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How Feminism F’d Up My Love Life

Who’ll run this mother? Girls. And shit will blow up along the way. (click to watch Beyonce at her finest)

Feminism has done a lot of good—for you, me, all the women you know and don’t know. I’m all about girl power, and go women. Yes.

But there’s one area where feminism has not served me well.  And that is dating. Why? Because, having been raised in the 80s, I came of age with the strong impression that men were basically up to no good. In the movies, TV shows, general cultural messages, men were by and large aggressive, incorrigible boors. They could hurt you. At the very least, they might get in your way. The good news was you probably didn’t need them.

Men Not Required

This was easy for me to believe because I went to an all-girls’ private and progressive catholic high school. Training grounds for the “men not required” mentality. I wore a uniform, no makeup, and had not an ounce of concern for boys, as they were not on my radar, and not deemed central to my life in any real way. Sure, we talked about them, but they were more like attractions than people I had relationships with. Beings I’d ogle and wonder at from the stands of a high school football game or at a dance. They were infrequent visitors in my life and I was a tourist in theirs.

I’d heard about how girls were cowed by the boys in public schools. Girls who didn’t get a shot at leadership, or acted dumb. I felt bad for them. I was certainly better off. For instance, we never mooned about waiting for someone to ask us to a school dance because when our school hosted one, it was on us to do the inviting. Every day was Sadie Hawkins day. We were running the place. And we would run the world.

As students of Oak Knoll High School, we weren’t just students. We were “women of promise.” We were the promise of a better future. I took this as a promise not to let anything, or anyone, get in my way.

During our senior year, we were shown some horrible video about how to avoid being the unfortunate drunk girl who gets date raped at a frat party. Stay sober, stay smart, and if someone goes to rape you, run for ze hills, screaming your head off.

That was my prep for dealing with men.

I got the impression that I could, should, and would run circles around guys. I’d be smarter, stronger, and savvier. And I was sure as shit not going to let any of them hurt me. Probably a good idea not to let any even get near me.

I’m Embarrassed This Happened

And guess what? I succeeded. I sneered at, and even humiliated men as a teenager, and if a guy liked me, I fairly resented him for it. At 14, I had what might be considered my first boyfriend. I’d met him at a spelling bee (not kidding). After two daytime dates held within earshot of parental supervision, I invited him to a dance at the boys’ school.

That night, I had a change of heart. Or rather, I panicked. As I saw him lean cautiously through the auditorium door in the flickering disco light (skinny kid, blond crew cut, windbreaker), I felt my heart ball up in a fist, and thought, No, no this was a mistake.

So, I ignored him. I returned to the safety of my friends and we watched him amble from one poorly lit corner of the room to the other, looking for me. I passed him once, and waved hi–and kept walking. I felt bad, but the way I see it now, not bad enough.

I left this boy stranded at a school dance where he knew no one but me. I am not proud of this. It remains one of the cruelest things I’ve ever done. I went home that night and said nothing–until the phone rang at 11:30 (which in the days of one-family land lines, was a big deal), and it was him. He was shocked and furious–as he should be. I had nothing to say–I shut down. I had no defense. When my mother got wind of what happened, she said, “What is wrong with you? How could you do that?” And I had no answer. I felt tough, and cold.

Then the letters started–scrawled black ink on both sides of thin looseleaf, declarations of love and war, and even threatened suicide, which scared me, even if I knew they likely weren’t true. I resented his neediness, his melodrama. I ignored him until he went away.

(I’ve since google stalked him and was happy to find that he was working as a computer technician in San Jose. I’m sure he never thinks of it–at least I hope he doesn’t.)

I can’t blame feminism for my piss-poor behavior of course, which I chalk up to fear, insecurity, and anything else that rules the mind and emotions of a 14-year-old girl. But it was reinforced by the notion that men were something to be dealt with, but not at all necessary or required.

…And Why This Became a Problem

Flash forward to adulthood and you can imagine how this might set me up with a bit of a handicap. Little did I know the inability to accept anything from a man, including love, would become a bigger problem. I guarded my virginity jealously, well into college, up until the bitter end, in fact. Because it meant I’d have to “lose” it—to someone who would take it from me. This is the worst metaphor ever–that’s what we need to lose!

I’ve come a long, long way since the ensuing years of tense serial monogamy in my 20s, and have far to go. I recognize that I have been angry and defensive for a big chunk of my life, and I’m not even sure why.

I Don’t Need You—Don’t You Love That?

