Mistaking Romance for Sex: Intersections of Mental Health and Sexuality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Will Follow Rules for Rights

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“FOLLOW OUR RULES AND YOU WILL HAVE YOUR FREEDOM” IS THE BIGGEST LIE OPPRESSED PEOPLE ARE TOLD IN THIS COUNTRY

 

This morning I was looking at the twitter explosion over the Texas abortion bill and ran across this tweet from @rare_basement. I don’t know how to explain what this tweet means to me or my neuroses. I don’t know how to explain how this sums up all the intersectionality of my gender and mental health. But I’m going to do my best.

 

This is the lie I’ve believed all my life. No, I am hardly the most oppressed person in the world, but I grew up in the 90s, when girls were told that “you can be anything if you believe and work hard!”, despite the fact that sexism is still alive and well and making life incredibly difficult for women. But boy did I fall for that line. I still believe it, despite trying to make myself grow up over and over again. Because you want to know what happens when you buy into a cultural myth that disappoints you repeatedly, one that tells you that you’re responsible for your disappointments? You begin to think you’re the problem.

 

The line that oppressed minorities are fed is that hard work will get them whatever they want, including the rights and freedoms that have been denied to them in the past. This is the myth of meritocracy. Unfortunately, it’s not true, and minorities simply are denied rights and freedoms, as well as opportunities, because of their status as oppressed. But the myth puts all of the responsibility for these problems back on the oppressed: it tells them that they haven’t followed the rules appropriately or they have not worked hard enough.

 

This is the worst form of victim blaming because it can make everything an individual’s fault, and it can obscure from the individual the larger forces that are at work. And in my mind, the most insidious part of it is that it essentially sows the seeds for mental illness. One of the traits of many people with mental illness is personalization: thinking everything is either your fault or aimed at you. This myth directly tells you that everything is your fault. It builds personalization from the ground up and repeats it over and over until it’s been hammered into you. What’s worse is that it doesn’t just wait around until something bad happens and then tells you it’s your fault. It points to structural inequalities that already exist, and when those begin to affect you it tells you that you should have known better and followed the rules so that you didn’t make these problems for yourself. It retroactively blames you for problems that were there before you were born, so you are suddenly responsible for a disturbing amount of things.

 

An additional problem with this is that the “rules” for oppressed populations are contradictory and impossible to follow. No matter what you do, you’re doing something wrong and thus don’t deserve rights and freedoms. An example of rules for women: Be good looking but not shallow, and definitely not overly sexy, and definitely don’t flaunt your body but don’t be a prude either.

 

Is it any surprise that we have a generation of girls who have grown up thinking that they are constantly not doing enough, not right, or need to be perfect? A generation of girls who catastrophize everything? If you were told throughout your whole childhood that you’ll be treated with respect, dignity, and liberty if you follow the rules and then are NOT treated with those things no matter how hard you tried, doesn’t it seem logical that you would conclude that you had done something wrong? What amps up the anxiety of this is that you don’t know what it is you did wrong. You can’t figure out what went differently between the times when you got what you wanted and the times you didn’t (hint: the difference was probably not you, it was the circumstances outside of your control), so you get paranoid that at any point you might be doing something horribly wrong and you don’t know it. You might be messing up the rules which can have disastrous consequences. And if you don’t follow the rules exactly perfectly, if you don’t get straight As and no detention ever and dress modestly and act politely, then it’s your fault if you get raped or harassed or if you get denied a job.

 

This is an enormous amount of responsibility and guilt for any individual to take on. It leads almost directly to a paranoia about one’s actions, to a sense of personalization about everything, to perfectionism and to anxiety. For a while I wondered why nearly every girl my age was a budding anxious perfectionist, but this quote makes it so clear to me: we are because we know we have to be in order to be deemed acceptable and in order to try to keep ourselves safe.

Another problem with this message is that it tells minorities that their feelings are not valid or right. When your rights are denied, you have every right to be angry and upset, but this myth tells you that feelings of anger are always wrong because you are always at fault. You don’t get to be angry ever, except with yourself, because society can never do you wrong if you play by the rules. This undermines so much of an individual’s identity, confidence, and emotional understanding that you can be left with no conception of what an acceptable feeling is. In DBT when we talk about the circumstances that can trigger a mental illness, an invalidating environment is one of the first things that comes up every single time.

