Things

Aborting Guilt

“I got something to say
I killed a baby today
And it doesn’t matter much to me
As long as it’s dead”

As I’ve discussed earlier in my “(Un)Planned (Un)Parenthood” posts, I had an abortion just over a year ago, almost to the day. While some might say I killed a baby, I’m not as cavalier about it as Glenn Danzig in The Misfits’ “Last Caress” lyrics above (which horrifically continue with raping mothers and killing even more babies). My baby was not yet a baby by definition. It was an unborn, unformed embryo, and removing it from an environment in which it it could live—thus resulting in its death—did matter so much to me.

The most salient emotions from my whole abortion experience were relief and guilt. It’s been reportedthough I’m unsure if this website is factually accurate since it reads more like pro-life propagandathat 55% feel guilt and 10% have reported more serious “psychiatric complications” like diagnosed depression.  Fortunately, I, like 95% of those who have had an abortion, don’t regret the decision. This longitudinal study from PLOS also counters the pro-life narrative that all abortions are emotionally damaging, recommends counseling for those having difficulty coping with their abortion, and concludes that the intensity of negative emotions and frequency of thinking about the abortion will also decrease over time. I’m not attempting to discount anyone’s experiences, only provide my own experiences and provide information I’ve collected.

Guilty or Not Guilty

I don’t know if I would’ve even delivered a healthy baby, but I do know I prevented the thing growing in my womb from becoming a person. And I don’t want to do that again.

A year later, I feel guilty because:

  • I ended a life before its life began.
  • A couple, family friends who were my second pair of parents, had wanted children for the decade I’ve known them. To this day they don’t have children. And there are so many who want biological children and are unable to have them.
  • I was able to get an abortion, while many aren’t able due to lack of access or financial support.
  • I could’ve not terminated the pregnancy and given the child up for adoption.

On the other hand, I don’t feel guilty because:

  • What I aborted was not even an autonomous being yet. At eight weeks it was just a mass of cells without lungs to breathe, a brain to think, or eyes to see!
  • I shouldn’t blame myself for parents not being unable to conceive. Perhaps I will serve as a surrogate or donate eggs in the future to help those who can’t have children.
  • The option to have a safe abortion was there, so I took advantage of it. I petition to make medical and surgical abortions available, as well as donate to local and national abortion providers. I aim to volunteer more with these providers and use my experiences to help others.
  • I would probably feel even more guilty giving a child up for adoption, relinquishing all my responsibility for them and enabling them to be absorbed into the foster care system and possibly have a terrible life.

Friends who were pregnant when I was and continued their pregnancies now have 6-month-old kids. It’s still odd to think that could be my kid, curly or straight hair, brown or blue eyes like theirs, perhaps speaking its first words. At the end of the day, when my friends-cum-parents are up all night trying to calm their sleepless babes, the only thing I’m truly guilty of is making the right decision for myself.

I wish the stigma surrounding abortion were removed, and safe abortion options were readily available and affordable for all. Weigh your options and make the best choice for you. There’s nothing wrong with seeking help with pre- and post-abortion emotions.

Be kind to yourself (as the first link below advocates!).

Additional resources on post-abortion emotions:
Positive experience:
Women’s Health Options, Emotional Support
Early Options, Guilty
The Telegraph, More than 95 per cent of women don’t regret their abortions
Mic, 90% Of Women Feel Relieved After Abortion
BBC News, From relief to regret: Readers’ experiences of abortion

Negative experience:
Weebly Tatt Words (these are quite ridiculous)
OMG there’s sad Pinterest quotes!
Women Who’ve Had Abortions
LiveAction, 8 heartbreaking quotes from post-abortive women

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I Know What You Read Last Summer (Super Belated!)

Summer 2017 is further away than summer 2018, yet I still haven’t put fingers to keyboard and typed about the books I read last year. Continuing the spirit of #notwomensfiction, reading books only by and about women from July through September, this post chronicles my literary selections (includes some read before and after summer). I’m writing this 5 months later, so my memory is as fresh as mid-winter grocery produce (read: not at all).

What I Read

I finally got to chip away at the dusty towers of books in my room, reading the following that I’ve neglected for a few years:

(That being said, I’ll aim to actually buy some books and support women writers next year.)

What I Saw

Before reading her novel, I had heard an excerpt of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You when I saw her at a local bookshop in 2015. This was the only book in this summer’s lineup that I was familiar with in terms of content, though I did have expectations of the grim subject matter in Joyce Carol Oates’s story collection having read her previously. The other two I only had a shallow inkling from each front cover image and back cover/jacket synopsis.

Here are their covers:

  • Getting Mother’s Body: The understated, minimalist cover prefaces a book that is anything but. While the Western typography and stars prepared me for a wild ride in a place I used to call home, the coy woman’s face drew me in and beckoned me to hear her story. With flapper curls and a necklace of pearls, she looks like she belongs to a bygone era. Is she the mother? Where is her body and where does it need to go? Why and how are they getting her body?
  • Everything I Never Told You: I love swimming, though I can’t recall any books I’ve read about swimmers. The cover depicts a female swimmer surrounded in an endless blue that matches her bathing suit, with sloppy cursive lettering superimposed on the water. Is this the girl’s handwriting? If so, to whom did she never tell everything?
  • Black Dahlia & White Rose: Dahlias and roses, adorning this purple cover, are two of my favorite flowers, and JCO is one of my favorite (or at least most frequented) writersa winning combination, or so I had thought. The Black Dahlia conjured images of Hollywood noir, so I knew this would include some difficult content around the mutilation of the young Elizabeth Short in 1947. Who or what is the White Rose?
  • Incubus: The title is a *dead* giveaway of the book’s creepy contents. If this were marketed to men, the cover would no doubt resemble a pulp magazine or late night B movie, helpless woman with torn clothes and a buxom body draped over a monster’s arms. Though the cover is quite boring (red-orange hued with a church steeple in the foreground), I appreciate there not being a sexploitation element to attract readers.

What I Learned

  • Getting Mother’s Body: Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks’s debut novel conjures women who recklessly follow their own pursuits, defying men, poverty, racism, and whatever else gets in their way. Set mostly in Texas and partly in Arizona in the 1960s, Getting Mother’s Body follows a cast of characters all associated with the titular mother Willa Mae, a cunning,  light-skinned black woman whose memory haunts each. The protagonist Billy Beed, daughter of Willa Maea spunky, stubborn teenager who becomes pregnant and contemplates an abortion despite having no money and having lost her mother to a botched abortionis the epitome of a strong, independent woman. And in Dill Smiles, Willa Mae’s last lover, is defined by her queerness; her peers consider her a man more than a woman. As lyrical as it is heartbreaking, Getting Mother’s Body is an unforgettable ode to the strength, resilience, and cleverness of womenparticularly women of colorin times of adversity.

