This is one of those rare occasions where I’ll get personal in order to make a broader point.
Growing up, I gravitated toward things that pigeonholed me as a nerd. It didn’t help that I wasn’t particularly athletic, despite several extended attempts at it. I was into computers, video games, comic books–pretty much a walking stereotype. I was part of a group of misfits, all boys who felt similarly ostracized and separate from their peers. While we didn’t share all the same interests, we did share that outsider status. All of us were bullied for it, too.
Before I started school, my two best friends were girls. I suppose I didn’t have much understanding of gender dynamics at that time–I was very young, after all. But once I began elementary school, my friendships gradually became exclusively male, and my interactions with girls took on a hostile character. This wasn’t intentional on my part. The short version is that I moved to a new town and attracted only negative attention from the girls there. This ruled out making friends with them, for the most part! This doesn’t mean I had no female friends, but certainly very few, and none that I’d consider very close.
For high school, I moved again and ended up with a more gender-mixed group of friends. I also dated the girl whom I would one day marry, and later divorce. It’s fair to say that happened mostly because she aggressively pursued me. Had it been dependent on me seeking out her attention and trying to win her over, I doubt it ever would have come to fruition. The point here is that, in all these interactions, I never developed an informed, healthy perspective on how to treat women. I don’t blame my parents or my peers for that failure–it is my own. But it had consequences.
When I was finally living on my own and making friends and developing relationships as a young adult, I had a difficult time relating to women. They were mysterious to me, virtually incomprehensible creatures whose wants and needs I could scarcely guess at. I made friends with a lot of young women, many of them online. Many of these interactions were flirtatious, too. Some of them were very much unwanted by the women involved. I could not easily tell when my advances were being genuinely rejected and when they were a sign of playing hard to get. In retrospect, of course, it doesn’t matter: unwanted is unwanted and it’s not for me to assume someone wants my attention when they clearly indicate that they don’t.
In that vein, I also didn’t take “no” for an answer, in some areas. I didn’t catcall or send unsolicited nudes or assault anyone, but I definitely did feel entitled to attention. If a woman avoided me, I demanded to know why. If she had something else to do besides interact with or spend time with me, I wanted her to justify it. If she was turning me down as a potential love interest, I wanted to know why I was getting “friendzoned” and would be upset if her explanation was, in my opinion, inadequate. I felt like I was the victim, being toyed with by women who couldn’t clearly communicate what they wanted. In reality, I was being a selfish asshole who didn’t bother to pay enough attention to see that they were, in fact, communicating just fine. I simply wasn’t listening.
This damaged my interactions with women for years. I lost friends and ruined relationships because of it. I liked to think of myself as a good person, but when it came to any hint of romantic or sexual interactions with women, I very much was not. I was too preoccupied with my own wants, and believed that since I was generally a gentle, kind person, women would want and even seek out my attention, and it would upset me when that attention didn’t come, and when my advances were rejected, seemingly without what I considered good cause. In other words, I was the prototypical “nice guy”–the entitled, developmentally-deficient male who believes he deserves women’s attention merely because he is not an obvious asshole.
What changed, then? Obviously, I don’t feel that way now, and recognize quite clearly and painfully what was wrong with my behavior. Much of it involved reading, especially of blogs by women writing about rape culture. It began a number of years ago, but it was on this topic that my attitudes really began to transform.
At first, I didn’t believe such a thing as “rape culture” even existed. We’d already had feminist movements and women’s liberation. Rape was very much illegal and you certainly couldn’t publicly support it without serious consequences. I believed the hype that equality had been achieved, women could do anything men could do, and there was no reason to pay attention to anything that said otherwise.
