One day at a time

I don’t want to talk a lot about the heartbreak and horror I’ve felt for the last week. It’s not new or particularly different from anyone else’s, and I don’t want to revisit it in writing. I do want to talk some about how I’ve been thinking, and what I’m going to do next.

  1. I’m going to stop talking about 2016 like it’s this anomalous bad year. When I do that, what I’m saying is, “The hard times will be over soon.” It’s so much easier to do that than to face the truth: that hardship and suffering are never far away. I tend to live my life as if there’s a dichotomy between “good times” and “bad times,” because then when I can say I’m in a “good time” I can feel secure. It’s time I found a different way of coping with the uncertainties of life.
  2. I’m going to take joy whenever and wherever I can find it. This is intimately connected to the above point. Amid the struggles of processing last week, I had a lot of moments of laughter, of connection, of simple happiness in being with people I loved. I’m affirming now that it is okay to take these moments. If I can be happy, it is more than okay to be happy — it is good. I don’t need to wait for some mythical “good time” to feel joy and comfort. Spending a couple of hours feeling pretty good doesn’t mean I’m ignoring the evils that are in the world: it means I’m recharging to help endure and fight them.
  3. I’m going to continue being much less engaged with social media. This is a very personal decision, based on the effects I’ve observed in myself — I’m not trying to make any kind of blanket statements about the nature of social media or how other people should be. In myself, I have noticed a strong correlation with how much time I spend on Facebook and Twitter, and how depressed, traumatized, and hopeless I feel. That’s not even the fault of the people I follow, because they’re almost all amazing people who are passionate about social justice. It’s just something about the dynamic of hourly scrolling my news feed, that crushes my spirit and saps my energy. So I’m dialing it way back, and putting my energy somewhere else.
  4. I’m going to make a conscious habit and goal of doing something every day to help. I’m working into my budget a plan of regular, small donations to organizations that are fighting for the good. I’m going to spend the next couple of weeks doing a lot of research on other small, concrete things I can do to stay engaged, stay active, and help make the world better.

I’m in this for the long haul. I am here to fight and to help, every day, come what may.

This year in sexual assault; Emma

There are basically two topics right now that I can’t stop thinking about: 1) how brutally, relentlessly triggering this year has been for myself and other survivors of abuse and assault; and 2) the 2009 miniseries of Jane Austen’s Emma, which I discovered four days ago and have watched three times so far. I realize these are pretty disparate topics, so for your convenience, dear readers, I’m going to write my thoughts on each of these in different colors, so you can skip over the parts that don’t interest you.

***

Maybe every year is like this and I just didn’t notice till now. For me it started with James Deen, with his former partner Stoya’s brief and brutal tweet describing what he did to her and that she couldn’t keep quiet any more. That story hit me hard: maybe because I had seen him perform and liked him, maybe because his slightly-smug image all over my news feeds reminded me of my own assailant, maybe because I could empathize so vividly with Stoya’s predicament, with staying quiet for so long for so many reasons and then finally saying a thing because you couldn’t take it any more. And dealing with the vengeful backlash from your assailant and his fans.

Then a few months later it was Brock Turner and now many, many of my survivor friends were saying, “Just seeing this dude’s face is triggering for me.” My social media is pretty well curated so I didn’t have to see people defending him or saying horrible things, much, but it was still exhausting to scroll through and see everywhere headlines about how often rape happens and how rarely it is prosecuted, how hard our culture works to excuse and defend rapists while leaving their victims isolated and unsupported, how little punishment even an egregious and thoroughly documented offense received. And all I can think, reading through these, is “I know. I know. BELIEVE me, I fucking know. I’m glad y’all are catching on, but it would be nice to get to spend a day not thinking about it.”

***

Emma has been my favorite Jane Austen book since the first time I read it and realized I didn’t have to be perfect to be a heroine. Emma has all the faults I try so hard to avoid: being oblivious but thinking she’s particularly wise and insightful, eagerly trying to do good in a way that harms others, needing to be adored and falling into pettiness because of it. She is good-hearted and smart, and she is valuable and lovable, but she does make some pretty awful and foolish mistakes, and that is the hero I needed as a young girl, and still need now.

