On Therapy

So I found out this morning that my therapist/psychologist (who I’ve been seeing for over a year and a half now, and currently see twice a week) is going to be away for six weeks soon (she’s here for another two weeks before she leaves).

She’s gone away before, particularly over the Christmas/New Year period, and sometimes during the school holidays (she has kids). And I’ve found ways to cope, sometimes better than other times.

I recently also got a referral to a psychiatrist, who I’ve seen twice so far, who seems like a good egg, and I’ll be seeing him at least once while she’s away, and maybe twice (I have one appointment, and my therapist told me this morning that she spoke to him the other day, including about this, hence the possibility of maybe twice).

Knowing that she’s going to be away for so long feels disconcerting, and certainly anxiety-inducing. As I told her, it doesn’t mean that I’m not happy for her – I am! She deserves to go on holiday (hell, everyone does!) and I’m happy that she gets to have a break. I can feel both of those things at the same time (well, “both” mightn’t be quite correct, since the feelings are rather more complex than just “happy for her” and “anxiety blob”!)… she said something about that being very honest, direct, and… something else, I can’t remember now. But that sounds like me.

We talked also about the importance of therapy to me, and how it’s different from, for example, talking to my best friend (rather than referring to my best friend by name, I’ll abbreviate to “BFF”, since “BF” commonly connotes “boyfriend”). She said that she knows it is different, but she was curious about how I see it as different.

In terms of how therapy is important to me, generally, I tried to explain that when I’m not there (with my therapist), and there’s lots of thoughts/feelings (I often find it hard to distinguish between the two) going on inside me, knowing that I will be going to see her and talk to her can allow me to put some of that aside, since I can tell myself that “I can process that when I talk to [therapist]”. When bad things happen (whether an actual event, or a feeling/thought, whatever), I can literally add that to my [therapist] list on my notepad app on my phone, as a thing to talk to her about when I see her.

As for how it’s different to talking with BFF… I said that it’s hard to articulate, but it’s kind of like, with my therapist I process and talk about all the thoughts/feelings, and with BFF I talk about the processing that I’ve done with my therapist (and they tell me about what they’ve processed with their therapist too), as well as similar experiences that we have (and other, unrelated things). It’s almost… meta. Like, with my therapist I do the processing/the emotional work, and with BFF I talk about the processing/the emotional work.

And then I came up with an analogy.* You know in undergrad, at uni, you go to lectures to learn the actual material in the course? And then you have tutorials to discuss what you learned in those lectures. For me, talking with my therapist is kind of like the lectures. That’s where I do my actual learning/the actual “work” on my mental health, so to speak. Talking with BFF is like the tutorials. That’s where we talk about our lectures. Except that’s where the analogy kinda falls apart (as all analogies inevitably do) because what I learn in my “lectures” (what I talk about with my therapist) is, of course, different than what BFF learns in theirs (what they talk about with their therapist). So… it’d be like having a tutorial together on two rather different courses…

But, my therapist kinda ran with the analogy, and said that even when you go to lectures, there’s still a lot of learning that you do outside of those lectures – self-directed learning, if you will. And she says that she’s seen me do a lot of that. I was kinda surprised at that. I mean, it does fit into the analogy (in undergrad they do tell you that each paper is meant to take you ten hours of work per week, and there’s usually only two hours of lectures and one hour of tutorials per week, so that leaves seven hours of… reading, assignments, exam preparation, etc. per week). But she said that yeah, and she didn’t mean the reading I do, so much, but rather me continuing to think about the things we talk about outside of our sessions. Like I told her, that’s not something I can exactly turn off – that’s just how my brain works! Sometimes it’d be kinda nice to be able to switch that off… but my brain is just going to keep thinking thinky thoughts no matter what!

So, I guess this is me doing some more “self-directed” learning… and I also need to think more about how I’m going to get through those six weeks of summer without my therapist!

I don’t know that having my psychiatrist essentially sub-in once or twice and otherwise making do with “tutorials” with my BFF (and other friends here and there) is going to cut it…

Any advice would be appreciated!

*I’m sure there are many analogies for therapy. This one came out of nowhere. I know that the great Captain Awkward talks about therapy as being a look under the emotional hood, which is another analogy that I like, though I don’t like to think of myself as a car… plus when I’m in therapy long-term it starts to feel less like a look under the emotional hood, and more like having my WoF cancelled and being taken to the mechanic for serious repairs…

The Intentions Game, Take 2: The Proof is in the Pudding

CW: ableism, sexual violence (harassment/rape), transphobia/transmedicalism, discussion of emotional and physical abuse (of me as a child)

What do ableds who try to halp wheelchair users by pushing their wheelchairs without asking first; Al Franken; Natalie, aka Contrapoints; my ex-mother; and the people sharing the poster below (and the others in the series) about accessible design without image descriptions or alt text on social media all have in common?

Designing for users of screenreaders
Describe images and provide transcripts for video
Don't only show information in an image or video

People with severe sight impairments need a way of getting the information that visual elements on a page try to convey. They also need to know if there are any additional details they are missing. Provide text content and/or descriptions of: photos, illustrations, diagrams, graphs, animations and videos so a screenreader can read it aloud. This is good for informing search engines too. Also use audio-description in videos, either as a natural part of the narration or additional to it.
Follow a linear logical layout
Don't spread content all over a page

A screenreader takes people through a web page in the order they appear in the HTML code. This might not be the same as how they appear visually on the page. It can be confusing if things are announced out of context or in the wrong sequence. And a users flow can be interrupted because the element expected next, for example a submit button after an input field, is a lot later or earlier in the HTML, even though visually it is close by. Ensure that screenreaders move around pages in the correct order.
Structure content using HTML5
Don't rely on text size and placement for structure

A screenreader will usually read out text with the same voice regardless of font size, weight or other styling. Screenreaders will also not convey the visual arrangement of content on a web page, and what it implies.

To interpret a web page effectively, users need elements like headings, form labels and lists marked up correctly in HTML. Similarly building blocks of the page (header, navigation, main content and footer) should be set out with landmark tags, so the structure can be announced audibly, understood and jumped to.
Build for keyboard use only
Don't force mouse or screen use

People who use screenreaders often cannot see a mouse pointer. Instead of a mouse, they use the keyboard to navigate, moving between elements such as links, form fields and buttons. Ensure that all the actions on the page can be started and finished using only a keyboard. This includes: closing notifications, getting help, controlling videos and submitting forms.
Write descriptive links and headings
Don't write uninformative links and headings

Screenreaders can read out a list of all the headings or links on a page. This enables the user to jump to the desired item without listening to all the content. Heading links need to make sense out of context - a list of ‘Read more' links is meaningless. Instead describe the target section so a decision can be made about if it is the one required.
Designing for users of screen readers Do • describe images and provide transcripts for video • follow a linear, logical layout • structure content using HTML5 • build for keyboard use only • write descriptive links and heading – for example, Contact us Don’t • only show information in an image or video • spread content all over a page • rely on text size and placement for structure • force mouse or screen use • write uninformative links and heading – for example, Click here

Well, according to those playing the intentions game, they all mean well!

So, before I unpack the intentions game and this questionable well meaning stuff further, let’s just go over some background context of these examples:

  • Disabled people should be presumed competent, someone who is in a wheelchair is not helpless, consent matters, and abled people grabbing the wheelchair and pushing it out of a misguided sense that they are “helping”, when in fact they are not (hence “halp”) is a breach of consent (since none was asked for, and therefore couldn’t be given).
  • Al Franken… well, regardless of what you think of Leeann Tweeden’s allegations (in this space we #BelieveWomen), he also repeatedly touched other women in ways they did not want to be touched.
  • Natalie, aka ContraPoints, is a trans youtuber who recently included Buck Angel for a brief voice segment in one of her videos. Buck Angel, in turn, is a trans man, a porn star, and a transmedicalist. From what I’ve read and learned in the meantime, this seems to be the trans equivalent of autistics who believe that you need a formal diagnosis to count as autistic (that self diagnosis doesn’t count, much less that self identifying as autistic counts – since, of course, I believe that “diagnosis” is entirely the wrong term for being autistic, what with its medicalisation!). Of course, I also think that being “diagnosed” as trans seems absurd and no one needs to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria in order to “count” or really be trans, much less non-binary!! The mere idea is absurd, offensive and gross! However, not only is Buck Angel a transmedicalist (so a gatekeeper for the trans community?!), from what I’ve read he also outed a trans woman, knowing that this would risk her life, and he published the before and after photos of a number of (I don’t know how many) gender confirmation surgeries. Natalie has claimed not to have known about his “bad tweets”, however in the wake of people’s anger at her including him she has refused to distance herself from him, saying she won’t throw him under the bus.
  • My ex-mother (who I have cut out of my life and have no contact with) was emotionally and physically abusive. Though, of course, the trope goes that “all mothers love their children”.
  • The poster above (being the most egregious example, since it’s about screen readers) is one of a series of posters I’ve seen shared on both FB and twitter, never with alt text or with image descriptions. As it turns out, the original source actually includes text versions of the posters.

So, I’ve written before about the “intentions game”. When someone does something bigoted or in some way seriously harmful, far too often others respond with “I’m sure they didn’t intend it that way/I’m sure they didn’t mean it that way/I’m sure they meant well”. This is what I mean by the intentions game. Ascribing good intentions where there has actually only been evidence of harm.

When I last wrote about this I believe I said that I don’t really care about the intentions, it’s the harm that matters. And that’s true to a point.

I do think that the intentions are, or at least can be, interesting and relevant to a point.

See, what gets me, is that all of these supposedly well-intentioned people don’t do what you’d expect someone who is genuinely well-intentioned to do.

If someone actually meant well, what would they do when you pointed out that they had actually done harm? Get super defensive, double down and do more harm? Ignore it and pretend it never happened? Get mad at you for pointing it out? Gaslight you?

I’ve seen all of these responses. And sure, we can say that it’s human nature to get defensive till the cows come home (I still don’t have any cows though).

But these are not the responses of actually well-meaning people. If any of these people meant well, then once the harm was pointed out they would acknowledge the harm, rush to fix it, and make sure to do better in future.

