First Person Narratives, Objectivity, and Scandals

10366036_10152369614232601_3298542131064046879_n

Over the weekend I had a realization.

I was watching a panel focused on autism called Thriving on the Spectrum, and found myself frustrated with one of the panelists who seemed to be fairly defensive and called out other panelists a number of times when they didn’t agree with her. She was vocally antagonistic to parents of autistic children, seemed extremely upset that other panelists didn’t completely condemn Autism Speaks (instead saying that they have increased awareness but are problematic), and seemed quite agitated for the whole panel.

A few days later, the same individual posted a long comment on a mutual Facebook group, detailing the ways that the other panelists acted inappropriately. She called on convention organizers to do better, to not include parents or spouses of those on the spectrum, and to police the panels better, even going so far as to suggest that some of the behavior was abusive or condoned abusive behavior by others.

I have tried throughout my time on the internet to read and/or listen to the first person experiences of people who don’t have the same privileges I do. I have tried to take them at face value and accept that someone else lived through something that I didn’t. First person narratives are often privileged because the individual was actually there, because none of us know what happened except for the person telling the story. And it’s certainly true that no other person can tell you that your experience was wrong. You experienced what you did.

I strongly want to distance myself from those people who suggest first person narratives are suspect because people lie. This is not a post about people lying. This is a post about objectivity.

Now some people out there might look at this pair of experiences and say that I am the correct person because I am more objective. I was not emotional or upset, I wasn’t personally involved in anything that was happening, I spoke with someone else about the panel afterwards and verified my perceptions. The person on the panel is not neurotypical, she was agitated, she was “oversensitive.” Of the two of us, my perspective is the socially validated one.

The problem of course with this set of assumptions is that neither one of us is objective. As important and helpful as first person narratives are, they are not great at giving other people a clear and unbiased collection of facts, and they’re really not supposed to. They are one experience.

Where this seems to become a problem in my mind is when someone uses a single personal experience as a source of outrage or scandal, or when prior individual experiences start to overwhelm current experiences. Of course we can never have complete objectivity, and of course we all view things through the lens of prior experiences. And in the moment all we can do is use the current information we have.

But when it comes to blog posts, social media, complaints, and formalized repercussions, it seems highly important to me for everyone involved to recognize that immediate impressions are nearly always more extreme than thought out and measured responses. If you are going to publicly object to someone’s behavior, it seems pretty important to just do a double check of what happened and why it’s unacceptable, as well as double checking with other people who were there to ensure that you’ve got the events right.

These might seem like really obvious statements. And I think on some level most of us know these things. I hate the idea that we live in the midst of an ‘outrage culture,’ but I do think that there are some ways people pushing for social justice and change can do a better job, and this is one of them. No, being angry or having emotions doesn’t make your perspective less valid. But that also doesn’t mean we have no responsibility to double check and question our own perceptions, because human memory is faulty and people aren’t objective.

Experiences like this not only lead me to question my own perceptions, but also lead me to feel a lot of suspicion towards first person accounts, leaving me wondering if all the people who report microaggressions etc. are exaggerating. And then I remember that my first, emotional perception might be flawed and I think again.

And I suspect that my perception is being colored by my own privilege. And so I take into account the facts of multiple hundreds and thousands of experiences of other people. And so I don’t make a complete ass of myself by tromping all over the experiences of someone with autism (I hope).

Good gosh I love meta cognition.

