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I have not had an easy life.

I lived through significant trauma in my adolescence. I had to deal with some serious shit. When I tell people the highlights of that part of my history, they don’t know what to say. It’s okay. I don’t know what to say either. I tend to downplay it, because sometimes it seems like the only redemptive part of the story is that I survived basically intact to tell it.

That kind of prolonged trauma reverberates through the years. I have made unfortunate choices based on the dysfunction I learned as a teenager. I have health problems now because of the stress of the past. My brain developed differently than it might otherwise have done, leaving me, for example, with the tendency of being hypervigilant. I have trouble convincing myself being hypervigilant isn’t a useful and basically good thing (it isn’t, it really isn’t, but it still seems so very practical).

I have had to teach myself what having a safe and happy and functional life looks like. And I have had to draw some hard lines I never wanted to draw and make some difficult choices I never wanted to make.

I am also incredibly fucking privileged.

I am a white, heterosexual, attractive, thin, intelligent woman. I was raised middle class in California in one of the richest counties in one of the richest countries in the world. I received a college education without accruing huge amounts of debt. I know how to speak, how to dress, how to behave in order to receive better treatment.

People are not randomly afraid of me. People are more likely to give me the benefit of the doubt. People are more likely to assume positive things about me. People are more likely to return my smiles. People are more likely to give me opportunities. People are more likely to assume I’m competent and that my work will be good. People are more likely to offer me assistance. I have access to better medical care, to better dental care, to resources that mean I have a lot more choices and control of my life.

I am oozing in privilege.

I have had a hard life.

These two statements are not incompatible.

What I see so often in conversations about privilege is this insistence on “I.” We all want empathy. We all want to be heard and recognized. We all want acknowledgment of our suffering. And, you know, Buddha said life is suffering, and there’s more than enough of it to go around.

This desire for empathy is normal. It is supremely human. And we all deserve it.

Photo Credit: Herr Olsen via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Herr Olsen via Compfight cc

But. It is possible to receive empathy and give empathy to ourselves while also recognizing our privilege. It is possible to gently remind ourselves that actually, not everything is about us and our particular concerns. That our pain and our problems do not always need to get time in the spotlight, that sometimes other people’s problems and pain needs the exposure, the airtime, the discussion, the push for change, more. That injustice, oppression, lack of privilege, these are systemic issues that are woven into the very fabric of our society, and changing these things, it is a long slow painful process that necessarily shifts the focus from individual problems to societal problems. That even if we have valid points, if part of the purpose or result of those valid points is to shift the focus back to us, that is not always a net win.

I have had a hard life.

I am extremely privileged.

These statements are both true.

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Dating as a feminist has been … eye-opening.

When I began dating, I didn’t really think about this being a sticking point. I didn’t see myself as being particularly noteworthy in my opinions about sexism. I was happy to pay for myself or be treated (as long as I could tell what was happening). I didn’t mind having doors held open for me (especially with a sprain, this is actually super helpful). I didn’t even mind having car doors opened for me, even if it does feel a little bit silly. After all, we all still know I am capable of opening the car door myself, right? Right?

But I was wrong. Dating as a feminist has been different. And I have stopped dating more than one person at least partially because of their beliefs, attitudes, and statements about gender.

Photo Credit: armigeress via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: armigeress via Compfight cc

 

The first time I stopped dating someone because of this, I cried while delivering the news. I cried partly because I was having trouble believing it was actually happening, that this was a reason that had actually come up in my life. But I felt very strongly that it would be hypocritical of me to date this person, given my own feminist beliefs. I was also concerned it would affect my attitudes about my writing career, that I would internalize these sexists ideas I was hearing and they would make me less ambitious, less capable, and less confident.

I learned to never explicitly state that sexist attitudes were a reason for discontinuing dating. (Yeah, I had to learn this through experience. Oops. Trust me, this mistake wasn’t pretty.)

And I learned that a certain degree of sexism is a deal breaker for me.