 

It’s no surprise that oppressed populations have some mental health problems different from those of privileged groups: they’ve been put into a situation where perfection is expected of them, everything is personalized, and their feelings are invalidated. It’s the perfect storm, and yet we sit around wondering why women feel so bad about themselves. This is somewhat akin to leaving tripwires everywhere and then asking why people keep falling.

 

We as a society need to start discussing and addressing the mental health effects of these expectations of women and other oppressed individuals because they are creating mindsets that are rife for mental illness. They are creating expectations of perfection in individuals, they are telling individuals to personalize everything, they are heaping guilt and responsibility on individuals who should be looking at the societal discriminations for their difficulties.

The Future of Feminism

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I had a job interview today that was both exciting and terrifying, and one of the questions that I was asked was “How do you see the state of feminism today?” Well I was a bit overwhelmed in the moment of answering that question and got out something about being in flux, but the thought and the question have been hanging out in my brain ever since. I think it’s a very interesting question, but I’m almost more interested in where feminism should go. As it stands, there is a lot of splintering in feminism. We have everything from evangelical feminists to radical feminists, to intersectional feminists, and each of those groups has very different aims and beliefs.

Now overall I think most feminists are struggling with how to overcome some of the slanders that have been leveled at them from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and remind people that feminism isn’t a dirty word, as well as remind people why feminism is necessary. There’s a lot of education about the struggles that women still face, and particularly education about structural sexism as opposed to individual sexism. The focus has moved from overt beliefs that individuals might hold about women being inferior to men to the structural ways in which women are still oppressed. These are what hold feminism together today, as well as the desire to keep feminism relevant through new media forms.

 

There’s a lot of conflict in feminism though: how do women of color feature, how do women of non-Christian religions feature, what about intersectionality, are transwomen women (answer: yes). In addition, there’s a lot of conflict about what issues to focus on: abortion, healthcare access, equal pay, media representation, street harassment, rape culture…oof. There’s a lot going on, a lot of people doing different things, and a lot of styles of feminism. One of the things that I think characterizes feminism’s current state is its sheer diversity.

 

But if I were to characterize where I think feminism SHOULD go, it would be a very different matter. So without further ado, here is Olivia’s List Of What Feminist’s Should Do (If I Ran The World).

 

1.Recognize intersectionality. Holy shit have feminists been bad at this in the past. Particularly white feminists. Particularly upper class feminists. We CANNOT fight for women’s issues without recognizing the diversity of women’s issues and the way they intersect with and inform other issues. We need to draw on the diversity we have and embrace it, rather than trying to say “well my oppression is more important than your oppression, so stop talking about your issue”.

 

2.Take responsibility for past failures. This means listening to black women in particular.

 

3.Take a more global approach. Feminism as it exists in the U.S. does not recognize that its version of feminism may not be appropriate for all locations. It also doesn’t recognize cultural contexts, and that what it views as oppression may not be oppression for everyone involved. A good example of this is feminists who try to save Muslim women from the hijab. Islam has its own feminists. If you want to talk to them and work with them and discuss how feminism can become a more global movement, that’s great. If you want to walk in and tell everyone else how to be feminist, shut up.

 

4.Focus on choice. Many feminists are already doing this, but I think this message needs to get out there more. Any time you allow women more choices and more freedom, you are helping to reduce their oppression. While we all need to be aware of the context of our choices (for example stay at home moms need to be aware of the history of working in and outside of the home and understand the pressures that might have led them to their choice), we should never tell anyone that their desires and choices are wrong.

 

5.EDUCATE EDUCATE EDUCATE. Get out the information about why rape jokes are not ok, about why street harassment is harmful, about how attitudes in workplaces are discriminatory, about how we can make more opportunities available for women. Use evidence, research, and anecdotes. Give examples. Make it personal and make it universal. Many people don’t understand how harmful their actions are: she deserved it, it’s just a joke, it’s just a compliment, that’s just how things are, she could ignore it if she wanted to. Make it clear why these are BAD excuses.

 

6.Spend more time with the GLBT movement focusing on breaking down the gender binary. While we are still focused on “women’s rights” (and I realize I’ve used that language throughout this post because of convenience but it’s not the best language to use) we are promoting the idea of women and men, when perhaps the best way to allow freedom for all individuals is to allow for all gender presentations and identities. Not perhaps. Definitely. Read some Judith Butler.