Here are examples of responses that I would expect to see (if these people had been well-meaning):

  • Let go of the wheelchair, apologise, be properly ashamed of your behaviour, and make sure that other people also know that disabled people are perfectly capable people and that touching a wheelchair without consent is a bad thing to do.
  • Franken said in an article a few months ago that his staff had pulled him up on being too handsy or something… if he’d actually been well-meaning, he would have from that point on not ever touched a woman without asking first. Ever. Once these allegations came out he would have said that he fucked up and apologised (he may have done this, I’m not sure about each specific instance and I don’t care to reread the articles now). He would not have, ever, continued to claim (or been ok with any article being published that claims) that he was/is/could be the greatest champion for women’s rights (in politics/in any way whatsoever). Women do not need a man to be our champion. Especially not a man who is unable to keep his hands (or his mouth!) to himself! He would not, some time after resigning give an interview saying “oh noes, woe is me, this was all so unfair!”. You know what’s unfair? Having your life destroyed by getting raped. You know what isn’t unfair? Getting handsy with women and then your career tanking. You. did. that. You tanked your career. Fight me.
  • Natalie (assuming that she actually didn’t know any of the shit about Buck Angel before inviting him to do the video, though also, you’d think a well-meaning person would do their due diligence and not just invite him to do the video because “he passes so well for cis” – paraphrasing there!) could have sent a simple tweet apologising for including him in the video, firmly stating her opposition to transmedicalism and her disgust/horror/[insert strong negative word here] for Buck Angel’s actions. Oh, but she has a distaste for SJW virtue signalling… I forgot.
  • My ex-mother… could have taken any of the times any of us tried telling her that any of the things she did was problematic (in any of the myriad ways) to heart and actually changed her behaviour. She apologised so many times that I think she must have a degree in the art of performative apologising. But a tiger never changes their stripes.
  • People who shared these posters, once anyone commented/replied to tweets saying anything along the lines of “what about image descriptions/alt text?” could have apologised and provided that/looked up the original source and found the text version and provided a link to that. On no occasion when I saw these shared was this done.

The moral of the story: when you see someone doing/saying something bigoted, or when you see/hear about some form of violence (especially sexual violence), DO NOT engage in the intentions game. Don’t do it.

Instead: if you are in dialogue with the supposedly well-meaning person, talk to them about the good intentions you’re so sure they have and the actions they can take now to show that their good intentions are real. (And if this person is a public figure, that doesn’t prevent a dialogue – send emails, contact them on social media, or whatever!)

But do NOT engage the person/people who are harmed by the supposedly well-intentioned person (surely someone you admire since you’re jumping to their defence) and start playing the intentions game. And if the person you’re wanting to defend is a man who committed sexual violence, then don’t go playing the intentions game with any woman (and I’ll go out on a limb here and say also any trans and non-binary person), and especially anyone you know has experienced sexual violence! We might not be the person directly harmed by this man, but OMFG do we know that he sure as shit did not mean well.

We’ve heard it before. We’ll hear it again. We don’t give a fuck. We care about the harm that was done and the fact that these supposed good intentions aren’t magically manifesting into fixing the harm that was done and learning from it to not repeating it!

The proof is in the pudding.

I still have no pudding.

Let’s Talk About Sex! Part 2: A Defence of the Need for Explicit, Verbal Consent Negotiation; or A Rebuttal to The Rape Apologist

CW: rape, sexual violence, rape apology, ableism (especially dismissing autistic women)

So, earlier today I got an email asking me if I wanted to present at this year’s Work in Progress (WiP) Day at the Philosophy Department. I replied, thanking the person for thinking of me and explaining that I had, in fact, quit my PhD in April this year, so there wasn’t any progress to present.

That got me thinking, though. It got me thinking a few things. It got me thinking back to last year’s WiP Day (where I presented what I posted recently as the Let’s Talk About Sex Part 1 post and won two audience-voted awards)… it also got me thinking of the discussion that resulted from that presentation, both there and then during the Q&A, and what continued afterwards via email with a Person who had asked a Question and then with my supervisors, which did in fact result in significant progress.1

You see, one of the questions that was asked in response to my talk (in response, in particular, to my insistence on the need for explicit verbally negotiated consent) was about what if men could learn to read body language – would that change things.

This prompted some discussion, particularly afterwards, and led to me writing quite a bit more. But the question that was asked, and what the man who posed in wrote in response to me answering him… scared me. I see it as nothing short of rape apology.

So, I’d like to share another part of what I wrote for my thesis, which came out of the discussions from last year’s WiP Day.

A Defence of the Need for Explicit, Verbal2 Consent Negotiation

A frequent objection to this suggestion that we need to explicitly, verbally negotiate our sexual encounters is that it’s not sexy. Apparently, it takes away the natural give and take of reading and responding to body language and the sexiness and sensuality of flirtation and replaces it with a clunky script. This objection (often made by men), sometimes stutters briefly at least to a halt when they hear about the numerous studies which show that men consistently misinterpret women’s nonverbal behaviour.3

However, the question has come up as to what might happen if men could learn to read body language and whether that might change things with regards to this need for explicit verbal negotiation. Some people, the argument goes, are much better at “lying” with their words than with their body language so if someone is saying “yes” with their words but “no” with their body language, then one would want to take the body language into account.4

The simple answer to this is that this isn’t a possibility I can seriously consider because this isn’t a thing that is possible. Even if I were to grant that whatever we’d like to call “typical” nonverbal behaviour could be learned (and I have no idea if it can be or not because it’s not really relevant – bear with me here!) there is far too much diversity. And even if we were to grant that the vast differences in cultural expressions of body language and facial expressions and other kinds of nonverbal behaviour (across all the different cultures in the world) could be learned (by any one individual man), which would be a mean feat, and seems highly unlikely, this is still not possible. Because all of this doesn’t account for neurodiversities that impact these non-verbal forms of communication, and for social awkwardness that might lead to atypical (or a lack of) non-verbal communication.

Story time: I’m autistic, but I didn’t know that and wasn’t “diagnosed”6 until earlier this year, when I was 30. So, I have spent almost my whole life so far not knowing that I’m autistic. Part of being autistic for me means that my body language, and in particular my facial expression is definitely not “typical” (and in fact often blank), as has been confirmed for me by many friends and others close to me. If someone were to base their interactions with me more on their interpretation of my body language and facial expressions than on my verbal communication that would be a surefire recipe for disaster. Fortunately, now, I am able to communicate (verbally) to those around me that I am autistic and explain the situation about the non-verbal communication. For most of my life I haven’t been able to do so.

Why is this story relevant? There is a huge number of undiagnosed autistic people, researchers estimating around half of autisitcs don’t know they’re autistic, and the thing is, the vast majority of these undiagnosed autistics are women. The fact that the majority of autistic women go undiagnosed, are diagnosed late, or get misdiagnosed has a number of reasons. In part it’s due to misinformation in the medical field. There are countless stories of women who have had to fight to get diagnosed after having first been told that autism is something that only affects boys and men, so they can’t be autistic, or some variation of that. Part of the problem is also in the original diagnostic criteria (both for autism and for Asperger’s, the latter of which is now no longer considered a separate diagnosis7) having been based on studies which involved a lot more boys than girls. Another very major issue is that things which are pathologised in boys (being quiet, preferring to play by oneself, having intense obsessions) are often seen as quite normal and expected in girls, especially since quite often these intense obsessions are often related to things girls are typically “supposed to” take an interest in (such as fashion, horses, celebrities, or in my case fantasy books and religion when I was younger), rather than often with boys the stereotypical things like trains. Girls go undiagnosed because our autism is seen as another expression of typical femininity, but when everything is too much, and we get overloaded and we meltdown we are “difficult” children. Lastly, autistic women tend to be much better at masking/camouflaging our autism, which is essentially a survival mechanism for fitting into allistic society by pretending to be allistc ourselves since we’ve spent our lives learning the “right” mannerisms, social cues, scripts, etc. However, masking is extremely exhausting and is very detrimental to our well-being and especially our mental health and for a lot of autistics it can lead to autistic burnout. Masking is only very recently starting to be researched and discussed by the medical community, yet it is clearly another big reason why so many of us get so far through life without a diagnosis.

It is worth highlighting also, that on top of all of these reasons for women being un-/mis-/late/under-diagnosed, this is also an intersectional issue (at least in some parts of the world, I can’t speak to all parts of the world). Here in Aotearoa, for example, adults can’t be diagnosed through the public health system8 so in order to receive a formal diagnosis, adults need to see a psychologist or psychiatrist privately which can be very expensive (hundreds, if not thousands of dollars). For people living in poverty this is prohibitively expensive, and since we know that statistically poverty affects certain population groups more, groups who are already more marginalised (in Aotearoa these are, for example, Māori, Pasifika people, single parents – single mothers especially, and disabled people). When women belonging to one or more of these groups (or even just women living in poverty, since living in poverty is itself another form of oppression) are unable to seek a formal diagnosis, this becomes an intersectional issue (it’s always been a feminist issue). It is also one of the reasons why self-diagnosis is rather common in the autistic community and is fairly commonly accepted.9

The upshot is that it is a bad idea for anyone to make assumptions based on someone’s body language or facial expression! While Leo Kanner, who first published on autism in the 1940s may have thought that the prevalence was merely four in 10,000 people10, researchers now estimate that one in 40 people is autistic11 (and this number has increased from just four years ago when researchers were estimating the prevalence to be one in 5912). And considering that that number comes from a paper on autistic children, I can’t imagine it takes into account the numbers of us who go undiagnosed or who aren’t diagnosed until much later in life.

I have had people assume that I’m bored when I haven’t been bored at all, I’ve had people ask me why I’m so upset or sad, when I’ve felt absolutely fine and not at all upset or sad, I’ve been told I look like a scared squirrel when interacting with customer service people when I’ve felt quite confident (just a little dreamy, perhaps).13 And I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked “what’s that look on your face?” and wanted to respond with a snarky “I don’t know, I don’t have mirror in front of me!” If someone were to make assumptions about me, or about any other autistic person, based on our nonverbal behaviour, that wouldn’t get them very far. If someone seemed to be making those kinds of assumptions now, I might be able to pick up on that and tell them not to do that (though I’m not good at picking up on the nonverbal behaviour of others, which is also part of being autistic). Before I knew about all this, I would have been just as clueless and may have been trying to ignorantly guess my way through someone else’s nonverbal behaviour as much as they tried to make sense of my nonsensical face! The moral of this story is: no one bothered to tell me that my face was blank, and I didn’t know I was autistic until I was 30. You don’t know who you might be interacting with, nor how good at masking they might be. Expressing yourself clearly, explicitly, and verbally is the only way to go.

In an interesting, and somewhat related aside, Bessel van der Kolk writes about his work as a psychiatrist working with patients who have suffered trauma that a “characteristic they shared was that even their most relaxed conversations seemed stilted, lacking the natural flow of gestures and facial expressions that are typical among friends.”14 It would appear from this that atypical facial expressions and gestures (so, nonverbal behaviour) is not just something common to autistic people, but perhaps also to those with PTSD, or other survivors of trauma. In fact, it is well known in the medical community that in women, at least, autism presents quite similarly to PTSD, so that often a differential diagnosis needs to be made (though that is not to say that we cannot both be autistic and suffer trauma; in fact, being autistic makes us more susceptible to trauma since we are more easily taken advantage of, as the research also shows15).

