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Why Saying “I’m Not a Feminist” is NEVER an Okay Thing To Do

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2014 by KarenElizabeth

There are a lot of misconceptions about feminism in the world.

There are many different reasons for this, of course.  Feminism is a complicated topic.  It’s hard to look at approximately 50% of the world’s population — women of all races, all nationalities, all ages, all sexual orientations, all income brackets, all political affiliations, all education levels, etc — and define a simple, clear message that everyone can agree upon.  Especially since the advent of 3rd wave feminism, there are countless splinter and “niche” groups working under the greater feminist umbrella, and often working directly at cross-purposes to one another, or talking about completely different topics.  In an age where information is readily accessed with the click of a mouse, we’re faced with an overwhelming glut of information regarding feminism, and very little of it is concise or clear or speaks with a single voice representing all of us.

But when it’s stripped back to the bare essentials, feminism *does* have one simple, easily expressed goal:  gender equality, and the elimination of sexism.  We disagree (sometimes vehemently) on how best to *achieve* that goal, of course, but the goal remains the same for all.  And when you strip it back to that — when you say, “gender equality” instead of “feminism” — there are very few people who’ll argue against it.

And this is why the way we express ourselves about feminism, and the way we self-identify, needs to see some serious change.

If you believe that sexism is a bad thing, and that a person’s gender does not determine their worth, then you’re a feminist.  You may not agree with *every* feminist group (no one does — there are simply too many of them out there) — but you’re a feminist, of some description.  That’s all there is to it.  Saying “I’m not a feminist”, then, is a lie — and worse, it’s hurting feminists (and people) everywhere.

When most people say “I’m not a feminist”, it’s because they’re misguided about what feminism means.  They’ve bought in to a harmful stereotype — the man-hating, (often) lesbian, radical feminist who burns bras, thinks men should be slaves, and considers all penetrative sex to be rape.  This is a stereotype that was created by (and has been largely perpetuated by) the oppressing class, as a way of discrediting the perfectly logical claim that women are people and should be treated as such.  It’s a caricature, designed to make feminists look laughable and ridiculous and unfeminine, and unsexy, and unlovable, and criminal.  So when you characterize all feminists this way, it’s no different than characterizing all Scots as “cheap”, or all Irishmen as “drunks”.  You’re buying in to a bigoted stereotype, rather than learning about the individual people.

And when you buy in to that bigoted stereotype, and say “I’m not a feminist”, you’re also lumping yourself in with the people who actually ARE bigots.  You’re aligning yourself with the people who believe that women’s rights should be taken away so we can go back to the “good old days”.  You’re aligning yourself with sexual predators and rapists who don’t want their victims to have rights or be treated as people.  You’re aligning yourself with the Taliban who shot Malala Yousafzai in the head for wanting an education.

Do you really want to be on the same side as those people?

I’m not saying that you should blindly help any cause that identifies itself as “feminist”.  There’s no “supreme guiding council of feminist elders”, and no peer-review process, to determine the validity of any particular group’s claim to feminism.  There are plenty of self-identified “feminist” groups out there who have views that may not, in fact, be particularly helpful ones.  There are radfem groups who call themselves feminist but believe in the subjugation of men (I happen to strongly dispute their use of the term “feminist”, since by definition any group that advocates sexism is not, in fact, feminist — but that’s an issue that’s still considered up for debate in the broader feminist community).  There are feminist groups who are anti-choice, or who align themselves with religious organizations, or who are sex-worker exclusionary, or trans-exclusionary, or classist/racist/etc in their aims, and I disagree vehemently with all of those things.  And there are many feminist groups advocating for very specific, niche causes that may or may not be relevant to a particular person’s life — for example, a group dedicated to eliminating sexism in the medical profession might have a very good point, but not be relevant to me personally, as I’m an arts worker, not a doctor (dammit, Jim!).  So just calling yourself “feminist” doesn’t make you right, and it’s still important to research the motivations and background of any group you’re looking to join up with or support.

One of the biggest groups who commonly say “I’m not a feminist” are, unfortunately, men.  They’ll say, “I believe in women’s rights and equality, but I can’t be a feminist ’cause I’m a guy”.  And that’s just ridiculously misguided.  Not only is it perfectly possible for a guy to believe in gender equality (thus making him a feminist), it’s supremely important for people who are NOT women, who are NOT a part of the oppressed class, to take up the banner of feminism and make a conscious choice to support feminist aims.  Because it’s the oppressing class (in this case, males) who has the majority of the power — and thus, it’s males who have the most power to change things.  It’s been proven time and again that it’s easier for men (and especially white men) to get top positions at most jobs — they’re the bosses, the ones in charge of salaries, the ones in charge of hiring, and the ones in charge of policy.  They’re the majority of the politicians.  They’re the educators at universities.  They’re the police and the lawyers and the judges who enforce and influence the laws.  So if they’re working with feminist aims in mind (ie, a CEO who implements fair hiring policies, or a politician who fights for women’s reproductive rights), they’re in a position to do much more to help the cause than almost anyone else would be capable of.  They’re the ones who, by and large, have the ability to tip the scales and start the workings of a fair society.

Another group that commonly denies feminism is people of colour.  This is a more problematic issue — people of colour are already a part of an oppressed class, whether they are female or male or anything in-between.  They’re already fighting for fair wages, fair representation, and fair application of the law.  And many feminist groups are, unfortunately, very whitewashed.  Because it’s white people who have traditionally had more education & wealth, it’s white women who largely spearheaded the early feminist movements, and it’s white women who have remained at the forefront.  Many feminist groups are blatantly racist (or at least racially insensitive), and when you bring religion into the equation (people of colour are traditionally more attached to their faith, for a variety of reasons not worth going into here), it gets even more difficult — many feminist groups actively attack religious organizations, without regard to the people who worship that particular god, and this can be a massive turn-off for otherwise pro-gender-equality types.  And because feminism has historically been white, it’s difficult for people of colour to break that barrier — too many, already exhausted from spending a lifetime being oppressed for the colour of their skin, walk into a feminist meeting only to see a sea of white faces and no one who looks remotely like themselves, and they feel automatically excluded.  It’s hard to blame people for feeling that way.  In the end, though, we’ll never be able to make feminism more POC-friendly without having some people of colour standing in those rooms.  Some are going to have to break down those barriers, and walk into those rooms full of white faces, and decide they’re going to stay.  And those of us who *are* white need to recognize this difficulty, and welcome such people with open arms, so that more of them will feel comfortable saying “I’m a feminist”.

