Category Archives: Culture and Society

I Wish That I Knew What I Know Now When I Was Younger

My dating life really started in my late 20’s. I grew up fat and unpopular. I had some nasty skin conditions. I was generally low-status in my social circles. My dating pool was small. Up until age 21, I dated exactly one person, for about three months, at age 15. At 21, my wife and I got together, and were monogamous for five years.

When we decided to try polyamory, I was 26 and a few things were different. I’d lost a substantial amount of weight. My skin cleared up (mostly). I spoke confidently. I had friends. I had a law degree. I was generally much higher-status than in my teenage years. And probably most significantly, I discovered online dating and put in effort to make it work for me. Suddenly, I was able to meet people who actually found me attractive and might actually want to kiss me. So there I was, dating as an adult, with basically the experience level of a teenager. Needless to say, I made some mistakes and learned some hard lessons.

The biggest lesson I learned was that just because somebody does something doesn’t mean they wanted to do it. This is about the point where I expect the women reading will start rolling their eyes. How is it possible for someone not to know this??? Well, it is. And from what I’ve been seeing lately, a lot of men don’t really grok this.

In my teenage years, I got rejected… a lot. Like a lot. I must have heard “I just don’t feel that way about you” at least a dozen times. I’ve always been an assertive person, and when I was interested in someone (and as a teenager, I was interested in like 90% of the girls I knew), I let them know. Most of the time, I would just ask girls out. And almost every time, I would either get turned down or the response would be “ok, but just as friends.” Looking back, it’s sort of amazing to me how clearly my romantic overtures were rejected almost every time. Even the times I wasn’t rejected verbally, it became very clear to me that this person was not interested in me romantically or sexually, and I am not particularly good at picking up nonverbal signals, so when I say it was clear, I mean it was unmistakable.

In my teenage years, I knew nothing about consent and coercion. Nobody ever told me about that. Sex education was a joke. The internet was still in its infancy. I didn’t read magazines. The messages I got from tv and movies were that persistence, pushiness, and salesmanship were the way to “get” women. My peer group did nothing to disabuse me of this notion. So I was persistent. I was pushy. I tried to sell myself. I was coercive AF. Looking back, I’m incredibly thankful that none of these tactics ever worked, and that I was too scared (and believe me – fear, not ethics, was the reason) to ever try anything that involved touching a person. But still, my experience was that, even in the face of coercive, high-pressure tactics, if a woman didn’t want to kiss me, there was no way she would kiss me.

Fast forward to my late 20’s. Facebook was a thing. Blogs were a thing. I started reading about feminism and consent, but the conversation was still new to me. Some very gifted writers (the most influential being Miri at Brute Reason) had lovingly and painstakingly written some amazing pieces explaining feminism and consent to men like me who just didn’t get it. It was at that point that I started looking back and realizing that a lot of the stuff I did as a kid was Not Ok.

Still, my experience up to that point was that if a woman didn’t want to kiss me, she wouldn’t. And my first several experiences dating were great! I had some rejection, but also quite a few really great, mutually enthusiastic sexual and romantic experiences. Having abandoned the shitty high-pressure tactics I used as a kid, I my partners and I were able to be clear about what we wanted and what we didn’t, and we made sure that everyone had a good time.

Still, I was not used to actually being liked and wanted. That concept was still very new to me. I didn’t realize how that can complicate things and lead people to (completely reasonably) send mixed signals about what they want to do. I had never been in a position where someone liked me and found me attractive, and maybe wanted to kiss, but not get naked together. I had never been in a position where someone didn’t really want to make out, but didn’t want to disappoint me so would do it anyway. When you’re a low-status high school kid, this is not how people treat you, and I still hadn’t internalized that things were different now.

The first clue I had that some people would do sexual things even if they didn’t want to was that, well, I was doing it. There were a few times that I wasn’t really enthusiastic about the sex (I’m using that term broadly) that I was having, but I went through with it because I wanted my partner to like me and I didn’t want to disappoint them. I didn’t have good boundaries about it because I’d never needed them before, and our culture relentlessly tells men that they should always wants sex and there is something wrong with us if we don’t. It’s embarrassing to turn down sex with a willing partner, so I pretended I was enthusiastic. Still, I never really did anything I regretted, and I certainly never experienced any harm from it, so for me, it was no big deal and I was glad to be able to make someone else happy.

It was a huge wake-up call when I learned that one of my sexual partners had not wanted it at the time. I made the mistake of relying on non-verbal signals instead of just asking, and I ended up hurting someone I care about. It wasn’t until then that I really understood that people aren’t always entirely clear about what they want in the heat of the moment. It wasn’t until then that I realized that people will do things they don’t really want to do, even absent coercive tactics, because clearly communicating a rejection can be difficult or even dangerous. It wasn’t until then that I realized that failing to have an out-loud, explicit conversation before engaging in sexual contact can end up hurting people, especially if, like me, you sometimes misinterpret nonverbal signals.

I’m writing this because I think that there are other people (mostly men) like I was, who don’t understand the potential for harm in these situations. A lot of the debate around these topics recently has been about who to blame and what each party’s responsibility is when unwanted sex happens. These conversations are important and necessary, but ultimately, if we’re having those conversations, it’s because something has already gone wrong. Even if you believe it’s the other party’s responsibility to clearly communicate, I urge you to take responsibility anyway. This isn’t about blame or obligation. It’s about what you can do to make things better.

Some people are malicious and just want to take what they want, but I have to believe that the vast majority want enthusiastic partners. And if that’s you, I urge you to not let it get to the point where we are debating who is to blame for the harm done. Wouldn’t it be better if there was no harm done at all? Do you really want to have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with you? Wouldn’t it be better to only have sex where each party really wants to?

