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What It Means To Believe The Victim, and How To Do It

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[Trigger warning: discussions and descriptions of rape, sexual assault, and victim-blaming. Also, there will be no GIFs in this post. Sorry, friends.]

I have a difficult relationship with music. Because sensory overload is one of the things that exacerbates my bipolar, I have a really hard time finding artists whose work doesn’t hurt my brain. Anyone who knows me will tell you that my only sure bet is Sufjan Stevens.

And then came PWR BTTM.

I listened to PWR BTTM compulsively throughout the breakup described in my last post, a little over five months ago (eventually, I will updated you on that, as well). There was something so, so comforting about a queer artist singing truthful depictions of queer heartbreak. I didn’t love all of their songs, but the ones I loved, I truly fell in love with. It seemed like I had finally found someone to join Sufjan in the “this doesn’t hurt my brain” club.

Look, a picture of me dressed up as a douchebag, wearing PWR BTTM merch:

[Picture: A man with aviator sung-glasses and a bright pink PWR BTTM tank top, taking a picture in a bathroom mirror]

This tank top has been cropped to remove the band name.

And… then came PWR BTTM’s sexual assault allegations. Oh, and some pictures of one of them next to a swastika. (I’m Jewish and my grandparents are Holocaust survivors).

And then came PWR BTTM’s two (2!!) weak-ass responses to the allegations, in which they managed to simultaneously “take these allegations very seriously” and not do anything substantive about them. As one astute Facebook commenter noted, Ben and Liv’s statements essentially amounted to: “I believe victims, but not when they’re my own.”

Ouch.

I have been thinking a lot — before these events, even — about what it means to believe victims of sexual assault and rape. I’ve been thinking things that make me uncomfortable, because that’s how we learn, and because I needed to understand my own discomfort around believing an account of events that I didn’t bear witness to, and of which there is no corroborating proof.

Because that’s the truth about sexual assault and rape: they tend to happen behind closed doors with no physical struggle. There’s not a whole lot of forensic evidence available to those who wish to investigate allegations of sexual assault, which is one reason why people who commit sexual violence so rarely face any consequences. We’ve all seen crime procedurals on TV: in a court of law, a crime must be proved beyond the shadow of a doubt. Sexual assault and rape happen in the shadows.

But here’s what I’ve realized: while it’s quite hard to prove a crime, it’s pretty easy to prove that harm was done. And isn’t that what matters?

When we stop looking for evidence of criminality and start looking for evidence of harm, a whole lot of things start to make sense. The first thing that clicks into place is the victim’s behavior. Many sexual assault investigations go nowhere because the victims’ statements fall apart, the victims drop charges, or the victims refuse to testify. In a criminal investigation, this makes the victim look suspicious, uncommitted to the charges, or manipulative.

Viewed through the lens of trauma, however, this makes perfect sense: trauma messes with our memory and causes us to act erratically. Any mental health professional worth their salt will tell you that trauma can disguise itself as insubordination, lethargy, poor recall, and many other behavioral and cognitive impairments. In other words, the behaviors used to discredit victims is almost always evidence that harm was done.

Speaking of which: I keep using the phrase “harm was done.” Why? Why not say that they were sexually assaulted or raped? If I truly believe the victim, why am I focusing on harm and not the specific nature of it?

To answer that question, I need to tell you another story, and this one is about me.

During the summer of 2013, while I was doing an internship in Nicaragua, I met a man through some travel buddies of mine. He was a gay man who worked for a feminist NGO. It was exciting to meet a queer Nicaraguense, someone who I could look to for advice about this country that I was fumbling my way around. We met for dinner, and then he asked if I wanted to go back to his place and chat.

You probably see where I’m going with this.

After I was assaulted, my boyfriend-at-the-time was insistent that I pursue criminal charges. I resisted, knowing instinctively that the Nicaraguan criminal justice system was not going to investigate, charge, and convict a man-on-man sexual assault case with zero witnesses. But I also resisted because it didn’t matter. I didn’t want to go over the details with a thousand bureaucrats. The details, frankly, didn’t matter to me. I was hurt. Harm was done. Justice wasn’t about punishing the man who assaulted me; it was about getting my fucking life back.

