Sylvia Plath Would Be Proud

“We don’t want anyone to feel sorry for us, but we miss the sympathy when it doesn’t come. Feeling sorry for ourselves has become a secret crime — a kind of shameful masturbation — ​that would chase away the sympathy of others if we ever let it show. […] Here is the danger of wounded womanhood: that its invocation will corroborate a pain cult that keeps legitimating, almost legislating, more of itself. […] The wounded woman gets called a stereotype, and sometimes she is. But sometimes she’s just true. I think the possibility of fetishizing pain is no reason to stop representing it. Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain.” — Leslie Jamison

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Romance Novels & Stigma

“[T]he long history of Harlequin does a lot to explain why ‘no no no OK actually yes’ became such a popular trope. It’s very easy to forget how hard women had to fight over the course of the twentieth century to feel they had a right to sexual pleasure. And so, while romance is often treated as a static genre, I prefer to think of it as a sprawling, decades-long intergenerational discussion (sometimes polite, sometimes a bare-knuckle brawl) among women about what constitutes love, how one finds a partner that’s worth putting up with the occasional tantrums and dirty socks. Scenes that disturb the modern reader nevertheless paved the way for the more sex-positive genre we enjoy today.” — Kelly Faircloth

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Hostility & Online Discourse

Unless you really love subculture drama, read “Hostility & Online Discourse, Round Two” instead, or my earlier post about giving and receiving criticism.


Here’s the tl;dr, which gets repeated later in the essay:

Hostility in online discourse is very rarely useful. I understand the rage impulse, especially as a marginalized person trying to explain something that seems obvious to a more privileged person — that was my modus operandi as a sex worker — but it is counterproductive. It does not engender sympathy or encourage people to learn more. You know what does? Assuming best intent and treating people with respect even when you’re disagreeing with them.


Something happened on Twitter just now that illustrates a disturbing trend. (I know, what a fortuitous opening!) Let me establish some context first. Shanley Kane, who runs diversity-in-tech publication Model View Culture, tweetstormed this morning that readers don’t support the indie media outlets they claim to adore (presumably in response to The Toast shutting down).

Her contention is that indie media’s struggles are the readers’ fault, because they don’t chip in, even when given ample opportunity. I don’t totally agree with her thesis due to some ideological differences re: markets and business models, but that’s beside the point. Her tweetstorm was very interesting and I’m glad she spoke her mind.

Anyway, reader Gavin Carothers commented that he would contribute if the sites he frequents offered the possibility:

Kane quote-retweeted his comment with her own: “This is trash”. Her response seemed unnecessarily hostile to me. So I chimed in: “but it’s literally true — e.g. The Billfold never accepted donations” (which I’ve written about before because it frustrated me so much).

Kane responded, “This is a blatant derail. Tons of indie media has literally dozens of ways to financially support.” In case you’re not familiar with the concept, “Derailment occurs when discussion of one issue is diverted into discussion of another issue, often by the group who were being called out about their bad behaviour in the first place.”

Whether or not Carothers’ comment counts as derailing is a subjective judgment, but let’s grant that it is for the sake of discussion. Here’s a way that Kane could have responded (instead of saying, “This is trash”) which would have been much more productive: “I think that’s beside the point since most indie media sites do allow readers to contribute.” Same message, expressed in a way that isn’t likely to alienate Carothers or anyone else who’s not acquainted with Kane’s conversational expectations.

Finally I can get to my point: Hostility in online discourse is very rarely useful. I understand the rage impulse, especially as a marginalized person trying to explain something that seems obvious to a more privileged person — that was my modus operandi as a sex worker — but it is counterproductive. It does not engender sympathy or encourage people to learn more. You know what does? Assuming best intent and treating people with respect even when you’re disagreeing with them.

For example, I’ve talked to numerous men who have very negative feelings about feminism because whenever they’ve tried to participate in feminist conversations, they’ve gotten yelled at. Did they say something insensitive or offensive? Quite possibly. But they had good intentions and all they needed was a good-faith explanation of why whatever they said was considered objectionable.

I have personally changed people’s minds by providing that good-faith explanation. Defining unfamiliar terms, elaborating on unfamiliar perspectives, and asking questions about what the sticking points are. When conversational participants commit to being kind to each other, you can iterate toward mutual understanding. I used to think that no one ever changed their mind in online conversation. Actually, it turns out that no one changes their mind when the conversation consists of people yelling past each other. “Ugh, I can’t believe you said that” or more extreme rejoinders like “fuck off, you evil misogynist” do more damage to women’s liberation than whatever the guy might have said in the first place.

Artwork by Tommaso Meli.
Artwork by Tommaso Meli.

