Get Real! Untangling a Gender Attraction and Relationship Tangle

Heather Corinna

Whether we're talking about someone we want to have sex with, someone we want to call a boyfriend/girlfriend -- or both -- the key is to be true to yourself and about yourself.

Unidentified_72 asks:

Can you be attracted to one gender sexually and the other mentally? How can that work with having a relationship?

Heather Corinna replies:

The way you framed this is tricky, because our sexuality isn’t separate from our minds and can’t be separated from our minds, just like our bodies can’t be separated from our minds. In fact, our mind is where most of sexuality really is and is what drives it the most. We can’t say something is sexual and not also psychological and emotional, because the psychological and the emotional are huge parts of our sexuality. Without our brains, we would have very few sexual responses and sexual feelings, if any. We certainly couldn’t be attracted to other people without our minds. Even the parts of our sexuality that are chemical are mostly about our brains. The idea that something can be “only sexual” and have nothing to do with our heads and hearts is seriously flawed for those reasons.

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That said, that doesn’t mean I can’t talk about your question or provide some answers I think might help you out with this. We’re just going to need to frame it very differently.

I presume what you’re describing is finding your feelings so far for people of one gender are more about physical attraction and/or a desire to have sex of some kind while for another, you’re either not really experiencing those feelings, or finding that your feelings for another group are more about romance or love, or just aren’t sexual. Maybe when it comes to relationships, you’re thinking that, so far, with one gender, you’re more interested or even only interested in a sexual relationship, while with another, you feel you’re more interested or only interested in a non-sexual relationship, which may include a romantic relationship that doesn’t involve sex. Or maybe — or additionally — you’re finding that you can only picture yourself in one kind of relationship or exchange with a given gender and in another kind with another gender, and can’t picture any crossover.

Here’s the simple answer: any kind of relationship can be beneficial if the people in it are treating one another with care, kindness and respect. But it helps a whole lot when people also feel similar ways about each other and want the same things. While sometimes it can take a lot of time to find who those people are, not matter what we feel or want, there are billions of people in the world, and chances are, in time, we’re going to all find folks we have that kind of alignment with. So, if you’re worried about this? You don’t need to be worried about this.

If you want to dig a lot deeper into this, I think I should first go over a few different terms to make sure we understand them the same way.

Sex is a biggie. Click here to see how we define sex and what it can be. Sexuality, or what’s sexual, is even bigger. Our sexuality is made up of a whole bunch of the parts of who we are: it’s mental — neurological, psychological and emotional, but also about our ideas and our cumulative life experiences — and also sensory and physical (even when we aren’t having any kind of sex), not one or the other. There’s no one kind of sexuality because, like people and our lives, sexuality is diverse. If we have sexual feelings for someone, we usually mean that something about them, maybe everything about them, makes us feel sexual in some way, makes us kind of want to crawl inside them physically and emotionally (to varying degrees) and/or into the space in ourselves we consider, or have so far experienced to be, sexual for us.

One of the things you may be talking about here is sexual orientation. The way sexual orientation is typically defined is about if someone does or doesn’t have, or has or hasn’t experienced sexual feelings for a given gender, on the whole. For instance, the way most people tend to define someone who is heterosexual is as someone who’s mostly or only sexually and/or romantically attracted to people of a different (some say opposite) gender than them. That doesn’t mean that person is going to feel those attractions for everyone of that gender, just that they can or have for some of that gender, whereas with another gender, they either usually don’t or never have. Homosexuality is defined that way about those feelings towards people of the same or a similar gender. Orientations like bisexuality or pansexuality are about people having the experience or ability to have those feelings for people of more than one gender or any gender. Asexuality is a term used by people to identify an orientation where they have not yet or do not experience sexual attraction to anyone, or any gender (or, alternately, may feel it, but don’t feel the desire to put those feelings into action).

It may be that the issue here is about your orientation. If you find you don’t have sexual feelings for one gender, but do, only, for another, then that could be because you’re homosexual (only or mostly attracted to people of the same or a similar gender as you) or heterosexual (only or mostly attracted to people of a different gender than you), rather than an orientation where you have no sexual feelings for anyone or where you’re more fluid, potentially attracted to a wider net of people when it comes to gender. Ideally, our relationships, whatever kind they are, should be optional, so if you don’t want to have a sexual relationship with anyone, whether that’s about gender or anything else, that shouldn’t be a problem, because you shouldn’t have to. If you don’t want to have a romantic or otherwise emotional relationship with anyone, whether that’s about gender or anything else, that shouldn’t be a problem, because you shouldn’t have to. Instead, you should be able to choose to engage in the kinds of relationships you want only with the folks you want to have them with.

