Jun 21 • 12M

To lie or not to lie

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Welcome to Sex and the State, a newsletter about power. I’m a writer working on decriminalizing and destigmatizing all things sex. I use evidence and stories to interrogate existing power structures to propose better ways of relating. To support my work, buy a guidebuy a subscriptionfollow me on OnlyFans, or just share this post!

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If you’ve never seen my torso, you might not know that I have a disfiguring skin condition called anetoderma. I looked through Google images for a good link but none perfectly capture my situation. Then I thought about linking to a picture of my torso that really showcases it, but you know what? If you really wanna see, it’s $10. Link above.

One time, I was lying naked in bed with this man who I adore. I hope I don’t terribly embarrass him by telling this story. I adore him even more because I know he’ll read this and feel super embarrassed and I am sorry in advance about that. But not sorry enough to not tell it. 

Anyway, he asks me if there’s any treatment for my skin condition. I tell him that a dermatologist told me I could try topically applying Vitamin E and/or basically trying to get the collagen to regrow by regularly irritating the skin. I tried lotion with Vitamin E a few times but since the derm didn’t have high hopes and it was a pain in the ass I soon quit. 

It’s been a long, hard journey to get to where I am now about my skin condition. I am technically disfigured, but I don't really feel disfigured anymore, you feel me? As my skin has gotten objectively more disfigured, I’ve grown to care less about it. 

For many years I avoided showing my back because I felt like I had a moral obligation to cover it up. I thought most people, if not everyone, who saw it would feel disgusted and be upset with me for not doing more to cover it up. I thought the sight of my skin imposed a severe cost on innocent onlookers.

Long after my skin disfiguration but before now, I would go to sex parties. And I still make porn. We can safely say the “always cover it up” phase is over. 

I think the best way to convey how I feel about my skin today is this: I would pay $500 (probably. Definitely $100) to immediately, painlessly, permanently heal my skin. I’d probably pay a lot more to prevent facial disfigurement. Then again, I keep surprising myself with how little time, energy, pain, or money I find myself willing to invest in improving my appearance. 

Getting back to the point. The dude did absolutely nothing to hide his surprise at how little I cared about being disfigured. Which I found really amusing. First, I was amused that a straight man would care so much about his appearance. Did you know I grew up in Alabama? 

The second, and much more amusing part, was the fact that it didn’t seem to occur to him to hide or downplay his surprise. One way to interpret his reaction is “Really, you don’t mind looking like that? You’re so disfigured that I can’t imagine being equally disfigured and not going to great lengths to attempt to be less disfigured.”

And like, maybe I would have been at least slightly offended if I didn’t know that he clearly finds me very attractive despite my disfigurement. And if I suspected that my very negative potential interpretation of his reaction had even occurred to him but he said it anyway, I would be offended. Because it would mean he didn’t care about offending me. But I feel confident that I know this man well enough to know that he just said exactly what he thought. 

Plus, I know that he’s spent a lot more time, money, pain, and energy trying to improve his appearance than I have. Which means I interpret him less as saying “You’re terribly disfigured,” and more saying, “You really don’t give a fuck, do you?” And, dear reader, no. I really don’t seem to. 

ANYWAY, this is going somewhere, I promise. Will it be worth it? Honestly, if you’re not having a good time yet, it’s a 50/50 at best.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with an amazing person who I’ve written about in this here online diary before. Unfortunately, his friends are not, shall we say, the most enthused about my role in his life. It’s a whole exceedingly (in my opinion) stupid-but-low-stakes drama, but there is one part that I thought was super interesting. One of his friends described me, to me, as “borderline belligerently honest.” The friend meant this as an insult. But I couldn’t help but feel a little proud. Proud, and seen.

That got me thinking about my favorite thing to think about, which is, of course, myself. Why am I so honest? My first thought was that being honest is right, morally speaking. But I don’t put much stock in the idea that there exists any objective, universal moral system that humans can reliably suss out and implement.