Really, dealing with sexism is hard enough as it is. It is so easy to internalize all the messages we are receiving from media, from society, from our peers. And the little things do matter.

For example, I heard a sexist remark over the weekend, and I knew at the time it was sexist. And even still, I found myself revisiting it the next day and feeling anxiety as to how I personally fit into the scheme of the joke. At which point I had to remind myself it was sexist and that if anybody was thinking about me in that way, it was somebody about whose opinion I wouldn’t care anyway.

So much effort, because of one stupid off-hand “joke.” Meanwhile, none of the guys who heard this joke had to think about it the next day and talk themselves out of worrying that it applied to them. And this was actually a better outcome than it would have been if I hadn’t noticed and if I’d unconsciously incorporated it into my opinion of myself. This kind of cognitive load is largely invisible, but it can add up to become quite significant.

Now, imagine you’re dating someone who has a lot of unexamined sexist beliefs and who makes a lot of these kinds of jokes and generalizations and is unable to check routine mansplaining (I know a lot of you hate this word, but I don’t have another one that means what I want to say, so we’ll go with it for now). How much cognitive load would it take to avoid internalizing these self-limiting beliefs? And how many would slip through without notice?

Sometimes people laugh at my post about how I think shared interests don’t matter that much in dating. And it’s true I was supporting a rather extreme point of view. Of course it’s nice to share interests with your partner. Of course it’s nice to have fun stuff to do together.

But the longer I’ve been dating, the more convinced I’ve become about what matters more to me. Kindness, honest and clear communication, respect and compassion for each other as we are, not as we wish we were. And how can someone who sees me as a mystery or thinks women are “crazy” or doesn’t trust my basic competence truly respect me? How can they see who I am?

And why would I want to spend a lot of time with someone who listens to and shares ideas that tear me down, that make who I’m allowed to be smaller and more limited, and thinks they’re an amusing joke?

Once you discover respect for yourself, you begin to demand respect from the people around you. This is an important part of dating. And it is also part of what being a feminist means to me.

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Facebook is an amazing social tool. I know a lot of us love to hate it, and it has its problems, but we don’t leave for a reason, that reason being its extreme usefulness.

Aside from allowing me to stay in some kind of light touch with people who live far away and giving me a curated set of articles to read, Facebook is the single easiest way I’ve found to grow my local social life. You friend someone and then they invite you to their events, and then you meet people at those events and friend them, and they invite you to their events, and your social circle grows with much less effort on your part than back when you had to wait to be on email address exchange terms to get an invitation. (Or phone number exchange terms, heaven forbid!)

Likewise, I’ve found Facebook to be indispensable for dating. Basically, there are two ways most of the single people I know date. One way is to use internet dating sites: OKCupid is super popular among my friends, but there are a whole slew of sites to choose between. You don’t even have to choose! Some people are on a bunch of them all at once.  (And I guess a corollary of this would be speed dating, which I kind of want to do just because then I could write a hilarious blog post about it, and we’d all have fun with that.)

The other way, the Facebook way, works like this: You go to a social event. Any event where there are people will do; parties are perhaps the most common, but this also works with game nights, group dinners, conventions, classes, dances, etc. You meet another single person and spend some time chatting. Maybe a lot of time. Sometimes they then pull out their phones and add you on Facebook on the spot. Other times you friend each other in the next day or two or three. Regardless, now Facebook is your main point of contact.

Photo Credit: Peter Samis via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Peter Samis via Compfight cc

“But Amy,” you say, “surely you could exchange phone numbers or email addresses instead!” Yes, you are right. Surely you could, and occasionally you even do. But I’d say ninety percent of the time, you don’t. You friend each other on Facebook. And then maybe you switch to email or texting after that. Maybe. At some point. Or not.

