On Men, Ren, and a Devastated Community

Question: “What man would you be most devastated to learn had secretly been a misogynist all along?”

Answer: My brother. My closest male friends. My favorite male podcasters. My favorite male musicians. Male theatre actors I’ve cried over and crushed on. The cast of Whose Line Is It Anyway.

A seemingly-progressive friend-with-benefits who talked the talk of sex-positivity and consensual kink. Oh wait, that happened already. A seemingly-progressive radio personality I once found charming. Oh wait, that happened already. A seemingly-progressive photographer who once shot pictures of me naked and having sex. Oh wait, that just happened.

In a world where men didn’t systematically hold far more power than women, where men’s abuse of women was as harshly stigmatized and fairly punished as it deserves to be, and where male hatred of women was not a widespread cultural problem, this question would be nothing more than a harmless hypothetical. But since we don’t live in that world, it’s a terrifying question to me. Every time another seemingly “good,” “safe” man is revealed to be toxic garbage, I can’t help but wonder: Who’s next? Who else will betray us? Who else will break our hearts?

The first night I remember meeting Ren Bostelaar in person, it was for a porn shoot for a feminist porn collective owned by some friends of mine. (They’ve since cut ties with him.) I remember, very clearly, that he asked me if I would be comfortable receiving some direction from him during the shoot – if, for example, he needed me to move a leg or turn my head so he could get a better shot. I was charmed that he asked this, and that he was (or seemed) so respectful, so conscientious a photographer. I said yes, of course that was okay. He didn’t give me any direction during the shoot after all, but that interaction stuck with me. He’s a good guy, I remember thinking.

Later, when he sent me the photos, I was delighted. He’d made me look great, and thereby, feel great. I told him so. “I’m so glad you like them!” he replied. Again, I thought: He’s a good guy.

Friends of mine liked him – progressive, feminist friends who I admired and whose opinions I trusted. Any time he was brought up in conversation, people spoke well of him. He’s a good guy. This is the thing about abusers, of all sorts: they are highly skilled at convincing people of their goodness. They are charming and persuasive. They know how to work a room, how to get people in their sway, and they do it amazingly well and often.

In the feminist and sex-positive communities I’ve been a part of, women rely heavily on other women’s testimonials about men in order to know which ones can and cannot be trusted. Men who are widely vetted as “good guys” usually attain that honor through consistently being good: supporting women, listening to us, calling out shitty dudes, speaking out in defense of feminism and women, and so on. It is understood that being a male ally is achievable only through consistent action, not just words. We watch carefully to see which men do what – and which men don’t do anything when they ought to do something. This information is always noted, assessed, and discussed in backchannels. It is a way we endeavor, as women, to keep ourselves and each other safe.

What’s devastating is that even men who’ve been widely vetted as “good,” like Ren, can turn out to be very much not so. Can turn out to have – in this case – leaked women’s private nude photos and personal information onto a “misogynistic cesspool of the internet.” We do all this careful screening and watching and weeding-out, and it can all be meaningless in the end, because people’s outward personas can look entirely different from the hate and rage swirling inside them.

This is why many women I know, myself included, have been tweeting/posting/saying lately that we feel we can’t trust men right now. Because even the men who seemed the most trustworthy can fail us. This is not unreasonable. If a panel of esteemed marine biologists told me a particular bay was safe to swim in, but then I saw someone get mauled by a shark in said bay, there’s no fuckin’ way I would set foot in that bay ever again, scientists be damned. This is not discrimination, unfair generalization, or unreasonable paranoia. This is pragmatism. This is self-protection. This is learning from experience.

I’m not saying there are no men I trust, or that I’ll never trust a man again, or that I believe all men to be inherently untrustworthy. I’m just saying, I and many other women in my community feel we need to be careful about men right now, and going forward. Even more careful than we had previously been about men, which was pretty damn careful.