Yet I feel strongly compelled toward belligerent honesty. And I very strongly prefer it when people are belligerently honest with me. Why?

There’s nothing I can point to that strongly indicates that belligerent honesty is always or even usually inherently better than… tact. 

Tact isn’t quite the right word. What I mean is, sometimes the right thing to do is to lie. If Nazis are at your door and ask you if you’re harboring Jewish people and you are, most likely the right thing to do in that instance is to lie. 

One thing I’ve slowly begun to realize over the years is the extent to which I am different from other people in certain ways. More importantly, I’ve also slowly begun to realize over the years the extent to which I am not different from other people, in most ways. There’s a reason therapists are called shrinks, or head shrinkers. It’s been more than worth thousands of dollars and hours of my time to chip away at the narcissism of thinking that I’m an especially bad person. 

One way in which I really am special is that I seem to get way more upset than the average person when someone lies to me, or intentionally misleads me in any way. Why? It feels like a violation of my autonomy, which I’ve written about before. But another big reason I hate being lied to more than the average person is that it feels so disorienting to me. I’m so unused to it. I never expect it. 

I was thinking earlier about how high-integrity my parents are. I remember instances where they lied to me, acted in a way that was out of alignment with their stated values/morals/beliefs, or said they’d do something and didn’t follow through. I remember these instances because they were so vanishingly rare. I’m not the kind of person to view my parents with rose-colored glasses, unfortunately for us both. They have their flaws. But I really have rarely, if ever, thought about how honest, dependable, straightforward, and consistent they are. You don’t know how weird your family is until you start getting very close to a bunch of other people. 

I remember at least once someone asked me, “Why didn’t you lie?” after I told them about a situation in which lying could have avoided some unpleasant result that inevitably resulted from my having been belligerently honest. And the honest answer was because it didn’t occur to me to lie. It hadn’t occurred to me to lie until they asked that question. 

Am I saying I’m a more moral person than people who think to lie, or think to lie and then do? Yes and no. Yes, in that I think that I think about morality more than the average person. I think I care more about what it means to be a moral person, to do the right thing, to live ethically, than the average person. I think I am more likely than the average person to think about and come up with internally consistent moral frameworks. And I think I try at least a little bit harder to hew to my moral framework than the average person. 

But, again, why? I recently read a post from a Twitter friend about the connection between being trans, having ADHD, and having rejection hypersensitivity.

The way ADHD, autism, and rejection hypersensitivity connect is super fascinating to me because when I read about it I can’t help but think: It me. 

Rejection hypersensitivity means you feel rejection more deeply when it is there. It also makes you more likely to see rejection even when it isn’t there. People with ADHD and Autism don’t feel confident in their ability to correctly interpret social cues.

My theory: People with ADHD, rejection hypersensitivity, and Autism learn early that relying on social cues to figure out how to act leads to frequent and very painful rejection. So they learn to rely primarily on what people are literally saying. Which means that people whose literal words aren’t accurate or comprehensive are frightening and alienating to them.

They may also be especially inclined to agree that honesty is more moral than lying. 

I’ve also read that people on the autism spectrum are more likely than the average neurotypical person to be morally inflexible. 

Basically what I’m saying is it’s possible that I am less likely to lie and get more irritated about lying than the average person because, among other things:

1. It doesn’t occur to me to lie

2. Because it doesn’t occur to me to lie, and because my Theory of Mind could be better, I don’t expect other people to lie

3. People behaving unexpectedly feels scary and destabilizing to me

4. Because I don’t feel confident in my ability to correctly interpret social cues, I rely more heavily than the average person on my ability to understand and believe what people are actually straightforwardly saying

5. Because I have rejection hypersensitivity, I feel especially unsafe in situations in which I cannot rely on my ability to understand and believe what people are actually straightforwardly saying

6. Lying feels deeply immoral to me probably because of all of the above, and because of how I was raised

7. Perhaps due to the autism, I’m more likely than average to actually hew to my moral frameworks

So am I a more moral person than the average person? In this narrow way, under this narrow moral framework, probably yes. 

