In-Fighting Among Trans People

My sister recently sent me this very interesting article by Jen Richards on the topic of in-fighting in the trans community. We have both observed and talked about the phenomenon. While every community has issues with members not getting along, trans people in particular tend to pick on each other for… god, at this point nothing would surprise me. I’ve seen flame wars that erupted over whether you put a space between trans man and trans woman or whether it’s okay to write transman and transwoman*. Most commonly, though, the issue revolves around fights between people whose experiences of their transition were different; because one had intense physical dysphoria and another felt indifferent to their body but more comfortable socially after transitioning; because one person was fairly binary and one very genderqueer; because one was an FtM who resents the way MtFs dominate the trans narrative and the other was an MtF who resents the way FtMs fly under the radar and get slightly less murdered. There are even more examples in that article, and I’m sure anyone who has spent a fair amount of time in trans circles has their own stories.

I think the author described the phenomenon very well, but I’m not sure I agree with what she identifies as the cause. She suggests that queer white trans women are typically the most visible, and so they lead the narrative, but often they have little experience of overt oppression. The shock of the change is one they are ill equipped to deal with. Many do become wonderful advocates (love you Kate Bornstein!) but some do not, and the loud, ugly voices can drown out the others. This makes sense, but the reason I disagree is that most of the aggression I’ve seen has come from white trans men… but that might be just because I’ve mostly been exposed to trans men. So initially I discounted that, but then I thought, “well, maybe she’s overrating the number of vitriolic queer white trans women for the same reason.” Maybe if you polled any type of trans person, they would say their type is the worst, simply because they see plenty of the good and bad while the only other trans voices that transcend the boundaries are the most decent, level-headed ones. Or maybe not. I really don’t know.

Her post did give me another thought though; the trans movement may be at a disadvantage because of how much intersectionality is inherently involved. Intersectionality always complicates discussions of privilege and oppression. Most groups get to talk about intersectionality as a secondary issue. You can talk about the way society treats women, and come up with some things that apply across the board, and then get into how race, ability, economic status, queerness etc tweaks their experience of misogyny. This makes it easier to come up with a basic message and platform, and intersectionality can branch off of that. But if you are talking about trans issues, no less than three identities intersect.

First, there’s the gender identity itself. Depending on whether you are MtF/transfeminine or FtM/transmasculine, the rules you are raised with, the rules you need to get used to and the way people react as you present opposite to your assigned sex are all very different. Second, there’s orientation. Now, who you are attracted does not have anything to do with who you feel you are… except that society conflates the two so often that orientation inevitably becomes part of a discussion about gender identity, if for no other reason than to clarify. Furthermore, switching from gay to straight or vice versa is such a shift in dating worlds, it does become a significant part of many trans experiences. Even bisexuals have to tread some new waters. Finally, there’s binary vs non-binary. Do you feel wholly male, or was male just closer-enough, or are you not medically transitioning because even though you have “man days” being seen as a woman is comfortable enough that full transition isn’t worth the hassle? Do you fall outside of that spectrum completely?

Just imagine if every discussion of race had to also include gender and disability, with the latter requiring an intensive discussion of how disabilities can be invisible or visible, cognitive or physical, and include everything from your basic paraplegia or depression to something as rare and complex as progeria or Harlequin Ichthyosis? It would be so difficult for anyone to get even remotely close to honest, accurate representation of their unique combination of identities. Unless the situation was handled very openly and delicately, you would end up with a lot of people getting completely pissed at each other for hogging their spotlight.

