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.

Empathy vs. Sympathy

Let’s play a game. If you were told that you can sympathize with someone or empathize with them, which one would you think is better?

If I looked at most dialogue around emotions I would say the vast majority of people would answer empathy. There are articles and videos about how awesome empathy is.  But lately sympathy seems to be getting the short end of the stick. People often talk about how empathy is better than sympathy, or suggest that sympathy doesn’t have a place in social justice discussions because it’s condescending.

Let’s recap the basic differences between empathy and sympathy, since they’re often conflated and confused. Empathy is when you feel with someone. If your friend tells you that they’re sad because their cat died and you feel sadness as well, you’re empathizing with them. Sympathy on the other hand is having compassion for someone, or feeling something for/towards someone without taking on their feelings as your own. If my friend and I get in an argument and I can eventually understand her position I might be able to sympathize with her, but my own feelings may not change.

For a long time, sympathy was king of the hill, and in recent years empathy has grown to be the prized ability. Especially in social justice circles, I see minority and oppressed individuals pushing allies to try empathizing. The empathy is what allows others to understand the harm of their behaviors, to get motivated to make changes, or to see how sometimes good intentioned behaviors feel awful.

Especially in these contexts, sympathy is considered pitying and useless.

But there are some instances where sympathy is actually incredibly useful, or where empathy isn’t called for at all. I want to take the time to remember what the benefits of sympathy are, and to hopefully tease apart some instances in which sympathy is called for or when empathy is called for.

Now before I get into this conversation I want to make something very clear. No one gets to tell you if your feelings are appropriate to a situation or not. No other person has the right to police your opinions or tell you that you’re feeling the wrong way about something. However it may be true that your own emotions are not helping you act effectively or be safe, and in those cases an outside opinion can be helpful.

First and foremost, sympathy can be a helpful way to build into empathy. If you look at something like police brutality and you don’t yourself feel afraid and angry but you do feel sad for the people involved, that can be a first impetus to start learning more and putting yourself in the shoes of the people directly involved. This is especially one of those circumstances where it could be helpful to not quash sympathy (because it’s not good enough) but to push people to really listen to that sympathy and let it build into empathy.

Now empathy on the other hand is often more helpful when it comes to listening to other people, to building connections with other people, to being supportive. Especially with friends and family, it may seem easy to try to offer solutions when they open up, but sometimes all they want is a little empathy and an open ear. And when it comes to movements that feeling of being listened to is often incredibly important. It gives allies the knowledge to speak up when necessary, but to also understand when they need to be quiet.

While sympathy might push you to listen for a while, it doesn’t get you to internalize the feelings in the way empathy does, which means your feelings will always be taking priority over the feelings of the other.

So when is sympathy actually a better option?

Let me tell you a little story. Once upon a time I was very sick. I had an eating disorder and I was in the process of slowly trying to kill myself. However I didn’t really care. I felt little to no attachment to the world and didn’t have any desire to get better.

If someone at the time had truly empathized with me they would have felt awful, but they wouldn’t have had any motivation to push me into treatment. They would have understood how terrifying the possibility of recovery was, how much I just wanted to be left alone, how much I hated it when anyone mentioned that I should change my behaviors.

So instead of empathizing, my mother sympathized with me. She saw and understood that I was in pain, but instead of feeling that along with me she felt anger towards the eating disorder on my behalf. She felt fear of losing me and a strong desire to protect me. Because she sympathized with me instead of empathized with me, she chose to push me to get treatment and I am still alive and kicking today. Thanks Mom!

There are instances in which a person’s emotions aren’t keeping them safe. Abusive relationships are often (though not always) an example of this. People who are addicted to drugs or alcohol often have this kind of problem. And sometimes these instances are much smaller, like when one friend warns another not to go out with that guy, he’s actually a jerk. If your emotions are telling you that what you’re doing is totally the best course of action and someone you love and trust sympathizes instead of empathizing to tell you “hey, it looks like you’re hurting yourself,” that sympathy is way more effective than empathy.

