Open Letter to an Unnamed Comedian

Dear Comedian,

I will not name you because, number one, I saw you at a late open mic night and your name was lost in the swirling rotation of participants, and number two, the odds that you actually see this are slim, and if you do, you will recognize yourself from the joke.

The joke was about a trans woman. Now, I do have a sense of humor about my transness. I like to joke about it, and I like to hear other people joke about it. There’s really only one transgender joke I don’t like. It goes like this; you expressed sexual interest in a trans woman. Haha. That’s it, that’s the whole joke. The precise wording and context varies, but the joke itself never changes. Its funny because… I don’t know. Because transgender people are inherently gross? Because being in contact with them makes you gay and gay people are inherently gross? Its simultaneously homophobic AND transphobic. Hilarious!

Unfortunately, that joke also accounts for 99.9% of the transgender related humor out there, which is a shame. There are so many other jokes that could be told. I loved the one on Orange is the New Black where the only woman in the whole prison block who knew how female genitalia worked was the trans woman. I love this webcomic. I love the penultimate episode of Freaks and Geeks (which is about an intersex girl, but much of the episode could have easily been about a trans woman).

But I’m getting away from myself. You didn’t actually tell that joke, or perhaps you did, but put the first truly original spin on it that I can recall seeing. You told it about yourself. You described a beautiful woman on television who you were very attracted to, and then revealed to the audience that she was trans, and that you knew that at the time you were attracted to her.

Is that offensive? I’m conflicted. On the one hand, its one thing to put someone else down for finding trans people attractive, and another thing to state it publicly about yourself. The latter suggests that there is something okay about it. At the very least you were okay enough with it to admit it to a room of strangers. On the other hand, that wouldn’t be funny or provocative if it wasn’t for the general knowledge that being attracted to trans people is stigmatized. The question is whether or not the joke reinforced that stigma. I wish you had gone on to criticize the stigma, to make some joke questioning why it is, exactly, that we treat attraction to trans people as something shocking and bizarre? Especially at a time when being gay is more acceptable, when many of your fellow comedians that night were themselves openly gay? You could have made us all laugh at the fact that we applaud Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen DeGeneres, yet still mock a heterosexual man for being attracted to an adult woman whose breasts and vagina were relatively recent additions to her anatomy.

I also wonder if it ever occurred to you that a trans person could have been in the audience? I wonder if, to you, transness is something that happens on TV and in bad jokes, not in real life. Would you have told your joke differently if you knew that someone sitting in front of you had personally dealt with the issue of dating while being transgender?

Here’s what dealing with it looked like (for me, not for everyone who is trans). First of all, it meant being prepared for the fact that some people won’t want to sleep with me, on the basis of my transness. That’s okay. Everybody has the right to say “no” to someone they aren’t attracted to, whatever that reason. You don’t have to say “yes” to someone who is fat, thin, tall, short, possessing of a hair color you don’t love, possessing a fashion sense you don’t love, etc. Second, it meant being willing to answer a lot of questions to potential partners that I wouldn’t be willing to answer otherwise. I knew there were some people who wouldn’t be interested and some people who would be interested and also come pre-educated, but that most people who were interested would have some questions. Questions about my surgical history and what I can and can’t do in bed aren’t for the knowledge of the general public, but someone who is considering sleeping with me does have a right to know what will happen. Third, it meant being willing to shut people down and get away fast if their questions were not polite in tone, or if in any way they began acting predatory and disrespectful.

If all of that sounds scary to you, it was. It was exactly as intimidating as it sounds. And in the end, it was worth it, because you might notice I was using past tense in the paragraph above. I found someone online who seemed nice, we wrote, I answered some awkward questions because he asked them politely and reasonably. We met in person, we clicked, and we celebrated our one year anniversary last week. As it happened, we celebrated at the open mic night where you, dear comedian, told your joke.

And this brings me back to why I’m not sure whether I’m okay with it. I recall that at first my boyfriend wasn’t sure what to do, but then he talked to another gay man he respected who shared a story about hooking up with a trans man and how it went well. That gave my boyfriend the extra bit of confidence he needed to meet me in person. So maybe, by admitting that you found a trans woman attractive you made someone else feel like, despite what society says, they weren’t weird for finding some transfolk hot (cause seriously, tons of us are really, really hot).

