Quickie: the double standard of privacy

So the UN has reinstated sexual orientation in its list of unacceptable reasons to kill someone. Goody. This BBC article contains a dissenting quote from Zimbabwe’s ambassador that I had trouble wrapping my head around:

“We will not have it foisted on us,” he said, according to Reuters. “We cannot accept this, especially if it entails accepting such practices as bestiality, paedophilia and those other practices many societies would find abhorrent in their value systems.

“In our view, what adult people do in their private capacity, by mutual consent, does not need agreement or rejection by governments, save where such practices are legally proscribed,” he added.

First of all, let me refer the ambassador to my previous post on slippery slopes. But it’s the last sentence that really weirds me out. Is he really saying that governments should not “agree” or “reject” the private actions of consenting adults, except when they outlaw them? Because “legally proscribing” sounds like pretty strong rejection. So really he’s just saying that governments shouldn’t agree.

People, you can’t have it both ways. I’ve heard a similar argument referring to anti-bullying efforts in schools. On the one hand, someone’s sexuality is their private business, and governments shouldn’t have anything to do with it. (This is the argument when the government wants to do something like protect gay people from cruelty and violence). On the other hand, gay people are suspect and dangerous and destabilizing to society, and governments shouldn’t let them serve publicly. (This is the argument when we’re talking about gay people serving in the military, or teaching in public schools.)

All this rhetoric is for is to mask the speaker’s real position, which is that homosexuality is an abomination unto the Lord, or whatever. They usurp the “privacy” claim when it suits them, and then snap back to their real position when it doesn’t.

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Slippery slopes and sexuality

We’ve all heard it before: “If we allow gay marriage, next thing people will be trying to legalize polygamy!” Which statement will get one of two responses from pro-marriage-equality folks: “That’s ridiculous!” or “Uh… yeah?”

You may guess that I’m in the latter category, and you’d be right. But then the stereotypical protester will say, “And next thing they’ll allow a man to marry a dog, or an eight-year-old!” And then (if they didn’t already) the typical responder will cry “slippery slope fallacy!” But the protestor will point out that people like me are already going from “a man can marry a man” to “a man can marry a man and two women” and ask how fallacious that fallacy really is.

Well, I’ll tell you: totally fallacious. And that’s because there’s a big brick wall about halfway down the slippery slope. And on that wall, in bold capital letters, are the words “CONSENTING ADULTS.”

Consent is the watchword of modern sexual ethics. It’s the difference between BDSM and abuse. It’s the difference between polyamory and cheating. It’s the difference between rape and… sex. Anything two (or more) able, informed adults give consent to in private is generally considered okay. (“In private” is important because a couple going at it in the street are involving passersby in their sex life without their consent.)

There’s a little philosophical room around the question of who is able to give consent, but it’s generally understood that children, animals, and the severely mentally impaired (either permanently or temporarily, as by alcohol) are not. Likewise it’s understood that a large power differential, as between a boss and employee or a teacher and student, may obscure consent. But “consenting adults” remains the watchword, and all debates about the ethicality of any particular situation have to be conducted under those terms. Have both parties clearly consented? Are there any factors which might impair or nullify either’s ability to give consent? These are the questions that need to be asked.

It’s hard to imagine what other questions can sensibly be invoked. People who argue the gay marriage -> polygamy -> pedophilia -> bestiality slippery slope are usually correlating these four very different behaviors because all of them seem “unnatural.” But “natural” and “unnatural” are subjective and mostly meaningless categories. “That’s not natural” really just means “That makes me uncomfortable.” And I hope we can all agree that an individual’s sense of comfort or discomfort makes for a really lousy moral guide.

Someone might say, “But that goes against my religious code!” Fine, then don’t do that, and encourage your religious brethren not to do it either. But that has nothing to do with whether a thing should be legal or acceptable in the culture outside your religion. And if everybody in the world followed religious guidelines, that would still not be sufficient protection against sexual abuses. Some prophets are told by God to marry nine-year-olds, ya know. Laws exist to protect individuals from religion as much as they exist to protect individuals for religion.

The only other reasonable basis for argument, from a legal standpoint, is “Is this healthy for society as a whole?” And the follow-up, “If it’s not entirely healthy, is it unhealthy enough to warrant curtailing personal liberties?” Since the family is a social arrangement, it is fair to ask this when considering any particular kind of marriage. The question with gay marriage has been, “Is it healthy for a child to be raised by same-sex parents?” The preliminary results are in on that one, and the answer is yes. Whenever society takes up the question of polygamy, the same question will be asked, and I think that’s fair. With polygamy, there are additional questions raised, relating to things like citizenship and insurance benefits. But all these questions can and should be answered with hard evidence and studies, not on the basis of people’s gut sense of comfort or discomfort.

