Victoria: I don’t think the world owes us anything, I think we owe the world ourselves. And I can’t give myself to anything unless I’ve been allowed to give to myself. The people I give me to are the people who want all of me, which is also to say all of my desire, and not just the parts that are easy to please or willing to give. If you want the part of me that compromises that is your loss.
I realized that my lover and I don’t use the word “selfish.” In other long-term relationships I’ve had—mostly with breeder boyfriends in high school and college—that word circulated often, positively and negatively, but generally as a recoup. I feel lucky to not have to work with my current partner in those terms.
We’ve been in the process of opening up our relationship. We’ve had a lot of fights. A lot of struggles. One day I told him that he could ask me to stop seeing other men. I said, “You can tell me no.” What appeared to be a compromise on my part was actually a wager—and here I realize I’m more worried about being called “manipulative” more than being called “selfish”— the stakes being that he wouldn’t ask me to stop. Since then the transition has been easier, more open. He hasn’t asked me to stop dating and I haven’t told him that if he did I’d probably refuse.
Why don’t we use the word selfish? I’d like to say it’s because we both find it a weak word—the “ish”—but I doubt either one of us has been that perceptive or that picky until now. I think selfishness lurks among us in other terms. He uses the word “permission.” I use the word “autonomy.” He refers to desire. I refer to Arendt.
Ana: What you just wrote, Victoria, about not “giving yourself to anything unless you’ve been allowed to give to yourself”—my partner has, I felt, reiterated that same sentiment to me when explaining his desire for openness. I am challenged, and in turn grateful, for his unwillingness to give himself to me, if that means losing himself in the process. His defense of his complexity has delivered me to my own. His selfishness is in the service of giving.
I want to talk a bit more about compromise. I get defensive when writing about this, because I have felt (accused?) of “compromising too easily.” This accusation is, unsurprisingly, gendered. A woman who readily compromises seemingly lacks conviction or certainty. Compromise implies a sort of moral weakness. I think I understand what you mean when you write that those who desire a compromised version of their partners are at a loss. I would feel at a loss if my partner felt that caring for me meant compromising his honesty and attention towards his needs. That said, I am not sure I can imagine any relationship that isn’t comprised of compromises. When I compromise I don’t necessarily feel my needs compromised.
Victoria: I don’t think selflessness is necessarily incompatible of caring, it’s just uncreative. Selflessness compromises the self, and in doing so, compromises the other. It’s market logic at it’s most uneconomic. This is what always confused me about the breeder types—”I live for you,” “I am yours,” “I give myself to you,” etc. Since breeders always have to “earn it,” they expect in return that I “live” for them, that I “give them everything.” My life in exchange for their manhood, or children, or whatever. As if 1+1 were to equal 1 and not 2. This tends to happen when the passion runs out and all that’s left is the sedative of security. It’s incredibly wasteful.
Here’s a twist on the selfish: one can’t compromise alone. “When I compromise I don’t necessarily feel my needs compromised.” I’d argue that what you’re characterizing as compromise, or what appears as compromise, isn’t actually a compromise by the very definition of the word. Compromise is defined by loss. Not by your loss, but by everyone’s loss. Don’t think that if you’re compromising that you’re not taking something from them, also. That’s why compromise is selfish—you give in order to take. Compromise means everybody loses. I’ve been watching friends go through this for years, women and men who both decide that the relationship is worth more than the people involved, who have decided that the loss of the self is the price you pay for the love of the other. “That’s what relationships are about, compromise…”
I stand by the formulation of compromise as a wager, as a gamble, rather than an investment. In a chess game, or any game really, the stakes aren’t what is to be won or a prize or whatever. What’s actually being struggled for is the quality of play. It’s a process of continually elaborating autonomous self upon autonomous self, not the self as defined by identity, but the self as defined by one’s own capability and therefore one’s own capacity. To compromise is to let both win by means of asking both to lose, which is not a win at all, but a boring game. I wouldn’t put money on your desire for something easy or painless or equal or fair; I’d wager that you really desire to play, to encounter, to make the worlds that we are grow according to how we choose to draw the lines.
Ana: Victoria, you pointed to one meaning of the word compromise, “a way of reaching agreement in which each person or group gives up something that was wanted in order to end an argument or dispute.” But if you look below you’ll find a second definition, one that speaks closely to what I understand as compromise: “something that combines the qualities of two different things” This also recalls to a certain extent the word’s etymology: “compromise” comes from compromittere, meaning com- “together” + promittere “promise.” I don’t believe compromise can only be substantiated as a shared sacrifice. Rather, the compromises that I make in my closest relationships feel mutually creative. Compromise is not the site of accepted deficit, but a meeting point, a coming together that is generative rather than substrative, a well played game that hasn’t settled on mutual loss as it’s only outcome.
