Love(r)

Exploring Love, Sex & Intimacy

Month: September, 2015

Sexism Hurts Men Too

This is the third and final part of a series on misogyny and sexism. Part one discussed how our society devalues and conspires against the feminine, with disastrous results. Part two discussed the often subtle problem of internalized misogyny and the widespread damage it causes. Today I want to tackle how sexism, a systematic inequality of genders and misogyny really do hurt men/male people. SO THIS ONE GOES OUT TO ALL THE DUDES, because this might surprise some of you, but sexism hurts you too.

If you felt at all left out while you were reading parts 1&2 and want to be included, first off thank you for taking an interest in the plight of the females of your species by reading this far, and second congratulations! Male people have their share of sexist suffering too! Enough suffering in fact, for me to write an entire post about it. And for the record, I’m being completely serious here. You will find little to no sarcasm or condescension in this piece (please call me out on it if you do). Everything I write today comes from a place of genuine compassion. My hope is by the end of reading today’s post, you’ll have a little more compassion for the experience of female people, male people and especially for yourself as a person coping with the patriarchy. 

“While patriarchy endures, [men] will never be free to express who they are, or treat women as they should be treated.” –Margaret Corvid

The patriarchy hurts men too, because it prescribes a limited and oppressive view of masculinity, what a man is supposed to be, how he is supposed to act and what he is supposed to want. I have known men who fit all the common stereotypes we hear about: men who feel ashamed to cry no matter the circumstance, men who don’t know how to articulate and process their emotions very well, men who simultaneously crave and fear intimacy, men who are afraid to show weakness or vulnerability and men who feel limited or trapped by the expectations of their prescribed gender role.

So what does it mean to be a man in a society that devalues and on occasion outright despises the feminine? It means men have to strive to be hyper-masculine and not perceived as feminine at all. They are forced to police themselves and others, staying vigilant to tirelessly guard and maintain their masculinity, a feat they will never pull off flawlessly. In fact, one of the worst things you can do to a man in our society is emasculate him, in other words, take his masculinity away from him. This is why calling a man a “girl”, “bitch” or a “pussy” is even considered insulting. It is also why men fear being laughed at by women, while women are afraid of being killed by men.

Apparently, despite the stereotype of masculine strength, masculinity is actually quite fragile and vulnerable – it is a noble and powerful thing you must fight to earn and fight to keep. Just as every woman I know has been dismissed as “too emotional” at some point in her life, every man I’ve asked has shared that he’s been told to “man up” if he was perceived as being too emotional, i.e. feminine, i.e. weak, i.e. bad. All of this sounds exhausting, oppressive and a potential source of tremendous amounts of anxiety.

But how can men even process or discuss this anxiety, when they are restricted to a very narrow range of acceptable emotional expression in our society? The sad truth is for the most part they don’t. It is terrible and damaging that men aren’t allowed emotional space and expression. Men have feels too! They are human dammit! They deserve to have their feelings validated and acknowledged, just like every person does, and for it to be safe to express and process them.

Another sad thing the patriarchy and hypermasculinity does is tell men they aren’t allowed physical intimacy and closeness. But again, men are human beings, so most of them do in fact need affection, and that need does not make them in any way weak. Men are told they can’t touch or be affectionate with each other or else they might be labeled as homosexual, which points to other related problems in our culture: homophobia and the sexualization of all touch. Furthermore, men are told they need to be dominant/aggressive in their sexual conquests of women, so physical intimacy and affection is hard to come by even from female partners. I have personally seen men feel anxious or even panic when allowed to be vulnerable – I have been the big spoon and witnessed a mix of relief and confusion. I believe that all male people would benefit from a normalization of platonic, consensual touch without having to fear that it will be sexualized or call into question their masculinity and/or sexual orientation. 

The list goes on and on with things the patriarchy discourages men from doing, less they be emasculated: Men aren’t allowed to cry; Men are expected to carry huge emotional burdens and do so stoically; Men are shamed for asking for help or seeking support if they are victimized or abused. These beliefs about what true masculinity is go so far that they perpetuate the idea that real men can’t be the victim of harassment, stalking, domestic abuse, rape, etc. But these terrible things do in fact happen to male people, they’re just more likely to “man up” and not talk about it, or seek help, and when they do they are not often taken seriously. 

If femininity was valued as much as masculinity in our society, if people were allowed to be people and not restricted gender roles, then the lives of everyone would be happier and healthier. There are lots of specific perks to having equality for people regardless of sex or gender.

When you are taught to dehumanize women through objectification or idolization (putting them on a pedestal) it is nearly impossible to have healthy intimacy with them. It is the classic “Madonna-whore complex“, where women are either elevated into pure, innocent beings deemed worthy of love or the role of caregiver (wives, mothers, saints, etc) or they are debased objects to be used for sexual gratification. The thing is women can be all of those things, and are certainly so much more.  

