Today on The Attitude, Arnie was joined by writer Emily Esfahani Smith to discuss relationships. In a piece for The Atlantic, she proposed the core to a successful relationship is kindness and generosity. I began to think about my past (which, like most people, is a series of ultimately failed relationships), and thought about her proposition. Kindness and generosity is invaluable, and one of the biggest signals of danger to me has been partners who feel entitled (not kind) and are concerned about what is owed to them (not generous). I wrote the following as a response to this idea.
“I would never date a guy who wasn’t a feminist.” This is something I’ve said in response to a hundred debates in academia, at various jobs, among friends, at family gatherings. It is something I’ve stood by since I was a teenager. But what I really meant was, “I would never date a guy who didn’t self-identify as a feminist.” Because most often, they were not actually feminists in practice, regardless of how they believed to identify and regardless of how enthusiastically they nod in agreement to my feminist declarations.
At 21, I no longer believe a man can take the title of feminist. Feminist ally is the most he could hope to be. Feminist men need to understand first and foremost that the best way to be an ally and support feminism is to support women, not speak for them. Practice good feminism but don’t speak over women. Listen to their experiences and perspectives and learn something every day to be a better ally, because you will never have the lived experience of a woman.
Do your part to be a better feminist ally and listen to this:
I met a guy through mutual friends who said we were like “the same person.” We started talking and immediately hit it off. We enjoyed the same comedy and music. We were both progressive and feminist. We talked about critical feminist theory and he always agreed. It’s common sense, we thought. It just makes sense to treat women respectfully.
The first time we had sex he choked me.
We had never had any discussions about sex before it happened. When he choked me, I told him to stop and he immediately did. I was confused and frightened, and he looked confused and frightened. “What are you doing?” I asked. He responded, “I thought women liked that.” He seemed earnest. I was horrified. I told him some women like that, some women don’t, and the best way to navigate something like that is to have a discussion about boundaries and consent beforehand. He acted as if choking a woman is standard fare like kissing her neck. Was it internet porn that made this seem normal? I wondered. I thought maybe he was not very experienced in sex and the few partners he had were into that? Either way, it is not okay to make assumptions about the way you treat someone’s body.
He was apologetic and I looked past it. Our relationship was great until the end, like most. One day, he asked to have sex and I said I felt tired. The truth is, I didn’t want to have sex, and I shouldn’t have to make up excuses to defend my right to decisions about my body. He persisted. I told him I didn’t feel sexy. He told me I was. I said I didn’t feel like having sex. He said we hadn’t had sex all week and might not be able to for while. He made me feel guilty, like a bad girlfriend for not allowing him access to my body at his will. I was frustrated and hurt. I finally relented, but I was pissed off. I hastily undressed and we had sex. I cried during it and he didn’t notice, which made me cry more. It lasted under two minutes. When it was over I felt disgusting, and he was smiling and jovial. In that moment I hated him and resented him for being so oblivious to how his actions affected my emotions. A few hours later, I broke up with him after explaining what was wrong with what he did. I told him I needed him to understand what he did was wrong for the sake of any women he dates in the future. I have forgiven him and we remain friends. Sometimes I think if I didn’t forgive men who failed to respect my boundaries or bodies, I wouldn’t have any friends left. That’s how common this is.
Within the past two weeks, I have had two more experiences with this betrayal by self-identified male feminists with two men who are close friends to me. To everyone around them, they are feminists, outspoken about their politics, critical of outspoken misogynist men, defensive of women. And that’s what frightens me. They seem cool and trustworthy, but in private, they ultimately weren’t. I don’t want to say these men are horrible people- I really do think they believe in these feminist ideals. But they don’t practice the same standards they hold men to, and I’m not sure they are even aware of it.
If that’s the case- and I hope it is- that self-identified feminist men who fail to respect a woman’s body autonomy by making her feel unsafe or uncomfortable simply don’t realize what they are doing, simply don’t “know better,” they need to know now. They have no more excuses. They need to know better.
A friend and former partner put his hand on the inside of my thigh, and then asked if that was okay. That order should be reversed. Taking a questionable action then asking for forgiveness is viewed as easier than asking for permission for something questionable- and is a huge sign of privilege and power.
A friend and partner wanted to have sex and I told him I was tired. Rather than accepting that as a “no,” he verbally persisted. He insisted it could be “a quickie.” Luckily I felt safe enough with this person to comfortably say no, but so many women are not that lucky. Even if I had agreed, out of fear or out of guilt or out of not wanting to argue anymore, he did not get consent. Consent attained through manipulation, through begging, through guilt, through fear, is not consent.
I used to blame myself for being in these situations so often- for trusting self-identifying feminist men and having my trust betrayed. I figured, if it keeps happening to me, it is probably my fault. I am putting myself in these situations. It is not my fault. And it is not unique to my experiences- every woman I talked to about this topic had a similar story to share.
Out of frustration and exhaustion, I posted an update on my Facebook page saying, “Men who call themselves feminists but are privately predatory or misogynistic are more disgusting to me than overt misogynists and they’re f****** everywhere.”
I received a number of responses, publicly and privately, from women in my life who have shared this experience. One woman commented: “i used to be friends with a “feminist” guy who was always saying shit like fuck the patriarchy this, consent is mandatory that, etc. one night i slept over at his house after a show and woke up to him holding me tightly, one hand up my shirt and his erection against my ass. mind you i was sleeping in a completely different room upstairs. after some effort i got him to let go of me, left immediately, blocked him on everything and he still finds ways to contact me and beg for forgiveness.”
I talked to one of my closest friends and she had similar experiences, most often (as had been the case for me, too) with men she was very close with- best friends. A close relationship, whether romantic or friendship, does not translate to implicit consent. You do not get to shirk your responsibilities as a self-identified feminist to coerce women into sex because the woman is known to you. As my friend and poet Alexandra Naughton writes, “My body. My body. My body. My body is just a thing I take care of. My body is just a thing that I try to respect. My body is my body. My body is not your body.”
I expect more kindness and generosity from people who claim to support women.
All I can say is: male feminists- try harder.
Alexis Scargill is an undergrad at the University of New Hampshire and loyal WNHN intern.