[CN: talk of assault/harassment/violation of consent]
I’ve been avoiding writing this post, because it’s about so many things and it feels overwhelming. But something happened a few weeks ago that reminded of the event I’m going to try to explain and I suddenly had renewed motivation to process it.
This is the story of how I became a feminist.
So, it’s not like I didn’t believe in gender equality before. I agreed with propositions like ‘women are equal to men” and “women should be paid as much as men” and “men shouldn’t sexually harass women.” But I was raised inside a bubble of privilege, and raised to feel as confident about my intellectual abilities as a man. I didn’t quite understand why we needed to be officially ‘feminists.’
I spent years after high school on a trajectory towards feminism but never landing on it. I went to grad school. I moved to New York. I dated (a lot). I had a lot of experiences of oppression, but was unable to identify them. I still didn’t understand it. I didn’t have what I think is necessary to be a proper feminist: the framework. The paradigm. The gestalt.*
Because to be a feminist is not just about having the right propositional beliefs. It’s about understanding the bigger picture.
Let’s start with the first story.
In April of 2012 I was in touch (online) with a man I’d known since high school. We realized we were both available (he was getting divorced) and interested in dating.
At that point, I’d been dating in New York for three years. New York is a breeding ground for dating-culture, i.e.: you go on a ‘date’ with a person. Maybe you see them after that, but it’s much less likely. Maybe you end up in a relationship (even less likely). I’d seen the vicissitudes of it, the fragility of desire, difference in availability, expectation, interest. I’d been rejected and rejected others directly and indirectly. I listened to hundreds of episodes of the Savage Lovecast, helping me to process the spectrum of common dating experiences. Dan’s advice is more pragmatic (and less feelings-y) than say, Mallory Ortberg, but one thing he says over and over is: when you start to date, what people are looking for is GOOD JUDGEMENT. It’s good to avoid ‘game-playing’, but adherence to certain dating norms allows you to demonstrate that the other person can trust you.
Back to this guy. Let’s call him Fred. Things started well, but after a week or so I’d wake up to treatises on his feelings, about his divorce, about how things were going to go when I was back for the summer. I told him this was too much. He kept saying he understood, but would continue to send me diatribes whenever he felt like it.
I should have seen this as a red flag, but I assumed when someone says ‘I hear you, sure I will take your needs and boundaries on board’ that they mean it.
I eventually realized that these were drunken diatribes. That worried me, but he had a job and had been married and seemed like someone who, you know, should have figured out how to be an adult by now, right?
Bless my young optimistic little heart.
He KEPT telling me how he saw things going when I got back, which felt … unsettling. Like a LOT of pressure. I’d seen this before – mostly in men who date again after many years in a monogamous relationship. (Probably women do this too, I just haven’t dated many).
I told him he was getting ahead of himself. We talked a lot, sure. But figuring out if it’s going to work in real life is a balancing act of needs and desires (I already sensed an imbalance) to straight up how things FEEL. It requires being honest with yourself but also paying attention to the other person, being attuned to them and their needs. That is what it means to demonstrate that you have good judgement.
We had a date, and it went fine. The chemistry was surprisingly good. But I had reservations.
On our second date we met for dinner before seeing a play. We finished dinner and began walking over. As we were crossing the street, he went to kiss me even though my body language was already saying ‘no thanks.’ I pulled away. He pulled me towards him. I pulled away harder. I protested. Finally, I gave in and kissed him hoping that would just make him stop. It didn’t. He started kissing me aggressively, and I pulled away and pushed him back roughly, snapping his name.
He looked at me, confused and pouting. I was angry and baffled. What the fuck had just happened?
Then… I started to feel BADLY. He continued pouting, saying stuff like ‘but we’re on a date’ and ‘I thought you liked me’. I felt angry, I felt grossed out, I felt confused, I felt guilty. I felt bad, but also like I shouldn’t feel bad. I didn’t understand any of it.
