When “Problematic” Becomes Problematic: Identity Assumptions, Dissonance, and Confessions

a blackboard with a bunch of mathematical formulas and graphs written on it in chalk
Image by Pixabay / CC 0

Today’s piece is a guest blog post from Fluffy, an academic in-training, who is studying organizational behavior in hopes of making the world a better place.

Fluffy is a frequent contributor to Poly Land. Their regular blog is Eclectic Discourse (where pith goes to die; in-depth looks at awkward topics).

Here’s what they wrote for us today:

Finding Something Problematic Tells Me More About You

As someone who does the delicate dance between the worlds of social justice and diversity and inclusion, I often run into the word “problematic.” Indeed, I’ve even been known to use it, noting a particular phrasing or theoretical basis has a checkered past or set of underlying assumptions that can make its use less than wholesome.

But this phrase has seen its use perverted, focused less on calling in, less on accountability, and more on demonizing the person or thing it’s describing. In the end, human beings are problematic. There are some pieces of us that are messy, imperfect, and shaped by the societies we live in. There are some pieces of us that are informed by bias, by our past experiences, and by wanting our lives to be as comfortable as possible.

But there’s a difference between being unaware of how our biases impact our behavior, and being careful and cognizant of how and if we contribute to systemic marginalization.

Identity Isn’t a Statement About Other People

There has been a lot said about why such and such identity is inherently ableist, acephobic, attempts to co-opt queer oppression and so on. The problem with these statements is that they rarely dig into the nuance of what they mean. Labels are descriptive, not prescriptive, so even if it’s a term that someone doesn’t understand, or an experience that doesn’t include marginalization, it’s a way to better communicate preferences, needs, and more.

Since I first heard the term sapiosexual, I’ve liked the idea of it. A person’s intelligence can certainly impact another person’s considerations of them sexually, romantically, and even platonically. I’ve been stuck in locker rooms while men have talked about how smart women are less or more sexy, I’ve had friends opine on the virtues of a partner with spatial intelligence that lets them pack a car like a tetris board. I’ve seen pairings that work specifically because of intelligence or experience mismatches and matches alike.

It seemed obvious to me that some people’s sexual attraction is impacted by the intelligence (or at least the perceived intelligence) of their partners.

But this term gets a lot of flak for being inherently ableist. In a support group once I sat very quietly while a woman passionately decried it because it situated intelligence as “better than” a lack thereof. Never mind that there are multiple types of intelligences in almost all current research that investigates intelligence. Never mind that someone can solve differential equations for hours but have no clue how to do laundry without making colors run. Finding someone intelligent (in any sense) to be more sexually appealing was ableist.

But the label itself is neutral. It doesn’t imply that people who aren’t intelligent (whatever that means to the person) are inherently unattractive or otherwise “less than.”

When someone says “I am sapiosexual,” the implied assumption of ableism gets at to a fundamental core belief that we have:

Rejection + Incompatibility = Value Judgment

I’ve rejected many people in the past, and for many different reasons. Sometimes we just didn’t “fit” together, sometimes there was absolutely no chemistry (to my frustration).

Sometimes there was just no inherent compatibility. My sexuality is incredibly specific in some ways, so I have often rejected people who want to have sex or a non-platonic connection because there is no compatibility there. For me, sex is the main driver and wellspring of romantic love, which means if there’s no sexual compatibility I can’t date a person.

But rejecting for that reason suddenly makes me: misogynistic, transphobic, ableist, and in one case “racist” (though I think that white boy was just upset that I wasn’t all for his confederate flag). These are all things I’ve been called in the past by folks that I’ve rejected for a very simple reason: I did not want to have sex with them. Sometimes that was because I didn’t want to develop feelings, and other times it was because there was just no sexual interest on my end.

The problem comes in that we tend to view rejection as a statement of worth. Surely, I wouldn’t reject someone unless they weren’t a worthwhile person. Unless I thought they weren’t a good person.

So therefore rejecting a cis woman because I’m queer is misogynistic because clearly what I mean is that women aren’t as good as men. Rejecting a trans man because I only have sex with people that don’t have vulvas is transphobic because clearly what I mean is that I don’t see them as men. Rejecting someone because he has no self-awareness and I would end up dashing myself on the rocks of his obliviousness is ableist because clearly what I mean is that I don’t think anyone should have sex with him ever. Rejecting an asexual person because I’m not just allosexual but hypersexual is acephobic because clearly what I mean is that I don’t see their relationships as valid. Rejecting a white dude because I don’t fuck with conservative, confederate flag waving asshats is racist because clearly what I mean is that people of color are inherently better than white folks.

(I wish I was lying about that last one; the dude had some great dick but bad politics and the latter soured me on the former.)