Anyway, now you’re Facebook friends, and you begin messaging back and forth. There may be some banter. At some point the possibility of hanging out in person is discussed. All of this is very casual. After all, this is the exact same way you might go about creating any new friendship. Occasionally someone is very explicit about asking the other person on a date, but more often than not it’s all unspoken subtext. (I know from my Maybe-Date post we all have lots of opinions about this. Regardless, this is in my experience what tends to happen without making deliberate effort to make it happen differently. Not always, but often.)

I was talking to my friend about hipsters because I find the hipster movement fascinating and slightly confusing, and the conversation turned to hipster dating conventions (of course it did). My friend said that for hipsters, it’s all about plausible deniability and avoiding possible embarrassment. I don’t know if my friend is right, but the relaxed technique of hanging out and testing the waters with potential romantic interests happens all the time. And Facebook forms a cornerstone of this strategy.

(Of course, my friend went on to say, “Limbo can continue for months.” Months! Who has the patience for months? I certainly don’t. I’d simply turn my attention elsewhere. But apparently this too is a thing.)

In any case, I would not want to be dating right now without Facebook. It is simply too ubiquitous and useful. Plus I haven’t done any online dating since January because I was so appalled by Creepy Neighbor Guy (met on OKCupid, for those keeping track) that I just got annoyed with the whole thing. So at this point in time my dating prospects are all people I’m meeting first in person, and Facebook is the easiest way to facilitate that.

Of course, Facebook is a convenient way to encourage new friendships and grow existing friendships in general. Dating is just one facet of that. But it’s definitely an interesting part of the Facebook experience!

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Yes, I know “nobody” talks on the phone anymore. Somewhere along the way it became trendy to have phones that work poorly as phones, and we really only need to communicate in text-based ways anyway, and I’m a writer so this is all to my benefit. But haven’t we all been part of a frustrating text-based communication string that takes forever and would have taken three or less minutes to clear up over the phone? Haven’t we?

The truth is, I was never one of the people who hated talking on the phone. Sure, given the choice, I’ve always preferred face-to-face, but back in the day the phone was a useful tool for staying in touch, and I used it that way. I wasn’t one of those people whose ear was permanently glued to my receiver, but I did spend some non-business-related time on the phone. Until everyone stopped using the phone, and the mere idea began to feel…weird.

Photo Credit: alexkerhead via Compfight cc

Old School! Photo Credit: alexkerhead via Compfight cc

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t plenty of communications that are much more convenient and effective via email or text or choose-your-text-based-method-of-choice. And I don’t want to go back to the days when there were fewer options (those options being telephone, snail mail, or knocking on my friend’s door and asking if they could play).

But I realized recently that just like with snail mail, for me telephone calls have gained a certain kind of cachet because they happen more rarely. Meaning, they’re more likely to feel SPECIAL.

When I finished my novel a couple of weeks ago, I was having a great time texting and messaging a bunch of friends to celebrate. One friend responded by calling me up, and I have to say, that made my day.

Last month I got a text from a friend that mentioned crying. I instantly called him up. Next best thing to being able to be there in person.

One of my good friends phones me up for a chat every week or so. We’re both busy people, and we can’t always find time to see each other, and even when we do, we’re often going to group events together and such. But finding twenty or thirty minutes to talk is usually doable, and our phone chats allow us to stay up-to-date with the personal details of each other’s lives.

Honestly I like the phone for the same reason I like Skype; talking on the phone doesn’t strip away as many cues as text-only does. With Skype, I still get all (or at least most) of the body language. With phone calls, I miss most of those, but at least I get tone of voice and intonation. I use emoticons and exclamation points and asterisks and capital letters liberally in text to give it some of the same nuance as speaking, but honestly, there’s only so much I can do.

I still don’t call people on the phone a lot myself. There’s so many people who hate talking on the phone that it feels like a potential minefield. So I tend to save it for those moments when it will potentially make a big difference, when a friend is celebrating or struggling, or when I am.

But sometimes I think a phone call is exactly the right thing to do.

