’t directly hurt much of anyone and it makes me feel more comfortable and happier in my skin.

I’m not entirely sold on the idea of choice feminism. Just because a person makes a choice that works for them doesn’t mean that the choice can’t have implications for other people. Even if it doesn’t directly impact others, it can still have effects. I think it’s important for people to question their own preferences and ask where those preferences came from and how those preferences can help to create norms or help dismantle norms. I try to be aware of the hidden assumptions I have about what is normal, and to point out to myself and others that even doing what is normal is still making a choice.

But it also seems true to me that in most important ways, we all practically live a form of choice feminism. Most of us will prioritize our own well being over abstract values most of the time. Now that’s not always true, like my choice to be a vegetarian for many years despite having not enough protein and some really unfortunate intersections with my eating disorder. But for the most part we don’t think about a decision, say “this will make me very happy” and then choose to do something else because “it’s not feminist enough.” We balance our happiness and our values, and recognize that sometimes our own happiness conflicts with the happiness of others (this is called life).

Marriage might not be a perfect choice. It might have some negative impacts. I want to recognize the problems with it, and continue to talk about them. But I also don’t want to prioritize marriage as a choice more important than any other. No, there is no choice I make that doesn’t have impacts, but there are also very few actions that are “feminist” or “unfeminist” in isolation. It isn’t “unfeminist” to shave your legs, the problem is when everyone does or is expected to do it. Marriage is similar: it’s a family and relationship format that works for some people, and the problem is the current set of expectations surrounding it.

It’s easy, even as someone who is trying to tell the wedding industrial complex to kiss my ass, to get sucked into the idea that marriage is a choice that exists in a totally unique and utterly important category of its own. It’s easy to spend so much time and energy thinking about it that you imagine getting married could destroy any efforts you’ve made against misogyny. It’s easy to fall into the trap of “this is the most important day of my life”, even if you’re doing it with a social justice veneer.

Really it’s just another choice in a whole series of problematic choices we all make.

Every single one of us engages in some problematic behaviors, whether out of ignorance or laziness or because it is just what makes our life livable and ok. Marriage isn’t unique, and I’d really like to take that “specialness” sheen off of the whole practice (and especially the wedding day). There’s a balance in life: if I can make my life so much better by doing something that might be upholding negative norms, what should I do? I’m at the point where I say that I need to prioritize my own happiness in places where the harm isn’t major. Because my happiness is fleeting, and intersectionality is a thing, and mental illness is my life, and marriage is probably not going anywhere whether or not I get married.

So yes. I am choosing to do something I know is a problem. But literally everyone does. It’s ok. Life consists of choosing from imperfect options. And this imperfect option makes me very very happy.

Yes Virginia, You Can Ruin Your Own Life in 20 Minutes

If you’ve been on the internet at all in the last week or so, you’ve probably read the story about a Stanford swimmer who was convicted of rape after assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. The young woman penned an amazingly painful letter about the experience and aftermath, in which she expresses anger and dismay that her attacker was only sentenced to 6 months in jail. I’m somewhat heartened that the young man was convicted, but overall the situation has been a repeat of all the things that are wrong with the way our justice system treats rape: the young man’s potential was considered more important than the damage he did to the young woman, her alcohol consumption, dress, and prior behavior were all dragged through the mud to show she wanted it, and the young man’s background was considered enough of a “character witness” to suggest he deserved some leniency (he went to Stanford. He was a swimmer. Apparently this is enough to make you not a very bad rapist).

I was going to stay quiet because the young woman in question had articulated everything so well I didn’t think there was anything I could add. And then Swimmer McDouchecanoe’s dad had to speak up and make everything so much worse. “His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”

Here are some things that can happen in 20 minutes:

  1. Someone can put themselves or an object inside of you that you did not consent to. You might have physical reactions to intimacy for years or the rest of your life afterwards. You might develop PTSD. You might be labeled a slut, and your reputation might be trashed. The incident will probably stick with you forever. You might become isolated, or it might destroy your relationships.
  2. Someone can break your bones, cut you, or beat you. You might develop long term disabilities or chronic pain. You may develop anxiety about going places alone, or find it impossible to trust people anymore. If your injuries are bad enough, you might lose your job, or be incapable of getting hired due to disabilities.
  3. Someone can drop a nuclear bomb and literally kill thousands of people.
  4. Someone can shoot another person and kill them. Someone can shoot many people and kill them. Someone can permanently injure any number of people by shooting them.