The Common Language of Pop References

Supernatural-supernatural-30545991-1680-1050
Yesterday a friend of mine off-handedly mentioned the phenomenon in which someone will make a pop culture reference and use their audience’s reaction to judge the people who are listening. You got my obscure Firefly reference? You’re awesome and a good human being. You didn’t? Well…you might not be worth my time.
I suspect that we’re all guilty of doing this sometimes, and I know I’ve felt that burst of connection when someone else knows my favorite book, so I couldn’t stop thinking about whether this was pointless judging or whether it might serve some purpose. And then I read this absolutely lovely article about a pair of sisters who found a way to communicate through Supernatural. The show gave them templates and referents through which to talk about their relationship. It seemed that sometimes coming at the problem head on was too scary or direction, but the shared media gave them a common foundation on which to build their emotional understandings of each other.
Suddenly it all came into place: we all do this. When we reference things, we’re using a different language that holds much more content because it assumes the shared experiences of the media we love. Instead of trying to explain a complex, semi-abusive relationship, you can just say “it’s like Spike and Buffy”, and someone will have a full emotional picture of what’s going on.
So when we make references to some pop culture thing we love and someone responds positively, we suddenly have an entirely new shared language of referents and emotions and relationships to draw from. It can be incredibly liberating to find that you don’t have to explain yourself but can use a reference to immediately instill a certain emotion or understanding in your listener. There’s a certain safety in having those shared understandings of the world, in knowing that no matter how differently you perceive the world, you have this touchstone with which to communciate and connect. These kinds of shorthands aren’t simply an easy, quick way of communicating, but they’re also a way to signal that you understand and care about the person you’re interacting with. If I respond positively to a reference, it means I want to engage with the person who has made it. I am interested in understanding what is going on in their brain and I’m willing to search my memory for a reference in order to do so. If the reference comes easily, it means that we don’t have to struggle to understand each other as much as we might have otherwise.
Of course there are in-group elements to references, and of course the references we make and the ways we value references have a great deal to do with the way we assign value as consumers, but somewhere in the practice of making references we find that pop culture names, quotes, and places become symbols for feelings or plot arcs or ideas that are far more complex. Just as Biblical scholars have an entire lexicon of symbols that hold a different kind of meaning than they would to anyone else, so fangirls of Supernatural have a shared lexicon. Carry On My Wayward Son isn’t just a song, it’s an anthem of family, heartache, long journeys, impossible tasks, and endlessly broken hearts. Where you come down on the Spuffy/Bangel split will tell me immediately whether we’ll get along (protip: Bangel sucks). The reason I get excited when I see someone making a reference that I understand is that I suddenly have an entirely new window into this person, a new lens through which to view them, an entire set of experiences that we had together about which I can get their reaction. It’s not quite the same as the trust you gain from firsthand seeing how someone reacts to new situations, but it is a helpful simulation.
Especially for a reference that is uncommon or that few people would recognize, it’s like a special shared moment you get with another person. It’s as if you’ve found another kilt-wearing unicycle enthusiast: you thought you were the only one, but now you can find someone who resonates with those feelings and reactions you had. Now nothing about this implies that making judgments about others based on their pop culture references is a brilliant and ethically sound decision. In all likelihood you’ll be misjudging a fair number of people. But there are useful things about making references, and the better we understand those uses the more effective we can be in our communication.  It’s being able to say that you’re the Marshmallow to my Lilypad and not having to explain any further, and that’s a kind of connection that is kind of beautiful.

What Is Art?

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968

A few weeks ago a friend of mine asked me what made something art. At the time I didn’t have a good definition, but when he gave his proposed answer I was unsatisfied.

“A work of art is something we have an aesthetic experience with” he suggested.

“So a sunset could be a work of art?”

“Yes.”

I was unconvinced. Let’s start at what might be the most basic level of definition. Art must be an artifact, some sort of physical object or experience. This seems like something we can all agree on, but modern art has taken even that firm footing out from under us:

John Cage’s 4′33″, have seemed to many philosophers to lack or even, somehow, repudiate, the traditional properties of art: intended aesthetic interest, artifactuality, even perceivability” -Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. A work of art that is composed of silence seems to call into question whether art needs to be an artifact or an object at all. Yet even with 4’33’, it does seem that there is a physical context (either of a CD or a performer seated in front of the audience) that is the art itself rather than simply the silence (silence without this context is not viewed as art). So perhaps we can accept that a physical presence of some sort is required for something to be art.

But not any physical experience or object is art (obviously). What distinguishes the computer I’m typing on from a work of art? Or is my lovely little Macbook Air a work of art (the answer is of course yes)? A few possible answers include beauty, communication of or embodiment of emotions, mimetic properties, or aesthetic experience. Beauty is fairly easy to take off the table as many works of art are disturbing, grotesque or straight out ugly intentionally. Perhaps there is a kind of beauty in the emotions we experience in relation to this art, but at least conventionally, beauty is not the mark of a great number of amazing works of art (this also has the problem that beauty is nearly impossible to define).

Art as communication appears to be faring better until you hit something like Duchamp’s Fountain or John Cage’s 4’33”, both of which appear to be anti-communication and simply designed to make one think. A great deal of modern art appears to be less focused on emotional and experiential communication and more on criticism and engagement, and there is little doubt for most people that modern art is in fact art. Additionally, this definition may be too broad in other ways in that it could include any expression of emotion (such as declaring one’s happiness). Additionally, not all art communicates: some art is simply representational (or may only be experienced as representational by the untrained eye). Could the Mona Lisa become not art if viewed by someone who simply saw it as a representation of a woman? It seems unlikely. There does seem to be something important in the communication view of art that should be included in any definition of art: it is intentional on the part of the artist. The viewer may not take away from the art exactly what the artist intended (as is true of any communication), but there is a give and take in art: it is put forth by someone and received by someone.

“A storm may prompt us to question the best way to avoid a shipwreck, but it is we (and not the storm) who are raising the question.” -Charles Taliaferro, Aesthetics, A Beginner’s Guide. This suggests that the object or artifact in question doesn’t have any properties that are “art”, but the viewer is imbuing the object with art qualities.

Some people go so far as to suggest that a work of art can actually embody emotions. They suggest that even if no one involved in the work of art (the creator or the viewer) were feeling any particular emotion, it would still hold that emotion (e.g. Joy for Ode to Joy). From the perspective of modern neuroscience, emotions as we know them are a uniquely human kind of thing: they are experienced thanks to the reactions in our brains and the physical reactions of our bodies. To suggest that an inanimate object might embody a human experience makes little to no sense. This suggests another piece of the definition of art: it is not inherent in the object but comes about through the interactions of the artist and the audience.