Now again, it’s probably important to have facility with both skills. If you just sympathize and don’t understand what is really pushing the other person to behave the way they do, you are highly likely to make the situation worse. If my mom had empathized a bit more she might have found some more effective and less scary ways to get me help (or maybe not because I still have no idea what an effective method of pushing someone to get treatment is).

The important part is knowing that empathy and sympathy have different roles. Empathy is often the piece that gets you to listen and understand. Sympathy can be great for integrating your own feelings and perspective with someone else’s. So let’s get a little more love for sympathy.

First Person Narratives, Objectivity, and Scandals

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.

Technical Terms and Language Change

If you’ve been a reader here for any amount of time you probably know that I’m a big proponent of letting language be language. It is a perennial concern of Very Important People that language is changing: words change meanings, new words show up, people start using new constructions, or simple vocal habits and tics change (see: vocal fry). For the most part, I like to remind people that language change is a natural and healthy part of a language. A language that doesn’t change tends to die, and there’s absolutely nothing grammatically improper about creating new ways of speaking, new words, or new definitions for words. Prescriptivist tendencies in language tend to be sexist, racist, and just straight out discriminatory.

But there are a few important exceptions to this belief, and I think it’s important to explain why.

The two most visible examples of language change that rub me the wrong way are “dissociate” used to mean “disassociate” and the slide of “trigger” from a very specific psychological term into a general term for anything that upsets someone. Both dissociate and trigger are words that were coined within psychiatric circles to describe symptoms of mental illnesses. They’re both fairly technical terms with specific definitions that are used in psychological studies, papers, diagnoses, and treatments.

There’s already a lot of confusion and misinformation that surrounds mental illnesses, especially around what different diagnoses and symptoms mean, how in control someone is, and how serious symptoms are. Most people misunderstand what the term trigger means when it’s used in a psychological context and use that lack of understanding to discount how serious it is to be triggered. Very few people have any idea what dissociation is or how serious it can be. Because of these larger public perception issues around diagnosis and understanding, it is extremely hard for people who have these symptoms (as well as disorder that have come into common parlance but aren’t truly understood) to get compassion, accommodations, or help when they’re struggling. One of the ways that people who have mental illnesses are doing activism is by trying to educate others about these terms so that if someone says to you “I think I’m dissociating right now, can you bring me something soft to touch,” you won’t think they’re making no sense and you’ll be able to help them out.

That might not seem like it’s hugely important for someone who doesn’t have these symptoms, but for a person who deals with them, it can be the difference between serious backsliding or competent coping skills.

So when people start using these terms to mean only partially related things, it doesn’t seem to me that it’s basic language change. It seems that it’s a misunderstanding of what certain diseases are and a breakdown in education. In these cases, using the language in a different way does actively harm people. It’s similar to using OCD to mean neat. While most people can understand what you mean, it’s the kind of language change that relies on a stereotyped image of a diagnosis to get its meaning, something that makes it harder for the people who actually have the diagnosis to explain what their lives are like.

In many ways, there are parallels to humor here. It certainly is possible for any subject to be funny, but a good rule of thumb is to punch up, to make fun at the person with power in a given situation. Similarly all words have the ability to change, but in general it seems like a good idea to be tolerant of changes that don’t hurt anyone or are specific to an oppressed group, while resisting changes that rely on punching down at a group.

Of course it’s not entirely possible to just stop language from changing, but what we can do is continue to inform people of the definitions that we use and that are used within communities of mental health, and ask that others do the same to stop confusion. We can continue to educate people about what mental illnesses are actually like. And one way to do that is to stop using trigger to mean “annoying thing” or dissociate to mean “move away from”.

So You Want to Live Forever

In one of my recent posts I touched on the concept of living forever, and why we may or may not want to do so. Because one of my besties is quite enamored of the idea of living forever, I’ve been thinking a lot more about it and whether or not I would want to. But there’s an element to this that I hadn’t fully explored that hit me yesterday in a giant pile of “how did I not think about this?”