Still, the joke didn’t make me feel good. It still made me feel like you were mocking yourself, like in the end you were affirming that there was something weird about your reaction. I didn’t laugh at your joke. I laughed at every other part of your set, because you are a very funny man, but I didn’t laugh at that one. It felt like, in order to laugh at it, I would have to laugh at myself, not in a good and healthfully self-deprecating way, but in a way that affirmed that yes, I am a filthy, strange and unlovable thing. I wasn’t really in the mood to do that. It was my anniversary.

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Empowerment

Around last spring, I made a decision that kindness was going to be one of the primary ways I evaluated new friends or potential partners. In the past it had been fairly low on the list, with features like cleverness, shared beliefs, or shared lifestyle ranking higher. I followed through on that decision: my primary social circle now is one of deeply kind and compassionate people, and I’ve never been happier.

Recently it’s occurred to me that I want to add a second criterion to my Must Haves list for an intimate relationship: empowering. Does this person, in the way they interact with others, habitually empower others? And more particularly, do they interact with me in ways that are empowering to me?

When I talk about empowering others, I mean helping people to feel stronger, more capable, more worthy and able to be in charge of their own life. A person can be very kind and very, very disempowering: every “white knight” or “white savior” story is the story of someone kindly taking care of someone else in a way that reinforces that person’s dependence on the knight/savior.

Even the notion of empowerment can be a trap, because empowerment by definition has to come largely from within. Once you start thinking of empowerment as something you give them, you’re back in dependency territory. A lot of empowering others, then, is mostly in avoiding disempowering behaviors, although I think there are also ways one can be concretely empowering.

Empowerment has a lot of methods and a lot of facets. It can be simply telling someone, “I believe in you; you’ve got this.” It can be listening to someone talk through their thoughts until they’ve found their own solution. It can be assuring someone that you will love and be there for them no matter what decision they make.

To feel empowered in a relationship, I need my partners to believe these things, and demonstrate the beliefs through action:

– I am fully capable of deciding what is best for myself and my life.

– I am fully capable of learning and growing in areas where I am weak, flawed, or underdeveloped.

– The values and priorities I have set for myself are valid, and are more relevant to my decisions than any values or priorities any other person might wish to impose on me.

– Mistakes I make are not signs of fundamental character failings in me, but of habits and traits that I have not yet learned to overcome. They do not indicate that I need someone else to take charge of my life or my growth; they just indicate that I’m a person who has weak spots like any other person.

The essence of empowerment is respecting that the other person has the right and the ability to make decisions about their own life; to determine and pursue their own values; to live and star in their own story. While many of us would agree with these things on principle, we’re quick to draw the conclusion that we know better than the other person in THIS situation; that we have perfectly clear insight into what they need here, and if only we could just show them they’d be so much happier! Empowerment, on the other hand, persistently sets the other person up as the #1 expert on their life, their needs, and their feelings. They are the captain, you are first mate or crew member (when it comes to their problems and their life, of course. You get to be the captain of your own ship!)

It is possible to give advice and guidance in an empowering way, but it is tricky. First and foremost, the advice has to be welcome. Just jumping in with, “Well, here’s what I think/here’s what you should do” when the other person hasn’t asked for your opinion is a way of centering your own perspective, and carries the implication that the other person NEEDS your help whether they want it or not. Prefacing any kind of advice or input with “May I give you some advice?/Would you like to hear my thoughts?” reinforces to both of you that the other person is in charge here. My therapist, who I basically pay to help me figure my life out, makes a habit of asking, “Would you like feedback?” before sharing her advice and perspective.

Second, empowering advice honors the other person’s values and priorities, even when they differ from yours. For example, the importance of blood family and maintaining those ties is different for different people. Some will walk away from a family that consistently treats them badly, some will work hard to stay connected. Empowering advice honors the values of the person making the decision, even if the advice-giver would make a different choice based on their different values. (If your values are so different from the other’s that you have a hard time imagining why they’d make the choices they do, or if you believe their values to be objectively wrong, then you are not well-positioned to give them empowering advice. Better to stick to being the sympathetic, “I’m sorry this is so hard” voice.)

Third, empowering advice frames itself clearly as one option, which the other person gets to take or reject according to their best judgement. Advice that frames itself as, “I have solved your problem, this is what you need to do” is not empowering; it presumes that you know better than they do in this situation. Advice that comes with an unspoken “If you reject my advice, I’ll be hurt” is both disempowering and manipulative. Advice is a gift you give someone, and attaching emotional baggage to it is unfair.