I’ve seen both the Gwyneth Paltrow and the Kate Beckinsale versions of Emma, and I liked aspects of both but neither fully satisfied me. One of them gave short shrift to the Harriet storyline, the other one to the Frank Churchill storyline, and both of those are important. Overall I preferred the Beckinsale version, but it still wasn’t as good — relative to the book — as my other favorite Austen interpretations.

***

Ultimately it was a social incident that sent me into a lowkey extended PTSD episode, but nothing about the news this year has helped. I knew Trump had raped people before I ever learned of specific accusations: he was powerful enough to get away with it and he didn’t even pretend to have the kind of sexual ethics that would stop him.

It sometimes feels like I’ve gone through the looking glass and I’m seeing the world in a completely different way. Past Ginny would have been shocked to hear that a powerful man, even one as sleazy and unethical as Trump, had committed sexual assault. For Past Ginny, and for my friends still on that side of the looking glass, rape is an extraordinary act, only done by people beyond the pale of a decent society.

Now I know better. Rape is, in fact, quite ordinary. It is a commonplace on college campuses, in the entertainment world, in business. There are just so many people who care more about getting what they want than about respecting someone else’s autonomy. So many narratives that let people tell themselves they’re not doing anything wrong. So many systems that support perpetrators and punish victims. Normal people, cool people, people that really helped you out that one time, can be rapists, and more than a few of them are.

So to think that a powerful, sleazy, textbook narcissist like Donald Trump is a rapist? Duh. Obviously. It’d be surprising if he weren’t.

***

Romola Garai’s Emma is a delight. She’s full of smiles and warmth and passionate opinions that are sometimes right and sometimes wrong. She matures and deepens just enough, over the course of the four-episode miniseries. She is still the same person, but she has learned to think and speak a little more carefully, to treat love with a little more seriousness. Her smile is still an explosion of sunshine, and I could watch it all day.

Jonny Lee Miller’s Mr. Knightley is everything I didn’t know I needed. I used to like Mark Strong’s Knightley a lot — but that was back when I was enamored of angry men who are always telling you what’s up. Jeremy Northam’s was better, and was indeed one of the best advantages to the Paltrow version over the Beckinsale.

Mr. Knightley is a tough needle to thread. He is significantly older than Emma and he scolds her a lot, which makes him an ideal husband in the value system I grew up with, but less appealing now. Jonny Lee Miller’s Knightley is kind and he is good-humored, two essential traits to balance out the scolding. You see him enjoying his friends and family, sharing amusement with Emma, feeling genuine concern for the people in his circle. He loves Emma before he falls in love with her, and continues to love and care about her as a person in her own right afterward. His little concerned, pained, resigned expressions as he watches her with Frank Churchill twist my heart in the most exquisite way.

This production, better than any of the others, shows the warm, easy partnership that make Emma and Mr. Knightley work. You’re not left to fill in the gaps between fights with “I guess they must like each other for some reason” — it is obvious that they are pretty much each other’s favorite person, right from the start.

***

Another through-the-looking-glass moment is in the wave of accusations of assault that came after The Tapes. Past Ginny would have been at least somewhat swayed by the idea that some of these women are jumping on a bandwagon for attention — otherwise why now, when they were silent before?

Present Ginny knows. It’s because now these women, who have kept silent for years out of shame and intimidation, think, “Maybe I’ll actually be believed.” Now that he is on record as saying “this is a thing I like to do” maybe those women have a chance at being taken seriously when they say, “he did this thing.” It is disgusting but very real that that’s what it takes.

What people who haven’t been through it don’t know is that there is no acceptable way to say that a well-liked person assaulted you. If you say it calmly you’re making it up because clearly it didn’t affect you. If you say it sobbing, you’re hysterical. If you say it when nobody else has accused that person, you’re tarnishing someone’s good name with a highly improbable story. If you say it when others have, you’re jumping on a bandwagon because you want the attention. If you pursue some kind of legal or social repercussions, then you’re trying to hurt them and probably doing it out of unrelated vengeance. If you don’t, it must not have been that big a deal and/or you’re letting your community down by letting a perpetrator go on unbothered.

