This is purely a biographical piece, not a philosophical one. Feel free to engage as with any other, but bear in mind that I am not advocating an ideology or lifestyle – I am simply musing publicly about my relationship with the topic.
A Tale as Old as 1991
My life changed in 1991. Sure, I was five years old, but my life changed. I did not know it at the time, because I was five, but the post hoc rationalisation makes sense.
I was watching a cartoon, as one is wont to do at five, and a beautiful young woman stepped out of her house singing about adventure in the great wide somewhere. She lived, trapped, in a small provincial town, relegated to the adventures in her mind. She loved to read, loved the stories and the characters contained in the pages.
And everyone in the village thought her strange for it.
I identify with Belle, not only because she is a considerate, bookish nerd, but also because she does not care what anyone else thinks. She’s not indifferent to what they think in a callous, pop star, IDGAF way; she does not care what they think in a, “This is what brings me joy and it hurts no one” way. (Putting aside for a moment that I worry a great deal about what people think about me, just not enough to change my hobbies.)
That’s the first part of the equation. The second part is Gaston. We meet him killing an animal and pronouncing to LeFou (literally, “the fool”) that 1) Belle is the most beautiful girl in the village, 2) being the most beautiful makes her the best, and 3) Gaston deserves the best. He’s a monument of manliness. Women want to be with him and men want to be him. He’s tough. He drinks beer, spits, fights, and does all manner of manly thing.
And everyone in the village adored him for it.
Feminist or Misandrist?
The first thing to address here is my truth that I have a preference for women over men. I do not hate men, but, speaking in the most general terms, if you provide me with a choice between partnering up with a random man and a random woman, I would choose the woman. This preference has its foundation in general experience, as these things often do.
I had what appears to be a unique experience in grade school. On the one hand, I liked the girls. I never went through that period where they “had cooties” and boys were meant to stay away from them. For one thing, the boys liked to roughhouse and most things involved sports. We wore sports clothing, had sports folders, carried sports backpacks, had sports lunchboxes, and talked about sports. The girls did a lot of the traditionally feminine stuff, but they also valued education. They focused on education in a way most of the boys did not – I valued education and identified with that.
It intensified as we grew older. Sports meant quite a bit to me, and they still do. I think of the smell of the grass playing baseball or soccer. I can feel the cold air on my face and hear the clicking and swishing noises of skates on the ice. It’s heaven. However, I also remember stepping off the field covered in dirt, blood, and sweat. I remember what my soccer equipment bag smelled like. I definitely recall how that hockey locker room smelled.
You know how poking a bruise kind of hurts but not in a serious way, so you poke it anyway because there’s something fascinating about the pain? That’s the smell. It brings back a lot of fond memories so it has a place in my heart, but it’s objectively foul.
I came to associate that with men. We were rough, dirty, and, even at the height of our camaraderie, mean towards one another. Even if one was not the “alpha” type, being a man meant certain behaviours.
The girls, with their own social expectations, were amenable and aesthetically pleasing. I don’t just mean visually. They dressed well and wore fragrances. I loved their voices, even before we began to hit puberty and the bass appeared in the men’s voices. They seemed melodic, almost as if the girls were singing their words to convey that amenability. The boys thumped out their words.
Of course there were exceptions across the board. Plenty of the guys were incredible and I went to schools with girls I wanted to avoid at all costs. This is all in generalities.
On the other hand, those same girls intimidated me because I did not understand attraction and sexuality beyond knowing that it was a thing. It’s perhaps the earliest example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect I can recall in my life. We had biological differences – boys had penises and girls had vaginas. I knew the two interacted somehow, but not the specific mechanics. I also knew that those body parts were private (thanks Catholicism!). One hid it away and did not speak of it.
So when the time came that boys and girls began to mingle, I had trouble reconciling my preference for girls with the sanctity of our bodies. I could give a fellow boy a bro-hug, but hug a girl? That would press my chest against hers, which meant I was technically touching her breasts and that did not seem okay. What if we stood too close and our hips also came together? Sure, we were fully clothed, but the idea of our genitals pressed together also seemed inappropriate.
I had a strong preference for girls and held them in such esteem that I treated them like porcelain – to view and never touch. They had innate fragility and a value far above mine.
No One Exemplifies Toxic Masculinity Like Gaston
Back to Beauty and the Beast. We’re now in middle school and boys may now express their interest in the girls because they no longer have cooties. The boys tend to focus their interest on a handful of the girls, agreed as the ones who are objectively the cutest.
This created two issues in my adolescent mind.
First, all of these different boys, each with unique personalities and characters, focused on a subset of the girls. The maths, the psychology did not seem right to me. For boys of so many different types to like a single girl meant that her personality and character must not have been a factor. If it did, she certainly would appeal to some boys more than others? The mass interest must have been related to the consensus on her beauty. (She’s the most beautiful girl in the whole village. That makes her the best.)
