SHUT UP ABOUT WOMEN’S DRINKING: Being a woman sucks, but so does prescriptive feminism

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In August of 2016, a Medium article on women’s alcohol consumption went viral: “Giving up alcohol opened my eyes to the infuriating truth about why women drink.” In it, Kristi Coulter explains that “to be a modern, urbane woman means to be a serious drinker.” Crucially, Coulter argues, women drink more now because they are overwhelmed by the sexism they face at work and at home.

Before women could “have it all,” they weren’t necessarily required to be “on” all the time. While the old days are far from enviable, women like Coulter work long hours in offices where many men don’t believe sexism exists anymore. Then they come home and spend a disproportionate amount of time tending to the house or the children. They are, Coulter writes, “24-hour women.”

Of course, drinking has also become more socially acceptable for women than it once was. Coulter doesn’t think the “right to get trashed,” or women’s tendency to exert that right, is very positive. She equates it with “the right to be as useless [as men].”

The real problem, as Coulter sees it, is that women’s binge-drinking may mollify their particular anger about structural inequities. In this way, alcohol may hinder feminist progress:

I round up some girlfriends and we spend hundreds of dollars in a hipster bar, drinking rye Manhattans and eating tapas and talking about the latest crappy, non-gender-blind things that have happened to us in meetings and on business trips and at performance review time. They toast me for taking one for the team. And when we are good and numb we Uber home, thinking Look at all we’ve earned! That bar with the twinkly lights. That miniature food. This chauffeured black car. We are tough enough to put up with being ignored and interrupted and underestimated every day and laugh it off together. We’ve made it. This is the good life. Nothing needs to change.

To Coulter, alcohol is the newest opiate for the female masses. She adopts a paternalistic tone in framing women who overdrink as both products of and servants of the patriarchy. As is enumerated below, this attitude echoes anti-Millenial op-eds that aim to “fix” the problems of youth today. Feminists are sometimes particularly guilty of telling other women what they’re doing wrong and what they’re doing right; this kind of reporting is the bread and butter of everydayfeminism.com. But if heavy drinking can impede feminism, so, too, can telling other women what to do with their bodies.

Other writers have worked to refine or rebut Coulter’s argument, though few argue as passionately as she does. Nora Caplan-Bricker points out that while Coulter purports to identify the essential vice of her gender, she is only discussing a small subset of women: young binge-drinkers with deep pockets. Caplan-Bricker writes for Slate:

Not all modern, urbane women are women like Coulter—well-remunerated professionals who like high heels and farmers’ markets and Ubering home from the tapas bar—and even within that subculture, she could surely find some nondrinkers

Surely there are nondrinkers and light drinkers among Coulter’s peers. Still, alcohol is ubiquitous in young professionals’ everyday lives. This demographic is imbibing in high quantities and companies are devising new ways to sell to them. Pervasive in most cities are events that pair alcohol with activities already popular among the “work hard, play hard” crowd, like yoga. Coulter quips: “[K]nives and booze, yoga and booze, 13 mile runs and booze? What’s next to be liquored up: CPR training? Puppy ballet class?”

Research confirms that binge-drinking has increased among young women and men in the past two decades. Women in particular are drinking a lot more in a single sitting than they used to. One study in the American Journal of Public Health found that women’s binge-drinking increased far more than men’s increased during the decade between 2002 and 2012—about seven times more.

Women’s overall rates of consumption haven’t yet caught up with men’s. Men drink an average of six alcoholic beverages a week as compared to women’s two. So when journalists report that women’s drinking is on the rise, the increase is specific to the sort of splurging Coulter describes, and those women who are likely to splurge.

So, we know the drinking part of Coulter’s story is true. But is sexism really the reason women binge-drink?

Women’s increasing participation in the workforce may offer an easier, though not unrelated, explanation for their alcohol intake. Executives have always made connections and sealed deals while drinking. Women looking to ascend the professional ladder may have little choice but to join in on the schmoozing. Olga Khazan of Self interviewed women about the issue in 2015:

“If I want to be treated as an equal, I need to act like an equal to the men in my industry,” says Anne S., 34, founder of a tech startup, who lives in Washington, D.C. “And so when they talk about craft beer or want to go out and have some whiskey, I might not say yes every time, but I’m not going to say no every time.”

Alcohol is a central part of many workplace cultures. Silicon Valley startups seem to boast even more social hours and free in-office alcohol sources than other companies. Khazan reports, “drinking is hard to avoid in the startup scene, where nearly every demo session seems to end with programmers pounding craft beers.” The party-like atmosphere may fall out of the technology industry’s general cult of coolness.

Go-getters’ binge-drinking could result from an increasingly seamless integration of work and the rest of life—that is, what little remains of it. Office perks like beer taps and catered lunches are not just good fun. They’re clever tools for squeezing more labor hours out of employees. Since Google’s notorious Mountain View campus offers fine dining, top-notch fitness centers, hair cuts, laundry services, and more, employees may find few reasons to go home.

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Creative Commons License – PHOTO CREDIT: a4gpa

Creative Commons License – PHOTO CREDIT: TOM ROELEVELD

A mutually reinforcing relationship develops between worker productivity and booze at such high-value, fast-paced businesses. Surveys show that the more hours people work per week, the more likely they are to drink heavily. One study found that those who work 49 hours or more per week are 12 percent more likely to drink in a “risky” way than those who work 35 to 40 hours per week. Research also shows that higher-income professionals drink significantly more than people with lower incomes. Women who make $60,000 per year or more, for example, drink 24 percent more than those who make between $40,000 and $60,000 a year. While it’s tempting to assume high-earners drink more simply because they can afford to, most research has indicated otherwise.

Caplan-Brickler believes women’s drinking habits fall out of this workaholism:

[A]s the most overworked and overstressed denizens of the developed world, trapped in a cycle of expectations that requires us to take less vacation with every passing year, Americans have resorted to making our free-time feel artificially longer and more liberating, and to pretending that Monday is farther away than we, sadly, know it to be. In lieu of a time-turner, we drink.

But do generalizations about the difficulties of American employment tell the whole story? Maybe not. Yes, women’s binge-drinking has increased. Yes, opportunists are taking advantage of this phenomenon by pairing booze with everything else wealthy young adults enjoy. The real question is: why do people care so much?

Coulter’s article is part of a recent wave of public interest in women’s alcohol use. It comes on the heels of other high-traction stories dealing with women’s binge-drinking, from journalist Sarah Hepola’s addiction memoir, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, to comedian Amy Schumer’s movie, Trainwreck. Cultural commentators, comics, and the general public alike are showing a rabid interest in women’s drinking habits. But why?