***

Beyond Emma and Mr. Knightley, the whole world of Highbury, in the 2009 version, is a world of friendship and support even for the rather silly and unlovely members. Mr. Woodhouse with his illness and anxiety — Miss Bates with her poverty and prattle — are cared for with gentleness and sincere love by their community. Emma’s failure to do this, and subsequent realization and repentance, are the real turning point of the novel. This is a world where people look after each other, even when the others’ needs feel silly or tiresome.

Wise or foolish, attractive or plain, it is having a good heart that matters in Highbury. The Eltons are vain and self-serving, and they are the only truly unloved characters of the piece. Everybody else, from grouchy John Knightley to flighty Harriet to fretful Mr. Woodhouse, is treated as worthwhile even with their flaws. And it is that good-hearted community, along with the completely enchanting smiles of Garai and Miller, that has kept me coming back to this production over and over this week.

**

 

This world is not kind to survivors. We are ignored. We are demonized. Every indiscretion and weakness in our lives is turned out as if they have some bearing on what was done to us. We see our assailants praised and celebrated, and we agonize over whether to say something. We hear people make jokes about what was done to us. We are, often, targeted for vicious abuse and revenge for daring to speak out. We see other survivors so targeted and wonder if we’ll be next.

And it’s every day. And it’s exhausting.

***

I am lucky enough, now, to have a community not unlike the fictional Highbury. I have a small strong knot of people around me who care unconditionally, who are concerned with meeting each others’ needs even if we can’t relate to them, who extend love despite mistakes and foolishness. They are my family and they heal me every day.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to queue up for a fourth go-through of Emma.

Love languages and polyamory

I love when writers I follow hit on relevant topics to my life at the moment. So I was delighted to read Audra Williams’s post about love languages. I’ve been familiar with the love languages concept since I was a teenager, but like many familiar concepts I’d stopped investigating how it might be helpful for my life now.

I’ve been struggling a lot in the last several weeks with feeling that I’m not getting enough time with my anchor partner. I’ve felt an unusual amount of jealousy, which for me indicates that I’m not getting what I need to feel sustained and connected in a relationship — and usually denying to myself that I have the right to get those things, because worthiness is a core issue of basically everything in my life.

In particular I’ve felt like I can’t ask for more time with my partner because that would be unfair to his other partners. I am always aware of how much one-on-one time my metamour gets with our partner, and I don’t feel okay about asking for more time unless she’s gotten as much or more than I have.

Yes, that’s silly for a lot of reasons. Worthiness: it’s a struggle.

I’ve also felt bad because other poly people I know can be perfectly happy if their domestic partners have dates most nights in the week, while I haaaate it. So all the usual questions come up: “Do I need to get better at poly? Do I need to change my sense of what a happy domestic relationship feels like? If I can’t do that, does it mean polyamory isn’t for me?”

The answer to any of those questions could be yes in a lot of cases, but it wasn’t for me. I know for damn sure that the answer isn’t for me to start dating three other people so that my evenings are always full: that’s not a happy life for me, and it won’t solve the problem of feeling disconnected from my anchor partner.

And then, while I was feeling grumpy and sad and unworthy and broken all at once, I remembered: Quality time is my primary love language. Maybe the reason I get so much crankier than other people when I don’t have enough one-on-one time with my partner is because that’s the most important way for me to feel loved? Heyyyy, genius.

I learned it a long time ago (and long before I knew about polyamory) so I’d lost sight of this: not everybody needs the same things to feel loved. If I ask for at least 20 minutes of focused one-on-one time every day, that doesn’t mean that all my metamours have to get the same time or it’s unfair. Maybe a different ritual is more important to them for feeling loved and connected. Maybe I don’t need to feel extra-needy because a time allotment that’s plenty for other people leaves me feeling parched and lonely.

Fairness in polyamory doesn’t mean everybody gets the same thing: it means everybody gets what they need to feel loved and connected. I knew this, but I had forgotten that the actual substance of what feels loving and connecting can be very different for different people. So I can stop tracking my quality time allotment against everybody else’s to make sure I’m not being too demanding or unfair. (Someday I will level up to the point where I stop worrying that expressing my needs means being too demanding or unfair, but that’s probably several classes away if we’re honest.)

Having quality time as a love language may require some extra strategizing in polyamory, time being the most finite of our resources. I’m still chewing on ways to make the most out of our limited hours. But it’s good to have some context for my needs and some language for helping me and my people understand them.