Is it ethical to live forever? If it is, how could we ethically enact a system that would allow people to live forever without ingraining oppressions even further? What are the possible repercussions of living forever, not just on an individual’s life, but on society at large? Even if we want to live forever, there may be good reasons to hesitate pursuing the technology that would allow us to do so.

On a larger scale, I suppose we have to question whether giving humanity a better chance of survival as a species is a good thing. There’s no particular reason to think that humans are all bad or all good. We haven’t totally destroyed the world yet (which is cool) and we’ve invented some amazing things and we are conscious and have culture and thoughts and emotions all of which are incredibly interesting and in many ways beautiful (is beauty a value we want to subscribe to?), but at the same time we’ve drastically reduced the amount of variety in the world (variety does seem to be a value to me), we’re short sighted, we may fuck up the planet enough that nothing can live on it anymore (and life, particularly conscious life as the universe’s way of recognizing and admiring itself seems to be an important value to me), and we are self centered and cruel in intentional ways that nearly no other species is…so it’s kind of on the fence for humanity.

Based on the mediocrity of humanity, it doesn’t seem as if there’s any particular ethical push either to live forever or not (unless we assume that we would leave a void that a superior species would fill, and I don’t see any evidence for that). So what about the logistics of living forever?

The first consideration that springs to mind is overcrowding. If people are living forever and still reproducing, where do we put all of these people? What happens if/when we run out of resources? There’s always the possibility that at this point we’ll be terraforming other planets and it wouldn’t be a concern, but without that outlet, it could mean lowering the quality of life for everyone if we continue overpopulating the planet. Another alternative would be to make people stop having babies, but ethically speaking I really can’t condone controlling someone’s reproductive system (see: eugenics and all the things that are wrong with it).

If we can get past overcrowding, another difficulty would be that one of the ways humanity progresses is through new minds that have different starting premises from their parents. This generation almost takes it for granted that marriage equality should and will happen, whereas the previous generation is far more hit or miss on that. People’s brains are far more malleable when they’re young, and it seems quite likely that changing our opinions becomes more and more difficult the older we get (this is not to say it’s impossible). It’s possible we may hit a limit to our ability to remember or even process new information. Before we attempt living forever we would likely need more information about whether or not human brains can continue to develop indefinitely (yes we can grow new brain cells. Slowly. Maybe the forever livers would have to forsake all things that can cause brain damage of any kind).

There are probably two considerations here: the quality of life of the individual who is living forever and whether that is constrained by the human brain (which we could potentially enhance), and whether or not we would be able to continue to improve society with individuals who grew up in worse times hanging around. While consideration 1 is somewhat important, as long as immortality was freely entered with the knowledge of how it would affect one’s brain, I can’t see it as nearly as pertinent as consideration 2.

Say we develop our technology to a point wherein the human brain and body will not decay in our immortality. We download our consciousness into robots and live forever that way. We’re capable of learning and processing new things, growing, changing, and developing indefinitely. How do we decide who gets to live forever? The technology would most likely be expensive and not available to everyone. Should we allow rich, horrible people to live forever? Should there be a mechanism to monitor who takes advantage of the technology so that people who are criminals or a drain on society (whatever the hell that means) or mean or unintelligent or whatever else we deem “not as good” can’t live forever?

Most likely any mechanism like this would feed immediately into systems of privilege that already exist and we’d end up with even older, richer white men. There is no feasible mechanism that would keep society progressing and healthy with some measure of equality in how people are allowed to live forever. Perhaps it would be a lottery system, but it’s hardly an ideal system that potentially could leave us without some of our best minds and humanitarians.

Overall the whole concept of living forever means trying to solve all of today’s ills before we could find a way to equitably distribute eternal life (haha that’s no big deal right?), so if I were given the opportunity, I don’t know that I’d be able to feel ok with myself if I took it.

What other considerations do you see?

Featured image is Arwen for choosing to give up immortal life (like a boss).