You might be drunk while doing any of these things (probably not the bomb one. I don’t think they give drunk presidents access to the Big Red Button). But no matter what your state while doing them, they have impacts. All of these incidents have lifelong consequences, some of them for many, many people. The idea that the amount of time it takes to complete an action is what decides how influential that action is makes exactly 0 amounts of sense. Being sworn in as president takes less time than it took Asshole McButts to leave someone with a permanent emotional scar.

Actions have consequences. If you can ruin someone else’s life in 20 minutes, then you sure as hell can ruin your own.

And yes, I understand the idea that we should forgive each other and that one mistake or bad choice shouldn’t be enough to ruin someone’s life. People should be allowed to move on. Of course that’s not really how our criminal justice system works, but it also doesn’t take into account the fact that you don’t just accidentally rape someone. It comes from a background that leads to the conclusion that someone else’s body exists for your uses. Choices that can destroy someone else’s life don’t just come out of nowhere, even if they only take a brief amount of time to enact.

So no, Daddy Douchecanoe, I don’t feel bad that your son has to do six months of jail time for 20 minutes of action. I feel bad that his 20 minutes of action have left someone else with enough trauma to last a lifetime, who doesn’t get to leave jail and go back to living her life. There is no end date to the jail of PTSD. One action can affect a life, but unfortunately she didn’t get to choose that action. He did. That’s why he’s responsible enough to serve his damn time.

Feminism Does Not Mean Strength, Success, or Power

Last night I decided to watch The Mask We Live In as it had just arrived on Netflix, and after finishing it I couldn’t help but go back and rewatch Miss Representation. It’s still a pretty good movie, that introduces a lot of basic concepts about feminism and media in a really accessible way. But I found that as I was watching it I started to get really anxious.

It was a kind of anxiety that I hadn’t felt so acutely in quite some time. “You’re missing your window of opportunity,” is what it said. “What will you become?” it asked. “Why doesn’t anyone look up to you?” it taunted. It was very talkative anxiety. I remembered the feeling that I used to have as a kid that my life could be the kind of thing that someone would talk about with a tone of awe. In Miss Representation, Condoleeza Rice talks about her friend Sally Ride and says that if Sally had waited to see a female astronaut before she decided to become one, Ride never would have gone to space. I wanted to be that story for someone. THAT was what a feminist looked like in my young eyes.

In a lot of the talk about feminism, I heard often about accomplishments. I heard about the wage gap. I heard about women not being in positions of power. I heard about the ways that women are held back by bias or harassment or lack of representation. I heard that women needed to be more active and powerful in politics and large corporations, that we needed more women like Marie Curie or Sheryl Sandberg or Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Women who fought for their right to a space at the table in the field that they loved. I heard about the importance of highly visible role models, and the way that feminism will never advance if we don’t have women in positions of power. I rarely heard about average people, my mom or her friends. I more often heard stories of individual, exceptional women.

And so I learned that feminism meant being successful. Successful enough that your name is still known today. Successful enough that you have power over other people, often power in a traditionally capitalistic sense of the word if not in the governmental sense. Successful enough that other people could see you and want to be you. So successful that you are in fact exceptional.

This belief has been incredibly damaging in my life, and so I want to identify it, identify what’s wrong with it and try to understand how we can do better.

Definitionally, not everyone can be exceptional. I firmly believe that everyone can be a feminist. The actions, thoughts, and attitudes of feminism are difficult, but they are things that everyone can strive for. But more than that, it takes away the societal responsibility for improving circumstances and says that some super women have to fix things.

More than that, it creates a nice, impossible standard for young women. It might be a very different kind of impossible standard than traditional beauty standards or expectations of submissiveness and passivity, but it is just as difficult to attain. I have found throughout my life that I hold myself to expectations of perfection in a conviction that that is the only way to make a difference and give my life meaning and purpose. Now partially that’s my own issue, but I see some direct parallels with a feminism that doesn’t allow for nuance. If the way to be a feminist is to somehow, through sheer will or awesomeness, break through barriers that no one else has ever been able to break, you’re going to have some high expectations for yourself. It’s easy to assume that individual effort and ability are what counts when it comes to being successful, but let’s not forget that there are so many other factors at play (family support, random chance or luck, connections, timing, all the wide variety of axes of privilege and oppression, etc.).

