I have danced around this topic several times before, and perhaps this will be but another in a series of failures to fail. Over the course of the last ten to fifteen years, I have been in the OCPD-riddled process of attempting to write a novel. As I learn and develop a process, I scrap everything and return to the start – challenge enough for someone who struggles with perfectionism and already has a proclivity for deleting everything if one part is not exact. In the process of writing about my protagonist, who I confess is autobiographical in many senses, I came across a theme about myself.
While I possess many passions and interests in life, I pursue none of them to a serious degree. Writing, history, philosophy…all are mere hobbies that I pursued with an amateur, undisciplined fervor.
What could I do with history or philosophy except research or teach? I despise actual research (reading and writing about a subject is fun, but any academic will tell you this is not research) and the politics of teaching disgusts me. Lesson plans that must satisfy arbitrary requirements, grading expectations…just let me teach.
Writing – I mean, I appreciate you coming here and all, but I have made no substantial progress on the novel to this point (hopefully that is about to change) and this blog notches up the views by the no one. Maybe the page failed to load and you had to click the link twice. It would be nice to double my numbers. I’m not here to blog though, I am here to take time away from my failure as a writer.
And there is the theme – I fail at failing. I never failed at anything terribly important to me because I never tried with anything terribly important to me. I could still be the greatest novelist of our generation. I did not fail. If I write the novel and no one publishes or someone publishes and then I get skewered by the public? Then I failed.
It carries over into another critical area of my life. Feminism. Gender equality.
In my experience with the subject, I do know that I get quite a bit right about it (riding the coattails of the mostly women pioneers in the area who did the research and activism to raise the awareness that I parrot back to others in the name of support and awareness). Toxic masculinity is a thing, I stand by that. I am sorry that this and other phrases are themselves such a point of divisiveness in the conversation, but it’s true. Society places expectations on every single one of us based on who we are or who we think we are or who society thinks we are or who we think society thinks we are…
That experience is awful for literally everyone. The difference is that when it comes to gender, sex, and sexual orientation, the expectations society has can create tragic consequences. We want strong men who take charge and assert themselves, to the point of aggression if needs be. That’s a broad, general social expectation of men. It drives not all men to be violent with others, compels acts of sexual aggression, and can drive suicidal ideation among men who struggle under the weight of that expectation (yes, it hurts men, too).
Even broken clocks are right twice a day.
See, while I hear and understand points of feminism and “have many feminist friends” (so I cannot be sexist, right?), that does not make me a master of gender equality and woke-ness.
Then there is the self-awareness revealed in other discussions. I won’t make you read those posts – let’s recap. I once told a woman at work that she should smile more because of how pretty it made her. I found her attractive and loved her smile, so that was my misguided way of ‘complimenting’ her when the truth was that I wanted maximum pretty. The comment was about me.
My family took me out for a birthday dinner one year and the beautiful waitress was wonderful, so after dinner I went back inside to ask her on a date. She politely said she had a boyfriend and I thanked her, apologised for bothering her, and left. Sounds harmless, but I had no premise for asking that woman on a date beyond, “I think you’re pretty.” We knew nothing about one another. Then I approached her at work (“Now that I know where to find you and you can’t leave…”). Was I congenial in accepting her refusal? Yes, but she had no way of knowing that it would go that way. Men have responded far more severely to far less provocation.
My pièce de résistance? While working through high school, I developed a crush on a slightly older coworker. During college she had moved to a new city, about 5 hours away. While visiting said city one weekend I thought, “I wrote her a note expressing how much I like her. Yep, even threw the word ‘love’ in there. I bet her address is on Facebook and I could just drop this off before I leave.” We were friends on Facebook, so at the time it felt like, “She wouldn’t share this information publicly if she didn’t mind me knowing it.” I left the letter with the receptionist in her lobby and left. “She definitely doesn’t love you back, but it’s off your chest and it’s just nice to hear, right?”
That isn’t so much being a terrible man in the situation as a terrible, selfish person. What I described was how I perceived (hoped) events would unfold. Here’s another perspective of events: woman comes home to find out former classmate/colleague has been in her building to deliver an unrequited love note.
Some readers (who, let’s face it, are more likely to be men) may think, “Yeah, but you’re not a bad guy and did this with the best intentions. You wouldn’t do anything malicious or creepy, so no harm done.” The creepiness is inherent in the act. The act was a violation. I had zero unselfish reason to be there. No invitation. It never should have occurred.
None of this is revelatory to the six of you who read my blog regularly. I have detailed these accounts before in an act of transparency, trying to shake the notion that some men are inherently good and others inherently bad. I’m one of those social media accounts that supports women and posts feminist content. It felt important to detail that I had to grow to get to that point and was guilty of several of the things feminism decries. Accountability means owning up to what one has done. Many of the apologies women do see come from men who have been caught, and then the “apology” is more an attempt to mitigate the damage and accountability than to take responsibility finally.
Sexism, like most things, exists on a spectrum. No, I have never put on a ski mask and pulled a woman into an unmarked white van. That is the Hollywood sort of notion of sexual assault that seems to come to mind for many when discussing these matters, and the sort of thing the #NotAllMen crowd rushes to when defending men from the ‘unfair generalisations of feminists’. We keep atrocities like that at the peak of the sexism pyramid.
When I confess to things like the case of “you should smile more” and unsolicited, ill-advised date proposals and confessions of love, it should not indicate to someone, “He’s not bad.” I’m not at the severe end of that spectrum, but it does not remove me from the spectrum altogether.