Questions:
1. How does Getting Mother’s Body reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
2. Getting Mother’s Body is reminiscent of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Toni Morrison’s Sula. How does fiction by and about black women fit into “women’s fiction”? Is this a category dominated by and about white women?
3. Characters in Getting Mother’s Body are inextricable from their race, class, gender, and ability. How does intersectionality play a role in women’s fiction?

  • Everything I Never Told You: A literary whodunit (but not quite) that focuses on the characters’ secret inner lives to unravel the cause of a favorite child’s death, Everything I Never Told You depicts the conflicts and grief an interracial family experiences in 1970s small-town America. Celeste Ng creates layered characters, unmasking an increasingly dysfunctional family throughout the novel. While the death of daughter Lydia Lee is the central question of the novel, Ng probes further into questions of identity and place. Lydia’s mother, a white woman who faces discrimination as a woman in a medical academic program full of men (that she reluctantly leaves and never returns to when she becomes pregnant), is scorned by her mother when she marries a Chinese-American man. Lydia’s father is obsessed with cultural assimilation, ashamed of his heritage when he is also discriminated against for his racial Otherness. And the children, whose lives are tainted by their parents’ insecurities, the shadow of their dead sister, and their own Otherness. Lydia’s death by drowning (hence the swimming girl on the cover), which we find out to be accidental rather than a murder or suicide, is a symbol of the characters’ unfulfilled potential and broken futures. Her death also signals in the end that there is hopethat one day the world will be a more welcoming and inclusive place.

Questions:
1. How does Everything I Never Told You reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
2. I haven’t seen any other explicitly biracial or mixed raced characters in the “women’s fiction” that I’ve read. I would like to read more! Any recommendations?
3. While Lydia is the child everyone is fixated on, the siblings Nath (older brother) and Hannah (younger sister) are integral to the family dynamic and plot. How do different family configurations inform the characters in fiction by and for women?

  • Black Dahlia & White Rose: Though I meant to read full novels for this exploration, I include this unlinked short story collection here. This was probably the most disappointing JCO I’ve read, though the titular story “Black Dahlia & White Rose” was the strongest and most evocative (albeit really dark and disturbing). In this piece I found it fascinating to read about Marilyn Monroe before she became the iconic sex symbol, and her relationship with another Hollywood starlet. Overall this collection touched on themes pertaining to womens lived experiences: broken marriages, violence against women, sexual objectification, absentee fathers and the Electra complex, fat shaming, women’s sexuality, inequity and feelings of inadequacy. I won’t read this again since JCO has much better offerings.

Questions:
1. How does Black Dahlia & White Rose reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
2. There are elements of biography and nonfiction in the titular story about Elizabeth Short (Black Dahlia) and Norma Jeane (Marilyn Monroe/White Rose). How does fact-based information or research inform the fictional elements of “women’s fiction”?
3. How does form (short story, flash, novel) influence content in this genre?

  • Incubus:  I read this book in September/October to prep for Halloween, but this book didn’t give me the titillating chills it promised. TBH the scariest thing about this book was how awful it was, despite it receiving a starred Kirkus review. Yeah, let’s make this narrator woman do even more domestic tasks to ward off an evil sex demon, who has in a way enabled women to fulfill their own marital desires (yay feminism?)! Unfortunately, the narrator’s agency is expressed through housekeeping by the end of the book. There were also pointless subplots and obvious motifs, not to mention xenophobia and ableism. I thought this would be a sexy horror story for bored housewives with vaginas drier than Dry Falls, Maine, (the setting of this terrible book) but Ann Arensberg seems to support sexism rather than subvert it.

Questions:
1. How does Incubus reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
2. I’ve always loved Gothic stories. The common categorizations of the Gothic genre are the Male Gothic and Female Gothic (though that doesn’t incorporate queering of the genre). Does Incubus fit into the Male or Female Gothic tradition? How does Incubus in this genre fit into “women’s fiction”?
3. How does Incubus as horror fit into “women’s fiction”? Is horror for women considered “women’s fiction”? What about horror by but not necessarily for women?

That’s all for now, but I look forward to reading more #notwomensfiction this upcoming summer. I also need to diversify my book choices. Leave your reading suggestions below!

Phantom Emb(ryo)

Again, it has been many moons since the last post, as my motivation to write and desire to document my pregnancy experiences are equally low. Halloween and my would-have-been due date are just around the corner, so it’s only appropriate to tell a (gestational) ghost story.

Eight months in and I would be about ready to burst, What to Expect When You’re Expecting expectedly paged, nursery (if I had one) predictably painted, and diapers stocked for Armageddon in an ideal, prepared parent’s world. Instead of a pineapple-sized fetus living in my womb, my stomach has become home to all the delicious pineapple devoured this summer.

Mine is a vaguely flat tummy, a little flabby and cuddled by love handles as it’s always been, but lately I’ve felt a foreign emptiness there when I see pregnant colleagues all round and full, bellies as big as mine would be. I admire how their unborn babies unapologetically take up space, how their mothers wield new bodies like precious weapons. When they pass in hallways or hold office baby showers, my hand flies to my stomach without thought. Nothing is there.

I had the abortion long before the embryo became a fetus with feisty legs, so I didn’t experience the kicks common in later trimesters. But seeing other pregnant people induces within me odd reactions; a flutter of butterflies tries to mimic the quickening of a fetus’s limbsthe fetus a phantom limb itself. I don’t feel stress, anxiety, or depression as many others who have had abortions do (referred to as Post Abortion Stress Syndrome/PASS to be discussed later), but I just feel strange, dissociated, as if I’ve been cast in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers.

But I do feel relieved more than anything. That could be me.

Speaking of strange physical phenomena, there’s also phantom pregnancy or pseudocyesis, when one experiences symptoms of pregnancy without actually being pregnant. And sympathetic pregnancy or Couvade syndrome, when the expectant person’s partner experiences similar pregnancy symptoms.

The body is a weird, wonderful, worrisome thing.

Do you have similar experiences or other weird pregnancy stories? Share them below, if you wish.

Time for more pineapple!

Some resources on weird pregnancy things
(I am not a doctor, so these are not meant to be prescriptive!!):
Pseudocyesis and Couvade syndrome
BabyMed, “What Is a Phantom or False Pregnancy – Pseudocyesis”
ParentingDad’s Pregnancy Symptoms: More Than Just Sympathy Pain?”
The Independent, “Couvade Syndrome”

Quickening
The Atlantic, Abortion in American History” 
Slate, He Took It Into His Head to Frisk a Little’”
Mirror, I FELT BABY KICK 10 WKS AFTER MY ABORTION”  

 

Abortion from Abstinence

In an ironic plot twist, I found myself pregnant shortly after posting February’s piece on celibacy.