When we hold up individual women as responsible for the great strides of the past, we imply that individual women should become great enough, all on their own, to make great strides into the future. Of course the truth is that making the world a more just and equitable place takes all kinds, and changing the world requires lots of people working together and supporting each other. It takes luck and privilege and a lot of circumstances aligning in the right ways, just as much as it does the hard work and talent of the people involved. It’s damaging to any individual who wants to make a difference if they assume they have to do it on their own, or that they should ignore their own needs, circumstances, and preferences in order to live up to some idealized vision of the Feminist Woman.

I want to think about other kinds of feminist inspiration we can have for each other. Inspiration that doesn’t create a damaging picture of how much any individual should be capable of by themselves. Let’s try this on for size:

I have a friend who has serious social anxiety and agoraphobia. The other day she contacted me out of the blue and asked if I wanted to go to coffee over Facebook. This is bravery. This is creating connections that sustain us. This is using the technology available to make the world work for us.

Every time I have an open, honest conversation with my partner about consent, preferences, and sexuality, I am prioritizing my own needs and sexual health. That is feminism. I’m an inspiring bitch.

When I see a female friend get honestly angry with someone else and express their boundaries in a clear fashion, I am seeing feminism at work.

When my friends demand their proper pronouns, or someone politely asks about pronouns, I am witnessing change.

These are not grand narratives. They are everyday moments that are often uncomfortable and don’t have huge payouts. But every time you question your sexist relative, speak honestly of your own experience, engage in self care, or ask for what you want, you are being inspiring to me. Sure, we also need the big changemakers, the people who bulldoze barriers in a powerful way. But we need all the rest of us doing a thousand small things every day to make those changes stick. That’s just as inspiring to me.

Thinking About Marriage as an Ashamed Monogamist

I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage lately. I’m hitting the age where my friends are in many cases starting to get hitched and The Boy and I have discussed marriage. I’ve come to the realization that despite some childhood antagonism towards marriage, I do want to get married. But that doesn’t mean I whole-heartedly support the idea of marriage itself.

Marriage as an institution is sexist, heteronormative, anti-polyamory, and pretty much stuck in another century in nearly every way. Many of the traditions are rooted in a time when women were property and marriage was an economic transaction. It is still part of a system that prioritizes romantic relationships over all others and that forcefully pushes the nuclear family model on everyone, regardless of their preferences and needs. It ignores the existence of polyamory, and has only barely started to tiptoe out of its oppressively heteronormative roots. It also is a hugely capitalistic endeavor, with people spending obscene amounts of money often because they have been told that weddings need to have certain elements. Often that money gets spent on things like diamonds, that come from exploitative industries.

Marriage is also a celebration of many things that are hugely important to human life and will probably never stop being so: love, family, connection, and community.

I like rituals. I have always liked feeling as if there is a clear next step in my life, and a set of rules and circumstances to fit who I am and what I need. I like ceremony and hooplah and being the center of attention. I like big parties and pretty dresses. I like talking about how much I love my partner. And while I understand that marriage is a completely arbitrary set of rules and rituals that only have as much meaning as we give them, I love metaphors and symbols and really like to create special meanings in my relationship.

I am also monogamous, heterosexual, cis, and in many ways built so that marriage as it stands today will fit me. I know that part of the reason I can set aside my qualms with marriage and “make it fit me” is because it was designed to fit me. So how does a girl embrace something that seems like it will improve her life while recognizing and trying to make space for the ways that thing upholds oppression? Of course I’m really not sure, but here are some of the things that I’m thinking about.

The biggest hangup I have about marriage is that I am monogamous.When I’m in a relationship I stop feeling much by way of attraction towards anyone else. I’m socially anxious and on the asexual end of the spectrum. one relationship is about all I can and want to handle. Why would that make marriage hard for me? Marriage is made for monogamous people! It’s whole point is to be monogamous. That is of course the problem in my mind. I don’t think there’s anything better about monogamy than other relationship styles. It’s just what works for me. All of that would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that by participating in marriage I am on some level telling my poly friends that I’m ok with an institution that forces them to choose a relationship pattern that doesn’t necessarily work for them. I’m getting legal and financial benefits that they won’t. This is where the rubber hits the road for me in criticisms of choice feminism. Marriage and monogamy might work for me and that’s great, but my choices affect other people.

Even for other monogamous people, marriage isn’t always the best choice. It doesn’t allow for extended families very well (at least as we conceive of it today, it pushes two spouses to live with their kids and no one else), and it collapses the distinctions between sex and romance. It implies that romantic and sexual partnership is the goal of everyone’s life. It doesn’t do great things for aromantic and asexual people. It’s really just leaving a lot of people out in the cold without a nice, clear way to legally recognize their families.