What I find, personally, the most painful, are those women who believe that identifying as feminist will make them seem unattractive.  They’re victims of fear — fear of being hated, fear of being spurned, fear of being alone.  These are the people who media depictions of feminists are directly attacking, and directly oppressing.  I just want to take those women and say, “It’s okay! What they said on TV was a lie — you can be a feminist and still be beautiful, and feminine, and a stay-at-home-mom, and people will still love you”.  And they tell me that they’re “not as strong” as I am, or that they “don’t belong”.  And that’s so wrong, because you don’t have to be an exception — or an exceptional person — to be a feminist.  You just have to believe in equality.

In most media depictions, it’s the loudest and most strident voices who get the most airtime.  These are the people who are easy to pick out of a crowd, and they give entertainment and good sound bites.  They’re also the people who are easiest to ridicule and discredit.  So we need more of the “normal” people, the ones with perfectly rational and moderate views (the ones that the majority of us espouse) to stand up and say clearly, “I’m a feminist”.  We need to drown out those radical voices, and get voices of reason to be standing at the forefront.  Because until we can “normalize” feminism, it’s never going to be fully successful.

And it really should be perfectly “normal” to believe that all people should have equal rights, right?

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Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: The Psychology of Being an Enabler, and Why “Awareness” Isn’t Enough

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

It often surprises people to learn that I’ve been in not just one, but several different unhealthy and abusive relationships (and not just in my personal life — I’ve had abusive work situations, too).  As an outspoken feminist, an accomplished martial artist, a highly intelligent and university-educated person, and coming from a privileged childhood (so, no poverty-related issues to overcome), it seems on the surface that I’d be the last person to put myself in a position to be abused.  But my situation isn’t a unique one, and there are a lot of women out there who come across as strong, confident, and goal-oriented, who wind up in unhealthy relationships — serially.  Over and over again.  And the question that always comes up when these relationships fall apart and the abuse is exposed to the world is, “why would you ever put up with that?”  Because we know that we were being treated wrong.  We can identify and discuss the ways in which we were abused.  But we stayed anyway, and that’s an incredibly confusing thing — often, even to us.  Why did we put up with it?

But we don’t have to look far to see a plethora of examples of just these sorts of unhealthy relationships in media.  A popular sitcom trope is that of the beautiful, intelligent, capable woman who is in a relationship with (and continually forgives) a borderline-abusive jerk.  Look at Marge & Homer, Peter & Lois, Wilma & Fred, Spike & Buffy, Barney & Robin, Shrek & Fiona, Belle & Prince Adam … you get the idea.  The idea of a strong woman supporting and forgiving a weak man (often because he’s “just a man” and doesn’t know any better) is well-established.

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The problem is that, like many other women, I’m a fixer.  I like to take things that are broken, and make them better.  And I don’t give up easily on a “project” I’ve taken on.  The traits that make me a fixer are generally considered positive traits, and many of them are traditionally considered “feminine”:  I’m a care-giver, a nurturer, a teacher, a healer.  I’m also stubborn and independent, which in  the context of an abusive relationship means that when trouble comes along, I tend to batten down the hatches and isolate myself while I fix whatever is going on, rather than seeking help from friends or family.  I self-isolate, which makes me the perfect target for an abuser.

Another factor that enters in to this equation is a sense of shame.  Because I am intelligent enough to recognize what’s going on, I will see the abuse — and try to hide it.  I don’t want my intelligent, feminist friends and family to realize that I’ve fucked up and attached myself to another abusive, controlling, life-draining, soul-destroying human being.  So when I see abusive behaviours, I’ll recognize in my brain “he’s gaslighting me”, or “he’s telling me how I should feel instead of acknowledging my emotions”, or “did he really just try to bully me into doing that?” … and I’ll hide it.  Ashamed that I’ve gotten myself into another such situation, I’ll laugh it off, keep it secret, and try to deal with it behind closed doors, because I know that one of the first questions out of anyone else’s mouth is going to be, “why would you put up with that?” — and I don’t have a good answer.

There’s always a reason why we stay, of course.  Love, often.  It’s hard to walk away from a person you love — and abusers are master manipulators.  They often set it up so that you’ll feel that if you leave, their life will be ruined.  It’s hard to take responsibility for destroying someone you care about, and that romantic sense that “you complete me” can quickly become a terrifying trap.  But there are more subtle tactics, too.  Mental illness, for example, is often used as an excuse for bad behaviours.  We tell ourselves things like, “he’s lashing out at me because he can’t cope with his own depression”, instead of recognizing the attacks for what they really are.  We tell ourselves that we can’t leave someone who’s mentally ill, that leaving someone who’s sick would be just as bad as leaving someone because they have cancer.  But bad behaviour is bad behaviour, and we have to learn eventually to escape from it.

So many campaigns against abuse, these days, are about “awareness”.  About teaching us to recognize abuse.  But the problem is that simple “awareness” isn’t enough.  I knew last November that one of my relationships had turned abusive — it took until the spring before I stopped sleeping with him, and until the end of summer before the shit really hit the fan and I stopped publicly defending his behaviour.   I was aware that he was continually gaslighting me, negging me, telling me how I should be feeling, manipulating and controlling my emotions — and when I would try to call him out on it, he’d have a “mental breakdown” and beg me for comfort, beg me to tell him it was okay and that I still loved him.  When friends and loved ones told me, “he shouldn’t be treating you like that,” I shrugged it off, even as I mentally agreed with them.  But I couldn’t give up on it and live with the consequences of another public, humiliating failure.

We need, as a society, to stop treating abuse victims like they’re stupid.  We aren’t stupid.  We know what’s going on, and we know it isn’t right.  We just don’t know how to end these relationships without being stigmatized.  Being cast as a “victim” is bad enough — being cast as a stupid victim who didn’t know what was happening?  Is intolerable.  The discussion needs to change, because “awareness” is only the first step.  After that there’s actually getting out, and getting on with your life, which is where you really need the support.

Rape Fantasies: Why Consent Isn’t Sexy, and Why You’re Not a Bad Feminist for Enjoying It

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

TRIGGER WARNING – obviously.  Don’t read this post if you’re upset by analytical discussions of rape.

 

I’ll admit it:  I’m a fan of smutty literature.  Romance novels, Internet slash-fiction, even just regular old books with well-written sex scenes thrown in there.  I started swiping my mom’s Harlequin romances in my early teens, keeping favourite ones hidden in between the mattress and the bedframe for late-night reading.  Female friends and I would find books at the library with good sex scenes and share them, often reading the steamiest passages aloud and giggling at our own fascination with sex.  As I got older and became sexually active, those books served as guides — how to touch, how to talk, what to expect.  They taught me the words for what I wanted, how to ask my partners for things, and how to enjoy myself doing it.  In many ways, romance novels were what taught me to be a feminist, because it was from them that I learned the sex-positive and body-positive attitudes that my adolescence would not otherwise have provided.