 

Intersectionality in Animal Rights

Last night I had the most stressful job interview in the world that also happened to be an interesting discussion. I was interviewing with an animal rights organization, and one of the questions that they asked me was how the animal rights movement might be able to grow/what they should change. I responded that I believe intersectionality was important, and that looking for ways to work with other movements was a good way to move forward, especially in terms of diversity and equity in race and gender.

My interviewer responded that as an organization they’ve made it a point not to take a position on anything but animal rights because they have a diverse membership and don’t want to alienate people who have come to a pro animal rights position through a different path. Of course this makes sense as a stance for an organization to take, but the more that I thought about it, the more I think that any vested interest in treating animals with respect requires us to take a hard look at how we treat every creature, including other human beings.

While I do think it’s possible that one could come to a position of animal rights through a religion that says animals require our protection, I also think that we have to look at the science and the logic behind our positions and that it’s important to be consistent in what we’re saying and believing. If someone says that they believe we should reduce the harm that animals suffer, they are logically saying that they also believe we should reduce the harm that human beings suffer. All of the science that we currently have points towards the fact that human beings are simply part of the spectrum of animals, with no hard and fast distinctions between us and the rest of the animal kingdom.

In order to reduce the harm that comes to animals, we also have to look at the science of pain and consciousness to understand how animals feel, what they feel, and what causes them pain. Even if you are motivated to care for animals by a religious belief, you still have to look at the actual world around you to understand what it means to care for animals. And science tells us that animals can feel pain, can identify themselves as individuals, can make friends and feel love and empathy, and generally have a rich emotional life.

And if you believe that violating these things causes pain and harm, and that causing pain and harm is something that we should not do, you have to apply these understandings to human beings as well. Now each of us gets to apply our values in the way we choose, and we may decide that there is another value that trumps causing no harm (like God’s word that homosexuality is sin), but the only other values that we can derive from the same premises as animal rights are the values that promote negating harm for all creatures wherever possible based upon what we can learn about what causes harm.

Here are things that we do know cause harm: sexism, racism, homophobia, cissexism, ableism, classism…and we know that they do so in subtle ways, including through simple language or jokes, through objectification and exotification, through discrimination or lack of access, through speaking over and ignoring experiences, through rape culture, through the prison industrial complex, through lack of job opportunities and poor wages…many of these things are directly tied to meat eating, such as the low wages for workers in the meat industry, or the symbolic ties of meat to masculinity.

At the very least, listening when people tell you that something you’re doing is hurting them seems like it needs to be a part of your value system if you want to be ethically consistent while prioritizing animal rights. Over and over we hear people saying that ignoring these elements of life harms them and leaves their lives harder and more painful.

I am not suggesting that every animal rights activist needs to put their current activism on hold and jump into all of these other debates. However you should take the time to consider how these fit into your professed set of values and be willing to back up those who ask you for help or consideration when their requests fit within your values. And it is clear that the values that underlie veganism and vegetarianism when it is pursued because of animal rights demand that we treat human beings with respect.

So while politically it makes sense for an organization not to take any stances that might alienate their membership, I also believe that it’s disingenuous to profess a belief that we should minimize the harm our lives create, respect others, and improve the world, while not at least mentioning issues like discrimination, abuse, racism, sexism, and all the other isms that plague our world at the moment. This does not demand that we take specific political positions (after all science and logic don’t lead us clearly in one direction all the time), but rather that we acknowledge that there are many things that harm both humans and animals in the world today and state unequivocally that we do not tolerate discrimination, abuse, cruelty, or violence in any of its forms.

I believe this is one of the areas that we need to take a longer view: while it may be beneficial to gain members who don’t truly believe in respect and minimizing harm but who will help you achieve your goals, this is not going to help the longer goal of fostering empathy and compassion for everyone, animal and human.  In the end, it might undermine your goals: if a church changes its position you may lose those members, but if you gain members because they have come to an ethical conclusion through their own rationality, they are much less likely to change their opinions based on the teachings of others. We may be watering down our message in order to appeal to more people, when we should be strongly advocating for respect on all levels.

