The Consequences of Avoidant Behavior for Pain and Friendships

One of the things I’ve learned from both reading and experience: in dealing with chronic pain, you often develop avoidant behaviors. When you realize that certain movements or positions cause pain, and you learn ways to avoid doing them. This is not always a good idea. Because the evidence strongly suggests that chronic pain is in many cases largely neurological, avoidance of pain-causing movements can actually make it worse. The more you avoid a movement, the more you build that association of that movement with pain and fear of pain. That association can feed the neurological pain response by itself. By this pattern, avoidance of a movement in order to avoid pain can actually make pain worse, because fear of that movement increases stress and that stress increases pain which increases fear, and through those means, the pain is self-reinforcing.

The really tricky thing, for me, is to know when my experience of pain is telling me something useful and when it isn’t. To know when I’m experiencing pain due to an injury, or due to a malfunctioning neurological feedback loop. If I call my brain’s bluff and it isn’t a bluff, I get injured. If I don’t call my brain’s bluff and it is a bluff, the pain stays. Anyone who follows me on Twitter probably sees the #ptrecord hashtag I use to record my daily exercises, and how some of them occasionally fluctuate in reps and time spent. What you are seeing on that hashtag is, largely, me running experiments to try and discern which of my limits are due to physical weakness or injury and which are due to brain problems. If you ever see a significant spike in a type of exercise, it is probably because something happened that made me realize that the level of pain or soreness I experience as a result of that exercise was my brain bluffing, and I suddenly felt safe experimenting with much higher levels of exercise.

It occurred to me the other day that something similar happens in an entirely different area of my life.

I have a history of, in some ways, not being very trusting of my friends. I’ve written before in this blog about how to take care with consent, about how to communicate, etc. In part, I think I’ve always had a propensity for developing those skills because I care deeply about people. There’s another part, though, which is that I tend to be terrified of fucking up.

In my own self-evaluation, I am an unusually controlled person. I almost never act or speak impulsively. Or rather, if I do, it’s because I did an analysis and decided to permit myself to act on an impulse. I have almost no memories of making bad interpersonal decisions because I wasn’t careful enough to think them through. I have memories of making decisions that I would not make now, because I have more data about the effects of those decisions now than I did at the time. The thing is, if I were again limited to the data I had on hand at the time, I would make most of the same decisions based on the on-hand data. When I do fuck up, it is generally at my own expense, and rarely at the expense of others (except insofar as the depression that results from not taking very good care of yourself takes a toll on those around you). Also, generally, I’m much more prone to want to take on the emotional baggage of others, compared with asking others to help take on mine.

I put in a lot of effort not to hurt people. I put in a lot of effort to help people with their shit. I put in a lot of effort not to compel people to have to deal with my shit. Even when I’m intensely angry or frustrated or hurt, I’m reasonably talented at not letting the emotional impulses that result from those feelings leak out at other people. It’s a good skill, but it also often means people don’t know when I’m dealing with tough shit. It means that I don’t have as many opportunities to vent emotional frustration by just letting the impulses reign, even for a bit, because I refuse to give those impulses the opportunity to do damage to the people around me. And it, in some ways, means that I genuinely have no idea how resilient a lot of my friendships are.

Because really the way you learn that, more than anything else, is you see what happens when a strain is put on them, which is something I tend to be terrified of doing.

See the connection with the chronic pain? It’s a cycle. I’m unsure how resilient my friendships are, which makes me apprehensive to ever trust a significant amount of weight to them, which means I don’t have any experiences to inform me on how resilient they are, which means I don’t know how resilient they are. Ad infinitum.

So what do you do, right? You try, in increments, to test them a bit more. You try trusting people to take on some of your shit. And you hope that you don’t have to discover too often that you overestimated.

Not the easiest thing in the world, really.

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Depression

The last few weeks have been pretty stressful, and I’ve found myself spiraling somewhat, depression-wise. I feel stagnant. I feel underequipped to be doing the things I’m doing and unsure of what I’ll be doing after classes are finally over and I have to act like I know what I’m doing at a real job. I feel isolated. I feel nervous about my future. And there’s no real point to this post, I just needed to vent.

I feel incredibly ill-equipped for a normal work-a-day life. I feel like everyone I talk to about programming here knows massively more than I do, and I’m not able to get nearly as much work done at home as I’d like to. Possibly not nearly enough to make freelancing a realistic option.

I just needed to get that out.

By ResearchToBeDone Posted in other

Tips for Consent-Conscious Dating and Fuckery

Post requested by Jargonator at jargonator.tumblr.com. Had some technical difficulties guest posting, so it’s going up as a normal post here. Enjoy!

