The Fallacy of “Maybe This Is Just How People Do Things”

I was recently asked if I could help introduce a friend of a friend into the BDSM scene. In the conversation that followed, I tried to come up with as many useful nuggets of advice as possible based on my experiences. In doing so, I struck on one idea that stood out from the others. It’s a piece of advice that I think is useful outside of the context of BDSM as well – any time someone is about to immerse themselves in a new social context, particularly a social context that revolves around sexuality.

The advice is this: if someone, anyone, does something to you or with you that you aren’t comfortable with, and you hear that little voice in your head saying “Well, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that, but maybe that’s just how people do things here”, DO NOT EVER LISTEN TO IT.

If someone engages with you in a way that makes you uncomfortable (they creep you out, they touch you without your consent, they try to pressure you into doing something, they act entitled to your time or attention, etc.), YOUR DISCOMFORT IS VALID AND SHOULD BE RESPECTED. It isn’t that “People just do things differently here”, it isn’t that you’re supposed to be okay with X, Y, or Z because you’re a sub or a dom or a top or a bottom or a sadist or a masochist or switch or any other damn thing. If someone engages with you in a way that isn’t okay with you, you always, always, always should have the right to disengage, to express your discomfort, and to have your discomfort respected. In any circumstance where this is not the case, someone other than you is doing something wrong. Any community that doesn’t automatically assume that you have a right to have your discomfort respected is a community that you should avoid.

I met someone in the scene once who told me that he thought the best determiner of whether or not a particular dominant would be a good person to be around or not was this: if the dominant in question introduced themselves by saying, “Hi, my name is Mike!”, or similar, probably a good person. If they introduced themselves with, “Hi, I am Master Such-and-Such”, or similar, probably not. This is a huge oversimplification, and not necessarily a rule I agree with (though I do find myself generally more wary of those who introduce themselves by a title versus those who introduce themselves by a name), but it illustrates a fundamentally important point about the scene: all kinksters should be human beings first and kinksters second*.

Decent human beings don’t deny people the right to disengage from activities or circumstances that make them uncomfortable, they don’t knowingly violate consent, they don’t make you feel like your discomfort is inappropriate, and they don’t try to make you go along with things because “This is just how it’s done”. When something happens with someone that makes you uncomfortable, that should be respected whether you are friends, coworkers, lovers, play partners, acquaintances, 24/7 power exchangers, fuck buddies, or penpals. No social context of any sort makes it less valid. Full stop.


*Replace the word “kinksters” in this sentence with any other noun indicating membership in any particular type of community, and this point holds. It holds for kinksters, poly people, geeks, and atheists, to name just a few groups that I, personally, subscribe to.

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Thoughts On Explicit Verbal Consent

The explicit verbal request is often held up as a gold standard in establishing consent. I have held it up this way myself. Generally speaking, it is still the type I prefer in a majority of situations. That said, I’m realizing that “gold standard” is a bit too absolute a way of thinking about it.

First off, verbally asking for consent to do something with someone does not guarantee that you aren’t pressuring them. Occasionally, you’ll see scripts illustrating verbal consent using phrases like, “It would be so hot if we could X!” This is not a low-pressure way to ask permission for something — it can easily feel like the corollary to “God, I want to do this so much!” is “Man, it would kind of suck if we couldn’t do this.” This wording can carry a sense of the weight of really wanting a specific answer to this question. Alternately, I hope it’ s not necessary to go into the reasons why asking for consent for the same thing repeatedly after being told no is a shitty way of going about it. There are plenty of ways of asking for consent explicitly that can create a situation that is pretty unpleasant for the propositionee.

Second off, there are scenarios where denying or withdrawing consent is easier for someone to do nonverbally than verbally. I am still fairly well convinced that the not-explicitly-consented-to kiss from the second snippets story I wrote was a less pressure-y way of asking for consent than verbally asking would have been, given the specific social context in which it was taking place. In certain situations, saying ” no” out loud can be more difficult than communicating it with body language. In group social situations in particular, there can be a certain “Out here, in front of everyone” quality to a consent conversation that can make it easier to have in a subtler, less verbal, not-as-obvious-to-everyone-else-around way.