Over time, though, a lot of ideas began to get through to me. I saw how being treated by other men (and even me) had affected my then-wife. Many of my women friends confided in me about their experiences, things I will not share in any detail, but which painted such a consistent picture of male entitlement, aggression, dominance, and abuse that I could no longer believe sexism was a thing of the past. I thought sexism was all rape and “show me your tits”-style harassment, not the things I had been doing. But I eventually realized that they are all connected, that everything from unwanted flirting to outright assault represent a lack of respect for a woman’s agency, autonomy, and humanity.
Seeing women I didn’t know–complete strangers–write and talk about rape culture, the negative experiences many of them have every day as a result of male behavior, the fear and anxiety many of them live with because they never know when some man they ignore or turn down might choose to harm them, led me to the conclusion that these incidents were not isolated, but pervasive. And more than that, I was participating in some of them. I was not at all innocent.
In no way was this an overnight transformation, and in fact it would be incorrect to say it is complete. Unlearning all the subtle behaviors and patterns that pervade rape culture takes time and effort and a constant process of self-examination. In many ways, it is also a painful experience, having to dredge up all the times I did wrong, and knowing it’s not possible to undo any of that, but only apologize and try to make amends for it.
As much as I thought I was a victim of toxic masculinity–being ostracized and bullied for being a nerd, for being unathletic, for being “weird”–it took me a long time to realize that I was perpetuating it myself in how I treated the women around me. It’s easy to be blind to your own behavior that way, which is why it’s always necessary to self-examine and keep doing so.
The way I treated the women in my life began to change. I no longer found them so mysterious or unrelatable, but saw them more as individuals whose behavior didn’t revolve around me and what I wanted. As much as it sometimes hurt to get rejected, I took “no”–or even silence–for an answer. I began to appreciate that women, in fact, didn’t owe me anything, including their attention. And as I made friends with more women (which became easier once I stopped acting like an entitled jerk), I became much more relaxed and comfortable around them. It turned out they’re just people like me, with their own thoughts and desires and interests. Finally understanding why women responded the way they did to my behavior ultimately gave me the perspective to change, which allowed me to have better friendships and relationships with women in any context.
Once I had these realizations and started working to change my attitudes, I redirected my aggression toward other men displaying the behaviors I’d once employed but now abhorred. I came down on them for playing devil’s advocate, for complaining about being “nice guys” who couldn’t get dates, for blaming their problems on women rather than looking inward. My approach in those situations was often counterproductive, too. I attacked them for things I didn’t like about myself, or at least about my past self. They often responded poorly, accusing me of “white knighting”–of cynically using feminist rhetoric to impress women into liking me. At times, that was true, because I very much wanted to have women’s admiration and respect. It took yet more personal reflection and development to deconstruct those impulses, motives, and feelings, and focus on confronting sexism because it’s the right thing to do, and not because it might benefit me personally.
I can’t say I am perfect about this. I don’t imagine anyone is. What I can say is that it is better to take a less aggressive approach–to “kill them with kindness,” so to speak–and hope they come around. This doesn’t mean treating them with kid gloves, though. It’s necessary to come down clearly and firmly, but not with unnecessary aggression, because male aggression is a big part of the problem, and ”nice guys” will virtually always view aggression from other men as proof of how victimized and mistreated they are. That’s one of the trickiest parts of the “nice guy” mentality, in fact: the belief that you are a victim of toxic masculinity yourself, so of course you can’t be sexist. It can be difficult for a man who thinks this way to see what’s wrong with it, but it’s definitely possible–I am proof of that!
It also can’t be discounted how much one conversation might affect a person, months or years down the line. There were ideas surrounding rape culture that, once I was exposed to them and had them explained to me, took literally years for me to fully absorb and reckon with. So, even if discussing these issues with someone doesn’t appear to be making any immediate headway, take heart: you may be adding to a series of conversations and interactions with him that will, one day, break through and make him realize he’s had it all wrong. And you will have been one of the people responsible for helping that happen.
I, for one, am eternally grateful to those who cared enough and who were patient enough to discuss these issues with me when I was too stubborn to really listen or to change. I can only hope that others don’t make the same mistakes I did.