At the theatre I ran into a friend in the lobby and I nearly burst into tears. I was startled by the intensity of this reaction.
After the show I was still angry. He was annoyed and resentful. We left on icy terms. I got home, and related the story to some friends. “Oh, he sounds like a typical Nice Guy,” one said. Sorry? Fred was obviously NOT NICE. He clarified: “No no: A Nice Guy™.”
In retrospect, Fred wasn’t EXACTLY a Nice Guy™ HOWEVER the significant part of the concept is this cycle of expectation and resentment. The emotional logic of it. Fred had felt ENTITLED to kissing me– and when confronted with pushback, got RESENTFUL.
Oh god. Oh god oh god oh god ohgodohgodohgodohgod.
It’s still hard to explain what exactly clicked, but something shifted: I saw the two paradigms – the one in which he got pissed and saw me as a withholding bitch. And the one underneath that one, the one where I expected to be taken seriously. I saw the way they overlapped, but also where they didn’t, and how HIS narrative dominated that scenario.
Most importantly, Fred didn’t register the upset on my face as something he should ATTEND to. Something he should try to FIGURE OUT. Something that might even make him question his bizarre and inappropriate assumptions. No, for him my upset was a blip. An inconvenience. Something to be controlled and manipulated.
I had experienced this problem before, but I had never felt that unsafe, felt that… INVISIBLE. I don’t think of myself as someone who’d feel that way: BUT I HAD. In part because of his entitlement and resentment. How it felt very much like I was expected to play a role, and I wasn’t doing my job because I didn’t fit into his script. And instead of realizing the problem was HIS SCRIPT, he decided the problem was ME.
So far this is very intellectual, but another thing that was true is that suddenly, after reading this explanation of Nice Guy Syndrome, I felt … centred, validated, relieved. I felt angry at him, but unconflicted about that anger. I felt… not crazy anymore.
I was lucky. Having my consent violated played out for me in one of its more benign iterations. It could have been much worse.
But the scenario contained similar emotional logic. My research includes analyzing ways that women narrate their rape stories. The language they use is similar – they feel badly in the moment, like they’re letting someone down, they feel confused about why their partner isn’t noticing/caring that they aren’t consenting, they worry they weren’t explicit enough or that they did something to cause it. They often give in to have it be over, to get rid of him, because they’re scared of other kinds of physical violence.
I didn’t see the whole picture at this point. I’m still working on it. There are still many facets of oppression I do not know enough about, both in my own life but also in that of others who have to deal with intersections of class and race and ability. But it was my entry into understanding how to understand oppression.
The day after this date, I wrote a post about Nice Guy Syndrome™ and how it helped me make sense of that upsetting encounter.
Then, almost immediately, a man I’d recently met commented: ‘But HOW DO YOU KNOW??’ he asked. A friend of mine jumped to my defense and we spent hours explaning that reading someone’s BEHAVIOUR is different from speculating what their thoughts are, and besides it’s not like speculating about thoughts is weird, we do it all the time. But my interpretation was too limiting for this man. Too ungenerous. I could never really know what was going on. Therefore, I shouldn’t speculate about it at all.
I could write a whole post about how undermining that was, how inappropriate given how much it obviously helped me understand my own experience, how the attitude that we ‘can never know’ is a self-defeating belief and self-fulfilling prophecy that inhibits our ability to interpret well, how it ignores the fact that it’s our JOB as moral agents to figure out how to interpret the world, and each other, and ourselves. I could talk about how just because we can never ‘know’ in an ABSOLUTE sense doesn’t mean that we should give up even trying.
Or, I could just tell you that this man, who was so sure that any attempt at speculating was so futile, committed revenge pornography against his ex-girlfriend last year. When she confronted him, he literally had no explanation for his behaviour.
FOR HIS OWN BEHAVIOUR.
Like I said, there are good reasons to think that being a good interpreter relates to our moral capacity.