 

But there was always one thing that puzzled me.  Why did so many of these books contain — and even romanticize — rape?

 

 

It’s a question that’s come up a lot in recent years, especially with the popularization of Twilight, Game of Thrones, and 50 Shades.  These are things marketed to women, popular among women, and yet they show women accepting, and even sometimes enjoying, being raped and abused.  It’s not a new phenomenon — I can remember Game of Thrones being among those books my friends and I found at the library, and heck, even 3onguochildhood fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty contain questionable ideas about consent — but it leaves a lot of us conflicted.  At least 50% of women will experience sexual violence at some point in their lives.  I’m certainly not the only one of my friends who has experienced sexual assault and rape.  And yet many of us still find something attractive, something undeniably sexy, about scenes like the ones between Danerys and Drogo in GoT.  While the reality of rape is abhorrent and terrifying, there is still something about the fantasy that has the power to turn us on.

 

What really got me thinking about it, though, was when one of my friends called herself a “bad feminist” for enjoying that fantasy.  And I immediately felt like she was wrong.  But it took me some time to define exactly why I feel that rape fantasies are not, inherently, an “unfeminist” thing to have.

 

Why We Enjoy the Fantasy

The first thing that I had to question, of course, was where this fantasy comes from, and why we have it.  In the end, I decided that there are a multitude of factors in play, here — and that’s really not surprising.  Culturally, we are pretty obsessed with sex, and both sex and gender play a huge role in almost every aspect of our society.  These are deeply ingrained things that we’re dealing with, here.  And there are likely more reasons than just the ones that I’m listing (feel free to bring up others in the comments, if you like).

  1. Puritanical attitudes towards sex.  If we believe that sex is bad or “dirty”, as many of us have been raised to think, then saying “yes” is an impure act.  This is especially true when you’re talking about premarital sex, casual sex, or pretty much any sex that is not purely for the purposes of procreation.  Women, especially, are often told that good girls don’t have (or at least, don’t enjoy) sex, and that we must always be careful to not act “slutty”.  Women who do openly enjoy sex are often punished by society for doing so.  As a result, saying “no” seems like a virtuous, positive thing to do.  The rape fantasy then becomes, somewhat perversely, a way of indulging in a sexual fantasy wherein you don’t have to say “yes” (thus becoming a “slut” and damning yourself).  In such a fantasy, you can maintain your “purity” while still engaging in the act.  Of course, such a fantasy is problematic — and it doesn’t line up with reality.  Victim-blaming and the idea that rape victims somehow “asked for it” means that in reality, a woman who has gone through rape is usually stigmatized as a “slut” anyhow.  But a fantasy world where you can escape from such stigmatization and abuse, and enjoy sex without feeling guilt about it, is actually a pretty sex-positive thing, when you get right down to it.  Especially for younger women or those from particularly sheltered, puritanical upbringings, the rape fantasy may actually be an avenue towards more sex-positive attitudes in their lives in general.
  2. Conventional ideals of “manliness”.   The knight in shining armor.  The dashing pirate/outlaw.  The lone wolf, or the rebel who plays by his own rules.  The millionaire playboy.  The mystery, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a vest.  What do all of these “romantic ideals” have in common?  Power.  Whether it be money, fame, good looks, the power of the unknown, or just raw muscle and steel, men are expected by society to wield power if they want to be attractive.  And that, of course, is what rape is all about:  it’s about power.  This is why rape occurs across all demographics, and doesn’t depend on a victim’s attractiveness or age or place within society.  And so for women, having been raised being told that the best man to have is the most powerful one — well, what’s more powerful than a rapist?
  3. The other side of power and control.  Jumping off from #2, we come to the other side of power:  being powerless.  A lack of control.  It’s something that many of us seek out quite actively, as a form of escape from our daily lives and the demands of mature adulthood.  We enjoy getting “swept up in the moment” and being able to just go along with things, no decision-making required.  We escape into books and media, into drunken nights with friends, into cruise vacations where the biggest choice you have to make is “chicken or fish?”.  Sex can be a terrifying thing to be in control of, especially if you’re inexperienced or not confident in your abilities.  The rape fantasy takes away the need to be “good” at what you’re doing.  It takes away the responsibility of pleasing your partner.  It allows you to simply receive, without having to give anything back.  For the neophyte, this sort of fantasy can take away some of the anxieties surrounding sex, actually encouraging more sex-positive attitudes because it frees them up to simply enjoy, without worrying about their skill level.
  4. A female sort of power.  There is another way to interpret the power relationship in rape fantasies:  in the concept of the male as a stupid, insatiable animal, unable to resist a woman’s sexy wiles.  This particular fantasy stems from right-wing, conservative attitudes towards rape, which are unfortunately quite pervasive in our society.  When victims are blamed for being raped because they were “acting slutty” or “dressed inappropriately”, and when rapists are excused because “boys will be boys”, it’s an incredibly sexist and sex-negative thing.  But if you take that particular fantasy, and examine it purely as fantasy, it becomes the victim who holds the power.  For women, raised in a society where power tends to be tied to male privilege, the idea of being able to drive a man to unspeakable acts just by looking really, really good?  That’s a pretty cool power fantasy right there.  And it’s also a body-positive sort of fantasy, too, because it requires that the victim be not just desirable, but VERY desirable.  It lets you feel wanted, and in a world where the media regularly tells us that our body is not good enough just as it is?  That can be a very positive feeling.
  5. Exposure.  Like me, many women had some of their first encounters with the concept of enjoyable sex through romance novels.  And a lot of romance novels contain depictions of rape — maybe as many as half of them.  Most such depictions aren’t terribly realistic (usually the men involved are ridiculously good looking and are experienced sexual gods capable of giving multiple, mind-blowing orgasms, and the sex itself isn’t in any way violent or taboo — just non-consensual, because the woman is protesting even as she enjoys it).  We also see depictions of rape in plenty of other media — mainstream TV, movies, books, and porn all contain it with some frequency.  With such fuel for our imaginations, it’s not surprising that our fantasy lives also contain depictions of rape.
  6. Fear.  There’s a fine line between fear and excitement.  It’s why we enjoy roller coasters, horror movies, and skydiving.  Fear gets your heart pumping and your adrenaline rushing.  It does, in some sense, turn you on.  The fear associated with the idea of rape can do exactly the same thing — especially when, just like with a roller coaster or a horror movie, we know we’re in no real danger.  When it’s all a fantasy, you can experience that fear in a controlled and safe fashion.  This is also a common theory as to why some victims of actual rape may afterwards enjoy rape fantasies, while still hating and fearing what truly happened to them:  it’s a way of controlling and “taking back” the power of the experience.
  7. Exploring the taboo.  This one links back to #1 in many ways, because we live in a society with a lot of taboos — especially when it comes to sex and sexuality.  A part of figuring out your own sexuality is in exploring those various taboos, and finding out which ones are fun and which are scary.  Rape is a taboo that most people would never want to explore outside of the realm of pure fantasy, but considering it as fantasy can definitely be a part of healthy sexual exploration, because doing so can help you to define your limits and your desires.