A great deal of art clearly has mimetic properties: it is meant to represent or reflect something in the world. Unfortunately this definition can’t handle abstract art, or even art like Fountain which is not so much a representation as it actually is the object it’s meant to represent. But there are some ways in which all art seeks to represent something. “Works of art function more like different linguistic statements that reference objects, rather than mirrors that offer us a reflection of what we might otherwise see directly without the aid of a mirror.” -Charles Taliaferro, Aesthetics, A Beginner’s Guide

It seems there might be a Wittgensteinian route to take here in the realm of language games: “A common family of arguments, inspired by Wittgenstein’s famous remarks about games (Wittgenstein, 1953), has it that the phenomena of art are, by their nature, too diverse to admit of the unification that a satisfactory definition strives for, or that a definition of art, were there to be such a thing, would exert a stifling influence on artistic creativity.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). 

In a Wittgensteinian conception of language, words do not have singular definitions but a series of ways that we use them in context that are considered successful if someone else can respond (deduce the rules of the game as it were). Perhaps in art we use images or symbols or context to put together a kind of artistic utterance that the people around us can interpret based on the other ways that those things have been used in the past, learned from a family of common definitions.

So perhaps there is no one clear definition of art, and we learn what art is by experiencing art and continuing that definition on to other things with similar characteristics, not all of which overlap. This also seems unsatisfactory, so let’s instead move to the definition that started all this: aesthetic experience.

The first and most difficult question to answer is what is an aesthetic experience? Taliaferro suggests “To have an aesthetic experience, one needs to step back or detach oneself from the urgency and practical preoccupations of life.” The Stanford Encyclopedia further states “As noted above, some philosophers lean heavily on a distinction between aesthetic properties and artistic properties, taking the former to be perceptually striking qualities that can be directly perceived in works, without knowledge of their origin and purpose, and the latter to be relational properties that works possess in virtue of their relations to art history, art genres, etc.”

There is some tension between these two definitions: one suggests something that takes us out of ourselves and the other something that inspires a reaction due to perception. There is a problem with both of these suggestions though, in that either of them could happen in reaction to something in nature with no reference to an artist, communication, or context.

But since the concept of the aesthetic necessarily involves the equally bankrupt concept of disinterestedness, its deployment advances the illusion that what is most real about things can and should be grasped or contemplated without attending to the social and economic conditions of their production.” -Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

An additional problem here is that there are actually many practical objects that also could be considered art (Shaker furniture, African masks, religious icons), and because they can also be used practically we would be hard pressed to suggest they pull us out of our immediate practical preoccupations. Perhaps there is a way to combine the two definitions: an aesthetic experience is one that through striking qualities moves us outside of our own perspective. This gives us the benefits of not simply asking us to be disinterested but of asking us to expand our view, and of being slightly more specific than either of the previous definitions.

So thus far, art must be an artifact that is imbued with some sort of communicative properties through an artist and a viewer/recipient, which inspires us to move outside of our own perspective through perceptually striking qualities. Oof. That’s a mouthful, but it seems to be both specific and broad enough to capture most of the things we typically consider art.

A final few considerations to take into account: there are probably contexts in which a curator can become an artist by moving an object or a picture to a different context. They add in the communicative elements that wouldn’t exist simply by seeing something stunning in nature and being aware of your size or place in the world. The problem with this is that context can often be intensely political. When we view art as defined by the “artworld” (which is a definition some philosophers have proposed), we give a lot of power to the establishment of old, white men who already have power in art. We lose a variety of voices and tell those who come from different places that they cannot make art because they don’t have access to the proper curators or contexts. Hopefully, the previous definition is open enough that it allows a variety of contexts to serve as the vehicle for communication, opening art up for anyone who has something to communicate or anyone who wants to expand their perception.

What are your thoughts? Do you have any pieces of art that wouldn’t fit in this definition, or things that you definitively don’t think are art which would fit? Let me know!

Triggers: What Are They, What To Do

starbucks panel

I realize that I said I was going to be taking a blog break until this Thursday, but something happened to me last week that I really felt the need to write about and I wanted to do so while it was still fresh. Before I start the post, I want to add the caveat that this whole incident was very emotional and very upsetting for me. I am somewhat angry at some of the people involved, however that is primarily because I am hurt and afraid. I’m going to do my best to keep this post from becoming accusatory or rambling, but if it starts to go in that direction, that’s why.

I want to talk about triggers. A few days ago, I posted on Facebook about something that was triggering to me. I specified that I had been triggered. I was surprised at the response I got. Many people argued with me, told me I was wrong and that what had upset me was good and necessary, and even gave graphic descriptions of why it was so necessary (which was another exercise in being triggered). After things calmed down somewhat and I reiterated that I was being triggered and upset by their comments, I had one person mention to me that the had never heard of a trigger before: they didn’t know what I was talking about and so they didn’t understand that what they were doing was going to hurt me.