This point here, regarding trauma, is actually very important. One might be inclined to dismiss all of the talk about autism and think that well, if it did turn out to be possible to learn the nonverbal behaviour of NT people, then that would cover the great majority of people at least (one in 40 is only 2.5% of the population, after all), so we’d be pretty safe grounding our assumptions on that… Except firstly, that’s a very dismissive and callous attitude to take. Secondly, look again at the note about survivors of trauma. A lot of people might associate PTSD with war veterans. But the great majority of people with PTSD are people (particularly women) who have survived rape and sexual assault. And the statistics on sexual violence are awful, even here in Aotearoa. One in three girls is sexually abused before she turns 16, one in seven boys before he reaches adulthood. One in five women experiences a serious sexual assault at least once during her lifetime.16 If there’s a chance that the effects of trauma can change the way our nonverbal body language presents (and I’m sure this will be different for each individual survivor of trauma) then considering how widespread such trauma is, we cannot assume for any given woman (or any given person, since men who are survivors of sexual violence report even less often than women do) that their nonverbal body language will be “typical”.

Taking all of this back to the negotiation of a sexual encounter… if someone, let’s say a man (who was unfortunately unable to learn the nonverbal behaviour of ALL people) gets the impression that their partner is saying “no” with their body-language/facial expression, then by all means, they should exit the sexual encounter, however (and this is very important) not because they think the other person doesn’t want to continue with the encounter. They should put a stop to the encounter because they themselves do not feel comfortable with it, and if they feel they are getting mixed signals they shouldn’t feel comfortable with it. This distinction matters, because if they were to stop the sexual encounter because they think the other person doesn’t want to continue with the encounter and actually said so to their partner then that would be telling their partner that they (the male partner) believe that their ability to interpret their (the female partner’s) non-verbal communication/body-language/facial expression is better or superior to the woman’s ability to communicate what she actually wants and how she is feeling. They would essentially be mansplaining her own feelings to her (saying “I can tell what your body is saying better than you can… or you are lying to me”). If, on the other hand they put a stop to the sexual encounter because they themselves do not feel comfortable with it, then they are taking responsibility for their own feelings and for their own confusion, which is a very mature thing to do. It is respectful of their partner to take them at their word and it is responsible and caring to themselves to take a step back and ensure that they are in a situation they are completely comfortable with themselves. The other option they have, of course, is to openly talk through their discomfort, if they feel they have the sensitivity to do so.

Before we continue, think back for a moment to the example of Sam and Alex from the previous post on sex, negotiating their sexual encounter within their established long-term relationship. It may seem odd that a couple who are in an established long-term relationship would communicate so explicitly about sex with each other. One might think they, at least, would already be able to “read” each other, that surely an argument could be made that even if men can’t learn to read non-verbal communication generally, surely we can say that we can get rid of this need for explicit verbal communication in long-term relationships because couples can learn to read each other, given some time!

I want to say yes, I really, really do. And yet, I remain cautious.

On the one hand, we might say that so long as general boundaries are negotiated to begin with and a safeword is always in place and an openness to renegotiation is always there, what’s the harm in saying go ahead and fall back on safewords if need be…? My caution lies in the fact that the majority of rape occurs between “intimate partners” (with most of the rest between “acquaintances” – stranger danger is really rather a myth).17 And this isn’t something that occurs only rarely to someone you might read about in the news. You can be almost certain that you know someone yourself who has experienced this in their own life. Statistics from the US tell us that “[n]early 1 out of 10 women in the United States (9.4% or approximately 11.1 million) has been raped by an intimate partner in her lifetime” and in addition to that, “[a]pproximately 1 in 6 women (16.9% or nearly 19 million) has experienced sexual violence other than rape by an intimate partner in her lifetime; this includes sexual coercion (9.8%), unwanted sexual contact (6.4%) and non-contact unwanted sexual experiences (7.8%).”18 Given Aotearoa’s notoriety for domestic violence, I’d wager the statistics here are no better.

Now take these statistics and consider whether we want to say, across the board that it’s fine to assume that we can read our partners well enough to do away with explicitly negotiating consent. Clearly, far too many people can’t and don’t. Given that, I would suggest that continuing a certain level of explicit consent negotiation even in long-term relationships displays trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, caring, and of course honesty. While the ideal might be for us to be worthy of our partner’s trust, to be respectful of our partner, to be responsible, caring, and honest, the minimum requirement, even in a long-term relationship should be that we act in ways which are trustworthy, that we treat our partners with respect, that we behave responsibly and with care and that we act honestly. The minimum standard is continence, though as we continue to practice these actions we will continue to build up our character traits and work our way towards virtue. The other reason to continue to clearly and explicitly negotiate and communicate in long-term relationships is that people don’t read minds and continuing to negotiate throughout a sexual encounter what feels good and what doesn’t is not only best practice ethically, but since it’s a way of giving feedback it can make for better sex, and positive feedback would surely be nice to hear.

In another twist on all of this, a response I have come across to all of this (or specifically to the insistence that yes, we really, really need to have explicit verbal consent negotiations) is the claim that goes, more or less “but wait, I’ve never done the explicit verbal thing in all of my sexual encounters thus far and I’ve never raped anyone!” This style of response was clearly framed by Matteo Ravasio when he said:

I am quite sure that all of my first-time encounters with a woman have been of this sort: whether it was initiated by her or by me, there was no linguistic agreement that we were going to have sex.

I think that insistence that this sort of explicit verbal consent is a necessary condition for a consensual encounter would result in a view that considers the vast majority of intercourse as cases of sexual abuse.19 [Emphasis in original]

I have two responses to this. The first is rather a blunt question: how can you be sure? If you didn’t explicitly negotiate consent, how can you know for sure what the other person(s) involved wanted and felt? Unless they told you, you can’t. Pointing back to the previous post, men are notoriously bad at reading women’s nonverbal behaviour and communication and if that’s all you have to go on… I’m frankly amazed at how anyone could be so certain. You might also want to consider the fact that a lot of survivors of rape and sexual assault wouldn’t confront their rapists with the fact of what they did afterwards. (I know I didn’t!!)

My second response is on something of a lighter note. We need to stop looking at sex as a dichotomy of good sex and rape. I mentioned the statistics earlier and yes, they are awful, and things desperately need to change. However, if you look at this within the virtue ethics framework then we can say that you may have been terribly irresponsible in not practicing explicit verbal negotiation of consent, you may have lacked respect and care for your partner(s), you may have been callous and insensitive to their needs (perhaps also to your own), you may have not communicated honestly about your own needs and desires. You may not have been generous with your time, perhaps your sexual expertise, your vulnerability and openness towards your partner(s). Maybe you lacked the courage to open up and speak openly and vulnerably about your desires and needs and fantasies with your partner(s). We can consider all of these things and say that the sex someone has is ethically problematic in one, a few, many, or all of these ways, and still not call it rape or sexual assault. But on our current vocabulary about sex, as soon as we identify sex as bad (in an ethical sense) it must be rape. This was the problem with the Aziz Ansari case;20 so many commentators read the story, couldn’t find rape and concluded there was nothing ethically wrong, so it must just be a case of “bad sex” (i.e. a lousy/unpleasant sexual encounter). Somehow so many people failed to notice the attempted rape, the manipulation, the callousness, the lack of respect, the lack of care about his date’s needs and desires.

1It also got me thinking about how I had to quit my PhD largely because I wasn’t coping because of my PTSD (which I have because the bad ex raped me) and the content of my thesis being very much to do with sexual consent (and therefore non-consent), so I wasn’t very well equipped to deal with things like the rape apologist whose question during the Q&A sparked the further progress which I’m sharing here… also, the University’s disability support (I found out in my last year before I quit that I’m autistic and ADHD, though the ADHD wasn’t formally diagnosed until after I quit, I think…) was absolutely useless!!

I know that my research is important and valuable, but because of the lack of support I’m never going to complete the thesis I wanted to/set out to. I also know that I’m not the only survivor of rape/sexual violence who has had to give up graduate study at least in part as a result of that.

2I had made the point elsewhere in what I’d written (in what was meant to be a chapter) that for people who are non-verbal other methods of communication, such as written, electronic text-based, or sign language communication would also fit the bill. For the sake of brevity, I am subsuming those into the “explicit and verbal” label, even though those forms of communication are not, of course, verbal.

3 Michelle J. Anderson, “Negotiating Sex,” Southern California Law Review 78, no. 6 (2005), 1406.

4 Thank you to Matteo Ravasio for this “interesting” question – I am sceptical of how actually interesting it is, of course, especially considering all of his follow-up comments, which as mentioned above, I see as nothing short of rape apology.

6 I now, of course, find the medicalisation of the idea of “diagnosing” us… distasteful, to put it mildly. Unfortunately a “diagnosis” is still necessary in order to access a lot of accommodations/supports (such as in education/employment), but this is a topic for another post.

7 In the DSM-V; in the ICD-X it still is, and the ICD-XI, in which it won’t be, hasn’t been released yet.

8 I have been told that it may be possible if someone is admitted for inpatient mental health care, possibly even only if that is involuntary, so under the Mental Health Act, but I don’t know how accurate that is. I do know that generally speaking it’s simply not funded through public health except for children.

9 Of course, as in any community, there is disagreement. Some hold firmly to the view that formal diagnosis is the only form that “counts”, however I have found these to be outliers, and often to be found in people who also hold very racist and misogynist views.

10 Simon Baron-Cohen, “Book: Leo Kanner, Hans Asperger, and the discovery of autism,” The Lancet 386, no. 10001 (2015), 1330.

11 Kogan et al., “The Prevalence of Parent-Reported Autism Spectrum Disorder Among US Children,” 1.

12 Baio et al., “Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder Among Children Aged 8 Years – Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, 11 Sites, United States, 2014,” 2.

13 Most recently, I’ve had my older sister show me a photo of one of her cats who is terrified of her new puppy (and clearly looks very scared) and tell me that the expression on her cat’s face looks just like an expression that is often on my face. I do not see the resemblance. I don’t think I look like a cat (but apparently that’s not the point).

14 van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, 26.

