A Feminist and the Nice Guys in Her Life

I’ve bemoaned the decentering of women’s issues in favour of the old ‘but what about the men?’ debate on this very site quite recently, so this article may seem a little strange. Bear with me; I’m definitely aiming to centre women’s experiences. More specifically, I’m proffering my own experience, as a woman, and wondering whether my rationalisation of it resonates for others. I make no claim that my experience is universal, though, anecdotally speaking, it seems to be common.

In my daily life, I don’t meet many people who will admit to being anti-feminist. 23 years in, I have (more or less) successfully pruned my social tree down to a verdant set of variously progressive political branches. However, the odd cuckoo is still to be found nesting. First, there is the common or garden ‘I’m not a feminist but…’, then there is the fairweather ‘I’m a feminist man stop oppressing me by saying I can’t direct feminist discourse because if I’m not allowed to maintain my traditional “active” role I’m not going to play any more’, and finally, the infestatious ‘Nice Guy’.

A typical example; I meet a man who reads the copy of Gender Agenda I leave lying around and seems to believe that women are fully human i.e. not just designed to fulfil man-enabling roles such as housework, child rearing, or providing sexual gratification. He is pleasant, we become close. A term down the line, he is still ostensibly pleasant, but cracks are beginning to show: he makes ‘thoughtless’ jokes, making comments like ‘that bitch can ride a pole’ on a music video. I didn’t get it either, but I think the punchline was that I am a feminist and therefore misogyny in my presence is funny.

This is still not a man who would proclaim his entitlement to a female ‘helpmeet’; you could have a liveable relationship with him. But there is obviously something about relating with a self-proclaimed feminist woman which has brought out a deep insecurity in him, manifest in his desire to make feminism a joke or little idiosyncrasy. This happens to me a lot: I obviously never embark on relationships with insecure, anti-feminist men if I know that’s what they are. Yet I end up leaving several relationships with insecure, anti-feminist men. And today I had an epiphany as to why:

‘Nice Guys’ are perfectly, even unusually, ‘nice’, but are nonetheless scared of feminism, because feminism threatens not just their sexual and economic access to women, but also their emotional access. Feminism centres women for women. Feminism creates sisterhood; its greatest asset is being a personal as well as a political programme. It legitimises women’s emotional experiences as real experiences, celebrates them, shares them, elevates that sharing into a bond equal or superior to the bond of traditional, ‘romantic’ intimacy. So, if a ‘Nice Guy’ is in an emotional or ‘romantic’ relationship with a woman who is a feminist, that means that the woman is likely to be relating emotionally with others – other women – too. For her, the relationship with him is not unique for the mere fact of being emotionally intimate; the man is not providing something irreplaceable in that sense. But, he is probably receiving it; ‘brotherhood’ is a gangster term, it doesn’t connote mutual emotional support. So for a man to relate emotionally and intimately to a feminist woman is for a man, perhaps for the first time in his life, to relate to a woman under an imbalance of power that, even if in just one sense, advantages her; she can take it or leave it, as far as fulfilling her need for emotional intimacy goes.

Now I will hasten to disclaim that this doesn’t hold true for all, or perhaps even most, men; many men will have close friendships with each other and with other women. And when I make my next point, I am not saying that it is inherent or essential. Here it is: women are, generally speaking, trained and expected to be emotional; emotionally intelligent, emotionally accessible. With men, it seems to be the opposite. I don’t know what it might be like to have no one or only one person with whom I could talk openly about my feelings, but I don’t imagine I’d like it very much. However, I’ve often felt in my previous relationships, that I was that one person for the man involved; it was very oppressive.

I have the happy option of pursuing ‘romantic’ relationships with women instead of, or as well as, with men. But as long as that’s not the case for everyone – or, in fact, even if it were the case for everyone – a construction of romantic love which places the entire onus for a man’s emotional happiness on a woman is a huge, insidious problem. It’s not new for a feminist to call for the patriarchal straightjacket of manly distance and stoicism to be discarded. What I’m saying is: it shouldn’t only be discarded in the bedroom.


  1. John

    Interesting. I’m a guy who happens to have major problems with emotional intimacy, almost to the point of pathology. I’m not proud or happy about this at all. I’d love to discard my stoicism and distance. But it’s not a thing over which I have any control. I could possibly achieve it with long term professional therapy, but I’m not willing/able to make the emotional investment. I’m doomed to be cold and insular – and looking at my past, I feel this is partly the result of my specific upbringing and partly general cultural factors combined into my specific insecurities. Emotional sophistication and intimacy are not things you can switch on but that people like me choose to keep off because we consciously choose or want to. It’s just something we have. Same way you can’t change your sexuality. I agree that stoicism and distance can work as a patriarchal straightjacket in the way you describe, but it’s a) not insurmountable for men who want to be feminist (not all of us are nice guys) and b) not treatable simply by telling men to act in better ways or be better people – many don’t have that option. It’s largely a deep cultural phenomenon, like so many other patriarchal problems.

    • Lis

      I don’t see how that’s relevant, so long as you don’t make it a woman’s work to handle any outsourcing of your emotional processing. By my reading, those who do – who depend on it – are the ones who (rightly) feel threatened in the way this article describes. The problem is selective suspension of emotional distance.

  2. Lis

    I completely agree. It’s about entitlement, as you say, to emotional and other forms of work.

    I think there are also other fears which motivate these pop-up antifeminists, among them: the fear of a woman whose feminism is ongoing rather than historical, the fear of a woman who may refuse PIV, the fear of a woman who may demand significant personal changes, the fear of a woman who may stop performing beauty work, the fear of being ostracised by sexist men because of his “gender betrayal” through collaboration with the feminist enemy, the fear of a woman who may condemn his use of pornography, the fear of a woman who may and does say no.

  3. SwynHaf

    just to back lis up on her interpretation of what i was trying to say (sorry if it wasn’t clear): i think that a certain type of man is scared of feminism precisely because his emotional life is important to him and whilst it’s beyond the pale for him to expect a female helpmeet in the other areas of his life, the emotionally supportive function of patriarchal femininity is still considered sacrosanct and the idea of it too being dismantled as another facet of male privilege is if anything more scary to the type of man who values emotional intimacy, which can come as a surprise if such a man’s empathetic capacities contribute to his support for women’s liberation from things like household drudgery.

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