Don’t tell me how I feel

I’ve been reading Controlling People by Patricia Evans, after hearing it recommended by a lot of other abuse survivors. I actually bought and started reading it quite a few months ago, but stopped within the first couple of chapters because I found all the warming-up text really tiresome. In general the more a writer tries to tell me how surprising and essential the insights they’re about to share are, the more skeptical and disengaged I become.

Eventually I got through that, and have found the meat of the book really helpful in the way it frames interactions that our society tends to treat as normal. Here’s an example, not from the book:

Them: You forgot to pick up this thing from the store even though I asked you to! Clearly you don’t listen to a word I say, and you don’t care at all about me if you can’t do this one little thing.

Me: I…. I’m sorry? But… I do care. But… I’m sorry. [goes away feeling both guilty and indefinably violated]

I’ve had exchanges like this since childhood, and in most of my formative relationships. Sometimes it’s about small everyday executive function things like remembering to do something I was asked to do, or arriving somewhere on time. Sometimes it’s about bigger relationship issues like not communicating about something effectively, or not realizing how hurt my partner would be when I did this-and-such.

Big or small, though, it always takes this form: they express how upset they are AND they say some things about my state of mind that they assume to be true based on what I did. And I end up feeling like I can’t say anything. Because yes I did screw up, and they have a right to be annoyed/angry. But their expression of hurt came with lots of statements about who I am and how I think and feel, statements that are almost never true.

It feels really awful to hear someone telling me, wrongly, how I feel and how I’m thinking, and it also damages the relationship. And yet I don’t feel like I can argue against because, after all, I’m the one who did something wrong.

What Evans does is treat it as completely incredible and absurd that anybody would think they can know what’s in another person’s mind. She points out the logic of that: of course nobody outside my head has better access to what’s going on inside it than I do. Of course any statements they make about my inner state are completely imaginary, made up, not based on real knowledge they have. But in my world it’s so normal for people to make such statements. It took me several chapters of Evans matter-of-factly labeling this dynamic as ridiculous and irrational before it really started to sink in.

For me, this was harder because I grew up in a religion that had gaslighting at its very foundation. I was taught that my mind and heart were entirely sinful and corrupted. It didn’t matter that I cared about other people so much it hurt — by definition, I was selfish and depraved, and if I didn’t believe this, it was a further sign of sinfulness and pride. I was never taught to know myself and trust my internal knowledge. I was always told that some outside authority knew my inmost heart and mind much better than I did.

In my teens, having somebody else tell me what I was really thinking and feeling was my ideal of intimacy and romance. Someone who understood me better than myself, who could see into my heart (and love me) — that was the dream. I can see now, looking back, that my relationship to myself was broken. My overwhelming desire for a romantic partner was largely because I did not feel I had permission to know and love myself. I needed someone else to know and love me — I craved it.

In adulthood, I started to develop a good relationship with myself and being alone became more comfortable. But I still had those long years of conditioning, that made me very vulnerable to someone telling me what I was “really” thinking and feeling — especially when the “real” thoughts were bad. That has been a factor in all of the badly-ending relationships I’ve had in the last several years. Over and over, a partner would tell me, not just “you hurt me,” but “you hurt me and you did it for this reason” or “you hurt me and that is a sign of these essential thoughts, feelings, and qualities in you.” And I would be left trying to figure out how to apologize and make amends while also asserting the truth of who I am. (I never did figure out how. I tried, a few times and a few ways, but only ever met with resistance and doubling-down.)

It took a while but I’m down to a pretty much zero-tolerance policy for this kind of nonsense. The people I’m close to now are all really good about taking responsibility for their own thoughts and feelings, and letting other people be the authority on theirs. Someday I hope I can be like Evans and look at somebody telling me how I feel as if they’re telling me I have two heads. But for now, the plan is to stick close to people who respect me as the authority on myself, and avoid people who don’t.

Healthy Masculinity Does Not Equal “Nice Guy”

As I’ve been working on this project, I’ve had a nebulous fear that every time I say “healthy masculinity,” people are going to mistake it for something else , and I’ve just recently realized that something else is “nice guy.” Then, as I began working on this post, I realized that “nice guy” in turn has two separate but related implications that I want to unpack. There’s the nice guy aesthetic, and then there’s Nice Guys TM.