Of course, that usual definition of orientation kind of suggests or implies that romantic feelings and sexual feelings always go hand in hand for people, and that’s a problem, because while they often do, they don’t always. So, it can help to just figure romantic/sexual can mean both those feelings or one of those feelings, and is distinguishing between not having any sexual feelings at all, or other kinds of emotional feelings towards or about someone that aren’t romantic, like how we might feel about a platonic friend or a kid we parent, or about people who we have neither romantic nor sexual feelings for. We also want to always remember that just because we or someone else has certain feelings doesn’t mean we have to, want to or should enter a certain kind of relationship with them: feelings alone don’t make every relationship sound or make us want to have one at a given time.

Let’s move onto the R-word. When some people say “relationship,” they mean one specific kind or model of relationship, like an exclusive romantic and sexual relationship. But it’s much more broad. When I say relationship, I mean any ongoing, interpersonal interaction we have with someone else. For instance, I have a relationship with my dog, with my mother, father and sister, with my best friend, with my live-in partner, with my ex-partner, with an ongoing lover, with my neighbor down the road, with my co-workers, with my nephew, and with the family who runs the farmer’s market stand I talk to each week when I’m buying their vegetables.

Obviously, those are not all the same kinds of relationships in a bunch of different ways. The ways they’re different are about the different ways we all feel about each other, but also about the ways that we choose to interact based on what relationship we want to have with each other based on more than just feelings, but also about what feels appropriate and right and what we want and need in our lives.

Even when I have one “kind” of relationship, like a sexual relationship, the sexual relationship I’m having with one person now can be very different than one I’ve had in the past with someone else. My feelings may not be exactly the same (and probably aren’t, especially since each partner is a different person), the ways we interact can vary, the ways we define and enact that relationship can be different, including aspects of it: one sexual relationship I have may feel more intense than another, or be more about friendship than another. It’s kind of like how ice cream is a food, sure, and it’s all ice cream, but it comes in a zillion different flavors, and I’m probably not always in the mood for all of them. (Gender is like that too.)

People can and do have affectional, emotional, romantic, interfamilial and/or intimate relationships with others that do not involve sexual feelings or any kind of sex; even if they can have sexual feelings for members of a given group doesn’t mean they do, or do for every member of that group. I don’t know about you, but some of the closest, most important relationships in my life don’t involve sex or sexual feelings. And some have or do, too. People can and do have sexual relationships or experiences without expressly romantic feelings, or without doing things like being someone’s boyfriend/girlfriend, spouse or other kind of committed partner, romantically or otherwise. People can and do have romantic relationships without expressly sexual feelings or exchanges.

I’d say it’s going to be exceptionally rare for any given person to find that they only EVER want one very specific kind of relationship with a whole gender for a whole lifetime — with billions of people who have incredible diversity among them, both with gender and with everything else that makes us all different — and another with a whole other gender. It might help to also just remember that gender itself is hella diverse, often far more diverse than it seems like it is when we’re young, when we’ve lived in the same place or community for a long time or when we’ve only been otherwise exposed to only one part of the big picture gender is. Even our own gender identity can limit how we see gender as a whole spectrum. We don’t all do, experience, enact or present any one gender the same way. I identify as a woman, but the way that I’m a woman, feel like a woman, present myself as a woman, even what my body or its parts look like can be radically different than all of that of another woman, and that doesn’t make either one of us not women, just like the fact that you and I are probably very different people doesn’t make one of us not a person because the other one is.

I do want to mention that sometimes we are just in a space where we’re not meeting, or haven’t yet met, anyone for whom we have sexual feelings, but would also like to be very emotionally close to, or engage in a relationship that’s both sexual and otherwise intimate. Or, you just may not yet have had all of these kinds of feelings for more than a couple of people to know your own range. More times than not, when someone asks something like you do and we hear from them again even just a few years down the road, the way they think about gender and relationships, and their experiences with them, have expanded, so that what once felt really segregated or separate doesn’t feel so much that way in time.