True, providing the basic good-faith explanations over and over again can be emotionally exhausting. Sometimes you don’t want to deal with providing a 101 space. It’s also perfectly acceptable to say, “I would love to go into more detail, but I’ve explained this a bunch of times before and I find it tiring to discuss. Do you mind Googling around a bit and seeing what other people have written about this?” Often it’s helpful to clarify explicitly, “Just to make sure it’s obvious, I’m not angry and I think your curiosity is awesome!”

I know some of you will say, “It’s not marginalized people’s responsibility to educate privileged people. They should take the initiative to do that themselves.” That’s an idealistic stance and it gets nothing done. Without active advocacy, there is no education and there is no change. Saying that men who don’t understand feminism should educate themselves about feminism is akin to saying that children under ten should teach themselves about the importance of hygiene. They’re fundamentally not equipped to do it.

It’s true that sometimes people enter conversations, especially about social justice, with ill intentions. But treating everyone as an enemy until they prove otherwise is very harmful — it ends up burning the people who just couldn’t figure out why you were upset without more guidance and more information. Assuming good faith is not always accurate, but it’s a much more useful stance than defaulting to hostility.


Updating on 5/5/2016 re: reaction to this piece.

Affect Conf says I violated their code of conduct, which you can read here. I disagree -- perhaps more snarkily than I should have, I admit -- but of course it's their prerogative to decide who gets to attend their event.

Affect Conf says I violated their code of conduct. I disagreed — perhaps more snarkily than I should have, I admit — but of course it’s their prerogative to decide who gets to attend their event. These are the screenshots I attached in my response:

Some of Shanley Kane's commentary on this post.
Some of Shanley Kane’s commentary on this post.
More of Shanley Kane's response to this piece.
More of Shanley Kane’s commentary on this post.

You can read all of Kane’s responses to what I wrote (at least all the ones I’m aware of) here, here, here, and here. (Those links aren’t in order, but Twitter is usually a cacophony anyway.)

I don’t know if this needs stating, but please do not harass Kane about this or use this as a justification for harassing her. There is no need to even bring it up — as far as I know she’s said everything she wanted to on the matter.

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Emotional Labor as Comparative Advantage?

Emotional labor means putting up with other people. Enduring them, soothing them, and easing social relationships. This work often defaults to women, and jobs that rely on emotional labor are heavily feminized. Nurses are mostly women. Librarians are mostly women. Preschool and kindergarten teachers are mostly women. Even community and social media managers are frequently ladies.

It’s not true in every instance — for example, plenty of support reps are male — but women are especially likely to volunteer for emotionally weighted work in situations where that labor is unacknowledged. HR, a division characterized by listening to complaints and providing succor, is also predominantly female.

Artwork by AK Rockefeller.
Artwork by AK Rockefeller.

I want to view my socialization in emotional labor as a comparative advantage. If I explicitly call out this work and volunteer for it vocally, can that be a means of gaining professional leverage? The expectation that women perform emotional labor more than their male peers is regarded as insidious in part because it is so often unseen — suppose I refuse to conceal my efforts?

Granted, this is predicated on the idea that I’m good at emotional labor, which is debatable.

Labor-focused feminists have called for women to stop performing emotional labor when it is not adequately compensated or acknowledged, or for men to step up and demonstrate the same sensitivity and patience. Perhaps a third approach is to frame familiarity with emotional labor as a competitive advantage.

Communicating any of this is a challenge, of course. One of the types of social/emotional labor that nearly all of us perform is self-diminishment — straightforward confidence can be viewed as distasteful or even obscene. People use techniques like self-deprecating jokes and affected bashfulness to modulate the appearance of satisfaction with their own work, unconsciously performing a social ritual of modesty.

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Everyday Street Harassment

Being a person whose appearance is perceived as feminine means being accosted on the street wherever you go. Usually the men who yell stuff at you fall into the “nothing left to lose” category. They’re homeless or broke or drunk in the morning — none of which is inherently bad, but those conditions give a person little reason to conform to standard social norms. Combine that with typical male entitlement, and you have guys shouting obscenities as you walk by.

Stop Telling Women to Smile poster by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh; photo by Jeffrey Zeldman.
Stop Telling Women to Smile poster by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh; photo by Jeffrey Zeldman.

But socioeconomic desperation and/or mental illness don’t explain everything. Twice in October I was literally followed by a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Both of these guys seemed “normal” when judged by exterior alone — they looked like they probably had jobs and houses. Both times I had to turn around, hold my palms up in front of my body, and say, “I need you to stop.” Both times this worked, thank goodness. Both times I was terrified.

Afterward I fantasized about responding violently, about retaliating the instant I was spoken to. Pepper spray in the face. Knee to the testicles. Heel of the palm against the nose so hard that it breaks the bridge and pushes bone shards into the brain. I wanted the power of fear and destruction — the power men possess that prevents me from responding the way I imagine. When I’m scared, I can’t muster the fierceness. It probably wouldn’t have made me feel better anyway.

http://sonyaellenmann.tumblr.com/post/130896945003/my-head-is-boring

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