Third, even independent of social context, there are people who find giving an implicit ” no” a lot easier than an explicit ” no”. An asexual friend of mine, for example, hates having to explicitly verbally deny consent for things, even when she knows her wishes will be respected. For her, having to deny consent out loud invokes a more visceral feeling of disappointing people than doing it implicitly does.

In short, there are people and contexts for which the explicit verbal request for consent may actually be less ideal than an implicit request for consent delivered in other ways.

This is not to say that explicit verbal communication about consent isn’t awesome, or isn’t important, or even that it shouldn’t be the default. Explicit verbal consent is, I believe, the best way of doing it the vast majority of the time.

Explicit verbal consent is like stating your thesis in an essay: it is a standard way of doing something that gets you on the right track. You have to understand why stating your thesis is important in order to know when it’s okay to break the “Always explicitly state your thesis” rule.

In high school, I remember always being taught to state my thesis, explicitly, at the beginning of essays. I don’t always do this when writing persuasively nowadays, but even when I don’t, having practiced clear thesis statements for so long taught me an important lesson: you don’t always have to explicitly state your thesis at the beginning of a piece of writing, but one way or another, your thesis must always be obvious to the reader.

The gold standard in asking for consent isn’t explicit verbal consent in the same sense that the gold standard for persuasive writing isn’t an explicitly stated thesis. Part of the gold standard for writing persuasively, though, is making your thesis clear, whether explicitly or implicitly. In that same sense, the gold standard in asking for consent, in my view, is asking in a way where the request is clear and specific, and also where the subject of the request feels able to give any answer (affirmative, negative, or complicated) with as little discomfort as possible. Explicit verbal requests are a format where this is much more likely to be the case, just like an explicitly stated thesis should guarantee that everyone knows what your thesis is. It’s not an absolute guarantee, and there are scenarios in which other ways of asking for consent are, in fact, closer to the ideal combination of clear, specific, and comfortable than explicit verbal requests are.

Explicit verbal consent is an incredibly useful default, and one that should be relied on fairly religiously up to the point that a finer sense of when other means of communication might be better is developed. Even at that point, I think it’s worthwhile, the majority of the time, to practice explicit verbal consent, and to work to create situations that are as enabling of the practice of explicit verbal consent as possible.

But consent is a little bit more complicated than that. The ideal, at the end of the day, is asking for consent in a way that is clear, specific, and enables the propositionee to say yes, no, or “other” safely and comfortably. There are a variety of tools, including but not limited to the explicit verbal request, for reaching that ideal.

The Two Brains Model Of Honesty

I had a conversation with a friend the other day about honesty. She mentioned that a person she knew has said that if you cheat on someone, and it only happens once, and you think it was a mistake, the ethical thing to do is not tell your partner because that can only cause them hurt.

We both disagree with this perspective, but at the same time, there is a point at which we both agree with it. Take the same scenario: you cheat, it was a mistake, it only happens once. This time, though, before you have a chance to talk to your partner about it, they get in an accident and you find out they have three days to live.

Do you tell them then?

Do you spend the last days you have together dealing with the cheating, knowing that it means this person’s last days on earth will be even more of a painful emotional roller coaster than they would have been otherwise as a result?

Or do you spare them that?

If you spare them that, then there is a point at which you buy the “It will only cause them hurt” line of reasoning against being honest. That point may be in different places for different people, but I think it exists for most of us. Where to draw the line, though, is a tricky question.

In thinking about this, it occurred to me that there is a model for thinking about this I haven’t thought of before. I’m calling it “The Two Brains Model”. It’s more or less this: when you decide to tell someone something difficult, there are two parts of them you have to take into account when considering what to say and how to say it. In keeping with popular terminology, we’ll call them the lizard brain and the primate brain.

This model will be imperfect. As the saying goes: all models are flawed, but some are useful.