If you know me at all, you know that I had an abortion, that it wasn’t so much a choice than an imperative. (Though I’m immensely thankful to even have the privilege to choose an alternative, especially one that is safe.) Gal pals and I would have conversations about reproductive rights back in college, mostly joke about being pregnant when a period was a little late because it was some freak Final Destinationesque accident that couldn’t happen to us.

But what we didn’t want to conceive ofconceptionisn’t as implausible as we thought.

I’m now 24, and no more prepared for parenthood. To think I was somehow immune from encountering that embryonic actuality is absurd beyond Camus: I’ve never been on the pill, have had unprotected sex with a couple partners more than a wombful of times, have taken Plan B (or its off-brand equivalent) twice.

I don’t even want children—or at least not yet. Other than mothering a beloved late feline friend, I honestly don’t know if I have a maternal bone in my body. I don’t remember when I last held a human infant, or if I ever had.

This Mother’s Day I’m especially grateful for my maternal figures and friends my age who have had one, two, more kids. How do you do it?! You are amazing!

And also grateful that I’m not yet a mother; I would be about 5 months in at this point, baby the size of a banana (according to this meticulous and a little ridiculous mapping of a human fetus compared to edible items).

In support of #shoutyourabortion, the next few posts in the series “(Un)Planned (Un)Parenthood” will be about my experiences with abortion, addressing topics including personal guilt/shame, privilege, and bodily autonomy.

Thanks for always being here for me. I’m here for you.

Let’s Talk About Sex: Celibacy and Self-Love

January is almost at a close, and the desire to reform oneself wanes with the warmth of winter sun. Not usually one for New Year’s resolutions, I broke tradition in 2016 by taking a personal vow—of celibacy. By the end of the following week I had already failed, but was able to reset and keep this promise until July.

To discredit myself, in having a choice about my sex life I am speaking from a position of sexual privilege, engaging in normalized sex acts that are hetero, cisgender, mostly vanilla (though not generally with white people), able-bodied, monogamous, and pleasurable. Not to mention even having the opportunity and ability to have a choice (and not to dismiss rape culture or all the other atrocities occurring in the world either). In discussing this aspect of my personhood, I do not mean to brag or belittle, only to untangle its role in relationship to myself and my interactions with others in order to become a better human.

Those who are sexually privileged probably wonder why I would willingly abstain from the thing that has been compared to music and prayer (make of that what you will), and to me is essentially chocolate. Though with one I burn more calories, I could partake in both all day, every day, and if I don’t get a taste for days/weeks/months, I grow cold and cranky. As with chocolate, I tend to have an unhealthy relationship with sex—overindulging, regretting, refraining, then lapsing. I wouldn’t necessarily identify as an addict, neither nymphomaniac nor chocoholic, but my need for serotonin satiation has impaired my judgment on several occasions.

About to Shock Some Ppl: A Recent History (Or, Things I Don’t Tell My Family—Look Away Now!)

A handful of years ago, after a breakup destroyed my ability to feel feels (I was so naïve at the time), I dabbled in the clubbing scene. I had had only two partners (not the dancing kind) previously, but during a brief period between ages 21 and 22 hooking up—a byproduct of the clubbing scene—was a new kind of fun that ushered me into the world of one-night stands. During that time I had stupid sex with stupid people. I would thrust myself in questionable situations for a hedonistic high, though nothing so extreme or dangerous as in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac series.

My mantra used to be: “Dumb guys are good for fucking, smart guys are good for dating.” So I dated the smart ones and fucked the dumb ones. And the sex was exhilarating and reckless—until I became disgusted with myself. My body grew bruised, used, until I felt nothing. I used them as much as they used me—isn’t that what hookup culture is all about? The only app meetup I’d had ended in a trip to CVS for anti-fungal ointment and hemorrhoid wipes. Sex was a game, a passionless pursuit and quest for a “zipless fuck.” It was a quick chemical fix to feel good, yet I carelessly ignored the repercussions—especially those times certain pieces of myself were trespassed and trampled like neighborhood turf.

How lucky nothing worse had happened.

In 2015, the year I disrespected my body most, I had three partners—a guy who I was dating at the time, the above stranger, and a guy friend with benefits. In 2015, sex was dissatisfying and dysphoric. Sometimes I didn’t feel anything physically—no friction, no dopamine—instead, I mostly felt numb after. I would paddle the pink canoe just to feel something until everything hurt.

Partner 1: I liked him enough at the time and I was his “girl” and gringa hermosa; however, our relationship was doomed to fail. We weren’t carnally compatible at all (and his work visa was going to expire), so we were both content to move on. Sometimes I would regret sleeping with him, wish I could separate myself from my body and erase the embarrassment of our awkward anatomies slamming together.

Partner 3: My body betrayed me. I needed a place to crash in the expensive city where my friend lives. We’ve slept together several times (I even loved him as more than a friend at one point), but no one makes me feel more skeeved out and self-conscious than he does. He’s honestly the last person I’d sleep with, but I guess that’s what happens when I share a bed with raging hormones. We didn’t touch each other as we nodded off, but I knew he was ready to go. He generously asked me if I wanted to too, and, half-asleep, my body responded. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want it—especially not with him—but he and this shell of sensuality won. I lay there unmoving, defeated, waiting for it to be over so I could sleep. Then when he finished (I didn’t), I went to the bathroom and glared at the horny hijacker in the mirror. How could my body do this to me? How could I do this to myself? (Perhaps I was just experiencing post-coital tristesse, or feelings of depression after getting it on/in?)

There were also those whose numbers I’d swapped with the intention of swapping other things: “nice guy” on bus, baseball guy on train, security details guy on campus. At my worst I’m Mr. Hyde, a mal intent sexual opportunist (only with their consent, of course) collecting contacts as a body count.

2016 was to be a year of respite.

But it didn’t last. On January 2nd, the bootycall at home (a guy I dated in college) beckoned and I answered. I answered again in July, breaking seven months of sexlessness, but I didn’t care. I always enjoyed sleeping with him; ours was the sex that seemed infinite. He was the first person who worshiped my body and taught me to too. And we fit together so well. I wondered why I stuck to this thing. Sex—when I’m not just an object to my partner or me—is magic. I revised the resolution, refined it to getting naked only with someone I liked as a human being.

Easier said than done. Questioning my motivations and still ignoring my best interests, I almost broke it again with a 30-something dudebro I met clubbing (return of the itch for idiotic boy toys). We Snapchatted for a week, and I’m glad I didn’t ever meet up with him, especially since I didn’t know him at all.