Antiracism activist Tim Wise has said that he thinks one of the most significant barriers to white people acknowledging that racism exists is, paradoxically, the fact that most of us are good people. The problem is that once you acknowledge that a problem exists, if you’re a good person, you feel responsible for helping fix it. Most of us, on some level, know this, and so one of the best ways to avoid that feeling of being obligated to help is to not admit that there is a problem in the first place.

In the same vein, one of the problems that crops up when guys become aware of rape culture is an occasionally paralyzing fear of being an accessory to rape culture in all their interactions with women. When you realize the breadth and depth of rape culture, you become afraid of unintentionally invoking it in your interactions. One of the most common areas where this plays out is in situations where a guy wants to talk to or date or have sex with a woman. Interacting with someone in a way that doesn’t cast the shadow of rape culture is not always easy, especially if you’re still learning about it (which most of us are). It is, however, always important.

So I’m going to take a stab at offering some advice that has helped me walk the line between being forward about being interested in people and making those people feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

Let’s get the most important thing out of the way first: the first rule of not creeping people out is don’t have creepy intentions. Just as all the rules of etiquette won’t help you look like a class act if you don’t respect people, all the anticreep advice in the world won’t help you if your intentions are creepy. In practice, not being creepy means you respect the wants and needs of people you’re interested in. You realize that they may not want to fuck you, or hold a conversation with you, or even give you the time of day, and you respect that. You recognize that no amount of interest on your part creates the slightest obligation on their part. If you say you recognize that, but you don’t, you’re a creeper and an asshole.

Now that’s out of the way, from here on out I’m operating under the assumption that I’m addressing people with noncreepy intentions.

The second rule of not creeping people out is to be aware of your surroundings and make sure that whatever interaction you’re interested in with that person is appropriate for your circumstances. What is acceptable is different in different social contexts: at a meeting vs at dinner vs. in a bar vs. at a sex party. It’s also different in different physical contexts: in particular, enclosed spaces, or places where the other person would not be in a position to call for help if you turned out to be dangerous cast the shadow of the implication (even if it isn’t your intention to invoke it). Those contexts are generally not okay for any sort of conversation that could be construed as propositioning. Some aren’t okay for any sort of conversation at all.

What’s acceptable also differs based on how well you know the person in question. If you’re confident that you’re familiar enough with someone to talk openly about wanting to do X, Y, or Z with them without raising red flags, you have more leeway (assuming you’re right, and it’s your responsibility to be sure you’re right). Note that this also means that sometimes you will get a red light where another person gets a green light. The green-lit person may be more familiar or comfortable to the person you’re interested in than you are. Respect that. I can’t tell you how many times it happens at BDSM parties that someone crosses a line by, say, spanking someone they thought it was okay to spank because it looked like “everybody was doing it”, when the reality was that a spontaneous-looking scene had actually been meticulously planned between close friends. Don’t be that guy. Don’t assume things that are okay for other people are necessarily okay for you.

Okay, rule 2 down. We’re now operating under the assumption that whatever you want to do with the object of your interest is something that it is context-appropriate to propose.

Rule 3: the thing to focus on, in general, when trying to remove the specter of rape culture is be aware of the shadows that rape culture casts and to cast some shadows the other way*.

In particular, in the context of rape culture, rejecting someone can be an incredibly complex endeavor for women. I’ve been to a fair number of kinky sexy parties. I’ve done a fair amount of kinky sexy things at said parties. In propositioning people, I try to be aware of the effects of rape culture. I know that if I proposition someone for something, and they’re not interested, they have to try to intuit how I’ll respond to rejection. Will I take it gracefully? Will I be an asshole? Will I become belligerent? Not knowing can be scary. What I try to do, insofar as it is possible, is to remove that ambiguity. I try to make it as obvious as I can that I can and will take no for an answer, and to make it as easy as I possibly can for someone to say no.

It’s not uncommon that you’ll hear me say things like these:

“I think you’re really cute, could I kiss you? No is an acceptable answer.”

“No pressure, but if you’d be into it, I’d really like to cuddle with you.”

“If your dance card isn’t full tonight, would you be willing to do some of that fancy ropework on me?”

I emphasize that I’m giving people the option to say no, and I volunteer excuses (“full dance card”), so if they’re uncomfortable directly saying, “I just don’t want to do this with you”, I’ve given them an easy out.