That wasn’t the only time I’ve been assaulted. But it was an instructive one, because I got to go home, far away from the man who hurt me, far away from the country where it happened. Back in the United States, I sought therapy and my life returned to me, slowly but surely.

Most people don’t get that opportunity. Most people do not get to escape the circumstances of their assault. Most people have to see the person who assaulted them on campus, around town, at the office, in the park. And, once it becomes clear that nobody is going to jail or punish the accused, it seems like there’s nothing left to do. This is life now: you are hurt, and the world has said, “Sorry, there’s not enough evidence that you were hurt in exactly the way you said you were hurt, so we don’t care.”

This is wrong. This is so wrong. Because if you believe the victim — if you believe that harm was done — you don’t need a criminal conviction or damning evidence to move forward. If you believe that harm was done, you don’t need to know the specifics. But you do have a responsibility to support the person to whom the harm was done. Regardless of whether or not the “facts line up.” Regardless of whether or not it is logistically or financially convenient. Regardless of who the victim or the perpetrator are, and regardless of how they live their lives.

Which brings me back to PWR BTTM. What could PWR BTTM have done to make this right? For that matter, what can anyone do when they find out that they have caused harm?

The first thing is to believe that harm was done. Maybe you don’t agree on the details; maybe your memories conflict with the memories of the person who is hurt. That doesn’t matter. Someone is hurt, and it involves you. Don’t you care about that?

The second thing is to figure out if the person who is hurt wants to engage in some sort of therapeutic, restorative justice process involving you, or if they simply need to not see you or be reminded of you for a while. It’s their choice, and you have to honor it. It doesn’t matter if you were planning a big tour or if it’s the middle of the semester or if you were planning on living near the person you hurt. Cancel those plans. Disappear for a while.

The third thing is to go to therapy. Find someone who is used to working with perpetrators of sexual violence. It doesn’t matter if you don’t think you committed sexual violence. Actually, scratch that. The fact that you don’t think you committed sexual violence is what allowed you to commit sexual violence. Stay in therapy, and stay in self-examination mode, until you understand exactly how you caused harm and until you know how to move through the world without causing harm. This might take a while. You’ll get there.

If the person you hurt is willing to engage in some sort of restorative justice process… you are lucky that the person you hurt has anything but rage to give you. Enter that process believing that you have a lot to learn. Leave facts, figures, and timelines at the door. Enter that process believing that you caused harm. Enter that process believing the victim.

Relationships

How To Break Up In 2017

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Well, this is not the post I expected to write. Originally, I’d planned out a whole post about butts and the new year. I’d even started typing it up. It was going to be great!

And then… other things happened.

I was visiting my partner for the first time in a few weeks, and we were cooking dinner, and the hollandaise sauce was a disaster, and then, suddenly, we were talking about breaking up.

What?

[Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone saying, "What?"]

I don’t know.

There is something so painful and soul-tearing about breaking up with a person who you love and with whom you’re actually well-matched. But sometimes, even when you do everything right, things don’t work out; needs aren’t met. And that’s where we were. So we sat down and did the thing that, for the past two years, we had been certain we would never do: we broke up.

I don’t have a really great history with breakups. In 2014, my boyfriend of three years broke up with me after I moved to New Hampshire for him. I proceeded to get shingles and scream at him over the phone and then never speak to him again. The boy I dated after him left me for California and I cried for longer than we even dated (which was, admittedly, only a month). I have never, ever learned how to truly be friends with a partner after a breakup. And I’ve never had a reason to do so–all of my exes are people who I was interested in romantically and sexually, but could never imagine being friends with.

This time, it was different. I wanted to stay friends, but I didn’t know how. Also, there was a snowstorm and it was late at night and I had to stay with my partner until the morning.

We did a lot of crying. We did a lot of shaking our heads in confusion and murmuring, “This sucks.” And we did a lot of caring for each other–and I thought, during the moments when I wasn’t screaming into a pillow or turning my partner’s room into a saltwater bath: it’s 2017. America is a scary place for queer people. Even if we have to break up, we don’t have to stop being kind to each other.

[Animation: Jake the dog from "Adventure Time" shedding a tear from his right eye.]