I was surprised. I live in a context where trigger is a common word. But I needed this reminder that it’s not something that everyone knows about, and that intelligent and well informed people may still need some explanations. So with that in mind, here’s a primer on what a trigger is, some basic do’s and don’ts of how to react to someone’s triggers, and a brief description of what it feels like to be triggered.

A trigger is an intense, uncontrollable, emotional reaction to something. It is typically a term reserved for someone with a mental illness because it is more than simply being upset or bothered by something. Triggers generally are related to past traumas that have left your brain impacted in some way. This means that when you see or hear or experience something that is a trigger, your emotions completely take over and you are in extreme, intense distress almost immediately. In its immediacy it is similar to an anxiety or a panic attack, although unlike those it doesn’t require that the individual react in certain ways. One could react to a trigger with a panic attack, but one could also react by sucking it up and dealing with it (which is what people are often expected to do).

A trigger is not the same as throwing a temper tantrum over something small, although it might appear to be so from the outside. It is also not weakness or simply being “oversensitive”. To take a parallel from physical health, let’s imagine you had broken your ankle. A trigger is like those elements of the ankle that never heal, only in your brain. Triggers are indications of where trauma has injured your brain. Being triggered is somewhat like being kicked in a broken ankle. It hurts, it’s scary, and you cannot stop that it hurts and is scary. The fact that you might have a friend who would laugh off getting kicked in the ankle doesn’t mean that you’re wrong for being hurt. It simply means that you have different situations.

Triggers can be all sorts of things depending upon the difficulties that an individual has faced before. For a vet, it could be loud noises, or the sound of helicopters. For someone who was raped, it could be the color of the curtains in the room it happened. For someone with an eating disorder it could be talk of calories and dieting. Triggers come in all shapes and sizes and don’t always make sense from the outside, but they’re simply about what sets off certain scripts and chain reactions in your brain.

So if you’re around someone and they say that they’ve been triggered or that something is triggering, what should you do?

First and foremost, accept that they are triggered by what they say they are triggered by. Respect them to know their own mental health better than you do, and whatever you do don’t tell them that they’re overreacting, that they shouldn’t feel the way they feel, that it’s inappropriate or wrong to feel what they feel, or that they should be able to deal. These statements are all very invalidating of the experience of being triggered: a trigger is not an opinion or an argument. It’s not something you can disagree with or argue with. It’s an experience. That would be like telling someone that you don’t agree with how much it hurt them to step on their broken ankle. It simply doesn’t make sense to say. So accept what they have said, don’t argue with it, and don’t tell them it’s wrong.

As a corollary DO NOT intentionally trigger someone. It’s important to remember that you’re not doing anything edgy, heroic, cool, or badass by ignoring someone’s triggers. You are not telling someone that you won’t put up with bad behavior or temper tantrums, you’re not teaching them about how harsh the real world is, you’re not “just having some fun”. You are being intentionally cruel. You are looking at an open wound and deciding what you can throw in it to make the person scream. This is a sick exercise. Don’t do it.

If someone opens up enough to you to tell you that they’re vulnerable in a certain state, the best thing you can do is ask them how you can help. Validate what they’re feeling, tell them that it must be horrible, and then ask if there’s anything you can do to help them avoid things that really hurt them that way, or help them when they’ve been triggered. Different people need different things when they’re distressed, so asking them what helps them is very important. If at all possible, try to do this when they’re not in the middle of being triggered.

Remember that when someone has been triggered, they are not themselves. If they’re typically someone whose statements are open to discussion, typically someone who’s analytical and wants to discuss things, typically someone who can just deal with whatever life throws at them, know that those things may not be the case when they’re in this extremely vulnerable state. Remember that you might need to give them a bit more space, or treat them a little more gently than you typically would. If they don’t want to talk about whatever has triggered them, let that rest. If they don’t want to solve whatever problem has triggered them, let that rest. If they simply need to vent, let that rest. They’re hurting.

So all of this discussion has been fairly hypothetical, but I’d like to finish by giving you a concrete example of what it feels like when you’ve been triggered. I’m going to use the example that prompted this whole post because it’s the most fresh in my mind and because I’ve spent a lot of time reliving it recently so I feel it will be the most vivid and descriptive. (Note: there is a trigger warning for eating disorders on this)

Earlier this week I went to Starbucks. This was out of the ordinary for me, but I had a Starbucks gift card so I went to Starbucks. I walked in and looked at the menu and there, listed next to each and every drink was a calorie count. I felt my whole body involuntarily tense, my breath catch. I nearly turned and left the store, or bolted for their restroom. All I could think about was that I deeply wanted to stick my fingers down my throat and puke up everything I had eaten for the last week. I wanted to leave this store and go home and hide where I would not be tempted by food, where I could wait until my body shriveled away and passed out, where I could safely avoid food for at least the next week. All these thoughts ran through my head immediately.

