social norms

“What’s wrong with heteronormativity anyway?”

This question recently came up in a conversation I was involved in on facebook. What’s wrong with heteronormativity anyway?

The context was a straight cis dude expressing some typical straight cis dude sexual fantasies, and some people being eyeroll-y about it, thus prompting his question.

At the time, and given the context, I simply pointed out that no one was saying anything was wrong with heteronormative desires, just that, well, we are all inundated with them all day long, and for those of us who aren’t into those particular fantasies, it can be a bit much, y’know?

But then I thought about it some more. And the thing is, while there really was nothing inherently wrong with this particular dude’s particular desire on this given day, (or more generally, there is nothing inherently wrong with many fantasies that happen to be heteronormative), there’s hella problems with heteronormativity.

[Edited to add: For starters, (and as genderroling pointed out in the comments) pretty much all hetero norms are actually cis hetero norms – heteronormativity is almost always part and parcel of cisheteronormativity.]

And the thing is, most normative models of [cis] hetero sex are incredibly misogynistic. It is, very often, entirely focused on men’s pleasure, often to the point of forgetting that women have sexual desires and drives of their own. [Cis]heteronormative sex is so focused on penile-vaginal penetration that it is still common to have people genuinely confused about how it is possible for two people who don’t have penises to even have sex at all.

Heteronormativity as we know it today grew out of a culture where men literally owned their wives, where being married to a man was considered legal consent to sex whenever he wanted, where any kind of non-penetrative sexual contact is considered foreplay and not really sex at all, where having sex reduces a woman’s value to other men, etc etc etc. It has a lot of cultural baggage, is what I’m saying, and all of these values have contributed to hetero norms of sex today.

So while specific instances of heteronormative desires and behaviours could very well be benign, heteronormativity [and especially cisheteronormativity] itself is fucked, mmkay?

The real reason I love gender fuckery

Well, the 30-week genderqueer challenge is working for me! This post is inspired by last week’s prompt/post!

Really, the reason I love gender fuckery (and especially the reason why it’s so important to me sexually, sometimes) is as a means to an end.

I want for my body to just be my body, as it is. I want to be able to just be, without the pressure of all of the meanings and value that other people insist on putting on it, and on forcibly making me acknowledge those meanings and values (this is what sexual harassment usually is – not just objectifying a person, but actively making sure they know you are doing it, and trying to elicit a response from them, thus forcing them to participate. It’s disgusting.)

I hate that because I live in a world where this shit is so pervasive that it is is sometimes hard for me to see my own body without seeing it through the lens of cisheteropatriarchy. I hate how hard it is for me to be free of that.

What I really want it to see myself and my body on my own terms. But before I can do that, I need to fuck up the existing scripts I have for understanding my own body.

I need to take what I have been taught – both explicitly and implicitly – about my value and about what having certain body parts (or not) means about who I am as a person and how I am valued by others, and I need to twist it around, and shake it up and tear it to pieces and put it back together again, in every way I can think to. I need to pull the pieces apart and put them back together in impossible, unrecognizable configurations. I need to make new shapes out of the old meanings, over and over and over, until it all stops meaning anything at all, like a word repeated until it is nothing but a series of arbitrary sounds.

I need to fuck with gender, so that gender will stop fucking with me.

Call for Submissions! March 2016 Carnival of Aces: Gender norms and asexuality

Hello all! I am so excited be your host for this month’s Carnival of Aces!

For those that don’t know, a blogging carnival is an online event where a host blog suggests a theme, and people submit pieces based around that theme.

The Carnival of Aces is a monthly blogging carnival that was started all the way back in 2011, and is currently run by the awesome ace resource The Asexual Agenda. For more information check out the Carnival of Aces Masterpost.

Last month’s Carnival was hosted by It’s an Ace Thing, on the theme of platonic attraction. Check out the post roundup!

For this month, I’ve chosen the theme of gender norms and asexuality. The relationship between gender norms and asexuality is interesting to me because of just how much traditional ideas of gender are directly tied to traditional (i.e. compulsory and hetero) ideas of sexuality.

