I woke up this morning thinking about a “question” I read on a Japanese forum yesterday. “Why don’t women try to get married in their twenties when they are more useful and attractive to their husbands?”
…and it occurred to me that “women” and “females” are no more similar than, say, humans and seahorses. It is the woman who bears the brunt of the weight of reproduction, but this is not something fundamental to her femaleness any more than it is fundamental to the maleness of the seahorse that he should raise and protect the young in his belly.
So then, where did our moral justification of the subjugation of women really come from?
I wanted to title this entry as “Facebook: Your International Crack Dealer.” While I think the metaphor is profound, it deserves more explanation than a title could provide.
A week ago today, I quit facebook. Hi, my name is Pinkie Boadicea and I’m a Facebook Addict.
Quitting facebook is difficult. Have you ever tried? Most of you probably think that you have it under control, that you don’t have a problem, that you could quit any time. But could you? Quitting is difficult and facebook doesn’t like to lose a customer.
First, it gets you hooked. Facebook pages show up as top hits in google and Bing searches. It’s easy to make a facebook page for a company or an organization and so many smaller groups use Facebook as their primary online presence. Suppose you want to interact with one of these organizations. Google their name and up comes the facebook page along with a big fat log in box and a question: Want to connect with [this company]? Log in or create an account. It’s free and easy, and always will be. If it isn’t a webpage, it’s probably a friend of yours or a new acquaintance, “Hey, are you on facebook?”
Soon the feeds start to get tiresome. Is this yet another post about [insert current political scandal]? Oh, wow. Another witty e-card with old timey pencil sketches and inane quips about how much smarter we are than everyone else. And oh, look. A cat gif. And there are the advertisements. Facebook doesn’t call them ads, but when you like a post that is associated with a paying organization, facebook will insert multiple requests to like the pages of those other organizations. Finally, and perhaps most dangerously when you consider the impossibility of actually controlling the accessibility of your content, there are the friend suggestions. At first it’s nice because you see someone that maybe you haven’t connected with in years and it’s fun. But then the recommendations start to get further from fun and closer to, say, your job. All of a sudden facebook wants you to be friends with your boss, and now what? If you say yes, your boss has access to all that obnoxious stuff you never meant your boss to know about, but if you say no… what has he already seen? Will he know you’re hiding something?
The trouble with Facebook goes beyond it getting tiresome. Like any addiction, eventually you become adjusted to the hits and they cease to provide the satisfaction they once did. The problem is when you can’t stop. You log in only to get annoyed by all the politics, ads, and desperate pleas for attention. You leave minutes, or even hours later, with a bad taste in your mouth and then you log in again. Why? Because what if someone [liked] that post you made last night where you subtly suggested that you weren’t happy and really needed a hug, but were too timid to say it out loud to anyone in person and therefore tossed it out into the Interverse in the vague hope that someone, anyone, would pick up your hint? Or, you know, there could be a message for you. It doesn’t matter that you were just there an hour ago. You just have to check. Because, what if…?
They say that knowing is half the battle, but Facebook doesn’t like to be put down without a fight. First, they hide the deactivation links deep inside the account settings in a section that makes no sense (I’d tell you where it is, but since quitting I’ve installed programs to block Facebook from being accessed on my computer again). Then, when you try to leave, you have to answer a survey. Whatever answer you pick, Facebook tells you you are wrong. Leaving because you don’t trust the company to protect your privacy? They’ll send you a popup with instructions on how to access their blindingly complicated privacy settings. Leaving because the feed annoys you? Here’s a popup telling you that you can block people or organizations that you don’t like. Leaving because you waste too much time on Facebook? Here’s some hints on how you can change your notification settings. Not like any of these suggestions actually solve the problems, but the point is that Facebook does not respect your agency of decision. Facebook, like your local crack dealer, doesn’t want to lose a customer and they’re going to do their damnedest to convince you that they know better what’s good for you than you do.
Supposing you manage to get past their “survey.” Next comes the guilt. Facebook will show you images from the profiles of your friends and the message “[friend’s name] will miss you. Are you sure you want to leave? Why don’t you send them a message?” If you do get suckered into sending a goodbye message you have to start the whole process over.