I took a deep breath and shoved them away so that I could get in line. I had to go to work and I was exhausted. I needed some caffeine. I stood in line with my mind racing and racing. I had to get a small. I had to get the lowest calorie count thing available on the menu, even if I didn’t like it. NO, fuck the calories, I should get the HIGHEST calorie count just to prove that I can. Or maybe a compromise, maybe if I just get a small of what I actually wanted I’d be ok. No that wouldn’t work, it was a full breakfast worth of calories and I don’t eat breakfast. Breakfast is unacceptable.

I barely remember getting to the register and ordering something in a haze. It bothered me for the rest of the day, and I threw up a post on Facebook about how distressed I was. I got comment after comment about how calorie counts are necessary, about all the hidden calories in our food, about the obesity epidemic, graphic descriptions of the size and calorie counts of Starbucks drinks and how they were going to lead to death from obesity. I have not been able to stop thinking about calories and this incident ever since. I imagine I will never go to Starbucks again.

I’m worried about going to restaurants now, something I’d finally been starting to get over. I keep replaying over and over how much I keep eating and wondering how many calories are in each dish. I had stopped thinking about calories for a long time, and now they’re hiding in the back of my mind again. I’m terrified that my diet is entirely unhealthy, that I’m going to give myself diabetes, that I’m going to become obese and get heart disease. I have been unable to focus at work during an incredibly important time, I have found myself dissociating extremely badly, I have almost cried at work. I’ve been unable to sleep, constantly composing responses in my mind that justify why I was hurt, struggling to let myself eat, struggling against the impulse to self harm or to purge.

It feels as if my mind simply can’t shut off or won’t shut off because the most important thing in the world has presented itself: calories. And now I need to react, protect myself, run, escape in any way possible. That is a trigger.

P.S. For anyone who thinks that triggers don’t exist or are made up 1.Go fuck yourself and 2.There is a great deal of psychological research into the ways the brain is injured by trauma and how that affects the way someone functions for the rest of their life. It’s real. Figure out google and find some articles.

 

How I got Through My Bad Day: A Chain Analysis

Pooh-Having-a-Bad-Day

I was planning on writing today about recognizing your achievements when your each a goal (especially for those who are competitive and highly driven), but it’s been a bad day. I woke up to a super triggery comment, read a few articles I should have avoided, and my mood plummeted from there. Add in a lack of sleep, and the soreness from working out for the first time in nearly a year, and you’ve got a recipe for a bad day.

 

So instead of talking about what I was going to talk about, I’d like to talk about chain analyses and applying skills to stop a bad day before it happens. Sometimes it can be hard to notice when you’re on the path to a meltdown. You might know that you’re having a bad day, but you don’t quite know why or you don’t know what you can change. I’m going to try to go through a chain analysis of my own day to give you all a conception of what it might be like to think about what’s making you anxious, unhappy, depressed, or stressed out, and then go through the steps that I could have taken (and may still take) at different points during the day so I don’t engage in any target behaviors (this is DBT speak for doing Bad Things like restricting, purging, drinking, self-harm, suicidal ideation etc.).

 

I’m going to start by talking about emotional vulnerability. I’m surprised this isn’t something that we talk about more often because it’s intensely important when you’re having a bad day or are on the verge of letting your mental illness take over. Emotional vulnerabilities are those factors that make you more prone to feeling extreme emotions. The most basic forms of emotional vulnerability are things like lack of sleep, lack of food, lack of exercise, use of drugs or alcohol, etc. These things make us sensitive and keep us from regulating our emotions well. Right now, I haven’t eaten since last night, I didn’t get enough sleep last night, and I have been working out more than I’m used to, leaving my body tired and sore. I’ve also been dealing with some headaches and bad tension through my shoulders and neck that are really fairly painful. These things are making me far more emotionally vulnerable.

 

However in addition to these very obvious forms of emotional vulnerability there are other things: are you stressed out and busy? What’s going on in the back of your head that’s stressing you out? Are you having relationship troubles? Are you unemployed? What other things are hanging over you that surround the events of the individual day or event that you’re trying to understand? For me, this includes a number of things. I recently changed jobs and I’m not good with transitions. I had some new information about my family that was Big and Important and Scary dropped on me this weekend. A number of my friends have been having relationship troubles recently and I’ve been worried and anxious for them. I also haven’t been keeping up on my blogging so I’ve been feeling overwhelmed and busy. Each of these things adds to that cloud of vulnerability that’s surrounding me today.

 

These are helpful concepts because if you start to notice vulnerabilities you can try to head them off. I’m going to go get something tasty and filling very soon, not let myself work out today, and try to get to bed early. Sometimes you can’t fix the vulnerabilities, or you get triggered or upset before you notice them. When you’re doing a chain analysis, the next step is to figure out what some of the precipitating events were. These can help you notice or avoid these kinds of events in the future, or if you’re in the moment, figure out why they bothered you and how to process/deal with the emotions you’re having right now.

 

So today the precipitating events were a few things. The most noticeable of them was getting a comment on a blog post about veganism that said “having an eating disorder is no justification for forcibly impregnating cows and keeping pigs locked up in tiny pens etc. etc.” The topic of veganism is an intense trigger for me. I was writing about this in the post, and this person chose to ignore that and tell me that I was wrong and bad for trying to take care of my own health needs. I felt disrespected, and I felt as if another person was confirming to me that I am not worth the food that I put in my mouth.