It was maybe the hardest night of my life.

And we didn’t.

When one of us shied away from the work of figuring out what a post-relationship friendship looked like, the other was firm in saying, “We are in this together. We will do this work together, right now.”

When one of us–let’s be honest, me–hid under a desk and wept uncontrollably for what seemed like hours on end, we sat with each other and did not attempt to backtrack on our breakup or pretend that things did not feel awful.

When one of us began to feel lonely, we took a break to contact our friends, other partners, and therapists. We scheduled time with our support networks.

When one of us got hungry, we ate. When one of us–me again–seemed to be avoiding hydration, we drank water.

When one of us (okay, fine, me again) limply attempted to disappear into the snowstorm, the other said, “I love you. Even if it is only for me, stay here and stay safe.”

When one of us said, “I don’t know how to be friends with my exes,” the other said, “Let me show you how.”

When one of us became angry, the other became understanding. When one of us grew spiteful, the other grew caring. We made room for these emotions; we did not avoid them.

[General Leia Organa hugging Han Solo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens]

Sometimes it’s painful even when you do it right. (Rest well, Carrie. I miss you.)

I don’t know where things go from here. Hopefully I don’t get shingles again. I miss my partner–my friend–so intensely that it feels like my inside are going to fall out of my stomach, and it’s only been a day. But I do know that we started things off right. And that’s just it: it doesn’t feel quite like an ending. It just feels like something new–painful, but not wrong.

Relationships

Everyone Is A Monster Sometimes

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Today’s post is about those moments when you don’t act like the person you want to be.  It’s about snapping at the people you love and growing bitter, cynical, and fearful when you’d rather be… anything else. It’s about turning into monstrous Mr. Hyde when you’d much rather be the kindly Dr. Jekyll. In short, I’m going to talk to you about why we lash out at those closest to us — and how to fix things when we do.

The truth is that I have to write about this topic because it’s what I’ve been doing recently. In the past month, I’ve argued fiercely and unkindly with two of my partners. I nearly broke up with one of them. This is unusual for me, because I’ve spent the last few years learning how to turn disagreements into opportunities for kindness and growth. In my world, argumentation almost never involves insults, ultimatums, passive aggression, or raised voices. So when I see myself (or my partners) starting to do those things, it’s big red flag.

[A man waving a giant U.S. flag in between two other men]

A terrifying flag.

Okay, sure. We all know that it’s never good to lash out at our partners. So why do we do it? From what I’ve experienced, there are usually three underlying things that can make me act like a monster:

  • I’m feeling insecure about my personality/looks/intelligence.
  • I don’t feel in control of my life.
  • I’m feeling physically or emotionally unsafe.

Notice something here? I never lash out at my partners just because of what they’ve done or said; I always do it because of how I’m feeling about myself. This isn’t to say that my partners aren’t responsible for their words or actions. I’m a survivor of relationship abuse and I’ve definitely had my fair share of toxic relationships. But the fact remains that I only resort to ad hominem tactics when my partner pokes at issues that are already making me feel bad about myself or my situation.

For example: A few months ago, I got into an argument with one of my partners because he hadn’t told another of his partners about me. We spent dinner arguing in circles, with me eventually insisting that his choices were tantamount to moral decrepitude. Even though I really believed in a lot of what I was saying, I was framing it in a way that was super hurtful to him.

What was missing from that equation? My own context. Outside of my relationship with this partner, I was running into professional, romantic, and fiscal difficulties that had beaten my once-healthy self esteem into submission. My apartment was messier and less homey than I wanted it to be. My nesting partner was having second thoughts about polyamory. My bank account was dwindling even though I felt as though I was working all the time. I wanted desperately to feel as though I was valuable enough to change my partner’s course of action, so I pushed the issue too far.

[A turtle pushing another turtle into a pool]

Even turtles get pissy.

It’s not always clear to me when this is happening, though. It is, after all, hard to trace the emotional origins of a potshot. Usually, I don’t realize that the conversation has devolved into argumentation until after I see a look of anger or sadness in my partner’s face. At that point it’s safe to assume that what I’m saying is more likely to burn bridges than build them.