Because this is what we have to deal with in trans spaces, people who want to be included end up feeling vulnerable and neglected in the very place they went to feel safe. Some of them take it out on other trans people, and a vicious cycle emerges.
I do think there is one bright aspect to this issue. It is true, I think, that trans advocates tend to be more bitter, vitriolic and in-fighting-y than other social justice groups. But I also think that when they aren’t like that, they are some of the best groups out there. In trans advocacy, the learning curve is steep, so you either grab up the nastiest tactics of activism and use them to get revenge on everyone who you think is hurting less than you, or you learn quickly to be truly sensitive and accepting of everyone.
I’m not sure how to end this, so I’m going to blatantly steal. This is from Jen Richards’ conclusion in that article linked above; “There is no simple solution to these issues. Which isn’t the point. Truly supporting trans people will require education and patience. It will require an effort to know us and our issues well enough to make informed decisions… There is a crisis facing trans people, and the response will need to be as intersectional, sophisticated, and persistent as the causes. There doesn’t need to be a singular trans movement to rise to that challenge.”
Well said. Good luck to all of us.
*I think the space looks better, but people, let’s not lose our heads over this. Especially if the context is “um, hi guys, I’ve felt really awkward all my life and I think I might be a transman… I don’t know what to do nobody I know is trans somebody please help I’m 17 btw.”
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What to do When You are Skeptical of Someone’s Transition

Every trans person, when they start their transition, has to deal with at least one person who doesn’t quite buy it. Someone will think it’s a phase, or a plea for attention. This is overwhelmingly unlikely to be true. Less than one percent of people who transition go on to regret it; of that number, many don’t even regret it because they are not really trans, but because of the overwhelming prejudice trans people face. I once knew a trans woman who had tried to transition earlier and had to detransition because of how shitty people were. When I met her she was in her fifties and transitioning for the second time.

So it’s a bit surprising that during the year I began my transition, not one but two of my friends also began to identify as FtMs, and then changed their minds. This shaped a lot of my thoughts around this issue, so I thought I should share the story, and what I learned from it.

The first thing I think people should know is that who actually transitioned and who didn’t spectacularly failed to line up with the conventional trans narrative. Hailie and Madison (not their real names) were both significantly more masculine than me. Hailie was a classic butch lesbian, deep voiced, athletic, fond of beer and belching. She had her first crush on a girl back in kindergarten. Madison was bisexual and punkishly androgynous. I am sensitive, shy, artistic and exclusively attracted to other men. I had a lot more people shocked at my coming out as trans than either of them, yet I’m the only one who was really transgender.

Lesson one; you don’t know. There is no way to tell from the outside whether somebody is really transgender or not.

A consequence of the first point is that of the three of us, I received the most resistance to my transition. I was actually kicked out of my house, and stayed with Madison’s family until I could afford my own place. Madison’s family was a little nervous, because she was famous for identity crises, but they were still fully willing to feed, clothe, shelter and love her, as well as provide her access to gender therapy and transition services. Hailie’s family was much the same; nervous but willing to be supportive.

Lesson two; there is a school of thought that says the best way to help trans people is to be a gatekeeper. You need to put a lot of obstacles up to make sure they aren’t just confused or whatever. Insert something vague about tough love here to justify making people prove they are really transgender. That’s bull. People in a supportive environment can still figure that they aren’t really trans. People who are trans don’t need to be picked on.

So what did happen to make Madison and Hailie realize they weren’t trans? Well… mostly nothing. They experimented with gender for a little bit, and they figured it out.

Hailie had been assaulted and raped a short time before she came out as trans. Her sister was worried that this was some big unconscious fight to avoid thinking about the rape, rather than an honest transition. When Hailie insisted this wasn’t the case, her sister backed off.

For a few months, Hailie went by a boy’s name and male pronouns. Then she quietly told me that she was having second thoughts. Then, a while later, she said she wanted to go back to female pronouns. A little while after that she said her sister had been right. Hailie had felt dysphoric because of the physical trauma she had just been through. She had needed something other than the rape to worry about. She wasn’t trans. Honestly, I can think of worse ways to deal.

Madison’s story is a little more complicated. Have any of you ever had the experience of being accused of causing drama, or known people who were accused of it when they were trying to draw attention to legitimately awful stuff? Did that experience make you think that people need to just stop making that accusation, because it seems like it’s only ever used to silence people with real problems? And, after thinking this for a while, did you ever run into somebody who would milk every drop of sympathy to their own advantage, who always had to have the biggest crisis in the room, who was every “you’re just causing drama for your own ends” accusation made real? And you tried really hard to be compassionate, but inside you’re just screaming “you! It’s all because of you! We could just ban the word drama entirely and take everybody in the whole world seriously, if it wasn’t for asshats like you!”

