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Quit putting labels on me, man!

January 25, 2011

A friend of mine, M., didn’t really come out as a lesbian. It was more like being called out.

In high school, her mom busted into her room and demanded: “M! Are you a lesbian???”

To which M. naturally replied, at a equal decibel: “Quit putting labels on me, mom!!”

I’ve been thinking about labels and definitions since this post on virginity and sex. I started wondering why we even need them. Of course, the answer to that is simple – we have language not only to communicate but so that we understand the world and where we fit into it. We know who we are, and who other people are, and who we and they are not, by defining things. Sure, sometimes it turns into us vs. them type situations, but it’s also necessary for us to move through the world and understand our place in it.

That being said, we’re all different individuals who experience the world in different ways, thus are definitions our often different – sometimes subtly and sometimes blatantly. We all also have brains, and we can also use our language to discuss these differences.

From there, I started thinking more generally about how labels and definitions fit into the dating and relationship world, beyond sex. Clearly, we use them for far more than just to define when we’ve lost our virginity. They can define how we date, who we date, and how dating progresses (great simple list here by CeCe of the Big Girl Blog). However. They can also get us into trouble.

We need definitions – yet even as they clarify, they can also sometimes confuse. Sometimes your definition doesn’t fit with another person’s. Sometimes you try to pretend another person embraces your definition, even when they don’t.

The thing of it is, you can’t go around trying to change other people’s minds, or enforcing strict rules about what each word means (and even if you did, whose definition would you use?). Instead, I say go ahead and make your own definitions – but here’s my advice for making them work:

  1. Always discuss your definitions, when necessary: Whether it’s about dating or about sex, it’s important to talk with you partner(s) about what these things mean to you – and ask what they mean to them. Never assume your labels are accepted across the board (after all, we know what assume does to you and me…). This conversation should take place when you feel ready for it – or if you start to have questions. No matter when it occurs, it’s critical: if you don’t, how are you to know where you stand? *Bonus*: I think communication is really key in relationships that last. If you can have this kind of convo without feeling weird, intimidated, or like the other person is going to bolt? Good sign that you are both interested in continuing. If you can’t have it? Take that to be a big giant red flag (and, hello! not something to ignore).

  2. Be willing to listen to other definitions, and practice flexibility: By all means, use your own terms, and decide where lines are that can’t be crossed. However. Be open, listen, consider, argue, discuss – and re-think, re-define, re-assess when you find it necessary. Be willing to change or alter things when new info or POVs make sense to you. For instance, maybe you’ve always thought a “committed relationship” included monogamy. Maybe you meet someone who doesn’t. Maybe they change your mind. It happens – and it doesn’t mean the end of commitment. People do have happy, healthy, open relationships. Don’t write things off just because they don’t fit your pre-conceived notions. Of course, if you know you need monogamy (I do, once I actually commit), stick to your guns.

  3. Don’t put your definitions on other people: Discussed this enough as far as sex is concerned, but it can apply to relationships in a broader sense. If you have a conversation about dating and relationships and the two of you aren’t on the same page? Don’t ignore that or fool yourself into thinking the other person is going to suddenly take on your definitions of things. For example, you really only “date” if it’s headed towards a committed monogamous relationship, but he wants to “have fun and meet people.” Don’t put your definition of “dating” on him – or get upset when he still doesn’t want to commit (he told you he wasn’t into that – regardless of what’s in the movies, he probably isn’t going to change his mind if you hang around long enough). Even worse? Not having the conversation at all and just assuming that the other person shares your views. Dangerous ground, my dear. Bottom line? Expecting someone to take on your labels, when they told you theirs is different, or were never asked about in the first place, isn’t their problem – it’s yours.

  4. Do practice honesty and transparency: This one seems obvious, right? If you say you want a committed relationship, than practice that. Be forthcoming, don’t omit certain things to hide the fact that you’re not being honest about your definitions with other people. And, for the love, don’t be these dickheads who said one thing once, and now pretend as if it’s another person’s fault when they stop being honest about how they are defining their “relationship.” In addition, this is not just in words, but also in deeds. Let your behavior back up what you say. For instance. As I mentioned previously, there are quite a few men out there engaging in sexual acts with other men – yet using “straight” to define themselves. Now, I believe sexuality exists on a continuum, as opposed to specific types. However. Enjoying sex with someone of the same sex may constitute a lil more transparency in the definition of your sexuality that you express to others. You don’t have to be “gay” – but maybe… straight as far as relationships, but more open in terms of sex. Something like that is just a lil more honest and reflects your behavior.

  5. Understand what our own definitions mean to other people: We’re all adults here (I hope). We can all be aware enough to take the time to realize what our labels mean to others – especially if we discuss them over the course of our relationship (whether that is one night, three dates, or a lifetime). Again with the boys: giving a dude a BJ kind of means you’re at least experimenting… and I know your girlfriend probably wants to know that. Further, it’s not all that nice to the dude you’re sucking off. Yes, he tells his friends you’re a big closeted dummy, but the fact that you like hooking up with him might still hurt him. Better if you can just be up-front about it – maybe he’d avoid letting you in at all.