I also think the attitude is pretty common that sales tactics are ok because a reluctant partner will end up enjoying the sex if they just give it a try. And sometimes that’s true! But seriously, it is not worth the risk and it disrespects the autonomy of your partner. They are in the best position to decide what they will and will not enjoy. If you try to persuade people to have sex with you, you will end up hurting people. Are you ok with that? You might be, but I hope you’re not.

So please, if you’re like I was, don’t wait until someone tells you that you hurt them. Start being better about this stuff now. Pay attention to your partner. Ask them what they want. If they sound hesitant or reluctant, follow up on that. Look for nonverbal signals, but also get explicit, verbal ones. Be honest about your own desires. You might end up having less sex, but that is ok. The sex you do have will be better for everyone, your partners will be happier, and less harm will be done.

Newcomb’s Problem and Relationship Rules

In my defense of egoism, I discussed Newcomb’s Problem, summarized in the Less Wrong wiki as:

a superintelligence called Omega shows you two boxes, A and B, and offers you the choice of taking only box A, or both boxes A and B. Omega has put $1,000 in box B. If Omega thinks you will take box A only, he has put $1,000,000 in it. Otherwise he has left it empty. Omega has played this game many times, and has never been wrong in his predictions about whether someone will take both boxes or not.

Classic decision theory states that you should “two-box,” i.e. take both boxes, because nothing you do at that point will change what is in the boxes. The way to “win” the game is not to take one box. The only way to win is, at the time Omega makes their decision, to convince Omega that you are going to take one box.

Omega, though, is superintelligent, as has never been wrong about a prediction. Trying to outsmart Omega is risky at best, doomed at worst. The most effective strategy is to commit, before Omega fills the boxes, to only taking one box. And the commitment must be real. You have to change something in your brain to cause you to one-box despite the fact it is ostensibly in your best interest to take both.

This dovetails nicely with my post about why we make rules. In that post, I discussed how relationship rules function as psychological barriers. When we make a commitment, we create an obligation in our minds that encourages us to stick to the commitment, even if it seems like a bad idea at the time. This is exactly the way to win Newcomb’s Problem.

So when considering relationship rules, the operative question is whether the situation that the rule addresses is Newcomblike. If it is, making the rule is a good idea. But if it isn’t, making the rule unnecessarily limits your future behavior for no good reason, which can lead to unhappiness, resentment, toxic power differentials, and shaming. Questions to ask are:

  • Do I want to be the type of person who would follow this rule?
  • Do I trust my decision-making enough to make the correct choice without this rule?
  • Even though I know now what the right choice is, do I think that I will make the wrong choice in the moment?
  • Do I have enough information to make this decision now? Could I learn more information that would change my decision?
  • Is there a compelling reason why this decision needs to be made right now?

The dangerous part about gaming Newcomb’s problem is that to work, commitments must be irrevocable. In practice, that’s not really an option, but making a strong commitment can still be disastrous if minds are changed later. Trust me. I’m a divorce lawyer. So it’s important to really examine whether the situation is Newcomblike. If it is, make the commitment; but if not, it’s time to look for another solution.

Rational Relationships: The Illusion of Transparency

The illusion of transparency is a common cognitive bias wherein people overestimate both the degree to which their internal thoughts are apparent to those around them and the degree to which they understand the internal thoughts of others.

The classic example was a 1990 Stanford study where test subjects would tap out the rhythm of a well-known song (e.g. Happy Birthday or The Star-Spangled Banner) with their finger across from another test subject, who was supposed to listen to the taps and guess the song. Before the listener guessed, the tapper was asked to predict whether the listener would be able to guess correctly. Tappers predicted that listeners would guess correctly about 50% of the time. Listeners actually guessed correctly about 3% of the time.

The disparity came from the fact that tappers couldn’t help but hear the song in their heads as they tapped the rhythm, and had an enormous amount of difficulty imagining what it was like not to know the song. Try it yourself! Tap out the rhythm to a song, and try to imagine trying to guess what song it is. It seems much easier than it actually is. Meanwhile, the listeners are just hearing a sequence of taps with no context for what they mean, and tend to have no idea what the song could possibly be.

It’s not difficult to see how this could affect our relationships. The number one piece of relationship advice that tends to be given, especially in nonmonogamous relationships, is to communicate. The reason that this advice is so popular is because of the illusion of transparency. We tend to assume that our partners know what we want and how we feel to a much greater extent than they do. Likewise, we tend to assume that we understand how our partners feel to a much greater extent than we actually do.

Like most cognitive biases, the best way to avoid the negative consequences of the illusion of transparency is simply to be aware of it and expect it. If you want something from your partner, and you think it’s obvious, say it anyway. There’s a strong chance that your partner simply wasn’t aware of what you wanted. If you think you’re giving your partner what they want, make sure to check in periodically. It’s likely that there may be an issue that you weren’t aware of that your partner thought was obvious. This can happen with big topics, such as whether to have children, and small topics, such as what to have for dinner.1this is one reason why I recommend that all people planning to be married employ a marriage planning agreement We can overlook the fact that a partner is preparing to leave or the fact that a partner is deliriously happy.

Some people find it romantic to imagine a situation where partners “just know” what each other are thinking without having to say anything. Romantic as it may be, it’s a dangerous ideal precisely because it reinforces and encourages the illusion of transparency. In the real world. it’s almost always better to say what you’re thinking, even if you think your partner already knows.

Wesley Fenza is an attorney practicing in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. His practice areas include divorce, criminal defense, and civil litigation. If you are in need of legal advice, please contact him.

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1. this is one reason why I recommend that all people planning to be married employ a marriage planning agreement

Political Responsibility

This past weekend, a North Carolina Republican field office was firebombed, with the words “Nazi Republicans leave town or else” and a swastika spraypainted on the walls. In response, within hours, a group of democrats raised $13,000 to pay to reopen the office. This has widely been hailed as an admirable move by the democrats for showing solidarity in the face of terrorism.
Not all commentary has been positive, though. In particular, some corners of the social justice community have been critical, for reasons mostly summed up in this article:

Last year, Texas Republicans made dramatic cuts to the Medicaid program that helps provide physical and speech therapy to severely disabled children, many of whom are in foster care. They used bad math, and didn’t think it through, and cut the program too much. In doing so, they forfeited a huge amount of free federal funding for the program. That means some 60,000 kids will have less access to the physical and speech therapy that used to help them walk, or communicate, or attend school. For some kids with severe physical disabilities, that means pain.