This whole notion of empowerment is still something I’m rambling my way through, and figuring out as I think and write about it. Questions I’m still exploring (and may write about in future) include:

– What are some modes of conflict that are either empowering or disempowering?

– How much diversity is there in what empowers different people? (This might be one for Lane and I to talk through together, since our needs and preferences in intimate relationship power dynamics are very different.)

– If a relationship has had a strong dependency component, when and how do you move it toward a more mutually empowering dynamic?

I’d welcome thoughts on any of these as I continue to think this through.

When your partner is accused of abuse — some additional thoughts

So, hey there! My last-post-but-one got a surprising amount of attention, and there are probably a lot of you here for the first time! Welcome.

As is inevitable, some questions have come up about nuances in the whole “what do you do when your partner is accused of abuse” question. By far the stickiest is the case where you, the partner, feel that your accused partner is themself being victimized by these accusations. Eve Rickert of More Than Two (and it is cool to admit that I squee’d like a fangirl when Eve and Franklin reblogged my post?) messaged me directly to discuss that point, and ask for some clarification. So here it is.

Situations where a person (or several people) is self-identifying as an abuse victim, while simultaneously being accused by others of perpetrating abuse… these are hard. And not uncommon. How can you support victims and hold abusers accountable when you don’t know who is which?

The thing I think that was sticky for people in my original post was that I suggested that if you believe your partner is being victimized by accusations of abuse, you should support them privately, while still sticking to the victim-supporting behavior I had named above of not attacking the victim publicly. In general I think this is a good principle, but I want to make a couple of clarifying points and perhaps note some exceptions.

1) My advice is absolutely only meant to apply to intimate partners of the accused person. I do not think that a community needs to default to believing and supporting the first person to come forward with abuse accusations — that would be disastrous. I do think that an intimate partner of the accused person is likely to have some pretty strong biases toward coming to the conclusion that attacks on their partner are themselves a form of abuse, and that having intimate partners come out swinging at their partner’s accusers is not usually going to be conducive to truth or healing for anybody.

2) There are things I think it is completely appropriate for a partner to do, when their partner is being accused of abuse and they feel that this is unjust. If there are any facts that they are a direct witness to, I think it is completely appropriate for them to give their account. “X said Y punched him on the night of August 4th. I was there the whole time, and I never saw any physical contact between them.” Other people can make their own judgements about the reliability of the partner’s testimony, but it is completely reasonable to speak to things that you have observed.

I also think it’s appropriate, as I said in the original post, for partners to speak about their own perceptions and beliefs, as long as they are careful to frame it in those terms. “Based on what I’ve seen between them, I feel that Y has been hurt and controlled by X at least as much as X has been hurt and controlled by Y… and honestly, I think a good bit more.” That’s a very different statement from “Y never abused X!” (Which, again, is not something you can really speak to of your own knowledge, no matter how close you were to their relationship.)

3) I’m still thinking on this one. When there is an overwhelming tide of community support toward person X, such that their social standing and ability to move and speak freely are pretty well unaffected, while person Y is functionally ostracized… I think maybe it’s fine for partners, or anybody, to be more aggressive in defending person Y. I’m thinking of situations like the one described here. When the tide of public opinion is strongly in favor of one side, the power differential has shifted such that having a couple of partners speak more loudly in defense of the accused is not going to do the damage it might otherwise do. If it’s a situation like Shea Emma Fett describes, where the abuser had successfully manipulated the community into viewing himself as the victim, then you’re standing up for an oppressed person where no one else will. If, on the other hand, the community opinion has accurately and rightly weighed the situation and come down against your partner, your words in their defense aren’t going to have the same detrimental impact that they would in a more open playing field.

I still think it’s inexcusable in any circumstance to attack a self-identified victim in ways that are dehumanizing, shaming, or devaluing. You can say a lot of words to the effect of, “I don’t think that person’s accusations are true” and “I have suspicions about their motives” and “I actually think they treated my partner really horribly” without undermining their personhood. Especially, I think it’s never acceptable to attack a self-identified victim on the basis of their sexuality or mental health — which are two of the ways abuse and assault victims are most often discredited.