Josephine: Ah, compromise, compromise. There is no need to compromise if you always throw yourself under the train first! This, I realise now in my late twenties, is the model my mother gave me. Our mothers show us what it means to sacrifice, before we realise what’s even happening.
My mother is heroic: she’s tall and strong, she once dove off a boat into Hong Kong harbour to rescue a child’s teddy bear during a black-tie cocktail party. She’s kind of a butch and a great carpenter and a great architect, very strong wrists. She taught shop. She also taught me (by example) that caring about your appearance was feminine, shallow, and selfish. But that macho self-centeredness was just as bad. To me, she’s like this Mother Theresa/James Dean hybrid. All gender, no gender.
So, the question of Self, Selfishness, Selflessness—it goes beyond the difficulty of being-female for me, way down into gender identity itself. My mother is a knight in shining armour and Joan of Arc at the same time, and that’s who I have always wanted to be. It’s impossible, it turns out. It’s impossible to live inside a gender paradox and it can make you go completely crazy.
Fariha: Victoria, I do think compromise is necessary to love. Both in a romantic and social sense. These days, I find that I just want to navigate the world where I’m kind to people, whether or not that’s reciprocated, because my selfishness is that I find solace in that. I like me more when I’m kind. Naturally, I think what I’m learning from this discussion is that selfishness is also not a one-size fits all concept, that it expands to, and fits to the bodies of whoever; that it’s amorphous. I get pleasure out of being generous, out of nurturing—because that’s where I personally feel centered. I tried it the other way, only factoring in myself and my desire for tangibility; whether it was with sex with men, or women, or both, or food and clothes, etc; only to find that I felt so out of control whilst being that way. I felt so dishonest to myself. Which can only mean that we experience the pleasure of selfishness in certain varying degrees. Am I being too simplistic?
Maybe this is something that I’ve been taught so heavily by my parents, ideologically, but also just through osmosis due the illness of my mother. I can’t imagine a life where I’m not giving—and I think the thing that I’ve realized is that I never ask for anything back. I never ask to be loved in return, I just silently hope for it. This also stems from, largely, that I never did that as a child. I mean, I was definitely a brat at times, but that was always overshadowed by my mother who was/is an even bigger brat. So that’s where my compromising started, so much of my existence has catered to her; she’s sort of mapped into me. No matter what, I can’t resent the compromising—I just have to learn to understand when it’s appropriate and also for whom, and I hope that’s where I’ll find some satiation.
Ana: Fariha—this resonated. So. Fucking. Much. My capacity to give feels expansive. But, I would like to push towards a greater capacity to receive, to ask for love. I think it has come up before: selfishness is asking for help. That’s a type of selfishness I could be interested in.
What I am not interested in: guilt. Feeling guilty for not facing the world with my needs and my needs only, first, and foremost, as if a selfless stance is weak, or somehow “less evolved” in whatever qualifying spectrum women are now being subjected to. Or, conversely, feeling guilty if I want to much, if I take up too much space. Kim’s shamelessness is, to me, much more compelling than her selfishness.
Victoria: Kim isn’t selfish. She reflects outwards. She’s pure externality. We love Kim because she shows us ourselves, and she’s hot, and dating Kanye West. When I think about Kim Kardashian, I think of a woman who has made a career out of being uninhabitable. I don’t think of her as selfish, because a selfish woman would inhabit her own body and make it a palace. Kim strikes me as the kind of woman who, to avoid inhabiting her body, builds a palace around it. What I’ve learned from everyone’s words: I don’t think we should be struggling against femininity or caregiving. I think femininity and caregiving are the weapons we use to struggle.
Ana Cecilia Alvarez writes and reads about art, women, and sex.
Victoria Campbell is a writer and artist specializing in the areas of identity negotiation, relationship management, and black magic political economy. She teaches Sex-Ed with Ana Cecilia.
Durga Chew-Bose writes and reads and lives in Brooklyn.
Fiona Duncan is.
Jazmine Hughes is an associate editor at New York Times Magazine.
Josephine Livingstone is a writer and academic in New York.
Fariha Roísín is a writer living on Earth.