I’m friends with a number of Texas conservatives. I like them personally. They have an ideology that’s not mine, and part of being an adult in the world is learning how to interface with people who don’t think like you do. I write in opposition to them, but I’d be horrified if someone starting firebombing their offices. But just the same, I’d no sooner give them $100 than I would to a man who punched one of those kids on the street.

I disagree with this view. It’s arguing that, despite the abhorrence of the firebombing attack on the North Carolina GOP office, donating money to restore it goes to support an organization (the Republican Party) whose goals are to hurt the most vulnerable among us, and so donating to them is the wrong choice.
I disagree because I think one of the first priorities of any social movement, including a political party, is strong repudiation of its dangerous, radical, and/or violent followers. This wasn’t a random attack. The message spraypainted on the wall was “Nazi Republicans leave town or else.” I think it’s safe to say that this was an attack by left-wing radicals, inspired or influenced at least in some way by the democratic party.
We look down on Republicans, when violence breaks out at their rallies, for disclaiming all responsibility. We are disgusted with their cowardice when an abortion doctor is murdered, and they fail to admit that their over-the-top rhetoric was partly to blame. That, in this situation, the democrats have been better than that, have taken responsibility for repairing the damage, and have in all likelihood frustrated the aims of the attackers, is a good thing.
Yes, the money will go to an evil organization whose main goals involve doing great harm to many vulnerable people. But that’s exactly how each side views the other. Whatever choices we make here, we are in no position to complain when the other side makes the same choices. However bad and evil we view them, they view us as just as bad and evil.

One of the great harms the Republican party has done since 2001 is to change the rules of the game. Filibusters did not used to be a big problem. Presidential signing statements were not used to change the meaning of legislation. Bipartisan deals could be made so both parties could get things done, instead of the gridlock we have now. Presidents were more hesitant to designate documents “classified.” The Senate didn’t refuse to vote on Supreme Court nominees. There was a sense of fair play, that it wasn’t right to use any means necessary to stop the opposing party, especially when they had been fairly elected.

That isn’t the case anymore. Since 2001, the GOP has steadily become more and more extreme, using any trick available to prevent Democrats from governing effectively. There is some hope that this may calm down in the next legislative session, but it is speculation at best.

The easy thing to do would be to match their extremism – to declare that any means necessary are to be used to defeat this enemy – to argue, as the quoted article does, that any helping hand extended to this enemy is wrong and leaves us worse off. I can’t agree with that. I want to live in a world where we take responsibility for the extremists that are ostensibly on our side, and work to repair the damage that they do. I want to live in a world where it is not acceptable to use any means necessary to defeat the enemy. I want there to be rules to the game. I think this small gesture helps to encourage that world, so I support it.

Polite Poly

This post grew out of a conversation with my friend Heina Dadabhoy, who writes Heinous Dealings at the Orbit, a new blog network focused on social justice minded atheism. Heina has a companion blog post with their take on this issue here.

Like other unpopular groups, the poly community has developed somewhat defensively. Only a very small percentage of the world is polyamorous, so understandably, a number of the norms and ethics that are popular in the poly community developed to be as nonthreatening as possible to mainstream society. Andrea Zanin discussed this issue in her 2013 post The Problem With Polynormativity:

At its most basic, I’d say some people’s poly looks good to the mainstream, and some people’s doesn’t. The mainstream loves to think of itself as edgy, sexy and cool. The mainstream likes to co-opt whatever fresh trendy thing it can in order to convince itself that it’s doing something new and exciting, because that sells magazines, event tickets, whatever. The mainstream likes to do all this while erecting as many barriers as it can against real, fundamental value shifts that might topple the structure of How the World Works. In this case, that structure is the primacy of the couple.

The media presents a clear set of poly norms, and overwhelmingly showcases people who speak about and practice polyamory within those norms.

Zanin skillfully exposes the fact that the media tends to represent a very narrow view of polyamorous people that doesn’t reflect the overall diversity of the community. In addition to that, though, I’ve noticed that a lot of the discussion that takes place within poly communities tends to present a narrow set of values that not everyone shares, and in private conversations it’s become clear that not everyone shares those views, but that dissenters don’t always feel safe speaking up. With that in mind, I’ve come up with a set of rules that I see enforced in “polite poly society,” and why I disagree with them:

Polite Poly Rule #1: Don’t Speak Ill of Monogamy

In nearly every discussion of polyamory, poly people will trip over each other rushing to be the first person to indicate that, while we may choose to live the lifestyle we do, there is of course nothing wrong with monogamy and we support anyone’s decision to be monogamous. The position is valid, of course. There is nothing inherently wrong with sexual exclusivity, if practiced in a truly voluntary and non-coercive way. But it’s very difficult to discuss monogamy critically, even within poly communities, without facing accusations of arrogance, anti-monogamous bias, or believing in “one true way” to have relationships.

Truthfully, I do feel that the majority of the ways that monogamy is practiced throughout the world are coercive and unethical. I think that having monogamy as a cultural norm is harmful. I think that the way mainstream American culture promotes, depicts, and enforces monogamy is awful. I think that many fewer people would choose monogamy if it they felt they had a meaningful choice. And I think we ought to be able to say so without the conversation getting derailed over the (obvious) fact that it’s not impossible to be monogamous in an ethical way.

This rule is the clearest example of how poly society has evolved to be nonthreatening to mainstream society. It might as well be “don’t scare the normals.”