The overall goal of my “advice to partners” post was to avoid creating situations where a community rallies unfairly around an abuser at the expense of their victim, or where a victim fears coming forward because their abuser has several partners who will participate in counter-attacking them. We are naturally prone to support and defend our intimate partners against negative accusations, and I wanted to think and talk about some ways we can balance that impulse of loyalty against the need to create whole communities that support victims. One unfortunate fact, whenever giving advice of this kind, is that people who are conscientious, self-critical, and primarily concerned with doing the right thing may follow the advice even to their own detriment, while people who are blind to their own biases and/or primarily concerned with serving their own interests will ignore it or distort it in order to cause further harm. I don’t have a solution for that problem.

I will say, though, that “good behavior guidelines” and advice are generally best self-applied. Reading, reflecting, and deciding to hold yourself to a certain standard, is all great. Pointing to someone else’s behavior and saying, “See? See how they failed to follow this guideline here? That proves they’re bad/wrong/certainly less good than me, anyway” — that is not, in my opinion, conducive to building a better world and better relationships. Doubly so if you’re waving them in the person’s face to prove to them how bad/wrong they are, which can get downright coercive. (I grew up in a moralistic religion. I know whereof I speak.)

The larger question of how communities can and should respond when there are accusations of abuse flying around in multiple directions is — well, it’s a larger question. It’s also very timely, and I may or may not try to tackle it in a future post. I am encouraged that the poly community is so concerned with these issues, and I’ve been pleased to see people trying hard to do the right thing, and self-correcting when they recognize they’ve made a mistake. I’m confident that, as we keep talking and listening to each other, we can make our communities safe and affirming.

What to do if your partner is accused of abuse

There is a lively and timely conversation about abuse in polyamorous relationships, and the ways poly structures uniquely contribute to abusive situations, in both positive and negative ways. I have a lot to say about this. For today, though, I want to tackle one particular question: how one should behave if one’s partner is accused of abuse or consent violations.

One of the ways abuse in poly differs from many monogamous situations is that the abusive dynamics may be created and fed by several people in the poly network. While there may be a centrally abusive, controlling figure, often other members of the poly circle contribute in their own ways to creating a toxic environment that leaves one or more people feeling powerless and oppressed. This can operate a lot of different ways, but the simplest is when other partners of the abusive person insist that nothing is wrong, that the abusive partner is great and wonderful and thus any problems must be your problem. Whether this comes from a Stockholm-y place, or whether the abusive partner only operates abusively toward some partners (or some complicated mix of the two), this often leaves the abuse victim convinced that it must, indeed, be a problem with them. There’s no gaslighting like community-reinforced gaslighting, even when it’s completely unintentional on the part of most of the community members.

Despite the common (and appropriate) admonishment to “believe the victim,” when the accused abuser is someone that you love and don’t believe capable of abuse, I don’t think that you, in your heart of hearts, are obligated to believe the victim. I don’t think it serves anyone for people to try to convince themselves on principle to believe something they don’t believe. If you believe the accusation is false, for whatever reason, then you don’t need to pretend otherwise.

I do, however, think you’re obligated to behave and speak in victim-supporting ways. The only way to create a community that battles abuse and supports victims is for everybody to practice certain victim-supporting behaviors, even if they have doubts about the accuracy or severity of the accusations. The damage of siding with an accused abuser over their victim goes far beyond the immediate situation and the added pain caused to the victim; it tells all other victims of abuse that if they report, there is a danger that their community will rally around their abuser and they will feel further ostracized, victimized, and vulnerable. This fear, in turn, acts to protect and enable abusive behavior, as abuse goes unreported.

So much for the general principles. What are the victim-supporting behaviors that a partner of the accused should adopt?

1) Absolutely do not attack or question the victim, publicly or privately. You may have your doubts; you may be convinced the accusation is false; and in that case the instinct to rush to your partner’s defense may be strong. Resist it, for all the reasons stated above. By doing so, you’ll be harming not only that person, but any other current or future abuse victims in earshot.

2) Don’t try to put yourself on Team Victim if that’s not where your heart is. Being told “I totally support you” by someone whose behavior and words actually suggest that they doubt and question you sucks. It can become its own form of gaslighting and contribute to the vortex of powerlessness and self-doubt a victim feels.

3) If you must communicate with the victim, stick to validating their pain. “It’s clear this is a very painful situation for you, and I’m very sorry.” Their pain is real, and you can be compassionate toward that even if you disagree about the facts of the situation.