15 https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/girls-autism-high-risk-sexual-abuse-large-study-says/

16 HELP Auckland, “Sexual Abuse Statistics,” https://www.helpauckland.org.nz/sexual-abuse-statistics.html

17 Black et al., The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report, 1. It says, “[m]ore than half (51.1%) of female victims of rape reported being raped by an intimate partner and 40.8% by an acquaintance”. These are US statistics.

None of this is to say that rape and sexual assault by stranger doesn’t happen at all, simply that it is incredibly rare and that women are much more likely to be subjected to violence by a current or former partner or an acquaintance.

18 Ibid., 42.

19 Matteo Ravasio, email message to author, November 1, 2018.

20 Way, “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life,” https://babe.net/2018/01/13/aziz-ansari-28355

On Being Judgemental

CW: mentions of slavery, racism, rape, homophobia, mass murder (i.e. war), Nazis

Once upon a time, many years ago (after I emerged from my childhood indoctrination into fundamentalist Christianity), I believed for quite a while that one of the world’s greatest evils (besides hypocrisy, and a few other things) was being judgemental.

It turns out, that I was wrong. The evil I had such great distaste for, and which I think really ought to be the target of all the hatred that “being judgemental” gets… is bigotry. And that’s a very different thing altogether!

See, when I was freshly emerged from under the rock of fundamentalist Christianity, the kind of judgementalism I hated was… people judging me for (eventually) coming out as queer… for not being Christian… people judging other people… for things they couldn’t do anything about (say, the colour of their skin, or whatever)… in other words, it wasn’t them “judging” anyone that I actually took issue with, it was what they were being judged for!

See, as it turns out, I don’t think being judgemental is a problem at all, much less one of the world’s greatest evils. In fact, I think it’s human nature. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked (something along the lines of) “who gives you the right to judge x like that?!” or told some variation of “you’re very judgemental!” … and I am! Because I’m human. This is what we do.

There are a few different things to address here. Firstly, part of being human involves putting things into categories. Some of us do this more than others (us autistics seem to love to do this a LOT), but we all do it to a greater or lesser extent. Look at the supermarket. Things aren’t just put everywhere willy nilly. They’re organised in some way. By some kind of category system. You have frozen foods together, fresh fruits and vegetables together, dead animals together (yes, you can tell I’m vegetarian!), breakfast cereal… we’re human, we categorise things!

Look at libraries: more categories! And library catalogues, to further organise the categories! And universities: faculties, departments, schools – lots of categories!

And countries have censuses and Ministries/Departments of Statistics to gather information about people because yes, we also put people into categories, be it by sexual orientation (at least they should – I’m pretty sure that our census in Aotearoa has not been collecting this information, but yes, we need them to!), ethnicity, country of origin, age, being disabled/abled, health needs, education, gender, and I don’t even remember what else. Welcome to identity politics! We categorise people (including, perhaps especially ourselves!). In many ways, when we categorise anything, or anyone, we are making a linguistic judgement.

What I’m saying is this: we are people, this is what we do. I am (for now) not saying that this is a good or a bad thing. I am saying that this is a thing!

Then, of course, in addition to linguistic judgements (categorising things, and people), we make ethical judgments. And this is where people get very, very iffy. This is what people do not like. This is where people get all don’t be so judgemental!

The thing is… we are human, this is what we do.

When we say that slavery is wrong, that is an ethical judgement. When we say that racism is bad, that is an ethical judgment. When we say that rape is wrong, that is an ethical judgement. When we say that we ought to be kind, that is an ethical judgement. If you have ever said any of these things, or something similar, you have been judgemental! Suck it the fuck up!

Now, let me put a few other possible judgements out there:

  • Mass murder is wrong.
  • People who engage in mass murder, develop/promote government policies that result in mass murder, blatantly lie in order to trump up a reason to go to war unnecessarily, resulting in massive military and civilian deaths (and injuries), over far too many years, never utter a word of regret or apology about it, or try to fix the mess they made, are bad people.
  • Bad people might be capable of being good at boardgames, fun D&D players, tell good jokes, or have any number of other good qualities, however, they are still bad people.
  • Being friends with bad people is wrong.
  • Being a public figure puts someone in a position of added responsibility and scrutiny (by virtue of one’s actions being, y’know, public)!
  • A supposedly progressive public figure being friends with a mass murderer is WRONG.

And you know what gives me the right to make any/all of those ethical judgements? The fact that I am a human being, and this is what we do. You know what else? You (by virtue of you reading this) are also a human being and are also capable of making ethical judgements! You are capable of disagreeing with me and making different ones. That’s pretty much how this works!

Sure, if you disagree, I will believe that I’m right and that you’re wrong, but you know what? Make a good argument for your case, and I’ll consider it! (Fair warning: I was an academic philosopher for quite a number of years, specifically an ethicist. I know my way around an argument. Also, I can totally choose not to engage if I’m not in the mood/don’t have the energy/for no reason at all.)

TL;DR: Being judgemental is what we, as humans do. Being bigoted, on the other hand, is not. So, go ahead, be human, make judgements. Also, don’t be friends with mass murderers (or Nazis, for that matter)! (That’s how making a judgement works!)

“Autism-dar”, “Autiedar”, or why I talk to people about being autistic…

CW: homophobia, biphobia, ableism, suicide, eating disorders,

Right now, I think I want to talk about the idea of “autism acceptance”. I know, I know, it’s not April (thank fuck!!), but I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, especially in the context of why I talk to people about me thinking that I think they might be autistic (the idea of “autism-dar” or “autiedar” gets talked about in the #ActuallyAutistic community).

I think there are a few important things to think about here, and I think bullet points might be easiest for me, right now:

  • According to something I read recently, researchers estimate that roughly 50% of autistics don’t know that they’re autistic.
  • Being autistic (and neurodivergence in general) is genetic. We know this; this is not news. So, if one family member is autistic, or otherwise neurodivergent, the likelihood is high that other family members are too.
  • When I was first coming out as bi, Robbie, the jerk (or one of them) from my theatre studies class, tried to tell me that I couldn’t call myself bisexual because I’d never (I can’t remember if he said “kissed”/”had sex with”/”been in a relationship with” but whatever it was, I didn’t have the relevant experience – in his eyes) with a woman, and I should therefore call myself “bicurious” until I did.
    • That’s obviously a whole lot of homophobia and biphobia wrapped up together right there, but it’s useful in illustrating an interesting point, I think: in our (heteronormative) society, kids are raised to assume that they’re straight (and sure, that might be changing slightly, but certainly not fast enough. So, when someone comes out as some version of queer, there’s always been a lot of thought and soul-searching that’s gone into that!
    • On the other hand… people don’t tend to “come out” as straight. Because people are already assumed to be straight. They don’t feel the need to come out. So, no one ever goes around asking “so, when did you know that you liked [insert “opposite” gender here – which, of course, buys into the ridiculous notion that gender is a binary!]?” like queer folk are (still!) asked sometimes…
    • But really, why is that? I’m not saying that random strangers should go prying into the sexual orientations of random straight people, rather I’m saying that straight people should, as a matter of course, be expected to give a whole lot more thought to their own sexual orientations!! We, as a society, should not raise our children to be straight, we should get rid of the assumption that everyone is straight (and cis, of course, but let’s have one conversation at a time)! It should be a given expectation that everyone considers (and not just as a fleeting thought, that’s dismissed with defensiveness, disgust, and outright horror!!) who and what they’re attracted to, in terms of gender, gender expression, genitals, personality, music tastes, kinks, and anything else you can think of!
  • But, sure, this was meant to be about neurodivergence, not about sexual orientation, right?
  • And yet, I keep drawing this parallel between the two, because I think in so many ways they have so, so much in common!! They’re both genetic, they’re both a core part of a person’s identity… oh, and up until the early 2000s (as I recently learned!), sexual orientation was still classified as a mental disorder in the US (and so likely also elsewhere) … And, of course, “autism spectrum disorder” and “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” (as two examples), still are! Really, really gross!
  • I’ve been thinking for quite a while about what my vision of a future for neurodiversity is, and I think that’ll be an ongoing thought project… but I think that part of it will certainly be this:
    • That like what I described above about expecting everyone to think about who/what they’re attracted to, I think everyone should be educated about neurodiversity, and I think everyone should be expected to think about how they identify (again, not just as a fleeting thought, that’s dismissed with defensiveness, disgust, and outright horror!!)
    • I think making sure that before doing so, each person actually understands what neurodivergence is and what the different forms are is really, really important (so that people aren’t thinking about this based on their ideas of stereotypes).
    • I also think that this would need to include an understanding of masking (at least to begin with, but I also hope for a day when we no longer have to mask – none of us!)
  • I’ve been thinking about this for quite a while in the context of why it’s so important for me to talk to people about being autistic, and about the concept of “autism-dar” or “autiedar” as I’ve also seen it called; it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like: the autistic version of gaydar.
    • Like I said above, roughly 50% of autistics don’t know they’re autistic.
    • Add to that, though, the huge lack of understanding of what it means to be autistic, especially as a woman, and far fewer women than men know that we’re autistic (a lot of us are figuring it out later in life).
      • If we know who we are, if we know that we are autistic, then we are able to access the support we are eligible for (provided we have a formal diagnosis – that’s a whole other hurdle, of course, but at least then it’s possible to try to get a formal diagnosis, which we couldn’t if we didn’t know that we’re autistic in the first place!), we can support each other (peer support is so, so important – whether it’s in person or online – online communities are really, really validating and supportive!), and perhaps most important of all: we can stop trying to be someone we aren’t! Once we know that we are autistic, we can finally stop trying harder to be allistic and always being disappointed when it’s not working… because it’s never going to work, because we’re not allistic!
      • We can allow ourselves to be who we are! We can stim freely, we can engage in eye contact, or not, as we are comfortable with, we can opt out of small talk (and allistic social dances generally), we can people as much or as little as we are comfortable with…

So, if someone who’s autistic tells you that they think you might be autistic and you get all defensive about it and tell them you don’t want to hear it, all I’m seeing is the equivalent of you saying to a gay person “eeew yuck, gay sex is gross!!! I don’t want my penis anywhere near another man’s penis!! Anal sex is soooooo gaaaaaaaaaaaay!!!” … and honestly, I don’t have the time for either that kind of homophobia or that kind of ableist bullshit in my life!

It’d just be a good idea to remember that if you have autistic family members (or, it turns out, if you are, or have been in a relationship with someone who’s autistic) the chances that you might be too, aren’t small.

And hiding from who we are never did any of us any good.

Phases in BDSM Negotiations Style: The type of play/sex Body: Bodily considerations, where touching is ok, what kind of touching, any injuries or safety requirement. Limits: What does anyone participating not want to do? What are your boundaries? Safewords: The exit conditions, usually in the form of the “traffic light” system (yellow = approaching the limit; red = stop NOW), using “stop” literally, or hand signals or gestures.