Second, the boys, as stated earlier, like to mess around and roughhouse. We did boy things because we were boys. Now especially that girls had become a factor, the enforcement of the social norms for boys became pronounced. Homophobic jokes became increasingly common, both playfully among friends and as insults to injure foes. The boys (again, and I cannot stress this enough in this piece, generally speaking) were Gaston. He was the villain, and yet I watched my classmates turn into Gaston and his friends in the tavern.
It only further put me off the guys and made me want to pursue relationships with women. I actively pursued what many would falsely label the “friend zone,” the imaginary place where women put men who “deserve” their sexual attention but will not receive it. In reality, it’s merely a platonic and meaningful personal relationship with a woman. The sort of thing one has when one does not value women in terms of their sexuality.
Intent and Motivation
The inspiration for this post is a recurring #WCW (Woman Crush Wednesday) thread that I present on Twitter, meant to highlight the accounts of women on Twitter of personal significance.
My whole purpose for joining Twitter was on the advice of other writers who said, “If you ever wish to get published, the prospective publishers will want to see that you have a social media presence.” I knew I needed not only to establish a Twitter account, but also to establish some significant presence with it – to acquire followers who engaged with me.
How best to do that? I decided from the off that my best course of action would be to orient my Twitter account not around my writing, which was still in progress, but around my other passions to engage like-minded individuals who would likely respond to my writing when ready. With one of my passions being the push for civil rights (chief among them gender equality) and the aforementioned preference for women, I began there.
That approach brought me to many powerful Twitter accounts run by women, and they rightly dominate all of my “who to follow” posts. I tweet about gender equality and lend my support to their voices when the inevitable trolls, sea lions, and misogynists appear on their comments, unwilling to listen and draining energy.
While no one accuses me of misandry, likely because my comments made in support of women never even imply a hatred of men (and I am myself one), it does invite other accusations and labels: white knight, suggestions that I am myself mansplaining or tone-policing, or, the one that inspired this post, it’s a means of sexual ingratiation. I have no sincere interest in women’s rights, but see that position as a way to win the favour of women who will reward me with sex.
The funny thing about these accusations is that 1) these tactics absolutely do happen and 2) they contradict directly the ideas of gender equality. No one owes anyone their body for anything. Consent does not work that way. It also means one party valuing the other in terms of sexual appeal, another severe strike against. The truth is that many men who are poor allies do adopt this horrendous understanding of gender equality even if well-intentioned. I get that. I don’t begrudge women who view allies with scepticism. Trust is hard won and easily lost – true allies prove themselves through action and over time.
It does raise introspective questions though.
James Meets Belle
I still do not understand attraction or sexuality – not in a way that matters. It seems like I ought to understand it, but that’s the Dunning-Kruger Effect at work again. I’m educated to the extent that I know just how much I do not know.
Remember earlier with the whole “boys had penises and girls had vaginas” comment? It’s not as simple as that. If you think the subject boils down to XX and XY chromosomes, you are even further behind than I am. Gender, sex, and sexual orientation are complex topics understood only to a degree by the professionals who study them.
Still, we do our best.
For example, I’m sure far more science and research exists on this than I am aware, but I struggle even with a simple understanding of attraction. I am sexually attracted to women. Men have no such appeal, even when I recognise the objective physical attraction of the man. Jason Momoa, Chris Hemsworth? I get it, ladies. I sometimes joke that the scene in Captain America: Civil War where Chris Evans grabs the helicopter and attempts to hold it on the helipad made me question my sexuality. It didn’t – I just recognise the objective sexual appeal of the scene because the man looked good.
But why do women have that appeal for me? I cannot see hormones, and men and women alike have varying levels of them. It’s more complicated than pheromones luring me close. Physical features? I love a whole list of features about women: eyes, nose, mouth, jawline, neck, shoulders, biceps, collarbone, hands – all aesthetically pleasing. Yet, taken individually, are they so terribly different from what one might observe on a man? I recall a test where they showed hairless legs and asked whether they belonged to a man or woman – people did horribly on the test.
Yet I have a distinct physical attraction to women (more specifically to a certain type, but that’s beyond the scope here).
Stranger to me though is that it’s not a sexual attraction. It’s an almost artistic appreciation for the composition of a woman – the lines, the shape, the balance, the way light attaches itself. When I meet a woman I find attractive, it’s with the same appreciative eye I would use to regard fine art.
Sexual attraction comes from a deeper place, from a matter of character and personality. This is true for most people, except perhaps in that I do not share the initial infatuation some seem to experience. A physically stunning person with an abysmal character would become unattractive; a modestly attractive person with a charming personality can become irresistible.
Perhaps because of my social anxiety and introversion, my mind seems to reserve judgement until it can make that character determination. People of all types tend to drain my energy, so my mind is discriminating about who should receive attention. Attention builds relationships so attention should only go to those for whom I can be available.
The truth is that plenty of people are perfectly good but a drain on me personally, so I shy away from engagement to spare them my emotional unavailability when I inevitably need to break away and recharge.