To answer this question, one could turn to a different generalization about what drives people to drink heavily, and to complaints commonly leveled at Millienials (Coulter’s ilk). As Coulter concedes, heavy alcohol use is not solely a necessity for the modern woman. Rather, it’s a necessity for anyone who’s looking to mediate emotionally challenging experiences. After she quits drinking, she starts feeling more:

It is so nice on this side of the pool, where the book I’m reading is a letdown and my legs look too white and the ice has long since melted in my glass and work is hard and there’s still no good way to be a girl and I don’t know what to do with my life and I have to actually deal with all of that.

This passage cuts a bit closer to what Coulter is so mad about, and only one of those things is the patriarchy. Sarah Hepola, a now-recovering alcoholic, writes of a similar issue in Blackout:

Addiction was the inverse of honest work. It was everything, right now. I drank away nervousness, I drank away boredom, and I needed to build a new tolerance. Yes to discomfort, yes to frustration, yes to failure, because it meant I was getting stronger. I refused to be the person who only played games she could win.

Hepola’s account is more broadly sympathetic than Coulter’s in that she names individual immaturity as the root-cause of her addiction, rather than structural inequities. In her memoir, Hepola recounts that she used to get drinks with the boys from her newspaper after work, and this routine fed her addiction. But she still frames her struggles with alcohol in terms of self-harm and self-actualization.

Taken together, Coulter’s and Hepola’s perspectives provide one way of understanding the current obsession with women’s consumption. It is alarming when adults feel they must drink away everyday negative feelings: boredom, discomfort, frustration. Even, perhaps, righteous anger. People who lead more difficult lives, for structural and personal reasons, must learn to process more of these feelings—even while they fight sexism, racism, etc. first-hand.

Coulter points to the specific need of her female colleagues to “dissolve the day” off of them, but what she may actually be calling out is her peers’ refusal to grow up. Having a few drinks a week to de-stress isn’t the same as always turning to alcohol when under duress. Many cultural critics have claimed that this inability to cope with basic setbacks is the hallmark of the Millenial generation.

In this light, Coulter’s article may be understood as yet another anti-Millenial think piece, though she is part of this demographic herself. When Coulter asks, “Is there nothing so inherently absorbing or high-stakes or pleasurable that we won’t try to alter our natural response to it?” she sounds strikingly like the NYT’s Maureen Dowd. What she’s really asking, with an admitted hint of (anti-feminist) condescension, is: “What’s wrong with these women?”

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Hating on Millienials is trendy, so the attitude she adopts towards her still-imbibing peers undoubtedly boosted the article’s performance on social media platforms. After all, it is always en mode to say that the latest generation of adults falls shockingly short of the prior. Many journalists have bemoaned that we’ve forgotten how to be truly alone or truly together because we are always tethered to our iPhones. In prior decades, the caterwauling concern was over televisions in every family’s living room. Then, parents and journalists were crying, “What will become of dinner conversation once the talking box has taken over?”

These op-eds all boil down to the notion that what’s new is threatening to existing norms: evolving technologies, growing consumer industries, the differing social and political beliefs of the young. What’s ultimately “best” is usually determined by taking a longer view of history.

Coulter attributes her paternalistic attitude toward her contemporaries to sobriety, stating, “Newly sober women have a lot of wonderful qualities, but lack of judginess is not one of them.” Still, her stance can be interpreted as, “I am doing feminism right, and you are doing feminism wrong.” She explains:

I start to get angry at women, too. Not for being born wrong, or for failing to dismantle a thousand years of patriarchy on my personal timetable. And not for enjoying a glass of wine, alone or with their girlfriends — cheers to that, if you can stop at one or two. (I could, until I couldn’t.) But for being so easily mollified by overdrinking.

Surely plenty of feminist icons overindulge sometimes and complete their activist work, too. Many artists across the decades have managed it; after all, the right to get wasted comes free to most.

But is this right nothing more than a right to be useless, or can drinking be a feminist act? Is imbibing alcohol at the same time as being a woman ever, in and of itself, an act of rebellion? These questions are difficult to answer, especially because women’s drinking is often mentioned alongside sex.

Controversy over the relationship between women’s drinking habits, sexual consent, and rape has been raging in the blogosphere, on university campuses, and among lawmakers. Many questions arise, including: What we should we, and shouldn’t we, advise women to do concerning alcohol? How do our feelings about women’s consumption relate to the cultural messages men receive in a world more built for them?

Even though Coulter never mentions it in her piece, the ongoing public discussions around sex and rape proffer another reason it struck a nerve. Her article seems to ask, “What’s so high-stakes about female intoxication?” And the world responds: everything.

News outlets have been following the Brock Turner rape case as it continues to unfold. In reaction to this hubbub, Stanford University briefly updated its health website with advice targeting women who drink on campus, warning that they “may be perceived to be more sexually available than they may actually be.” The article continued:

Individuals who are even a little intoxicated are more likely to be victimized than those who are not drinking. Other research studies have shown that men who think they have been drinking alcohol…feel sexually aroused and are more responsive to erotic stimuli, including rape scenarios.

The website was quickly updated to replace this text with an apology, calling the previous advice “outdated and insensitive.” But a flurry of op-eds continue to ruminate on the interconnectedness between alcohol and sexual assault, and whether alcohol should be a part of the discussion at all. One viral meme framed focusing on changing women’s behavior to prevent rape as equivalent to telling women, “Make sure he rapes the other girl.

Specific, implementable recommendation about how to best make women safer is hard to come by. However, Coulter’s article reads as yet another way of telling women to sober up, lest they be caught unawares in the grip of the patriarchy. Only her words have been reshared by Quartz and feminist bloggers across the internet, and they are potentially more dangerous for it. Coulter’s stance is incompatible with a “feminism of choice,” in which women are empowered to and empowered by their own choices, whatever they may be. (The dominant criticism of this brand of feminism is that women’s actions are constrained by sexist institutions and cultural expectations.)

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Creative Commons License – PHOTO CREDIT: TOM ROELEVELD

Historically, men’s drinking symbolized “their freedom to disregard responsibilities at work or at home.” In other words, men’s use of alcohol was a resounding middle finger. It was the privilege to say, “no.” “No, I’d rather take a three-hour lunch and drink martinis than return to work.” “No, I’d rather go out with the boys after work than see my children to bed.”