There’s a bunch of ways you could go with this theme, and here are some possible ideas to get your writerly thoughts going, grouped into two rough categories:

  1. Personal experiences of gender and asexuality
    How has your asexuality (or demi or gray-sexuality) affected your feelings about your gender? Has your gender presentation ever caused problems for you related to your asexuality (e.g. unwanted attention or expectations of your behaviour)? Alternatively, does your gender identity have any impact on your feelings about your asexuality? Does your understanding of your gender inform your understanding of your asexuality, or vice versa?
  2. Attraction(s), gender, and asexuality

    • For anyone in the community: does gender play a role in your experience of platonic and/or aesthetic attraction? How do gender norms impact your platonic relationships? Tell me about how that works!
    • For romantic aces (and demis and gray-as): does gender play a role in your experience of romantic attraction? How, and why (or why not)? How do gender norms play out in your romantic relationships?
    • For demis and gray-as who have experienced sexual attraction: does gender play a role for you in that? Where does gender come into play for attraction based on an emotional connection rather than physical traits?

Or maybe the topic of gender norms and asexuality has inspired you to think about something completely different and you want to write about that! I am excited to see what all of you have to say about this topic.

Posts can be submitted to me in various ways:
email: valprehension@gmail.com
twitter: @valprehension
Or you can can post a link in the comments here if you want!

If you want to submit anonymously (or if you want to submit with credit but don’t want to host the post on your own blog/tumblr/whatever), send me an email, and I can put your post up here as a guest post!

How I stopped worrying and learned to remove ableist language from my vocabulary

For at least a year, I’ve been making a concerted effort to stop using ableist language in my normal way of talking. This means not saying things like “crazy”, “lame”, “stupid”, “dumb”, and other words that are rooted in current or past ways of describing people with mental and/or physical disabilities.

Ten Easy Alternatives to Common Ableist Language: Say unreal, not insane. Say unbelievable, not crazy. Say jerk, not psycho. Say awful, not stupid. Say bad, not dumb. Say moody, not bipolar. Say ridiculous, not retarded. Say eccentric, not mental case. Say dismantled, not crippled. Say unruly, not mad house. From Upworthy

This has been…. harder than I initially thought it would be. There are a *lot* of words that are rooted in ableist attitudes. And they get used a *lot* in normal day-to-day conversation. So it takes work to stop using them. And I’m not even really there 100% of the time yet. But that’s not what I’m here to tell you about today. I wanted to dig into my reasons for making this change, (and hopefully to inspire at least some people to do the same).

For a long time I was a person who resisted this effort, in part because it was extremely daunting for the reasons described above. But also, I really felt like (at least this is what I told myself) at least some of these words are so far removed form their original ableist roots that they no longer are problematic. When people say something is “lame”, they aren’t meaning that it’s like a person who has trouble walking, right? Language changes, after all.

The thing is, I think that most people who at least dabble in caring about social justice know that this argument doesn’t necessarily hold water. Because most people who care about social justice don’t use the phrase “that’s so gay!” to describe things that they think are silly or absurd or bad. Because we mostly understand that that usage harms gay people (and queer people generally).

The thing is, the people who *do* say that things are “so gay!” will usually tell you that what they are saying has nothing at all to do with gay people. That’s not what that word means to them when they use it in that way. But we still understand that this secondary usage of “gay” is directly connected to the concept that “gay” could be synonymous with “bad”, which is directly connected to the idea that being gay is bad. And it is worth it to avoid perpetuating that implicit idea.

I think the reason a lot of people (me included) have trouble seeing this same connection as clearly when it comes to ableist language is because most of these words have a much longer history of having been used in the colloquial sense to describe bad things, uncool things, silly, absurd, and ridiculous things. And so they connection between them and their roots is no longer felt to viscerally. For many adults today, the usage of “that’s so gay!” is a new thing that has happened in our lifetimes, and is directly connected to the homophobia in our culture today, and that’s why it’s not a linguistic change all of us chose to embrace.