Similar patterns work just as well with people you’re getting more intimate with. I’ve grown very fond of variations on the construction, “What are you comfortable with? Because I’d really like to fuck you if you were up for it.” It lays out what I want in a non-pressure-y way, and it has the added advantage of a clear segue into a more general conversation about what everyone’s comfortable with. Maybe my friend doesn’t want to fuck but would love to trade sexy massages or some such. “What are you comfortable with” is an easy way to get to that; it’s an easy way to have the “I want this but not that” conversation.

Also, particularly when it comes to things getting more intimate, I’m a big fan of clarifying that I’m entirely cognizant of the fact that a “yes” now does not necessarily mean a “yes” later. Especially when trying out new or intimidating things, emphasizing that a partner is free to change their mind later is helpful.

Rule 4: Ask permission, ask permission, ask permission. I have never had asking permission in a sexual or romantic moment derail doing sexy or romantic things. In my experience, move-making is completely and totally unnecessary in dating. In a culture that celebrates the idea of “just knowing when to go for it”, asking permission can feel very awkward. It gets easier with practice, and, for the record, a relationship built on establishing consent is almost certain to have better sex than one that isn’t.

There are a lot more things I think I could say with respect to this, but a lot of those deserve posts of their own. I hope the above serves as a decent basic set of principles by which to avoid making people feel unsafe or creeped out. Following my own advice has often worked out pretty well for me. If I were to write a rule 5, it would be to remember that being mindful of this stuff isn’t just helpful for the people you’re interested in, it can cause some pretty awesome things to happen for you as well. Happy snogging!

Disclaimer: I’ve written this post in a binarist frame because that is the most common manifestation of this dynamic I’m familiar with, and because I couldn’t think of a concise, easily readable way to make it about all genders without making it significantly longer and more ungainly. I would really like to hear anyone’s suggestions for terms, phrases, etc, to use that are less binary, but still specific enough to different sides of rape culture power dynamics that they’re useful in context. I may do some rewriting once I’m better equipped to write this readably in a non-binarist way.


* Dear Self, the Shitty Metaphor Store called…

A Part of Why I’m Not Monogamous

There’s a particular aspect of my personality that I think is one of the most significant and simple reasons why I often feel weird about the idea of traditional monogamy. It isn’t really about cultivating multiple relationships, per se, but it’s about something that traditional monogamy, at least, does not allow for.

You know when you get really excited about something and you excitedly run to someone to tell them all about whatever it is because if you can’t share the excitement, you’ll explode?

You just have to tell someone about it.

Well, sometimes I have to kiss someone about it.

Some feelings are too visceral to be effectively communicated in words. If words are the only thing I’m allowed to use, I feel like I’ve left some part of what I’m feeling unshared, which is really unsatisfying. I want to be able to use all of the things I sometimes want to use, physically, to express emotion the same way I can use words to.

So that when I have a new girlfriend, and I think, as a friend of a friend of mine once said, that her bees’ knees are the cat’s pajamas, I can say something like, “I have a new girlfriend and she’s awesome and cute and adorable and awesome. And it’s awesome. But that’s not how I really feel; this is how I feel.” And you’ll really get it. In a way I never would have been able to share otherwise. It won’t be about cheating on her at all, even though in a traditional monogamous relationship, that’s what it would be—it’ll be about celebrating her.

The first time I ever put a girl into subspace, I was so excited about it after the scene that I immediately called up a friend of mine and we walked around campus while I told her the story, and I paused the story approximately every five nanoseconds to excitedly hug her before going back to the story. At the end of the story, she told me she was uncomfortable with the hugging because she was in a relationship. This caught me off guard—it hadn’t occurred to me to consider the hugging as a gesture that might be interpreted as encroaching upon her relationship space. I hastily apologized and stopped doing it. The limit caught me by surprise in particular because the hugging wasn’t really about her except insomuch as she was a person with whom I felt comfortable sharing the emotion it enabled me to express.

Kissing and all the myriad activities “beyond” are more traditional limits, but they all blend together for me when I’m thinking about them in the context of sharing emotions. I like sharing how I feel, and I like being able to do it with all of the tools at my disposal, and sometimes the best ones are the ones that, for monogamous people, are reserved for SOs.

Pain Quote of the Day

About chronic pain, but also applies pretty well to depression. Just because it’s a brain problem doesn’t mean you can magically think it away:

Can we think pain away?

“Alas, no — pain neurology can’t be manipulated simply by wishing. The brain may powerfully control how we experience potentially threatening stimuli, but I’m sorry to report that you do not control your brain. Consciousness and “mind” are by-products of brain function and physiological state. (Deep, eh?) It’s not your opinion of sensory signals that counts, it’s what your brain thinks of it — and that happens quite independently of consciousness and self-awareness.”

