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.