Let’s Talk About Sex! Part 1: Rethinking Sexual Consent: Kukla on Negotiation vs the “Yes Means Yes” Model

CW: sexual assault, victim blaming

I’d like to talk (or rather, write) about sex! Well, actually, consent.

First, let me start by saying that I had to quit my PhD earlier this year (I don’t want to go into the story of why right now), so I am never going to finish my thesis, but the stuff I was writing about was important. It mattered, and it still matters. And this particular thing is something I was reminded about tonight, so I thought I might start sharing bits and pieces of things I was writing. So here is something I put together as my “Work in Progress Day” talk for last year, 2018. (I’ve just made a few, tiny, edits, to update it.)

I’m sure we’ve all heard the age-old “no means no” story: If you’re doing sex things with someone and they [read “she”] says “no” then to continue would be sexual assault, so if during a sexual encounter someone [read “she”] says “no” or “stop”, then stop. The implication of that seems to be that unless someone [read “she”] says “no” it’s fine to just assume that everyone is fine with doing sex things and to go full steam ahead, boys! And it is, after all, clear that this message is addressed at men/boys insofar as it tells them to listen when women say “no” (what on earth would you do otherwise?! Oh right… think she’s playing hard to get… that old script… unfortunately still rather current…), yet also directed at women/girls insofar as it tells them (so, us) that it’s ok and even necessary to say “no” if we don’t want to participate. Seems pretty straightforward. The problem is, of course that it doesn’t work.

So, we get the lovely “new” “Yes Means Yes” model of consent, also known as the enthusiastic, affirmative model of consent. It’s the idea that in order to have ethically acceptable sex we need to give and receive affirmative (that’s the “yes” part) consent before actually getting on with our sexual encounter, and it needs to be enthusiastic.

Now I have a few issues with it. Several of them are nicely illustrated by Rebecca Kukla in her fantastic new paper “That’s What She Said: The Language of Sexual Negotiation” (which you should all go and read when we’re done here today – seriously, there is nothing more fun than reading about sex!). Her solution is to ditch the model and opt instead for the “Negotiation Model”. I don’t. I have a few reasons for this, and that’s pretty much what I’ll be talking writing about today.

My first problem with this model is the “enthusiasm” requirement. Just looking at that makes me exhausted and frustrated. There are many reasons that people, including women (yes, women are people too – that is the point of feminism!), choose to have sex. The thing is, we (as people in general, not only we as women) don’t always have to be enthusiastic about it in order for it to be good, or even excellent (and I mean good/excellent in the ethical sense, not in the sexual sense, though there may well be some overlap there). Sure, it can be great if we’re enthusiastic about it, but just to brainstorm a few reasons we might have sex that are perfectly (ethically) legitimate that we might not feel enthusiastic about… to get pregnant, or to get a partner pregnant (though, to be fair, absent enthusiasm, I do hear turkey basters are a thing, just sayin’), in a (consensual) kinky/BDSM relationship as an act of submission to the dominant partner by the submissive partner, or as a reward to the submissive partner by the dominant partner, in a long-term committed (perhaps even perfectly vanilla – i.e. non-kinky) relationship in order to maintain physical and emotional intimacy with one’s partner, or because one knows that even though one isn’t feeling enthusiastic about it at the moment, once the sexual encounter gets underway, that enthusiasm will get underway too. One of the issues with the whole “enthusiasm” thing seems to be that it gets used interchangeably with, or as code for, “horniness” or “being turned on” and to say that it’s not ethically acceptable to have sex (that one can’t truly consent to having sex!) unless you’re turned on is really messed up! The flip side is just as messed up because it says that you shouldn’t accept your partner’s consent unless they are turned on… and turned on by whose standard? Who’s judging that? You? Or them? If it’s up to you to judge if your partner is turned on enough to give “enthusiastic” consent, then perhaps consider this quote from Michelle Anderson’s paper “Negotiating Sex”:

At its core, the Yes Model relies on a man’s ability to infer actual willingness from a woman’s body language. Yet study after study indicates that men consistently misinterpret women’s nonverbal behavior. They impute erotic innuendo and sexual intent where there is none. Any theory that relies on a man’s ability to intuit a woman’s actual willingness allows him to construct consent out of stereotype and hopeful imagination.[1]

Also relevant is this passage from Emily Nagoski’s book Come as You Are:

If we persist in the false belief that women’s genital response reflects what they “really” want or like, then we have to conclude that if their genitals respond during sexual assault, it means they “really” wanted or liked the assault.

Which isn’t just nuts, it’s dangerous.

“You said no but your body said yes” is an idea that shows up both in the lyrics of pop songs and in the images at Project Unbreakable, an online gallery of sexual assault survivors holding signs with phrases said by their rapists, their families, or even police responders. … [B]odies don’t say yes or no, they only say, “That’s sexually relevant,” without any comment on whether it’s appealing, much less whether it’s wanted.[2]

I’m sure you can see why this is bad, and why we want women to be the boss of saying what we want and what we enjoy and when we are turned on and we’re not. It’s much, much safer than leaving that up to men to decide. It also goes along nicely with the idea that each of us is the boss of our own body and we have individual agency and if I say that I want to have sex, then (provided you haven’t been pressuring/harassing me about it, etc.) then take me at my word and don’t require evidence of “enthusiasm” or being turned on.

Which brings me to the next point. The affirmative consent model (I’m dropping the enthusiasm, but sticking with the overall model), seems almost contractual, we (verbally) sign on the dotted line, say “yes” to the sexual encounter, and then we’re good to go, right? Um… nope. See, I don’t know who actually does this (it’s ok, I’m not going to ask – though feel free to comment and let me know!), but it seems patently silly to decide together (let’s assume for the sake of simplicity that there are two people involved here) that you’re going to have sex, verbally agree (so you’ve done your affirmative consent thing) and then you… what? Do sex things together with no further communication about it?! Really?? If so, that either buys into the heteronormative assumptions that sex equals penis in vagina intercourse with (maybe or not) whatever it is you want to deem “foreplay” tacked on beforehand, or you’re really back in a “no means no” situation where you haven’t exactly (it seems to me!) given any kind of informed consent because you haven’t talked about what this sexual encounter is going to involve! So, this idea here has never been my understanding of the “Yes Model”.

See, I’m a virtue ethicist (um… I’ve got an admission to make here… I think I might not be anymore… but I won’t let that detract from what I was writing here!), and the thing I’m working on now in my current chapter is saying that affirmative consent is really a virtue ethics project (or it certainly ought to be). My conception of consenting isn’t just saying “yes” to a whole sexual encounter at the start, but rather to honestly, generously, and responsibly negotiate what each partner would like to do, to be caring and considerate of each other’s wants and needs before, during, and after a sexual encounter. To take responsibility for safe sex practices, to be respectful of each other’s boundaries. These should, ideally, be character traits of those involved, but at the very least, those involved should act according to these virtues, even if they do not yet have the fully formed virtues themselves; they can be continent[3].

Kink/BDSM Glossary BDSM: Bondage & Discipline, Domination & submission, Sadism/Masochism Bottom: “A person who agrees to give up control or receives the stimulation during kinky activities that may or may not include submission.” Top: “A person who is consensually in control of the action during kinky activities.” Kinky: Related to BDSM, usually in an unspecified way. Vanilla: Non-kinky Quoted definitions taken from https://fetlife.com/glossary
Kink/BDSM Glossary
BDSM: Bondage & Discipline, Domination & submission, Sadism/Masochism
Bottom: “A person who agrees to give up control or receives the stimulation during kinky activities that may or may not include submission.”
Top: “A person who is consensually in control of the action during kinky activities.”
Kinky: Related to BDSM, usually in an unspecified way.
Vanilla: Non-kinky
Quoted definitions taken from https://fetlife.com/glossary

Ayesha Kaak’s recent research into “Conversational Phases in BDSM Pre-Scene Negotiations” shows that

in … consent negotiations in BDSM contexts … [t]he data suggests that there are at least four distinct – but not discrete – phases present in these conversations. That is, the phases may be moved through in different orders in any given negotiation or they may blend or overlap with other phases but they are always present.

These phases include [Style], [Body], [Limits] and [Safewords]. [Style] encompassed the type of play to be done, the sensation that the type of play would elicit, the intensity of this sensation, and the toys that would be used in producing this sensation and intensity. [Body] allowed the negotiation of bodily considerations such as the location on the bottom’s body where play was acceptable, the position the bottom would assume during the scene, whether touch (sexual and non-sexual) was allowed, to what extent this touch was permitted, and finally, considerations of existing injuries or safety requirements that may impact the play to be had. Often overlapping with [Body] negotiations of safety, injury and touch was [Limits]. During [Limits] the boundaries of each practitioner … were outlined and agreed upon. … Lastly came an examination of [Safewords]. This phase allowed practitioners to negotiate and ensure mutual understanding of how the scene was to be ended in the event that the bottom reached their limits or experienced some sort of unexpected distress. Three ways of ending a scene were identified: 1) the use of the traffic light system where “red” signals the need to immediately end the scene, 2) the use of plain English where “Stop” actually means stop rather than being a kind of mock protest or way of managing pain, and 3) the use of body language such as gestures or hand signals.

Navigating these phases requires kinksters to have and display a certain level of social proficiency. This proficiency ensures that the locally produced understandings of certain terms can be agreed upon. It was shown on several occasions that this proficiency can be shared with others of a lesser proficiency – as an experienced top did with their inexperienced bottom during their negotiation, bolstering his proficiency by displaying her own.[4]

Phases in BDSM Negotiations Style: The type of play/sex Body: Bodily considerations, where touching is ok, what kind of touching, any injuries or safety requirement. Limits: What does anyone participating not want to do? What are your boundaries? Safewords: The exit conditions, usually in the form of the “traffic light” system (yellow = approaching the limit; red = stop NOW), using “stop” literally, or hand signals or gestures.
Phases in BDSM Negotiations
Style: The type of play/sex
Body: Bodily considerations, where touching is ok, what kind of touching, any injuries or safety requirement.
Limits: What does anyone participating not want to do? What are your boundaries
Safewords: The exit conditions, usually in the form of the “traffic light” system (yellow = approaching the limit; red = stop NOW), using “stop” literally, or hand signals or gestures.