I don’t know that there are any clear paths forward. I don’t ever think that the answer to one group’s oppression is to tell everyone to stop doing what works for them. I think the answer is more often to make things more available to more people instead of taking them away until they’re fair. Marriage is also pretty personal: it has to do with how you create your family and life, and those are really important decisions that are different for everyone. So the ideas that I’m throwing out here are what I think will work for me. I’d love to hear how others grapple with responsibly approaching marriage as a social justice minded person.

The most important thing in my mind is continuing to speak out about the ways that marriage prioritizes certain people over others, and to support and listen to people who say it doesn’t work for them. Additionally, I also want to de emphasize the importance of marriage in my life. Because marriage as an institution says that the best and most important relationship in your life is a primary, monogamous romantic partner, I want to put less of an emphasis on marriage in my life. Sure it’s something that I want, but I also want to make a concerted effort to continue to foster my other relationships, to focus on other parts of my life, to recognize that “getting a man” isn’t the most important thing in my life. I want to throw myself just as big of a party if I get a Master’s degree or if I get a book published. I want to help try to take the mystique away from marriage by making it another celebration of another milestone that someone might find important.

I also want to remind myself and others that I can express my love in ways that don’t involve spending thousands of dollars. I can create smaller ceremonies that aren’t bound to be legally recognized in specific ways. I can throw Galentine’s day parties or write my honey love letters at random points in time. All of these do a little bit to erode the ways that we see marriage as necessary, immutable, and more important than anything else.

Of course none of this will fix the way marriage exists in our society now. I also intend to vote for any legislation that widens the scope of marriage, talk loudly and vocally to anyone who will listen about the fact that I wish there were a way to legally recognize a non-romantic individual as part of your family, and criticize all the ways that our conceptions of gender, sex, and family are fucked up. I will continue to educate others about the existence and healthiness of a wide variety of styles of sexuality and relationships. And I will advocate for their legal recognition and protection.

Because as much as I want to get married, I want everyone else to feel just as comfortable, supported, and safe in their life choices as I do.

Sexual Ethics 201

It’s easy to say that the concept of consent is simple and easy to understand. Communicate clearly with your partner, if they say yes, continue. If they don’t say yes, then don’t continue.

Unfortunately nothing in life is ever quite so simple. This conception of consent is good when it comes to not raping people. But not raping people is a pretty low ethical bar. It’s basically the absolute base level we should be shooting for when it comes to our sexual ethics. But many people think about consent and sex and believe that if they didn’t force their partner to do something, or if they were open about what they wanted, then everything is fine. If the other person said yes, they’ve consented and everything is fine. Good to go, right?

Well, maybe not. Because even if you’re not sexually assaulting someone or pressuring them into sex or secretly springing things on them in the middle of sex, you can still be setting someone up for really bad decisions. You can put pressure on them without realizing it. You can ask for a lot and not give much in return. Your wants and needs can end up functioning as conditions for sex (e.g. I only want to have sex with people who will have sex with my partner as well because we are a couple).

Oftentimes these things happen when we are trying to be honest about what we do or do not want. That’s ok. One of the difficult things about being in relationships is that oftentimes just saying what we think or feel or want is not enough to make sure everyone comes out of an interaction feeling good.

Let’s think of consent like a contract, just as a hypothetical for a minute.

Sometimes people write really shitty contracts that put a lot more onus on one party than the other. It might be a job contract that works one party too hard for not enough money. They might provide all of the information about that contract to the other party, and make sure the other person isn’t intoxicated or manipulated into signing. But they still put the person into a bad situation by giving them an option forward that takes advantage of them. And especially if you’re entering into a contract with someone who cares about you, it’s easy for them to forget to make sure things are set up fairly. You might not be assaulting or violating someone by asking them to enter into an unfair or harmful agreement, but you’re still being a jackass. And when that person loves you, it’s far more likely that they’ll do it.

As my friend Miri said, “I think we need a more nuanced view than “if I didn’t force them it’s ok/if they technically consented it’s ok,” and part of that is acknowledging that shit can go kind of haywire when such strong rushes of emotion are involved and that if we care about each other, we should look out for each other. Not in a patronizing “let me decide for you because you’re not in your right mind” way, but in a caring “wow I am setting up a fucked-up choice for you to have to make, aren’t I” way.”