 

In addition to this, I saw another blog post defending “Blurred Lines” that made me throw up a little bit in my mouth. So I could see that the precipitating events to having my mood spiral out of control were that I felt people were challenging my values and my self-worth. So now I have a good understanding of what the problem is. I’ve had this difficulty a number of times before and so I’ve learned some techniques to help with it. One of them is that I try not to click on links that I know will upset me, and so usually I can head it off at the pass, but sometimes one gets by me or my morbid curiosity gets the better of me, and I can’t exactly not get the comments that are emailed directly to my inbox. Whatever your precipitating event is, it’s good to understand what it did to you and why so you can either avoid it in the future or figure out how to best tailor your response.

 

So my response was to reevaluate my values. Check the facts. Remind myself why I do the things that I do. Remind myself why I felt that Blurred Lines was offensive. And then I tried to radically accept that some people have different values from mine. I did some self-soothing, because I felt attacked and raw and afraid (especially when someone said the line in “Blurred Lines” that goes “you know you want it” is not rapey, cause damn is that triggering and not ok at all). This consisted of seeing my boyfriend for lunch and drinking a chocolate shake. I tried some distraction by playing Lumosity and by focusing on work. But I also did some self-care by allowing myself to tackle the simplest tasks at work first so that I wouldn’t get overwhelmed. Because I had figured out all of the ways I was riled up, I could address each of them. Now that I’ve calmed down some I’m willing to look again at these emotions, understand what provoked them, and understand how my use of skills actually worked quite well.

 

If you do engage in a target behavior, your chain analysis might include ideas of what you could have done differently. That’s why I find them incredibly helpful. They give me a framework with which to reflect on my experience without ruminating and becoming overwhelmed. You can even draw it out all nice and pretty like with bubbles and arrows and things. If you want to really break it down you can delineate your reaction into thoughts, emotions, actions, and bodily reactions (so did you clench your hands etc.). This chain analysis method helped me head off the nasties before they got too nasty, but I’d love to hear other suggestions in comments. Tea, hot bath, nap, delicious food, mindfulness, self-soothing…whatever helps you!

She Said Yes: When Consent is Coerced

Passion Whisper Generator

Apparently sex is just on my mind this week. Yesterday I shared with you a story about my personal experience of sexual assault, and today I want to talk about some of the ways that people manipulate each other in inappropriate ways into having sex. Any time you coerce someone, guilt them, or manipulate them in any way in order to get them to have sex with you, that is sex without consent. It is inappropriate and unacceptable. However from my experience and the experiences of those around me (yes, this is anecdotal, but no one has done a study on how many people say “if you loved me you’d do it), this kind of manipulation is common. So let’s take a look at some of the more common ways that people manipulate each other and what’s wrong with each of them.

1.”You must be a prude”

Let’s just say it straight out: shaming anyone for their sexual choices, whether to have sex or not have sex, is pretty much just a shitty and not ok thing to do. However if you’re trying to get someone to have sex with you just to prove that they’re cool, forward thinking, liberal, or liberated, then they’re not really consenting to sex with you: they’re consenting to a symbolic act that will keep them from being embarrassed. And what you’re really saying when you say this is that you won’t respect them if they don’t have sex with you. This is emotional manipulation, and if you coerce someone into having sex with you by convincing them that you will not respect them if they don’t, or that they have to do it to prove their liberalism, then you are not respecting their boundaries or their consent.

2.You’re punishing me.

Once again there’s a pretty basic myth underlying this statement: you are not owed sex by anyone. It is no one’s responsibility to give you sex. Therefore not giving you sex is not punishing you. It’s not taking away something that belongs to you. It is not treating you poorly in any way, shape, or form. When you say this, you imply to the other person that you require sex from them, that it’s a basic right of yours. You sound like a child throwing a temper tantrum. When someone says no to sex, it’s not about you anymore. It’s about their right to have autonomy over their own body. Their ability to say no to you doesn’t harm you. Get over it. When you say this to someone you imply to them that they owe you their body. That’s manipulative and creepy. It tells them they HAVE to say yes unless they have a really damn good reason to deny you your toy.

3.What if you never want to have sex with me again?

Oh my sweet Jesus the catastrophizing. Now first of all, someone not having sex with you ever again is still not the end of the world. It’s their right to say they don’t want to have sex with you anymore. Yes, if you’re in a relationship with that person it would suck and you would need to discuss it, but it certainly isn’t something to guilt someone over. In addition, let us repeat again that when someone says they don’t want to have sex IT IS NOT ABOUT YOU. If your partner is saying no to sex or feels uncomfortable, the needs of your penis or clitoris are not priority #1 here, your partner’s emotional well-being is. Changing the subject from whatever is making them uncomfortable, or trying to put the entire weight of your sex life on them over one incident is upping the stakes so that if they say no now, it means more and could spell the end of the relationship. It’s a veiled threat of sorts: if you don’t have sex with me now, you won’t ever want to have sex with me and I’ll be miserable forever/break up with you. Veiled threats and emotional blackmail are not acceptable ways to get someone to have sex with you.