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What I’ve learned in the last three hours of wrestling with this blog post and ultimately producing nothing I could use is that making a point effectively and concisely while maintaining and projecting empathy can be incredibly difficult.

Maybe this is part of the problem.

The troubles with internet culture are not new. From what I understand, Youtube has historically been a cesspit of bile and awfulness, which is why I never read any Youtube comments except when I’ve been unexpectedly hit by a train of stupid by my own brain. I’ve been aware of the death and rape threats routinely made via the internet for many years. And my corners of the internet have been quite troubled for the past several months, by Gamergate, by some controversy in the YA world that I speak about obliquely here and less obliquely here, by the Requires Hate reveal, and most recently by the Hugo award nomination fracas.

In short, the internet can be an ugly place to hang out. There is a cost associated with being here. There is a cost associated with being a thought leader and expressing your opinion here. It is a cost I have been aware of since I began this blog nearly five years ago.

A few friends of mine reached out to me after I published my piece on rocking the boat about #KeepYAKind. I listened to them carefully, and I’ve been thinking about what they said for the last few weeks. My main takeaway is, people are scared. People are scared to speak up. People are scared to share their opinions. People are afraid of the internet being dropped on their heads. People are afraid of the cost involved. They are afraid of the threats, the personal attacks, the harassment, the name-calling. And understandably so.

One of my friends told me, “Someday you’ll see this from the other side.” And it’s true, I know it can happen to me. Of course I’ve thought about it. Of course I’ve thought about what it will be like getting rape threats on the internet, because I’m a woman who sometimes talks about feminist issues, and no matter how careful I am, no matter how many times I read over each blog post and how thoroughly I consider my word choices, I will offend someone. And someday that someone might be a shitty person who thinks an appropriate way to respond is with a rape or death threat. And at some other point, I am bound to say something stupid. I’m sure I already have, and I’ll do it again. And the internet might fall on my head. It might be right about me, it might be wrong, but in that period of time, the rightness and wrongness will probably not be foremost in my mind.

I still disagree with the #KeepYAKind campaign. It showed an ignorance of the type of rhetoric and cultural training that have been used for decades to keep women quiet and “in their place” that I find quite troubling, especially given what it was in response to. And tactically, it was much more likely to silence the moderate and less privileged voices; the trolls weren’t going to be affected by it to anywhere near the same extent, if at all.

But I do agree that internet culture, and the harassment, bullying, and scare tactics that go along with it, are a huge problem, both for writers (my own tiny habitat in the pond) and for society in general. We can theorize about why internet culture is the way it is (the power of anonymity, the dehumanization and depersonalization of others that is perhaps an effect heightened by interaction over the internet, the attention economy, humanity’s history of only having to deal in relatively small social units, etc.). But all our theories will not change the reality.

Then we have Kameron Hurley’s recent inspirational piece about how the internet harassment she is subjected to is nothing compared to the difficulties faced by her grandmother in Nazi-occupied France. I will admit this gave me a severe case of mixed feelings. On the one hand, perspective is valuable, as is having the moxy to live loud on the internet and encourage others to do the same.

On the other hand, we’re looking at some problem comparing here. Of course internet harassment is not the same as living in Nazi-occupied France. But that doesn’t make the fear less real. That doesn’t mean anyone who is afraid or upset or angered by internet harassment should feel ashamed of those emotions. And shame is the danger that inevitably comes with problem comparing, even when such a comparison makes for a great rhetorical device.

Photo Credit: Roadside Guitars via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Roadside Guitars via Compfight cc

Well, I am not ashamed. I’m a recovering people pleaser, for goodness sake. Of course I was afraid when I started this blog. If I hadn’t been afraid, I wouldn’t have needed any Backbone Project. I recognized the need for me to claim my voice in spite of the fear, and I’ve been working on that ever since. And I’m still afraid, sometimes. I still worry. It’s gotten a lot easier, but when I get the internet dropped on my head, I’m sure I’ll have a miserable time of it.