But I did end up briefly becoming bedfellows with an unexpected someone the following month. Coitus was confusing and accidental at first, but with him I never felt disgusted with myself. Our Netflix and chill sessions weren’t code for fucking—but when we did, he was generous, gentle, and grateful. Even though his bed was lofted and a bitch to climb onto, even though he never used protection (which once necessitated a morning after purchase of off-brand Plan B), even though he’s 20 years my senior, and even though I got a UTI, he was more than sex to me. I was ready to give more than my body again. Actually caring about this person as a person, genitals aside, enabled me to break out of this damning sexual cycle.

Life Lessons

Sex—both the pursuit and the consummation—had been more important to me than developing an emotional attachment with these poor sods. There’s nothing wrong with casual sex if it’s consensual, but indulging my id at the expense of myself and others had made me an awful person. Sex isn’t an anti-romantic game for me anymore. Perhaps it’s because I’m on the cusp of 25, and have relinquished those wild nights (as Emily Dickinson can attest to) in favor of safety and self-fulfillment. This stint of celibacy provided a transformative space for retroactive introspection, particularly of the auto-erotic kind.

What being celibate taught me about myself:

  1. Sex shouldn’t influence or determine my self-worth.

I’d do it all for the nookie, like riding in cars with boys I don’t know, riding on boys in cars. I engaged in these hazardous behaviors partly because the chase—not even the sex itself—made me feel wanted and desired. That someone was attracted to me was even more euphoric than orgasm itself. In The Sex Myth, journalist Rachel Hills explores the values Western culture attaches to sex, positing misperceptions or myths that we create and perpetuate. Like one of her interview subjects, “[Not having sex] made me feel like I was worthless.” I realize I’m not alone, falsely believing that my fundamental worth as a person or a partner is a product of my attractiveness. Sex shouldn’t be “a matter of proving something to yourself and to others.”

  1. Celibacy and sexlessness are as valid experiences as a sexual relationship is. Or eating chocolate is.

Sex isn’t the most you can have that isn’t laughing (a pedophile said that anyway). To believe so completely discredits the lived lives of asexual and celibate folx. Putting sex on a pedestal alienates those who don’t or can’t have it. This piece in Thought Catalog captures the feelings of abnormality, insecurity, and loneliness some asexual people feel about dating.

Society shouldn’t stigmatize those who find pleasure in life outside of spooning and forking. Can’t we feel valued and fulfilled through reading a favorite book, participating in social activism, eating chocolate? One woman recounted her 12-year period of celibacy as one of her “happiest. It was so important to me, and so misunderstood by society. I want people to understand that being celibate can be as nourishing and fulfilling as being in a relationship.” Not having sex (whatever variety of it) doesn’t make one deficient or inferior—and having more of it doesn’t make one superior.

  1. Not everyone is doing the do. Not everyone is doing the do in the ways you expect.

I thought the people I know constantly had sex. A female friend, smart, funny, absolutely beautiful, confessed she hadn’t slept with anyone for six months. I was shocked.

Another sex myth is that everyone is doing it all the time, as we’re led to believe by the media. But we’re not rabbits in heat. College, for example, isn’t always the holy grail of alcoholic orgies and girls gone wild it’s cracked up to be (at least it wasn’t in my social circles). In 2015 (also the year that catapulted my sexual sabbatical), New York Magazine polled 700 college students and found that 39% were virgins at the time of the survey. Additionally, Millennials (aka “the hookup generation”), are surprisingly having less sex than Gen Xers—with less partners and more likely to “abstain in their twenties altogether.”

Not everyone has casual sex either. I was also surprised that some of my friends (particularly those in long-term relationships or marriages) have only ever had one or two or three partners. I’m only competing with myself, and shouldn’t hold me or anyone else to a culturally fabricated standard.

Gimme Gimme More

Hills ends The Sex Myth with a reaffirming revelation: “You are not your sex life.” To believe that your “value and identity lay in something more than how often [you have] sex, how many people [you have] slept with, or how adventurous (or not) [you are] between the sheets” does a great disservice not only to yourself but to others. Theoretically my feminism doesn’t view people as sex objects, yet in actuality I was the one objectifying while being objectified. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love thy neighbor as thyself.

Closed for business coupled with the dreaded Valentine’s Day, I feel more alone than usual, but will not allow Cupid’s bow to fuck up my recent sexless streak. I will be more considerate of myself, caring toward my mental and physical health. Id is now did.

No more perpetuating sex myths. No more hookups. No more walks of shame.

Just me.

***

Does sex influence your self-perception? Do you have any stories of or lessons from celibacy?

Other Stories
Kit Naylor’s “15 years without knocking boots”
Precious Princess’s “My Self-Imposed Sexual Sabbatical” 

A Summer of #notwomensfiction (Belated)

Fall is here. Has been for about a month now. The air is crisp, cool, and every #basicwhitegirl is coming out of the woodwork for pumpkin spice lattes.

But enough of stereotyping women for their preferred seasonal beverage…I’m the one you should smh at.

Back in June we examined what women’s fiction is as a genre/reading category, how it’s inherently Othered because there is no “men’s fiction,” and how to destroy it with the #notwomensfiction campaign. Summer is passed and past, and I unintentionally took a three-month hiatus from the blog (I’m so sorry!). Though belated, I guess it’s fitting to bookend the expired summer with the results of this reading challenge.

What I Read

In the span of three (or really four at this point) months, I had a terrible run—with only three books read in total. I wanted to read so much more to support women writers, but I was focused on the job search, moved to a new apartment, finished up classes, got lazy, some other weird things…But no excuses! This is what I read:

  1. Paulina & Fran by Rachel B. Glaser, 2015
  2. Cutting Loose by Nadine Dajani, 2008
  3. The Daughters by Adrienne Celt, 2016 (as soon as I went to add this to my Goodreads shelf, an ad for the new book The Mothers bannered across the top of the page. How pleasantly ironic!

the-mothers

Screenshot from Goodreads.

What I Saw

Don’t judge a book by its cover, goes the old adage. Yet “women’s fiction” is too often visually coded as less serious than “regular” fiction (or fiction by men). To recap the posts that began this campaign, covers unconsciously factor into the bias against fiction by and about women, especially when their designs feature pastels, stereotypically “girly” things (pumpkin spice latte, anyone?), and/or fonts like  curlz mt.GIF. (And in publishing, covers drive sales, whether or not the author is self-published.)

Here are the covers of the three books:

covers-in-row

Before actually encountering these books in person, I had never heard of them. They were all free (also not supporting these women writers, so I should be ashamed of myself!), floating around campus, in little neighborhood drop-and-swaps, or at publishing conventions. I had no expectations, other than what the covers and back copy visually communicated.