All of these phases seem like important parts of pre-sexual encounter conversations/negotiations that vanilla people ought to be having too. The “style” part ought to include what sort of sexual encounter they want to have and what they want to include in the “sex” part of the sexual encounter (this should come naturally after agreeing that they do indeed want to do “sex things” together). The “body” part seems like a natural follow on and can be as simple as “please be gentle with my left knee, it’s recovering from a sports injury”, or “I like to be touched really gently/in a really rough way”, or “I’m really ticklish, so please don’t tickle me on purpose and if you accidentally tickle me I’ll be sure to let you know so you can stop!”, that sort of thing. This will, in a vanilla context, apply to both partners, since there would not be an unequal power dynamic. The tickling example carries over into limits (since tickling might be such a limit) or “I’m really not into anal” and sure, all of this might seem geared towards a first-time encounter, so let’s try to change up the script for a long-term relationship vanilla sexual encounter (where the couple have decided they’re going to do sex things together).

Alex might say: “I’d really like to go down on you tonight, how would you feel about that? And maybe you’d like to 69? But don’t forget I got my flu jab this morning, so be gentle around my right arm!” Sam might respond: “That sounds pretty hot! I’d also really like you to do x tonight, that would totally turn me on! Thanks for the reminder about the flu jab, I’d totally forgotten! Also, maybe try to avoid, or be gentle with y, I’m feeling a bit PMS-y…”

Now what about “safewords”? We use the “stop” variety in our vanilla relationships all the time, right? But it would certainly be responsible to actually explicitly discuss our exit conditions for sexual encounters, which Kukla makes an excellent point of, also saying that safewords should be taught in sex ed so that everyone is more aware of the concept and that even vanilla folk can and ought to use safe words. They might not need to be re-negotiated every time, but perhaps a brief reminder (“and our safeword is still x?” “Yup!”) is good.

Consider briefly the character traits displayed in such exchanges. Responsibility is obvious. Respect for one another’s boundaries. Honesty (about one’s own boundaries). In what Kaak mentioned of sharing proficiency with those who are less proficient there is a sense of generosity (after all, we’re not only generous with our money, time, but also our skill and experience; so, if we’re very proficient or experienced with something kink- or sex-related, then we can certainly be generous with that!). The agents involved could certainly be showing care for themselves and one another, and consideration. And that’s just in a very brief overview of a consent negotiation.

What I am essentially advocating for is much like Kukla’s negotiation model, but explicitly in a virtue ethics framework and I wish to very explicitly keep the affirmative consent name of the model. Kukla’s model is how I’ve always imagined the affirmative consent model, and how she (and those she quotes and refers to) characterise it isn’t at all how I have seen it, and yet looking at it again, that makes some sense. The reason I want to keep the name is that in our current social and political climate, to pull the focus away from consent would be problematic. Consent needs to be ongoing and negotiated, certainly. I believe that we are better off revising our understanding of consent than to get rid of it entirely. Saying that consent is not necessary for ethically permissible sexual encounters seems dangerous but renewing our understanding of consent is critical.

Keep in mind that it was just over 20 years ago that a judge on a rape trial here in Aotearoa said to the jury that “if every man stopped the first time a woman said ‘No,’ the world would be a much less exciting place to live,” and 20 years ago in Australia another judge defined consent to the jury in these harrowing words:

Consent may be words, may be by actions or even inaction … that is knowing what is about to happen and allowing it to happen or a combination of these. It may be hesitant, it may be reluctant, it may be grudging, it may even be tearful, but if the complainant in this case consciously permitted the act of sexual intercourse that you find occurred, if you do, provided her permission or consent is not obtained by terror, force or fear, it is still consent.[5]

We’ve come some way, what with #MeToo and #TimesUp but we have a long way to go still.

So, as I said at the start, I presented this as a talk at the Work in Progress Day, when I was still working on my PhD thesis… and there was time for Q&A afterwards. There was one question in particular which got me thinking further, which led to a lot of what turned into a major section of what was meant to be one of my chapters. I intend to share that next.

Stay posted!

[1] Michelle J. Anderson, “Negotiating Sex,” Southern California Law Review 78, no. 6 (2005), 1406.

[2] Emily Nagoski, Come as You Are: the surprising new science that will transform your sex life, Kindle Edition, London: Scribe, 2015, Chapter 6, Section “lubrication error #2: genital response is enjoying” (emphasis mine, I’m guessing – from memory!)

[3] Continence is a virtue ethics term meaning that you don’t have the virtue (yet), but you know what the right thing to do is, and you do it, but not because it’s part of your character to do so (e.g. you don’t do the honest thing because you’re an honest person, but rather because you know that’s the right thing to do), so it doesn’t come as easily to you as it does to an actually honest person. An incontinent person, on the other hand, knows what the right thing to do is… but doesn’t manage to bring themselves to do it.

[4] Ayesha Kaak, “Conversational Phases in BDSM Pre-Scene Negotiations,” Journal of Positive Sexuality 2, no. 3 (2016): 49-50.

[5] Both quotes quoted in Nicola Gavey, Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape, 23.

Bibliography Anderson, Michelle J. “Negotiating Sex.” Southern California Law Review 78, no. 6 (2005): 1401-38. Gavey, Nicola. Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape. New York: Routledge, 2005. Kaak, Ayesha. “Conversational Phases in BDSM Pre-Scene Negotiations.” Journal of Positive Sexuality 2, no. 3 (2016): 47-52. Kukla, Rebecca. “That’s What She Said: The Language of Sexual Negotiation.” Ethics 129, no. 1 (2018): 70-97. Nagoski, Emily. Come as You Are: the surprising new science that will transform your sex life. Kindle Edition. London: Scribe, 2015.
Anderson, Michelle J. “Negotiating Sex.” Southern California Law Review 78, no. 6 (2005): 1401-38.
Gavey, Nicola. Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Kaak, Ayesha. “Conversational Phases in BDSM Pre-Scene Negotiations.” Journal of Positive Sexuality 2, no. 3 (2016): 47-52.
Kukla, Rebecca. “That’s What She Said: The Language of Sexual Negotiation.” Ethics 129, no. 1 (2018): 70-97.
Nagoski, Emily. Come as You Are: the surprising new science that will transform your sex life. Kindle Edition. London: Scribe, 2015.

Humour: So which part exactly is funny? Or, the butt of family jokes.

Once upon a time, when my older sister was in high school, a friend or classmate of hers had an exchange student staying with them, from Germany. Somehow this story always seemed funnier, because they had a very stereotypically German name, but I’ll leave his name out of it. It’s important to note, though, for anyone who isn’t aware, that us Germans (and like the rest of my immediate family, I was born in Germany – we moved to Aotearoa New Zealand when I was six years old) are notorious for not having a sense of humour! It’s a German stereotype.

So, one day, my sister, her friend/classmate, this exchange student, and I don’t know who else, were hanging out, and someone tells a joke. I’ll do my best to replicate it here (though since it relies in part on imitating accents, there’s only so much I can do in writing…):

A German vessel out at sea receives a distress signal from another ship and the distress call on the radio equipment comes to them: “we’re sinking, we’re sinking!!”

The German sailor responds to the distress signal, rather calmly, “Yes… vot are you sinking about…?” [You’re just going to have to imagine the very much exaggerated German accent here that my older sister would always put on whenever she retold this joke.]

Everyone else burst out laughing… except for the German exchange student… he seemed confused and said, “I don’t get it. Zat’s not funny.” [Again, you’re going to have to imagine the exaggerated German accent here.]

And of course, his response, him not getting it, made the original joke even funnier for everyone else.

And years later in the retelling, I got it, I saw how this was the case (and laughed along with everyone else in all the right places). And there was still so much about all of this that I didn’t get.

But for years now, either “Zat’s not funny” or “I don’t get it. Zat’s not funny.” has been an in joke in my family. It’s been a jab at our German-ness (or lack thereof?), a tool for teasing (good natured, apparently, though I’ll have more on that below).

The thing about the humour in all of this (and in a lot of the humour-related interactions in my family) is that they very often have taken the form of:

Sibling says X (or recounts/plays X from some form of media). Other family members laugh/obviously appreciate the humour in X. Charlotte does not appreciate the humour in X, and in fact is either confused by X, or points out the way(s) in which X is offensive/hurtful, etc. One or more family members chime in with a refrain of “Oh, I don’t get it. Zat’s not funny.” very pointedly at Charlotte.

Over the years, this has turned into a very clear case of “Charlotte is too German for this/our/any humour”, because when humour comes up, for the most part… I don’t “get it” (or, rather, I get, on an intellectual level, why people find it funny, but I don’t find it funny, and a lot of the time I even find it upsetting or offensive) and no, that is not funny.

But the thing is… it’s not a German thing, at all. I was six and a half years old when we moved here. My older sister was 11 and a half. My younger sister was nearly two years old. We all still have our German citizenship (because, for the most part, without jumping through lots of hoops, Germany doesn’t allow dual citizenship, and we’ve had permanent residency here in Aotearoa for about 25 years now). My dad’s been here just as long as we have, though he got his citizenship a few years after we moved. We feel “Kiwi” to very varying degrees and have very differing feelings about our Germanness as part of our identities, etc. My point is, I’m no more or less German than the other members of my family. This humour thing has nothing to do with me being German.

What is different is that I’m autistic. (And while the question of whether or not I’m the only autistic member of my family is something there is some disagreement about – and also not particularly relevant since different autistics do humour differently from each other, masking works differently for different autistics, and so on…) NT/allistic humour is largely absurd to me (and not in a good way, in the sense of absurdist humour, which is a genre in itself, but in the sense of it makes no fucking sense and is… not funny, and often offensive and upsetting/hurtful)!

And yes, there are stereotypes of autistics not having a sense of humour. Bullshit. We have fucking fantastic humour. The thing is, autistics practically have our own language and culture in a lot of ways, and for most of our lives we’ve been forced to try to adapt to NT/allistic language/culture (which is exhausting as fuck and we’re often not very good at it!), but NTs/allistics hardly ever make any effort to learn/get to know our language/culture! Yeah, a lot of it involves taking things very literally. And very often there is a self-awareness around that, and a lot of humour that grows around the taking of things literally! People so often say I have no sense of humour, but once they get to know me and get to know my sense of humour, they find I’m actually really funny (I honestly find myself fucking hilarious!! I seriously make myself laugh a LOT!), and a lot of my humour is based around playfully taking things literally. Like when people use the saying “watch your step” I know (intellectually, and from experience) that that means for me to pay attention to/be aware of where I’m going – but I will playfully/humorously, literally watch my step! I will keep looking at my feet, at where I am placing my feet/my steps, even though I know that this is an exaggerated literal interpretation of the instruction. When someone tells me to “hold on”, I know that means that they need a little bit of time and they’re asking me to be patient. I will still ask them what they want me to hold on to. This is me being subtly funny, I am very deliberately playing with the stereotype that autistics take everything literally (while also at the same time doing just that – because fuck, I can’t help myself in having an awareness of the literal meanings of words, and so I may as well have fun with them while I’m at it!), and I’m also subtly drawing attention to the fact that so many of our idioms and sayings make no sense whatsoever, and that amuses me endlessly!! (Someone recently told me they’d have a litter of kittens about something. I was pissed off and exhausted as fuck. But I did point out that they already have cats/kittens… I might as well try to get/give a smile wherever I can… and sayings like that are silly!)