But you know, whether it’s about gender, or the way you do or don’t particularly click with or feel about another individual in any area, if you did find that you only wanted X kind of relationship with this gender, and Y kind of relationship with another, it’s not like that isn’t okay. Whatever you want or don’t want right now, it’s okay to want those things and okay not to want them so long as you’re honest with others about whatever they are who you get involved with and may want or not want those things, too.

Here’s what matters: you feeling happy in the relationships you have, whatever they are, and the people you’re in them with feeling happy. Your needs being met in those relationships and the needs of others in them being met. There are people out and about in the world who want a relationship with someone else that’s mostly about being sexual together. There are people in the world that want a relationship with someone else that isn’t about sex at all and doesn’t involve anyone having sex. There are people in the world who want both a romantic and sexual relationship: some want those things with one person in one relationship, some want them with more than one person in more than one relationship. It’s okay for us to want any of those relationships so long as we all do our best to be sure that whoever we’re seeking them out with or having them with knows what we want, and wants the same or similar things.

When you ask how having the kinds of feelings you are, or wanting the kinds of relationship with different people you do, works, that’s how. It works — like any kind of relationship does — by pursuing the things we want with others who also want the same things. How it doesn’t work is if, say, we try and have a mostly-having-sex-only relationship with someone who doesn’t want that at all, or wants a relationship that includes more than that. Or try to have a relationship with someone who wants sex to be part of their relationship with us when sex with them, or sex, period, isn’t what we want.

It might help to remember there’s no one kind of relationship everyone wants. It’s also not healthy for any one person to have only one interpersonal relationship in their life in which they’re expecting that one person and that one relationship to fit every bill and need they have. No one person can do all of that for someone else. Wanting different kinds of relationships with different people is typical, not atypical, and not problematic, since we’ll all tend to have a range of relationships in our life that don’t all fill the same needs. Our criteria may not always be the same, just like our needs won’t, because we’re all so different, and that’s okay.

In terms of the way you may be thinking about gender, I’d say you just want to check that you’re not assigning a given gender very limited and exclusive roles or qualities. For instance, I’d make sure that you’re not conceptualizing or treating women as a whole group as only for sex or men as a whole group as only for family. Sometimes we’ll hear people say things like “Women are better in bed than men,” or “Only men are emotionally stable.” What people usually mean when they say those things is that so far, in their personal experience, or in the experience of people around them, they’ve thought that or found that to be true. But we can know that isn’t true just hearing the input of someone else who comes in and says that men are better in bed and only women are emotionally stable, because those have been their experiences or ideas. When it comes its to those people’s experiences, both those people will be right. When it comes to what’s really true about all men and all women, both of them will be very wrong. What our experiences are with gender or people of a given gender, or what our own ideas are about gender rarely accurately define all people of every gender. They define us way more than others, really.

Approaches or ideas like that, where we really segregate gender, are probably going to limit other people, your relationships with them, and it will also probably limit you in how much you really benefit from and grow in the relationships in your life as well as your own gender identity. So, if you find you are thinking and feeling that gender makes people very easy to separate in those kinds of ways, that probably means you could stand to try and unpack whatever has got you thinking that way, since chances are, it’s not about that being true or real since…well, it isn’t. Know you’d hardly be the only person who had to work on unpacking limited ideas about gender: I think it’s safe to say it’s something we all usually need to do at one point or another, if not as a constant part of our growth.

I can’t help but wonder if what you’re asking isn’t coming from a place where you’re concerned about what’s “normal” or what kind of relationships you’re supposed to want, or how you’re supposed to feel in a relationship, or what’s supposed to be part of a relationship. If you are, then I think the best place to leave this is with what I know from my own life and tend to observe about other people’s lives when it comes to relationship, and that is this: there is no normal. There is only what people perceive as normal and then, if they’re way worried about being normal, try and conform to, which is typically a recipe to either wind up unhappy or to not be as happy as we could be. Relationships are unique because they’re made of people who are unique. Good relationships, happy relationships, healthy relationships, in which everyone in them feels good and happy, and where people relate in healthy ways, tend to be about the unique people involved, treating one another as unique people, and the unique wants they share and ways they connect.

Maybe that’ll sometimes look like someone else’s relationship. Maybe sometimes it won’t. So what? All that matters is if everyone involved is feeling good and getting what they need, which is most likely to happen when we stop caring about what’s normal and put who we know we are and what we know we want up front. Whoever that person you are is, and whatever it is that you want — so long as it isn’t about hurting yourself or anyone else — it’s good.