Polite Poly Rule #2: Don’t Enable Cheaters

In polite poly society, it is considered unethical to have sex with a person who has a monogamous partner. Despite the fact that the hypothetical “other woman” or “other man” has made no promises or commitments to either member of the relationship, the community still has no problem placing part of the ethical responsibility for avoiding cheating on the third party.

I’ve written before about the ethical issues I have with this attitude, and I’ve discussed it at length in private conversations and on social media. In public, there seems to be a strong consensus toward the idea that enabling a cheater is wrong.1There is also a more reasonable consensus – that one should be reluctant to trust a person who is willing to cheat with you, and that it’s often a bad idea to have sex with someone you can’t trust. However, the discussion is often had in moralistic terms about what’s right or wrong, or what a person should or shouldn’t do. The discussion often overlooks the fact that in other contexts, poly communities respect the idea that a person is free to have sex with whoever they want and determine for themselves how much to trust someone, and how much trust in necessary before engaging in a sexual relationship. It is only in this context (and STI risk, as discussed in Rule #3) where people feel qualified to instruct others about who they ought to be having sex with. I guarantee, if this post gets more than five comments, someone will derail with something like “well, why would you want to sleep with a cheater???” Fundamentally, I feel this is an attitude that is reliant upon the centralization and promotion of the monogamous couple as the ideal in our society.

In general, we do not hold people responsible for enabling people to break promises. We would not blame a bartender for serving someone who made a promise to his pastor not to drink anymore. If my friend promised his mother that he would spend Saturday evening with her, I’m not a jerk for inviting him to my party. If a PETA member wants to break her commitment to the group to avoid eating meat, her sister is not a jerk for cooking her a steak.

It is only in the context of a sexually exclusive couple that we feel the need to place responsibility on non-parties to help enforce an agreement. This attitude reflects the mainstream belief that monogamous commitments are so important and so valuable that we should all accept the responsibility for enforcing them. And I think the poly community should be the first to speak up against this idea. Monogamous commitments are not any more important than other commitments. I don’t accept the responsibility for enforcing them, and I don’t think we should be telling anyone else to do so. If individuals would like to accept that responsibility, that is their choice, but I don’t believe that anyone has the right to place that responsibility on someone else.

Polite Poly Rule #3: Be Extra-Super-Duper-Careful About STI’s

In poly communities, the more careful one is about STI’s, the better. High-status poly people boast about getting “full panel” STI tests every six months (which, of course, always come back negative) and insist on seeing a prospective partner’s up-to-date results before any sexual contact. In public spaces, discussions tend to center around how best to avoid STI’s and what precautions to take. It’s often assumed (or stated outright) that sex with a person who has an STI is out of the question. In private, however, many people will comment that STI’s are unfairly stigmatized, STI’s like HSV, HPV, and others are a minor inconvenience in most cases, and that actual transmission rates are very low for most infections.

I tend not to stress about STI’s. I take reasonable precautions, but I don’t insist on strict rules. I don’t freak out if there’s a chance of exposure. I generally trust my partners to make their own decisions and inform me if there’s anything to worry about. In my experience, this is how a lot of people operate, but publicly, people are often reluctant to say so.

The disconnect seems to be a reaction to the “dirty slut” stereotype. Mainstream society tends to assume that (a) anyone who has a lot of sex gets STI’s (and only people who have a lot of sex get STI’s); (b) all nonmonogamous people have a lot of sex; and therefore (c) nonmonogamous people all have STI’s. So naturally, poly people overcompensate to show that they’re not like that. The problem is that in reacting that way, we tend to validate the problematic and false mainstream assumptions noted above. When we rush to insist that we are free from STI’s, we too often insinuate that there’s something wrong or blameworthy about having STI’s. When we go out of our way to make sure everyone knows we’re very selective about sexual partners, we suggest that there’s something wrong with promiscuity. When we suggest that certain precautions are mandatory, we can’t help but exaggerate the negative effects of becoming infected, adding to STI stigma and further marginalizing people who have contracted infections.

Allowing more critical discussions of monogamy, recognizing that third parties aren’t responsible to enforce other people’s monogamous commitments, and dialing down the panic level about STI’s probably won’t help our image in mainstream society. But I do think it will improve our communities. To me, that’s the more important goal. I’d rather not sacrifice the quality and diversity of our conversations in the name of public relations.

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1. There is also a more reasonable consensus – that one should be reluctant to trust a person who is willing to cheat with you, and that it’s often a bad idea to have sex with someone you can’t trust. However, the discussion is often had in moralistic terms about what’s right or wrong, or what a person should or shouldn’t do. The discussion often overlooks the fact that in other contexts, poly communities respect the idea that a person is free to have sex with whoever they want and determine for themselves how much to trust someone, and how much trust in necessary before engaging in a sexual relationship. It is only in this context (and STI risk, as discussed in Rule #3) where people feel qualified to instruct others about who they ought to be having sex with. I guarantee, if this post gets more than five comments, someone will derail with something like “well, why would you want to sleep with a cheater???”

Polyamory vs. Relationship Anarchy

I have mixed feelings about Louisa Leontiades’ recent post entitled “The Mass Exodus of Polyamorous People Towards Relationship Anarchy.” My first thought is that it’s silly. Relationship anarchy and polyamory are compatible. I, and most of the other RA people I know, identify as polyamorous. Relationship anarchy simply involves forming and developing relationships without preexisting structures and coercive power dynamics. This approach does not always lead to polyamory, but it often does. I don’t know of anyone who left polyamory in favor of RA.

But reading the piece, it isn’t really about that. Louisa’s main complaint is about polynormativity. When polyamory is discussed in the media, there tends to be a heavy focus on the sexual aspects and a lack of attention regarding what separates polyamory from other forms of nonmonogamy – honesty and love. Louisa has a real point that it’s impossible to talk about polyamory publicly without sex becoming the focus of everything you say. Though I haven’t seen any evidence of this, it may be that people are rejecting the label “polyamorous” because of it.