And then, finally, the finishing blow: You can’t actually delete your own account. Facebook will temporarily deactivate it for you, but if you or any program you use to access any part of facebook tries to log in again, everything comes back as if it was never gone. So, even if you fail to regulate your usage to the point that you realize you need to quit entirely, you can’t ever actually leave. Does this not sound freaky? It’s like your crack dealer showing up at your neighborhood grocery store and brightly waving hello to you as he surreptitiously drops a few free samples into your bag of produce.
You’d think your friends would help you out at a time like this, but don’t be surprised if instead of support for overcoming your addiction they, like your old drinking buddies, act like you are personally rejecting them with your decision.
It’s hard to live without facebook in a world where everyone thinks facebook is innocuous. Like the alcoholic at a New Year’s party, suddenly you realize you don’t quite know how to socialize with people anymore, and they don’t really know how to talk to you back. And like any addiction, once you give it up, you are always tempted. The thought that, maybe just a little facebook won’t hurt, will never really leave you. But like any addiction, once you kick it, you realize how much it was dragging you down.
The moment I “canceled” my facebook account, I felt like I could breathe again. Literally the moment I clicked the button. Suddenly I realized how much I was using facebook as a substitute for real human interaction and how lonely it was making me. Instead of getting my work done, I’d dick around on facebook looking for that [like] hit. When I got tired of that, I’d return to reality depressed at how little time I had left in the day for the things that truly made me happy and at how much work I didn’t accomplish. Suddenly I felt the freedom to experience my moments rather than constantly scanning my brain for a witty way to phrase them into a post. Suddenly, I was really and truly alone in my house.
The loneliness that comes from being disconnected from facebook is interesting. At once it is more intense and also more peaceful. It’s like looking up at the night sky from a mountain top. You see so many more stars against the midnight blue of space than you could ever see from the city and you wonder, how did I ever think I saw the sky before?
They say fifty percent of alcoholics have a relapse in the first year. I’m sure I’ll relapse, too, but in the meantime I’m doing everything I can to protect this new sense of life that I’ve found by disconnecting. Between website blockers, erasing my facebook content, clearing out my contacts, deleting apps and blocking ads and social media content, I think I am technologically pretty prepared. What I’m not prepared for is how to live in a world where facebook is increasingly common practice. If I relapse, this will be the reason. In the meantime, though, I’m enjoying the excuse to connect with people in person.
“Hi, I canceled my facebook account so I thought I’d drop by and see how you’re doing.” Yes. This is the life I’d rather lead.
It is a reality I am slowly coming to accept: I am addicted to sex.
But I am not addicted in the traditional way, rather more philosophically so. As the international AIDS activist and specialist on Arab sexuality Shereen El Feki said,
“If you want to know a people, you start by looking inside their bedrooms”
And really, I think Ms. Feki is on to something here. Sex is freedom and freedom is empowerment over our own lives and our own destinies. What that means is that sex threatens, or enforces, the power others have over us.
So I keep coming back to sex because I love life and sex is life. Two people having sex can create new life, but they can also emblazon the spark of their own lives. Never have I met a happy person with a dissatisfying sex life. Likewise I have never met a person with bedroom troubles who was happy in every other aspect of their lives or their own self image.
Because sex is so intimate, it is frightening and thrilling to share with another person. However, the individual who is willing to face that fear and all of its consequences in order to reap its profound benefits is able to face their fears outside the bedroom as well. Such an individual is difficult to control, and that is why sex is freedom.
Several weeks ago I read a post by an advice columnist who I am not on particularly good terms with and it rankled me. The advisee, a young male, was concerned that he could not bring his female partner to orgasm with penetration. The advice he received was twofold: First, he was shamed for his male supremist desire to bring his partner to orgasm through penetration. Second, he was instructed in the “universal knowledge” that the clitoris is located outside the vagina and is not sufficiently stimulated by penetration and that he was required to provide oral, manual or electrical stimulation directly to his partner’s clitoris if he wanted her to orgasm.