  • Paulina & Fran: Tons of copies were scattered throughout my college program’s department lounge, so I nabbed one. The title indicates the relationship between two women, as does its cover, featuring, presumably, their faces. Who are they? (An alternate 2016 cover removes the sense of sorority that this cover establishes.) Cursive font. Nothing is strikingly feminine about this cover other than the two female faces looking away from each other and the reader—in fact, they may be resisting the male gaze in their lack of sexualization and inattention to the gazer.
  • Cutting Loose: Just from the cover, I know this book isn’t my cup of tea. The three women running toward the reader, splashing along the shore of a beach with their backlit hair blowing in the ocean breeze seems very much “chick lit.” But also interesting starry patterns and palm trees—which make me homesick. Almost curlicue font. Knowing this is a book I would turn away from based on its cover, I needed to give it a chance (or else I would be perpetuating the women’s-fiction-made-even-lesser-because-of-its-cover stigma).
  • The Daughters: Trees (notably bare) and script and deep blue and pale yellow—there’s no overt labeling on this cover. The title hints to matrilineage, yet this is definitely the least gendered of these books’ designs. Trees on covers are common enough, but trees in this book turn out to be where women seduce their prey (i.e., men). Maybe this aspect of nature is hinting to the Mother (Mother Nature)?

Random observation: All of their blurbers are women.

Other random observation: Nobel Prizes don’t have gendered literature categories. Thanks!

What I Learned

Since I had no knowledge of these novels’ plots, no inklings of the writing, and no expectations of either, I tried to go into this campaign as open minded as possible, ready to learn. I wouldn’t say I loved each of these novels, but they definitely weren’t particularly unlikeable solely because they were about women (see “80 Books No Woman Should Read” for writer Rebecca Solnit’s analysis of the persistence of the all-male literary canon).

Behind their covers, each expose different facets of women’s lives. These depictions of womanhood, interior and exterior, surprised me in their depth (that’s terrible of me!). Rather than the endless heteronormative white wet dreams Nicholas Sparks softcore romances offer to mainstream women’s fiction/romance readers, relationships between women and men aren’t the focal point of the fiction I read (spoilers ahead).

  • Paulina & Fran: Raw, witty, and empowering, this more literary work of fiction is an ode to women as friends, enemies, sisters, and lovers. The eponymous protagonists’ relationships are central to the plot, while men—infatuations or gay BFFs—are auxiliary (How auxiliary? “She’d once called James a dildo with eyes.”) distractions from Paulina and Fran’s barely-consummated love; the real romance is the electrifying, yet frustratingly unfulfilled, connection between the narrators. Rachel Glaser’s women are powerful, creative geniuses who reach self-actualization (for the most part) and develop artistic and business acumen that propel them beyond petty flings with college boys. This is probably the first lesbian fiction I’ve read since Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, and it’s just as bleak and real.

Here are some questions I had after reading:

  • How does Paulina & Fran reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
  • To be frank, Paulina is a bitch. Are protagonists in women’s fiction required to be likeable?
  • If romance in traditional women’s fiction is generally populated by heterosexual couples (this is pure observation via Nicholas Sparks), how do (or should) lgbtq+ relationships fit into the women’s fiction category if there’s gay and lesbian fiction as well?
  • Cutting Loose: The cover doesn’t depart too much from the actual contents of the book on the surface—babes on a beach. Yet the characters’ multicultural heritages offer a layer of unexpected complexity. Nadine Dajani’s cast of women is a spectrum of rich/poor, young/old(er), thin/curvy, married/unmarried, virgin/whore, breaking these dichotomies to reveal people and motivations beneath their labels. There’s lots of boring description of clothes and makeup that went over my head, like a Sex and the City on Miami Beach, but these Latina and Muslim WOC bring to the fore issues of colonialism and globalism in American media, and with it intersectional feminism and rebuking the Stepford wife stereotype. Among a cast of chaste brides, rejected playboys, arranged marriages, and gay or abusive husbands, the women band together despite their religious beliefs, political views, cultures, and social classes. This book is all about female liberation, positive sexuality, questioning gender roles, and women’s lived lives. Though the ending is predictably happily ever after with hetero romances, this is what I want “chick lit” to be.
  • How does Cutting Loose reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
  • Ranya is like a Disney princess, but is more than the Jasmine that meets the eye. How do gender roles play into “chick lit” and women’s fiction?
  • Is there a multicultural/postcolonial women’s fiction genre?
  • The Daughters: This lyrical literary work is as enveloping as a vagina, with its operatic musical scores and potential Freudian symbolism. As the novel’s title suggests, there are maternal bonds, (umbilical) cords that become tangled, frayed, and broken. Embedding these strands within family lore to develop female relationships fraught with jealousy and postpartum depression, Adrienne Celt explores generations of women as both caregivers and black widows who sacrifice anything—even their husbands/lovers and sons—for their daughters. She is not the Othered half of a heterosexual relationship, but rather her agency (via her daughter) is achieved through exploiting and disposing of men, similar to Paulina & Fran. With absentee mothers and unknown motherlands, WWII and the Holocaust, and gruesome Polish folk tales, this work of “women’s fiction” is as darkly serious as it gets.
  • How does The Daughters reaffirm or counter the “women’s fiction” narrative/motifs?
  • Anti-Semitism serves as an impetus for the protagonist’s family to move to America. How does fiction by and/or about Jewish women fit into women’s fiction in America? How are Jewish women represented in women’s fiction (as both/either characters or writers)?
  • Motherhood is almost toxic in this novel, and the nuclear family is practically nonexistent. How has women’s fiction evolved over time to reflect woman-as-more-than-mother and the dissolution of the family unit?

#notwomensfiction Online

Clearly men are Othered themselves in these three novels, so why is this genre or category? This campaign made me even more acutely aware of my own bias toward chick lit in particular and women’s fiction in general. To me, this type of reading is like the Lifetime channel of books—awful acting, awful stories, and my mom loves it.

But wait a sec, rebranded Lifetime has some awesome feminist promos now:

lifetime

Photo screenshot from the Fempire Diaries.

I plan to continue this campaign every summer—hopefully reading more! Next year, I aim to read women’s fiction about or by transwomen, multicultural and multiracial women, and women with disabilities (please provide suggestions/recommendations for these or anything else I should read!).

Thank you so much to those who participated in this campaign on Twitter and Instagram.

You’ve brought to my attention some great books by women, about women, not necessarily for women, all while dismantling the literary patriarchy.

Like this:

A photo posted by Shabnam (@dew.drop.diary) on Jun 24, 2016 at 2:12am PDT

And thanks, readers, for your continued support of Things He Says!

Share your thoughts/recommendations below!