But what makes this moral framework better than other moral frameworks? Why should people who feel rightly confident in their ability to correctly interpret social cues be expected to always or nearly always tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth? 

Many people actually prefer being lied to a lot of the time. “Do I look bad in this dress?” What percentage of people want “the truth?” 

If I ask the question, I actually want to know. I still appreciate tact. I’d prefer “I’m not sure that particular dress is doing your gorgeous body justice” over “Yes.” But what I do not want is, “No, you look great in that dress” if what you’re really thinking is “Yuck.” 

You could easily make a compelling case that society couldn’t run without white lies lubricating away the friction. Let’s say you ask me if I enjoyed the dinner you cooked me. I say yes to be polite, but you can correctly interpret my tone of voice, facial expression, etc. to mean it wasn’t your best work. Maybe if I’d said, “I really appreciate the effort, but it was a bit salty,” you’d read that as unnecessarily aggressive and ungrateful. Just damn me with faint praise, you might think. No need to be hostile.

Meanwhile if I cook you dinner (let’s hope it never comes to this) and ask you how it was, I’m going to prefer that you tell me it was too salty. I’d prefer you said it nicely and with a lot of gratitude for my effort. But it feels more hostile to me to say you liked it without complaint, thereby misleading me about whether there was something you’d like to see different next time. 

Anyway, I see all this a lot like guessers versus askers. Some people think it’s rude to say “It’s a bit hot in here” if they want you to turn the AC on. Some people think it’s rude to ask, “Can you turn the AC on” if you’re feeling a bit hot. I am, unsurprisingly, in the just fucking ask me I can’t read your mind camp.

I suspect humanity evolved these two broad types of guy because it was evolutionarily advantageous. It helps us as a species survive to have some people who are borderline belligerently honest and others who are willing to stretch the truth or not tell the whole truth to keep everything pleasant and everyone getting along. 

Do I wish the world were full of more people who are like me in this regard and fewer people who are less like me? Yes, of course. That would make my time on Earth easier and more pleasant. But would that be a better world, in any objective sense? I’m far from convinced. What is the point of honesty? What is the point of deception? 

To the extent that life has any kind of meaning, every year I become more convinced it’s found in our relationships with other people. A better world is one in which more people are more deeply, meaningfully, inextricably connected to each other.

For some people, belligerent honesty fosters connection. For others, white lies do. If there is a “right” thing to do, in any objective or cosmic sense, I think it’s to figure out where you sit in the BH to WL spectrum and try to surround yourself with people who also sit around that point. 

Part of why I don’t worry as much about covering up my skin disfigurement anymore is that I’ve realized I don’t have time for people who are disgusted by my torso. As we’ve established, I probably can’t fix my skin and I’m not going to be bothered to try. So if you’re not with it, keep it moving. I’ve been lucky to find more people than I have time to connect with who are undeterred by my disfigurement. I’m going to focus on those people. 

Similarly, I’ve found I just don't generally have time for WL people. I think this is a big part of why I enjoyed DC and SF so much. It was so easy to find many other people who are also BH. The dude who said the thing about my skin lives in SF, of course. 

The process of trying to figure out what someone really thinks or means takes so much longer when they’re not BH. And that process is just painfully boring to me. I don’t want to read between the lines. I want the lines to say what they mean so we can get to the interesting part.

Trying to suss out what someone thinks or means can be interesting if they’re not sure and we’re working together to figure it out. But trying to figure out what someone thinks or means because they’re refusing to be straightforward is boring as hell to me. It feels like pointless, unnecessary work. 

Interesting, necessary work to me is figuring out whether an idea is true empirically, useful morally, and/or interesting subjectively. 

I guess the point is: Figure out who you are, whether you want to be that kind of person, and who your fellow people are.