Perhaps this right—or privilege—to say “no” is similarly important to some women. Young urbanites today are caught in a miasma of suggestions as to how they should and shouldn’t act in order to be good feminists. Not every prescription can be a good one.

Alcohol will always be a symbol of this more “primitive and hostile” side of one’s self. That side may be more apt to complain about one’s lot in life than to change it, as Coulter suggests. But drunken complaints still surface what our conscious minds may otherwise suppress: deep-seated impulses and beliefs, which reflect the broader ideological wars of our times. Perhaps Coulter’s views on alcohol work best to reveal how embattled women living in a patriarchy are about their “chosen” lifestyles.

Most women will gladly consent to being overworked if it means they’ve “made it,” even though they may have to drink away their sorrows at the end of the day. But they are largely at a loss as to how to behave when it comes to sex. Drunk women in a patriarchy must often confront the fact that men and women are taught to approach sex differently. To be a woman, to know this, and to drink a lot anyway, is an act of defiance—for better and for worse.

Hepola writes in Blackout:

In my life, alcohol often made the issue of consent very murky. More like an ink spill and nothing close to a clear line.

I knew why the women writing on these issues didn’t want to acknowledge gray zones; gray zones were what the other side pounced on to gain ground. But I kept longing for a secret conversation, away from the pitchforks of the Internet, about how hard it was to match the clarity of political talking points to the complexity of life lived at last call. […]  

I drank to drown [the nuances], because I wanted the bravado of a sexually liberated woman. I wanted the same freedom from internal conflict my male friends seemed to enjoy. So I drank myself to a place where I didn’t care, but I woke up a person who cared enormously. Many yeses on Friday nights would have been nos on Saturday morning. My consent battle was in me.

Coulter is wrong; overdrinking is not dangerous to the feminist movement. Alcohol is only what it always was: a substance that may surface societal ills in individual actors.

DAN SAVAGE IS WRONG: Exposing Systemic Abuse in Polyamorous Relationships

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Amber Heard’s recent allegations of verbal and physical abuse in her marriage to Johnny Depp have been plastered across magazines from People to The Guardian. Heard, Rihanna and other celebs have raised public awareness about intimate partner abuse through these scandals. Listicles detailing “15 Undeniable Warning Signs Your Relationships is Abusive” are trending. But these articles concern traditional heterosexual relationships in which the man is the abuser; gay relationships, relationships involving multiple partners, and other non-standard relationships are left undiscussed.

Yet, harmful behaviors are just as common in non-traditional relationships. People in these partnerships tend to keep a lower profile because the cost of living everyday life in a non-traditional relationship is high. Even “perfect” queer couples may have their children taken away by Child Protective Services; seeking help for abuse in such a relationship can bring about further scrutiny.

Those in ethically non-monogamous relationships find it particularly hard to recognize when they’re being abused, and where they can find help if they need it. The term ethically non-monogamous describes anyone who has loving, romantic, or sexual partnerships with multiple people at a time. Examples include: people in triads (three-person relationships), polyamorous people (people who may or may not be committed to a primary partner but who believe in loving and dating more than one person at a time), and people in polycules (networks of polyamorous people who are closely connected to each other, as in a family).

Traditional couples define their relationships in part by sexual exclusivity, so abuse in multiple-partner relationships can be hard to describe. If having sex with other people is okay, then what’s not okay in a polyamorous relationship?

As Ginny Brown of Everyday Feminism wrote,

Regardless of our own relationship style, most of us know hundreds of monogamous couples, and we’ve seen hundreds more depicted in movies, books, and TV… [P]oly people have to do a lot more learning by trial and error. We have fewer resources to develop maps of poly relationship territory ahead of time, let alone to mark the spots on the map that should say Danger: Here Be Dragons. For example, it can be hard to tell the difference between “I’m experiencing jealousy and insecurity that I need to learn strategies for handling” and “My partner is using their other partners to keep me feeling devalued and unworthy.”

Any relationship in which one partner is systematically devalued is abusive. But while thousands of internet feminists quickly rally to Amber Heard’s defense, popular reactions to abuse stories from within non-traditional relationships are mixed. Since poly relationships are subject to so many outside threats, some poly people are not receptive to valid criticisms of the lifestyle, its rhetoric, and its participants. As stories like Heard’s have trended in mainstream media, narratives of abuse in poly communities—and poly communities’ responses to those narratives—are becoming hot topics in alternative media. Dawn M. Davidson of Love Outside the Box noted,

[I]n trying to distinguish that not all polyamorous relationships are abusive—which is a normal and natural desire!—we can sometimes, unwittingly, create a situation in which people who are doing these “bad behaviors” can hide out, flourish, and have a perfect place in which to prey on their victims.

Resistance to critique not only allows abusers to flourish, but also silences victims of abuse. Victims of intimate-partner abuse already feel isolated as a result of their partners’ actions. When victims do not feel empowered to speak out about their suffering in their home communities, they become further isolated. They may be less likely than monogamous partners to leave their abusive relationships. Why? Their families may have already shunned them for leading a non-monogamous lifestyle. And if they are part of a group relationship or polycule, their family of choice may comprise their entire social circle. So the victim may feel even more trapped, with no one to turn to for emotional or financial support.

At a Poly Living convention in 2015, prominent poly activist and author Franklin Veaux gave a keynote speech about these issues. Blogger Alan M. wrote of the keynote,

“There was a time, long ago,” Franklin said […], “when I had this naive idea that polyamorous relationships were less likely to be abusive than monogamous relationships. Isolating a person is one of the hallmarks of abuse. So if you’ve got more people in the relationship, it’s harder to isolate someone, right? You have more eyes on a potential problem, right?”

However, said Franklin, he came to realize that because abusers are often influential and charismatic—and because groupthink is such a known bug in human nature—an abuser can sway an entire group against a person he or she is mistreating, belittling, controlling, or gaslighting. (Gaslighting: undermining a person’s confidence in their own perceptions and memories.)

Alan M.’s final point underlines one of the ways in which relationship structures and expectations unique to poly relationships can foster abuse. There are many others. For example, most people arrive on the poly scene as part of a monogamous couple that is opening up their relationship.

The act of opening up the relationship often involves coercion of one partner by another who is more interested in or adamant about non-monogamy. This coercion can be the first of a series of abuses which may run the gamut from gaslighting to emotional blackmail to repeated boundary-crossing, all under the auspices of a radical, ethical relationship—one free of all the trappings of monogamy. But like a frog in boiling water, the traumatized partner may take a while to realize what’s happening and exit the toxic relationship.