 

Why it’s Not “Unfeminist” to Like It

I touched on a few of the reasons in my list up there — depending on the context of your particular fantasy, rape fantasies may include aspects that are decidedly sex-positive and body-positive, and they can certainly be a part of  a healthy fantasy life.

 

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More important, though, is the fact that rape fantasies are just that:  fantasies.  And fantasies, by their very nature, really can’t be non-consensual.  The one doing the fantasizing is always in control, and can stop things whenever they want to.  This is why in BDSM, “rape play” or “consensual non-consent” can be enjoyed:  because the “victim” in this case has a safe-word and can stop things at any time if it becomes too frightening or painful.  They are completely in control, even if it seems to be otherwise.  And of course, taking back control of traumatizing, terrifying things like rape is a part of what feminism is all about.  It’s about taking and enjoying your individual power as a human being.

 

Of course, finding an actual partner to engage in such fantasies with is a problematic thing in and of itself.  Fantasizing about being raped is a very different thing from fantasizing about being a rapist.  So taking this kind of a fantasy from your mind into the bedroom is something to be done with a lot of caution, and only with a partner who you very deeply trust.  Someone who’s immediately eager to try it probably isn’t the safest person to play with (better to choose someone who’s uncomfortable, but willing to do it because it’s something you want), and while it may be a very private and intimate fantasy, it’s something perhaps better kept to a public dungeon or play space, where there will be others around to ensure that your safe words are heeded if they must be used.  It wouldn’t be fun for “play rape” to turn into the actual thing.

What is “Real Beauty”, Anyway?

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

My social media network has been alive, these past few days, with two things:  the Boston Marathon Explosions, and Dove’s latest advertising campaign.

There’s not much I can say about Boston that hasn’t already been said.  It horrifies me that people can plan & commit such acts of violence.  It scares me that we still, a couple of days later, have no idea who did it, or where and when they might strike again.  I’m afraid of the what the political fallout will be, since if it truly was a terror attack on American soil … well, we have Afghanistan and Iraq and the past 12 years to tell us what can happen as a result of that.

So instead, I’ll talk about the other thing that’s been bugging the hell out of me for the past few days:  Dove’ “real beauty sketches” campaign.

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For those unfamiliar with the campaign (although seriously, have you been living under a rock all week?  This thing is showing up everywhere right now), Dove marketing people hired a police sketch artist to do a series of drawings.  In the sketch on the left, you see a woman as described by herself.  On the right you see the same woman as described by a random stranger.  The point of the exercise (besides selling Dove products — I’ll get into that later) is ostensibly to show women that we are our own harshest critics & that other people see more beauty in us than we do in ourselves.

Most of my issues with the campaign have been covered quite eloquently by tumblr user Jazz in her post on the subject.  Jazz’s post, too, has been making the rounds on social media, so this may not be the first you’re seeing of it (I shared it via my Facebook page yesterday).  I agree with the points that she has made, and definitely suggest that you go and read what she has to say.  I’ll reiterate a few of the main points, and add some new ones of my own.

While the idea that we need to focus less on our flaws and think more positively of ourselves is a good one, the overall message of the campaign falls far short of the mark from a feminist perspective.

As Jazz points out in her post, the majority of the participants are white women, with light hair & eyes.  They are young (probably all under 40), slim, and conform to a very conventional standard of beauty.  There are women of colour in the campaign, but in the video they see very little face time, and none of them are featured in the extra interviews available on the website.  This is the standard of beauty that we are always shown by the cosmetics industry:  young, white, and slim.  For a campaign that claims to break boundaries, it’s very much inside the box.

Why not feature some people who are NOT conventionally beautiful?  Someone significantly overweight, or in their 80s, or with very obvious scars/birthmarks/other “deformities” on their face, or with very “ethnic” features (even the women of colour shown in the video are people with relatively neutral features).  Why not show a man, or a transgendered person?  Why is beauty something only for cisgendered women?

Just as important are the descriptive words being used in the video.  The “negative” terms that women are using to describe their own features are things like “fat, rounder face”, “freckles”, “40 and starting to get crow’s feet”, “thin lips”, “tired looking”, “big jaw”.  While the sketches revealed that the majority of the participants were overly focused on these “negative” aspects, the video did nothing to destroy the perception that these are “bad” traits … and this is incredibly sad, because for the most part these are not “bad” things.  A rounder face or thinner lips or a wider jawline may not be what’s popular in the media right now,  but if it’s the shape you were born with then there’s nothing you can do about it, and you should feel beautiful even if you’re not like what you see in make-up ads, because beauty comes in all shapes.  Freckles and crows’ feet and tiredness: that’s all just life.  None of us look airbrushed; the life we’ve lived is going to show on our faces, and we should LOVE that, not feel pressured to cover it up.

While the video tries to be uplifting, it’s still delivering a hurtful message to women who don’t fit that conventional standard of beauty.  Someone who honestly looks more like the sketches on the left might come away actually feeling worse about themselves, because they’ve been reminded yet again that they’re not thin and white and young.

Perhaps the most troubling thing said in the whole video is this, though:

[Beauty] impacts the choices and the friends we make, the jobs we go out for, they way we treat our children, it impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.

Because if you’re female, the most important thing is to be beautiful.  It doesn’t matter how skilled you are; how intelligent; how kind; how loving and giving and wonderful.  If you’re not beautiful, you’re a second-class woman.  There’s something “critical” missing from your life, and you cannot be happy without it.  You can’t even be a good person and treat others (your children, even!) right if you’re not beautiful and don’t believe that you are beautiful.

That’s right.  If you’re ugly, you’re a bad person.  If you doubt yourself, you’re going to treat other people wrong and your life will suck because of it.  Thanx, Dove.  Thanx for reminding us all that the most important part of being female is being aesthetically pleasing.

And of course, when it comes right down to it, that *is* what Dove is trying to sell you.  They want you to buy their beauty products and their moisturizers.  They want you to buy their “pro*age” lotion to get rid of those crow’s feet, and their “colour care” shampoo to keep your dye-job shiny and “natural” looking.  They want you to shave off all your body hair, smell like a flower garden, and cover up your “flaws”, just like any other cosmetics company.  So they need you to believe that you ARE flawed, and that you need products to make you better.  It is, in the end, marketing.  And advertisers discovered long ago that the way to make you buy a product, is to make you feel as though you’re not as good without it.