Anyway, let’s turn to the recent thing: I briefly dated someone last summer: George. We hung out a couple times as friends before that. He was opening up his partnership after being monogamous for years, and he asked me out just as he was heading out of town for a few weeks. I’d been attracted to him for a while but hadn’t really thought about it much before that. He was out of town and so we ended up chatting a bunch (online) before we went out.
I quickly got the sense that he wanted something more serious than I did. Eg. we didn’t talk for a few of the days that he was away, and he mentioned he’d been stressed by that. I told him that it was that my need for alone time was increasing. He said he understood.
I also got the sense that he didn’t think of dating as a kind of PROCESS but as a kind of … static, pre-formed state. It reminded me of Fred. I tried to push back against that, giving similar reasons. ‘But we already know each other’ he said to me on our date. Sure, but starting to date is a different thing. He said he understood my need for space, but he also kept seeming to expect more than I was prepared to give.
Signs that it wasn’t going to work started to flash in my mind. I tried to ignore them. I hoped to see that he had good judgement. That there could be trust and awareness about how to engage with each other.
We didn’t talk the day after the date, which isn’t unusual for me. This is part of dating that’s hard to justify – there isn’t one official script, more like an overlapping set of scripts and expectations. But I had told him about my need for space, and I was involved in work, and I was waiting to sort out my schedule. We talked three days later. He said he’d been very stressed out by three days without communication. He didn’t say it wasn’t okay, exactly. Just that he had been ‘feeling awful’.
Here’s the thing about communicating feelings. There is a difference between being honest and telling someone your feelings to make them feel guilty. It’s not always obvious which is which. It’s also possible to be unintentionally manipulative. But telling someone their behaviour has really upset you? The obvious implication is ‘don’t behave that way.’
That aside, what struck me most is simply that there was a much bigger imbalance in our respective needs/desires than I’d realized. So I messaged him and called off dating. He accepted that and we made plans to have a study-hangout the week after.
The study-date went fine, and I felt reassured that we could be friends. But three weeks later he messaged saying he was stressed by my continued lack of communication. That he was doing the ‘lion’s share’ of communicative work.
That felt weird, especially given the fact that he said he understood my need for space. He was reading quite a lot into my behaviour. He also sounded distinctly resentful, that his needs mattered more than mine. I was annoyed. It felt there was a background script in his mind of what our relationship looked like, a script he might think of as so natural that he doesn’t even understand that IT IS a script. A script that remained unchanged despite his protests that he heard and understood that I need space. This message showed me that he didn’t understand my need for space at all. And yet, I still tried to respond reassuringly.
I didn’t contact him after that because each time I was inclined to it felt like I was doing it because I was nervous he was pissed at me. And that felt gross. It meant I needed even more space from him. Then I saw him at a party (a party I dragged myself to because my friend was literally leaving the country) and it felt nice to reconnect. Like maybe we could build something back up.
A few days after that I received a 1600 word email detailing his confusion about what happened between us, and how my lack of communication hurt him. I hadn’t done anything TECHNICALLY wrong, he admitted, but he felt it was very important for me to know that he was suffering quite a lot.
Incidentally, nowhere in this 3 page FEELINGSMAIL of passive-aggressive resentment did this man pause to ask me how I’m even doing.
I was … so very angry. I messaged to say that I would be taking a few days to respond, because I knew that if I didn’t say something, he’d project even more insecurities onto me, more assumptions about how I was ignoring and rejecting him.
He responded: “Take all the time you need. I have zero expectations.”
Dear reader, this man’s lack of self-awareness makes my head spin.
I took five days to write a response. In the email he’d said that there was something I must not be telling him. In a way, he was right because what I wasn’t saying to him was ‘you are bad at boundaries, and you started making me uncomfortable.’ So I decided to tell him. I laid out my perspective as honestly as I could in excruciating detail, how his behaviour came off as controlling and resentful, and how his claims that he respects my boundaries were contradicted over and over again by his behaviour. I went into way more detail than I wanted to, because I was trying to give him the best picture I could of how it felt to me. Because he claimed he so wanted to understand.