Yeah, I didn’t realize it at first, but after living with her for several months, that was Madison. At first I was hopeful that gender dysphoria was the thing that was wrong with her all along, and being trans would solve all the things, but I did start to suspect something when the only thing she ever did to transition was talk about it. We picked out our new names and talked excitedly about them. I did the work of finding out how to legally change one’s name and print all the documents out. I printed out two copies and left one out for Madison. It stayed on the fridge with a magnet for months and was eventually thrown away. She got her letter from a therapist that would give her access to hormone therapy, and the name of a good clinic. I got my prescription filled as quickly as possible. She never did. Her transition only existed when she was coming out tearfully to somebody, at which point she could use their sympathy to control them, of course.

Her parents handled it perfectly. Instead of obstructing her transition, they gave her responsibility over it. She had a part-time job, and with her parent’s insurance she could afford to use pay for co-pays and fees to change her name herself. She had a driver’s license and could drive to doctor’s appointments herself. They gave her all those responsibilities.

Lesson three; if obstruction is the worst of both worlds, responsibility is the best of both worlds. A genuinely trans person will see responsibility as a wonderful gift and act of trust (provided you aren’t giving them so much “responsibility” they don’t have a chance to actually transition. This level will vary depending on the age of the trans person, but you know, use common sense). For a person who isn’t trans, realizing they like the idea of transitioning more than the work of it can help them figure it out.

And, piggybacking on that, lesson four; I think probably most people who think they are trans for a while, when they aren’t really, are in some way either a Hailie or a Madison. Either they are going through something else that is awful and need some understanding and respect, or they are that once-in-a-while asshole… in which case what they’re really after is for you to not understand them, so they can blow up and use that to control you. Show them understanding and respect from the start, and they’ll have nothing to work with. They’ll have to move on to something else.

I don’t know how people realize what their gender identity is, any more than I know how you know you’re in love, or that your new house feels like home. And I say that, having been through all those experiences. I just know that when you know, you know, except once in a while you think you know but you don’t. But hey, those moments of not knowing that you don’t know are just part of being human, and they don’t generally last as long as really knowing you know. You know?

Anyway…

I wonder at how afraid we are to let people experiment with their gender identities. There’s no harm in it. I think obstructing experimentation causes a lot more confusion than just letting people play around, not to mention pain for people who genuinely transgender.

So in case I wasn’t clear, if you aren’t sure whether or not someone’s transgender, just respectfully back off. You might be right, you might be wrong, but either way it’s their job to figure it out.

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.

Musings on asexuality

I’ve seen several blog posts and commentaries on asexuality pop up recently, and it always prompts a lot of conflicted thought from me. I want to muse through it here… but to understand my thoughts about asexuality as an orientation, readers need to know a little more about my personal history.

About five years ago, I underwent a five-month transition from conservative evangelical Christian to atheist. And what do most teens and young adults do after leaving a sexually repressive ideology? Why, go out and have lots of sex! Many of my friends expected I’d do this; some people probably assumed, as I used to assume about others, that I was leaving religion in order to get license to pursue sexual activities. But for me it was different. Sex had zero appeal to me, although I passionately wanted a relationship of love and pair-bonded intimacy. I’d never masturbated, and the last sexual fantasy I’d had was over ten years ago. As a young teen, I hadn’t found it difficult to repress the budding sexual desires that my religion told me were dangerous and destructive unless I was married; by 25 I had repressed them so successfully they were nowhere to be found.

I knew that I wasn’t “normal,” and began searching out information about what had gone wrong with me, that I rarely felt sexual attractions and didn’t desire sexual interactions. Fairly quickly, I stumbled on the concept of asexuality, and found www.asexuality.org. It was like a revelation: I might not be normal, but I wasn’t alone! On the message boards, I found a community of people who discussed love and attraction in terms I could relate to; I found a place where I could discuss my sparse sexual history without feeling like a freak; I found a language for my feelings of attraction and desire, words like “aesthetic attraction” and “heteroromantic.” It was liberating. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the people on those message boards, for giving me a safe, welcoming place to discuss sexuality and begin exploring my own sexual identity.