  6. Misusing definitions only causes confusion: When you say one thing, but do another, it just makes for irritation at the very least and shitshows at the very worst. It also means those you lied to go into the world a lil less trusting of it. A lil more paranoid, a lil more anxious about that other shoe. Further, sometimes, it makes it more difficult for some definitions to be used by other people – because you’ve screwed them up a lil. For instance. Let’s discuss the term “bisexual.” Yes, I like men and women. Yes, it would probably be easier if I just told people I was “bisexual” instead of pausing and saying things like “well, I don’t discriminate based on gender” or “I’m fluid.” Why don’t I like a simple term like bi? Because, somehow, lesbianism has become highly sexed in our culture (rant for another time…) and there are a lot of flippin’ girls out there who make out with other girls, not because they like other girls, but because the boys like it. Now. I am not saying they aren’t allowed to do that, or that those behaviors aren’t perfectly fine, but in my world? It’s sometimes hard enough being accepted by the gay community as bi (also another rant for later), let alone having straight dudes give you a lil extra nod because you said “bisexual.” I would prefer ladies who just like kissing girls (thank you Katy Perry) to just say that, instead of pirating a term that means a lot more to others. And, as with the gay boys, you tell a lesbian you’re bi, she might actually think she has a shot with you. And that’s not all that transparent, now is it.

In the end, yeah I get some people use misinformation on purpose, but this post isn’t for them. It’s for the rest of us – because we could put a little more thought into the definitions we use, and how those definitions are interpreted by others or are reflected in our behavior. Yes, we have a long way to go before Society actually allows us to use the labels we’d really like – or even the freedom to feel safe exploring new ones. However, I’d argue Society isn’t going to change by itself. It takes us individuals to do that – and those choices add up.

You also can’t change another person. All you can do is change yourself, and maybe make the world a lil more trustworthy for everyone else. We just need to be more self-aware, not only in terms of things we think we’ve known forever, but also in terms of what else is out there in the world.

Can you imagine how much easier it would be if we were?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2011 9:17 am

    Good point!
    It can all be reduced to this: be honest with yourself and others.
    Practice what you preach!
    and most of all if you are not sure what you are please experiment and then chose, or not, cause you can have it all if you want to.

    I’m straight. How do i know this? Well I’ve been with men mostly, but I’ve been with women also. First time was weird. I did it out of curiosity and didn’t go as i espected. I tried again cause I wanted to be sure that was or wasn’t into girls. I feelt the atraction but then something was missing… and i decided nope this is not for me.

    • January 25, 2011 11:26 am

      Aw, man! You put it all so concisely! I wish I could do that – but clearly I just love words a lil too much… yikes!

      Yes – it’s good to try things are see. There are a lot of things I am glad I tried – and I have a lot of friends who tried new things and are happy about that. Of course, there are some things I really don’t think I want to try, but I haven’t been challenged or asked about them either, so…

      • Foreigner permalink
        January 25, 2011 3:06 pm

        And you do it very well i mean make our point with lots of words =)
        I’m just a sume up kinda girl i guess hahaha

        Seriously did i say already i very much like your blog?
        well the way you express everything it’s just refreshing and so far you’re the closest thing to a soulblogmate i’ve found around the blogosphere.

        i like you! keep up the good work 😉

      • January 25, 2011 4:23 pm

        Awww thanks!! I’ll do my best…

        I tried to check your blog out too but unfortunately I’m a mono-lingual girl. I wish this wasn’t the case, believe me.

  2. January 25, 2011 12:57 pm

    Have to agree with above comment, “Practice what you preach”. That simple (but seemingly soo hard to implement) concept should be used across all we do as human beings.

    We all have labels we use, boxes we put people in, definitions we assume (hrrmmm dangerous) others understand – even if we try to deny it, we all have them to a larger or lesser extent. The key is, as you said, communication. If we lock ourselves into believing that what we say is the universal truth then we might just as well stumble around blind and deaf as we will never understand the world. If we are willing to discuss, argue points, concede points and even just agree to disagree then we will hopefully at least understand others and grow as humans.

    On another note… I think we have all tried or not tried things that we might regret, at least I know I have. But then, I have learned from the things I regretted (and from the things I haven’t regretted) and in regards to what I haven’t tried… there is time yet. 😀

    • January 25, 2011 4:26 pm

      If we simply implement honesty, communication, and an open mind, we’d all be better off than we are. Oh, and maybe some compassion, too.

      Oh, I agree – I have things I regret too (obvi), but I’d rather have those regrets, than the ones over the things I didn’t do! 😉

      And yes – still a whole bunch of time!

  3. January 26, 2011 11:55 am

    I agree wholeheartedly with you Nikki, those seem like perfectly reasonable guidelines when establishing a base for building a relationship. Of course communication is the key to any strong bond, and by getting the basics out of the way and dealt with early it can only serve to strengthen the lines of talk.

    I also firmly believe that labels belong on cans, not on people. We are all a mixture of complexity and experience that a simple tag just can not do us justice. Gay, straight, bi whatever, we all have in us the capabilities to do great things.

    Vive la difference. Celebrate what makes each one of us unique.

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