Below, this and other structures of and expectations of poly relationships that lend themselves to abuse are unpacked. Hypothetical as well as factual examples from poly community members are explained. The kinds of people who are most likely to fall victim to abuse within poly communities, or even to feel unwelcome within these communities, are identified. Specious critiques of monogamy and practitioners of monogamy by poly thinkers are also discussed; when theorists, scientists, and other public intellectuals argue that non-monogamous relationships are fundamentally “more natural” or “healthier” for all people, they sometimes further gaslight those who have a different experience of themselves and their relationships.

The purpose of these criticisms is not to devalue non-traditional relationships or the people who practice them. (I self-identified as poly for 10 years.) It is also not to claim that because some aspects of poly lend themselves to abuse, or because some poly people are abusers, that polyamory is fundamentally unethical. People should be able to live with, love, and have consensual sex with whomever they please without fear of negative social or legal ramifications. The outside threats to those practicing ethical non-monogamy must be undermined.

However, no victim of abuse should feel as if she is the only one who faces such atrocities. And no theoretical framework or practice that purports to be queer or otherwise radical, such as polyamory, can be above reproach; to position oneself or one’s community as beyond critique serves to perpetuate oppression.

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The most common origin story of poly people involves two partners who begin in a monogamous relationship but later decide to open it up to others. As with swingers or the Romans of ancient times, the rules for engaging in relationships outside of the primary partnership vary widely from couple to couple. Still, one partner is usually more excited to embrace non-monogamy than the other.

This is natural; whether two people are negotiating ordering Chinese food for dinner or whether to buy the red couch or the grey one, they are unlikely to be 100% in agreement all the time. Yet, for a crucial conversation in which both partners’ emotional safety and sexual health are at stake, this disparity, too, becomes crucial.

Those who are afraid to give up the one they love and the life they’ve built with that person may easily be coerced into agreeing to non-monogamy. Much like the canonical strategy of “taking a break to figure things out,” the less-enthused partner hopes that this transition will at least delay a breakup, if not “save” the relationship.

The “two become many” story is such a common narrative that there are myriad books about transitioning from traditional coupledom to poly. Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships and More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory are just two examples. These works advise newcomers to the scene as to how to navigate jealousy, what that feeling is when you’re excited about your partner’s new loves (it’s called compersion), and more.

These are responsible, helpful guidebooks in that they emphasize consent and boundary-setting for both partners. But nearly none of the available resources deal honestly with the power dynamics and coercion (framed as compromise) inherent in couples making the transition to non-monogamy in the first place.

Everyone does things they don’t quite want to do for the ones they love, but stories from poly daters indicate that the waters in newly non-monogamous relationships tend to grow murkier and murkier as both partners struggle to have their needs met. The Polyamory on Purpose blog runs counter to the current within the poly community by discussing this devolution of consent:

Sometimes, a poly partner comes out in a way that is not setting boundaries, but exerting control:

  • I’m polyamorous, I need to have more than one relationship, and I need you to be involved in my other relationships.
  • I’m polyamorous, and monogamy is not healthy for me. I can’t be with a monogamous partner, so you need to be polyamorous too.
  • I know you are attracted to other people, you were telling me last week how hot Johnny Depp is. So you can’t object to my being in a relationship with other people.

Several of these statements are structured as “I need,” but in all of them the poly partner is dictating to the mono partner what the mono partner will and will not do, will and will not feel. This is not setting boundaries. This is abuse.

If the mono (monogamous) partner continues with the relationship, many of the couple’s subsequent arguments tend to center around what does and does not count as infidelity, cheating, or consent-breaking in the newly-defined relationship. Does accidentally falling asleep at another partner’s house count as cheating, when the agreement was to be home with the primary partner by 11PM? Does everyone meet and hang out, or are lovers deliberately kept away from each other?

In an article in the Huffington Post, one woman described how her friend discovered her poly husband was cheating on her. The man had been courting a new woman without ever mentioning that he was married, which broke an explicit agreement he’d made with his wife:

My girlfriend found her husband corresponding with a woman less than 1 mile away. Furthermore, when she read his new profile page, on the website where he’d met the new woman—there was no description of their marriage or their agreements. She was rightfully pissed off. But what was interesting was when I started coaching her about her predicament, she was reluctant to call her husband out.

There is potential hazard when doing poly to become wary of appearing uptight. Polyamorous communities can have a culture of permissiveness, which can creep up on a person and you can feel like a jerk if you get upset about possible sexual transgressions.

Relationship experts advise that “your boundaries are never up for debate,” but this is a regular occurrence in many poly relationships. After a while, newly poly partners may agree to end their original relationship. But the person who initiated the transition to polyamory—the person who did not seek enthusiastic consent in this transition, and who is just starting to show himself or herself as habitually disrespectful of others’ boundaries—he or she is now unleashed on the poly scene. As former poly dater Lola Phoenix at Medium explained in her detailed post, “Why I don’t identify as poly”:

While many poly people acknowledge that “Relationship broke, add people” probably isn’t the best solution, just as many people act like polyamory is the solution for anyone’s relationship problems, or they look down on silly monogamous people who feel things like jealousy and fear (because, you know, non-monogamous people never feel that).

[…]

It’s even worse when this superiority is combined with appropriation. Not only are they superior because they’re polyamorous, but it’s in their true nature to be so, it’s their “orientation”, just like being queer! And that’s why they’ve cheated so much and hurt people when they were monogamous.

Instead of holding themselves accountable and realising that a broken commitment is a broken commitment, whether it’s to one person or many, they’ve Calypso-ed their way into a different relationship style that allows them to shrug and say “It Wasn’t Me” to anyone who points out that, actually, breaking someone’s heart is a pretty crap thing to do and just because you find yourself doing it frequently doesn’t necessarily mean that non-monogamy is your orientation, especially when it seems like being a jerk is more likely what your orientation is.

Even people who report that they’re happy in their now-non-monogamous relationships often repeat the “poly saved my boring, crappy partnership” narrative. Sara Burrows wrote for The Federalist,

We’ve gotten a lot of warnings and admonitions from well-intentioned friends and family members that we’re going to destroy our relationship and hurt our daughter, but we feel exactly the opposite. For us, this is the perfect opportunity to save our relationship, spare our daughter from the heartbreak of a broken family, and give her the blessing of happy parents and extended family. 