Meditations on Menstruation: 120th Blood

I’m a late bloomer. I lost my first tooth in third grade, when I was 8, and had to have my last baby teeth pulled (they weren’t even loose) when I was 16.

In middle school my female friends would whisper about their periods as if they were part of some secret cult, another social clique I was excluded from. But that didn’t bother me. My mom scolded me for having Peter Pan syndrome when I refused to carry pads in my backpack for the first time I would require them, which ended up being during the summer.

You hear horror stories of period mishaps and unprepared first blood—my mom was at gym class and didn’t know what was happening (if I remember correctly)—but fortunately I was saved from this embarrassment, though going through puberty a little later than my peers. (The age ranges from 8 to 16, except in cases of precocious puberty, so I guess I’m pretty average.)

It was ten years ago this month, sometime after 6/6/06—I remember because that was when The Omen remake premiered and hysterics thought the apocalypse was upon us—and I was on summer break before freshman year of high school. We were visiting the Grand Canyon, and that’s probably the most memorable thing about this life-changing event. I guess I could have babies now and wear these absorbent vagina Band-Aids—cool.

And now I’m 120 periods later—more or less, with missed/late or blue moon periods (those rare and annoying twice-a-month ones). Many eggs have been unfertilized and uterine linings shed and I wonder how many gross diapers (a.k.a. pads), tampons, and wads of toilet paper were used to quell Aunt Flo. I like to minimize my carbon footprint in whatever way I can, recycling and using less plastic, etc., and I’m concerned about all these carcinogenic plastic things I’m putting into my body and then disposing. If the average woman throws out 250 to 300 pounds of feminine hygiene products in her lifetime, then how many dildos could I have already made with all the bloody plastic of shiny, opalescent applicators?

I’m ready to change this. I only use tampons—and I know some women can’t or don’t like using them—because I don’t like the feel of pads (I can’t stand a squeegee full of my innards resting between my butt cheeks). Compact tampons are awful; the applicator, though beautiful, is completely useless to me, so I bought a couple boxes of just the absorbent part this month. However, these are also trashed after use, require a shit-ton of energy to produce, and still are barely biodegradable—despite their claiming to be more environmentally friendly.

ob tampon.JPG

Not to mention, here’s a list of other negative effects they have on the environment:

  • “Waste production. Essentially, energy and non-renewable fuels are used while carbon emissions are created at every step of the production process and transportation of tampons. For instance, the polyester used in the formation of plastic tampon applicators is made from petrochemical substances and also requires a large amount of freshwater for cooling.
  • Harmful to wildlife. Similarly, the polyester lining and the plastic applicators from tampons on the North American market have been found to contain bisphenol A, an endocrine disruptor proven to have harmful effects on aquatic wildlife. Once disposed of in either waterways or landfills, this chemical leaches out into the environment and makes its way into the nearby ecosystems, carried by precipitation overflow (Davidson, 2012). …This creates a threat to marine ecosystems where the plastic waste collects (Sheavly and Register, 2007). The wildlife can confuse plastic tampon hulls for food, consuming them and then not being able to regurgitate the plastic.
  • Water pollution from disposal. Female sanitary hygiene products, especially tampons, are the most significant product disposed of in toilets that cause problems for the water management routes. This is troublesome since “debris, and particularly debris composed of plastic, is one of the world’s most pervasive pollution problems affecting our oceans and inland waterways” (Sheavly and Register, 2007).”

In this “Meditations on Menstruation” series I’ll get up close and personal with the blood we’re conditioned to gross out about and keep out of sight. My periods need peace of abdomen and peace of mind, so I’ll try more reusable and eco-friendly options and explore issues related to menstruation around the world—from the pink tax to period taboos.

What do you use? Is there anything not on the below list that you would recommend?

Green(er) products:
Lunapads
Divacup
Thinx
Sea Sponge
Glad Rags
Mooncup (silicone)
The Keeper (latex)

A Genre of One’s Own: Why Women’s Fiction?

In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf was tasked with speaking on women and fiction. She grappled what that meant in 1928, and invoked the names of literary goddesses Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Brontë sisters (among others) as exemplars of their time. Ultimately concluding the relationship of the two as “unsolved problems,” Woolf questioned the intersection of these concepts:

“The title women and fiction might mean, and you may have meant it to mean, women and what they are like, or it might mean women and the fiction that they write; or it might mean women and the fiction that is written about them, or it might mean that somehow all three are inextricably mixed together.”

Perhaps the convergence of the three culminates in what we call “women’s fiction” today.

Deconstructing Women’s Fiction

What’s women’s fiction?

“Women’s fiction” is a genre (or more of a category/reading interest) that’s as broad as it is disputed, so there’s not one definition.

Rebecca Vnuk, author of reference books on women’s fiction, delineates its thematic elements (and also offers examples here):

  • “The main character (or characters) is a female, and the story is character-driven.
  • The author is female—there are rarely exceptions to this rule.
  • A woman’s relationships are of highest plot importance.
  • The setting is usually contemporary. That isn’t to say that some historical fiction has women’s-fiction appeal, but if you are looking to slot a book into one category or another, historical fiction usually gets higher billing.
  • Love and romance may be present but are not the heart of the story.”

Basically, “A woman is the star of the story, and her emotional development drives the plot.” These themes hold primarily for mainstream or commercial women’s fiction rather than literary fiction (like your Toni Morrisons), where plots don’t just revolve around women’s relationships and the “reader spends more time admiring the author’s use of language than they do enjoying the story…If the book can be assigned in a college-level English class for a term paper, it’s probably not really women’s fiction.”

…Except when you’re taking a class on contemporary American women’s fiction at a university (like I did, and our curriculum began with Ella Price’s Journal and included Toni Morrison’s Love.

So I’m confused. Could women’s fiction be literary? Could romance (historical, contemporary) or erotica be women’s fiction? What about chick lit (for women in their twenties and thirties, originating with Bridget Jones’s Diary)?

Romance makes just that the central story arc and generally ends in a happily ever after, whereas general women’s fiction doesn’t.

romance
Romance books galore at Barnes & Noble.

But containing such overlapping components across these labels of fiction “means that there will always be arguments for calling one book women’s fiction, while a similar title is considered a romance or literary fiction, and so on.”

If anything is certain with women’s fiction, it’s that the phrase is used to refer to a particular market within the publishing industry, like on Goodreads and Amazon, enabling readers and publishers to more easily find what they’re looking for.

Dismantling Women’s Fiction

Women write and read fiction—and plenty of it. Women read more fiction than men and works by male writers comprise only 20% of the fiction market.

But the literary landscape is still rife with sexism on many counts. Even the way we refer to these novels inherently separates them from the rest of fiction. Notice that while there’s women’s fiction, there’s no equivalently named category of men’s fiction…like “literature is male by default.”