I think one huge barrier when it comes to clear consent is when the two partners have different ideas of what constitutes sex. It might be about the progression of intimacy. Many people assume that if you start making out, you’re going to progress to taking clothes off, and if you progress to taking clothes off, then you’re going to end up having penetrative sex. None of those things HAVE to be true, and it’s very possible and often very comfortable for someone to only want one of those things. I personally have had situations where I felt this pressure (if I do x, partner will want y) and have chosen to only consent to x when I am also willing to do y. But that doesn’t always mean that I’m very excited about y. It ends up creating a lot of bitterness in the relationship because I cannot consent to just the act I want to do, and while I can do the internal work of figuring out what I want, sometimes it just feels confusing.

Part of being a good partner is that when you are asking someone else for something, especially something that tends to prioritize your wants or desires over your partner’s, you need to be very good about communicating to them what it is that you’re thinking of, but ALSO that it’s alright for them to ask for adjustments to your request. If you’re asking your partner to try out a new kink that involves getting tied up and spanked, you’re actually asking them two things: do you want to get tied up and do you want to get spanked. They may have interest in one, but not the other. It’s good to pull apart the pieces of a request and make it easy to say no to any of them. The more work you put on your partner to figure out what you’re asking for and what they are allowed to negotiate, the harder it is for them to set and keep their own boundaries.

The other element that makes things muddy is when you put unknowing pressure on a partner. Telling them just how much you really, really want sex is providing them with true information, but it also means that if they care about you they may feel as if they should have sex with you. We all need to be aware that if we’re with someone who loves us or is infatuated with us, they may do things to please us. We need to take that into account when we’re asking for things and make sure we give them the space and time to take their own needs into account. And it’s ESPECIALLY important when you’re in a long term relationship to recognize that sometimes you force “consequences” on your partner when they don’t say yes. It isn’t really forcing them, but if your partner knows that you’ll be hurt and bitter or annoyed at them after they say no, you are putting pressure on them. If they love you, they’re also imbibing the strong drug of caretaking, and that can easily outweigh their own needs. This is one of the places that we need to be very explicit about taking responsibility for our own emotions. The script “yes, I’ll be disappointed, but that’s not a problem. I can handle it,” is a really important one.

So what does that actually look like?

The best thing a partner ever did for my confidence in saying no was say no to me. That might sound odd, but it normalized the whole process of saying no to me, and made me feel as if I wasn’t the gatekeeper for all things sex. It helped remind me that it might feel kinda bad for a little bit, but that I could get over it, and so could they. It helped to actually hear someone say out loud “I’m not interested right now,” so that I could copy that script.

I also find that it helps to ask a lot of questions. Especially if you’re trying something new or entering into a new kind of relationship, spend a lot of time talking to the other person about what they want and why. If nothing else, you then know your partner better. But there is a possibility that together you’ll tease out some different dynamics. It gives them some time to process their own wants and needs. It gives you time to ask yourself if your wants are going to be really tough on them. If you foresee a place where they might be sacrificing for your wants, ask them about it.

It’s also good to pay attention to your partner’s body language. If they say yes but are shying away or not really responding to your overtures, you can always check in. Ask what sounds nice to them. See if they want to talk for a little bit before you move into other things. There’s no rush.

Finally, if your partner has a lot of anxiety about saying no, reassurance is really helpful. It’s good to hear “thank you for being honest and telling me your boundary,” after you’ve said no to something. Positive reinforcement does wonders, so if someone says no or feels uncomfortable, it really helps to do something that feels positive afterwards to help remind everyone that you haven’t been pushed apart and no one has done anything wrong.

Now a lot of people out there might be getting defensive. This sounds like a lot of work. You’re right, it is a lot of work. A lot of people might say that this is going too far, that they shouldn’t have to do all of this. And you’re probably right, you could conduct your sexual life without assaulting or raping anyone without doing any of this. You could be pretty ok to your partners without paying attention to this.

But I at least want to do more. I want to be better than pretty ok. I want to work hard to make sure my partners feel good about what I bring into their lives. Sex has the potential to be really damaging to other people, which means that I want to take a lot of care to make it a positive experience for my partners. There is a lot more to sexual ethics than just rape. All of the things that we think about when it comes to healthy relationships apply to sex as well. It’s time to start talking about all the nuance of healthy and unhealthy actions when it comes to sex.