Paul Ingraham

Blog Categories and Tags Reorganized

I’ve been getting tired of having a mass of unwieldy categories to sift through for each post, so this morning I bit the bullet and went through all of my posts and reorganized everything into nine basic categories, moved all the rest of the old categories to tags, and added some new tags for good measure.

I feel like the new scheme covers the main topics I write about pretty well, although a couple of them may only be easily intuitive to me. As such, I’ve added definitions for them to the glossary. Feel free to comment if you think they make no sense, as I’d like them to be comprehensible to everybody, not just me.

By ResearchToBeDone Posted in other

It Just Hit Me

I think a significant element of my aversion to the idea of monogamy in general is that I don’t want to have to be afraid of getting close to other people I’m attracted to. It seems like in many ways the purpose of monogamous arrangements is to preserve the sense of intimacy and specialness of the relationship, and that means being careful not to let other relationships with people you’re attracted to become similarly special or intimate. That idea makes me incredibly uncomfortable.

I’ve written a little bit about this before in the context of talking about hierarchical relationship structures and which types make me comfortable or uncomfortable. It’s that discomfort with putting an arbitrary cap on the level of closeness permitted with one person vs. another. I can’t make that palatable. It’s possible it’s a kind of thing that could just happen naturally (i.e. you just become less likely to develop that same type of closeness with more people once your drive to find it is satisfied by the relationship(s) you’re already in), and I have no issue with that, and I certainly have no objection to avoiding getting into large numbers of relationships in order to make sure I have enough energy for the ones I’m already in. Frankly, though, I would expect that variety of self-limitation (the conserving your emotional energy/resources variety) to come relatively naturally to me, because I care about the relationships I’m in, and I already consciously act to preserve them.

Preserving energy for relationships is one thing. Preserving an intangible sense of specialness by disallowing emotional intimacy with other people is another.

Will I Ever Be Monogamous Again?

I ask myself this question on a fairly regular basis. Will I ever be up for trying monogamy again? I realize now that if someone I really liked were to ask me, “Are you willing to be monogamous with me?” that I’m pretty sure I know what my answer would be:

It would be, “What do you mean by that and why do you want it?”

Because the truth is, I have no idea what I’d be agreeing to if I were to just say, “Okay, we’re monogamous!” If it can even be said that there is such thing as a standard model of monogamy, I don’t have a coherent enough concept of what it is to know how to adhere to the rules of it effectively. Could I be in a relationship that was most likely generally a primary focus of my life for a long period of time? That would most likely take priority over most other relationships in my life most of the time? Sure, probably. As to the ins and outs? I’d probably only agree to specifics if I felt like we had a generally good understanding of what the specifics were, what they meant, and why we felt they were useful.

“Will you be monogamous with me?”

Maybe, but before I answer yes or no, I have some homework for you to do.

Unlearning Shitty Cultural Tropes

One of my memorable moments from Skepticon this year was sitting at a table that was about half-full of women talking about getting laid. It was memorable because in spite of the fact that I know, intellectually, that the, “Men like sex, women like love and cuddles and puppies”, trope is nonsense, there’s a part of my brain that still buys into it. There’s a part of my brain that is still surprised when I’m privy to conversations like that. It’s the reason I love being around for those conversations: it helps me learn. It helps me say, “See that, Anthropomorphized Subconscious? They do like sex!”

For all that I can read and talk about women liking sex, too, it takes moments like that to really get it into my head. It takes a group of women talking about getting laid, a female partner talking about wanting to fuck me, a female friend talking about how she wants to “defile” a particular boy. I am convinced, with useless tropes like “women don’t like sex”, that the repeated direct experience of the subversion of the tropes is the single best way to unlearn them. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an experience is worth a million.

I think direct exposure is a brilliant way to learn new ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. One of the best ways I know to be more comfortable with being poly is to spend time around people who are comfortable being poly. I find that, often, that helps me be more comfortable with it even when I’m not around the comfortable poly people. Voices are habit-forming. By the same token, I find that, if I want to have good relationships, it helps to spend time around people who are mature about their relationships. Learning by osmosis: it really works. You just can’t help but pick up the rhythm of the things around you. Conversely, of course, spending time around destructive ideas will tend to ingrain destructive ideas.