 

So if I were queen of the world, that’s how things would go. Does anyone have suggestions for how they’d like to see feminism go? Leave em in the comments!

 

Written by Olivia James

Intersectionality: Mental Illness and Fatphobia

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Ok so this should be my last super subversive post for a while because I need to have some time to learn how to deal with comments and disagreement (yay learning adulthood)!

 

But since this is a followup to one of my recent posts I figured I should post it now rather than later. I recently posted about fatphobia and thin privilege, and I got a few comments from people who said that I “just didn’t get it” because I straight out said “I have a hard time accepting my privilege”. Now I’m still slightly confused as to what this means. If anyone can parse it out, I would be forever grateful. I was under the impression that when you’re trying to accept that you’re privileged sometimes it can be difficult to accept but that as long as you keep reminding yourself of your privilege and listening to those people who are oppressed and trying to get better, then you’re being an okish ally.

 

However when someone tries to call me out on something, even if I can’t quite tell what it is, I do try to think about it. And so I spent some more time with my experience of weight, my experience of thin privilege, and I came to a realization, which is that I think the intersection of eating disorders and thin privilege is one of the most confusing ones there might be in the social justice world, because it is the only one that I can think of in which someone may understand that a certain privilege exists, but refuse to believe that they are part of the privileged group.

 

I objectively am thin. If I look at my BMI, it is on the low side of average. It has dipped into underweight a few times, and is always hovering around there. If I look at my clothing sizes, I am thin. If I ask my friends, family, or even strangers, they will tell me I’m thin. By all objective measures I fit into the group of privileged people who benefits from their size based upon the attitudes of society.

 

However despite these facts, I cannot believe that I am thin. My brain reminds me every day that I’m not. No matter how many times I look in the mirror I cannot see myself as thin. I try over and over again to remind myself that yes, I experience privilege from something I cannot believe is true of myself. I cannot think of another form of privilege where this happens: is it ever the case where a white individual firmly believes they’re black? I wonder if any trans* individuals can speak to this. It seems like a unique situation to me. How can accept my privilege when I don’t believe I am thin? How can I be a good ally when I don’t see myself accurately, when my perception of reality is so distorted? How can I fight against oppression when I’m too busy fighting against myself to even accept reality? I think that as an ally being open about our hangups makes us better allies. It means that people can call us out a bit easier and help us when we need it and ask. It means that we’re not lying just to say the right words. So I want to be open when I have a hard time getting past my privilege so that we can more thoroughly understand what helps entrench that privilege.

 

This next section I want to be very careful about. I absolutely do not want to co-opt any experiences of the fat community or reduce their experiences in any way. I am trying to be honest about my experiences though. So in addition to having a hard time accepting my own privilege because I have a hard time accepting my thinness, I believe that I have also experienced some forms of fatphobia. These have never been forms that come from society. They are not external. They come exclusively from my own mind. It reminds me every day that I am fat, and that when I am fat it means I am lazy and worthless and useless. I am reminded that the most important thing in my life is to lose weight. I am told that none of my accomplishments mean anything unless I am thin. I am told that everyone is staring at me when I go out, and that I should be ashamed. I’m told people only like me despite my body. I am told that I shouldn’t wear revealing clothes because my body is too disgusting to be seen. I’m even sometimes told that I should hurt or starve myself because I take up too much space.

 

Is it possible to be oppressed by one’s own brain? Probably not. Obviously there is a HUGE (hugehugehuge) qualitative difference between this and true fatphobia because I cannot systematically oppress myself. Again, I 100% understand that this is NOT the same as the experiences of fat individuals and that it is NOT bad in the same ways and that it is NOT oppressive in the same ways. However it certainly leaves me feeling confused about how I could have privilege for something that I’m also firmly ridiculed for. It is distinctly a mind-fuck that the same thing which causes other people to give me privilege is also the thing which causes me to hate myself and compromise my health.