I’m a Label Lover and I’m Proud

I like to label things. I find that having a word for something, a way to describe it, helps me understand it better. There are many people out there who find this tendency foolish. Just the other day I saw a Facebook comment who derided the labels “asexual” and “questioning” as pointless and a waste of time, bullshit as he said, because they weren’t oppressed in the same way as LGBT individuals. Others don’t like labels because they see them as limiting and don’t want to be boxed in by a word or a phrase.

I understand both of these impulses. I have been known to laugh in derision when I hear labels like “otherkin”, and I have certainly felt constrained by certain labels placed on me (as I’m sure nearly everyone has). But what many of these people fail to understand is the power in labeling yourself, as well as the way that identities build communities. They also forget that self-understanding is incredibly important to self-acceptance, and that having a word to describe yourself can facilitate understanding and acceptance.

I posted recently about a TED talk that described how certain labels can change from an illness to an identity. These include things like homosexuality, autism, and deafness. In describing the change, the speaker focuses on how these communities created a culture under the umbrella of their label, and how that label has come to signify something good to them. These communities are built because people are brought together through a common label. The labels we are given by society point to a certain constellation of traits. We can choose to focus on the negative aspects of those traits, or we can build something positive and different out of them. When we create a culture, a different way of being, out of our labels, we have created identity.

As someone who struggles to find an identity, labels are very helpful. When I can pinpoint a label for myself, I can add it to my conception of my identity. I’m a learner, I’m gray ace, I have depression and anorexia, I’m a writer…each of these helps me to pin myself down and feel more certain of who I am and where I’m coming from. They can create a grounding of self. Additionally, they can help someone see their identity in a positive light. Especially when a label illustrates that there are others out there who are the same or similar to you, it can provide a sense of safety.

Labels can also help to normalize something that feels or appears deviant and unwanted. They can put you in touch with others who have had similar experiences and may be able to provide insight. They give a shorthand to explain yourself to others. And in many ways they can be liberating because they can provide a framework for understanding. Oftentimes a label will focus someone’s attention in a new way on different elements of their self. My therapist recently gave me a new label to try out: explorer. Looking at how this maps onto my personality makes me feel free to explore new things, free to move away from things that scare me, free to see myself positively. While many labels may not appear to be liberating in that way (something like depression for example), they can still provide a path forward.

An important part of this liberation is the fact that a label does not have to keep you from gaining other labels, or even from changing. Many people look at labels as either/or propositions: you are either straight or you are gay. Labels are to me a both/and proposition. I am both gray ace and heteroromantic. I am both depressed and exploring. I was allosexual and now I’m questioning. Giving a name to one facet of your personality does not negate all the others, nor does the label necessitate that you fit exactly every element of the definition. Some people think that if you identify in one way and you behave out of the “bounds” of that label, you’re lying or wrong or betraying the group. If a woman who identifies as lesbian has sex with a man once, that does not negate who she is or how she has felt attraction in the past. A label is a way to name behavior, not force it in particular directions.

More than anything I find that a label gives me a sense of safety, a way to protect myself from endless explanations or defenses of who I am and how I am. A label allows someone to stake out a territory: this is mine. This is my space. This is my self. For some, this is less important than others, but for those who feel pushed around by the world it can be incredibly important. It gives you access to others who will help defend you and show solidarity.

 

An example of all of this would be my experience with the term asexual. An identity like asexual might seem utterly superfluous to some. However when I discovered the term, many of the traits that I had suddenly made sense to me. I saw that others had experienced similar things, people confirming to me that I wasn’t broken or wrong. I saw that people had jokes and bonds over shared experiences that had come out of discovering this label. I saw all the ways that individuals had chosen to express the same shared trait: some people were in relationships, others married, others poly, others kinky, others single and solely interested in friendships.  It opened up new possibilities of what I could do in my life, of what I might want in my life, and of how I could be happy.

Labels can help many people feel better about themselves and their experiences. They can help build community and identity. Some people don’t have these experiences of labels, but it seems unnecessarily cruel to deride others for having those feelings or for wanting labels to help them gain these experiences. For those who find labels helpful, it would be great if everyone else could just back off and choose not to label themselves.