The primate brain is the conscious, rational, aboveboard processing brain. The lizard brain is the unconscious, often irrational brain under the surface. If we were all primate brain all the time, then I would consider Radical Honesty the perfect model for being honest, but we aren’t. There is the lizard brain (home of the jerkbrain), which cannot be relied on to react rationally, which often produces insecurity, jealousy, envy, and other unpleasant things in response to unpredictable stimuli for irrational reasons.

The lizard brain cannot be ignored. The lizard brain responses are the reason honesty is so much more complicated than just telling the literal truth. It’s like a slightly deranged pet — sometimes tearing off on a rampage through the rest of the brain at the strangest things. The lizard brain rampage is the reason I have trouble justifying the idea of telling someone you cheated on them when they only have three days to live. It’s one thing to trigger that rampage if it’s something you have time to work through, it’s another if the person is going to be experiencing that rampage, literally, for the rest of their life.

It’s the lizard part of the brain that means you need to be careful about how you do honesty. It’s this part of the brain that means that even if you’re sharing the same information, the context in which you share it, the manner in which you share it, and how you talk about it once you’ve shared are all going to be crucial factors in determining what the outcome of your honesty is. You can be honest in ways that cause the cerebral lizard rampage, or you can try to be honest in ways that are less likely to trigger that rampage. The latter is the compassionate route. This isn’t to say that there aren’t sometimes things that need to be talked about that are almost guaranteed to cause the lizard brain rampage no matter how you bring them up – sometimes that’s going to happen and you’ve just got to dedicate yourself to dealing with the fallout. Most of the time, however, there are things you can do to minimize that risk.

The thing that I like about this model for thinking about how to do honesty is the way it nicely outlines the things that need to be considered when being honest. By this model, when being honest, you need to think about two things: what you are saying to the primate brain, and what you are saying to the lizard brain.

What you’re saying to the primate brain is easy. The primate brain interprets your words in a fairly straightforward, literal way. However, what you’re saying to the lizard brain may or may not have all that much to do with what you’re literally saying. If you want to say “I care about you” to the primate brain, you say “I care about you”. If you want to say “I care about you” to the lizard brain, you talk to it in a familiar, safe place, calmly; you offer physical comfort; maybe you take it out for ice cream; and, yes, you say “I care about you”.

I wrote a post a while back about the importance of being receptive to the honesty of others:

The quintessential cultural stereotype example of a person who fails to encourage honesty is the girlfriend who, when her boyfriend tells her he’s spent time with a female friend, immediately accuses him of cheating. Honesty rewarded with suspicion. The right way to go about that sort of situation if it makes you uncomfortable is to thank the person for telling you, and then say that it makes you uncomfortable and you’d like to talk through that discomfort. Or whatever similar pattern works; the point is: you don’t blame the other person for your hurt feelings.

In this scenario, the girlfriend is telling the boyfriend’s primate brain that she thinks he’s been cheating. What she’s telling his lizard brain is this: “When you are honest with me, you can expect hostility in return.” That is a very bad association to create. On the other hand, if she told her boyfriend she appreciated his honesty, and then expressed her discomfort, the message to the lizard brain is more like “This is kind of scary, but manageable, and may lead to progress”.

I read a quote once, a really long time ago, that went something like, “The most important lines in writing and poetry are the ones left unsaid.” It has always stuck with me, and I think it applies magnificently to communication in general: sometimes, the most significant part of communication with people is what is left unsaid. The things that are implied by the manner in which you communicate, rather than the words you literally say. I think I may start using the two brains model a lot for conceptualizing how I communicate with people, both in terms of literal truth and in terms of the things that are left unsaid. It’s given me some food for thought over the last couple of days, at least.

CFI’s Statement on Women in Secularism And What It Implies About Their Opinion Of Their Constituents

I have been following the controversy around Ron Lindsay’s opening remarks at the Women in Secularism conference, and haven’t said a whole lot outside of a couple of comments on twitter. Mostly I’ve been too exhausted dealing with my own shit to get involved this time around. The public statement they issued today, though, is too astounding to not to comment on.