Well, recent and extremely overdue research on the female reproductive anatomy has produced this three dimensional image of the human clitoris
Take a moment to appreciate this image. Exactly where is the clitoris again? It sure appears to me to be inside the female pelvic cavity, wrapping around the urethra and the vagina and extending forward to the mons pubis and backward towards the anus. Just by looking at this image, if you were to ask me if the clitoris was better stimulated by rubbing a finger on the glans clitoris, the tiny little nub sticking out and down on the left side of the image, or by rubbing some phallic object against the inner circle of it by way of the vagina, I’d go vagina every time.
So why was I so upset by the advice given to this young male? Besides it being out of date, it was also advise for a man seeking a goal and completely neglected the woman in question. More specifically, imagine being the owner of such a magnificent and complex organ of sexual satisfaction and imagine never once having been able to wield it properly. Now imagine you have a partner who wants to learn how to help you wield that organ to achieve its full glory, but when he seeks the necessary knowledge on how to do this, he is told that your organ is busted and isn’t actually meant to work that way and he should stop trying. No one once asks you what your opinion in all of this is.
This brief interaction between two men discussing a woman’s body without her input is not a new phenomenon, nor is it an example of bonding behavior we would expect to see only between extreme political conservatives. In fact, this is just one more case of a history of conversations between men for the benefit of men. As far back as I can remember, every storybook character I ever read about was either a woman seeking a husband, or a man. Every historical figure I ever studied was a man, save for the exceptional woman who was noted for her womanhood. In movies, women were the reasons that men became great, but they were never great themselves. God Himself is a man. In my adolescent years I was desperate, as all adolescents are, for a role model. I dove deeper and deeper into the philosophy behind what I was given to study in school, digging for some universal truth about humanity that would validate my existence. What I found was the vastest of empties. I would search in the books that we read for a female character that had positive traits and what I discovered was that in order to emulate these characters I had to be beautiful, and I had to be romantically unattainable. Attainability, was anathema to female success. The only women of virtue in any of my studies were desperately, painfully and permanently alone. It is a wonder I survived adolescence at all.
Modern times, full as they are with sexual freedom and women’s rights, still prove to be no more welcoming of the human female than the histories were. Indeed, even on a subject so intensely personal, so intensely feminine as the existence and nature of the clitoris, women are not even invited in to speak. The clitoris, it seems, exists only for validation of the male ego, and if he wants that ego validated, he better get to it directly and not waste time on pleasuring a woman in the process.
Monogamy has a long history rooted in social status and political maneuvering. Nomadic humans used marriage as a way to establish family ties that would save lives in times of crisis, specifically food shortages. When technology advanced far enough that people could store their food and wealth and pass it along down the generations, marriage was a way to legitimize the property transfer process. Fast forward thousands of years to Medieval England where the Catholic church struggled with the Anglo kings for political control. At this time it was common for marriages to be made and dissolved between clans as was politically expedient. By declaring marriage a Holy Sacrament, the Catholic church forced all future political contracts to be subjected to its approval. This is where the moral notion of monogamy arose.
Along with its moral imperative, the history of western marriage means monogamy comes with several other assumptions about what it means to be in a relationship. Among these are the notion ownership and control over another human being as well as the idea that being in a relationship with someone somehow prevents others from initiating a similar relationship with that person.
Belief in ownership of another human being leads to behaviors that are hurtful to the person being viewed as property. Traditionally when marrying, a woman became property of her husband. The two became “Man and Wife,” further reducing the woman from the category of a human to the category of being related to a man. To her, the man was her livelihood and just as she was his property, both had reason to defend their relationship against outsiders. Other women become enemies, specifically those who are unwed, because their affection detracts from what is available to the wife. From the perspective of the husband, other men close to his wife pose a threat to their social status because the ability to protect one’s property is part of masculinity, but also because a bastard son screws up the whole inheritance process. Unfortunately because the wife is viewed as an inferior being to the men, and because one woman who is dependent on her husband for sustenance is easy to control than an entire city of strangers, often enforcement of monogamy became a matter of punishing the wife rather than fending off the other men.