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And dudes, I’ve heard some of you like sex (it’s totally cool if you don’t though – shout out to all the asexuals out there!). However, the idea that men always want sex, that it’s all they think about and that they should always be the dominant/aggressive one in a sexual encounter is so restrictive. It also sets us up to believe that men are not in control of their sexuality, or accountable for the actions they take. It fuels the entitlement men feel towards sex and the fear women fear towards male sexuality. The truth is men have a wide range of sexual expression and desires. I have a tip for you though, if you do like having sex with women, more women would be interested if they felt a) safe b) respected and c) that their pleasure mattered in the encounter. Studies have shown that women aren’t actually any less interested in casual sex than their male counterparts, despite the longstanding cultural stereotypes. Women are just as likely to engage in casual sex provided they feel they are not going to be slut shamed about the encounter and that their partner is going to try to make it a pleasurable experience for them. 

Take it from me, if you let a sexually adventurous woman feel safe and respected, give her equal power to stay or leave as you do, then if she wants she will bend over backwards to please the both of you. I have personally know men who are respectful, considerate, mindful of the needs of the women in their lives, without sacrificing an ounce of their masculinity. It is very inspiring and attractive. These men tend to get what they want, because they are willing to listen, to communicate and to give as much as they take.

Most all of us have a need for sex, companionship and intimacy, but none of us are entitled to them. This is a priveldge we all are capable of earning, not a right we are born with. Because we are each autonomous beings with agency, no one owes you anything, and intimacy is not something you can coerce or force. You can invite it and encourage it… and that is about all. Thus sexism, misogyny, objectification and idolization will all interfere with, if not totally prevent, our ability to have healthy intimacy with each other.

“It is feminism that offers men the chance at a sexually fulfilling life. When rape culture is extinguished, when patriarchy subsides, all genders can realise their full sexual expression in safety. Even now, what feminism asks of men – that they be conscious of their privilege and respect the agency of women – can lead them to truly satisfying intimate relationships […] feminist values can teach them the skills to communicate with respect.”-Margaret Corvid

Imagine what it could be like if we did not live in a patriarchy that values hyper-masculinity and devalues femininity. Imagine if you felt safe to identify, experience and express your emotions whatever they might be. Imagine you did not have to repress or censor any part of your self expression. Imagine you were allowed to receive safe, consensual physical affection from not only your significant other, but your female and male friends too. Imagine you did not always have to project strength or deal with issues in an aggressive manner. Imagine you were not assumed to be a mindless slave to your libido, or assumed that you do not have control over your sexual desire, or assumed to be a potential rapist. Imagine women by default felt safe to communicate with you, be themselves around you, and express any interest they might have in you without fear. Imagine you did not have to worry about being masculine enough, or too feminine. Imagine if you were acceptable, lovable and totally awesome just as you are!

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Lovingly yours,

Clara


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Internalized Misogyny

Art Credit: Jemimah Vaughan

Art Credit: Jemimah Vaughan

This is the second part of what I intend to be a three part series discussing sexism and/or misogyny and how they affect our relationships. You can read the first part, “How Society Conspires Against the Feminine” here. Today I want to explore the insidious and cognitively dissonant problem of internalized misogyny, or in other words, when female people learn to hate femininity.

For some of you out there, the concept of internalized misogyny makes no sense. How could it be possible for a person to hate their own gender? But the sad truth is, it’s very common. I used to be a mild misogynist myself, without really being aware of the harm I was doing and the sexism I was unwittingly perpetuating. I know many other female people with similar experiences, and those who struggle with it still. Really this is just a case of the sexist messages of our culture being so successful that even the victims of these messages buy into the hate and go on to perpetuate it. It is the same as a gay person believing all the homophobic bullshit they’ve heard all their life and becoming spiteful and closeted. Or an African American internalizing racist messages from our society, learning to resent their own race or culture. 

If you’re still not sure what I’m talking about, start by asking yourself, how many times have you heard a woman say the following, or as a woman said these things yourself? 

  • I’m not like other girls
  • I’m one of the good ones/fun ones/cool ones
  • I don’t have many female friends, mostly male friends
  • Girls are catty and petty and cause so much drama
  • Women are boring and dumb
  • I’m just one of the guys
  • Other girls pick on me/tease me

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Why do we say this shit? Why do we throw other women under the proverbial bus and try so hard to differentiate ourselves as somehow “better” than the rest? It’s because when girls say this stuff they are striving to be the “Exceptional Girl”. She’s cool, she’s not catty, she’s “one of the guys”, she’s EXCEPTIONAL GIRL! A superhuman with all the sex appeal of a female and none of the drama and negativity our society dumps on femininity. She is a very common pop-culture trope, often used to reinforce patriarchal ideals. The reality though is that insulting and judging other females as you try to scramble your way to the top will only hurt you in the end. By fighting to be the Exceptional Girl you endorse sexist ideas about women and you reveal your own self-loathing. Because how do you really expect to feel happy and whole if deep down you hate what you are?