If I were to redo this campaign, I’d rather see them focus on things that aren’t traditionally beautiful. I want to see someone’s scars being complimented as a sign of strength, or their round “overweight” belly being loved for its soft warmth, or their adorable freckles being complimented rather than showing this constant quest for “clear” skin. I want beauty to be about more than just cisgendered women.  I want to love people for their bald patches and their places where there’s too much hair and for their stretch marks and their crooked teeth and their beautiful asymmetry.  I want people to meet up in darkened rooms where they can’t see each other at all, and can only use talk & touch without sight to tell them what they’re supposed to be thinking and feeling. I want to be truly colourblind, and blind to gender, and blind to sexual orientation, and blind to traditional ideas of “beauty”. I’m kind of an idealist that way.

Happy Valentines Day! Musings on the Nature of “Fetish”

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

I’m not a huge fan of Valentines Day (for all of the usual reasons) — so rather than taking one of my boys out to an overcrowded “romantic” restaurant on a date and spending a bunch of money on gifts (blargh, no thanks!), I’m spending the evening eating homemade pirogies while the cats fight about who gets to sit on my lap and beg for a piece of my bacon (haha, fat chance, kitties: the bacon is mine!)

Anywhos.  In honour of this overly-commercialized pseudo-holiday, I bring you a (gasp!) post about a sexual topic.  Fetishes!  What they are, why we have them, and a little bit of gender theory on the topic.

Collar & leash fetish (model: me; photographer: blurred photography)

As with a most sexual topics, there is a lot of confusion and misinformation and judgmental bullshit to be found floating around the Internet (and in real life, as well).  It’s hard to even find a decent definition of what constitutes a “fetish”, so I’ll start this post off with a little bit of a vocabulary list, and some discussion of the term itself.

There are a few different things that people mean when they call something a “fetish”.  They may mean fascination.  They may mean kink.  Or they may actually mean fetish — but I would further define the term into two distinct categories:  soft and hard fetishes.

Now, a fascination would be non-sexual in nature.  If something fascinates you, it grabs your attention.  It’s something that you think about — perhaps even obsess over — often and in great detail.  The word “fetish” is sometimes used to describe this behaviour, but it’s not what I’m referring to in this post.

kink, meanwhile, is something that interests you on a sexual level.  It’s fun, it’s exciting, and it falls outside the category of “straight” or “normal” sex (“normal” being, of course, a problematic term, since what is “normal” is culturally influenced and can be endlessly debated — but that’s neither here nor there to this post, really).  Anyone who has an active and happy sex life has probably had kinky sex at some point — whether you’ve brought a set of pink, fuzzy handcuffs into the bedroom, blindfolded your partner, whacked them with a riding crop, dressed like a sexy schoolgirl, licked ice cream off their nipples, tried re-enacting a scene from “50 Shades“, or gone full-blown “story of O” with one another, you’ve probably introduced some kink into the bedroom.  It may have been exciting, it may have been silly, it may have been a gigantic and horrific failure.  In any case, kink is pretty casual (and, yes, entirely “normal” — but that’s a whole other post right there).

In the “true” sense of the word, fetish has referred to a sense of sexual arousal derived from a specific object, situation, non-genital body part, etc. (genitals don’t count, because they’re “supposed” to arouse you).

Webster defines fetish as:

  • an object or bodily part whose real or fantasied presence is psychologically necessary for sexual gratification and that is an object of fixation to the extent that it may interfere with complete sexual expression

Other dictionary definitions include:

  • any object or nongenital part of the body that causes a habitual erotic response or fixation.
  • any object, activity, etc, to which one is excessively or irrationally devoted
  • Something, such as an object or a nonsexual part of the body, that arouses sexual desire and may become necessary for sexual gratification.
  • a form of sexual desire in which gratification depends to an abnormal degree on some object or item of clothing or part of the body

Obviously there’s some significant deviation between definitions. While Webster defines a fetish as something that is “psychologically necessary for sexual gratification”, other definitions only say that this may become necessary, while still others ignore that aspect entirely. Some definitions refer to the having of a fetish as “abnormal” or “irrational” (again, I must point out that “normal” is a somewhat subjective thing), while others refer only to a “habitual erotic response” and skip the judgmental language.

Added to the confusion is the fact that having a fetish is something that is often pathologised, with psychotherapy, counseling, and behaviour modification techniques being commonly recommended as ways of “curing” a fetishist.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll use the definition that I personally consider to be most correct.  In my definition, soft fetishes are those things which are non-sexual in and of themselves (so, not genitals or common erogenous zones) but which cause sexual arousal in the fetishist. Hard fetishes are when that normally non-sexual thing becomes necessary to the fetishist achieving orgasm (or even sexual pleasure of any sort).

Either a soft or a hard fetish may become a source of psychological distress, but neither is (in my non-medical opinion) a disorder all on its own. Having a fetish is not a bad thing, and I think it’s important to remove the negative and judgmental language that has so often surrounded the word.

So!  Now that we’ve defined the term, let’s talk a little bit about why, exactly, we have fetishes in the first place.

being_kinky_makes_me_interesting_and_special_trollcat

It has long been supposed by psychoanalysts that fetishes are commonly formed through “imprinting” or “classical conditioning” — often in early childhood, although it can happen in adults as well. The basic theory is that which was illustrated by Pavlov: if, for example, a person who is first developing a sense of their sexuality always masturbates in the shower, they may begin to associate the feeling of an orgasm with the warm water, or with the particular scent of the soap they use, or with the feeling of a porcelain tub.

A particularly striking or traumatic incident may also “imprint” upon a person’s behaviour: if a person’s first sexual experience was particularly negative, for example, they may afterwards find themselves being aroused by shame or violence or pain — or by something much more specific, like the sound of your first lover’s derisive laughter. Non-sexual incidents may also leave their mark upon a person’s sexual desires: having been wrapped up in a blanket by an older sibling & scared by that as a child may result in a mummification fetish, while a person whose favourite babysitter wore a leather jacket may find themselves aroused by leather clothing or objects later in life.

Because the mind is such a complex thing, it’s hard to determine what will “imprint” (and how), and what will not. Two people may go through the exact same experience, and one will come out with a fetish while the other doesn’t, or each will come out with a completely different fetish. And since some of these events happen while we are young children, they’re not always remembered or reported by fetish-having adults.

Transitional objects and behaviours are also commonly thought to be a source of fetishes: a thumb-sucker may grow up to have a particular penchant for fellatio, while a child who clung to their teddy bear may fetishize the feeling of faux fur on their skin.

But there are other, more subtle (and less understood) factors at work, here. One widely publicized study indicates that there has historically been a rise in the popularity of foot fetishes during times of widespread outbreaks of STIs. Does something as abstract as a fear of disease encourage us to fetishize? Are we really that logical about it?