Author (of different types of fiction) Meg Wolitzer questions this gender identifier, stating that “Amazon is clearly trying to help readers find titles they want. But any lumping together of disparate writers by gender or perceived female subject matter separates the women from the men. And it subtly keeps female writers from finding a coed audience, not to mention from entering the larger, more influential playing field. It’s done all the time, and not just by strangers at parties or by various booksellers that have no trouble calling interesting, complex novels by women ‘Women’s Fiction,’ as if men should have nothing to do with them.”

Randy Susan Myers (another author of many fictions) shares her stance: “If you want to publish on Amazon, you must pick a category from a list of wide ranging possibilities that include ten sub-genres of women’s fiction and, zero that are labeled men’s fiction. The message is clear. Men are the norm. Women are a sub-category.” Or, as Woolf put it, “it is the masculine values that prevail.”

This bias toward patriarchal literature echoes what feminist theorist Simone de Beauvoir argued about gender relationships in The Second Sex—that woman “is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute—she is the Other.” This Otherness is the designation of something as different based on dichotomous modes of thought (like the biblical alterity of Eve to Adam, etc). Books by women, about women, and/or for women need to be referred to as women’s fiction because they’re Other, because The Man thinks they’re inferior. Is it women’s fiction just because it gives female characters agency, a voice, power?

Consequently, women’s fiction as a genre is stigmatized. Women’s fiction as Other means covers featuring pink or pastel colors, cursive script, makeup, jewelry, women doing women things, the word “girl” in the title, etc., when fiction by men doesn’t suffer from the same gendered designs. The bias against women’s fiction (whether or not the book is considered “literary”) stems in part from this visual branding, since “packaging literary fiction by women in frivolous-looking covers diminishes its perceived seriousness…Even when their artistic merits are equal, women writers often still lack the cultural authority of their male counterparts, and this rampant trashy branding contributes to that disparity.” The literary canon has long been dominated by white men, and they still reap the benefits in this systemically sexist society, even when women write and read more fiction.

TL; DR: Women’s fiction is belittled as a reading interest, while novels by/about dudes are somehow “superior.”

#notwomensfiction

Just as Woolf was excluded from academic spheres dominated by and only open to men—“This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me.”—so too are women relegated to the periphery as Other with this labeling of genres. Perhaps it’s a marketing ploy, but the women writers I met at AWP share a dislike for the label since their fiction is about women’s interior lives.

“Fiction by women is still being read differently, with the usual prejudices and preconceptions,” and it’s about time we engage with and counter this moniker and what it stands for.

In an era when antiquated occupational identifiers like “authoress” are obsolete—and even sound ridiculous—“We don’t need to call them writer-men and writer-women. We can call them writers. And we can call the novels they write just that. Novels.”

Like author Maureen Johnson called for an end to gendered covers with her “Coverflip,” I say we deconstruct and dismantle women’s fiction.

Since summer is nearly upon us—and that being the most popular time for beach reads (generally considered women’s fiction)—I’m going to read anything I can get my hands on this season that could/would fall under this category (by women, about women, but not necessarily for women), including multicultural, LGBTQIA, and disability narratives.

Women’s fiction is a slippery slope. (Innuendo? Maybe.) Let’s destroy it. Come read #notwomensfiction with me! Tweet @things_he_says_ or mention @things_he_says on Instagram, and use the hashtag #notwomensfiction!

Senioritis Is a First World Problem

Senior to Senioritis in 60 Seconds (or 60 Semesters)

Last weekend, on Mother’s Day, I graduated from a master’s program. I walked across another stage in another cap and gown to shake another president’s hand and receive another piece of paper emblazoned with my and the university’s names.

I’ve spent practically my whole life in school, studious existence structured by spring and fall semesters and pleasantly interrupted with winter, spring, and summer breaks. Preschool at three/four and five. Elementary school at six through ten. Middle school at eleven through thirteen. High school at fourteen through seventeen. College at eighteen through twenty-one. More voluntary college at twenty-two through twenty-three. I love learning, but sometimes this institution can feel like imprisonment impeding me from real life. At every stage of my life, from childhood to adulthood, there’s been school. And at every pre-graduation, there’s always been senioritis, or the nonmedical condition of being tired of homework and classes. Symptoms include fatigue, loss of appetite, and general IDGAF about anything anymore. It’s highly contagious, but treatable by prescribed vacations.

This graduation was no exception. I mentally checked out months before the school year ended. With educational enrollment as the most constant certainty in my life, the amount of times I’ve experienced senioritis outnumbers my romantic relationships.

And so we study (studying = student + dying) and suffer through the malady until school’s over, when we then joke about continuing higher education to acquire another advanced degree when job prospects are zero.

I’ve always been fortunate to have the ability to attend school with a backpack full of supplies and a lunchbox full of food—and the financial and emotional support of my parents enabling me to pursue my dreams without accruing debt out of college. To not go to school, to not be able to learn in a classroom setting, is unfathomable to me.

But what about those who don’t even have access to education, who don’t have the luxury of experiencing senioritis? What’s all this pomp and circumstance about when over 72 million children (in 2007) in developing countries and of primary/elementary school age aren’t enrolled? Just in the US, “40% of children living in poverty aren’t prepared for primary schooling” and they have higher absenteeism or leave school because they’re “more likely to have to work or care for family members.” And the statistics pile up.

The Importance of Being Educated

(Punning The Importance of Being Earnest, and referring to “educated” as the verb of going through the matriculation process, rather than the adjective of being a pretentious snob who thinks they’re better than everyone.)

Poverty and a general lack of resources (classrooms, teachers, etc.) are major barriers to education. Surprisingly, so is gender. Despite the paradoxical gender gap in K–12 and higher education in the US, where women earn more bachelor’s degrees than men, more than half of the estimated 101 million children not in school worldwide (taken from a different source) are girls. In Pakistan, for example, “58.7 percent of women and girls over 15 are illiterate,” as educating women is taboo. See the Global Education Monitoring Report for the bottom ten countries for educating females.

Instead of learning their alphabet and mathematical formulas, these girls are (or can be):

  • Relegated to the periphery in favor of male relatives. Due to “strong cultural norms favouring boys’ education when a family has limited resources,” girls often don’t have the same academic opportunities as boys.
  • Subject to gender-based violence. Over 200 million girls and women in 30 countries are victims of female genital mutilation (FGM, or cutting). Cutting can cause severe complications with urination, sexual intercourse, and pregnancy. Aside from this horrendous practice, even at school there may be “negative classroom environments” in which girls face “exploitation or corporal punishment” just because they’re the “wrong” gender.
  • Menstruating. Ridiculous, right? Due to social stigma and a dearth of safe and sanitary bathrooms and feminine products, “more than a fifth of girls [in Sierra Leone] miss school because of their periods. In Afghanistan and Nepal, three out of 10 girls miss school for the same reason…The issue is widespread–particularly in rural, remote areas, where it can lead to girls dropping out of school entirely.”
  • Performing marital and maternal duties. “Recent estimates show that one-third of girls in the developing world are married before age 18, and one-third of women in the developing world give birth before age 20.” This inevitably prioritizes childrearing and household duties over learning and school attendance.

