I run into the problem a lot that one of my favorite folders in TheOldReader is my NSFW one. It contains images of beautiful tattoos on beautiful bodies of all kinds, of intimate exchanges, of expressions of gender and love. But it’s labeled “NSFW” because I can’t load it in airports or coworking spaces or .. most anywhere, really. But that also transfers pretty clearly into how I filter myself for professional situations. I have ranted about this before. But this particular day prompted a tiny rant on Twitter about how much it sucks to have to constantly keep parts of my personality under wraps. There were a myriad of responses.

The general trends of feedback were as follows: female-bodied and queer folk affirm through response or favorites. Some folk suggest a division of presentation (public/private). And some say “what’s the big deal with expressing such things?” I would like to lovingly point out that the people in this last category are cis gents, whom I adore and with whom I am friends (hey, I have plenty of friends (and lovers) who are straight!).

Given that I work with all sort of populations from all sorts of backgrounds, my appearance and expressions have been carefully shaped in some ways. I no longer sport my mohawk. I tend to wear long pants rather than stompy boots and fishnets. My tattoos and piercings are easily covered. This is not so much an issue of subculture, this is much more an issue of how sexuality and respectability tend to be mutually exclusive. Which is to say: if I were to act and dress as I like, I would be sexualized, and therefore viewed as less competent. Which is a funny trade-off, as in especially technical communities, competence is seen as sexy. But the moment you enter one sphere, the other attribute goes away (for most people) (the link is about promoting sexualization to obscure the competence). Welcome to one of the tightropes which must be walked by the simple act of being female bodied. (But I don’t do that! you might say. Well, it’s not just about you. It’s about a long line of actions and incidents which by necessity make me wary of any sexuality-respect-shaped exchange. Both of those links have a trigger warning, and are more severe than what I’m personally speaking of, but they do get the point across.)

I say this because the idea of “just be awesome, and everything will work out!” is a privileged viewpoint. It’s something that can be said when you play on the easiest setting. Here is the thing – I have jeopardized jobs, missed opportunities, and lost friendships because I thought my competence was more relevant than my attractiveness (whatever the level of either of those). (I have also jeopardized jobs, missed opportunities, and lost friendships for other reasons. I am not scaping the goat here, as it were). For most of my life, and to some degree still, what is (or is not) between my legs has meant passing up those opportunities meant I might not get another such opportunity. This is not a “screw that person, something better will come along!” life. Now that I live in the enchanted world of people who “get it”, this is less of a problem. We can share dark humor, stories about compersion, and analysis of queer theory. But the path to here was long, and that’s from a privileged white girl.

From “Said the Pot to the Kettle” by Margaret Killjoy

It’s hard to talk about these things in public, because respect for me goes down, and therefore respect for what I do. We do not see individuals as many-faceted beings (something I think is deeply tied to our idealization of geniuses rather than polymaths), and so if I talk about gay rights or safe words, that is suddenly what I am to the exclusion of all else. I’m supposed to “pick my battles.” Which brings us to the second sort of response, which is to divide profiles. Now, I do have a snark twitter account, which very few people have access to. That is where I am snarky, which is something I don’t want other people to see. Unwavering optimism tempered by experience is what I think is most effective in public discourse (at least for the things I like to do), and so I keep my “really? seriously?” things to myself.

In contrast, my sexuality is a big part of my personality, and I would like it to be ok to share that. One of the reasons I find sexuality in general so fascinating is because it is the most basic part of being an organism (ANY organism), but is the most socially constructed for humans (the link as but one recent striking example). In general, I am wary of fracturing identity online, because I feel it’s important to stick your neck out (again, privilege talking) to make it safer for others to fully express themselves. (Caveats here about pseudonymity, activism, finding a new self, etc etc etc inserted here). Only by presenting ourselves respectfully as multi-faceted creatures, and calling bullshit when such a thing is not treated as the norm, can we build this better future.