Men: we do not need your loud proclamations of #NotAllMen, your privilege-blind demand that we consider all men innocent until proven otherwise, or your hindsight-20/20 insistence that you knew the creep was a creep before his creepiness went public. We need, instead, your support, your action, and your resolve. We need you to call out misogyny when you see it in your social spheres, to examine and unlearn your own misogyny when it comes up, and to listen to the concerns and frustrations of women.

To return to my shark metaphor: we don’t need you yelling at us about how the water’s fine. We need you lifeguarding, patrolling the water, and ready to take down a shark when the time comes.

The Unladylike Project: Calling Men Out

me rolling my eyes and looking exasperated as hell

Empowerment is more easily said than done. There are so many feminist principles that I champion in theory, and that I’d gladly shout from the rooftops or text to friends in all caps, but that I find so damn hard to implement in my actual life.

One such principle is the idea that men should treat women well, listen to us, respect us. Obviously I believe this. I decry disrespectful men on the internet, point out when dudes treat my friends poorly, and criticize shitty men in TV and film. But when it comes to how I’m treated by the men in my life, I find it harder to kick up a fuss.

True, I’m lucky enough that most of the men in my close social circles are fantastic. My little brother is one of my favorite people on earth and treats me like a precious jewel; my dad is an upstanding protector and a fierce feminist; I have several male friends who perennially prove themselves feminist allies. Unfortunately, though, patriarchal conditioning is really hard to unlearn, and even the best men sometimes backslide into toxically sexist behaviors without noticing it. And sometimes I backslide right along with them.

These aberrations come in many forms. There are the family parties where the men sit comfortably in their armchairs after dinner while the women clear the table. There’s the subtle way I and my single female friends are likelier to be harangued about not having a partner than our male friends are. There’s the expectation that women are “naturally better” at emotional labor and are thus expected to nurture and support our male friends in times of need, even when we barely have the energy to take care of our own needs.

Most of the time, I am pleased as punch to help my friends – of all genders – in any way I can. But when the labor expected of me becomes too much, and operates along visible gender lines, sometimes I need to call out my dude-friends for tumbling into troubling tropes. And I’m usually too meek to speak up when I need to, due to yet another gendered trope which says women should be subservient, small, and “ladylike.” Well, fuck that. If someone’s walking all over me, I am well within my rights to point that out and insist that they stop!

Our culture encourages women to cattily compete with one another, while constantly deferring to men and seeking to impress them. This results in a psychological environment where I’m much likelier to blame a woman or get angry with her, even if a man is equally or moreso to blame for whatever slight has taken place. This is internalized misogyny through and through, and I hate that I sometimes unwittingly perpetuate it. I want to take off the rose-colored glasses through which I see men, and expect as much from them as I expect from everyone else in my life: respect, kindness, consideration, integrity. Men aren’t exempt from being decent humans just ’cause I find some of them attractive and want them to think I’m attractive too. That’s no excuse!

Some of my male friends know about my tendency to downplay my own needs and boundaries, so they’ll check in occasionally: “Please let me know if I’m talking about myself too much,” they’ll say, or, “Feel free to ignore this unsolicited advice if I’m totally mansplaining, but…” It’s great that they give me these opportunities to set boundaries when I need to. I should take them up on those offers more often. It’s important to me that I be a polite, kind, supportive person, but you start to lose your energy for supportiveness when people are constantly steamrolling over you. So maintaining better boundaries, and calling out people who mistreat me, is good not only for me but also for my friends. I am a better friend to them when I am mentally and emotionally healthy and happy.

Non-male readers: do you also have trouble speaking up when men treat you badly or carelessly? Got any tips?

How to Reply to Women on Twitter Without Disgracing Your Entire Gender: A Guide for Dudes

Being a woman on Twitter guarantees some level of harassment. That’s doubly true if you’re a woman who tweets about sex.

I created this post for two reasons: a) for the benefit of dudes who badly need this kind of instruction, and b) as a resource for women to send to douchebags on Twitter (and in other mediums, too, if they feel it’s useful in other contexts).