But this is just one example of one of the many kinds of humour that I like to use, and I’m just one of countless autistics.

As for the joke at the start, with the German vessel at sea… yeah, I think that jokes which mock people’s accents are just straight up problematic. Regardless whose accent you’re mocking. It normalises and makes it ok to mock the way someone talks. And yeah, in this instance (at least in our family’s retelling of it, certainly not, by the sounds of it, in the original telling, with the German exchange student as an important player in the audience) it’s self-deprecating humour, or could be, if any of us (my sisters and I) had a German accent… we don’t. (I’ve never heard my dad tell the joke… I’ve gotta say, I can’t really imagine it in his accent!)

And as for the addendum to the joke, which has become our family’s in-joke… honestly, I’m ashamed I ever took part in this in-joke. My sister’s group of friends told a joke, mocking the way that this exchange students and others like him talk, and afterwards he says that he doesn’t understand why others are finding him having just been mocked this way funny. For fuck’s sake, I know they were teenagers in high school, and “kids are cruel” and all that… but I think this guy had an awful lot more awareness than any of us ever gave him credit for. I think he knew exactly the point the joke was trying to make. Just like I’ve known all along the point the joke was trying to make. But I wasn’t the butt of that very first joke, whereas he was. And he stood up for himself and just said, pretty much, “wtf people, why are you laughing at the way you think I talk?! Why the fuck do you think you are so fucking funny?!”

And yeah, German exchange student guy, I agree! They weren’t funny. They were cruel. They were mocking you then, and your words have been used for decades now (with the mocking accent intact) to continue that mockery.

It needs to stop.

But more than that, allistics/NTs need to learn to make space for, welcome, embrace, and make efforts to understand autistics, including autistic language/culture, so that we are not always the ones having to adapt to your language/culture norms. We do more than enough of that every day. And I’m not saying at all that the German exchange student was autistic. I didn’t know him, I have no idea. Of course, just like autistics are mocked for having no sense of humour, which is bullshit, the German stereotype of having no sense of humour is also bullshit. I’m sure German norms for humour are simply different to those of other cultures (though I’m very disconnected from German pop culture!).

Talking about Suicide is Hard

CW: suicide, police, mental illness

So, I saw on FB earlier today that apparently September is suicide prevention month. I have no idea if this is internationally, or a US-based national thing, or whatever. And I know that there’s always a random month or week assigned to all sorts of causes all over the place. So, it’s just a thing, really, at the end of the day. But I figured, hey, what the fuck, it’s an excuse to talk about suicide. So, I may as well do that.

So, I’m just gonna say right here that suicide is a thing that I think about. Now, before anyone jumps to any I don’t even know whats or does or says anything, just hang in here and keep reading! First and foremost: yes, I have a therapist and she knows about this (an awful lot more than you do!!). Secondly, if you are someone who knows me (irl/offline) do not fucking call the police in a panic because you think this is an emergency (not now, not ever), regardless of what you may read/hear elsewhere about “if someone’s life may be at risk, dial 111” and shit about getting police to do a “welfare check”. Because if you know me irl/offline, you would also know that for me police are associated with trauma and police give me panic attacks and when I encounter police (in real life!) I run the fuck away because of that trauma association!! So, if you ever call the police out of fear for my life/safety, do expect me to never talk to you again! (Which, sure, you may think is better than me being dead, but… honestly… I would probably end up endangering myself to get the fuck away from the police! So just NO!!!)

So, with that out of the way, onto suicide!

I don’t know off the top of my head how much I’ve said here about the various mental illness issues that are at play in my head at the moment, but really, it’s just PTSD and depression (I’ve come to the conclusion that the “generalised anxiety disorder” that I got diagnosed with somewhere along the way isn’t really a thing for me, since for the most part anxiety is a completely natural/rational response for an autistic/ADHD person living in a world very much designed for NTs. I’ll find the blog post someone wrote about this and put it in the links thing. All the other anxiety responses can be explained by PTSD). Also, being autistic and ADHD are NOT mental illnesses! This should go without being said, unfortunately some people do not understand this, and they are still at times classified/called mental illnesses and therefore I feel the need to be very explicitly clear about this! Being who I am as a person does not make me mentally ill! Unfortunately, it does make other people more likely to treat me in ways which are traumatising, therefore leaving me at greater risk of mental illness! Being me sure is fun! [Insert sarcasm flag here!]

I don’t really want to talk about any of the reasons for why I feel suicidal, or the extent, or any of that. That’s stuff I talk to my therapist about and maybe a close friend if I feel like it and it comes up. Suffice it to say that lately there have been plenty of thoughts about not being alive anymore.

What I do want to talk about is… actually talking about feeling suicidal. It’s not an easy thing to talk about! And there are lots of articles and memes and videos and all sorts of shit about how we need to talk about this and we’ve got a suicide epidemic and all this shit… and yeah, we do! But that doesn’t make actually talking about it any easier! (Btw, I’m coming at all this from the point of view of the suicidal person, in case that wasn’t obvious! I’ve been on both sides, and I know the other side isn’t easy either, but that’s not what I’m thinking about right now.)

The thing is, when I see memes and articles and stuff saying that if you’re feeling suicidal you need to reach out, or I’d rather hear about your struggle with depression etc., than hear about your death by suicide… well, that’s all nice and good, but what am I meant to say? “Hey, I’m super depressed and I think I wanna die!” And then what? What, I post that on FB or as a comment in response to someone posting an article or a meme like than, and what am I supposed to expect? That they…? Get it? Fix me? Make me not feel suicidal anymore?

I mean, I think what I’m trying to explain here is that talking about suicide is hard because (for me, at least – and I can only ever speak for myself) it comes with a whole heap of overthinking (everything does – I think it’s an occupational hazard of being me…). I mean, if I say something about wanting to not be alive anymore… and I say it to one person… then I place a huge burden on that one person, so maybe I should tell several people… but also, who do I tell? And what if they tell someone? Should I tell everyone? Like, in a FB post? But then there’s the bystander effect (people will assume that other people will respond)… and regardless of who/how many people I tell, what am I expecting them to do/say? (Honestly, I have no fucking idea!!). And if I say something… are they going to panic and… [insert bad, worst case scenario here, like calling the police!] … or are they going to always be on edge around me and am I going to end up feeling like they’re keeping an eye on me/walking on eggshells? … What if they’re more nice to me or talk to me more or hang out with me more, is it because I told them that I’m depressed and thinking about suicide and would they not have done that if I hadn’t said that? (Another hazard of writing/posting this! Also – if reading this makes you want to talk to/hang out with me more – please don’t! Not unless it’s something you’d do anyway! I don’t want to be constantly second guessing and worried that I’m someone’s pity hang out! Just put more energy into the relationships you care about anyway! I’ll figure myself out!) …

I know there’s been a hell of a lot written about what not to say to a suicidal person (seriously, google it!), but I guess I’m a bit uneasy about all the social media invitations to talk about suicide! Because I don’t know how people honestly expect that to work! Maybe they don’t think about it (and who knows, it’s quite possible that I’ve posted some myself! I don’t have the energy to scroll through my FB history to find out!), but that would be my guess…

But I guess that makes me wonder about a better alternative… and the only thing I’m landing on is to be more real in our relationships with each other. With those people who you’re really close to… could you say to them, face-to-face, or over the phone, or however you best communicate (but certainly one-on-one) something like “hey, if you ever felt like not being alive anymore, could you tell me? Because I think you’re pretty awesome and I love you to bits and I know life can be shitty sometimes and I’d rather know… not so that I can fix it, because some things can’t be fixed, but so that I can sit in the broken mess with you and we can swear and yell and cry at the brokenness together… rather than just have you be gone… and hell, if it were me, I’d still do my damndest to fix it, and then get shitty that I can’t fix it, but I can get shitty at that in my own head, and not make that your problem, because if you were in that kind of messy place, you’d have problems enough… so, just tell me please, k?” (But maybe not with that many words, I just use lots of words for things…)

And also… for those of us who are in a not wanting to be alive anymore kinda place… if someone does say something like that to us… I guess we need to do the difficult thing of trusting that they mean it. And (for me, at least) trust is hard. There are sweet fuck all people whom I actually trust.

So, the other (perhaps last) part here is: if someone close to you tells you that they are feeling suicidal, they’ve put a hell of a lot of trust in them. Thank them for trusting them. Listen to them. Be honest if you don’t know what to say. Ask them what they need from you. Understand that they might not have a fucking clue! Keep checking in without “monitoring” them. Google the fuck out of what not to say and what to say to support. Get support for yourself! Don’t forget that they’re not on death row and that a lot of the time distractions can be good and hanging out and doing something fun (that’s not to do with talking about depression/suicide) can be nice!

This got a lot longer than I intended… I meant to only write something short. I think my main point was: talking about suicide is hard.

Rich People: pull yourselves up by your bootstraps! Because climate change!

Y’know what really pisses me off about this whole climate change situation? Well, yeah, a lot, but there’s one thing that really, really gets to me. Earlier today I was thinking about how here in Aotearoa our National Party blocked our Parliament from announcing a climate emergency (though youth parliament did that in a couple of seconds flat! Because, duh, we’re in a damn climate emergency!), and I’ve been seeing the headlines about the Australian shit cake of a PM fucking over things in the Pacific because oh noes my poor coal mines while people in Tuvalu are literally going look, dude, our land is fucking sinking!! So, really, shit cake Australian PM – fuck your coal mines!!

Anyway, that’s just what got me thinking! And I don’t really think/write all that much about the whole climate change thing. Obviously, we’re in a climate emergency, low-lying land is sinking because water levels are rising, it’s a thing that affects poor people disproportionately because wealthier people are able to afford to live on higher ground/move away from low lying land! And, of course, it’s intersectional in ways that I’m not even going to go into right now. But there are a lot of issues that I could give my time/energy/thinky thoughts/activism/passion to, and while this is a pressing issue, it’s never been top of my list… but nevertheless, the thinky thoughts got going today!

