Social sharing — Google circles and the dilemmas it creates

When you post something on Facebook, who are you directing your post to? It doesn’t matter so much when you write the “Blueberry pancakes for breakfast!” updates that people like to make fun of, but what about when you write about religion or politics, or public breastfeeding, or how annoying the gender you’re attracted to is? Any time you write something that someone might be inclined to disagree with, the question comes up: to whom are you speaking?

In face-to-face interactions, we’re generally attuned to our audience. We have an idea whether the people we’re talking to agree or disagree with our thoughts, and we choose when and how to voice them accordingly. If I know the people around me generally agree with what I’m about to say, I’ll put it forwardly more boldly than I would in mixed company, and I’ll expect affirmative responses. If I know or suspect they’ll disagree with me, I may be more qualified in my statement, and I’m braced for challenge. If I don’t feel like getting into a debate, I won’t say it.

But when you post on social media, you’re addressing a wide audience, some of whom probably disagree with you on just about any subject. At the same time, it seems to me that a lot of people post as though they’re talking exclusively to like-minded people. They present their thought with an “everybody knows this” attitude rather than a “this is what I think, come and challenge me” attitude. This raises an overall question of etiquette when it comes to social sharing. I’ll keep making analogies to flesh-and-blood situations because most of us have an understanding of etiquette there. If you’re at a party and you overhear, from across the room, someone voicing an idea you profoundly disagree with, it’s generally considered rude to run across to them and tell them how wrong they are. If someone is in your conversational group and voices the same idea, you can challenge them politely. If you’re reading a newspaper and someone has written the same thing in an opinion piece, you can write them a letter as forceful as you desire.

But where do status posts in social media fit in? If someone I know distantly writes something I disagree with, do I treat it as something said to me that I can politely respond to? Or do I treat it as something said to their more immediate circle of friends, a context where it would be a little boorish to charge in with my dissent?

The uncertainty around this makes me uncomfortable when someone posts a status I disagree with. If I leave it alone, I feel irritated that I’m letting such comments go by unchecked, and if I challenge it, I worry that I’ve overstepped a line.

The system of “circles” in Google+ is something I’ve been wishing for for a long time. It has the potential to change the whole dynamic of social sharing. If I want to offer a status post only to certain people, I can do that. In theory, this should mean that any status I can read, I can feel comfortable commenting on.

At the same time, I can hear the voices of certain people I love questioning whether this is a good thing. Too many of us, myself included, are inclined to segregate and compartmentalize our identities: to show a different face to every group we’re involved in. Only sharing about polyamory to people I know accept it, only complaining about evils of religion to the non-religious, might not be the healthiest way to go about life. On the other hand, I still have this blog — my editorial space, where I say whatever I want and people can and should feel free to challenge and criticize. To what extent should I modify my presentation in social media? In flesh-and-blood interactions? It’s something I’m still working on figuring out.

Joys, shared and unshared

Those who read Shaun’s blog already know that there are some fun new developments in our love lives. Starting to date someone awesome is always exciting, and getting to see him start dating someone awesome is nearly as exciting, so enjoying both at once means that I’m walking around with a happy smile a lot these days.

It’s a little tempered, though, with the awareness of how few people in my life I can share this excitement with. Many of my co-workers know I’m in an open relationship, and if any of them disapprove they hide it well, but “I’ve started seeing this new person and it’s going really well so far!” becomes much less relatable when it’s “my boyfriend and I” and “these new people.” I can’t just walk in and gush… I would have to explain, would have to answer lots of “So how does that work?” and “so nobody’s jealous?” questions.

And then there are friends and family. I have many friends, especially more recent ones, who are fully supportive of my lifestyle. But most of my oldest friends are still as conservatively religious as when I met them, and I know they think that what I’m doing is not just misguided or unlikely to work, but morally wrong and damaging to my soul. They want me to be happy, of course, but they can’t really rejoice with me when my happiness is coming in such an unacceptable form.

I’ve been where they are. When my best friend came out as a lesbian, I still held to a religious doctrine that said that was wrong and against God’s will. Conversations about her life were a strain for both of us, as I wanted to hear what was going on with her, but I couldn’t simply be happy for her when she talked about how great her girlfriend was. And I know she heard the tension in my half-hearted congratulations. I really have no desire to hear the same thing in the voice of my old friends and my parents. Every time one of them asks how things are going with Shaun, I think they’re secretly hoping to hear, “I don’t know, I’m starting to feel like it’s not what I want out of life.”