Unfortunately these sorts of ideas get reinforced all the time. If I had a dollar for every dude who ever told me “you’re not like other girls, you’re fun/cool/[insert positive attribute]” who meant it as a compliment (and trust me I took those words to heart as compliments) I would have way too many dollars that I would not be proud of now. I look back at my younger, more naive self and wonder, why was I so eager for male approval, especially at the malign of my fellow females? The answer is because all women in our society are conditioned to seek out male validation and to regard other females as competition.  

So obviously when this game has been set up to be every woman for herself, female people start to believe they can’t trust each other. Last time I discussed the sad reality that females are taught to believe their value is something they have to earn from males. If your value comes from men desiring you then why would you fraternize with the enemy (aka other females)? You’re also likely to do and say whatever is necessary to make your competition seem less desirable, in order to succeed in this stupid, zero-sum game where women are pitted against each other. Furthermore, asserting power over another human is much easier if that human is insecure and lacking in strong emotional bonds with other people. Thus the strategy is to undermine female people’s trust in themselves and each other – divide and conquer. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people out there who want to keep women divided so that they are easier to conquer and control. 

Yes, some women are petty, catty, etc, but so are some men, so are some human beings of any kind! We need to learn to appreciate that female people are people first and female second. Every woman out there has as much potential for greatness, villainy and everything in between as her male peers do. Ideally, she will be judged on her actions and character rather than just her sex and/or gender.  

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Part of the reason internalized misogyny persists is because it does have certain appeal and incentives in our patriarchal society. Some of the appeal of being the only female (who has been deemed exceptional, or at least tolerable) in a male social group comes from a boost to the ego that it gives, while some of it comes from laziness. When trying to make friends with people where physical attraction is not the default current pulling you together you have to make more of an effort to be a decent and interesting human being. Thus the reverse, being friends with people who are sexually attracted to you, is easier – you just don’t have to try as hard. 

There is also a more insidious dynamic at play. Due to the widespread objectification of the female form, women learn to objectify other women just as much as men do. So much so in fact that both men and women’s brains perceive “men as people and women as body parts“. This disturbing quirk causes women to draw comparisons and size each other up in our daily lives to the point where it’s almost impossible to turn this process off. It’s unconscious and instantaneous. Most women walk into a room and instantly rank themselves and the other women present according to this unspoken hierarchy of attractiveness, which only intensifies insecurities and the hunger for outside validation. It can feel tremendously fulfilling to earn the friendship and approval of men you’ve been taught to defer to, who have the power to validate you and make you feel special. While on the other hand, it can feel challenging to be friends with the women you’ve been taught to objectify, compete against, and who are a constant potential trigger for your own insecurities.

“Women to varying degrees internalize this outsider view and begin to self-objectify by treating themselves as an object to be looked at and evaluated on the basis of appearance. Self-objectification manifests in a greater emphasis placed on one’s appearance attributes (rather than competence-based attributes) and in how frequently a woman watches her appearance and experiences her body according to how it looks (McKinley & Hyde, 1996; Noll & Fredrickson, 1998). Objectification theory also posits a mediation model that may explain how self-objectification leads to women’s mental health risks via negative psychological outcomes.” – Sexual Objectification of Women: Advances to Theory and Research, Szymanski et al, 2011

So by now I hope it is clear that not only does internalized misogyny exist, it is pervasive and damaging to the intimacy a female person has with herself, as well as her ability to have healthy intimacy with other people (male or female). As I have written previously, it is difficult, if not nearly impossible, to truly have healthy intimacy with someone you have been taught to dehumanize into a sexual object. And as the research shows, not only are men doing this to women, but women are devaluing and dehumanizing themselves. If we are going to love ourselves, love others, be satisfied with our lives, get in touch with what we truly want and then fight for it, this sort of systemic and toxic loathing of femininity needs to stop.

So what can we do to alleviate our own internalized misogyny and possibly prevent it from developing in the first place?

First you can start by recognizing that women don’t have to be your greatest enemies, they can be your greatest allies. Because what are you really competing for anyways? The attention and validation of men? Girl, take it from me, it’s okay to want it, but by no means do you need it. It’s grossly overvalued and not actually going to make you happy or satisfied with yourself. Because true satisfaction is not something other people can give you. It’s something you build for yourself. When you build a relationship with yourself that contains true love and intimacy, you won’t need other people to define and reassure your value. A million men can tell a woman she is gorgeous, but that by itself isn’t going to make her feel any less insecure. And knocking down other women through teasing, criticizing, bullying, slut-shaming, gender-policing, and generally not supporting each other will only hurt you in the end. Hating other women leads to hating yourself, or vice versa, having the feminine things about yourself be ridiculed or scrutinized leads to resenting other women.

Internalized misogyny is a damaging cycle we definitely need to break. And we break it through loving ourselves (including our femininity), appreciating the femininity in others (including men), and by striving to see female people as PEOPLE. 

Tune in next time on Love(r), as I continue to explore the topic of sexism by discussing how sexism hurts menfolk too.

Lovingly yours,

Clara


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