Here’s the thing to know, though: everyone does this. You’re not a horrible person if you take the occasional jab at your partner. What makes you a good partner, though, is your ability to realize what’s happening, acknowledge it, and mend. Think about it like a wound. Most wounds heal without leaving any scars. It’s the ones that are left to fester which cause gangrene.

So let’s break this down:

1. How to realize that you’re turning into a monster, and why:

Ask yourself these questions (all of them!):

  • Am I saying things to help my partner understand my perspective and my needs, or am I saying things because I want to get a specific reaction?
  • Is what I’m saying consistent with how I’d feel outside of this conversation?
  • What, outside of this conversation, has been weighing on my mind recently? How is it coming out in this conversation?

2. How to acknowledge it to the person you’re monstering at:

It’s super important here that you don’t back away from your own emotional and physical needs. A lot of people, once they recognize that they’re getting emotionally worked up, will abandon the conversation entirely by saying something like, “I’m sorry, I’m just being crazy. It’s not a big deal.” You don’t need to lose sight of the point of the conversation, which was ostensibly to make you feel better in the relationship, not worse.

Instead, try a three-part script like this:

  1. Restate what you’ve done: “I realize that saying ________ was hurtful, and I shouldn’t have done that.”
  2. Give a genuine apology: “I’m really sorry. I want us to take care of each other, not take cheap shots like that. I’ll try to do better in the future.”
  3. Provide context: “I’m feeling [emotion] because of [context], and that’s making it hard to be kind about this.”

3. How to mend:

First, figure out what you would need — physically and emotionally — in order get back to a place where you can feel and act kindly towards your partner, and then ask for that. Here are some suggestions:

  • “Can you hold my hand while we talk to remind me that I care about you?”
  • “Can we speak in quieter, slower voices so that it doesn’t feel like an argument to me?”
  • “Can we watch an episode of funny TV and then return to the conversation so that I’m in a lighter mood while we talk?”
  • “Can you give me a compliment about my smarts/looks/potential/etc. so that I know it’s not in question while we’re talking?”

And then ask if there’s anything you can do to help your conversational partner feel less defensive. Even if you’re already a super caring conversational partner, it’s important that this one goes both ways. That way, you’ve both vocally affirmed your commitment to each other’s comfort and safety, which sets a strong basis for mutual support going forward.

[An animated drawing of a periwinkle cat and an orange cat cuddling against a pink background.]

These cats know how to mend!

If you’re having trouble following this process, don’t worry. It takes a long time to figure out how to do these things effectively. A wise human once told me that relationships mean solving problems that you wouldn’t have if you were single, and he was right. But that’s also the joy in it. The fact that you and your partners are willing to dedicate your time and energy to this sort of thing indicates that you truly care about yourselves and each other, even when you’re monsters. And that’s pretty swell.

Body Positivity

Newsflash: Bodies Change

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November 3rd was my birthday. I’ve been on the planet for a quarter-century! Whoa! In honor of the occasion, I went to Noel’le Longhaul for a tattoo that I’ve been dreaming of for the past year or so. It was a magical, painful, important experience.

[Photo: A chest tattoo comprised of a deer and a cat leaping away from each other to reveal two scenes of nature and a moonset over a lake]

And it came out well. (Images courtesy of Noel’le Longhaul!)

In the days leading up to my birthday, however, I started sleeping fitfully. I became more and more anxious about my impending tattoo, to the point that I could barely sleep because of tattoo-related nightmares. I was excited for my time with Noel’le, but I was also racked with a nagging fear. It boiled down to this: what if this tattoo made me hideous?

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Social Theory

When You Hate Your Gender, But Don’t Want To Leave

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A few weeks ago, I stood in front of a room and asked eleven high schoolers to think of one way in which they were masculine and one way in which they were feminine. I was met with blank stares and some giggles.

“Well,” I said, “let’s take me for example. I wear a beard, which people would probably consider to be masculine. But I also cross my legs when I sit and I’m really expressive with my voice, which people sometimes consider to be feminine.” I popped my leg behind me and added, “Oh, and I do that!”

I suddenly felt naked. Here I was, revealing something to my kids which I had barely acknowledged to myself: I’ve never been comfortable being a man. Heck, I don’t even use the word “man” to describe myself–I still call myself a “boy” even though I’m nearly twenty-five and, like I said, wear a beard most of the time.