But ableist language is something we grew up with. It has been everywhere, our entire lives. It’s been normalized by literal generations of usage, to the point where we feel not only it’s totally natural and normal and unproblematic, but also somewhat immutable.

And that’s what I thought for a long, long time. But then I realized what it really means that these words have been so deeply embedded in our language for so long that they seem impossible to escape.

The pervasiveness of casual ableism in our language tells us something about how deeply embedded ableism is in our culture. How normalized, how so-very-naturalized that we don’t even notice. We think that that’s just the way things are, just the way things have to be.

This language, when you hear it, when people say it, it communicates something about just how long people with disabilities have been marginalized and oppressed, been considered less than, unworthy, synonymous with all things bad and uncool and ridiculous. The fact that we have been doing this for decades, for generations even, isn’t an excuse.

The fact that we have been doing this for decades and generations should tell you that we are way overdue for a change. It tells a story of generations of pain and oppression. And that should make you care more about stopping it now, not less. Historical ableism shouldn’t get a pass just because it’s old. And you don’t get a pass for saying things just because your parents and grand-parents said them – our parents and grand-parents believed lots of terrible shit, in most cases, and we do our best to be better than that, because we have the tools available to know better than that. We are more connected to more people with different abilities, and we know better than to dismiss them as synonymous this badness, uncoolness, and as worthy of ridicule (which is what ridiculous really means).

Being more thoughtful about the words you use has a lot of great benefits:

  • It can be part of a mindfulness practice that helps you think more consistently about and be more aware of ableism and to give more thought to accommodation and accessibility generally, beyond the language you use.
  • It sends a message to people with disabilities – many of them will notice that the words you use do not put them down, and they will appreciate that. Much like queer folks sometimes decide whether or not someone is safe for them to come out to based on whether they say “that’s so gay!” (even though often times the people who say it aren’t particularly homophobic, it’s impossible to immediately tell the difference between them and the ones who are), people who actually actively care about disability justice will take note of the presence or absence of ableism in your speech.
  • It also means using less euphemistic language a lot of the time, and saying what you actually mean more directly than most ableist language does. I’ve already pointed out the directness of “ridiculous” above. Why ridicule something by declaring it to have a disability of some sort (lameness, dumbness, etc) when you can literally declare it worthy of ridicule?

We can do better. You can do better. So what’s stopping you?

I know it’s daunting. But there is help! Below are some links to resources providing common ableist phrases that you might consider avoiding, as well as lists non-ableist alternatives to those words. Learn some new words! It’s good for you!

Further thoughts on religious exemptions

My post from a while back on religious freedom (TL;DR version is that I have a problem with religious exemptions to rules or laws on the grounds that they effectively discriminate against people who are not members of the exempted religion. Any rule that should either apply to everyone, or to no one) generated an interesting discussion on facebook. A friend of mine brought up a very important perspective. He said:

As I understand it, the whole religious freedom thing started because laws were as much about enforcing community norms as anything else. When minority communities accrued enough power it became too costly for the majority to continue enforcing their norms upon them.

So, powerful enough minorities (but not the small/ politically weak ones) could get exemptions from state-enforced cultural laws.

It just so happened that what riled people up enough to get them to fight/ demand exemptions was religion. So, we ended up with religious freedoms.

And additionally:

We’re not as far from the past as one might hope (wrt legislating social norms).

I wanted to address these points here, because I think they are extremely important. My take on religious exemptions, while I still stand by it in principle, is in reality rather outrageously optimistic (at best), and actually potentially dangerous.

The fact is that the setting in which religious exemptions get granted is extremely complicated. The existing power structures in North America (and many other Western countries, as well as others) are very invested in maintaining the status quo. The people in power are those whose backgrounds, culture, beliefs, and traditions are already privileged, and those who, in general, see no reason to change things from the way they’ve always been.