I recognised the problem with those behaviours and immediately resolved to change them. That moves the needle on the spectrum again, but am I free of it? No. One might consider this a form of whataboutism. Pointing to all of the people who are doing worse has nothing to do with how I conduct my life. If I am behaving inappropriately towards others, no matter how relatively benign an observer may judge it, I am still inappropriate.
Confession, I take personal solace in knowing that I am better than most. Pride swells within me, especially when someone else, such as my wife, highlights it. If my wife of many years drinks, we do not have sex that night. Would she be traumatised if we did have sex while she was drunk? Probably not, but one cannot consent while drunk. No consent means no sex. While my wife may secretly hate that we have never had sex after she’s had a few drinks, the official word from her and friends of hers is that she adores my ability to respect that boundary.
Hooray for James!
Improving one’s character is kind of like cleaning a room though. The big stuff was easy. Most of the time I spent tidying and organising some of the other noticeable stuff. What remains are the knick-knacks and hard to reach recesses of the room.
For example, I have written about women aesthetically, but I find in it a tendency to hedge. Those writings always qualify the subject with context because deep down I have a fear that what I feel or think is wrong. I want to express it and I want to express it my way and preserve it, but, as with writing itself, there is a fear that it will reveal failure to the world and I will have to confront things about myself for which I lack the courage or conviction to do so effectively.
“James. Hey, look over there? Isn’t she hot?” a fellow guy might say to me.
Being a ‘good feminist’, I play it down with a “Come on” to discourage any leering or objectification. I did not feed into it, but the resistance to any leering or objectification is lukewarm. “I’ll step up the degree of my objection if he persists,” is my usual thinking.
Meanwhile, I might also be thinking, “She is gorgeous though. Pretty eyes. I love the shape of her nose and lips, too. The dress has a nice neckline, I like that I can see her neck and part of her collarbone. I like the way the dress billows a bit in the breeze. It makes her seem light and airy. It reminds me of a fabric softener commercial. I bet she smells nice.”
“Well, we aren’t conscripting others into this thought process, so that’s a plus, but in what way are you not objectifying her right now?” This is where the fear enters. Are you a phony? Deep down are you just a “look, pretty girl!” troglodyte who knows how he should behave? Philosophically, does it only matter what I do if my gut reaction to a woman is, “Beautiful” and then I have to suppress that to focus on anything else?
These sorts of thoughts open the door to a wider concern about where my needle rests on that spectrum. The world is full of not all men who are reprehensible in their behaviour, especially towards women but towards humans in general. For many men, not being one of those guys is enough to skate by untested.
James, what happens when you face an actual test in this area that is genuinely important to you and you fail?
The academic answer is to accept responsibility, pick oneself up, and move forward bettered for the experience. Experience suggests that is not what happens. Men have been horrible without consequence since the dawn of man, and that lack of accountability and lackluster apologies from those who were caught have created a righteously jaded social movement.
“How are we supposed to improve if society never forgives us for what we’ve done and lets us progress?” Valid, but what does that look like? Too few are seeing anything resembling that. Many men are never held accountable. The ones that do offer what amounts to a non-apology or face laughably weak consequences. He may have traumatised that woman for life, but we would not want to damage his by sending him to prison for raping her. Time served and probation.
That does leave little room. I imagine if I faced a test and failed, many of my feminist friends would step in and attest to their knowledge of me. “Yes, this is crap. But James is the sort who gets it, so we know he’ll grow from this.” We do not have room for that in the current world though. Those same people who might attest to my character would become guilty by association.
And you know what? I get that, too. The guilty parties not only face no consequence, they live in a culture that insulates them from responsibility. A man credibly accused of rape by four women will turn to women in his life who he has not raped for character witness. “He was always a perfect gentleman around me.” People are tired of seeing the crimes and misdemeanours go unpunished because the guilty party produced close friends who were not victims. One cannot roll out all of the people Bundy and Dahmer did not kill as evidence of their innocence.
Maybe it’s just the perfectionist in me. The driving fear though is, “You don’t know where your needle is on that spectrum and you have been content to coast on not being as terrible as the others. One day you will face a test and your needle will be on the wrong side of right – then everyone will see you did just enough to hide from the real work here.”
While my fear is not some Epstein/Weinstein/Lauer-level scandal or even a story about that “one time in college about which I hoped no one would learn”, it’s still that I am a hack version of a gender equality advocate. The principles that govern feminism appeal to me because they are part of the principles that govern me – people are individuals and prejudice cannot confine them. There is nothing about being a woman that dictates one must behave a particular way. There is nothing about being a man that dictates one must behave a particular way. The limitation is decency towards one another; respect for autonomy. Rape and sexual assault are wrong when anyone does it to anyone else not because the act itself (sex) is something one should not do, but because it involves another party who did not consent to the act.
The fear I hold onto is simpler and, for that reason actually, feels more insidious. I say things like the above and one thinks, “James is a true ally. He gets it.” Then it comes out that my initial reaction to most women is protracted and visceral. I find myself studying their face and enjoying the beauty of it selfishly. “You aren’t expressing it and you aren’t leering,” is the story I tell myself to continue.
If she knew what you were thinking, how would she respond? With anger or fear that this man objectified her, was considering her purely in an aesthetic sense? The fact that I shy away from answers to questions like that is why I fear I’m still a terrible feminist and have a long way to go.