What to do if your partner is accused of abuse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birth control!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New feature! Ask A Sexologist

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

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

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

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

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.

The C-word

Strong language ahead!

I actually really like the word ‘cunt.’ Unlike most words for female genitalia, it sounds strong and earthy and unsentimental, which is how I like to think of my vagina. It’s long been my favorite genital slang word for either sex (I don’t really like any of the slang for “penis.”)

Beyond my personal preference, I’m generally all in favor of word reclamation: a word is only an insult if you let it be. So I’d like to see “cunt” brought to the same level of acceptability that “pussy” holds. Which means I had a weird cognitive clash the other night when I read about Penn Jillette calling a female humor writer a “fucking cunt” just for writing an article he found unfunny.

I’m really not interested in excoriating Jillette: this is not the first thing he’s done that made me think I wouldn’t like him as a person, and there are plenty of other people calling him out anyway. What I’m interested in is how strongly I reacted to seeing “cunt” used that way. It evoked a feeling of threat, of violent hostility, directed not toward a particular personality but toward womanhood — which meant that the threat was vaguely aimed at me as well.

This is pretty much how I always feel when seeing someone referred to as a “cunt” in a way that’s clearly hostile. I know it’s not always meant that way, and that in English-speaking countries other than the US the word is much more mild in connotation. But to me, unique among gender-based insults, “cunt” sounds to me like the speaker is about two steps from brandishing a knife, and lashing out not only at the person who evoked their wrath, but at anyone else who bears the same genitalia.

I freely use words like “dick” and “tool” to describe people who are displaying a stereotypically masculine unpleasantness, and “bitch” to describe people who are displaying a stereotypically feminine unpleasantness. I don’t have a problem with my own or other people’s uses of those words. But “cunt,” to me, is different, and I’m not sure why. Is it because “bitch” seems aimed at female behavior, and “cunt” seems aimed at femaleness itself? But then why am I okay with “dick” and “tool”?

My theory, and it’s pretty off-the-cuff, is that there is not nearly the level of culturally-engrained loathing of the penis as there is of the vagina. (In all the ensuing discussions of culture, I’m talking about the segment of modern US culture I inhabit.) Penis-having is seen as a pretty positive thing; we expect men with penises to be proud of them, and we treat penis-related indiscretions with the kind of indulgent scolding we’d give to a puppy who knocked over a cookie jar. Oblique references to the penis are constant and pervasive in our culture, and most of them are positive.

The cultural view of the vagina is much more ambivalent: there are a lot of people, both male and female, who see the vagina as dirty, disgusting, and treacherous. We talk less about vaginas, we joke less about them, we don’t pat ourselves or anybody else on the back just for having one. While phallic imagery is usually met with a giggle, vaginal imagery is often met with a vague feeling of discomfort. The mainstream cultural voices never seriously think someone’s worth is lowered just because they have a penis; sometimes they do think someone’s worth is lowered just because they have a vagina. “Cunt,” as an insult, draws on a whole deep well of hatred and revulsion that’s just not present, in our culture, for penis-based insults.

I find it interesting that “pussy” is only an insult when it’s directed at a man, which possibly sheds light on another subtext of “cunt.” Pussy is a soft word, in both sound and meaning: it’s gentle and cute and unthreatening. Cunt, as I said at the beginning, is powerful: it’s just as direct and plosive as cock. Women are never insulted by being called pussies: gentle, cute, and unthreatening is what women are supposed to be. Daring to be powerful while having a vagina is what gets women in trouble.

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.

Which kind of cheating is worse? And why?

A lot of us have seen the statistic that men, on the whole, worry more about sexual infidelity in relationships while women worry more about emotional infidelity. (I’m writing this real quick-like in the middle of studying, so I can’t be bothered to look up a citation… perhaps some commenter can oblige, or I’ll edit it in later.) This statistic is usually explained by the evo-psych theory that men’s great reproductive danger was being duped into raising another man’s genetic offspring, while a women’s great reproductive danger was losing her mate’s financial support for herself and her children.