There’s also a theory out there that certain personality types are more prone to developing fetishes: introverts are more likely than extroverts because they are shy and tend to be more self-reliant (so they seek ways to find self-gratification, rather than seeking “normal” sexual relationships). And people of high intelligence are also supposed to be more prone to fetishizing, possibly because “normal” sex is not challenging enough (like the child who acts out in class because they are bored), or perhaps just because of a tendency to overthink and obsess over minute details.

As with many sexual topics, there is a somewhat depressing lack of information and scientific fact out there to be discussed: much data is self-reported, and many of the conclusions commonly presented are nothing more than untested hypotheses. It has been shown in a few studies that classical conditioning can work to produce a soft fetish response in men (women haven’t been studied), but that’s about as far as it has ever been taken.

Which brings me to my next point: gender.  Discussions about fetishes tend to be very gendered affairs:  there’s a perception out there that it’s men who primarily have fetishes (especially hard fetishes), while women are not prone to such things.  I don’t think that this is an accurate perception at all.

Or is it?

I think that the idea that fetishes (or even sex in general) are more of a “guy thing” is largely learned, not a hard-wired part of the “man-brain”.  A big part of this has to do with the difference in the way our society treats male and female pleasure.

From childhood, men are more encouraged to explore their sexuality. Self-gratification, masturbation, and exploration of kink & fetish are very taboo for young women, not as much so for young men (this has to do with the slut/stud divide: where men who are sexually aware & active are seen as virile and masculine, while females in the same situation are seen as dirty and deviant). So during those formative years when some of our base sexual desires are being discovered and wired into our brains, males are being encouraged (and even pressured) by their peers and by media and by society in general to explore and to touch themselves and to find their sexual side. Females, conversely, are being told that touching themselves is dirty, that sex is scary and dangerous, and that only bad people are interested in sex. This leads to males, as a general thing, having a greater variety of experiences during those formative years, because they feel a freedom that females do not. A young woman learning to touch and explore her body is likely to keep it very private, and unless she has a great deal of unsupervised freedom in her life she’ll be unlikely to introduce a lot of outside elements into her masturbation habits. Young males, on the other hand, are somewhat encouraged to just go ahead and stick their bits into anything with a hole of approximately the right size.

Psychologically, it’s much more likely that a hard fetish will develop young. So the greater prevalence of hard fetishes among males likely has a lot to do with the age at which sexual exploration begins to be encouraged.

On another level, male gratification is seen in mainstream media (and thus by society in general) as the ultimate goal of sexual activity. It’s rare to see any portrayal of sex where the man does not “get off” — and it’s rare to see portrayals of sex where the activity continues after his orgasm has been achieved. The “male gaze” is also a factor, here: since we are almost always intended to identify with a white, hetero, male protagonist, we are most concerned with seeing him get what he wants. And that attitude is reinforced even in places that are more sex-positive for females: women’s magazines may tout the newest vibrator as the best way to achieve your own pleasure, but they still carry articles about how to “please your man” in overwhelming abundance (even though most men report being happy with their sex lives). Women exist in supporting roles. Women are taught that achieving orgasm is difficult & rare, that it’s okay to “fake it”, and that it’s expected (and even virtuous – gross!) for a female to not enjoy sex as much as a male does (or at all). What this means is that a man who has a hard fetish (or even a soft fetish that makes achieving arousal easier) will continue to explore that, because erection and ejaculation are seen as being very important elements of masculinity. A man who cannot orgasm is “broken”: there is something terribly wrong with him. The stigma against erectile dysfunction and the fear of being “unmanned” will likely overcome any shame that might arise from unusual masturbatory habits. Women, on the other hand, may discover a fetishistic behaviour at some point in their journey of sexual exploration, only to shun and deny it as “shameful” and “deviant” (see earlier comment on the “slut/stud divide”). It’s less likely to become part of a normal masturbatory routine (and, of course, repeating the same fetishistic behaviour on a regular basis is one of the things that can turn a soft fetish into a hard one). It may remain as an occasional “guilty pleasure”, but it’s likely something that she’ll keep limited and private.

And that leads me into my next point: it’s easier for women to hide a fetish. Because males are expected to achieve erection and ejaculation during a sexual encounter, while women are permitted (and sometimes even expected) to just “lie still and think of England”, a man can’t hide it if he has a hard fetish. If he can’t get it up without a particular object being involved, he’ll have to share that information with his partner, or face being the guy who can’t please a woman and isn’t a “real man”. A woman might be seen as “frigid” if she doesn’t respond to sexual activity, but that’s not nearly as much of a negative thing.

Men are also traditionally seen as the “leaders” in heterosexual sex. Men are supposed to “take the reins” and be “dominant” and “assertive” about what they want in bed. Since femininity is associated with passivity and being quiet and all of that nonsense, men are likely to feel more freedom in bringing up a fetish (even a soft one), because they feel “in charge” of the situation and are used to asking for what they want. Women have to deal with a much greater fear of rejection in this sort of a situation, and are under some pressure to not appear “sluttish” by demanding things that will please them in bed.

As a final thing, I’d like to talk a little bit about how and why fetishes — both soft and hard — are so often seen as a negative thing.

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Like many sexual activities, proclivities, and preferences, fetishes have spent a lot of time being demonized. It is only very recently that fetishes and paraphilias have begun to be redefined. Until the last decade, simply having a fetish of any sort was enough for a person to be defined as mentally ill!  Of course, it was only in the mid 70s that homosexuality was taken off the list of mental illnesses, so this is a problem that extends way beyond just the fetish and kink worlds.  Our understanding of human psychology is overall kind of crappy, and we need to work on that.

But back to the topic at hand.  Society’s general disdain for sexual acts (especially those which are not a part of the status quo) is only partially to blame, here, because even within the kink community there is something of a negative stigma attached to certain fetishes — and to hard fetishes in particular.

What it boils down to is that fetishes have an inherent selfishness to them — especially if it’s a fetish that your partner does not share. If you must involve (for example) shoes in some way in order to get off, it limits your sex life in some regard and puts a burden on your partner(s) with regards to how they can express their own sexuality. Depending on how generous you are as a lover (are you willing to put aside your fetish on some days and forgo your own pleasure just so that they don’t need to worry about it?), this can quickly put a strain on a couple’s sex life.

Soft fetishes are somewhat less problematic, because they don’t need to be dealt with in all sexual activities, but there is still a “you want me to do what?” factor. Some generosity on the part of a non-fetish-having lover is required, or the fetish-haver will likely feel unfulfilled and unhappy that their fetish is never acknowledged or appreciated.  But the fetish-haver must be understanding as well — they have to recognize that their partner doesn’t share this desire and that it might seem “icky” or off-putting.