For those who haven’t been following this stuff, the statement and links to descriptions of the events that led up to it are here.

The amazing thing about today’s statement, to me, isn’t that it fails to address the issues everyone wanted CFI to address. Though I had hopes that they would directly address Ron Lindsay’s speech and subsequent douchebaggery, I didn’t really expect it of them. I’ve been disappointed too many times by the inability of skeptic organizations to address criticisms of their own actions with the maturity that they expect of the organizations they themselves criticize. My expectations were not very high.

That said, what I expected was a shitty apology that failed to adequately address the issues that have been raised over the past few weeks. What I didn’t expect, and am still astounded by, is that they didn’t just fail to adequately address the issues, they failed to address the issues at all. As Greta Christina points out, today’s statement mis-attributes the issues to the conference, rather than Ron Lindsay; identifies the issues as divisiveness, rather than a fuck-up on the part of a major figure in their organization; expresses support for all sides of the issues, harassers and harassees in equal measure; and utterly fails to address any of the issues that have been raised.

Here’s the thing: I knew there was a good chance the Center for Inquiry didn’t think the challenges women face in the secular/skeptical movement were important enough to take a stand on. I didn’t know that the Center for Inquiry thought its constituents were stupid. I didn’t know that the Center for Inquiry (an organization that caters to the issues of, for fucks sake, skeptics – people who might, one would hope, be expected to read a statement like this with at least a modicum of critical thinking) thought we were all so utterly inept at critical thinking that we wouldn’t figure out that they hadn’t said anything.

Today’s statement doesn’t just imply a lack of concern for and understanding of the issues that necessitated it in the first place. Today’s statement implies an astounding lack of respect for the critical faculties of CFI’s audience. Did the Center for Inquiry really think this statement would go over well? Did they really think we wouldn’t figure out that it contains zero substantive content? Did they think we wouldn’t realize that they had both mischaracterized and failed to address the issues at the same time?

After all this, what I most want to ask the Center for Inquiry is this: how stupid do you think we are? And do you really expect people whose issues and intelligence you’ve shown such an astounding lack of respect for to want to have anything at all to do with you?

If so, again, how stupid do you think we are?

The Indescribable Redundantness of Chronic Pain

The thing that I find hardest to describe about chronic pain is how redundant it is.

Of all the lines in Allie Brosh’s last post about depression, the one that resonated most powerfully with me was when she described wanting to commit suicide as being like wanting to mute an unbearably repetitive noise. I get emotional reading that line every time I look at that post.

I wish I had a metaphor of some sort to describe what it feels like having dealt with chronic pain for a decade. I find it impossible to describe the feeling in writing, because I can’t think of a way to describe it that isn’t incredibly boring. Interesting written narratives have variation — unexpected things happen, changes happen, and if they don’t your story is boring. The problem with the story of chronic pain is that it is boring.

I have woken up with some amount of pain in some part of my body almost every day for the last 10 years. Every day that pain is just as real, just as visceral, and just as distressing as on any of the other days. It isn’t like a montage, where you get to watch a few isolated scenes of the months or years over which you’ve dealt with it. It isn’t just there when you talk about it, or write about it. It is there, with you, as real as anything else in the world is, for every single one of the days you’ve had it. Every. Single. One. It gets really old, and then it gets old again, and then it gets old thinking, “This is really getting old.” Then thinking that gets old. The day after that happens, you wake up with pain again. And the day after that. And the day after that. And the day after that. For hundreds, and then thousands of days in a row.

It’s like being around a friend who has that completely unfunny joke they like to tell for reasons that utterly escape you, but instead of just being annoyed by it at social events, that friend is there with you every morning when you wake up, telling that same stupid fucking joke, “Ha ha, good morning, you’re in pain again!” and chortling to themselves as though they’re the cleverest human being in the universe. And you want to smash their face against a wall. It’s not funny, it never was funny, but they don’t care, and it keeps happening, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

For ten years.

It is unbearably repetitive.