This creates the interesting dynamic alluded to earlier though – a person with a preference for socialising with women and, indeed, surrounded by many in his social circle, many of whom are objectively beautiful.
Belle doesn’t care what the villagers think of her. I do. I worry about the perception that it’s a toxic masculinity tactic to ingratiate with women. I worry, as a married man in a strong relationship, if it ever sparks doubt or jealousy. Honestly, I think it would be easier if our relationship were worse because that causes indifference. We love each other, and that can compel a person to irrational feelings out of fear, fear of losing something so important.
For our part, we engage in communication about this specific issue regularly as emotional maintenance. I discuss conversations I’ve had and friendships I’ve made, disclosing the details in full transparency and trusting her feedback as to whether anything makes her uncomfortable or jealous. Sometimes she admits, “Yeah, I get a little jealous of that, but you should keep going because I know it’s irrational. I trust you and it will pass.”
My concerns persist though. My greatest lies in life are ones of omission, ones where I withhold my genuine opinion about something not because it would cause harm to that person but because it would provide joy, and that joy might incite collateral, unintended harm.
Intent matters. So too does responsibility for unintended consequences.
Then there’s the matter of strangers not trusting the truth. Their opinions matter to me because they provide the most accurate gauge I know of my character in order to capture my blind spots. Yes, I can do what I think is right and judge myself according to that, but that captures only what I know about myself and what I know I do not know. The rest of the window into my soul remains obscured, and feedback from others helps to close that gap.
That creates, for me, the troublesome position of building relationships or having opinions that, whether real or imagined by me, could cause problems in other relationships.
“You’re just trying to get laid.”
“So you don’t think she’s hot?”
No, she is hot. She’s stunning. I love her eyes and the way the tip of her nose turns up ever so slightly. I honestly do not understand how we got from that to sex though. What is this assumption that hot people are great in bed exactly? In fact, it seems likely that they are worse because of that assumption. Why should they develop skill or technique if people are clamouring to have sex with them anyway?
So, yes, she is gorgeous but, no, I am not trying to sleep with her. She’s a Hufflepuff who loves Disney and ice hockey that I met because she tweets about women’s issues. That’s a person I find interesting and want in my life. We went back and forth a bit – turns out she’s also quite nice so I am putting in more effort that it might turn into a friendship.
That “friend zone” about which some guys are always whining? I am actively seeking out that place. The biggest issue is maintaining my wife’s trust on that and making sure this potential friend understands my boundaries if for some reason she is thinking, “I like him. Maybe this will turn into something romantic.”
Still, it gets me thinking as it always has. What if she is thinking this? What if she interprets my friendliness as flirtation? That’s her right, but it would detail the friendship. How do I pursue the friendship with the right speed (without enough engagement, it won’t develop) while maintaining the boundary? One cannot rush trust, and the speed at which it develops varies from person to person.
It’s also the reason why I can openly discuss my idealised opinion of men I do not know but hesitate when it comes to the women, who are far more numerous. I talk freely about the esteem in which I hold Chris Evans because, based on his public appearances, he seems like a man of the highest character. People do not question my motives for thinking that, and if Chris Evans himself were ever to learn of it there would be no awkwardness.
Alternately, the pinnacle of the celeb list for me is Emma Watson. She’s young and beautiful though, so any mention of that adoration, based on the same idealised notion of a person based on public appearance as Evans, is suspect to some – perhaps many. I’m just a sleaze lusting after someone well out of my league.
The fact in both cases, Evans and Watson, is that 1) I would collapse into a black hole of anxiety if ever I encountered them, 2) my impression of their character is so far beyond mine that I see them as better people, and I am not worth their time (hence the more-extreme-than-usual anxiety), and 3) based entirely on the idea that if their actual selves are at all like the impression I have of them, I would want them in my everyday life as a friend.
I struggle mightily with this area. Men and women should be equal – feminism is not about placing women on a pedestal. I do prefer the company of women to men though (generally), but I also recognise that the reasons for much of that are the very things we try to combat as feminists (such as toxic masculinity – living in a culture that identifies Gaston as a villain and still exemplifies many Gaston-like qualities).
I get that men in particular don’t like the idea of that being true. Many of the men in question from my childhood who engaged in those behaviours either ‘woke’ and stopped doing it or still do it, but the lesser transgressions. They are not, to my knowledge, bad people. It’s a contribution to that culture though, and I hate it. It makes me cringe. Even when individual men are okay, throw them in a group of men and they change – the behaviour begins while in the company of other men.
Ugh, I can feel the #NotAllMen men seething. Generally speaking. I have guy friends. I prefer women as friends.
But it does leave me feeling inherently sexist at times. “Would you like to work with Jane or John?” Jane, definitely Jane. Is John terrible? Probably not. But experience says that I’m statistically more likely to get on well with Jane, even though that invites its own concerns.
I guess the central thesis is that for a married feminist who seems to have it together with respect to sex and relationships, it’s a minefield in my head, even if I’m speaking in generalities about preference (I hope that much was clear).