4.Are you not attracted to me anymore?

I understand why someone would feel like this if their partner turns them down for sex. It’s highly important to remember that the vast majority of the time when someone says no to something IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU. If you suggest to your partner that you’d like to go to a baseball game, and they say they don’t want to go, it probably has more to do with their feelings about baseball or how tired they are or how busy they are than it does about you. Despite the intimacy of sex, this often is the case there too. When you ask a question like this, you imply that if your partner isn’t having sex with you, they’re making a statement about you or how they feel about you. You’re implying that they should feel guilty for telling you you’re unattractive. You’re setting up a kind of false dichotomy: either you have sex with me, or you’re telling me that I’m unattractive. You’re trying to take out the possibility that it’s totally reasonable and not mean at all to say no to sex. And it’s cruel to tell someone that their perfectly reasonable choice is actually mean and disrespectful to someone they care about.

5.You’re being selfish.

This is very much akin to the previous two but takes its own special tactic of nastiness. Saying no to another person, asking them to respect your boundaries, telling someone that they should not continue doing something that upsets you or makes you unhappy, is far from selfish. Particularly when that thing involves your own body. Again, this kind of talk tells you to ignore your emotions and ignore your discomfort because your body is public property, or at least your partner’s property. And this again activates major amounts of guilt, because it tells you that you’re bad, mean, wrong, or immoral for saying no. It paints the other person as the victim, which reverses the roles so that you’re apologizing for asserting your boundaries, when in reality your partner should probably be the one apologizing if they crossed them. Defending yourself is not an aggressive action, but this kind of statement turns it into one. It’s gaslighting to the max.

6.You’re taking away something that makes me happy.

Boo frickin’ hoo. Sorry, I should probably have more sympathy because yes it does suck when you can’t have something that you want, but let’s be PERFECTLY clear here: if you are going to prioritize the happy feelings of your genitals over your partner’s crystal clear right to say no, then you are a douche. They KNOW that it would make you happy to have sex with you. And you know that they know. So by reminding them, all you’re doing is making them feel like shit. In order to try to get them to have sex with you. Look, your partner is not taking away anything by saying no to sex. Sex was not your right in the first place so there’s no way they could have taken it away. Sometimes they consent to give you a part of themselves out of the goodness of their heart and that makes you happy. YAY! But that in no way means they owe it to you in the future to continue giving it to you. Your happiness is not your partner’s responsibility, and if you think it is then you’re setting your partner up for a lot of guilt, a lot of unhappiness, and a lot of ignoring their own interests for yours.

7.Well what if we just…

Compromise is generally a good thing. If your partner shuts down one thing but you’re super into it, it’s perfectly reasonable to say something like “Ok, we absolutely don’t have to do that. I’d be really interested in trying something else. What do you feel about ___”. But there’s a difference between that and the “what about” game. This is the game where every time your partner says no you try a different question, a different version. You wear them down. You make it sound reasonable to demand a blowjob because you aren’t getting sex. You paint your request as really not a very big deal after all, in fact something your partner really shouldn’t have any issue with because it’s so minute, even though it might be a sexual act that they don’t want to perform. And you do this until they give in because they’re going crazy trying to say no to everything and feeling like a jerk for shooting everything down. Sex isn’t haggling. Someone’s body isn’t for sale and it’s not up for a bargain.

8.Why won’t you think about my feelings?

Once again, this kind of statement prioritizes your feelings over your partner’s mental health and safety, and it tells them that they should be doing the same because if they don’t they are being unsympathetic and paying no attention to their partner’s feelings. It implies that if your partner cared about you and your feelings, then there is only one decision that they would or could make: giving you what you want. It’s another way of turning yourself into the victim and implying that your partner MUST owe you sex if they care about you. Let’s be honest, your partner already knows all about your feelings because you’ve made it damn obvious that you want sex and that sex is important to you. Our whole CULTURE tells us that having a healthy sex life is SO IMPORTANT so even if they don’t know about your feelings in particular they know about the feelings that you’re expected to have and so they already know they’re being “bad” by not providing sex. So reminding them one more time? It’s petty and you’re not doing it because you think they don’t know.

9.You’ve done this before, you should be able to do it again.

This is not how consent works. If someone consented to something yesterday and then does not consent to it today, their consent from yesterday is negated. Someone is allowed to change their mind about things! CRAZY! I may have wanted chocolate yesterday and not want any today, but that doesn’t mean I HAVE to eat chocolate today. When you say this, you’re trapping someone into thinking that they are being inconsistent, irrational, and overly emotional by changing their opinion. You indicate that once they have said yes they can’t rescind their yes without being completely crazy. This really makes it hard to say no, to react to one’s emotions, to take care of oneself. It’s not cool.

10.I don’t know how to understand you love me if we don’t have sex.