For my own part, relationship anarchy was never an alternative to polyamory, but an augmentation. While polyamory was about having multiple loving, consensual, honest relationships, relationship anarchy was about empowering my relationships and putting consent first. However, as Louisa has, I’ve recently found the label relationship anarchist much more useful that the label polyamorous. For one, I’ve found the larger polyamory community, particularly those who claim the title “leaders,” to be incredibly disappointing, and I am cautious about associating myself with them. Second, I have very little in common with people who practice by far the most popular form of polyamory – hierarchical polyamory. As The Thinking Asexual put it:

There’s a primary romantic-sexual relationship that all other romantic and/or sexual relationships are secondary to, meaning the primary relationship gets the lion’s share of emotional energy, commitment, time, etc. Usually, it also means that the primary couple has veto power over the other satellite romantic/sexual relationships. The secondary (and even tertiary) romantic-sexual or sexual relationships will be sacrificed, diminished, damaged, etc to preserve and protect the primary romantic-sexual relationship if necessary. A secondary partner, whether sexual or romantic-sexual, has fewer rights than the primary partner by default. I’ve seen hierarchical polyamory described as “monogamists doing poly by monogamy’s rules” and I think that’s a pretty accurate description.

When I say “I’m polyamorous,” the above description is generally what people think of, and it bothers me because it’s light-years away from the way I practice relationships. In that sense, relationship anarchy is a much more useful label for me to communicate how I practice relationships and to find like-minded people.

So contra Louisa, I don’t think that there is any “mass exodus” of polyamorous people away from that label in particular, but I do think that the growing numbers of relationship anarchists may have something to do with the greater usefulness of that label vs. others. For me, identifying as a relationship anarchist much more clearly communicates my philosophy on relationships and helps me find like-minded people.

Avoiding Nice-Guy Fantasy

I’m writing an urban fantasy novel, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the genre. I’ve always been a fan of fantasy/sci-fi stories, but there are some unfortunate tropes in the genre that reflect a lot of male power fantasies. Classic stories like the Lord of the Ring, Star Wars, and most superhero comics tend to feature a powerful Leading Man who was born destined for greatness. He develops some kind of supernatural combat powers (or is just really good at fighting) which allows him to fight his way to the end boss and defeat him with the powers of goodness (but also superpowers). Often, this wins him the affection of the Female Lead, who is mostly just there to need rescuing and provide the hero with a prize. It’s pretty much the James Bond/action hero formula.

Some modern stories have been subverting these tropes, some in really excellent ways. Other stories have been subverting the specific tropes, but not really addressing the attitudes that lead to them. Recently, I’ve read a number of modern fantasy/sci-fi stories that have all shared a lot of the same elements that seem to be a reaction to the classic formula. They tend to be written by men and feature male heroes, but these are not your typical heroes. The Leading Man isn’t overly powerful or impressive, and is often weak or low-status. He’s not devastatingly handsome, but he has an understated attractiveness. Rather than use his great combat prowess, Leading Man defeats the enemy using his unique, special-snowflake mind. He may or may not have magic powers, but any powers he has appear at first glance to be useless or underpowered, though Leading Man eventually finds a clever, unexpected way to use them to defeat the evil bad guy. The bad guy is unequivocally evil. Leading Man has no real flaws, but all minor flaws are treated like a much bigger deal than they are. He constantly feels guilty about his “bad” decisions despite the fact that everything he did was the only reasonable option given the circumstances.

Unlike the classic story, the modern stories feature strong female characters. Women are never the main characters, of course, but they have substantial supporting roles, and the story always makes sure to squeak out a passing grade on the Bechdel test. In the modern fantasy novel, women are the ones with the physical prowess, able to fight, shoot, and generally kick ass. Leading Man is often saved by his female sidekick multiple times throughout the story, though he never feels emasculated or anything but grateful because he’s not a Neanderthal like those classic action heroes who spent their time saving helpless women. Female sidekick is always attractive, but in a quirky, nontraditional way, which is pointed out multiple times during the novel. Still, there is often a helpless woman who needs to be saved, but this is a different woman, and not a love interest, because this isn’t the kind of story where the hero wins a woman’s affections by saving her. That’s for those James Bond-style brutes. Still, there is often a female antagonist hassling the hero for unjustified, personal reasons (bitchy ex-wife, anyone?).

I checked in with my literary Facebook group and confirmed that this is an ongoing trend. I’ve taken to calling this “nice-guy fantasy,” because it seems to reflect the same attitudes that underly the “Nice Guy” phenomenon in pop culture. Nice Guys are a reaction to the perceived deficiencies of the “dumb jocks,” who are thought to be unworthy of the affections that they receive because of their regressive attitudes toward women. Nice Guys feel that they are more deserving of women’s affection because they avoid the worst behaviors of jocks, though in reality, their attitudes are just as sexist and unjustified, just in a different way.

In the same way, nice-guy fantasy just swaps out one set of rigid gender roles for another. Nice guy fantasy appears to be a reaction to perceived deficiencies of the classic action-hero formula and its regressive attitudes toward women and its simplistic view of heroism. Nice-guy fantasy avoids the worst tropes of the classic action-hero style writing, but merely takes that box and replaces it with another to force all of its characters into. Sophia McDougal, writing in the New Statesman, summarizes the problem:

Nowadays the princesses all know kung fu, and yet they’re still the same princesses. They’re still love interests, still the one girl in a team of five boys, and they’re all kind of the same. They march on screen, punch someone to show how they don’t take no shit, throw around a couple of one-liners or forcibly kiss someone because getting consent is for wimps, and then with ladylike discretion they back out of the narrative’s way….

What do I want instead of a Strong Female Character? I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martial artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes, put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative. And besides heroines, I want to see women in as many and varied secondary and character roles as men: female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains.

