27 May 2015

Don’t say what you mean.

In conversation, I used to think it was good to say what you meant. I thought doing so would help me be understood. But I learned very quickly when tutoring computer science students in college that this strategy does not work in general.

The real challenge is to say what you think will make you understood. This turns out to be hard, because you need to develop a mental model of another person’s understanding. It means looking at what you’re trying to say in a new way. This has happy side effects, though: it makes you more empathetic toward others, and gives you a better understanding of the subject.

The old joke “Those who can’t do, teach” is a stupid statement—but an awesome prescription! If you can’t do it, teach it! By explaining things you’ve learned to others, you can develop your understanding and skill. When you can explain something to anyone, it means you have a fully developed model of it in your mind, one that you can look at from anyone’s point of view.

Similarly, when we’re trying to understand others, we should not be listening to what they say but trying to understand what they mean. When someone says something offensive or upsetting, often they didn’t intend for it to sound that way, and the intent matters. Being misunderstood feels bad; think about how often you’ve probably made someone feel that way because you didn’t take a moment to think.

As listeners, we should ask for clarification and try to understand why something was said. Sometimes it’s because a person has a belief we disagree with, or a bias we think is unfair. Sometimes it’s because we were hurtful to them, and they were acting in self-defense. In these cases we can use the moment as an opportunity to learn and teach, rather than getting offended and putting everyone involved on the defensive.

The vast majority of the time, people are basically well-intentioned and just trip a little on the delivery. Giving them the benefit of the doubt is important to develop mutual understanding.

23 May 2015

Consent is important. Don’t oversimplify it.

Rape happens. It’s an awful reality, which a lot of good people are working very hard to fix. That starts with teaching people about consent and why it’s essential to healthy sexual interactions. But a lot of explanations of consent, while undeniably good and well intentioned, fall short of the truth.

The conventional wisdom is essentially you should only have sex if everyone involved wants to. That’s true, but not the whole story. The thing is, there are many reasons that people might want to have sex, and they might disagree with your reasons, or even your idea of what it means to want something. And that’s okay.

I’ve been in healthy relationships in which there was a mutual agreement that initiating sex while the other partner was asleep was perfectly acceptable. It was understood that if either of us wanted an interaction to stop, we would say so and the other partner would respect that. So my partner initiated sex with me while I was asleep, and vice versa—does that make us both rapists? Of course not. Those who would say yes aren’t examining deeply enough what consent really is.

I’ve been in situations where one partner was in the mood for sex, while the other partner was not. Yet the non-aroused partner still helped the aroused one to feel satisfied. They did something they didn’t “want” to do, and yet no rape occurred—it was simply a case of a person doing something to please their partner with the understanding of non-obligation and reciprocity. That’s not only okay, it’s a prominent feature of good sex and good relationships.

I have experienced unwanted sexual situations. They were horrible, and I wouldn’t wish them on anyone. But consent is not a black-and-white, unequivocal issue. It relies on a continual dialogue of reciprocity and mutuality, and it’s up to individuals to decide what is and is not okay.

It’s not for an outsider to decide from their armchair whether some interaction between other people was okay or not. If someone says they were raped, you listen to them. And if they say they weren’t, you listen to them then, too.