Depending on the fetish, it may be something that comes up only occasionally, or it may be something that is constantly being brought up as a factor.  Having a fetish for boys in dresses, for example, is something that you can explore occasionally and then put back into the closet in-between times, to be brought out at your convenience.  You’re not going to encounter boys in dresses very often in your day-to-day life (or in your regularly scheduled sex life), so it’s something that can be, at least sometimes, ignored.  A shoe fetish, though:  almost everybody wears shoes.  You’re going to see those all the time, on all sorts of people.  It can become something distracting and can cause jealousy — if your partner knows about your fetish, they may find themselves second-guessing the relationship every time you compliment a friend’s footwear.  And a foot fetish can be even worse:  it’s not like your partner can leave their feet out of it when you’re having sexy-times together, so it’s easy for them to start feeling as though you focus WAY too much on their feet and not enough on the rest of them.  Unless you are a very sensitive and communicative person, it’s easy to leave someone feeling objectified and undervalued in this situation.

Of course, a part of the problem comes from the fact that fetishes have been marginalized for so long.  There’s a lack of information, and a lot of the information that is readily available (especially with the Internet) is not particularly accurate (like with most things to do with sex, porn is almost never the place to look for an accurate depiction).  Until we start accepting that fetishes can be a part of a “normal”, healthy sex life, they’re always going to be viewed with disgust and distrust.  The recent changes to the psychological definitions of fetishes have been a step in the right direction, and therapists (especially those who specialize in sexual issues) are becoming more knowledgeable about the subject, but that knowledge has yet to filter down to the general public.  Finding out that your partner has a fetish can be intimidating, and we’ve not yet developed many resources for helping with that.  But hopefully my blog post adds something to the discussion!

If you are looking for resources & support with regards to fetishes (your own or a partner’s), here are some links that might be helpful — or just leave a comment below and I’m happy to offer whatever advice I can!

Emotive Language and the Limitations of English Phrases

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 8, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

I am a person who loves words.  A “logophile“, if you will, (or “lexophile”, if you are like me and prefer Latin instead of Greek roots for your terminology).  I am also a monolingual person, having never successfully learned a second language (although I’ve dabbled in both French and German, both were learned solely because of school requirements and promptly forgotten afterwards).  As a writer, a poet, and a lover of communication in all its forms, I enjoy finding the exact words and phrases that express what’s in my mind.

It is, therefore, a genuinely distressing experience when I find myself in situations where words, quite simply, fail me.

"Words Fail Me" by DeviantART artist ~simplyrain

The English language has a lot of words (it’s been argued that English has the “most” words of any language, but such claims are hard to verify), due largely to the fact that English includes many assimilated words “borrowed” from other languages.  It is spoken all over the world — it is the third most common “first language” (after Mandarin and Spanish), and is the most popular “second language” for people to learn.  Much of globalized business and politics is conducted in English, so it’s a language rich in legalese and very specific terminologies.

Where English tends to be lacking, though, is in emotive and expressive words.  We can describe in great detail an object, a person, a place, an event:  something concrete and tangible.  We understand the nuanced difference between something that is “big”, “huge”, “enormous”, or “gargantuan”.  But when it comes to describing our feelings, we’re really not that great at it.  We stumble over our words.  We say things that we don’t really mean, and we misunderstand one another.

Take “love”, for example.  We love our families.  We love our romantic partners.  We love our children.  We love our pets.  We love a great piece of art, or a hockey team, or a delicious meal.  And there are a lot of different things that we mean when we say the words “I lovI love lampe”.  There are people who refuse to say “the L word” for fear of diluting its “deeper” meaning, while there are others who use it almost constantly to describe most any positive feeling.  And there are all sorts of qualifying words that we add to “love”, in an attempt to further define it:  “platonic love”, “fraternal love”, “romantic love”, “true love”, “puppy love”.  Sex is often referred to as “making love”.  And we, as a society, tend to see love as some sort of unexplainable, mystical force:  you can “fall into” or “fall out of” love, or be struck by “love at first sight”, as if it’s all being done by some outside force or by “fate”.  We are confused by love, and afraid of it, and yet we seek it as some sort of ultimate fulfillment in life.  “All You Need is Love”, and “Love Conquers All”.

We are also terrible, in English, at describing sorrowful emotions.  I recently went through a loss — my bearded dragon, Ziggy Stardust, unexpectedly passed away.  And while I spent a few days randomly bursting into tears at work, and being unable to even look at his empty, lonely terrarium, and feeling otherwise terrible in my grief (not least because his death was unexpected and the cause undetermined, so despite my proper husbandry practices I can’t help but worry that I may have missed a sign or done something wrong), I had a lot of trouble putting those awful feelings into words.  The best that I could come up with was “I’m sad”, and that of course does nothing to really describe the way I felt.

At the same time, it’s hard to properly express empathy for another person when they are experiencing grief or other negative emotions.  SayingI'm sorry “I’m sorry” is the socially accepted response, but it certainly doesn’t seem like the proper thing … “I’m sorry” is generally an expression of regret for a mistake or a fault, or a request for forgiveness, and isn’t truly descriptive of the empathetic feeling of sorrow you have when a friend or loved one is experiencing grief.  And yet, to go into a long explanation of your own feelings and emotions at a time when someone else is already feeling sorrow:  well, that just seems selfish and self-absorbed, doesn’t it?  So we resort to the socially-appropriate thing and say “I’m sorry for your loss”, and hope that it gets the right feeling across.

I’m not really sure what the solution is to our lack of emotive words.  There are people who are trying to bring the various Greek terms for “love” into common parlance — agape for the “pure” or “ideal” love between romantic partners, eros for “passionate” sexual love, philia for the platonic love felt for friends, storge for the filial affection felt within families, and xenia for the ritual “love” between a host and their guest (something that’s not as relevant today, but was a foundational element of the Greek culture).  But getting people to accept new terminology is not exactly an easy thing, and it’s likely to cause just as much confusion as it solves.  In addition, there’s the fact that many Westerners (and especially North Americans) are very uncomfortable with talking about emotions.  Displays of extreme emotion, whether happy or sad, are often seen as inappropriate or ridiculous, and discussing one’s “feelings” is a thing that’s often sneered at.  We prefer to keep emotions bottled-up and private, and so communicating them is not a high priority for many people.

I just wish I had the words to always say just what I feel.

The “Friendzone” is a Myth, and You are Not a Nice Guy

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

“Friendzone” is one of those terms that I absolutely cannot stand.  While the term’s been around since the 90s (most sources credit the TV show “Friends” with its origin), it has become much more popular in the last couple of years, and now seems to be a fixture in common parlance.  The Internet is rife with the rants and whinings of the “friendzoned”.  Of course, this whining usually has the opposite effect of what was intended — its only purpose, really, is to let me know that the person using the term is an asshole and not worth being friends with in the first place.