While it may be true that adding partners to a couple can enhance each partner’s experience, this kind of rhetoric still raises the following questions: Are these two people good together at all, or should they just break up? And even if this situation works for the couple, how do their other partners feel about it—those who have supposedly spared the couple from their family’s disintegration?

People who are brought into couples’ relationships to “save” them are often called unicorns in the poly community. The stereotypical unicorn is a young, white, bisexual woman who then begins dating and/or having sex with one or both members of a couple. The couple in this stereotype is heterosexual, heteronormative, and, you guessed it—rich and white.

As Monica Helsey of Vice explains, “They’re called ‘unicorns’ because this is a very common type of relationship for couples dipping their toes (etc.) into non-monogamy to seek, whereas actual bi women willing to put up with it are few and far between.” Though Sara Burrows and her partner report having other kinds of relationships outside their marriage, the language used above still feeds into the notion of the “bright and shiny sex slave(s) who save the heteronormative partners’ day.”

And what of those new partners, who are often explicitly hierarchized by the original couple as secondary or tertiary lovers? Wikihow explained:

Polyamory is considered by some to be a “rich, white, San Francisco thing”. Whether or not that’s true, what happens when polyamorous relationships include people of different races, class backgrounds, gender identities, abilities, or other identities or intersections thereof? And what happens when you pair a person with little experience in polyamory with a seasoned pro? As in any kind of relationship, an imbalance of power, whether perceived or real, can manifest in many different forms of abuse. 

Some people are more than happy to take lovers who do not serve a primary emotional support role in their lives. There are many kinds of secondary partnerships with people who have primaries, too; these can be stable, on-going relationships that are engaged in with relative infrequency, they can be flings, they can be flirtatious hookups that don’t include condomless sex, etc.

Other daters feel increasingly uncomfortable with the power dynamics between themselves, their lovers, and their lovers’ primaries. But once again, as multiple-partner dating may be new to all involved, people often don’t know how to identify toxic dynamics until they’re already traumatized, or how to exit their relationships after they have been made to feel unsafe. Polyamory on Purpose blogs this example of psychological abuse in a poly partnership:

Ed starts dating Maura and Dwayne. At first everything goes really well. Maura and Dwayne are just opening their relationship, and Ed is happy to be patient and give them time to get comfortable with his presence in their lives. However, Maura and Dwayne keep putting more rules and restrictions on Ed. If Ed ever asks for anything, they belittle him or attack him for being unreasonable. After all, they’ve already opened their relationship and let him into their lives. Isn’t it presumptuous for him to ask for anything else? He should be grateful for what they share rather than constantly demanding more. He can always leave if he doesn’t like it.

But by the time Ed has figured out he doesn’t like it, Maura and Dwayne have already gained a lot of emotional leverage over him. The “frog in boiling water” dynamic emerges once again. Or, as Sandra Holland wrote evocatively for xoJane and AlterNet, “Yes, by all means be honest about the fact that you want permission to sleep around, but also recognize that those you pursue are humans who have feelings and needs and desires and don’t cease to exist when you go home to your primary partner.”

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To muddy the waters even further, pro-poly and pro-monogamy intellectuals are not interested only in describing how to engage healthily in a chosen relationship style. These camps are playing with higher stakes: which relationship style is ultimately “the best” or “the most natural”?

Everyone has an opinion on the topic. So in addition to how-to books, people who want to engage in non-monogamous arrangements have the rhetoric of relationship experts like Dan Savage to help win their partners over to their way of thinking. Savage is famous for encouraging people to stay committed to their long-term partners while finding any way they can to feel completely satisfied:

Dan has always said if you have different tastes, you have to be good, giving and game, and if you are not G.G.G. for those tastes, then you have to give your partner the out. […]

If you are expected to be monogamous and have one person be all things sexually for you, then you have to be whores for each other,” Savage says. “You have to be up for anything.”

Savage is up-front about his overall aim: he wants to help people preserve their relationships with their loved ones for the long haul. Yet, when he insists that partners must “be whores for each other,” he is essentially proposing emotional blackmail. A romantic partner is given two options: agree to fulfill all of my fetishes and fantasies (even if they make you feel uncomfortable), or you must let me fulfill them outside the relationship on my own terms. Unspoken is the assumption that if neither of these options is agreed upon, then the initiating partner will leave the relationship.

In traditional (i.e., monogamous, heterosexual) relationships, women are usually advised to leave men who give them such ultimatums; ultimatums are understood to generally be inappropriate due to their coerciveness. Furthermore, they are not usually isolated incidents. Coercion tends to become a pattern in relationships in which one partner manipulates the other into agreeing to larger and larger demands over time. Repeatedly coercing a partner into doing things they hate (like giving the other partner fellatio) or giving up things they enjoy (like spending time with an attractive, opposite-sex friend) are touted as telltale signs of emotional abuse; they’re patterns of exhibiting control.

Healthy compromise is only possible when both partners are changing to manifest shared goals. So why does this widely-accepted view of “what’s healthy” and “what’s unhealthy” fall away when discussing non-monogamous partnerships?

People are inculcated from a young age to believe that sexual exclusivity is the primary marker of commitment, and that’s unfair to people who enjoy other kinds of relationships. The dominant culture stigmatizes their organic desires. Equally unfair, however, is to request that people who enjoy sexual monogamy do whatever their current partners want or be branded inflexible, morally backwards, and prudish. That’s gaslighting: that’s rewriting one partner’s emotional reality with the claimed historical and biological narrative that everyone must have some form of non-monogamy to be happy.

As Brown wrote in the aforementioned article, “For many people, their first mentors in polyamory are also their first partners. And while often, this works out fine, as more experienced people help their less-experienced new partners navigate the difficult waters, the power imbalance creates the potential for control and manipulation.” Or, as the NYT described:

Some of Savage’s toughest critics are feminists who think he can be a bit too glib with his injunction to please our partners.

“Sometimes he can shame women for not being into things that their male partners are into, if they have male partners,” Sady Doyle, a feminist blogger, told me. “The whole good-giving-and-game thing is something I actually agree with. I don’t think you should flip out on your partner if they share something sexual with you. But I think sometimes it’s much harder for women to say, ‘I’m not into that,’ or ‘Please, I don’t want to do that, let’s do something else,’ than it is to say, ‘Sure.’ Putting all the onus on the person who doesn’t have that fetish or desire, particularly if the person who doesn’t have that desire is the woman, really reproduces a lot of old structures and means of oppression for women.”