Obviously, at some point my identity began to shift. I slowly felt a resurgence of sexual interests and desires, and the label “asexual” or even “gray-a” (usually used to mean not quite asexual, but with a very low libido) no longer felt right to me. But becoming a sexual person was not an easy road — I should say is not, because in many ways I’m still working on it. At times of anxiety and depression, my libido disappears completely. I enjoy sex, sometimes quite a lot, but never as much as others seem to, and at times I feel inadequate, envious, or resentful about this. In short, my relationship with sexuality is still somewhat dysfunctional: sometimes we get along great, I’m happy to have it part of my life, and I’d hate to lose it; other times, I feel like it’s all struggle and confusion, and I wonder if it’s really worth it.

Going back to a self-identification of asexual (or, more likely, gray-a) sometimes seems like a tempting option (ignoring, for the moment, that I’m in not one but three sexual relationships, and how that would impact them). It would be easier, without a doubt. But it would be dishonest to say that it was my only option. My sexuality has grown and strengthened over time and with some deliberate effort, and I believe it can continue to do so. But it takes a lot of energy and courage to keep on that path. I see what sexuality can be for other people, and I want that for myself. But sometimes, when I look at the level of joy and satisfaction I get out of sex, and compare it with the level of joy and satisfaction others seem to, I’m afraid my potential is permanently limited, and I wonder if it would be wiser to just give it up and find satisfaction in other areas.

I know there are people within the asexual community who have approximately my level of libido and sexual connection, who have chosen to let sexuality fall by the wayside and to pursue other avenues of joy and pleasure. Sometimes I worry for these hypothetical people (who I am not at all supposing to be the majority of self-identified asexuals) that they’ve let an orientation label cut off their own assessment of what’s possible for them. Other times I envy them for evading many of the frustrations I feel.

Remembrance

Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day when trans people and their allies remember the many people who have been brutally assaulted or killed for living as the gender that feels right to them.

Myself, I try not to remember too hard. When Lane was a year old and I was nine, I had a recurring waking nightmare, a fearful fantasy that at times I could not help playing over in my mind: that our house would be on fire and that we’d be unable to rescue Lane from the nursery. I was haunted by the thought of our sweet baby, who trusted me without question, standing up and waiting for me to come to the rescue as smoke and flames filled the room, and I stood helplessly outside. It made me sick to my stomach and I had to sing loudly or throw myself into some mental task to chase the image from my mind. My point is, I have always had a deeply protective love for my next-to-youngest sibling.

I discovered I had this handicap when, a few months after Lane announced his intention to transition, there was a news story about the brutal beating of a transman in Baltimore. That’s when it clicked for me, that one of the people I love most in the world has joined a population that is the target, not only of bigotry and prejudice, but of violent hatred. Dwelling on it gives me basically the same feeling that I had as a nine-year-old imagining a house fire that cut off the baby’s room. So I don’t dwell on it.

I have always been horrified at the thought of violence against hate-targeted minorities: whether it’s sexuality, ethnicity, or religion, there’s something especially horrible about the fact that some people’s hatred can be aroused just because of someone else’s identity. But it’s real, and personal, for me now in a way that it wasn’t before last year.

I don’t really have a point or a theory. If someone you love ever comes out as gay, or trans, or moves to a place where their religion or ethnicity is viewed with hostility, you’ll know how I feel. Remembering the transgender victims of violence is important, because it should motivate us all to work to make this world a safe space for everybody who crosses gender barriers. It’s just, for me, I have to remember just a little bit, and then try hard to forget.

Born this way: where the political meets the scientific

So grad school has really taken a toll on my blogging frequency, huh? The good news is, as I’m studying human sexuality, my posts, while rarer, will hopefully become meatier with evidence and informed opinion and suchlike.