Nice-guy fantasy continues the action-hero trend of representing a male power fantasy, but this time it’s the fantasy a shy, geeky man who grew up resenting the Superman archetype. Rather than fantasizing about being the superspy who can beat up rooms full of people, seduce any woman, and shoot the wings off a fly, this story is a fantasy about being the underdog who rises to the challenge foisted upon him by circumstance (and, of course, his big heart). The problem is that this ends up being just as formulaic as the classic action story and just as reductive in terms of gender roles. It’s still about a Great Man Becoming Great, it’s just a nerdier, more chess club/silicon valley view of greatness rather than the classic captain-of-the-football-team view.

In writing my own story (34,000 words and counting!), I’ve tried to be conscious of this trend and avoid any sort of self-congratulatory stereotypes. It’s a fantasy story about an isolated society, so one thing I’ve done is just changed the society’s views of gender roles. Because of the way the “magic” works, women are stronger and generally more physically impressive, so the society evolved so that women are the dominant gender. However, women still carry and nurse children, so that gets taken into account.

The other thing I’ve tried to do is to have a large variety of female characters. The ratio of male:female in my is about 1:4. This is a literary device, but also an artifact of the culture in that, because men are the marginalized gender, there are more women in roles like detectives, doctors, transportation operators, and other jobs that are featured in the story. The two viewpoint characters are women, though in our society their behavior would probably be read as masculine (or, let’s be honest, “bitchy”).

It’s been a challenge, but I’m hoping it turns out well. I’m still on my first draft, and I’m planning on going back and rewriting the entire thing once I finish. This is the first novel I’ve ever attempted, so I’m sure it won’t be a masterpiece, but I’m hoping it will end up being something I can be proud of, and above all, I hope it doesn’t come across as reactionary. I’m writing the story the way I am because I think it’s interesting, and I would like to read a story like it, and I hope it doesn’t come across as merely a reaction to other fantasy tropes.

The other thing that worries me is that my characters are all kind of jerks in their own way. Not in the sense that they have minor flaws which are easily overlooked, but in the sense that they have large personality defects that will take a lifetime to improve, and will not be resolved by the end of the book (though some progress will be made). My characters are often self-absorbed, short-sighted, irrational, downright foolish, and they don’t always understand how consent works. I’m worried that someone reading my story will think these characters were intended as role models or heroes when they are actually just meant to be humans that I (and hopefully a few readers) will find interesting, but I don’t know how to make that clear without imposing contrived consequences on the characters for their flaws. My main protagonist will be learning from her mistakes, but overall, the story features far too many character flaws in numerous characters to address individually. I’m hoping that readers will understand that even the “good guy” characters aren’t intended as role models.

Man, writing fiction is difficult.

The Creation Museum is Horrifying

So Gina, Amber, and I are on a road trip from Jersey to Colorado and back. Today we passed through Kentucky on our way to Nashville, and we figured we had to stop at the Creation Museum. For those of you who don’t know, the Creation Museum is a project by Ken Ham, which exists to evangelize young-Earth creationism and biblical literacy. The main draw to us was that we heard that much of the museum was dedicated to the idea that Adam  and Eve coexisted with dinosaurs! We figured that we were in for some amusing scenes of biblical humans riding triceratopses, and the standard fire & brimstone about Jesus and Heaven. It started out innocuous enough:


The opening hallway was pretty much what we expected. Lots of preaching about how the Bible is the word of god, quotes about great beasts in the Bible, and about how evolution is wrong:


Grimlock, Gina's little T-Rex, was very excited to see the dinosaurs


The main exhibit area starts out similarly. There are these charming lads:


Then there is a bunch of propaganda about how important biblical literacy is, and a room featuring a family engaging in drugs, pornography, abortions, and gossip! And then, PLOT TWIST! The family’s preacher has decided that they should just leave the science to the scientists, and not worry about the age of the Earth or how people were created. No wonder the family is drowning in sin!


Then there is a room full of humans and dinosaurs! It’s just as amusing as expected, despite the fact that you are not allowed to pet the raptors.

Adam and Eve frolic in the garden of Eden, joined by deer, rabbits, squirrels, and random dinosaurs. Also, there was a pretty impressive Noah’s Ark diorama.


It’s after this room that the museum gets truly disturbing. While everything up until this point was rather silly and amusing, the remainder of the museum is a true monument to ignornance. It replicates the look and feel of a natural history museum, with large, bright photos aside “scientific explanations” about how creationism is true. Each exhibit gives what “secular scientists” say, then gives the biblical interpretation, explaining that the only reason secular scientists and Christian scientists come to different conclusions is that they start with different assumptions.


The terrifying part is that so many of their explanations sounds plausible if you don’t have a pretty sophisticated understanding of biology and ecology. How was the Grand Canyon formed? We don’t know! But there have been events where large canyons were formed in just a matter of days due to volcanic eruptions…. Why are dinosaur fossils buried so deep? Because the global flood deposited massive amounts of sediment on top of them, of course! In fact, the global flood explains a lot of the state of the Earth’s surface. How do we explain the fact that we can observe evolution in bacteria? Some convoluted explanation about how that’s just natural selection, not evolution. You see, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are actually inferior to other bacteria (all mutations are mistakes), and would die out as soon as antibiotics were removed from their environment. And therefore evolution is false.

Secular scientists say that beetles evolved a mating call? Think critically! How could female beetles evolve the response to the mating call at the same time males evolved the call? Secular scientists say that Goliath beetles evolved the ability to fly? Think critically! How could something so heavy evolve that ability? Isn’t it more likely that it was designed by an intelligent creator?


Rather than come out and say that the scientific community is wrong, Ham’s museum instead takes the often-used strategy of sowing doubt and encouraging people to make up their own minds, along with heavily suggesting that the “secular scientists” aren’t to be trusted. The last few rooms of the museum are dedicated not to promoting anything, but rather tearing down science.