Some days you try to pretend it’s funny, grin and bear it, try to “Well, that’s life” yourself into some sort of Zen-like acceptance of your circumstances. Others you rage, but there is no real life person you can blame, whose head you can satisfyingly smash against the wall until they apologize, over and over again, for making you this way. There’s no one you can punish.

Other days it just strikes you depressively dumb, and you just sit and wish it would all go away.

“If you’re on meds, you’re not ‘The Real You'”: A Vacuous Perspective On Antidepressants and the Nature of the Human Condition

This post brought to you by people who say things like, “If you’re on mental health meds, you’re not The Real You.”

This is just a for the record, for everyone, whether you’re talking about antidepressants or any other form of medication or life circumstances: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS THE “REAL YOU”.

You know why? Because HUMAN BEINGS ARE CONTEXT-DEPENDENT CREATURES.

You are the real you when you’re being flirty and charming and totally hitting it off with someone adorable. You are the real you when you’re crying on the floor of your room and wishing the world would end. You are the real you when you’re living it up on vacation and you are the real you when you’re just getting through the day at a boring job. You’re the real you when you’re on vacation and hate everything about it, and you’re the real you when you’re flying through the day at an amazing job. You are the real you when you’re at a party, and you’re the real you when you’re staying in with your cat. You are the real you when you’re drinking, when you’re high, when you’re reading, when you’re fucking, when you’re lonely, when you’re surrounded by friends, when you feel absolutely worthless, when you’re brimming with confidence, when you wish the universe would leave you alone, and when you love everything about it. You’re the real you when you’re unspeakably angry and hate everyone, and you’re the real you when you’re ecstatically in love and feeling on top of the world.

“THE REAL YOU” IS A MEANINGLESS TERM USED BY PEOPLE WHO DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW HUMAN BEINGS WORK.

It’s like saying liquid water is real water, and ice and water vapor are not real water. The reality is: water acts in completely different, utterly incompatible ways in different contexts, just like we do.

Me on medication isn’t “not the real me”, it is “me in a different context”. In this case, a different chemical context. I am different with different brain chemistry, the same as I am different in different social contexts, living environments, relationships, etc., etc. If I want to rearrange the context in which I live my life chemically in the same manner that I try to arrange my life socially, environmentally, etc., I may end up different, but I will not end up “less real”.

There are contexts in which I am a shitty human being. I am still me in those contexts. I am still real – just as real as the contexts in which I am an amazing, thoughtful, loving human being. I strive to avoid the contexts that engender my being a shitty human being, because I don’t like being a shitty human being. If I were a better human being in the context of using antidepressants than I am in the context of not using them, then I would make the decision to use them, and anyone who thinks that would be a bad decision because it would make me somehow “less real” can fuck the hell off.

Just for the record.


Side note: see the comments for some fleshing out of the operational definition of “the real you” being used in this post.

Depression and Chronic Pain Are More Similar Than I Realized

I recently realized that the way I think about chronic pain and the way I think about depression are a lot more similar than one might expect. I think of both painful sensations and painful emotions as outputs of the brain, and my first reaction to both is to ask myself, “Does this pain make sense?”

A little history: there are two things I think of as significant turning points in my struggles with back pain. The first is when a physical therapist I was seeing told me there was nothing wrong with the tissues of my back – that it was almost certainly a brain thing. The second was when I bought and read through Explain Pain by Lorimer Moseley and David Butler, which is a book about how pain is a product of the brain, not just the tissues of the body (and I cannot possibly recommend it highly enough for anyone dealing with chronic pain).

I recently had a spread of maybe one or two months where I considered my back pain largely defeated. I was able to imagine, for example, taking a plane flight to New Zealand (an 18 hour plane flight is one of the worst scenarios imaginable for exacerbating chronic pain quickly and powerfully), without worrying about the risk of being suicidally depressed (on account of the pain the flight would result in) by the time I stepped off the plane. This, as a measuring stick for how my pain is doing, has proven to be a useful metric.

I attribute that recovery (and the fact that I’m not doing nearly as badly as I could be given my recent back pain flareups) to my having absorbed the knowledge and the implications of my pain being a brain problem and not a back problem.