As a writer, I have to keep asking myself: Am I willing to pay the price for lifting my voice? Even when the price is stupidly high? Even if I’m terrified or creatively blocked or otherwise emotionally compromised by the experience? And if the answer becomes no, then so be it. There is no shame in that. Ultimately my own welfare and safety trumps everything else.

But so far, the answer is still yes. And I hope it will continue to be yes for a long time to come.

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I really like stories. No surprise there. And as I collect my own stories about dating and hear other people’s stories, I’ve developed certain opinions. I don’t want to call them guidelines because your mileage may vary. But they are things that, based purely on anecdotal evidence, appear to be helpful or true or, at the very least, entertaining to think about.

I’ve decided to call this series the Dating Beat. So without further ado, here we go:

1. Have single friends.

I’m not saying you can’t also have non-single friends. Assumedly you would even if you were starting from scratch, since at some point some of your single friends will become not single anymore. I’m also not saying you shouldn’t talk to your non-single friends about dating or being single or whatever else.

But having some single friends is key. I don’t think their gender or orientation or age necessarily matter very much. It’s the singleness that is important. (Well, that, and ideally having more than one, so that when one of them finds a significant other, you still have single friends.)

Why? Because having single friends normalizes the experience of being single. There are a lot of single people in the world, but if you are constantly surrounded by people who are in romantic relationships, it can be easy to lose sight of that fact. And in a culture that often places pressure on single people, this normalization is especially important for maintaining a healthy outlook.

And it doesn’t hurt to have people who are dating right now with whom to swap stories, get advice, and share those moments of dating suckitude.

Photo Credit: sidehike via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: sidehike via Compfight cc

2. When someone you have recently started dating tells you something less than complimentary about themselves, believe them.

You know what I mean, right? There’s that moment when the guy says, “I’m trouble.” And guess what. He probably is! Or she says, “I’m not very good at relationships.” She probably isn’t!

Other statements that fall under this category:

  • I’m not very good with people.
  • I have trouble with commitment.
  • You’d be better off without me.
  • I tend to hurt the people I love.
  • I’m usually thinking about the next thing I’m going to say instead of listening.
  • I break a lot of hearts.

So, okay, yes, context matters. But usually when people say these kinds of things, they are telling the truth. Unfortunately, what happens next is often that the person they’re with doesn’t take the statement seriously, or feels badly for them, or takes it as a challenge, or thinks they will be different.

You’re probably not going to be different. And compassion is great and all, but not at your own expense. Yes, some of these things might be said because of low self-esteem or inexperience. And maybe some of them aren’t a big deal to you. But at the very least they give you an inkling of what you can expect in the future. It’s all data, and you get to decide what, if anything, to do with it. And if you don’t want to deal with it, there is absolutely no shame in not continuing to date the person.

And that is the dating beat for today, my friends.

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Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

That is the message with which I was raised. Lie low, don’t make trouble, stay quiet, pretend what’s happening isn’t really happening. At all costs, please people. Make them like you, or at least make them not notice you exist. Same difference.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Which is perhaps why I find the implications behind the #KeepYAKind campaign so disturbing.

Quick recap: A critically acclaimed YA writer said a troubling and sexist thing in a public interview. Several critics have said that this writer’s portrayal of female characters leaves something to be desired. I have not read his work. (I was supposed to back in January, actually, as his latest critically acclaimed novel was a book club selection, but because I had heard of its problems, I decided to sit out that month. Life is too short, and I have way too many books to read.) As a result of this public interview, there was a public conversation about the problematic nature of this writer’s public comments and his work. There may or may not have been inappropriate behavior (aka harassment and bullying) towards this writer. I haven’t seen any evidence of it myself, but I didn’t spend a lot of time looking for it. #KeepYAKind was a Twitter campaign aimed at stopping the public criticism and conversation. The Booksmugglers write in more detail about it all.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Photo Credit: Putneypics via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Putneypics via Compfight cc

It is easy to imagine that whoever started #KeepYAKind had the best of intentions. We all like kindness, right? We don’t want to live and work in a community that supports bullying, do we? Of course we don’t.