Also keep in mind the second part of the social-health question, “If unhealthy, is it unhealthy enough to warrant curtailing personal liberties?” Suppose study after study showed that children, in fact, do better when raised by same-sex parents, or polyamorous parents. (I can think of several reasons why either might be so.) How much better would it have to be before you’d support a ban on heterosexual monogamy? We’ve known for decades that children do better when raised by two parents rather than one, but no sane person suggests a law preventing single people from having children. We hold very highly the rights of heterosexual people to live, love, and create families as they see fit. In time, I hope that consenting adults of any number and gender are given the same level of respect.

Nice guys – an admonitory rant

By request, my standing rant on the claim, “women don’t want nice guys, they always go for bad boys” (usually uttered by the self-described “nice guys.”) This is on a short list of things many ordinary, decent people say that fill me with wrath. My instinct is to say, first of all, that it’s flatly untrue, but the terms “nice guy” and “bad boy” are so subjectively defined that that would be a worthless argument. My real objection is that it’s misogynistic.

Inevitable second-paragraph disclaimer: this post is going to be pretty heterocentric, since I’ve only ever seen it as a phenomenon between men and women. If there are any queer analogues, I’d be interested in hearing about them.

The “women don’t want nice guys” lament is misogynistic because it blames women for the speaker’s inability to attract them. It frames “not wanting to date me” as a character flaw. Now many of the nice guys would instantly protest this: they didn’t mean to imply that women are fundamentally flawed or unable to act in their own best interests… it’s just that all women seem to choose inferior men… um, I mean, their criteria for partners are misguided and superficial… um, I mean…

Exactly.

Nobody actually rejects another person because they’re nice. They may reject them because they’re timid, or insecure, or unattractive, or boring… but none of those equate to “nice.” Nice is a good quality! It’s like rejecting someone because they sing too well, or because their eyes are too pretty. The other big problem with the “I’m too nice to date!” lament is that it shields the man uttering it from considering what his actual problem might be, and fixing it. Nobody makes a resolution to be less nice… or if they do, they’re using “nice” as a synonym for “timid” or “unassertive.” Let’s keep our positive words positive and our negative words negative, okay?

So, “nice guys,” let’s put to rest insulting cliches and look at what’s really going on here. You have had the experience, over and over, of wanting girls who didn’t want you back. First of all, I hope you know this isn’t unique to you. Unrequited love, or lust, or infatuation, is one of the great human constants. And almost all of us feel like it happens to us more than to other people. The people who successfully find love and sex and romance are the people who are able to take disappointment without becoming whiny or resentful.

“But it really does happen to me more than to other people!” Well, maybe so. If that’s true, there might be two problems: you’re not trying hard enough, or you’re not making yourself attractive. You do have to actually ask girls out in order to get a date. Sometimes you’ll ask and they’ll say no. That sucks. Ask again (not her; a different girl.) Faint heart never won fair lady, and all that. And whatever you do, don’t play this game.

I just wrote a whole post on being attractive. If you read that and think, “But that sounds like so much work! I want someone to like me just the way I am!” then please extend your wrist for a well-deserved slap. Your friends should like you just the way you are. Your family should love you just the way you are. But your romantic partner should like you, initially, because you turn her on, because you make her want to be closer to you. Nobody owes you their attraction. Here’s a little secret: I can pretty much guarantee you that, at some point in your life, a girl has harbored an unrequited crush on you. You either didn’t notice or didn’t count it because you didn’t find her attractive. I’m not blaming you for that: no one should date someone they’re not attracted to, either out of pity or out of desperation. But it should be obvious that this works both ways, so do what you can to make yourself as attractive as possible.

Finally, maybe what’s happening is that you see women dating men who you perceive as jerks, and you think, “I would treat her so much better!” You may be making unwarranted assumptions about what she considers good treatment. Plenty of women will happily forego hearts and flowers for a man who gives her a sense of adventure and excitement in life. Me, I tend to date people who offend and irritate other people with their outspoken opinions. I’ll take verbal sparring over sweet nothings any day. I’m sure there are people out there who think, “Why is she dating that asshole?” The short answer? I like assholes. (Of a particular kind.) Point is, don’t make assumptions about what a woman wants from a lover. If you’re a naturally sweet, romantic guy who will bring her flowers and never forget her birthday, well great! There are plenty of women who will appreciate that. But don’t assume that that means you’re every woman’s ideal. People have “types” in personalities as well as looks.

There are, of course, women (and men) who are pathologically drawn to lovers who treat them badly. They have their own problems they need to sort out: dating a “nice guy” like you isn’t going to magically fix them, so the best thing you can do is walk away. If you are pathologically drawn to women who treat you badly, you also have your own problems you need to sort out.

The world doesn’t owe you a girlfriend just for being a decent person. You have to get out there, make yourself as attractive as possible, and roll with the punches, just like the rest of us. If you can do it with good grace and without becoming bitter, it’s a pretty safe bet that eventually you’ll find the love you’re looking for.