4) If you must express your own opinion of the situation, frame it very clearly in terms of your perspective. “He never abused you” is very different from, “I personally didn’t witness anything that I would call abuse.” This applies whether you’re talking to the victim or to outside parties. Keep in mind that you cannot actually know what happened within the privacy of their relationship.

These are victim-supporting behaviors that apply no matter what the situation is. The other side of creating a culture that rejects abuse is supporting the abuser. This set of guidelines will vary a little bit based on the situation you’re in.

Sometimes, accusations of abuse are themselves a form of abuse or manipulation. Your accused partner might themselves be a victim, in this case. If you believe that to be true, then it is absolutely appropriate to direct a lot of compassion and support to them — privately. “I believe you, sweetheart, it’s not your fault, I can’t believe they’re throwing these accusations at you on top of everything else they’ve done. I’m so sorry.”

It is also possible that the accused has behavior patterns that don’t function abusively for you, but do and did for other people. We are each vulnerable to different things, and it is possible to create an environment of manipulation and control without intending to. Also, people’s thresholds for labeling something “abuse” can vary, especially for emotional abuse. So maybe you agree that your partner treated another partner badly, but you feel that abuse is too strong an accusation.

In any of these cases — where you can see how your partner may be at least partially culpable, even if you don’t see them as abusive — you can support your partner and strengthen the community by holding them accountable in the areas where they are prone to cause harm. You don’t need to be their Personality Makeover Coach (I have a severe side-eye for relationships where one person is actively engaged in teaching the other to be a better person), but if they come to you complaining, “Can you believe X said that I was abusive because I did p, q, and r?” you can say, “I love you, but when you do those things it can feel really dominating/manipulative/invalidating to people, and I’d love to see you work on that.”

It is also possible that you, yourself, are being dominated, abused, and manipulated by the accused partner, and that at some level you feel or suspect this but are struggling with the conflict, fear, and cognitive dissonance that abuse victims so often suffer. If that’s the case, I’m so so sorry. You are in a really hard place, and my heart goes out to you. If you’re even able to acknowledge that this might be the case, you’ve come a long way. How to find your way out of the dark is way beyond the scope of this post, but know that if you keep coming back to the question, “Is there something fundamentally wrong with my relationship?” the answer is probably yes. Start reading these resources for abuse victims — maybe not for yourself, maybe just to gain a better understanding of what’s going on in your poly network and why community support for victims is so important. (But maybe also for yourself.) Follow the victim-supporting guidelines I wrote above (and if your partner is angry at you for doing that, or pressures you to go to battle for them, that is definitely a problem), but also, do what you need to do to be safe, and know that if you got co-opted into participating in an abusive dynamic, forgiveness waits for you on the other side.

*** Edited Feb 24th to add ***

I’ve gotten a few questions and requests for clarification, so I wrote a follow-up post which you can read here.

Birth control!

Hey everybody! Want to read a post about birth control choices? If not, may as well click away now!

Since realizing that I was going to become sexually active as soon as I found someone I liked enough, I’ve thought a lot about birth control options. I’m the kind of person who likes to weigh choices over and over, considering them from every angle, so it was a pretty natural thing to do. But I never hear other women talking about their own birth control choices; at most maybe they mention what they’re using, or something they had a bad experience with.

Methods I have used
Condoms: Still a part of my life in the poly world: like many poly folk, we have a rule about using condoms with new partners, and not stopping using them without discussing it with the other partners. It’s primarily about preventing infection, not preventing pregnancy, but when I wasn’t on any other form of birth control it served double-duty. The interruption in spontaneity doesn’t bother me, but the increased dryness does. Still, sex with a condom is way better than no sex at all: it’s a price I’m quite willing to pay.

Withdrawal: A much-maligned strategy, for couples where the male partner knows his body and can exercise control. You’ll still hear conflicting reports about whether there’s sperm in pre-ejaculate: there isn’t conclusive evidence, but the most likely answer is “sometimes, from a previous ejaculation.” Either way, it is possible to get pregnant from perfect use of withdrawal, but the odds are low: the perfect-use rate is 96%, which is close to the perfect-use rate for condoms. I like it because it’s free and doesn’t require me to do anything, not even go to a doctor every few months. I would like it less if I didn’t trust my partner’s “perfect use” abilities, and I would never, never recommend it to teenagers. The biggest disadvantage is that it might be less fun for the man: it is for mine, which is the primary reason I went on to a different method.