So while I would really, really like to be able to crack a joke about Jesus dying on the cross because he forgot the safe word to a group of educators, humanitarians, and military folk, it’s just not going to be the case. It’s considered inappropriate coming from me. Which sucks, because Ye Olde Boys Club still can, if they want. What I have decided on, while writing this entry, is that it is worthwhile for me to be more outspoken so that it is easier for the people who come after me. But maybe I’m only saying that because I’m sitting in San Francisco right now, and it seems so easy. And I hope that my competence and ability to execute now fully trump whatever does or doesn’t happen between my bits and other people’s bits. And as in the links I’ve included here, I’d prefer people go after me than after someone else. I like the fight.

7 thoughts on “Inappropriate

  1. ::standing ovation or some such adulation::

    As a genderqueer white human, I still realize i have a *lot* of privlege behind me. I’ve definitely seen (not firsthand) the double standards and judgementalism that goes along with displaying one’s sexual side (AKA being attractive). And it’s some ol’ bullshit.

    I also feel lucky (see privlege) that i am confident enoughto show up at job interviews in calf-high stompy boots, brightcolored dreads,

  2. (Damn tiny keyboards!!!)

    , and painted nails in a very traditionally het-male environment (machine shops) and still get the job.

    I guess my point is that you are not alone in this fight, and big huge fucking ups to you for standing up(in big stompy boots!!!) for what is right.

  3. Filters have their place: they can be useful, interesting, fun; they can inspire eloquence and subtlety, allowing you to communicate different things to different people at the same time.

    That said, count me as one who thinks you should see yours as choice, not obligation. You would thrive without them. I say this not in general, to anyone sharing your traits and passions; but to you, Willow, now. There are effective cosms in our networked universe where your work is supported, and what you worry is ‘inappropriate’ is welcome.

    Yes, being free to live as you wish requires privilege and persistence. Privilege exists where and only where it makes life easy and easy to change. In this sense, we can build a world where it is bounteous. Those without compersion may see only their own struggles and others’ ease, but the factors contributing to privilege are multiplying quickly in this generation. You are likely one of the most privileged people you know – having little to do with race.

    It is good to stand in for others – those with less of a soapbox, who don’t want to fight, more constrained by their past and present and possibility. That may be a reason to choose to live as though you were constrained that way too.

    But reconsider what life would be like – today, not five years ago; with all of your possible futures – if you did read NSFW feeds in the airport, dress and present as you wish, and share unfiltered snark and crack jokes as much as those around you; passing up some opportunities and choosing others. Sometimes that is reason enough to make a change, even if you choose to keep the filters on.

  4. Hopefully you realize that many people (myself included) find it admirable that you’re willing to discuss and address these types of issues publicly.

    In many ways, I share your annoyance. For example, in our culture, the two most common activities that release oxytocin (and therefore promote social bonding) are alcohol consumption and physical affection. The former is, under certain circumstances, acceptable to engage in at work, while the latter is often unacceptable to even discuss. Unfortunately, the more acceptable option is off limits to me, which has been a significant obstacle in my life.

    Effecting change is difficult, because you need to push boundaries, but in doing so, you risk delegitimatizing yourself. It’s a tough balancing act. It stresses the importance of standing up for others, because it’s so much easier for those pushing the boundaries when they aren’t solely responsible for arguing for their own legitimacy.

  5. Sexual as the opposite of professional is pretty much US-only thing.

    I worked in Israel, Japan and Spain, and in those countries short skirts, knee-high-high-heel boots, fishnets and low necklines are considered OK to wear to the office. Maybe not as CEO, and maybe not all at the same time, but definitely OK for a professional. Males can wear sandals and short-sleeve shirts to the office too.

    The whole mindset where low neckline and bare knees will mark you as an unprofessional slut is very much specific to the US (east coast seems worse than west coast), and was a very unwelcome discovery when I moved here.

    I envy woman around the world who can go to work feeling both professional and attractive.

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