So, rich people have this thing about how they’re all self-made and all we need to do is “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” and “work harder/more” or whatever and we can all have the American Dream, or the “Kiwi” version of that, what with the half an acre, house, white picket fence, blah di blah, plus the millions, billions, whatever the fuck it is that they’re claiming is all the result of hard work (and maybe occasionally they’ll admit to a bit of luck). In other words, they’re great at ignoring things like privilege, various kinds of oppression, marginalisation, and so on. So, they pretty much think they’re really smart and hardworking!

Which could actually be really useful… hear me out! So, obviously what we need in order to really make a difference for climate change isn’t individual action, but rather action at the level of corporations and governments, and there’s pushback from super rich people and the conservative politicians (and centrists and moderates) who represent/pander to them, because making the kinds of changes we’d need (y’know, basic things like stopping coal mining, oil drilling, intensive farming – we have a dairy farming problem, Aotearoa!! – putting a lot more funding into – electric-based – public transport rather than roading and cars, and if cars, then electric, and even – oh horror!! – changing the way our economy works from this whole capitalism thing which has fucked over the planet and most of us on it, save for the super-rich, to something that is much friendlier to Papatūānuku and to all of us, not just the most privileged!) are things which are uncomfortable to them and will make them less rich, less privileged and might topple their status as the 1%! Oh noes! Wouldn’t that be awful! [Insert sarcasm here.]

Except… aren’t these the super smart, super hard-working people who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps? So, you’d think that if they’re so clever and hardworking they’d be able to get straight back up to the top of any new system we were to set up again, right? (Unless, of course, they don’t actually believe any of the shit they spout…) And surely they’d be able to see that there’s ample opportunity in a new system that no longer runs on coal, plastic, oil, cow-based methane, etc., and instead turn their attention to researching/developing/investing in/whatever something planet- and people-friendly to replace the toxic materials that have dominated our lives for far too long! They’re all about innovation and all that shit, right? They should be all over this!

But then I got thinking even more… this isn’t an issue of the super rich not being able to do this (even if we assume for a moment that they are as smart and hardworking as they claim to be)… this is an issue of them not wanting to. They are comfortable and the status quo suits them just fine! They’re not going to be affected by climate change anytime soon! And neither are their kids (because, after all, their wealth is going to be passed on, and their kids don’t need to worry about being smart and hardworking at all! What a surprise… [insert sarcasm here])

In conclusion: the super rich and politicians who represent and/or pander to them are nothing short of assholes! And we should do everything we can to dismantle the systems that gave them the power to have the amount of influence they do in politics, business, and society in general.

Papatūānuku is worth more than all the 1% put together. And not one of us is worth more or less than any other, no matter our privilege, our wealth, or lack thereof, and anyone acting like they are worth more because of their wealth, acting like the lives of those in the Pacific don’t matter (that their fucking coal mines matter more) can fucking well eat shit and die! They are standing in the way of this real action on climate change.

The Intentions Game

CW: discussion of various sexual violence (including rape), ableism, excusing things like sexual violence and ableism with “intentions”, plus hypothetical deaths from people hypothetically bumping into each other (a thought experiment, I guess).

I spent most of my years at university studying philosophy, and most of that was focused on ethics. Normative ethics is currently split roughly into three branches. One focuses on rules and obligations, one on consequences, and one on character. I picked the character branch. I was a virtue ethicist. And no, that past tense was not a typo. I haven’t switched to either of the other branches either, rather I currently think that matters are more nuanced than that any one theory has a clear explanation, plus my thoughts are still developing (which is not to say that I no longer believe in objective ethical truth – I certainly do! I just don’t believe that I am fully in possession of it!)

One thing that has played a large part in pulling me further and further away from my virtue ethics (VE) roots is the importance that VE places on intentions and my strengthening conviction that what I have come to refer to as “the intentions games” are a game of power and privilege. In VE, it’s all about being a good person, that is, a virtuous person. This involves doing virtuous (i.e. honest, kind, courageous, loyal, generous, etc.) actions in the right way, at the right time, with regards to the right people/objects, with the right motives/intentions. Intentions matter. So much.

Yet I’ve found that the more I’ve observed and interacted with actual real life, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that intentions don’t matter. At all. Now sure, this can be taken to the extreme conclusion where you say that “well, if intentions don’t matter, then if I bump into someone, causing them to trip and fall, and they die, then how is that any different from intentionally murdering them?!”.[1] Right. So I know I’m autistic and you might think I mean every single word literally, but throw in a sprinkle of salt now and then. Remember what I said about the intentions game being about power and privilege? Calling this murder depends on context. In a lot of contexts this would not be a case of murder, or even any case of serious harm, because there would be no power or privilege which would colour the intentions game when it comes to bumping into someone. Throw in some obvious power and privilege (think of a billionaire CEO of a huge corporation to whom their – unpaid – interns are as good as invisible, rushing between meetings – sure, we might hesitate to call it “murder”… but if their interns can be that invisible to them, that they just brush past/into one of them – because their meetings are oh so much more important than their lowly underlings or whatever, then they haven’t got their head screwed on right! Then I don’t care if we call it “murder”, but then I would like to assign blame and responsibility to that CEO for that intern’s death. The intern’s work and life is no less important than where the CEO is going, than the CEO’s meetings, and no matter what the CEO intended… it really doesn’t matter!) and see how things change. If the CEO says they didn’t “intend” to bump into the intern, if they just “intended” to get to their meeting on time… it makes no difference to me. Their intentions can suck my dick.

If we take two colleagues, on completely equal standing (no difference in terms of gender, class, wealth, sexuality, ethnicity, disability, immigration status, or other marker of power or privilege), and one of them bumps into the other, same thing happens (colleague A bumps into colleague B, B trips and falls and dies as a result)… then I do think that changes matters. We have no reason to dismiss A’s intentions off the bat. Of course, the most important thing still is that B is dead and no intentions in the world can and will bring them back. However, if A genuinely cared about B as a colleague, for example, and bumped into them because they were rushing towards them to tell them some good news, that would seem to mitigate the situation in some sense. Of course, it’s an accident. (We might say it’s an accident in both cases, yet in the first case it seems to be a case of an accident that the CEO brought about through the culture they created or something to that effect, whereas here it seems like a genuine accident). Even if A was actually a jerk and they bumped into B on their way to pull a nasty prank on another colleague (or even on B – I’m stipulating that the prank was entirely unrelated to the tripping and falling incident!), they are not culpable in the way the CEO is, so their intentions, whether fully relevant or not (and they are relevant in the sense of showing that bumping into B was unintentional, whereas in the former case the lack of intention is, to me, irrelevant), can’t/shouldn’t be dismissed.

This interaction of power and privilege with the game of intentions is something I see very much (and have seen very often lately) in some, to me, very classic cases, where it is used to dismiss the actions of the privileged and powerful.

Men who touch women without consent (ranging anywhere from sexual harassment to assault to rape) will brush it off and dismiss it (and/or have others do it on their behalf) with the intentions game, as “unintentional”, or “I didn’t mean it that way”, or “you misunderstood”. Those men’s intentions don’t matter. Their intentions can suck my dick. What matters is that they believed that they were entitled to touch women’s bodies without bothering to ask for consent (regardless of whether it was for a hug, a “thank you” kiss – or any other kind for that matter, grabbing any body part, sex, or anything else).

Try taking that power differential out of it and see who waits to listen to the intentions! Let’s see who wants to know what [insert male harasser of the day] was intending when it was a man he was trying to kiss on the lips or a man’s ass he was groping, or whatever it was he’s trying to brush off as “unintentional”, “I didn’t mean it that way”, “I was just saying thank you”, or whatever the excuse of the day is.

And then we get ableds who try to “help” (spoiler alert: it is not helpful) disabled people without asking/without being asked/even when explicitly told not to, such as by taking a blind person by the arm to “help” them cross a street (even though the blind person is capably crossing the street by using their white cane), by grabbing a manual wheelchair and pushing it without asking (even though the wheelchair user is capably pushing themselves and doesn’t need nor want their “help”), or by hugging an autistic person – especially an autistic person having a meltdown!! – to “comfort” them without asking. Ableds will brush off accusations of ableism with “but I meant well” or “but it was unintentional” or “but I was just trying to help”. Their intentions too, can suck my dick. Their intentions do not matter.

Their intentions might matter if they are trying to “help” an abled person who obviously does not need their help (maybe, if you’re abled, try grabbing another abled stranger by the arm while they’re trying to cross the road, to “help” them, but make sure to “mean well”!! – note the sarcasm!!).

And of course, men will brush off accusations of mansplaining with “but I meant well” or “I was just trying to help”, and white people brush off accusations of whitesplaining to people of colour the same way.

Mansplaining to men and whitesplaining to white people aren’t even a thing!

I think what I’m getting at is that context, power, and privilege matter a hell of a lot more than intentions.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to be good people. Of course, we should try to be good people. We should try to live well, be honest, compassionate, generous, responsible, just, loyal, trustworthy, courageous, etc. And sure, have good intentions about things, try to do things for good reasons!

And then when you’re in a situation where someone points out that you’ve fucked up and there’s an obvious power differential at play and you’re in a position of privilege, recognise your fucking privilege, and shut the fuck up about your intentions! It’s way too late for them, you obviously have a lot to learn, and they didn’t serve you well enough this time! So learn, do what you can to make amends, and intend and do better next time. Hopefully your intentions will learn enough from fucking up so badly this time around.

Now, two important notes:

  1. There has been research done (edit: here is the article on the research) on men who have sexually assaulted and raped women, which shows that if you ask them if they’ve raped a woman, the majority will say no. If you ask them about other things, like having sex with a woman who was asleep, or very intoxicated, having pressured a woman into having sex, having had sex with a woman who was unwilling, etc., they were much, much more likely to answer yes. A lot of rapists don’t realise that they’ve raped someone. I am certain that the bad ex, the one who raped me did not believe he raped me (and likely even now, even after the police have spoken to him still doesn’t). I am sure he did not intend to rape me. I am sure he intended to have sex with me and when he realised that I wasn’t keen, he might have intended(?) to convince me to have sex… maybe he even convinced himself that he had convinced me (even though I  made it clear that he hadn’t and I never said yes). But my point is, his intentions do not matter. I don’t give a fuck about his intentions. It was not a case of he had sex with me and I did not consent. He did not have sex with me. He raped me. Sex is a mutual activity. There was no sex on that occasion. Whether it was what he intended to do or not, he raped me.
  2. I have no dick. I was making a hyperbolic point about how little I care about those intentions.

[1] Thanks Lars for the example, which I’ve embellished, even more so as I go on.