For that latter reason, I’ve put some page-jump codes into this post so that you can send dudes the link to the specific rule they’ve neglected to follow. Here are those links for easy sharing: Don’t mansplain, don’t answer questions no one has asked, don’t reply when a favorite would suffice, don’t favorite too many tweets, don’t be redundant, make valuable contributions, pay attention to context, read before you respond, don’t ask for pics, don’t oversexualize, don’t explain someone’s joke to her, accept you might be wrong, don’t demand anything, don’t tweet an email-sized query, proofread your tweet, and be generally respectful.

Without further ado… Here are my dos and don’ts for dudes on Twitter. These rules aren’t hard to follow, and yet you’d be shocked how many people break ’em.

Avoid mansplanation. Don’t explain things to women as if you know more than them, unless they’ve actually asked for an explanation or advice. Especially don’t explain women’s own experiences, ideas, and bodies to them – we’d know better than you would. Not sure if you’re mansplaining or not? Words like “actually” can be a tip-off.

Don’t answer a question that no one has asked. If I wanted to hear about your dick, your preferences in women, or what you think I should wear (or not wear), I would ask.

If your comment can be expressed by favoriting their tweet, do that instead. You probably don’t need to express your approval in multiple different ways. Favorite, or reply, or retweet. Don’t do a zillion things.

…But don’t go overboard with favoriting. Please don’t be the dude who combs through all my selfies and favorites all the sexual ones in a row. That’s just gross. Back off, dude, your inappropriate boner is showing.

Make sure what you’re saying hasn’t been said by someone else (including the woman you’re tweeting at). Redundancy is boring and not useful. You’re probably not as original and brilliant as you think you are. Especially don’t repeat a woman’s exact point in different words. If you desperately need to express your agreement, see above re: favoriting and retweeting.

Make sure what you’re saying is valuable, relevant, and actually contributes something to the conversation. Don’t just shove yourself into my day for no reason. If you don’t have anything particularly useful, interesting, or new to say, then you don’t need to say anything.

Stay aware of context. If you’re confused by someone’s tweet, flick through her previous tweets, bio, recent blog posts, etc. for possible clarification before you ask her about it. Please don’t be that idiot who has no idea what’s going on. And along those same lines…

Before tweeting about a blog post or link, actually read said blog post or link. I guarantee you, you will come across as a buffoon if you neglect to do this. If you haven’t read a post, you aren’t equipped to write about it, even on Twitter.

Avoid any and all variations of “Pics or it didn’t happen.” If a woman wanted to post a picture, she would do it. Asking for photos of her outfit, face, body, or anything else can come off as intensely creepy and inappropriate. Don’t do it.

Don’t make everything about sex. I know it’s hard for some dudes to get this through their heads, but even people who are openly sexual and sex-positive (e.g. sex bloggers) don’t want every interaction to be lascivious. Use your social intelligence (or if you don’t have any, get off Twitter until you do!) to figure out when a flirty response is appropriate (hint: very, very rarely) – and if in doubt, keep things respectful or just don’t reply at all.

Don’t explain a woman’s own joke to her. It’s surprising and strange how often this happens. It’s like some men don’t comprehend that women are actually capable of being funny, and so they assume that the jokes we make on Twitter are actually serious statements or we just don’t “get” that we’ve “accidentally” made a pun or joke. Assume we are brilliantly funny babes who know exactly how clever we are, and go from there.

Accept that you might be wrong. Exercise humility accordingly. I’m not sure if it’s due to systemic male privilege, or the argumentative nature of the internet, or cultural misogyny, or all of the above, but plenty of men on Twitter have the tendency to believe that they know best and that it’s their job to school other people. Practice saying (and typing!) the words, “You’re right. I’m sorry.” Use them when you need to – which might be more often than you think.

Don’t demand anything. Don’t ask us questions if you can find the answer on Google or elsewhere. Don’t ask us for “proof” of what we’re saying, especially if it’s something unprovable like a matter of personal experience. Don’t start sentences with “You have to.” In general, please remember: you are not entitled to our time or attention.