Fertility awareness: Another much-maligned strategy. As with withdrawal, its effectiveness depends on how well you know your body and how good your self-control is. I used a lazy-but-cautious form of fertility awareness, keeping only a very small window of “safe” times. For this reason, I probably won’t ever use it as my primary form of birth control: to do it effectively, you should be charting your temperature and all your cycles and cervical fluid, and while I like the idea of knowing my body that closely, I’m not disciplined enough about daily tasks to carry it out.

The Sponge: I liked this one. It was easy to use, I had control over it, and I didn’t have any comfort issues. The major downside was the cost: something like $12 for a pack of three. That would be okay if I was single and only occasionally having sex, but not something I wanted to consider long-term.

You’ll notice that all these methods are non-hormonal. For a while I was dead set against using hormonal methods of birth control: I was afraid of undiscovered side effects, and I didn’t like the idea of constantly medicating my body when it’s just operating the way it’s supposed to. My take on this changed somewhat as I learned more about reproductive biology: it became less “don’t disturb the magic and mystery of the reproductive cycle!” and more “here’s why the body does these things at this time, and here’s all the things that can change that, and just because it’s natural doesn’t mean that it’s the healthiest thing for you.” (Kate Clancy writes a lot of good stuff about women’s reproductive physiology: this post contains links to a lot of great information, by herself and others.) This ideological shift, combined with what I learned about some other non-hormonal methods I was considering (more on that in a minute), got me looking at hormonal methods again. And so we come to…

What I’m using now
NuvaRing: I just started it, which is what prompted this post. In a month or so I’ll come back with a fuller report on how I like it. It’s the first hormonal birth control I’ve taken, and I chose it for two reasons: it’s lower-dose than any of the others, and it’s instantly removable. If I find I don’t like its effects, I can take it out and the hormonal effects start breaking down after several hours. Also I like that it can be used continuously, without a withdrawal bleed every month. If I’m going to be messing with my hormones, I’m going to enjoy the full benefits, goshdarnit! I like it so far: I don’t feel it at all, insertion was no problem, and I’ve noticed no other effects.

What I’ve considered using
Diaphragm/cervical cap: This was going to be my method of choice once I finally made it to a doctor. Both methods are very similar to the sponge, which I liked, but more cost-effective for someone who has sex more than once a week. What changed my mind was learning that spermicide may increase risk of HIV infection: frequent use can cause minor abrasions which make HIV transmission easier. The risk given my circumstances is pretty low: while I’m non-monogamous (risk factor), none of my partners are hugely promiscuous, and I trust them all to use condoms with outside partners, and I’m not going to be exposing myself to spermicide every day. But low risk isn’t no risk, and gosh it’d suck to get HIV, so I bumped any spermicide-dependent birth control methods down several rungs on the preference ladder.

IUD: This one I might go with after I’ve had all the children I want to have. Several years ago I was planning on using the copper IUD once I became sexually active: over many years it becomes cost-effective, I liked that it was non-hormonal, and I liked that I wouldn’t have to do anything about it once it was placed. Non-monogamy, and my late onset of sexual activity, changed my calculations here too: some people don’t recommend the IUD for the non-monogamous, as it can increase the risk of complications if you do get an STI. Also, I’m now thinking it will be less than five years, not more, that I decide it’s babytime, so it makes less sense financially. And finally, my calculations of “prefer less hormonal interference” and “prefer less menstrual difficulty” have flip-flopped: before, I wanted no hormones even if it might make my periods heavier and more painful, and so planned on using the copper IUD. Now, I’ll probably opt for Mirena if I do get an IUD.

So! Now you know all you’d ever want to know about my ruminations about / experiences with different forms of birth control. If you’d like to share your own, please do! I’m genuinely interested to hear other people’s experiences and considerations… which is why I posted this in the first place.

Why a sex strike is not a helpful response to attacks on reproductive choice

I’ve seen a couple of calls for a sex strike of some kind, in response to the many recent attempts to restrict availability of women’s reproductive choice services (both abortion and birth control). I get where they’re coming from, and I think their main argument is correct: before birth control, women and men alike had much less sexual freedom, and the further our access to it is withdrawn, the less sex people will be having. The posts I’ve seen about sex strikes are a well-meaning attempt to confront men with the reality of this consequence before it’s too late. (There could very well be calls out there employing a nastier, “they’re trying to screw us so let’s not screw them!” tone, but I haven’t encountered them yet.) The problem is that tactics like this aren’t paying close enough attention to who is pushing this legislation, who is supporting it, and how a sex strike is going to affect them.