Take another example: I had shoulder pain for about a year, up until a couple of months ago. This pain, which I supposed was a physical injury, was such that I would get nervous about whether or not turning the steering wheel of my car was perpetuating the “injury”. I haven’t had any problems with shoulder pain since I decided it was probably a brain problem, and started doing weightlifting again — exactly the same regimen that had caused the problem in the first place (although, to be on the safe side, I started it at a very low weight). I don’t experience shoulder pain at all, now. It was, as far as I can tell, entirely a brain problem. It may have been an injury, initially (there was a clear starting point where I may have been weightlifting overzealously), but it probably was only an injury problem for a maximum of six months or so.

My brain is prone to pain problems, even when there is nothing somatically wrong with me. These days, when something hurts, my reflex isn’t to assume that I’ve injured something. My reflex is to say, “Hang on a minute, does this pain really make sense? Or is it just my brain being weird.”

Does this sound familiar to anyone who has dealt with depression?

It’s almost the same thought process I use when dealing with depressive feelings. I think of both physical and emotional pain as happening in three parts: the trigger, then the pain, then the explanation. Ideally, in a well-functioning brain, the explanation correctly identifies the trigger. With depression or chronic pain, however, it is important to operate under the assumption that the explanations your brain likes may not have anything to do with the actual triggers.

The explanation that my brain likes for my back pain is that I’ve injured my back, but the things that trigger back pain for me are not injuries. My shoulder pain made me feel like I had an injured shoulder, but whatever was triggering that shoulder pain wasn’t an injury (at least for the majority of the duration of the pain). The explanation that my brain likes for my depressive emotional pain is that I don’t add anything of value to the world, but in actual fact the triggers for emotional pain for me are almost always stress, and only sometimes is that stress related to my sense of contributing to the world.

I treat physical and emotional pain in almost exactly the same way these days. Both of them are products of my brain. Both of them are things that my brain is historically very bad at attributing to causes that make sense. Therefore, the explanations that my brain comes up with for both of them are worth eyeing with a healthy dose of skepticism.

The Excitement Of Making New Spaces In My Brain

This past week, I spent a couple of days with an um-friend of mine hanging out, talking, fucking, and generally having a good time. I had a lot of fun, but there were moments where I felt distinctly strange, where I felt like I didn’t know how to think about what we were doing – what it was, or what it meant, or what I could expect to happen because of it, or how I could expect to feel because of it.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve gotten used to this feeling, and have even grown to feel a certain affection for it. It’s what happens when I end up in a relationship with someone that works or feels significantly different from any of the relationships I’ve been in before. I wrote about this sensation a while back, when I was experimenting with my first real casual relationship. The discomfort happens because I’m trying to figure out where the new relationship goes in my brain, and I don’t have a space that fits it yet. Trying to fit a square-shaped relationship into round holes in your brain is bound to feel a little funny.

I have more experience with casual relationships now than I did back when I first experienced this sensation, but all relationships are different, and most new relationships require me to carve out a somewhat new space in my brain. I like the mental digging sensation that results from this because it feels so much like learning. I like it because I know after I’m finished making the new space, that my brain will be more interesting than it was before. I won’t just be more comfortable with this new flavor of relationship, I’ll also have new perspectives from which to look on all of the other relationships I’ve been in.

It’s like trying a new kind of food. It’s hard to appreciate really good food until you have had a lot of different kinds of food. The more kinds of food you try, the more fine-tuned and interesting your perspective on all the kinds you’ve had before becomes, because you can look at them from the perspective of that new knowledge. Suddenly, there are presences and absences in everything you’ve tried before that you couldn’t see before, and the experience of all of them is richer for that awareness.

The sensation of unfamiliarity that comes with experimenting with new types of relationships can be uncomfortable at times, but it’s uncomfortable in the same way that not having the answer to an interesting question feels uncomfortable. It’s that kind of discomfort that, with time, I’ve learned to associate with being just on the cusp of discovering new and interesting things about the world. And there’s little that I enjoy more than discovering new and interesting things about the world.