 

And I believe that this is one of the most important things that we need to be aware of as allies and as privileged individuals: WE DO NOT GIVE OURSELVES PRIVILEGE. The thing that gives us privilege is not INHERENTLY giving us privilege. It is only the reaction of others that gives us privilege. It could be anything in the world, but society has chosen things like whiteness and maleness and able-bodiedness and thinness. My brain may hate whatever piece of me has privilege. I could despise being white, and still have white privilege. I KNOW these things. And I know that I always have to be aware of them. I know that while my experiences differ hugely from those of the average thin person because of the intersectionality between my mental illness and my thinness, that doesn’t change the attitudes of society and I need to continually fight against those attitudes.

 

But I also want to be open about the fact that I’m actively fighting those battles in my own head. Each of us has to do our best to eradicate the bad beliefs we hold. When I admit that I struggle with my own privilege, that is what I’m doing. I’m saying that I have had some fatphobic or thin privileged beliefs that went unquestioned for a long time, and now I’m trying to challenge them and remove them. And it’s a struggle. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. I think it’s the work of every person who wants to fight oppression. And it’s hard. I’d rather be open about the work I’m trying to do so that others can see it’s possible than hide it so as to be a “better ally”. But maybe it does do more harm than good. Thoughts? Maybe I don’t get it. Maybe I am doing something really wrong by publicly admitting to these struggles. What do you think?

 

PS-the reason I post so many pics of myself is a.I talk a lot about me and b.I’m nervous bout copyright issues.

Social Justice 101: Intersectionality

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So here is the beginning of my attempt to create a backstore of blog posts that I can whip out at a moment’s notice so I don’t have to go through the work of re-explaining privilege or intersectionality or institutional sexism again and again. I’m going to do my best to explain intersectionality in a nutshell, although it is an incredibly complex topic. I’m also going to try to link to a few articles that get into a bit more depth or explain particular aspects of it as well.

SO. Oftentimes when we think about social justice problems we think of them as separate. You might be a feminist, or an advocate for the rights of disabled individuals, or working on race issues, or fighting for GLBT rights. Most often we see these things separated out in the practical work that advocates do (at least partially because it’s really hard to tackle more than one thing at once). But this can also be a serious problem. In feminism in particular, there have been many instances throughout history and today in which feminists use certain kinds of power and privilege to oppress other women: in general, feminism has been for white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, upper-class women, and for people who don’t fit those definitions it has been incredibly difficult to gain recognition in the feminist community and have their concerns heard.

And so out of this problem, the concept of intersectionality was born. Intersectionality is the idea that all of our kinds of privilege interact. It’s not a simple question of having privilege for one thing, and then getting part of your privilege pile taken away because you’re part of a different marginalized group. Different oppressions can build on each other, like trans-misogyny, or they can affect each other in really complicated ways (for example being black and having a mental health concern is very different from being white and having a mental health concern). In some cases, even though you have a lack of privilege, you may be using your other privileges to oppress others in the same marginalized category as you (white women do this to black women in feminism all the time by silencing their concerns).

Intersectionality is also about understanding that we exist in a variety of different systems, and sometimes one system is acting on us more strongly than another. For example if I enter into a conversation with a disabled individual about able-bodied privilege and I try to say that I understand because I have mental health concerns, or that it’s just like ____ or say that they’re ignoring my perspective because they’re talking about their own issues, I’ve just effectively used my oppression as a silencing technique for someone else’s oppression. Intersectionality requires a great deal of listening to all kinds of experiences, and yes, even respecting the one black, Jewish, lesbian, trans-gendered woman you know and understanding that her experience of privilege and oppression is different from other experiences of privilege and oppression.

While there is no time in our lives that oppression doesn’t exist for us because we are female or a person of color or disabled or fat or lower class, that doesn’t mean that all of those oppressions exist in the same ways at all times, or that they are pertinent to all other forms of oppression. Intersectionality asks us to examine what privileges we may be using at any given time, and how that interacts with our oppressions, as well as how it can create unique forms of oppression for other individuals.

For some more resources on intersectionality, I suggest Natalie Reed’s blog (although it may be taken down soon, so get over there while you can), or these websites:

http://blog.twowholecakes.com/2009/07/101-thoughts-on-intersectionality-or-why-theres-no-dark-skinned-fat-black-women-on-more-to-love/

http://www.reddit.com/r/SRSDiscussion/comments/p8k1z/effort_intersectionality_101/

http://lipmag.com/opinion/broadening-feminisms-intersectionality-101/