Once more with feeling: whatever you do or don’t want, whatever you do or don’t feel, you can have relationships that work and are great for you and everyone in them if you just seek out what you want and feel and others who want and feel similarly. Whether we’re talking about someone we want to have sex with, someone we want to call a boyfriend/girlfriend — or both — if you’re just true to yourself and about yourself, and you’re giving them room to be the same and they’re doing the same, it’s all going to be okay, whatever it is, and whatever you call it.

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

Let’s Stop Conflating Self-Care and Actual Care

Katie Klabusich

It's time for a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities.

As a chronically ill, chronically poor person, I have feelings about when, why, and how the phrase “self-care” is invoked. When International Self-Care Day came to my attention, I realized that while I laud the effort to prevent some of the 16 million people the World Health Organization reports die prematurely every year from noncommunicable diseases, the American notion of self-care—ironically—needs some work.

I propose a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities. How we think about what constitutes vital versus optional care affects whether/when we do those things we should for our health and well-being. Some of what we have come to designate as self-care—getting sufficient sleep, treating chronic illness, allowing ourselves needed sick days—shouldn’t be seen as optional; our culture should prioritize these things rather than praising us when we scrape by without them.

International Self-Care Day began in China, and it has spread over the past few years to include other countries and an effort seeking official recognition at the United Nations of July 24 (get it? 7/24: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) as an important advocacy day. The online academic journal SelfCare calls its namesake “a very broad concept” that by definition varies from person to person.

“Self-care means different things to different people: to the person with a headache it might mean a buying a tablet, but to the person with a chronic illness it can mean every element of self-management that takes place outside the doctor’s office,” according to SelfCare. “[I]n the broadest sense of the term, self-care is a philosophy that transcends national boundaries and the healthcare systems which they contain.”

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In short, self-care was never intended to be the health version of duct tape—a way to patch ourselves up when we’re in pieces from the outrageous demands of our work-centric society. It’s supposed to be part of our preventive care plan alongside working out, eating right, getting enough sleep, and/or other activities that are important for our personalized needs.

The notion of self-care has gotten a recent visibility boost as those of us who work in human rights and/or are activists encourage each other publicly to recharge. Most of the people I know who remind themselves and those in our movements to take time off do so to combat the productivity anxiety embedded in our work. We’re underpaid and overworked, but still feel guilty taking a break or, worse, spending money on ourselves when it could go to something movement- or bill-related.

The guilt is intensified by our capitalist system having infected the self-care philosophy, much as it seems to have infected everything else. Our bootstrap, do-it-yourself culture demands we work to the point of exhaustion—some of us because it’s the only way to almost make ends meet and others because putting work/career first is expected and applauded. Our previous president called it “uniquely American” that someone at his Omaha, Nebraska, event promoting “reform” of (aka cuts to) Social Security worked three jobs.

“Uniquely American, isn’t it?” he said. “I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that. (Applause.) Get any sleep? (Laughter.)”

The audience was applauding working hours that are disastrous for health and well-being, laughing at sleep as though our bodies don’t require it to function properly. Bush actually nailed it: Throughout our country, we hold Who Worked the Most Hours This Week competitions and attempt to one-up the people at the coffee shop, bar, gym, or book club with what we accomplished. We have reached a point where we consider getting more than five or six hours of sleep a night to be “self-care” even though it should simply be part of regular care.

Most of us know intuitively that, in general, we don’t take good enough care of ourselves on a day-to-day basis. This isn’t something that just happened; it’s a function of our work culture. Don’t let the statistic that we work on average 34.4 hours per week fool you—that includes people working part time by choice or necessity, which distorts the reality for those of us who work full time. (Full time is defined by the Internal Revenue Service as 30 or more hours per week.) Gallup’s annual Work and Education Survey conducted in 2014 found that 39 percent of us work 50 or more hours per week. Only 8 percent of us on average work less than 40 hours per week. Millennials are projected to enjoy a lifetime of multiple jobs or a full-time job with one or more side hustles via the “gig economy.”

Despite worker productivity skyrocketing during the past 40 years, we don’t work fewer hours or make more money once cost of living is factored in. As Gillian White outlined at the Atlantic last year, despite politicians and “job creators” blaming financial crises for wage stagnation, it’s more about priorities:

Though productivity (defined as the output of goods and services per hours worked) grew by about 74 percent between 1973 and 2013, compensation for workers grew at a much slower rate of only 9 percent during the same time period, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute.