To me, “nice guy” provokes a very specific image. It is of a cisgender heterosexual man wearing a powder blue buttoned shirt. He might be wearing slacks or jeans, but if they are the latter then they are very clean and pressed jeans, not something worn for manual labor. He might work as an accountant or software engineer, or editor or any number of other jobs, but its definitely something that requires him to wear a tie. You would not know how to describe his hair because it is cut in a style so simple the eye slides right off of it. He’s clean shaven. He drives a car, not a motorcycle. He drinks coffee and beer, but not too much of either, and he definitely doesn’t smoke. If he’s been married for more than a year or two he has kids. If not, he plans on having them soon.

In other cultures the image of a nice guy might vary, but I suspect they all have one; a hodgepodge of fashion, career, and lifestyle choices that are guaranteed to be inoffensive. Ultimately though, it is not a proof of inner character. It’s an aesthetic. And, while it’s also perfectly fine. Some people who fit the nice guy aesthetic are secretly rather immature or even outright manipulative jerks underneath, but others are as wholesome and nice under the surface as they seem to be at first. That shouldn’t be surprising. Basic human decency doesn’t come with any particular fashion sense.

What I do have a problem with is the Nice Guy TM; the above image, but with a morose look on his face because some guy with tattoos and probably a motorcycle is getting all the girls. You most likely have heard plenty of “nice guys finish last” spiels, and I certainly hope you have heard some of the awesome smackdowns that are out there. Here are a few good ones, including one by Ginny.

Because of all those great preexisting commentaries, I don’t want to go into all the issues with the Nice Guy TM. Plenty of people have covered that already. Instead, I want to point out an unspoken assumption. There is this idea that with the correct gender expression comes a range of benefits and entitlements. This idea appears twice in the Nice Guy TM spiel. There’s the idea that because the speaker fits the nice guy aesthetic, he is entitled to girls, and then there’s the idea that the hypothetical bad boy is winning girls by virtue of his more edgy gender expression.

There are a number of ways that our culture encourages people to expect rewards or punishments based on their gender expression, and all of them are shitty. You aren’t entitled to a job or a relationship or anything else based on your hobbies, appearance and lifestyle choices. If you are doing what feels right and makes you happy, that should be reward enough; if not, try making a change.*

That’s the issue I have with many people who I have seen talk about reforming masculinity. Often they end up essentially arguing for everyone to solve the problem by putting on the Nice Guy Aesthetic, and that’s not going to work. It’s just another rigid gender role. In my last post I went into what I meant by healthy masculinity, but to recap; I mean an attitude towards masculinity that embraces a diversity of expression. It includes everyone who performs masculinity, whether men, women or non-binary, and it allows everyone to perform it in their own way, as well as validating those who don’t identify as masculine at all. I call this healthy masculinity because it is incompatible with the gatekeeper attitude that enforces and underpins toxic masculinity.

The nice guy aesthetic is compatible with healthy masculinity, it just isn’t inherently any more compatible than a tattooed motorcycle rider aesthetic, or a cowboy aesthetic, or a dapper steampunk gent aesthetic. Whinging that “nice guys finish last,” on the other hand, needs to go.

*I realize that some people do live in circumstances where their most comfortable gender expression would be highly stigmatized and might result in serious bullying or loss of a job that they need to survive. If this is you, I’m so sorry, and I hope you don’t mistake my earlier statement for judgment on your situation. There’s a difference between compromising your gender expression to survive and feeling entitled to certain things based solely on that expression.

Two metaphors for healing

I was trying to explain to my therapist where I stand now in relationship to the recent traumatic years, and I was struggling. Then, in a comment on someone else’s blog, the right metaphor came to me.

The bad years are a mountain range I was driving through. When I was in them they were my whole reality, and a lot of the time I couldn’t even tell that I was in an abnormal terrain. Then I started coming out of them. There was a time when I could see level ground and knew it was where I wanted to be. There was a time when I was definitely headed toward it, even though the mountains were still all around me.

There was a time when I was finally on level ground. I had made it out. And adjusting to a wide, smooth road, without sudden turns and sharp bends that demanded hypervigilance, was a project in itself.