But it is. This is exactly what I want out of life, and I’m happier than I’ve ever been. Honestly happy, not just convincing myself that I’m happy because I have the things a virtuous girl is supposed to want. Our life together has more joy and freedom, more challenge and excitement, than I ever could have imagined.

The fact that I can’t truly share my happiness with many people whom I love and who I know care about me is only a minor blot. But still… I wish things were different.

On reality

Six days ago, Shaun and I were sitting in a green room, and I said to him, “These people are all really nice to us… they seem to like us and to respect our ‘lifestyle.’ And I think they probably do like and respect us, because what’s not to like? But what’s bothering me is that even if they thought were were immature, immoral people who are destroying the fabric of America, I believe they’d be behaving in exactly the same way.”

After our appearance on the show, when we were roundly scolded by Father Albert and the audience, I said something very similar. “He probably does disapprove of us and think committed relationships should be exclusive and that we’re making destructive choices. But if I found out afterward that in his private life he thinks open relationships are terrific, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”

The whole time we were on the set, it was clear to me that everything was a performance. The words, the gestures, the attitudes… perhaps they agreed with the performer’s underlying feelings, but if so it was little more than coincidence. Everything was deliberate and dramatized, designed to produce an effect.

Shaun felt that Father Albert was cold and hostile to him; what I felt was that he was simply not present, with either of us. He was focused on his performance, and our presence there as human beings wasn’t really relevant. Much of the audience probably perceived him as warm and present, because he was playing to them. When he asked us a harsh question, he barely met our eyes.

When we got offstage, my impression of its all having been performance was solidified by the way everybody treated us. They were friendly, they were smiling, they were exactly the same in manner as they’d been before the show. You’d never know that we’d just been excoriated onstage. It wasn’t real, you see. We were stage villains, playing a part, and there was no more hostility between us and them than there is between actors playing Macbeth and MacDuff.

I haven’t said much about it here, but I hate and have always hated reality TV. I love fiction, I love drama, I love playing make-believe; but I have always suspected, and now I know, that dramatic “reality-based” television is the worst kind of lie. It is fiction pretending to be reality. Lies and truth are so intermingled as to be nearly indistinguishable.

We were told, the whole time leading up to our appearance onstage, that we were just there to tell our story. To explain our non-monogamous relationship and to tell people how and why it works for us. I am not naïve, so I was prepared for a surprise, but what’s bothering me now is that I don’t know, and probably never will know, exactly where the deception took place. Were Jen and Steph, the women I thought of as our “handlers,” misled by the producers? Were they simply flatly lying to us? Was there a change of plan at some point and a decision not to tell us? Did Father Albert go off-book? My guess is that they hadn’t decided until, say, late Thursday night or Friday morning exactly what angle they were going to take, and that having decided, they avoided telling us for one of many reasons. I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. But the fact that it doesn’t matter is strange to me. Usually when someone lies to me or conspires against me, it’s recognized by both of us that we are enemies. Here, it’s just the way they do business, so it doesn’t matter who exactly was doing the lying and conspiring.

The audience was nearly unanimously against us and booed and hissed at most of what we had to say, with one exception. I said at one point, “I don’t have to worry about Shaun looking at other women behind my back, because he’s doing it in front of my face.” At which the audience — largely composed of women — gave a collected “ohhh!” of recognition and understanding. I wish I could have explained myself further, because in retrospect many of them probably interpreted that statement as “I know he’s going to check out other women because he’s a man and all men are pigs, but I prefer the security of knowing what he’s thinking.” Which is not at all what I meant. What I meant was, “I know he’s going to check out other women because he’s human and being in love with one person does not automatically turn off your interest in other people… and I want to know him, as he is, not someone he pretends to be, even with the best of intentions. And his attractions, the women he finds beautiful, the pain of rejection and the joy of connection, are all part of who he is, and so I want to know these things too.” That’s what I’d have liked to say.

I hate reality TV because I love reality. Truth, pure and unfiltered, is probably unattainable to human minds, but I want to come as close to it as possible. I want to know the reality of Shaun’s mind and his heart, even the things that have the potential to make me jealous or insecure. I don’t at all regret going on the show, but in the week since I have almost wept with gratitude for the openness and sincerity of our relationship.