Historically, sex strikes have been effective when the women of a single community took a strong position against actions or policies that the men of their community were embracing. That’s not what’s going on here, though. Pulling back access to reproductive choice services is not something men are doing to women: it’s something political conservatives are doing to everybody. And while political conservatives do tend to skew male, the difference is not dramatic (For an example, look at the demographics of voters in the 2006 elections.) My experience is that people tend to run in social circles with similar political beliefs, so women who vote conservative are more likely to date men who vote conservative. And how likely are women who vote conservative to participate in a sex strike? My guess is… not very likely?

A lot of conservative voters have very strong beliefs around sexual morality, believing sex should only take place in monogamous heterosexual marriages. Needless to say, a sex strike is not going to scare them: unmarried, unready-for-children people having less sex is exactly what they want. So the success of a sex strike depends on the existence of a significant population of conservative voters who are relatively neutral on sexual morality and who enjoy non-procreative sexual activity. And even if that population is large enough to affect election results, the men of that population would have to be dating / married to / hooking up with women that are politically motivated enough to engage in a sex strike. I just don’t see that as likely. I think conservative-voting, apathetic-on-social-issues men are mostly dating (etc) apathetic-on-social-issues women, who aren’t going to participate no matter how hard a strike is pushed.

So I think a sex strike is going to have a negligible effect on conservative voters, who are, after all, the ones who place and keep these politicians in power. What about the politicians themselves? Will they suddenly find themselves unable to get laid and reconsider their stance on birth control availability? Not likely. Rich and powerful men play by different rules, in sexuality as in many other things. Rich and powerful men have nothing to lose by returning to the sexual dynamics of the pre-birth-control era. Do you really think a successful politician in the 40s had a hard time getting laid? It’s the average men and women who gained from the availability of effective birth control, and it’s the average men and women who will lose as that availability is withdrawn.

It’s pretty popular these days to pooh-pooh attempts at grassroots activism on the grounds that they’re ineffective. In general, this irritates me: why discourage people from trying? But in this case I have philosophical objections as well as pragmatic objections. A sex strike encourages women to use their bodies as a bargaining chip, and haven’t we seen enough of that? It supports a “battle of the sexes” mentality, and haven’t we seen enough of that? It makes sex once again about power and control, and not about joy and connection. If I thought it was going to be an effective tactic, maybe I would think all this a worthwhile price to pay — maybe. But I don’t think it is, so I would rather see us support the right to reproductive choice by continually affirming sex as a healthy, joyful, and mutually beneficial part of human nature.

New feature! Ask A Sexologist

(This, along with a few other posts, is being cross-posted at our new website polyskeptic.com, which has three active contributors and counting! I have a chronic problem with starting and trying to maintain multiple blogs; I’ve tried various solutions to this problem but nothing seems to be taking. For now, at least, I’ll be posting more personal stuff exclusively at this blog, more controversial stuff exclusively at the other blog, and a lot of things to both blogs.)

Several years ago, when I was frantically catching up on all the information on sexuality I avoided learning in my youth, I discovered Savage Love. I read through every single archived column, and then went back and did it again. It was around that time that I started to think, “This human sexuality stuff seems pretty endlessly fascinating to me… perhaps I will devote my career to it?” So now I’m about a third of the way through a M.Ed in human sexuality. It’s still early days, but I’m very happy with that decision so far.

So now I want to share the riches of my extensive knowledge. Got a question about sexuality? Ask away! If it’s a factual question, I either know the answer or know how to find it (or can tell you “we don’t know yet, but here’s the fascinating history of the investigation so far!”) If it’s advice, well, as Dan Savage points out, the only qualification necessary to give advice is having been asked for it. I will disguise any personally-identifying information, and I will be nice to you: as much as I enjoy Dan Savage’s caustic style, I’m constitutionally incapable of emulating it.

I’ll run the feature from one to three times a week, depending how many questions I get and whether I have a paper due. If you have a question email me: lirelyn at gmail dot com.