How to be attractive

This started as a paragraph in my “nice guy” rant, but it quickly grew to post-length, and it’s really applicable to men and women alike, so it gets to be its own post. The “nice guy” rant will follow shortly.

Standard advice on “how to be attractive” goes something like this: “You don’t have to look like David Tennant (although it doesn’t hurt)… just be confident, funny, and above all, be yourself.” Which is about as useless as advice gets. They’re right that you don’t have to look like David Tennant (and right that it doesn’t hurt), but confidence and humor are not just things a person can put on like a new hat. Especially if they’re also trying to be themselves. So I’m going to try to get at what’s behind that advice, and find some more useful tips for becoming more attractive. Most of these come from my own experience: I have always been a pretty girl, but it took me until my mid-twenties to learn how to be attractive. They’re very different things.

Confidence. Don’t ever try to fake confidence: you’ll look either transparently pathetic, or assholish. The thing that’s important about confidence, the thing that makes it part of the attractiveness package, is that it expresses emotional independence. It’s the opposite of neediness. When you’re about fifteen, you can have an intense and emotionally satisfying (although ultimately devastating) relationship based around how badly you neeeed each other. After that, you and anyone you date should be mature enough to know that that’s a recipe for disaster. A mature relationship, even a mature one-night-stand, is built around the idea that both people have something to bring to the table besides their hunger for intimacy. If you approach a romantic partner broadcasting “Complete me!” on all frequencies, they’re going to be turned off. If they wanted devotion in exchange for rescuing someone from loneliness, they could go get a puppy from a shelter. You have to come with a sense of what you have to offer, and also a sense of what they have to offer.

This is easier said than done, I realize. This post is not “how to be attractive in six easy steps.” It’s more “how to be attractive after much soul-searching and personal growth.” What it took for me to develop that emotional independence, to shed the neediness and craving for intimacy that was sabotaging my attractiveness, was becoming happily single. It took a few years, and I wasn’t happily single in the “I’m so content being single I’d turn down David Tennant if he knocked on my door” sense. But I was satisfied with my life, in the present. I had close friends who gave me the emotional support and intimacy we all need, I had hobbies and activities that gave me pleasure, and I didn’t feel this sense of gaping incompleteness without a romantic partner. This did not come naturally to me: I have a high natural craving for intimate relationships, for love and sex and kisses. But my stoic tendencies led me eventually to accept singlehood, since it seemed to be thrust upon me, and appreciate the value in it. Emerging from that period, I found that I could approach potential lovers with a sense of who I was and what I had to offer, rather than a yearning desperation.

Your mileage may vary. It might take something else: a few sessions with a therapist, finding a fuckbuddy to practice and develop your sexual confidence with, traveling around the world. But if your neediness is causing problems for you, I highly recommend taking dating off the table for a couple of years, and throwing yourself whole-heartedly into other areas of life.

Humor. Trying to be funny, if you’re not, is about as disastrous as trying to seem confident. However, while there’s always something appealing about somebody who makes you laugh, the important things about humor are 1) not taking yourself too seriously, and 2) a sense of joy.

The surest way to look ridiculous, in any area of life, is to be preoccupied with not looking ridiculous. We are ridiculous creatures: we try to fathom the mysteries of the universe, and also we poop. Our method of reproduction is sublime and ecstatic and also messy and awkward. Our brains can grasp and absorb complex theories and create beautiful self-expressions, and also produce bizarre and absurd hallucinations every 24 hours. We are messy, mixed-up, slightly ridiculous beings, and laughter is an apt response to this truth. So don’t take yourself too seriously. I once read a kitschy pillow-embroidery statement to the effect of “a life without laughter is like a wagon without springs,” and it’s totally true. The ability to laugh at yourself and at the universe is essential shock-absorption for life. I don’t require that all my lovers make me laugh, but they do have to have a sense of humor, an appreciation for the occasional absurdity of life, the universe, and occasionally themselves.

A sense of joy is just as important. Just… just enjoy stuff, man. You don’t have to be Ms. or Mr. Bubbling Enthusiasm (definitely not my type, for starters), but take pleasure in the things that give you pleasure. I, being a nerd who is attracted to nerds, am turned on when I see someone’s face lit up by an idea or concept or project they’re working on. I want to go through life with someone who takes delight in the world… maybe not all of it, but certain concrete areas of it. If you communicate a sense of joy, of passion, of excitement in those things that you love most, you will attract people.