I believe the flawed thinking that set my wheels in motion was believing that to want a man equalled neediness. No one likes needy. Even my uncle, a catholic priest, and my biggest fan in the world before he passed, said, “Terri, don’t be a desperate woman.” And so I figured if needed nothing especially from a man, I’d win. I just didn’t realize the cost of winning. And no, men do not love this! Who doesn’t want to be needed in some way?

I certainly don’t regret how feminism has served me: I’ve learned to be aggressive, tough, resilient, and have had many successes in my life as a result. I never have let a man get in my way–are you kidding? No one ever stood a chance. But now I’m trying to unlearn some of that–to learn what it means to soften, not weaken, and to expand, not constrict. To have power without the shiny, hard outer shell. This is incredibly fucking hard.

This may be the cost of post-feminist fallout. And you know, if that’s the price to pay for the incredible strides, I’ll take it. I’m also recognizing that I swung really hard in one direction and am gradually finding my way back to a more balanced state. My understanding of feminism has evolved, too–in that you don’t have to hate men or beat them in order to be a powerful woman.

Make no mistake–I wouldn’t undo feminism. And I have no regrets about the choices I’ve made in my life (except, of course, for the school dance episode, and a few others to be sure). But I’m well aware that my tendency to fight and compete and fear losing to men has made it incredibly hard for me to love the way I know I could. Even though marriage has never been a goal for me, how silly to think that you can–or should–get through life without loving, as often and as intensely as you can.

Of course, love requires all the things that scare me most: vulnerability, need, want, rejection. It’s hard for me to turn down a challenge–but I’m facing an entirely new one now. Because the softening and revealing and opening up that love requires is the very thing I’ve been steeling myself against. And I’m discovering that to win at not wanting, and not having, may not be a game worth winning, in the end.

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How the Boyfriend Excuse Undermines You

This comes from a quirky tumblr called "My Daguerrotype Boyfriend" Click to view all of its weirdness.

This comes from a quirky tumblr called “My Daguerrotype Boyfriend” Click to view all of its weirdness.

I’m going to confess to you, right here and now, that I have done feminism a grave disservice.

And I’m a repeat offender.

I have used the “I have a boyfriend” excuse to duck, dodge, or deflect unwanted attention. On many occasions.

I said it when I was 100% single. And every time I’ve said those words to someone I know I just really wasn’t interested in, I’ve felt a hiccup of self-loathing, and had the unsettling sense that I was trying to hide behind my high school boyfriend’s Varsity jacket.

And that’s because telling a guy you aren’t interested in him because you’re “taken,” whether you really are or not, undermines your respect and self worth. Using an excuse (“I can’t”) in place of my opinion (“Not interested”) is triggered by a lousy premise: That “he” is the only thing keeping me from flying into the arms of any man who will take me. Every time you and I rely on this cultural crutch, we vote against ourselves, again and again.

The thing I hate most about the boyfriend line is that it works.

But at what price?

When you lie about having a partner to turn someone down, you’re basically saying that any man’s claim on you is more powerful than your own, even if the man does not exist.

(And no, it’s not quite the same as saying “I have a work thing” when you don’t want to go to another thing. White lies have their place and don’t get me started on that.)

Listen instead!

By the way, it’s not that your boyfriend isn’t enough of a reason not to run off with someone else. Of course, if he exists and your commitment is real, you will show that bond respect—but that’s your business and your choice. Let’s not pretend that people haven’t fallen in love with other people regardless of their relationship status.

In fact, the only time it is ok to use your boyfriend as an excuse is when you literally WOULD love to get to know said guy better, but have to pass because you are in a committed thing. But even then it’s not blaming the boyfriend, but owning up to your decision to opt for your current relationship over this new potential. The difference is between honoring your commitment and apologizing for not being available. And there is a difference.

Look, I get it. You, like me, have been taught to adhere to that genderized Hippocratic Oath from a very young age: “First, do no harm.” And the second unwritten rule, which is “Always be liked.” That one’s got a bigger grip on you than you realize. Because even if you don’t want to date this guy, you don’t want him not to like you (admit it).

It’s worth adding that our collective memory is strong, and resisting men hasn’t really worked out so great for us, pretty much throughout all of human history. And there’s still plenty of reason to fear. (Do we need to revisit the horrendous stabbing of a Connecticut student when she turned down a prom invitation?)

But if you want to be taken seriously and want your choices to be respected, you need to start owning them, instead of excusing them. A rebuffed man may very well accuse you of being: a bitch, a lesbian, a bitter old spinster. And sometimes, in the case of a drunk old crazy guy, if a lie would save your life, ok fine. I’m just asking you to think twice before you blame (or credit) other people, man or woman, for your own choices. Because if you don’t own them, who will?