To act as if all humans can talk themselves into or out of their needs—whether those needs involve sex with one other person, or with many—is both personally and politically dangerous. Indeed, it paves the way for people in relationships to berate themselves until they feel “the right way” about sex. It’s dehumanizing. And it’s dehumanizing in ways that women and other historically oppressed people have been dehumanized for decades: it brands women (and people of all genders) who desire monogamy as hysterical and everyone else as rational.

As Alison Stevenson wrote for Vice in her piece, “Why Women Need to Drop the ‘Chill’ Act and Embrace the Hysterical”:

Being a chill woman is the opposite of being a hysterical one. When you’re chill, you’re always calm, cool, collected, and down to fuck with no strings attached. Or, as Massey puts it, “chill asks us to remove the language of courtship and desire lest we appear invested somehow in other human beings.” Who exactly is asking us to remove this? The men we’re fucking. Like the hysterical woman, the chill woman is bogged down by men’s expectations on how to act and—more importantly—react.

 The pressure to be chill is the reason I pretended to be cool with an open relationship, even though that shit is really not for me. It’s the reason I never confronted men who fucked me, then ghosted me. It’s why I acted like it was fine when someone I was in an exclusive relationship with wouldn’t call or text me for days at a time. It’s why I let so many men lecture me on what it means to be “sex-positive” […]

It’s why women have done the same to me. It’s the explanation for why I’ve agreed, so many times, with so many different men, that my interests were less important and my pursuits more frivolous. It’s the reason I spent my early dating life taking the backseat, letting men drive me on a nonstop ride to Chilltopia, where the girls are never clingy, emotional, jealous, or bossy.

Scott of Sexpressed, a popular poly blog, has regularly written to support the opposite ideal:

There’s no such thing as the “only one” and if you think you are the only one you’re living in a fantasy land. What you really are doing is being afraid that you are not special, that you are not the focus. Monogamy creates this safety net for you where you obviously HAVE to be the only one because you’re only in that relationship with each other. But your partner has had other relationships, and chances are good that eventually you and them will break up and they’ll have another one, and so will you. You are merely temporarily “the one” until life gets in the way and there’s another one. The “I need to be the only one” person is scared shitless of this fact and, rather than attack the fear and overcome it, they just wallow in it.

While there is some truth to the fact that jealousy is rooted in fear of loss and lack of self-worth, the very same arguments have been made to pathologize polyamory. That is, those who do not believe polyamory can be successful say that people only desire to be in multiple relationships at once because they fear intimacy, and may, at core, believe they are unworthy of love. So how can it be that this argument is logically sound when applied to traditional relationship models, but it is offensive and belittling when applied to polyamory?

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The desire to be special to someone or to some people is not 100% disordered. It is not necessarily based on latent insecurities, deep-seated self-loathing, and the like. It is not something that people can wish away with radical self-love. Most jealousies undoubtedly stem from what people are afraid they’re not: not thin enough, not nice enough, not athletic enough, etc. Yet, that doesn’t discount the fact that proposing non-monogamy from within the confines of a monogamous relationship is a radical renegotiation of the relationship’s boundaries. Thus, as with sex acts in general, enthusiastic consent should be required of both partners in order to make this transition.

All people should push up against their preconceived notions about sex and carefully examine their own boundaries. Human sexuality is colonized by cultural expectations, so it is important to question what one thinks and feels when it comes to sex. But not everyone needs to push their boundaries in the same way—for reasons of trauma, for reasons of individual variation in emotional and sexual needs, and more.

If one would never push a person who had been raped to have sex when they don’t feel comfortable doing so (to “get over” their trauma), why is it okay to unilaterally request that individuals who have been abandoned by their parents, who have suffered extreme physical abuse, or who have otherwise suffered deep relational traumas to “check their monogamous privilege” and try a non-monogamous relationship before they die? Or to insist that this relationship style is ultimately more natural than monogamy—if only everyone could just learn to love themselves?

Certainly, some people find that open relationships help them cope with their PTSD, and feel safer having relationships with others. By the same token, some people are very triggered by non-monogamous relationships for experiential reasons that extend beyond their privilege or their exposure to popular media representations of relationships. Hilary Nunes wrote:

I come from a background where abuse was operant. I joined a polycule that consisted of my former girlfriend, Gina Martinelli, her husband, Wesley “Wes” Fenza, and Wes’ other wife, Jessica Orsini.  I left that polycule under extreme duress in June of 2014. Since that time, Wes has continued to present himself as an authority on predation, abuse, relationship anarchy, and consent in the polyamory community. He raped two of my friends. My relationship with Gina can only be described in terms that reflect unacknowledged exploitation. Jessie has recently publicly admitted that for months after my egress, she failed to comply with requests to remove my image and contact information from public sites relevant to their theater troupe, expressly violating my consent, and also recently named me against my will in a vitriolic post trying to co-opt and malign my experiences.

Nunes’s toxic polycule evoked some patterns from her abusive background. It’d be unsurprising if this experience sullied Nunes’s views of the poly community. Those who have been hurt by unhealthy poly relationships or particularly abusive poly practitioners, no matter their backgrounds, may stop identifying as poly—as Lola Phoenix wrote in her aforementioned article for Medium.

People always carry their past relationship baggage into future relationships in some form. Individuals like Nunes will likely hold onto some of the positive learning from her poly relationships in addition to her trauma. Intimate relationships are a process of trial and error for everyone, and there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for human sexuality.

If Dan Savage is right about anything, it’s that human needs and motivations are infinitely complex. The conclusion to draw from this isn’t that you must be a “whore” for your partner, or that you must accept any particular sexual circumstance for anyone else, ever. Rather, as committed romantic partners discuss their desires, they should strive to be empathetic while problem-solving as a unit. In practice, the same superficial needs may be addressed in myriad ways.

What if one partner of a straight, monogamous relationship craves a threesome while the other is fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea? Yes, the two should discuss possible circumstances in which both parties may feel more comfortable having a threesome. But they should also discuss alternative ways of potentially meeting the same underlying need(s).

Is the underlying need the excitement of something or someone new? Try role-playing a threesome scenario, or another fresh-and-dirty scenario, without the real-life involvement of another person—another person with his or her own set of needs. Explore porn together. Keep experimenting.

What not to do? Espouse the attitude that anyone who doesn’t want to adopt your relationship style is unethical, stupid, or just plain wrong. If young people today are lacking anything in romantic relationships, it’s not focus but a willingness to navigate difference. To have difficult conversations in which the outcome is uncertain. To listen to themselves first. To truly know their own desires and boundaries, then communicate them without demanding anything in return.