Today marriage is less about inheritance and livelihood, but it is still very much about social status and peer respect, and even couples who do not marry, but date within the monogamous framework, operate as though they were practicing for a marriage of the traditional sort. Jealousy is common and is sometimes interpreted as a sign of affection while being cheated on is a source of embarrassment. Society also expects that a monogamous couple in a Long Term Relationship will eventually begin to merge their lives, sharing finances and living spaces even before marriage becomes an explicit topic of discussion. Merely introducing someone as your significant other in any way means that friends and relatives will expect you to know that person’s whereabouts at all times, count you as two people when arranging carpools or parties, and communicate with that person as if they were you. And for many couples, these assumptions are not far off point.
To contrast, the history of polyamory is very different. To begin with, polyamory means many loves. Sometimes this is a fixed number of partners and sometimes it is fluid. I would like to focus on the types of polyamorous relationships that are open in the sense that there is not a predetermined number of partners that commit to each other exclusively. As an official socially acknowledged romantic structure, polyamory has only been observed in a small minority of cultures, notably those without the concept of paternity. Familial ties must necessarily pass through the mother, as does property transfer, and without the notion of paternity, the idea of sexual fidelity holds little value. As a corollary, economic security is also independent of sexual ties and so the choice to become romantically involved, or sexually involved with another human means little in terms of changes to one’s identity or social or economic status.
So polyamory exists inside a culture that has no social framework or historical basis on which to accurately acknowledge romantic partners, and it also lacks the moral imperative that monogamy holds. What this means for polyamorous people actively in polyamorous relationships is that, among other things, they lack the language to describe themselves or their partners. Members of a polyamorous relationship often find they have to explicitly undo the assumptions that others carry about their lives when discussing their partners. One particularly difficult one is the notion of availability. A polyamorous person in an open relationship is never officially unavailable, but declaring the presence of any romantic partner means that potential partners will keep their distance out of respect for the assumed ownership. Attempting to correct this assumption is full of all sorts of social pitfalls including replacing it with a different assumption that one is sexually loose or indiscriminate. It also means that there is no pre-existing commonly accepted template on which to build a relationship and that polyamorous people must negotiate their relationship structure and their boundaries on a case by case basis. Compared to monogamous relationships, polyamorous relationships must essentially build themselves from scratch both internally and externally with every new partner.
Much of the difference between polyamory and monogamy comes from the assumptions made by people, both inside the relationship and out, about the purpose of having a romantic relationship. Much of the rhetoric today praises true love and romance and assumes that the blind pursuit of these virtues will naturally lead to lifelong monogamy. In this paradigm marriage is a natural conclusion of the process of romance and monogamy is self enforcing. Polyamory builds itself on the idea that “true love” may be nurtured between more than one pair of people and as a consequence has no natural conclusion for the results of this love. While monogamists can use their social roadmap to plan their lives, trusting that when things fall apart there is already an infrastructure available to help them back on their feet, polyamorists must carry all the tools to plan and all the tools to recover from failure with them at every step of the way. The result of these differences is that the identity of a monogamist fluctuates with their relationship status while the identity of a polyamorist remains more or less constant.
Polyamory is in many ways the opposite of monogamy. If monogamy is the practice of forming and maintaining romantic relationships with only one person at a time, the polyamory is the practice of being open to multiple romantic relationships at once. While most people are familiar with the concept of monogamy and polygamy, polyamory has many subtle differences that overlap with both of these concepts. Like monogamists, polyamorists are capable of deep emotional bonds with their partners and often aspire to the same ideals of honesty and love. However, unlike both monogamists and polygamists, polyamorists may or may not aspire to lifelong commitment, and in addition to having multiple partners of their own, their partners are also free to have multiple partners as well. This is a key difference between polyamory and polygamy; polygamy is inherently imbalanced. Perhaps, however, the most important difference between polyamory and monogamy is that in a monogamous relationship, both partners are committed to achieving all of their fulfillment within the boundaries of their relationship with each other whereas in a polyamorous relationship two partners can choose how much fulfillment they want to receive from each other and how much they want to receive elsewhere. The implications of this subtle difference are profound.