And it is against this background that (many) pleas for religious exemptions are made. The fact is that, as much as I might like the argument in these cases to be one from first principles, about whether a given rule is valid, and for the decisions made to be universally applicable, the reality is that this system would not work within the existing power structures. Because for most of those in power, the argument “but this rule has no real reason to exist” isn’t good enough reason to remove the rule. Because to many people in power “tradition” outweighs the lack of reason, and is itself a reason in favour of no change, rather than the removal of a rule of the relaxation of a social norm.

And it for this reason that the argument from religious freedom, the basis on which religious exemptions are granted, is ultimately of vital importance. Because the way religious exemptions work is by actually reinforcing the norms, by identifying minority religions that gain exemptions as “other” (while religions and cultural traditions for which the “regular” rules are appropriate retain (i.e. white Protestantism, and to some extent Christianity in general) a default status).

Moreover, the religious freedom argument is simply more politically expedient than the “but this is a stupid rule” argument, especially in the US in many ways, because the country was founded in part by people who had fled religious persecution in their countries of birth (I will acknowledge here the extreme hypocrisy of their treatment of American Indians; nevertheless, the point stands that religious freedom is a culturally and politically powerful rhetoric in the US and elsewhere).

Mostly, what I am saying here is that I recognize that the existence of religious exemptions (well, most of them; corporate abuses of the idea of religious freedom are another thing entirely) is very, very important, and much better than the alternative wherein people inevitably would be prevented from practicing non-harmful aspects of their religions. It’s a flawed solution, and it only partially solves the problems it addresses (because of the problem of reinforcing the idea of what is actually normal, as well as in the fact that it only provides partial freedom), but it is nevertheless the best solution I am aware of in the context of political and societal norms that we know are notoriously slow to shift.

Ultimately religious exemptions, while technically discriminatory, are pretty analagous to things like scholarships that are made available only to people of colour, or women, or to any other identifiably under-privileged group. Strictly speaking, these scholarships are also discriminatory; they explicitly discriminate between people on the basis race, sex, and other factors. But we can all recognize that they do so with an eye toward boosting overall equity and justice in society, and that if we continue to fight the good fight, one day these kinds of protective discrimination will be unnecessary. And until that day comes, I will continue to fiercely support these forms of “discrimination”.

Carving out whatever space we can to protect marginalized people living right now, today, is just as important as keeping our eyes on the goal of greater freedom for everyone, and so I’m going to stop complaining about religious exemptions in general, and just focus on the ones that are actually harmful (as in Hobby Lobby, and similar cases).

The relative nature of gender presentation

The concepts of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are generally talked about as fairly well-defined categories. Now, this is not to say that these categories are at all concrete, and the definitions certainly can vary between cultures, but I do think it’s fair to say that most people can tell you whether x quality is more masculine or more feminine in their particular cultural milieu.

And I do say “more masculine” and “more feminine” there deliberately, because of course, things usually aren’t simply one or the other, and most people acknowledge that there’s some sort of spectrum here, and some qualities that are more definitive of either masculinity or femininity than others. (So, for instance, ‘having a beard’ may be considered more distinctly masculine than, perhaps, ‘being tall.’ Though both are qualities that are more often associated with masculinity, there’s often more leeway for a feminine person to be tall without it being perceived as detracting from their femininity, than there is for them to have a beard and maintain others’ perceptions of them as feminine.)

Ultimately, what we’re dealing with is some sort of murky idea of the ideal embodiments of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity,’ wherein different personal qualities carry different weight as indicators of one or the other category. Makes basic sense, right?

But here’s where this starts to fall apart for me. Consider, for instance, this fairly androgynous person.

Photo by Alexandre Cicconi. Click through for the full set.

If I tell you that the person in the picture is a man, you’d probably think that they’re a fairly feminine guy. Very pretty face, eyebrows that appear to carefully manicured, and all that. But then, if I told you that the person was a woman, most people would have the exact opposite reaction, and declare them a very masculine woman.