And now I’ve been driving level for a little while, it’s starting to feel normal, I’m starting to relax. But the thing is, when I look in my rearview, all I really see is mountains. Everything that came before it is blotted out, and everything that came afterward is tiny in comparison.

I’m well out of the mountains, and driving toward whatever comes next. But it’s taking them a long time to get any smaller in the rearview mirror.

***

I have a patch of skin that’s recovering from a bad allergic reaction. There are patches of new pink skin interspersed with dry scabby areas. I’m eager for it all to be new and smooth, but I recognize that the dry, rough bits have their purpose. They aren’t pretty or nice to touch, but they’re needed, to protect what’s still tender and re-forming. They aren’t for always.

To accept that I need these rough spots, these dry and insensitive protective pieces, isn’t to accept that I will always be this way. I am still healing: in some places the healing is mostly finished, in others there’s a lot of work still to be done. If I try to rip off the scabs before it’s done, I just risk re-infection and further damage. So if I am a little prickly, a little insular, a little unforgiving, those are my scabs. Those are the defenses that help keep my heart safe while it heals. They aren’t for always, but they’re needed for now.

Defining Healthy Masculinity (Or Not)

So, this year I want to talk about healthy masculinity, and I should explain what I mean by that.

By healthy, I mean something that is generally good for you and the people around you; something that encourages you to take care of yourself and treat others respectfully and responsibly. I mean it to contrast toxic masculinity, which encompasses the attitudes that encourage people to abuse themselves and others in the name of seeming more masculine. That part of the definition, I think, is fairly straightforward.

Masculinity, on the other hand, is anything but.

If you look throughout history and across different cultures, our conceptions of what is and isn’t masculine have changed drastically. Nowadays the association between male homosexuality and effeminacy is widespread, but this wasn’t the case for the Ancient Greeks or Japanese military, while in Norse culture men on the penetrating end of homosexuality weren’t emasculated, but those on the receiving end were. These days, Western male fashion is supposed to be very understated and dressed down, but go back a couple of centuries and men were decked out in frills and tights and had long flowing curls.

cavalier-man-2

Aw yiss. Check out my manly lace.

Often when a word has a meaning that changes over time or depending on context, many people try to pin it down. They want it to find an objective meaning that lies beneath all the alterations, and throw out everything else. I used to be one of those people. Now, I think that some concepts are most useful when they are allowed to evolve and adapt to the needs of the current time; concepts like marriage, gender, grammar, art, language, even values like honor and justice. If there is some objective underpinning behind those concepts, it does not need defending, and if not, why fabricate one? And I definitely think masculinity is one of those concepts.

In fact, when I look at toxic masculinity, a constant feature is rigid, unyielding gender expressions and roles. Masculinity must be chained to maleness, and maleness must be changed to a positively Victorian concept of gender roles. As a society, we are trying to correct our ideas about women’s roles, but not update our corresponding ideas about men’s roles. Given that old ideas of masculinity were wedded to outdated and oppressive ideas about femininity, it is easy to see how this rigidity harms everyone. It hurts women because it reinforces sexist behavior, it hurts men by creating identity crises and insecurities where none need to exist, and it hurts people who don’t identify as either by erasing their very existence.

So when I imagine a world of healthy masculinity, I don’t have a specific image of what that masculinity would look like. Instead, I see a world where masculinity is acknowledged to be a social construct, and in future generations is constantly evolving to suit the needs of people of all genders.

But for now, what I want to see is masculine people rising up and taking back the definition of masculinity from those rigid gatekeepers. Whatever your gender is, and however you express your own masculinity, I want to see you recognize that masculinity is not some object that someone else rations out. I want the whole concept of revoked and bestowed “man cards” to die a swift yet painful death, and I want this bullshit idea that masculinity has to defend itself against being tainted with femininity to die even quicker. If some aspect of masculinity resonates with you, then that is yours, and nobody can take it from you. Whether you’re a knitting stay-at-home mom who also loves cars, sports, video games and Clint Eastwood, a person unsure of their gender but drawn to a butch aesthetic, or a classically masculine hetero cis man who doesn’t like how his culture has been associated with sexism and gay-bashing, you have a right to whatever part of masculinity feels right to you, and you don’t have to put anyone else down to claim it.