If these girls had access to primary and secondary education, “child marriage would fall by 64 per cent, from almost 2.9 million to just over 1 million.”

In the inspirational words of education activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner (and straight up g who survived a gunshot wound from the Taliban on her way to school) Malala Yousafzai,

“I didn’t want my future to be imprisoned in my four walls and just cooking and giving birth.”

We need girls in school: “Providing girls with an education helps break the cycle of poverty: educated women are less likely to marry early and against their will; less likely to die in childbirth; more likely to have healthy babies; and are more likely to send their children to school. When all children have access to a quality education rooted in human rights and gender equality, it creates a ripple effect of opportunity that influences generations to come.”

We senioritis sufferers take for granted our fancy degrees and highfalutin credentials when millions are deprived of this basic human right from a young age. It’s difficult not to want to be finished with school when that’s all I’ve known, but our #FirstWorld senioritis only mocks this. Let’s quit this mentality and do something useful with our education by helping others. When every girl and boy in the world knows senioritis, then the world will be a better, more educated place.

Organizations fighting for girls’ education in the US and abroad:
Stand #withMalala
Let Girls Learn
Global Citizen Girls & Women
World Bank Group
Because I Am a Girl
Girl Effect Accelerator
World Vision Gender
United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative
Free the Children

Photograph: banner at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

 

Politeness ≠ Flirtation: Being Friendly Doesn’t Mean I’m DTF

Things He Says:

[Insert an omnipresent interpretation of my non-flirtatious behavior as flirtatious. There are too many things to name just one.]

Thing She Says:

My parents raised me to be polite. Call adults Mr., Mrs., or Ms. Say please and thank you. Don’t use profanity and don’t put your elbows on the table (ok, those last two rules remind me of a Victorian governess that I would gladly disobey).

Having these values ingrained into my identity dictates my interactions with others. I’ve taken pride in being known as a “sweet” girl throughout childhood and still being kind as an adult in a world full of rude assholes.

But too often this friendly behavior is misconstrued as flirtation.

NEWSFLASH! Just because I’m polite doesn’t mean I want anything to do with your genitals.

Here’s a helpful equation to remember this, easier than the quadratic formula:

Politeness ≠ Flirtation

See, more memorable than  quadratic

I can’t tell you how many unwanted comments, winks, numbers, inappropriate texts I’ve received from guys who I was only being a nice human being to.

There’s a middle-aged mailman friend who dropped off mail at the office I used to work in. He’s good company, a funny conversation break from the monotony of administrative tasks. When I left, I gave him my number so we could keep in touch and meet for lunch sometime. This past week we were supposed to have lunch, which we’ve had twice in six months—not often enough to show I’m interested in anything more than that. I offer to pay for my meal because it’s cheap food, but he always does. He always calls me “cute,” and I brush it off and change the subject. I’ve always kept it friendly—because I’m not interested—though he’s said things that have made me uncomfortable despite him being a nice person.

Though we were supposed to meet for lunch this week, I sent him a text asking for a raincheck because I’m sick. His reply angered me, made me feel even worse than whatever sickness I have. It made my stomach churn and probably caused my diarrhea (or maybe that was the virus—sorry, TMI). Before I had the chance to respond “Was that a joke? Because I’m not laughing,” he threw in an LOL and apologized.

rob text conversation

Like the other things he says, I let it go. He’s harmless, I tell myself.

Until he’s not. I don’t know if he would actually try anything, but I don’t want to find out. This time I shouldn’t have forgiven him. I hope my silence was enough to make that clear.

Chelsea Fagan explains why mistaking friendliness for flirtation isn’t always harmless, even when no harm is intended:

“I will give the men who have engaged in these kinds of uncomfortable, inappropriate acts the benefit of the doubt in assuming that most do not intend to hurt the woman they’re pursuing. But what is clear is that a boundary that has been set in body language, in tone, in clipped responses, is not being respected. A woman being polite and outgoing is perceived, at least on some level, as a wide-open door into which you are free to walk and behave yourself however you choose. If she clams up when you begin following her or insisting on continuing the exchange, you are somehow free to ignore that because of the initial friendliness she showed you. This is not okay.”

To the guys who think I’m flirting with them when I’m just trying to make friends, I’m sorry if you think I’m leading you on. But if I’ve told you that I’ve felt uncomfortable with something you’ve said before, then why do you keep doing it? If you know you’re going to apologize again, then don’t fucking do it. It makes my day turn sour and ruins our beautiful platonic relationship. It makes me afraid of what might happen next, from a come-on to a hard on—neither of which I want to encounter.

But the unwanted flirtation goes both ways, with men in the same predicament. There’s nothing wrong with flirting or being flirted with. But when that trespasses on someone’s comfort level then that’s not ok.

Was it too forward to give Mr. Mailman my number? I don’t give my number out too much, only to people who I plan to meet again. My friends sometimes think I’m flirting, but I’m not trying to get in anyone’s pants. What am I doing wrong?

Yes, I’ll make it clear if I am flirting. You’ll know if I’m DTF. I will touch you if I’m hitting on you, and will apologize for accidentally touching you if I’m not. I need to check myself and see how I come across to people, and make it explicitly known how I feel about them and what my intentions are.

Is politeness so uncommon that “society has reached a point where everyday greetings and helping hands are so rare, they’re now mistaken for flirtation”? Does it take being a bitch for the message to come across that I’m not flirting? But then that might put me in the “woman’s paradox where if you aren’t friendly you’re considered rude and if you are then they think you’re flirting or leading them on.” I’m not being a coquette—I’m just being kind!

Casper the Friendly Ghost isn’t tryna get his invisible dick wet. Can’t we all just be polite to each other without it meaning something more

casper frightened

Casper image credit: Polyvore/I-Love-Cartoons
Quadratic formula taken from Wikipedia.

Have you had similar experiences? How do you combat the friendly vs. flirting dilemma?

How to tell if someone is actually flirting:
SIRC Guide to Flirting
Ask Dr. NerdLove: What’s the Difference Between Flirting and Just Being Friendly?
Flirting, Or Just Being Friendly? How to Tell, In Person and Online