The Cognitive Dissonance of Rejection

Because I’ve rejected these people, they must find a reason as to why. And if the reason given gets at a core identity or personal reality, then identity threat occurs.

If that identity is a good thing, but I’m rejecting them for it, then clearly I’m saying it’s a “bad” thing.

How do we reconcile this? Clearly the rejector hates people of that core identity/reality. The only reason to reject a woman is because you hate women. The only reason to reject a trans man is because you hate trans men/don’t see them as men. The only reason to reject someone who doesn’t introspect about everything is because you think they’re “stupid.” The only reason to reject an asexual person is because you don’t respect relationships that don’t include sex.

This sort of emotional logic-jump is a way for our brain to make it not our “fault” that we were rejected. It didn’t happen because we were “bad,” but because the other person is “bad.” It’s a useful cognitive shortcut that gives the illusion of instant closure and allows us to process the rejection quickly, completely, and in a way that confirms our identity as inherently good.

Even more, it is often supported by many past experiences, especially around identities or realities that are systematically marginalized. It’s easy to go to “hates women” because so many cis men (yes even gay men) hate women and femininity. It’s easy to go to “doesn’t see trans men as men” because many cis gay men reject them for similar reasons and say as much. Easy to go to “thinks I’m stupid” especially if they’ve been told that throughout their lives. And it’s easy to go to “doesn’t think asexuality is real” because our society actively says it isn’t!

It’s not only easier, it’s safer. If eight out of ten cis gay men are transphobic and don’t see trans men as men, then it doesn’t matter that my reasons for rejecting are different, it’s still safer for our own sense of identity to assume it’s the same as the majority. It confirms our past experiences and gives us this experience in a way that we can easily digest and understand.

Rejection as Respect

In reality, of course, when I reject someone for any of these reasons, it is because I respect who they are as a person. I don’t think that they are bad or that their reality makes them “lesser,” but I am celebrating who they are.

I don’t think cis women are inherently gross, worse than cis men, or similar. I just know that I couldn’t have sex with them and don’t want to waste their time, energy, and emotional labor.

I do think trans men are men, but I reject them for the same reasons I won’t date cis men who don’t penetrate and have anal sex (even though I recognize many trans men do both). I know that my sexuality is potentially triggering (because it can be experienced in a very similar way to transphobia), and that in the end we’d be a bad sexual match anyway.

I don’t think someone who lacks self-awareness and tends not to think too deeply about this is a bad person. Quite the opposite, I admire them and wish I could be like that. But I do know that I would hurt in that relationship (from experience, even!) and become a burden because I am a heavily emotional person who thinks a lot about everything. That’s not a good thing, but it is reality; our differences would make it an emotionally manipulative, if not abusive, relationship for at least one of us at all times.

I don’t think asexuality or relationships without sex are inherently lesser than those with. I do know (from experience) that there’s essentially no way for me to survive in a relationship like that and I end up resenting the person. The last thing I want to do is make someone do something they’re not comfortable with because they’re emotionally attached to me.

I do respect myself too much to fuck with outspoken white racist asshats. Not sorry about that one.

But it’s easier to assume that my sexuality is misogynistic, transphobic, acephobic, or more. Because if I’m rejecting these people because I don’t see them as worthwhile (or as people), then there’s no need to process that rejection. If it’s coming from a place of respect and reverence for who they are, then it requires reconciling a core belief of rejection as bad. Of platonic friendship as inherently less than romantic and/or sexual connections.

Confessions of a Problematic Queer Enby

I have a confession to make: I am monosexual.

What do I mean by monosexual? While the word is used in different ways by different people, I use it to mean that I have sexual connections specifically with one type of genital configuration that is used in a specific way. This is not the popular use of the term. Specifically, I am phallosexual; I only have sex with people that have a penis. Additionally, I only have sex with people who have a penis who use it to penetrate others. Gender does not matter to me.

This is sometimes confusing to people; I can date (trans) women (and have had good sex with trans women before).

“Then surely, Fluffy, you are bi?” “Fluffy, you just described a type of pansexuality.”

But not really. Cis women, trans masculine people, as well as trans feminine people and cis men who do not penetrate others? I can’t date them. Even the times I’ve been with trans women have activated a sort of identity-threat (not enough to dampen the fun, but enough to make a romantic relationship give me pause) because I know that I am not bisexual and not straight, and do not want to be seen as either. I consider myself “gay male adjacent” both because that is what I’m most comfortable being read as by others, and because it’s the closest thing that tracks to my experiences. These identities are not just about personal preference, but social roles.

For many folks my sexuality is the equivalent of eating cheap ramen every day, twice a day (especially since it’s dick-focused).

I Have a Confession to Make: I Am Racist.