The Political is Personal: Our Sexist Search for “The Real Hillary”

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Hillary Clinton has had a long, highly visible career in politics. So it’s no surprise that the nominee inspires strong—and strongly diverging—opinions in voters. Ezra Klein’s recent article for Vox, “Understanding Hillary: Why the Clinton America Sees Isn’t the Clinton Colleagues Know,” joins a litany of articles covering the gap between these opinions. As Klein reports, those who have worked closely with her remain loyal to her because “she listens.” Her other reputations include: greedy, calculating opportunist; hilarious, down-to-earth Game Boy maven; and hawkish interventionist.

The American people aren’t only obsessed with Clinton’s voting record, however. For decades, journalists have attempted to unearth the Holy Grail of Hillary Tidbits—the one factoid that will finally reveal which Hillary is “The Real Hillary Clinton.” This continuing search is almost explained by Clinton’s celebrity and Americans’ general preoccupation with politicians’ private lives. But there’s no media quest to discover “The Real Donald Trump.” Why?

The answer is simple: sexism. Consciously or unconsciously, many of us still don’t believe a woman is fit to be POTUS.

Pundits, reporters, and celebrities alike have noted sexist differences in the words used to describe Hillary versus those used to describe Trump. Janell Ross of The Washington Post dove into this phenomenon via an analysis of the Twitter hashtag, #WordsThatDontDescribeHillary. Ross notes that there are plenty of references to “Clinton’s ethics, her ties to Wall Street, her email issues,” and other relevant topics associated with this hashtag. But there were also “repeated references to Clinton’s looks and her alleged failure to embody Twitter users’ notions of what a woman should be.”

Words that “don’t describe Hillary Clinton” include: feminine, attractive, pretty, beautiful, pleasant to look at, fashionable, innocent, warm, thin-ankled, genteel, and able to satisfy husband. Aaron Blake, also of WaPo, remarks that ambitious and calculating are two words people almost unilaterally attribute to Clinton (but not Trump). How dare Clinton be a woman as well as ambitious and rational (rather than emotional)?

Research has long established that people focus disproportionately on the clothing worn by powerful women as well as on behaviors that are viewed to be unbecoming of a woman. Our concerns about male politicians tend to be more closely tied to their stated positions. A prominent example of Hillary’s “unflattering masculinity,” often harped on in the media, is her voice: her tendency to be loud in both the literal and metaphorical senses.

As Willa Frej of The Huffington Post argued, voters don’t often consider shouting “a liability for male candidates.” Certainly, there are examples of men being criticized for their aggressive tones in public fora. The “Howard Dean Scream” ignominiously discredited this candidate in 2004. But he was an exception—not the rule. Women’s tone, volume, and more are frequently criticized in ways that are reflective of a double-bind; women are damned if they are too aggressive, and damned if they are too “soft.” Bob Woodward, longtime WaPo reporter, linked Hillary’s shouting to her purported insecurity: “There is something here where Hillary Clinton suggests that she’s almost not comfortable with herself.”

Women in the workforce always face this double-bind: they are punished not only for behaving in ways that we expect women to behave (being insecure), but also for exhibiting behavior that we expect from men (speaking assertively). As language and gender expert Deborah Tannen writes:

Women running for office, as with all women in authority, are subject to these two demands: Be a good leader! Be a good woman! While the qualities expected of a good leader (be forceful, confident and, at times, angry) are similar to those we expect of a good man, they are the opposite of what we expect of a good woman (be gentle, self-deprecating and emotional, but not angry). Hence the double bind: If a candidate—or manager—talks or acts in ways expected of women, she risks being seen as underconfident or even incompetent. But if she talks or acts in ways expected of leaders, she is likely to be seen as too aggressive and will be subject to innumerable other negative judgments—and epithets—that apply only to women.

Left-leaning journalists and media outlets are hardly immune to putting Clinton in this untenable position. Lena Dunham, a writer and actress who has been the target of much vituperative criticism herself, said that she “wanted to make a list that we hand to media outlets that says, ‘these are the words you can’t use when describing a female candidate.’” Her list would include words like: shrill, inaccessible, difficult, frumpy, and plastic.

Of course, there are valid criticisms of Clinton’s campaign, and of what voters may infer of her moral fiber from her prior political acts. But again, these critiques are often couched in bigoted terms. Would American liberals upbraid an “inaccessible” male nominee? The Democratic primaries indicate that the answer is, “no.” Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s opposition for Democratic nominee, was hardly a picture of emotional warmth over studied intellectualism. Yet, he gained a fervent following, with some of his advocates still avowing that he was robbed of the nomination.

“But Hillary flip-flops!” cry her detractors. Certainly, Clinton’s changing views on issues like gay marriage raise an eyebrow for some. The truth of the sexism inherent in our public analyses of Clinton lies in comparisons between how we talk about her and how we talk about other politicians. We’ve just spent eight years with a POTUS who changed his stated take on gay marriage. So why is Clinton branded as a rabidly shifty candidate while Obama was largely lauded for his “introspection” on this and other issues? Jeb Lund of the Rolling Stone wrote:

 Take Clinton’s recent opposition to the Keystone Pipeline […]. It’s almost a certainty that she always opposed it, and it’s almost a certainty that finally saying what she really thought will be dismissed as conniving opportunism anyway. It’s a far cry from the adulation that Barack Obama received when Diamond Joe Biden forced his hand and made him endorse gay marriage.

 Obama claimed an evolution on the issue that had always been transparently political hogwash, but he got a pass on it because Obama never labored as poorly as Clinton to convey his identity. His books and his best speeches played off — and celebrated — the difficulty of coming to understand who he was in this world. Obama put himself through the trials of identity before anyone else could…It’s a lot easier to pick and choose when to be partially full of shit when people can walk away still convinced of who you are.

Hillary is not so lucky. Even if we were to stipulate that Hillary Clinton is merely an awkward candidate who keeps accidentally obscuring a wonderful human being yearning to be a great statesman, who cares?

Therein lies the rub. Hillary has been eviscerated for not apologizing enough about the political mistakes she’s made. People hate that she doesn’t make a show of having been wrong, of having struggled to make her decisions, or of changing her mind. Lund seems to believe that she could if she wanted to—if only she were more like Obama. Few, if any, women in the spotlight have attempted to emulate Obama’s pre-emptive approach to criticism. Why? Because such women are shackled by the double-binds of contemporary sexism.