So right now I’m doing preliminary research for a paper which is going to have something to do with the relation between sexual orientation and gender nonconformity in childhood. I still have three days before I need to come up with a coherent thesis, so it’s all terrain-exploration right now. I’ve been reading a sequence of books and articles, from the mid 70s to 2008, discussing the correlation between gender nonconformity in children and homosexual orientation in adults. There’s a correlation, did you know? A pretty darn strong one, apparently.

What is amazing to me, having read mostly political and philosophical writings on gender and orientation, is how dispassionately these researchers present their theories, findings, and analyses. In fact the difference between an article written in 1974 and one in 2008 is much smaller than I would have expected, given the profound social changes we’ve seen since then. It makes me appreciate science, even a “soft” science, for its commitment to evidence and impartial analysis — which is not to say that researchers are unbiased, but there is a world of difference between the language of people who are trying to understand something, and people who are trying to advocate for a particular outcome.

So, quick self-poll for all of you: is sexual orientation primarily determined before or after birth? Is a newborn baby’s future orientation already fixed, or will it be formed later in response to life circumstances? Social liberals are more likely to say that it’s innate; social conservatives more likely to say that it’s caused by post-birth events. I suspect this is more because people perceive “born this way” as an argument for tolerance: we tend to think it’s less acceptable to discriminate against people for inborn traits than for features developed later in life (which, presumably, they had more control over.)

This creates a somewhat sticky situation, though, as we have an unanswered scientific question (how is sexual orientation determined) with a strong political charge. And bad things happen when politics meet science. On the one side, political influence can inhibit or skew scientific research, and on the other, political movements can appropriate scientific findings and use them to appalling ends.

But I think the political interest in this scientific question is kind of stupid anyway. At first, “I was born this way” seems like a strong defense, but it’s really not. A sociopathic killer might have been born that way, but we don’t urge tolerance and advocate their freedom to carry out their homicidal urges just because they were born that way. (Someone could quotemine the shit out of me there, I realize.) “They can’t help it” is really rather a poor and patronizing defense for somebody’s behavior. The appropriate defense for gay rights is “Being gay does not harm society, nor is it wrong by any other moral standard I recognize.” Period, end of story. How someone got to be gay is irrelevant: their right to be gay stands on the fact that there’s nothing wrong with being gay. Arguments with those who disagree need to be fought on that ground.

The second anxiety people like me have toward the possibility that sexual orientation might be formed later in life is vulnerability to “reparative” therapy. Reparative therapy as it is currently practiced is abusive and ineffective, and the argument “you can’t change them, they were born that way” should be an effective argument against practicing it. But again, while belief that sexual orientation is malleable is a necessary condition for reparative therapy to be practiced and recommended, I don’t think that strong scientific evidence for the innateness of sexual orientation would stop the practice of reparative therapy entirely. Religion overrides science for lots of people; need I say more?

Ultimately, if orientation is primarily genetic, it opens the same kinds of fears about people trying to control their child’s orientation: by selective abortion or genetic manipulation, for example. As before, the root problem is not where orientation comes from, it’s people’s attitude toward it. No matter where orientation comes from, the question is not so much “could you change it?” but “why would you want to?”

Then we get into questions of social stigma and ease of life and possible reasons why a parent who didn’t have a moral problem with homosexuality would still want a child not to be gay, a question which has its own complicated factors, many of which are addressed in disability activism as well. If one of my commenters wants to jump on that, feel free, otherwise I might get to it another time. For now, I have a paper to research.

Elevatorgate

I’m going to take a moment here and drift off into my ideal world, the “if things were perfect” world I like to build in my head. In that world, an attractive young woman, a featured speaker at a large conference, gets on an elevator at 4 am to head to her hotel room. A man gets on with her, and on the way up he says, “Hey, I really enjoyed your talk and I’d love to spend some time with you — would you be interested in coming back to my room?” And she, being exhausted, would say “No thanks,” and if she finds him at all attractive might add, “I’m really tired, but maybe we could meet up tomorrow?” And he, whether receiving the flat “no” or the “no maybe later,” accepts it graciously and they each go to their respective rooms. And nobody feels uncomfortable or unhappy about the encounter, because hey, he asked, she said no, it happens, nobody’s harmed or troubled.