So, is it as simple as simply adding up a person’s qualities and getting to their position on the surface of masculine-feminine sphere, then? The way that the descriptor used for the same person can change so violently by altering one piece of information (their sex) certainly tells us just how important we (society, anyway) consider sex to be as a factor in masculinity or femininity. The single variable of sex carries enough weight, in this case, to swing the pendulum from feminine-leaning to hyper-masculine.

But it actually tells us something more than that, as well. Because it’s not that we switch from seeing the person as feminine to seeing them as masculine. We switch from seeing them as feminine for a man to seeing them as masculine for a woman. We’re operating with different base-lines, which are determined by our belief about the person’s gender. In fact, the arithmetic of masculinity and femininity seems to be predicated on knowing (or guessing) a person’s gender. (Remember how I started out by describing them as androgynous? In this context, then, androgynous doesn’t mean “a mixture of masculinity and femininity” so much as it means “of indeterminate sex”, since we no longer necessarily consider them androgynous when we assign a sex.)

I would go even further, and argue that we use the metric of sex as a starting point from which to set a target for this person’s gender presentation. For every aspect of a male-identified person that is not distinctly male (i.e. a femininely pretty face), they become considered more feminine (though in this case, I would hesitate to go so far as to say that it makes them unmasculine – the two don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, either). And when we change, and evaluate the person as a female, we similarly notice all the qualities that don’t ‘match’ with the femininity that we as a society insist on associating with femaleness, and that are instead distinctly masculine (and in this case, I do actually think that the word ‘unfeminine’ actually might be applied by a great number of people. Considering that I’m being told that unmasculine is not a real word, while unfeminine is, I suspect that the societal recognition of one concept, but not the other, is meaningful. There is, perhaps, the implicit message here that while it is possible for men to be feminine – i.e. a lesser form of man? – but that women, no matter how unfeminine they may be, can never truly be attributed with the glory that is masculinity. But I digress :P)

It cannot be denied that we, as a society, evaluate people in vastly different ways depending entirely on our perceptions of their gender. A man and a woman expressing themselves in exactly the same way are perceived in completely different lights. And, while this example tells us nothing about how this affects the way people are treated, or the level of respect that they are granted, it is certainly something to be cognizant of in our interactions with others.

Forward Thinking: What is the purpose of marriage?

This post is written in response to the Forward Thinking prompt “what is the purpose of marriage?”

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I am somewhat of a marriage agnostic. Really, lately I’ve been leaning toward being a marriage abolitionist. I am not certain that governments should be issuing marriages at all, because I am quite frankly unsure of the purpose of them doing so. But before I can figure out whether there is a purpose to governmental recognition of marriage, I will need to examine the general purpose of marriage, on two levels: the personal and the societal.

On a personal level, marriage is generally understood to be an outward expression and demonstration of love and commitment between two individuals. In making a lifelong commitment to my partner, I am making a statement about trust and mutual understanding, and together we made a mutual commitment to building a life together, working toward shared goals (raising a family) and also supporting each other in our individual passions (careers and hobbies). I see it as a long-term collaborative project to maximize both of our happiness. And this is all wonderful and lovely and important. To me. And to my partner. But I’m not egotistical enough to think that people in general should care about the arrangement that we have made with one another. And I think it’s patently ridiculous to expect the government to grant me extra legal protections and privileges on the grounds that we just love each so much.

So, the societal aspect, then. Marriage is very often framed as an institution with a purpose of protecting children; it is discussed as an arrangement that supports the continuation of society. If we accept that the two-parent structure is a generally stable environment for children, then there may be some societal motivation to encourage people to get married, and to make life easier for them once they have made that commitment. Except that, really, this is just an argument for extending marriage-like privileges to people who are raising children together. If marriage (as it is civilly understand) is indeed all about children, why don’t we actually make it about children, rather than some commitment between two people that has nothing to do with children whatsoever? A different institution would better serve the purpose of supporting and benefiting children than marriage currently does.