In this situation, Clinton will once again be berated if she does and berated if she doesn’t. Research indicates that she’ll be expected to apologize more simply because she’s a woman. And if she does grandstand her contrition, she’ll likely be perceived as weak—or “insecure,” as Woodward insisted—and what is less presidential than insecurity?

The fact is this: men in positions of power have license to equivocate, and women don’t. To sum it up in a phrase? Let’s use one of Clinton’s: “The double standard is alive and well.” Back in 2014, Clinton elaborated to the NYT as follows:

Clinton recalled that as a young lawyer she had read an advice column in an Arkansas newspaper advising male professionals to decorate their office with family pictures to show they were a “responsible, reliable family man,” while suggesting that women should not, because visitors would think “you won’t be able to concentrate on your work.”

Let’s return, then, to the initial assertion: the obsessive search for The Real Hillary Clinton is sexist. Over the course of a decades-long career in politics, Clinton has made statements and decisions that are not consistent with each other; whether you call it “evolution” or “flip-flopping,” this kind of inconsistency would be expected of most career politicians. But, unlike with Obama, this inconsistency seems to disbar her from being viewed as “authentic.” From being “real” at all. Authenticity is only achievable when the public is happy to forgive you for the error of your ways, and the jury of public opinion differentially doles out such forgiveness to men. As a result, our search for Clinton’s realness is actually a quest to fit her to a sexist image of authenticity.

The current tide of anti-Clinton rhetoric is only one example of the high premium voters place on this kind of authenticity. What about our assertion during the 2004 election that we’d still love to have a beer with G.W. Bush (even if we hated his war policies)? Perhaps an even more impressive example is Republican and Democratic voters’ shared love of Bill Clinton—before and after his impeachment.

Focus groups conducted during the primary for the 1992 presidential election showed that voters characterized Clinton as a potentially untrustworthy womanizer. Still, he won the nomination as well as the Presidency. Even after intimate details of his sexual encounters were made public during his second term, Clinton was still supported for “coming clean” and “facing the consequences of his actions.” These are things a “good guy” does (even if he’s not a personal role model). The big thanks for his indiscretions? Bill left office with one of the highest approval ratings in modern history.

To boot, that’s the same Bill Clinton who first warned us in his 1998 State of the Union Address that Iraq was building an arsenal of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. It’s also the same Bill Clinton who signed the Iraqi Liberation Act, which later paved the way for the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq. Perhaps Hillary Clinton’s “cold, calculating” hawkishness wasn’t single-handedly responsible for the bloodshed in Iraq, after all.

It’s not that Clinton never expresses regret over this invasion and other issues. As Ezra Klein wrote in the aforementioned article, “She justified her vote by saying she had listened to President Bush and she would trust him—’I will take the president at his word that he will try hard to pass a UN resolution and will seek to avoid war, if at all possible’—and there is probably no sentence she has uttered that she regrets so bitterly.”

The difficulty is that when Clinton apologizes, she often does so while contextualizing why she made her original decisions. To many, this kind of apology is equivalent to a person saying, “I’m sorry, but if you’d just give me a moment to explain…” instead of, “I’m sorry I acted inappropriately.” They believe Hillary is trying to explain away the circumstances that led to her decisions rather than taking any responsibility for them. But if this is true, it’s because Clinton is a product of the patriarchy. Rather than playing directly into the sexist expectation that women must apologize more and more profusely, Clinton tries to give a little ground while avoiding further accusations as to her “insecurity.” This linguistic dance is a result of patriarchy’s double-binds for powerful women, not Clinton’s supposed shiftiness or robotic lack of remorse. Clinton’s public persona is only what we’ve made it to be.

Furthermore, while Clinton may have been compelled to “explain away” certain mistakes when her husband was the one doing notable misdeeds, this behavior is no longer befitting of her current political status. That is, Clinton’s tendency to say, “yes, but…” when she or someone close to her makes a mistake was, at one time, strategic. But when granted a position of undeniable power—like that of the Secretary of State, or the POTUS—one is no longer expected to make excuses for one’s behavior. She must adapt to her changing status, as the rest of us must adapt to new images of a POTUS that are less defined by patriarchal values.

Political offices in the U.S. are still held by an alarmingly male majority: at various levels of government, the highest percentage of representation women receive is ~25%. In this environment, there is no room for a public identity that is not partially defined by what it means to “be a man.” Like G.W. Bush, our Good Ole Boy politicians may be savvy, but they are never sly or conniving. We know what they do in office, and we know what they do outside of it. But how could we ever predict what a female POTUS would do during her downtime? If you were to poll a cross-section of Americans about how an “authentic,” “trustworthy” woman spends her time, the answers probably wouldn’t include “serve as Secretary of State.” And there’d definitely be a marriage to a man who didn’t cheat on her somewhere in the picture.

The fundamental problem with Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is one that most will never admit: you won’t elect her because you wouldn’t marry her. Or want her as a mother. She’d outshine you at dinner parties and give you the cold shoulder to work on her career.

To be clear, these sexist views are alive and well in women just as much as in men. In an article early this year, Gail Sheehy of the NYT interviewed older female Democrats who were reluctant to support Clinton. One interviewee commented, “We’re worried that Hillary is not true to herself…A lot of women vote from a compassionate, nurturing place, and those are not qualities you feel from her.” It’s not only women who vote “with their hearts.” Many people do. Hillary’s 2016 listening tour and the age-old “Hillary I Know” campaign are direct responses to these sexist perceptions of her. They’re counter-spin. But in a democracy where officials are elected to represent their constituents, they’re also good politics.

It’s true that Americans have a long history of being obsessed with politicians’ private lives. As with celebrities, we want to humanize our presidents—we want to see them acting just like us: eating Cheetos and taking their dogs to the park. We want to see them playing GameBoy. That is, we paradoxically want them to be perfect and to be relatable. To both represent us and be more than us: smarter, better-read, with a stronger moral compass in the face of wailing dissent.

These contradictory desires for the POTUS are understandable if and only if we stop couching what it means to be a “perfect” president and a “relatable” one in male terms. Remember the Second Wave Feminist mantra, “The Personal is Political”? Women have largely been relegated to the private sphere throughout history, and men have dominated the public sphere. As women move increasingly into the public sphere, their private lives remain disproportionately scrutinized. So maybe it’s time we stop making politics of female candidates’ personal lives—unless we’re ready to do the same with men.