I think one of the absolute best ways to learn to be a certain way or think a certain way is to spend time around people who are that way, and I think it’s an important thing to be mindful of when making life decisions. You want to be comfortable being who you are? Find other people who are comfortable with the way they are and the way you are. Seek them out, deliberately, as much as possible. Even if you aren’t actively trying to model yourself after them, you’ll end up, at least to an extent, doing it anyway.

I’m glad I have a lot of female friends who are comfortable enough with their sexuality and comfortable enough with me that we get to talk about sex openly. Each successive conversation helps me a little more to unlearn all the ludicrous tropes I’ve been taught by rom-coms and shitty magazines all my life.

I also think the “experiencing trope subversion helps unlearn tropes” phenomenon suggests useful broader strategies for making yourself and others comfortable in the world at large. In particular, it suggests the value of being out about the ways in which you are outside the norm and producing media that model an attitude and environment of acceptance about things that are outside the norm. I’m going to cover those in separate posts, though, or this will become absurdly long.

Why I’m for the Decriminalization of Sex Work

Apparently this is the week of HAVING OPINIONS.

Let’s talk about sex work. I support the legalization of all forms of non-abusive sex work. That includes prostitution. I don’t think anyone has ever leveled an argument at sex work that couldn’t be summed up as either, (a) some of it is abusive, therefore all of it is bad, or (b) sex workers aren’t capable of choosing whether or not they want to do sex work because paternalism reasons.

Let’s start with (a). Yes, there is abusive sex work. Human trafficking, people forced into it, etc, etc. There are absolutely terrible things going on that qualify as the selling of sexuality. There are two reasons why this is a terrible argument against sex work as a whole. First, because not all sex work is like that. When wall street collapsed, we blamed it on banks. We did not then conclude that we should outlaw banking. Instead, we decided to do the obvious thing, and go after the problem people specifically. Second, because by making all of sex work illegal, we would be making it more difficult for the people in the best positions to spot abuse to report that abuse. You know who’s going to know best how to distinguish harmful sex work situations from nonharmful ones? Sex workers. You know what makes it harder for a sex worker to report such abuse? Making all sex work illegal. You want to catch the people who engage in the real abuse? Make it so people in a position to report them don’t have to put themselves in legal or financial jeopardy to do so.

I think human trafficking is terrible, and that is part of why I think nonabusive sex work should be legal. I want us to be able to catch the real bad guys, and lumping the not-bad-guys in with them is a terrible way of going about that. You don’t enable whistleblowing by making whisleblowers illegal. When one part of a profession is dangerous, you don’t outlaw the whole profession (see: banks), you make it easier to spot and attack the parts that are dangerous. We don’t outlaw banking because of wall street assholes or loan sharks and we shouldn’t outlaw sex work for the same reason.

Point (b): sex workers aren’t capable of choosing whether or not they want to do sex work. I’m paraphrasing. More often, this argument comes in the form of comments like, “but it’s dangerous”, “but it’s degrading”, or “but people only do it if they’re desperate”. In order:

“It’s dangerous!”

Yes, doing sex work does involve taking certain risks (to a greater or lesser extent depending on the environment the work is done in), just like almost any profession out there. How many people do you see arguing that because there’s a risk of brain damage, football players are incapable of making a decision to play football for themselves?

Anyone? …Anyone?

“It’s degrading!”

This is entirely a matter of opinion and practice. Many sex workers (and I’ve known several) do not find it degrading. At least one person I know who recently went into sex work has found that it’s the most personally rewarding job she’s ever had.You know what profession I think is degrading? Telemarketing. You don’t see me rattling off how telemarketing shouldn’t be allowed because it’s degrading and anyone who can’t tell is obviously fooling themselves.

“People only do it if they’re desperate!”

First off, I would only go into telemarketing if I were desperate. Again, you don’t see me arguing that telemarketing should be illegal. Second, is that really your solution for people in desperate situations? Is that really what you think will help? Find people in desperate situations and take away the some of the few options they have? Really?

Ultimately, the above three arguments all boil down to paternalism: I don’t think that the people who want to do sex work are capable of rationally evaluating these factors and making the decision for themselves. There are risks, therefore I don’t think you’re capable of making a decision about it like an adult. I find it degrading, therefore I don’t think you’re capable of deciding whether it’s degrading to you. People do it when they’re desperate, therefore the only reason people would do it is out of desperation, and they shouldn’t be allowed to make that choice. So, for the record: Fuck. That. Noise.

I want to treat people like adults capable of making their own decisions, and I want the real problem people to get caught and sent to jail, and both of those are reasons I support the legalization of all nonabusive forms of sex work.

I hope we’re done here.