This theory irks me for a number of reasons: the most rational being that it assumes that basically modern gendered family roles were present in the environment men and women evolved in. It assumes monogamous pair-bonding with the female dependent on the males’ support; if you’re having trouble imagining any other possibility, consider a small, close tribal community where resources are shared fairly equally among the whole tribe, as opposed to won and hoarded by a particular nuclear family unit. Consider an economy based largely on foraging, where women’s childbearing role would not hamper them from obtaining resources nearly as much as in a more labor-intensive agricultural economy. The “men evolved to be sexually jealous to ensure their hard-won resources nourished their own offspring” idea makes little sense if human brains evolved in such communities, as does “women evolved to be emotionally jealous to ensure their mates’ continued provision.”

An alternative theory is based on our culture’s intense conditioning of males and females around sexuality and emotion. Men are taught from an early age that being highly emotional is unacceptable. While women are allowed to cuddle and form intimate emotional bonds in many kinds of relationships (with family, with friends, with children), men’s sole source of both affectionate touch and emotional intimacy is in the sex act. For this reason, I think it’s often misleading to make a distinction between men’s sexual and emotional needs: very often the two are conflated, because our culture deems non-sexual emotional needs as “unmanly.”

From the women’s side, we are socialized to view male sexuality as rampant and uncontrollable: that a man will have sex every chance he gets, and with as many women as he can, is often viewed as natural and inevitable. And from that standpoint, it is likely to be much more forgivable. Men’s sexuality, in our culture, is cheap: easy to gain access to, and thus less valuable and less jealously guarded. Men’s emotional commitment and intimacy, on the other hand, is rare and difficult to obtain (see the above paragraph). Therefore for a woman’s male partner to give emotional intimacy to someone else is a much higher violation than for him to give sexual intimacy. (I use the word “give” as opposed to “share” deliberately: the idea that intimacy of either kind is a commodity is fundamental to the very idea of infidelity, so it seems logical to use that language even though it’s contrary to my own philosophy.)

In my view, our cultural constructions of gender, and particularly the severe suppression and distortion of male’s emotional selves, is entirely sufficient to explain the “women are more worried about emotional infidelity, men are more worried about sexual infidelity” statistic. Problematic and possibly counterfactual evo-psych theories are, in this case, superfluous.

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.

Commitment

The rumors are true: I’m getting married. After the most romantic proposal ever (a text message from me to Shaun saying “Hey, can I call you my fiancé?”) and careful analysis of best possible timing (“Spring is nice, wanna get married next spring?”) we’ve announced wedding plans to friends and family, and changed our facebook status to “engaged.” (That’s how you know it’s for real.)

Naturally, a lot of people have wanted to know if we’re still going to be polyamorous. Yes we are; this relationship has never been about “we’ll be non-monogamous until I decide if I really want to commit to you.” What really weirds me out, though, is the people who ask what the point of marriage is if it’s not going to be exclusive.

I’m not being flip here, I really am mystified. One person close to me said “What is a marriage without sexual faithfulness*?”– and then denied me the opportunity to respond, so I’m going to respond here. In marrying Shaun I am making him a partner in all my life decisions. I am committing to upholding the health of our relationship, and prioritizing it over everything except my own growth and wellbeing. I am declaring my intention to be with him through all the changes of adult life. I am trusting him to be the primary decision-maker on my behalf if I am ever incapacitated, and accepting the responsibility of doing the same for him. These things are the bedrock of my commitment to him, and though I’ve had very different ideas about the meaning of marriage throughout my life, these are always the things I have thought of as being the essence of marriage. Once upon a time I considered sexual exclusivity part of it as well, but only because I couldn’t imagine a kind of non-exclusivity other than cheating. Exclusivity was part of the marriage contract not in itself, but as a sub-category of the “upholding the health of our relationship” clause.

When I talk to someone who seems to have trouble imagining what a non-monogamous marriage could possibly mean, I begin to have rather unflattering thoughts about them. Such as (if they’re married) “has sexual exclusivity been such a monumental struggle or sacrifice for you that it’s come to define your marriage?” Or “is marriage, for you, more about ‘nobody else can have you’ than about the positive commitment you’re making to each other?” Apart from something like this, I really can’t conceive where such a question comes from.

But enough of that. My marriage is about the commitments and intentions I named above; I believe that Shaun and I both are better, stronger, and happier together than we would be apart, and in marrying him I am making public that belief and my intention to continue working to make it a reality.

*Faithfulness is the wrong word here; as I’ve said many times before, Shaun and I are faithful to each other. We each communicate our needs, emotional and physical, and faithfulness is a matter of us each considering the other’s needs before our own gratification. Exclusivity is only part of faithfulness if you make it so.