It’s no wonder we don’t sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been sounding the alarm for some time. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend people between 18 and 60 years old get seven or more hours sleep each night “to promote optimal health and well-being.” The CDC website has an entire section under the heading “Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Problem,” outlining statistics and negative outcomes from our inability to find time to tend to this most basic need.

We also don’t get to the doctor when we should for preventive care. Roughly half of us, according to the CDC, never visit a primary care or family physician for an annual check-up. We go in when we are sick, but not to have screenings and discuss a basic wellness plan. And rarely do those of us who do go tell our doctors about all of our symptoms.

I recently had my first really wonderful check-up with a new primary care physician who made a point of asking about all the “little things” leading her to encourage me to consider further diagnosis for fibromyalgia. I started crying in her office, relieved that someone had finally listened and at the idea that my headaches, difficulty sleeping, recovering from illness, exhaustion, and pain might have an actual source.

Considering our deeply-ingrained priority problems, it’s no wonder that when I post on social media that I’ve taken a sick day—a concept I’ve struggled with after 20 years of working multiple jobs, often more than 80 hours a week trying to make ends meet—people applaud me for “doing self-care.” Calling my sick day “self-care” tells me that the commenter sees my post-traumatic stress disorder or depression as something I could work through if I so chose, amplifying the stigma I’m pushing back on by owning that a mental illness is an appropriate reason to take off work. And it’s not the commenter’s fault; the notion that working constantly is a virtue is so pervasive, it affects all of us.

Things in addition to sick days and sleep that I’ve had to learn are not engaging in self-care: going to the doctor, eating, taking my meds, going to therapy, turning off my computer after a 12-hour day, drinking enough water, writing, and traveling for work. Because it’s so important, I’m going to say it separately: Preventive health care—Pap smears, check-ups, cancer screenings, follow-ups—is not self-care. We do extras and nice things for ourselves to prevent burnout, not as bandaids to put ourselves back together when we break down. You can’t bandaid over skipping doctors appointments, not sleeping, and working your body until it’s a breath away from collapsing. If you’re already at that point, you need straight-up care.

Plenty of activities are self-care! My absolutely not comprehensive personal list includes: brunch with friends, adult coloring (especially the swear word books and glitter pens), soy wax with essential oils, painting my toenails, reading a book that’s not for review, a glass of wine with dinner, ice cream, spending time outside, last-minute dinner with my boyfriend, the puzzle app on my iPad, Netflix, participating in Caturday, and alone time.

My someday self-care wish list includes things like vacation, concerts, the theater, regular massages, visiting my nieces, decent wine, the occasional dinner out, and so very, very many books. A lot of what constitutes self-care is rather expensive (think weekly pedicures, spa days, and hobbies with gear and/or outfit requirements)—which leads to the privilege of getting to call any part of one’s routine self-care in the first place.

It would serve us well to consciously add an intersectional view to our enthusiasm for self-care when encouraging others to engage in activities that may be out of reach financially, may disregard disability, or may not be right for them for a variety of other reasons, including compounded oppression and violence, which affects women of color differently.

Over the past year I’ve noticed a spike in articles on how much of the emotional labor burden women carry—at the Toast, the Atlantic, Slate, the Guardian, and the Huffington Post. This category of labor disproportionately affects women of color. As Minaa B described at the Huffington Post last month:

I hear the term self-care a lot and often it is defined as practicing yoga, journaling, speaking positive affirmations and meditation. I agree that those are successful and inspiring forms of self-care, but what we often don’t hear people talking about is self-care at the intersection of race and trauma, social justice and most importantly, the unawareness of repressed emotional issues that make us victims of our past.

The often-quoted Audre Lorde wrote in A Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

While her words ring true for me, they are certainly more weighted and applicable for those who don’t share my white and cisgender privilege. As covered at Ravishly, the Feminist Wire, Blavity, the Root, and the Crunk Feminist Collective recently, self-care for Black women will always have different expressions and roots than for white women.

But as we continue to talk about self-care, we need to be clear about the difference between self-care and actual care and work to bring the necessities of life within reach for everyone. Actual care should not have to be optional. It should be a priority in our culture so that it can be a priority in all our lives.