He replied an hour later – ONE HOUR LATER – saying that he had tried to understand my message as best he could. He reiterated his very many good intentions, as though they are relevant. As though that means he wasn’t in fact acting resentful or manipulative. He said that he appreciated my candour but we simply have ‘different interpretations.’
Jesus Fucking Christ.
Uh yeah friend, we do. That’s the point. Also? Mine is MORE RIGHT THAN YOURS. Because my interpretation details my needs, my behaviour, and how your behaviour made me feel. These are things that I’m in a pretty good position to give you an account of. An account you said you so wanted to understand, but didn’t even give 24 hours of thought before rejecting.
It was exasperating. Once again I felt invisible. Like no matter how loud I shouted, no matter how clear I tried to be, he was just going to hear whatever he wanted to hear. That within his narrative, his script, he was unable to hear anything I said. My upset at him, my avoidance of him was again an inconvenience. One that needed to be controlled and manipulated, not understood.
His response had also validated my previous decision to not be direct with him, because he was obviously incapable of accepting it.
And this is part of what it means to be objectified. To appear within someone else’s narrative as an object, as a screen on which they can project, while they don’t even know how to begin to incorporate your interpretation, your narration, your feelings into their read of the situation. They have no idea how to take you seriously.
It’s incredibly disempowering to feel. And to know there’s nothing you can do about it.
It’s not as though just men do this. But men do it more often than women, and they often do it TO women, and often these situations can be scary or dangerous. Neither situation I described here was massively dangerous for me but I still felt panicked and smothered and invisible. Both situations felt a little bit creepy (in both cases men were claiming to respect my needs and boundaries, and in both cases neither was doing so). And I do not know how to get these guys to see their own behaviour for what it is: oppressive.
What I do have though is a framework in which to understand what is happening. To understand the miscommunication. To validate my own agency. And to validate my own feelings and my own interpretation without needing them to agree to it.
Many African-American/Black Feminist thinkers have already identified a more in-depth version of this kind of thing in their work. Du Bois is a good example of someone who articulated this narrative layering, something he called ‘double-consciousness.’
This post is much less coherent than what they (DuBois but also Patricia Hill Collins, Fanon, to name some but there are so many others) have managed to articulate so well. I’m not sure if what I’ve written here manages to explain the intellectual, emotional, and visceral alignment that I experienced that allowed me to understand oppression. It’s still something that slips away somewhat when I try to put words to that very complex perceptual shift. I do know that having it has opened up modes of understanding so much more of the world, and I’m able to extend that experience – even abstractly – to what I do not get. I know that these double-consciousnesses happen in different ways, along different axes. I cannot understand racism from the inside, but I can understand that some analogous experiential dissonance is happening for people of colour. That extension, when I manage to be mindful of it, helps me to at least give me some sense of how much I don’t perceive about certain contexts. And by that same token, I wonder about able-bodied white men who never experience this visceral dissonance. How the experience of such dissonance eludes language and explanation, how much of the phenomenological import falls through our words and concepts like sand through fingers. How much more difficult it must be for them to fully grasp oppression.
Which, in turn, means they are, strangely enough, in an interpretively impoverished position. And this isn’t to let anyone off the hook. Quite the opposite. I just wish I knew how to explain to them how much they don’t see. How much I see how much they don’t see. Especially when they think that I am ‘overreacting.’ (Ugh.) If it’s even possible for them to ever fully appreciate or understand oppression.
I don’t have answers to these questions. What I do have are my own experiences, and my attempts at making the best sense of them that I can. And that’s something. It’s a start.
*I use these words interchangeably. I realize academically that might be a problem for some of you (you know who you are). But this is my blog, so deal.