For those unfamiliar with it, Urban Dictionary defines the friendzone as “What you attain after you fail to impress a woman you’re attracted to.”  Wikipedia’s definition is a little bit more honest (as well as being gender neutral):  “the friend zone refers to a platonic relationship where one person wishes to enter into a romantic relationship, while the other does not.

Now, I’m not saying that wanting “more” from a friendship with a person who you find attractive is always a bad thing.  I actually prefer to date people with whom I’ve already built a friendship, as it’s easier to trust a person who you already know and like.  The problem is that “friendzone” is generally presented as a negative thing, as though being friends is some sort of “consolation prize”.  It creates the impression that you were only in it for the possibility of sex, and if that possibility is removed, you’re really not interested in continuing the friendship.

I’ve lost my share of friendships this way, and the usual way of things is this:  you meet, chat, realize that you have a lot in common.  You hang out more often, find shared interests that you can do together.  You talk about all sorts of different topics.  And at some point, one party falls for the other.  The crush is revealed and – oh no – it’s not mutual.  Awkward.  Everybody feels kind of bad.  You say that you won’t let it change anything, and then … they disappear.  They’re never available to hang out any more.  Calls go unanswered.  You’ve lost a friend, because they couldn’t deal with the embarrassment of being sexually rejected.

It’s pretty unpleasant, not to mention rather insulting, to think that a friendship you’ve invested time and energy into was only a plan to get into your pants.  And it can be heartbreaking when someone you’ve spent a lot of time with, and built a connection with, decides that they don’t want to be around you any more because you won’t offer them sex.

There can be dozens of different reasons why people who are compatible as friends may not feel a sexual attraction for each other.  The simplest explanation is physical attraction (or the lack thereof) — there’s not much that you can do if you just simply aren’t attracted to the person.  But there are countless other factors as well.  Maybe your wants and needs in a relationship are different (ie, if one person is polyamorous and the other is monogamous, it’s unlikely to work).  Maybe your future plans don’t mesh (ie, one person wants kids and the other doesn’t).  Maybe there’s already someone else, or you’re not over a recent breakup, or you’re still figuring out your sexuality, or you’re simply happy with being single.

Whatever the reason, deciding that friendship, without sex or other “benefits”, just isn’t quite “good enough” for you?  It’s an asshole move.  Ditching a friend because you’ve decided it’s not “going anywhere” makes you a total jerkbag asshat.  At least the person you’re dumping as a friend is probably better off without you, but that really is a totally shitty consolation prize.

The thing is, if you’re using the term “friendzone” to describe your relationship with a person?  You probably aren’t really their friend.  Friends care about each other as more than just objects, and want one another to be happy.  It’s fair to be disappointed when you fall for a person and they don’t fall for you — it’s a shitty thing to happen.  But grow up, be an adult about it, and respect their feelings.  You’ll get over it and find somebody else to crush on soon enough.  If you’re really their friend, you want them to find somebody great to be in a relationship with (even if that person isn’t you) — and they’ll want the same for you, as well.  You might even be able to have some good discussions with them, now, about why they don’t see you as a romantic possibility and about how you can go about improving yourself to become a better “catch” for when the right one comes along.  If you’re really lucky, you might even gain a “wingman“, to help you with approaching and attracting the next person you develop a crush on.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking right now, so I’m just going to nip this in the bud — substitute alternative pronouns if necessary.  “But I’m really a nice guy!  Why can’t she see that I’d be perfect for her?”

To start with?  No.  No, you’re probably not a nice guy.  Because the guys who complain about how “nice guys finish last” and “girls only like to date assholes”?  Are usually not particularly nice.  They are, instead, what is known as a “Nice Guy” (note the capitalization and quotation marks).

In the world of the “Nice Guy”, people to whom you’re attracted are not seen as individual human beings.  They are interchangeable objects, into whom you deposit token gestures of how “Nice” you are.  Paying compliments.  Giving gifts.  Doing favours.  You count up all of these gestures like notches on a headboard, and expect that at some point you’ll be “paid back” with sex or a relationship, once the person is sufficiently in your “debt”.  Never mind that their feelings might be different from yours — they “owe” you, for all that you’ve “given” them.  It’s a shitty way to treat another person.  If you were truly their friend, you’d do favours and make such gestures without expecting anything in return, because that’s how friends treat each other.  You’d be upset if one of your friends gave you a gift, and then turned around and said “now where’s my present?”, so don’t do that to people you’re attracted to.

In addition to this, even if you are an excellent match?  They need to come to that conclusion themselves.  It might be a case of “right person, wrong time”, and if you stick around and are a genuine friend (and not a “Nice Guy”) to them, they may eventually reach that conclusion.  Don’t sit around waiting for it, of course, and certainly don’t pester them about it — seek other relationships and friendships in the meantime, and leave the ball in their court — but don’t consider the conversation over.  People grow, and change, and sometimes an initial rejection will turn into something different over time.

But wait — what’s that, Morpheus?

That’s right — there’s one other category that I haven’t dealt with yet.  That’s the people who “friendzone” themselves, because they never even bothered to say anything about their feelings.

This can be one of the most hurtful things to experience.  You make friends with a person, spend a bunch of time together … and then out of the blue, they stop calling, stop being available, and the friendship simply ends.  No explanation, you didn’t have a fight or a falling out, it’s just over.

And then you hear from a mutual friend: “oh, X had a crush on you, and you didn’t like them back, so they decided to end it”.  And you’re floored.  You didn’t know they felt that way.  Were there signs that you should have seen?  Why didn’t they talk to you about it?  It hurts to think that a person felt so intimidated by you that they found it easier to cut you off than it was to just talk to you about it.

This is one of the stupidest things that a person can do.  In addition to the usual problems associated with “friendzoning” (you’re treating the person as an object rather than a person, you’re more interested in sex and your own desires than you are in the friendship and their wants & needs, etc), there’s the added hurt of being completely left out of the decision-making process.  Maybe you hadn’t thought of that person as a possible sexual partner, but knowing that they feel that way about you might have left you feeling open to exploring the possibility.  But they chose for you; they decided how you felt (and took away your ownership and agency of your own emotions), acted on it, and you didn’t even get a say.

So to sum up:

  • Never use the term “friendzone”.  It’s a term only used by assholes.
  • If you’re attracted to a friend, and they don’t feel the same way about you, respect them enough to accept their decision and move on.
  • Cutting a person out of your life because they won’t have sex with you is shallow and childish, and not the way you’d treat a friend.
  • If you’re attracted to a person, say something.  Don’t assume that they are psychic, and don’t assume anything about their feelings in return.