As a person with access to whiteness (thanks in part due to Ashkenazi heritage and white heritage on my maternal side and mostly white heritage on my paternal side), this isn’t a radical statement on its own. People who have access to whiteness (especially in the USA and similar places) benefit from the systemic structures of racism regardless of their personal beliefs or actions. While their lives may not be made easier due to their race, their lives aren’t made harder.

But specifically, here I mean that I have racist preferences in dating. More specifically, benevolent racism; I tend to prefer South and Southeast Asian features (though most of my partners have been black, white, or latino despite this preference). No idea why. I manage to avoid fetishization, but it does take active self-monitoring. The best way to describe it is that if I see two people who look exactly the same except for skin tone and facial features, I will likely find the Asian man more attractive, sexy, beautiful, what have you. It’s implicit bias.

I don’t have a quippy joke to make here. I’m really bothered by this and the fact that awareness doesn’t dismantle systemic structures.

I Have a Confession to Make: I Don’t Tend to Develop Romantic Connections Until Sex Is Regular.

While originally this fit the rather nebulous label of demisexual, its linguistic evolution now suggests only the opposite, that a person is sexually attracted to someone only after emotional connection. There isn’t really a well-used label for me beyond one that I high-key hate.

This is an important distinction; not only am I allosexual (that is, that I regularly experience sexual attraction and desire), but I require regular sexual contact with partners. Without it, my interests and considerations tend to wane. I am unsafe for asexual people to date. It’s like inviting them to dash themselves across the rocks as I sing a siren song. I’ll never notice their overtures of love because “if they loved me they’d fuck me?” is the way I’m wired.

It’s also an issue for me; I know that I can fall in love with pretty much anyone who has a penis and penetrates with it. Even if I don’t like them as a person, or can’t stand them, I can develop romantic feelings. All it takes is them stabbing me with it enough times.

I Have a Confession to Make: I Tend to Prefer Partners Who Are Masculine Most of the Time, but Who Play with Gender.

Or more specifically, boyish; that sort of impish grin after a really bad joke. Flannel and rough hands, a hairy chest, a low voice that makes my whole head thrum when they speak with my ear on their chest. Someone strong, powerful, forceful. I basically quiver and get weak in the knees at hairy muscles and tummies.

Bonus points exist for masculine people who are comfortable with femininity. For whatever reason, that ability and willingness to cross that divide is super sexy to me. I’m down for kaikais and have no shame with them (cw: that video uses the t-slur, but uh… I feel it).

I Have a Confession to Make: I Have Body-Size Preferences.

I’m quite large (6’7” tall and well over 350lbs), and tend to prefer people who are similarly bigger. In fact, while I’ll mostly consider dating anyone regardless of their tummy, height, or more, I do tend to find a larger-than-average body more attractive. If there’s a bit of belly? I’m usually much happier.

Generally, I won’t date someone who is too skinny at all, because it makes me self-conscious. About my own size, about the way sex works, and about how others view me and my body. Also, hip bones bruise butts.

I Have a Confession to Make: I Am Sapiosexual (Sort of).

For me, sapiosexual specifically applies to a person’s emotional intelligence; their ability to be aware of their own emotional processes, how things make them feel, who they are, and how they want to live life will make me have really thrilling thoughts about them. I couldn’t care less if a partner is good at math, great at organizing, or really quick at making connections.

But someone who is good with their hands, who is crafty, who is straightforward about how they feel and think about things? Those qualities will have me laying back and fanning myself. One of my most enduring crushes has been on a man I’ve known since we were kids; he’s never been smart (always struggled in school, doesn’t tend to understand topics that “take too much thinking” in his words), but he’s always been straightforward and simple about his life.

Many folks would likely find his lack of ambition and happiness with who he is frustrating, but for me it’s fueled quite a few sleepless nights with heavy breathing and sweaty hands drawing desire on myself over the years.

I Have a Confession to Make: I Am Problematic.

We all are. The trick is in figuring out how to do the least harm and, hopefully, do the most good despite it.

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Thanks Fluffy!

Readers, if you liked this piece, feel free to check out the other articles Fluffy has written for us:

    1. Sometimes Challenging the Relationship Escalator Means Starting at the Tenth Floor
    2. Love is a Fire, Baby; Six Metaphors for Relationships
    3. Love Is Basically Bias, So What Can You Do?
    4. I’m Too Anxious to Be Jealous
    5. Everything I’ve Ever Learned About Non-Monogamy My Puppy Taught Me All Over Again 
    6. Is There a Right Time or Way to Break Up a Relationship?
    7. I Was Treated as a Disease Vector: Why There Are So Few Gay Men in Pansexual Polyamory
    8. Being Single Sucks, But We Don’t Want to Hear About It
    9. Consent Culture Is Hard, Yo. 
    10. When Sex Positivity Is Rape Culture With a Bow On It.

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Poly Land is always on the lookout for different perspectives on relationships in general.

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