[A mother kissing her son and wiggling his face, with the caption, "My little boy is a man."]

Or something.

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Relationships

I Stopped Hate-Stalking My Ex (And So Can You!)

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A while back, I talked about why I still Facebook stalk one of my exes. And while I think there are some important nuggets of wisdom in that post, I’ve come to an important conclusion: two full years after breaking up with my ex, I am completely exhausted from thinking about him. I’m drained. I’ve gleaned wisdom and self-awareness from reflecting on the relationship (and its failures), and now… I’d like to stop.

The only problem is that I can’t. I’m too angry.

I have a pretty common relationship to anger. For a very long time I refused to feel it – I’d turn it into sadness, self-loathing, or something inward-facing. For whatever reason, the idea of being angry at someone felt terrifying and forbidden. It was much easier to hate myself than to hate anybody else. Then I found myself single and alone and living in rural New Hampshire, all because of a boy who broke my heart even though he never really deserved it in the first place. And that made me angry.

[Animation: Princess Bubblegum from "Adventure Time" flipping over a table.]

Just like that.

As I discovered, it’s actually pretty healthy to feel anger. Anger is an indication that you love yourself, because it requires you to acknowledge that you deserve better. After all, why be angry about how somebody treated you if you don’t believe you deserve to be treated well in the first place?

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Mythbusting Sex Ed

What To Do If You Can’t Orgasm

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At least once a week, somebody tells me that they can’t orgasm. It doesn’t matter what gender they are or what body parts they have. They text me, email me, or sidle up to me while I’m at work and say, “Hey, can I talk to you?” And then they tell me — full of shame — that they’ve been having a hard time reaching orgasm.

[A puppet dog hanging his head in shame next to a puppet snowman.]

I’m the snowman.

Well, friends, this post is for you.

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Mythbusting Social Theory

Do “Hot” People Really Have Hotter Sex?

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I’m sorry for waiting so long to do another post (again). I was busy doing very important thinks. Like binge-watching Eastsiders, a webseries about sad gay alcoholics being sad and gay and alcoholic.

Oh, and hot.

[Cal and Thom from "Eastsiders." Cal, shirtless, leans up against a door.]

Hot Person™ Kit Williamson, folks.

I have a crush on Kit Williamson, apparently, because every time he stared dolefully into the distance or slinked coyly around the room or rolled over in bed (shirtless!) I had to take some time to calm myself down. Seriously, I could spend all day looking at him. All. Day. I texted my partner about this–multiple times–because I could not keep it inside of me. I was transfixed.

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Relationships

How To Make Long Distance Relationships Work

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Recently, a friend asked if I could write about long distance relationships. “Why?” I asked.

“Because I’m about to be in one,” she said.

It took me a while to start writing this post. Cumulatively, I’ve been in over five years of medium-to-long distance relationships, so I’ve got a lot of thoughts about how they function, why they work, and why they fail. But it’s a lot to sort through, and I didn’t know where to start. As I sat down to organize my thoughts, years and years of memories flooded back to me: emails from partners, fights over the phone, flowers in the mail, plane rides, train rights, car rides…

[Animation: No Face from "Spirited Away" being overtaken by a wave covered in the word "feels"]

Ouch, right in the feels.

The memory that struck me most, however, was the time I decided not to be in a long distance relationship.

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Mythbusting Sex Ed

The Pillow Princess and the Pea

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According to basically every mainstream porn that’s ever been made, good sex is a highly aerobic activity – lots of writhing, twisting, humping, and thumping. And for some people, that’s pretty accurate. For others, it’s not.

Enter the “pillow princess.” Pillow princesses are people (of all genders!) who prefer to be physically passive during sex. They’re not into rolling around, rough-housing, or exerting themselves a lot during sex, and they sometimes don’t enjoy reciprocating manual or oral sex (handjobs and blowjobs). Instead, they like to splay out like a starfish and feel each sensation as it washes over them.

[GIF: Patrick Star, the starfish from "Spongebob," raising and lowering his eyebrows.]

Not that starfish!

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