I am at the age where many of my friends are marrying or at least beginning to contemplate marriage. While as a divorcee I am deeply suspicious of marriage, my friends often say to me, “but we already live together and neither one of us intends to ever break up, what’s the difference?” The difference is huge, I assure them. What is it exactly? Once married, you lose your outside option. To my married readers, have you ever wondered where all the affection and romance went from your relationship? Does it not seem as if as soon as you got married, your husband stopped offering you foot massages with scented oils, your wife stopped going to the gym? Once you marry, your partner can no longer walk out on you as easily. This means that you lose the motivation to care for yourself and to care for your partner in the same way you did before you married. Many of us swear to ourselves that we will be different, that we will not change when we marry, but we also swear to ourselves that this year we will finally lose those last five pounds, too. Marriage gives us comfort and certainty that we will not be abandoned (as easily), but it also relaxes our standards of care. It is true that many couples can survive happily decades into the marital contract, but it is folly to believe that every one of them will be able to maintain the relationship they had before tying the knot.
In a similar vein to the bounds that marriage provide, monogamy provides a closed context within which we can feel safe, but also lax and trapped. A single individual is required to provide emotional and sexual satisfaction in addition to providing companionship and partnership. This package deal is very attractive for the same reasons that it is restrictive. Take just one aspect of a relationship: emotional support. Over our lives we wax and wane in our need for support and our ability to provide it. If we are in synchronization with our partner, then we can trade the support we need with ease, but if both of us are in crisis, or if one partner is simply exhausted and no longer able to provide the support needed by the other, then there is no outlet for the build up of pressure. No amount of love, care or commitment can cure exhaustion; only rest can do this. So what we get is that in a closed relationship the exhausted party and the needy party erupt into conflict.
Compare this situation to an open relationship. When one party is in need of emotional support, there is no designated provider of that support. If she has two partners, she can ask one or the other, and when it is clear that one source is exhausted, she can turn to the other to fulfill her needs. Certainly there is no guarantee that this will satisfy her need, but it does provide relief for an overextended partner both because there are other alternatives and also because morally he is not obligated to solve her emotional crisis. The knowledge that exhaustion on his part is not an indication of failure to uphold his responsibilities in the relationship by itself can provide a soothing balm to the tension a crisis engenders. It can give him patience. It can also serve as a check to the partner in crisis. Because she has no commitment on the part of her primary partner to solve her emotional problems, she must be careful not to overload him and to maintain a healthy sense of awareness of her own responsibilities towards her own emotional health.
While a monogamous relationship provides an implicit guarantee of emotional support, the supply of that support is restricted by the ability of one’s partner to provide it. On the other hand, a polyamorous relationship does not provide such a concrete guarantee of support, but its inherent openness means that when provided, that support can be given more honestly and received more fully. Which relationship structure is preferable depends on one’s own tolerance for uncertainty and one’s ability and commitment to personal health. A monogamous relationship is a guarantee of a sort. It allows one to “play cards” such as the “if you love me” card, or the “this is your responsibility” card. These can be incredibly reassuring as can the notion of ownership that monogamy provides. The polyamorous structure means accepting in advance that those cards hold no value. Any partner can walk out, or form a new relationship at any time which means at every moment all partners must take care to ensure that they all still desire to maintain the relationship with each other. Many people are unwilling to tolerate this kind of uncertainty in their most intimate relationships. For all things, there is a cost.
Visiting my home town for the first time since moving abroad, I got the opportunity to meet with many of my good friends. There was a conference in town — the biggest annual conference in my field — so my mind has been spinning hard at the philosophical level, too. I want to share a few of the life revelations that came to me while spending time with these awesome people.
The first came to me while sitting at one of the fancy designer gourmet restaurants that my city is famous for. My friend, who until recently made her living making lattes and bagels, had come into possession of a gift card and we were determined to milk it for every penny. Our waiter was an absolutely stunning young white man with a backside that threatened the seam of his trousers in a most irresistible fashion. He had movie-star stubble and perfectly shaped eyebrows. Obviously, he was gay.