Polygamy, polygyny, polyamory

Figleaf has a brief description of his own experiences with jealousy that completely jibes with my own. The times I’ve experienced romantic jealousy have all been times when I deeply longed for a certain intimacy, and saw someone else getting it. If I am not feeling loved and desired by my partner, to see him loving and desiring someone else is upsetting: if I am secure and happy in the knowledge that he loves and desires me, then his also feeling that way towards other people bothers me not a whit. Not sure if that’s true for most people or not, but it is for me.


I want to write about our experience on the talk show, and I will — when I’m able to post a link to the show itself, if not sooner — but right now I want to address a confusion about words. One of our fellow guests on the show was a woman who had been in a polygamous sect (I imagine fundamentalist Mormon, though I don’t think she ever said specifically), married at 15 to a man who had 5 wives before her and 4 after her. Partly for that reason, the show’s producers wanted us to avoid using the word “polyamory” on the grounds that people would confuse it with “polygamy.” (Viewers are Morons, after all. And, not to bite the hand that fed me my 15 minutes of fame, but in this show’s case they’re probably mostly right.) The funniest thing to me is that, even though we carefully said “non-monogamous” and “open relationship” an audience member still addressed us as “the polygamists.” So clearly the confusion is there.

Let’s just get dictionary definitions out of the way. Polygamy means multiple marriage: any marriage configuration where more than two people are involved. Polygyny means a man has multiple wives, but women are only permitted one husband. Polyamory is this newfangled Greek/Latin hybrid of a word referring to a specific cultural movement, emphasizing loving and mutually fulfilling relationships with more than one partner, where honesty, openness, and communication are paramount. (Yes, there’s also a word for women having multiple husbands — “polyandry” — but in our patriarchal heritage that word’s been practically irrelevant for many centuries. I was tickled to learn it when I was a kid, though, and enjoyed the idea of having more than one husband at a time. Shoulda figured I’d end up a hedonistic reprobate.)

Polygynous fundamentalist religions are almost always referred to as “polygamous” even though it is inevitably the men getting the multiple partners. And the history, and current illegal practice, of oppressive polygyny is a huge problem for those of us who think it might be nice someday to legally marry more than one person. While the ideas of polygyny and polyamory might be easily confused in the popular mind, they are very nearly opposite in moral philosophy. Polygyny is deeply sexist, both in structure and in common practice. Polyamorous communities are usually ahead of the cultural curve in gender equality. Polygyny demands that its participants submit and repress their feelings to conform with its rules about acceptable social and sexual behavior. Polyamory encourages people to understand their desires and seek out ways to satisfy them in harmony with the needs of others. Polygyny is imposed from without, often upon people too young to make a sound decision about lifelong matters. Polyamory comes from one’s inner sense of what is right and healthy for oneself. (At least, it should. I know there are many people who feel coerced into trying or adopting polyamory because their partner is insistent on it, and this is unhealthy both for the individual and for the relationship. But the poly community frowns heavily on this.)

So it’s kind of funny to me that the two groups in American culture that would like to see polygamy decriminalized are so profoundly opposite in overall philosophies of life. It’s awkward, because while I like the idea of being able to marry more than one lover, I’d rather never see that freedom if the cost is oppression of young girls married off before they have a chance to understand the world and the choices they make within it. But how to draft a marriage law that would allow my kind of polygamy without paving the way for theirs?

One idea is to impose a much higher age of consent for a multiple marriage than we impose for a monogamous one. 25, maybe? With no loophole for parental approval? (A loophole I think shouldn’t exist in an case.) A 25-year-old might make bad, self-destructive decisions, but by 25 most people have scoped out the world a little and are ready to start on their own chosen path in life, ready in a way no 15-year-old can be. Polyamory in the broadest and most literal sense — building loving and nourishing relationships with multiple people — requires emotional maturity, whether it’s being done within a religious sect or among godless hedonist reprobates like myself.

And the heart of the matter really lies in the difference between “polygamy” and “polyamory.” The “-gamy” suffix means “marriage,” which despite our modern romanticization, has been a political and commercial arrangement as much as it’s been a romantic and self-fulfilling one. I am reluctant to defend multiple marriage in and of itself, just as I’m reluctant to defend marriage, period. A marriage is only as good as the love and respect given by its members to one another. As our fellow talk-show guest related, polygamy without concurrent polyamory is soul-destroying. The love, the respect, the commitment and devotion to caring for each other through good times and bad… that is what makes a good relationship, whether or not it’s exclusive and whether or not it’s formalized.


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.