If your tweet requires a response longer than 140 characters, send it via email instead. Please don’t ask me a barrage of questions on Twitter and expect me to respond instantaneously, or at all. Seek out my email address and contact me there. It’s not hard – most folks will have theirs listed on their website, to which their Twitter profile will link. If you can’t find their email, tweet at them to ask for it, and be gracious if they decline to give it to you.

Proofread your tweet. I can guarantee that I will mock you if your tweet is riddled with errors. Also sometimes typos or autocorrect problems can make it impossible for me to understand what you were actually trying to say. If you care enough to type a tweet, you should care enough to make sure your message will be received and understood.

Just generally: be respectful, polite, and a decent fucking human being. It’s not that hard. If you don’t think you can follow these simple rules, a quick solution is to disable your Twitter account!

Anything I missed? What have you always wanted to tell dudes on Twitter? Got any horror stories to share?

Let’s Talk About Terminology: Women

I’ll keep this post short and sweet, because I think it’s pretty self-explanatory.

Female adult humans are called women.

Do not call us “girls.” Do not infantilize us. Do not make the mistake of believing someone is “overreacting” if they take issue with being called a child.

Especially do not call us “girls” if you choose to use the word “men” in the same sentence. Do not juxtapose those two things if you do not mean them literally. Talking about female adults? “Women” is the word you are looking for.

Sometimes I like to be snarky in my enforcement of this language rule, so I trawl sex forums looking for threads with titles like, “Do girls like giving blowjobs?” and “How do girls feel about pubic hair?” and I reply (momentarily setting aside the fact that those posts try to generalize all women), “I certainly hope you’re not having sex with girls.” Or, sometimes, “I don’t know about girls, but I know some women who like giving blowjobs.”

As with any challenge to the status quo of misogynist language, there is always pushback. People scream, “You know what I meant!” And yes, I do know what was meant. I also know what was achieved: infantilization of women and the continuation of a verbal system that supports it.

Check your language. Make sure it’s not laced with oppression and archaic assumptions, ‘cause that shit’s gross.

And for those of you who pointed out that the word “girl” is in my blog name… Yep, you got me! It’s being used in a different context there, and there is a difference between “girly” and “girlish,” but yeah, this shitty language convention is extremely widespread, sometimes to the point that even feminists might not notice it!

Let’s Talk About Terminology: Vulva vs. Vagina

I am troubled by people who use words wrong. Especially when they do so in ways that actually impact the way people view the world. That’s why I’m launching this new feature, Let’s Talk About Terminology, to discuss sex-related terms: the right ones, the wrong ones, which is which, and why.

First up: female genitalia. Of course.

Let’s just ponder for a moment the way female genitals are viewed in our culture. They’re seen as a hole, both terrifying and enticing, through which one’s body emerged into the world and into which one wants to stick one’s dick. That’s an oversimplification, but I think it’s basically accurate.

The perception of female parts is focused around that hole – the vagina – and as a result, the entire vulva (a word which means the external female genitalia, including the clitoris, labia, mons pubis, and so on) is lumped into that name.

It may not seem like much, but it’s extremely denigrating to female sexuality. It defines our entire genital region in terms of the one part of it that is perceived as useful or desirable to our male-dominated culture.

You would never see someone use the word “balls” when they meant “penis,” or vice versa. It just doesn’t happen. Those are two specific and separate parts of that whole setup. And it ought to be the same with the female genitalia, but it isn’t.

The clitoris is an important, significant, distinct organ. The sensations it provides are different and separate from the sensations in one’s vagina. It deserves proper identification.

So I implore you: use these words correctly, and teach them to people who don’t know what they mean. Don’t let someone get away with saying they’re going to “shave their vagina” (oh, dear god, I hope not) or “lick your vagina” or whatever, unless that is what they actually, literally mean.

Vulva’s a much prettier word, anyway.