It’s scary because it works. The museum is hugely successful. Innumerable parents bring innumerable children to the museum every day to be indoctrinated against human reason. While we came in expecting amusement, we left fighting off depression at the deviousness of Ham’s assault on progress. The whole museum seemed designed to worm into the heads of impressionable children (and adults) the idea that scientists know nothing, can prove nothing, and are advocating only for their own alternative faith-based worldview. The museum proceeds not by making straightforward arguments, but by pretending to approach the natural world in a scientific way. Ham’s museum presents creationism as a science, the only goal of which is to accurately explain the natural world. Disagreements with the vast majority of the scientific community are presented as simply different schools of thought rather than fundamentally different approaches toward understanding the world.

The Creation Museum scares me. It is devastatingly effective at spreading misinformation and ignorance, and it is emblematic of a widespread backlash against the march of progress, which undermines holy truths at every turn. The Creation Museum looms as the proverbial conservative, standing before the tide of history and yelling “stop.” Except rather than a single doomed figure, it is an army of soldiers for Christ, dedicated to dragging us all back into the 18th century.

Compatibility is All That Matters

Good dating advice usually has one unifying feature: it stresses that relationships should be entirely consent-based. That means that every part of a relationship is genuinely desired by all parties, and no party is coerced into engaging in any activity for the benefit of other(s). In theory, this is uncontroversial. Most people will recognize that they shouldn’t coerce dating partners into unwanted activities.

There’s a flipside, though, which is a little less intuitive. It’s the idea that any relationship practice is ethical if all parties give unqualified consent. Assuming that all parties are free from coercion and have the capacity to give meaningful consent, there is nothing that’s off-limits. A lot of bad dating advice overlooks this fact, offering prescriptive advice which assumes that people (or, more likely, all people of a single gender) want the same things. This sort of thinking tends to divide things up into “good” and “bad” behaviors, universalizing the preferences of the majority (or sometimes, just the preferences of the author).

But people are different, and they have different preferences. What’s a dealbreaker for you might be a positive for me. Something I can’t stand might be something you can’t live without. Too often, we assume that our preferences are universal, and we condemn those who don’t conform to them. The world is full of bitter exes who weren’t treated the way they liked and assume that indicates something wrong with the other party rather than just a mismatch in preference. It’s a way of disrespecting someone’s autonomy to insist that your preferences are the right way to have a relationship, and that any other preferences are wrong.

At the same time, it’s important that one’s relationships are freely chosen, which means that while nothing is off limits, one must be honest and open about what to expect, and space must be given for a graceful rejection. There are wrong ways to have a relationship, and rights that cannot be waived. However, those rights are all about making sure that consent to the relationship is freely given and undiluted. As long as we are completely honest and noncoercive about what we are looking for and what to expect, then we are free to pursue whatever relationship(s) we desire.

The important thing, then, is compatibility. Rather than conforming to a set of rules that define “good relationships,” our challenge is to write our own qualifications that define what’s good for us. Then we find people who share our preferences and draw strong boundaries with people who don’t. offers some on-point advice about drawing boundaries:

If access to your heart, your email, your phone, and your physical being lives on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being complete inner circle access, those who are 10’s require what Brene Brown calls “a full jar of marbles.” In other words, they need to have earned your trust. If the jar of marbles gets half full because of betrayals of trust, access needs to go down — not necessarily all the way to 1, but maybe to 5 or 6. Maybe they don’t get to call you every day or sleep in your bed or spend Christmas morning with you.

That way, if someone isn’t treating you with impeccable respect, you simply limit access without making up a story about it. No point becoming the exploding doormat. That’s not enlightened either. Your heart stays wide open. The boundaries close up though. Unconditional love, absolute freedom, conditional access.

Then it’s not someone else’s job to treat you right. It’s your  job to treat you right with appropriate boundaries that limit access based on whether or not someone is deserving of complete inner circle access.

In this way, you can allow people to be themselves and have their own relationship preferences, but you limit access to yourself only to people who share your preferences and live up to your expectations. It stops being about whether someone is a “good” or “bad” partner, and becomes about whether they are a good fit. When we focus on compatibility, we respect everyone’s autonomy while still being able to protect ourselves and follow our own path.

Expectation Damages and Reliance Damages in Relationships

What do we do when our relationship expectations aren’t met? What happens when someone breaks a rule, violates an agreement, or otherwise doesn’t do what we legitimately expected them to do, and it harms us?

Expectation Damages vs. Reliance Damages

In the law, there are different kinds of damages that can be awarded based on the type of injury. When one party breaks a contract, typically the other party is awarded expectation damages. Expectation damages are meant to put the other party in the position they would have been in had the contract been fulfilled.

Imagine that I agreed to sell you my couch for $200. You rent a truck for $50 to transport it, but when you show up, I say I changed my mind and don’t want to sell. The cheapest comparable couch you can find costs $300 and will require another $50 truck rental to pick it up. Your expectation damages are $100. You expected to pay $200 and a $50 rental fee, and receive a couch. Instead, you paid $300 and a $50 rental fee to receive a couch, so you are $100 worse off than you would have been had I stuck to the deal.

Another type of damages that are typically awarded when expectation damages are difficult to estimate or when circumstances are more appropriate are reliance damages. Reliance damages are intended to put the injured party in the position they would have been in had the contract never been made in the first place.

In the couch example, your reliance damages are $50. If we had never made the contract, you never would have spent the $50 on the truck rental. You paid that $50 in reasonable reliance on my promise to sell you my couch. Because I broke my promise, you’re out $50. If I break the deal before you rent the truck, you don’t have any damages, since you’re in the same position you would otherwise be in.

In a business context, there are good reasons why we typically award expectation damages for breach of contract. Unless there is an opportunity for an efficient breach, we want to encourage people to stick to their deals. Business runs on deals, and rules that encourage people to break deals would increase uncertainty. Uncertainty is bad for business, so we favor rules that increase stability and predictability.