This is your own god damn problem. If you can’t understand multiple ways of expressing affection, then you are a significantly stunted human being and that’s something you should probably work on. Telling your partner that they have to bend to your whim once again indicates that your inability to communicate needs to be solved with their body. It’s a special kind of guilt trip because it’s the barely logical cousin of “If you loved me you’d have sex with me”. If you want to express love, then respecting your partner’s boundaries is the best way to go. Guilting them into thinking they have to have sex to prove their love for you? Not so much.

11.I just want you to feel good.

If you wanted your partner to feel good, you would listen to what they say they want. If they say something doesn’t feel good or they don’t want it, don’t do it. What this message is ACTUALLY saying is that your partner must be CRAZY for saying no because you only want what’s best for them. They must not be thinking clearly. And not only that, but they probably should feel good because that’s what happens when people who love each other get sexy, amirite? So wrong. Your partner is allowed to not feel good, and allowed to feel good in whatever way they so choose, not the way YOU choose.

12.What about now?

When your partner says no, let them have their fucking no. This question is essentially the battering ram of emotional manipulation. It’s not very sneaky and it’s really easy to say no to…the first fifty times. But eventually most doors are going to get broken down just because your partner is so fucking tired of saying no. Do you really want your partner to say yes just because they’re sick of going through the dance? Probably not, because that’s not really consent.

  1. “If you believed in true equality, you wouldn’t be afraid of men, so you’d meet up with me & try me out” (submitted from twitter).

Really? I mean reaaaaally. This is clearly from someone who thinks they’re super sly but doesn’t realize that trying to make someone feel like they have to prove their liberalism cred is a shitty way to convince them to get with you. We all know that equality doesn’t mean you have to like everyone or go on a date with everyone, but apparently some people want to convince you that if you don’t, you’re shitty, discriminatory, and mean. Again, not a very good way to obtain consent.

What You Know: Reading Fiction and Nonfiction

I was talking with a colleague the other day about loving to learn and about what kinds of things I like to learn. He mentioned that he can’t read novels because there are simply so many nonfiction topics to learn about that he can’t imagine wasting time on fiction. While I can understand the drive to learn as much about our world as possible, I can’t understand cutting fiction out of my life. Most of us understand what we learn or gain from nonfiction: straight facts or insight into phenomena or incidents in the world. However there’s a lot of people who appear to miss the real learning we can do when we read novels.

As a novel junkie, I’d like to take this opportunity to explain how I view fiction as a source of knowledge.

Many people see the arts as beneficial because they allow us to connect to each other, or to feel emotions. These are good things, but they aren’t direct lessons or sources of knowledge. In addition to catharsis or other emotional and/or spiritual (in the sense of connective) elements, there is a little more to fiction. In my mind, the most important thing we can learn from fiction is empathy. When we allow ourselves to enter into someone else’s mind and story, we learn about what it’s like to be another person. We learn about other experiences. We learn how to imagine what things might be like for someone else. This skill provides us with a great deal of straight information, and as we partake in this process in each novel, we gain facts about what it’s like to be each character in the novel. While no two people are exactly the same, these insights can help us connect with real human beings and understand their motivations, histories, and experiences.

In addition, we can also understand a bit of the human psyche by reading fiction. A good author will create characters who react realistically to their surroundings, who have understandable and realistic emotions and motivations, and who make sense as human beings. Spending time in someone else’s head can help you not just to understand a specific type of person, but to understand some basic human psychology. Again, this provides you with some additional empathy.

Depending upon the genre, you may also learn something about history, a certain place, a particular incident or phenomenon, or a group of people because of the setting. Again, many fiction authors spend a good deal of time researching and understanding the setting of their novels so that they can create something that is realistic and will teach you through the story.

But there are more difficult things you can learn by reading novels. Novels are made up of characters facing difficult situations. This means you as the reader are asked to contemplate those difficult situations, and you are left with a deeper understanding of ethics, as well as your own character. You can find new roles models (I learned feminist ideals from many of my childhood and teenage reading), learn what sort of person you don’t want to be, or imagine ideals in things like friendship and family. Literature often tackles deep philosophical questions, and while you may not directly discuss them while reading, you do still find yourself thinking about them and wondering what your own reactions might be.

Examples of these issues from books I’ve read:

1.What does it mean to lie?

2.When should you trust someone?

3.Should men and women be treated the same?

4.How should you treat a friend?

5.Are adults trustworthy?

6.What makes life worth living?

I also have read fiction books that tackled everything from mental retardation to pregnancy to life in poverty to being a rich socialite. You get insight into each of these worlds, you get to inhabit each of these worlds for a time and hopefully understand better the perspectives of individuals in these situations.

In addition, the conversations that arise out of novels and fiction are hugely important to informing our sense of self and our knowledge of the world around us. We see which things we react to and we can begin to understand why when we discuss novels and fiction with those around us. We may gain empathy for one of our friends or colleagues by hearing their interpretation or perspective on a book or movie. All of these things are real and true forms of knowledge: they’re knowledge about what it’s like to experience things, and that is something that you can’t gain from nonfiction.