And now let’s talk about looks. Here, the most important thing is to get an accurate sense of what you can control and what you can’t. Your face and body type you’re pretty much stuck with: you can work out, you can gain or lose weight to a point, you can apply makeup and style your hair and choose your clothes to flatter yourself, but if you’re a beanpole guy you’ll never look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and if you’re a curvy, wide-hipped woman you’ll never look like Summer Glau. And here’s the other bad news: attraction is often cruelly arbitrary when it comes to looks. I fell in love once with a man who was really only attracted to waifish, petite women, and I recognized that there was nothing I could do, either about my non-waifish figure or about his attractions. You’re not going to be everyone’s type. But the good news is, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be someone’s type. More so if you’re reasonably healthy and dress and groom to your advantage. Healthy humanity is sexy, period. As with any area of life, the challenge is to find your strengths and maximize them. Figure out what the best-looking version of you is, and present that person to the world.

Don’t be afraid to be a little idiosyncratic, either. I have very pretty hair — it’s soft and a nice medium brown with tints of red, and when it was long I got a lot of compliments on it. But I cut it short in my “contentedly single” phase, and then I shaved it because I’d always wanted to try that, and since then I’ve never let it get past about 3/4 inch long. Conventional wisdom says that men like long hair, and many men I’ve talked to confirm that. But I love my short-short hair. It makes me feel confident and strong and sexy, and I’m fairly sure that projecting those feelings has made me more attractive than long hair ever did. So work what you got. Be attractive to yourself first. Don’t fight a losing battle, and don’t be afraid to try something different with your looks.

Relational language and gender

One thing I dislike about the English language (and many others) is how much colder gender-neutral relational terms are to their gendered counterparts. Contrast “mother” or “father” with “parent”; “husband” or “wife” with “spouse”; “daughter” or “son” with “child.” To speak of my mother suggests warmth and closeness (even if it’s of a negative kind); to speak of my parent suggests a clinical distance.

It’s easy to understand why this is so. The assumption in our culture is that gender has an impact on intimate relationships; that a mother-daughter relationship is different from a father-daughter, or a mother-son. A business colleague (ideally) is the same to you whether they are male or female, but a sister is essentially different from a brother.

But this poses serious problems in a world where the complexities of gender are better and better understood. There are tropes and types for different relationships, but these aren’t nearly so neatly followed in the real world. In mother-daughter and father-son relationships, for example, there’s a two-edged dynamic that’s fairly universally understood. First is role-modeling, where the child looks to their same-sex parent for a pattern of how to live life; simultaneously an example to follow and a standard to live up to. Second is rejection and deviation, where the child breaks from the pattern set by their same-sex parent and chooses their own way, although still taking many of the parent’s precepts as foundational. And surrounding this dynamic (in which both of these elements co-exist) are feelings of shame, admiration, anger, guilt, loyalty, and betrayal. Same-sex parent-child relationships are intense.

I know this dynamic very well, but it is embodied in my relationship with my father. My father is the parent I have always identified with, aspired to be like, determined I would never under any circumstances be like. My relationship with my mother carries none of this identity-laden baggage. Father-son dynamics in literature, like that played out in Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, move me deeply, as I see myself and my father reflected in the story. In a biological sense, I am my father’s daughter, but in a narrative, relational sense I am my father’s son.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels a dissonance between what particular relational terms seem to imply, and the realities of their own relationships. Things get even hairier when you’re talking about romantic relationships. For better or worse, in our culture, the gender of the person you’re in a relationship with says something about you. If I, a woman, have a girlfriend, I’m queer; if I have a boyfriend, I’m straight. I always feel awkward and uncomfortable going with my boyfriend to Pride events; I want to cry out, “Just because there’s a boy on my arm doesn’t mean I’m straight!” That’s probably more my own social anxiety than anything, since I’m sure most of the queer people around don’t automatically judge or exclude me for being in a hetero relationship, but the larger problem is still there.

A dear friend of mine, who’s been out as a lesbian for years to most of our mutual friends, despite religious disapproval on the part of many of them, is now dating a transman, and has a strange line to walk when mentioning her significant other. He’s clearly her boyfriend, not her girlfriend, but for her to use the word “boyfriend” reflects back on her inaccurately: people, especially those who are hoping she’ll return to the path of righteousness (i.e. not being gay) are going to wonder, “Has she gone straight?” And she can’t correct that misapprehension without revealing her boyfriend’s personal history to people who he’s never met.

Then you have the problem of people who would prefer not to be gender-pinned by language at all, whether they feel gender-neutral or ambi-gendered or just don’t think it should be relevant. But for them, as for people in all the above-mentioned scenarios, the option of using gender-neutral relational language carries one serious drawback; it implies coolness and distance, instead of a warm, vital relationship. It just doesn’t feel the same to talk about “my significant other” instead of “my boyfriend.” It might be the best available option, but it’s unfortunate.

I don’t have a solution to this problem. Maybe as more people have to deal with the complexities of gender in their own lives, the connotations of our relational words will change. For now, the best we can do is be aware of the problem, and make the best of it.