Towards the end of our meal, I noticed another stunning silhouette. This man was tall and slender and his white shirt nearly glowed against his ebony skin. He was dark, clearly an immigrant and mesmerizingly beautiful. My friend caught me staring and I explained that I simply wanted to know if the view from the front was as good as from behind. Then, as he turned, it dawned on me how incredibly surreal the situation was. Black men? Working in a gourmet fanssy shmanssy restaurant? Sure, he and his colleague were just bus boys, but they were visible in an upscale establishment. Surely this was a sign of social progress.
Alas, no, my friend explained to me. The white gay many was the waiter and the two black men of unidentifiable sexual orientation were bus boys, so clearly the oppression of the black man continues. What followed was a very short and very tense argument between my friend and I. She is a passionate advocate for social justice. I am a passionate advocate for personal happiness. To my friend, all that was visible was the still present discrimination against a social minority. What I saw was a pair of immigrants who happened to be of a similar physical description to a long oppressed social class doing their job in full view of the posh and snobby social majority that is the consumer base of that restaurant. I saw change towards a better world and my friend saw only the vast divide between what is and what could be.
She got angry with me, I think, for being happy. To my friend unless we are all equal there is injustice and injustice is unforgivable. I said to her, “It’s progress! It’s ok to celebrate progress even if there is still a long way to go. Celebrating a little bit of progress is not ceding the victory.” While I was busy feeling proud of myself for having produced one of those lines that, if I ever became famous, would be spun through the inter-memes for generations to come, my friend was busy seething. There are many things that I could say in justifying my position. I believe in rewarding people for doing things right, even if they are still a little, or even a lot wrong. Mostly this is because I have attempted to teach weasels how to do tricks, but also because I believe in being happy. Social justice is a far off goal, if achievable at all. Why would we choose to be angry for our whole lives over the inability to achieve a distant and difficult goal when we could be happy for every miniscule step we make in the right direction? I am not sure. My friend is not an idiot, so I’m sure she has a good reason. I simply cannot fathom it.
Later in my trip I managed to catch up with another friend of mine who is also a wonderful person, but whose life strategies differ from mine on some really raw points. She is stupidly happily married for some ten years or so now. That fact by itself means that we have a lot of divide to bridge in order to be friends, but she is also actively non judgmental of others (of herself, perhaps she is less forgiving), which means that having a big divide on any subject isn’t really a big deal. In the last year or so she has been making serious efforts towards overcoming some of her own personal demons and today, after being abroad for three months, I got to see the first glimmer of progress.
In a short two-hour dinner she dropped so many life revelations on me that I doubt I could list them all if I tried. One, however, stuck out in my mind on account of it being a wholly new perspective for me, and also on account of it being about sex. The vast majority of people, she said, are extremely uncomfortable with sex. Even the “sluts” of the world with partners numbering in the three digits have difficulty with the word “clitoris.” We also talked about a close friend of hers who recently shared a meme, “All a girl ever really wants is one boy to prove they are not all the same.” Later that night as I dosed fitfully in my still present jetlag, I remembered a friend of mine from the men’s forum Measurection. He once lamented that his life’s dream is for someone to look at his naked body and declare his penis to be “hung like a horse,” or something to that effect. As the three thoughts brewed in the background of my red-lining mind, a realization of my own simmered to the top.
I believe that everyone harbors shame. To some extent we all have shame about the physical bodies were are confined to and about the entity that we call our selves. We seek affirmation of our own identity in the love and affection of a partner, but doing so requires vulnerability. We cannot achieve that affirmation without exposing what it is in us that we are ashamed of, and when the partner we choose denies us, they only reaffirm the shame we already carried. Sex is a beautiful and powerful tool to circumvent our existential fears and achieve the total acceptance we crave. What many people don’t know about orgasms is that the truly spectacular ones can only be achieved when the ego is banished from our consciousness, leaving just the raw mindless truth of who we are behind to experience the moment unhindered. It is no wonder, then, that the majority of people in this world are uncomfortable with sex, or that they place as much value as they do on their own social prowess. I guess, in a way, it is also little wonder why I love the topic so much. If you teach some one how to have truly awesome sex, I think it’s impossible for the rest of their lives to remain stagnant and unfulfilled.