Relationship Damages

In a relationship context, most of the time, we won’t be talking about money, but I think it’s useful to consider the general magnitude of a person’s responsibility when trying to make amends. There’s a big difference between trying to make up for wasting an hour of your life vs. ruining your career, and the amends required are different.

I find reliance damages to be the more appropriate way to think about relationship injuries. When a person breaks a promise I think it’s extraordinarily helpful to consider the conceptual difference between (a) putting someone in the position they would be had the promise never been made (reliance damages) vs. (b) putting someone in the position they would be had the promise been fulfilled (expectation damages). I favor thinking in terms of reliance damages because it’s more autonomy-promoting. It encourages people to make amends for any damage they’ve caused, but it also encourages people to renegotiate their agreements if they’re no longer benefiting from them. The thinking behind expectation damages is that people should stick to their agreements and that people have a responsibility to make sure the other party gets the benefit of the bargain no matter what. The thinking behind reliance damages is that sometimes shit happens, and people’s responsibility is to make up for any damage they’ve caused.


Let’s consider a few examples of common broken promises in relationships:

(1) you flake on a date.
(2) you fail to do the dishes as promised.
(3) you cheat sexually.
(4) you divorce your partner (after vowing “till death do us part”).

In example (1), expectation damages would seek to put the person in the position they would have been had you showed up. So from that thinking, your moral responsibility would be to take your partner out on a date, whether you want to or not, because that’s what you promised. I’m not a fan of this solution, because I don’t think people should ever feel required to give social attention when they don’t want to. It’s a pillar of consent culture that nobody ever owes another person their social energy or attention, and our ethics ought to reflect that.

Reliance damages would seek to put the other person in the position they would have been in had you never promised to go on the date. If you back out soon enough, there really aren’t any damages, since the other person has time to make alternative plans. If not, you’ve ruined their evening, so it’s on you to make amends for that. It could mean taking them out on a different evening if that’s what you want to do, but it could also mean letting them borrow your Playstation so they’re not bored all evening. Or it could mean buying them a book or (if you live together) giving them control of the living room TV for the night. Thinking in terms of reliance damages give you options that don’t infringe on your autonomy.

Example (2) is interesting because expectation damages aren’t actually very problematic. You would just need to do the dishes that have been sitting in the sink all night. Most of the time, that’s a fine solution. It’s also interesting because there likely aren’t any reliance damages. If you didn’t promise to do the dishes, would the other person not have eaten? Would they have used paper plates? Probably not. It’s likely that the dishes would have been made no matter what, so really, the person is in the same position as if no promise was made.

So does that mean it’s ok to promise to do the dishes, then back out at the last minute? Of course not. What this indicates to me is that the issue with you not doing dishes isn’t that you said you would do them. The issue is that if you never do the dishes, you’re a jerk! If you did the dishes for the past three evenings, then I don’t think there’s a big problem with you saying that you’re not going to do them tonight. You shouldn’t have said you’d do them, but I don’t think you owe the other person anything if they’re just taking advantage of your helpful nature to get you to do the dishes every night. However, if you don’t do a fair share of the housework, that’s problem whether you’ve agreed to or not. So in this situation, I still think it’s appropriate to think in terms of reliance damages. This is just a good reminder that there are other considerations aside from just broken promises.

In example (3), expectation damages would seek to put the person in the position they would have been had you not cheated. This is what most people do in this situation. It involves things like getting tested for STI’s, breaking off the other relationship, assuring your partner that it won’t happen again, and completing some kind of probationary period where your actions get some extra scrutiny. While this can be a good solution if maintaining your current relationship is your only consideration, I don’t favor it as an ethical requirement. What if you’re in love with the other person? What if you don’t want to be monogamous anymore? What if your partner is controlling and this is the excuse they need to micromanage your life?

Reliance damages put the person in the position as if you never promised monogamy in the first place. This might mean breaking up, if your partner desires only monogamous relationships. It might mean that you decide to open your relationship (although this is a notoriously bad way to start an open relationship). It might mean doing all of the same things as expectation damages and making a new promise of monogamy, if that’s what you want and your partner trusts you to keep to your word (which they probably shouldn’t).

Example (4) truly shows the absurdity of expectation damages. Expectation damages, in this situation, would mean getting remarried. Unless you’re a fanatical believer in the sanctity of marriage, I think we can agree that there is no ethical requirement to get remarried once you get divorced.

Reliance damages mean putting the other person in the position they would have been had you never promised to stay with them forever. In a divorce, a lot of this can be financial. Did the rely on your financial support and stop pursuing a career? Pay spousal support. Did they rely on your financial assistance when deciding to have a child? Pay child support. Did they take out a mortgage with you? Either figure out a compromise or sell the house and pay off the mortgage. Non-financially, there was probably a lot of emotional damage done, so make up for that as best you can.


When you’ve broken a promise, you’ve probably done something wrong. But what is it? Most analysis tends to view the act of breaking the promise as the bad thing, but I tend to disagree. I think it promotes freedom and autonomy much more to see the bad thing as making the promise in the first place. If you find yourself so motivated to break a promise that you overcome the psychological difficulty in doing so, I think most of the time it’s fair to say that you inaccurately predicted your feelings. Had you known that you would not want to stick to the agreements, you probably wouldn’t have made it. So I think it’s best to see the promise as the mistake.

Adopting the thinking behind reliance damages helps all parties focus on the promise as the mistake, and seeks to rectify the situation by putting the injured party in the position they would have been had the promise never been made. I want people to do whatever they want, as much of the time as possible. That can’t happen if our ethical thinking encourages people to stick to agreements even when they are no longer benefiting from them. I’d much rather adopt ethical rules which encourage the breaking of agreements that shouldn’t have been made in the first place and merely obligate people to make amends for the harm they caused.

Breaking promises is bad. Traditional morality says to keep your promises no matter what. My advice is different. I say, don’t make promises that you won’t want to keep. If you do, then making the promise was your mistake, and you are responsible for any injuries cause by another person’s reasonable reliance on your promise.