But we don’t live in the ideal world; we live in a world where such an encounter would be rare at best, and impossible for many people. Instead we live in a world where these things are true:

– Most women have been the recipients of unwelcome and intrusive sexual overtures, not once but many times; many women have been the victims of hostile or violent sexually-charged behavior, ranging from groping or stalking to rape; nearly all women have been trained to be alert to signs that a strange man might be a sexual predator.

– Because of the above, being trapped and isolated with a strange man who is displaying sexual interest, however mildly, makes most women slightly nervous or uncomfortable.

– Most women have been socialized with a certain taboo around saying “no,” been trained to say it indirectly at most, and to go along with the wishes of their companions (whether male or female.) This training takes place through intense, often cruel social punishment in the formative years, learning that if you are direct and assertive about your wants and boundaries you will be rejected, shunned, and insulted. Because of this, even women who reject the taboo as silly and understand the value of clear, direct communication and boundary-setting often feel uncomfortable or anxious when put in a situation where they have to say no.

– Some men, consciously or unconsciously, take advantage of this reluctance and discomfort to push women into sexual interactions they’d prefer to avoid.

– Women and men alike are trained that women are the “gatekeepers” of sexuality; that men ask and women grant or withhold. This puts both sexes in an unpleasant situation. Men face repeated rejection, but they have no choice but to keep asking women they find attractive, because if she is interested nothing will happen if he doesn’t act. Meanwhile women feel bombarded with sexual attention, and the above-mentioned taboo against saying “no” makes each request-and-rejection stressful, even if the man was perfectly polite about it.

All of the above are truths about the culture that we currently live in, which means that if you are a reasonably considerate man who wants to avoid causing discomfort to women, you will not hit on a lone woman in an elevator at 4 am. You will especially not do so after she’s given a talk about how she dislikes sexual attention from strange men (something I left out of my ideal-world scenario, because in my ideal world such a talk would have been unnecessary and the woman in question would have talked about Bigfoot instead.) And if you are a woman who assumes good faith in most of the men you interact with, you will point out in a friendly way how uncomfortable such a situation makes you.

(Unfortunately another truth about the world we live in is that there are deep, deep misunderstandings and resentments between men and women, and that the internet gives a voice to a lot of crazy people, and so what we have is a tempest that has spilled out of the teapot it was brewed in and is raging across the atheist blogosphere. My advice to you, if the term “Elevatorgate” means nothing to you, is not to google it, and if you do google it by no means read the comments on relevant posts. They will not, on the whole, give you a sanguine view of humanity.)

Now I do think that we ought to be working to build a bridge from the currently-real world to the ideal one, and so I don’t think the answer here is “Men should walk on eggshells around women because they don’t realize what kinds of situations might make them feel uncomfortable or threatened.” It’s more… well, take a look at all my “real-world-truths” bullet points, and think about what you could do to make them less true.

Men, respect women’s boundaries, and don’t harass them or push yourself on them, and don’t let your friends get away with doing so either. Women, practice saying no and being comfortable with the idea that a “Would you like to…?” “No thanks,” “Okay” interaction is just fine and does not reflect badly on the asker or the denier.

Men, listen to what women tell you about how different interactions make them feel, and if it seems weird or nonsensical at first, listen a little harder. (If it seems weird or nonsensical several layers down, or if the majority of women you ask agree that it’s batshit insane, feel free to disregard it as that one person’s idiosyncrasy.) Women, remember that most men, even the ones who display sexual interest in you, are not predators or stalkers or rapists — most of them are looking for a mutually enjoyable experience, and have battled through a lot of rejection to get to you, so think kindly of them even as you say no.

Educators of all genders, stop framing rape as something it’s the woman’s responsibility to prevent. Stop perpetuating the myth of the female gatekeeper — teach young men and women alike that it’s normal to want sex sometimes and normal to not want sex sometimes. Stop punishing little girls more harshly for assertive or “rude” behavior.

Men and women and everybody: choose understanding over resentment, thoughtfulness over defensiveness, and good-faith dialogue over vitriolic spite.