The problem with #KeepYAKind is that, like many things on the internet, it lacks nuance. It distracts the focus from one problem–sexism in the publishing industry and YA fiction–and puts it on another problem. And it does so in a muddied way that, whether intentionally or not, works to shut down the conversation about sexism. In such a way it defends the status quo. It says, “Be quiet, women. You’re not allowed to talk about this problem because it isn’t nice.”

No, it isn’t nice. That is the entire point. Sexism isn’t nice. Being seen as a mysterious creature who is stranger and less fathomable than a giant alien insect isn’t nice. Being told not to discuss problematic things in fiction, even if you are a professional reviewer and THAT IS YOUR JOB, isn’t nice. (And, I mean, shouldn’t we all be allowed to discuss problematic things in fiction? I think so.)

But don’t rock the boat. Never mind that it’s sprung a leak or ten.

Whenever I see #KeepYAKind, I think #KeepYANice. Nice is don’t rock the boat. Nice is be a doormat, don’t stand up, don’t enforce your boundaries, don’t speak up when there’s a problem. Nice is not expressing an opinion that might be uncomfortable or difficult or controversial.

#KeepYAKind ignores the reality that sometimes the obvious act of kindness is not the best nor correct nor sustainable thing to do. Amy of a few years ago would have been shocked that I’m saying that, but I sincerely believe it to be true. Kindness is great, but sometimes you have to protect yourself. Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself. Sometimes you have to stand up for other people too.

Sometimes you have to point out things that are problematic. Sometimes it’s your job to review and analyze a novel or a play or a movie, in which case it is certainly not your job to be kind. It is your job to be insightful and to shed light. It is your job to tell us your opinion. And some people are going to think publicly discussing a negative opinion isn’t very kind either. That’s their prerogative. It doesn’t change the job of those of us who analyze culture and media and society. We aren’t here to sugarcoat. We are here to talk about the things that need to be talked about.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Someone told me recently that acknowledging problematic stuff gives it power. I couldn’t disagree more. Because when we aren’t allowed to acknowledge that something is going on, then nothing will ever change. The problem remains invisible. The status quo is effortlessly maintained. And when everyone is working together to pretend the problem doesn’t exist, it makes us begin to question ourselves, spending our energy on feelings of confusion and isolation instead of on positive change. Keeping busy ignoring a problem DOES NOT MAKE IT GO AWAY. I know some people think it does. I tend to not get along very well with those people.

Now, maybe this writer truly is a very nice guy. From all accounts, he is. And I have compassion for him, because saying something stupid in a public interview and then having the internet fall on your head can’t be very pleasant. Having to really deeply think about the fact that you find giant grasshopper aliens to be less mysterious than women can’t be very pleasant either. And I’m sure some people made disparaging remarks and the like, and that sucks. The internet kind of sucks. Being a public figure kind of sucks.

But we are still accountable, as artists and writers and human beings, for the words we say and the work we create. And that sucks too. It is hard to hold yourself accountable and still be brave enough to create. It’s hard to be an artist knowing you’ll screw up and make mistakes and probably say something really stupid in public someday. It’s hard to admit that perfection is not achievable, and that all we can do is the best we can, and then try to keep learning. It’s hard to realize that our work can be part of the problem, even if we had the very best of intentions.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop talking about the problems in our literature and our pop culture and our society. That doesn’t mean we should stop thinking critically. That doesn’t mean we should look away when there’s a problem, burying our collective heads in the sand. It takes a lot of bravery to be an artist, and it also takes a lot of bravery to acknowledge a problem when it exists so we can work toward increased awareness and change. Both of these roles are important.

Don’t rock the boat? Whatever. I’ve already flipped the damn thing over.

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