But maybe the ways in which child-free couples benefit from marriage has its own social value, and thus it can still be considered a purposeful institution? I mean, I’m not arguing that the trappings of marriage aren’t important. I get that things like spousal health benefits and other legal entitlements that come with marriage are good things that make people’s lives easier. Part of why I am (legally) married is so that I can benefit from some of the protections that are afforded by that license. So, hey, I guess marriage helps make people’s lives easier, so it’s just a good thing and there’s no reason to change it, right?

Um, no. Not right at all actually. Because, yeah, the government extends some nice little bonuses and benefits to married people, but those bonuses come at the expense of unmarried people. As it stands, unless there is actually some societal benefit that comes from incentivizing marriage (unless there is a purpose to encouraging people to commit to one another), all that we are accomplishing by continuing to recognize these unions and grant them privileges is perpetuating a system in which, for no reason whatsoever, we prioritize and privilege coupled people over single people. This is rank discrimination. People do not deserve special legal status simply because they are in love, no matter how special and beautiful that love may be to them.

Here’s the thing: the way that the civil institution of marriage is organized seems in many ways for the purpose of enabling the more traditional form of marriage, in which one partner works outside the home and earns money, while the other partner works within the home, fulfilling various tasks and taking care of the house and children, thus enabling the money-earning partner to be a better worker and focus more time and energy on their work tasks (indirectly benefiting the employer). In this model, I can see the sense in things like extending certain employment benefits to cover spouses, and I can even see why the government might want to offer incentives so that people will remain married, as the partner who works at home is in an extremely vulnerable position where, despite the value of their own labour, they are entirely dependent on their spouse for their livelihood.

This is really all to say that when women were considered to be mostly or wholly dependent creatures, the government had good reason to encourage men to commit to supporting a wife, thus removing her from the risk of needing social assistance. It made sense to grant more privileges to a man who accepted someone as his wife, because he was benefiting the government in turn.

But this not really the case today. Sure, sharing a living space with someone can reduce one’s expenses and make it easier to afford a good quality of life. So, in some ways, couplehood has certain advantages, and once again, it may be in society’s best interest to encourage people to share living spaces and expenses, to reduce their risk of needing social assistance. But I see no reason why, in this context, romantic couples should be treated any differently than roommates of other varieties. Roommates would surely benefit from being eligible for each other’s health insurance benefits, and it would make their lives easier in the same way that spouses lives are improved by this privilege. Again, we seem to think that the love shared by the romantic couple makes them more deserving of this kind of extra financial support, but the difference between the couple that is so very in love and sharing finances, and two friends who are similarly sharing expenses and splitting household chores, has zero societal value, and there is no purpose to privileging one arrangement over the other (I really cannot stress this enough).

So, what else do couples do? Well, sometimes one partner becomes a primary caregiver to the other if they become disabled in some way. Again, I can see here why it might be beneficial to society to encourage such an arrangement. But again, I see no reason why this arrangement is made more valuable by romantic love than it is when one friend takes on responsibility for another’s care, or when a child takes over the are of their parent. There are sometimes certain tax benefits available to people in the latter situation, but these benefits don’t hold a candle to those offered to married people.

I really just don’t see the purpose (in terms of societal benefit) of perpetuating the civil institution of marriage, and it is for this reason that I’m beginning to favour abolition. If there are no general societal benefits resulting from the privileging of romantic couples over single people, over close friends, and over other family formations and social support structures, then marriage is nothing more than a purposeless and patently discriminatory institution (even when it is made available to straight and queer people alike).

I do want to reiterate, though, that I do not believe that marriage is a valueless social institution. I believe that romantic love is special and magical and life-changing and important and worthy of celebration. The commitment that my partner and I have made to each other is immensely valuable to me, and even has some value to the people in our lives who are concerned about our happiness. And I also understand the cultural and religious value of marriage ceremonies. I just don’t see why anyone not impacted by the couple’s decision should care, and I certainly don’t see how it benefits society at large to grant privileges to people who make the decision to marry.