One of the weird things about being an adult – and I mean an adult adult, not the adult I was in my twenties who spent most of her time trying to please other people – is that I’m starting to recognise more situations in which I cause friction by just… not doing exactly what other people want. By ‘other people’ here, I mostly mean ‘men’.
Let’s start by doing what I always have to do when I talk about men and clarify: I do not mean all men. Nor do I even mean ‘some men, all of the time.’ I mean sometimes some men expect me to do things that fit their specific desires, even though they do not fit my own, for reasons that neither they nor I could fully explain. I do not think these men are terrible or evil or mean or deliberately misogynist. I just think there is an odd expectation, sometimes, about whose desires and needs should take precedence.
The logic of misogyny
I used the ‘M’ word, so I expect some men will already be angrily hammering in the comments below to tell me that they don’t hate women and I’m generalising to suggest they do, but please bear with me. A mate of mine gave me a book recently called ‘Down Girl: The logic of misogyny‘, and although I wouldn’t usually write about a book before I’d finished it, even after the first few chapters I’m reassessing some of the beliefs I had about what misogyny is and how it manifests.
I used to believe that misogyny was based on a fundamental misconception of ‘women’ as a category – that we are not ‘people’ in the same way that men are, and that we can/should be treated differently because we were a different class of thing. Sometimes misogynists see us as property (when they’re arguing, say, that we should be compelled to have sex with men in order to stop them getting frustrated), sometimes they see us as puzzles that must be solved (for instance, when PUAs offer hypnosis and magic tricks to try and conjure us into bed), sometimes as personal assistants (whose role is to ensure their lives run smoothly so they can busy themselves with more important things), etcetera.
This book is making me question my previous belief that bad things done to women are usually done because men struggle to conceive of our personhood in the same way they see their own. The author – Kate Manne – argues for a definition of misogyny that focuses more on the harm done to women when we fail to fulfil certain roles, rather than a definition of misogyny that relies on internal beliefs/feelings about women on the part of the actor.
“the failure to recognize women as human beings need not, and often will not, underlie misogyny. For misogyny may target women in ways that presuppose a sense of her as a fellow human being… Women may not be simply human beings but positioned as human givers when it comes to the dominant men who look to them for various kinds of moral support, admiration, attention, and so on. She is not allowed to be in the same ways as he is. She will tend to be in trouble when she does not give enough, or to the right people, in the right way, or in the right spirit. And, if she errs on this score, or asks for something of the same support or attention on her own behalf, there is a risk of misogynist resentment, punishment, and indignation.”
Misogyny, then, may not be about ‘hating’ women specifically, or having beliefs that women are lesser – defining something this way leaves us in bizarre territory where in order to name something that harms us we need to be able to read the thoughts of the person who is doing the harm. It also requires a level of intentionality which I do not believe is present in… well… any of the men I’ve loved who have nevertheless done bizarre things to me or other women I know.
Instead misogyny could be more usefully conceived of as the ways (not necessarily intentional) in which we uphold patriarchy. Including what we expect of women, and how we police their behaviour when they don’t do what we expect.
“we should think of misogyny as serving to uphold patriarchal order, understood as one strand among various similar systems of domination (including racisms, xenophobia, classism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia, and so on).”
Get back in your box
There are many examples – in my life and those of the women around me – when men have utterly baffled us. Not by treating us badly, per se, there isn’t always a non-consensually pinched arse or wolf-whistle or ‘BITCH!’ yelled in the heat of an argument that we can point to for illustration. Just a low-level categorical difference between what they expect of us and what they’d expect of a man in the same position. We are often expected not just to agree that their needs and desires are important, but to subsume those desires as our own.
This manifests in a number of extreme and sinister ways, of course. But alongside the larger problems, it also touches on some stuff that I’d previously just dismissed as ‘baffling’, but which I now think may be more explicable. The expectation that we will spend a lot of our time considering what men want, and holding it up as important to us in the same way it’s important to them. In a society which expects women to give disproportionate weight and care to the desires of men, I can understand a little better:
- The way some men have been painfully, personally hurt when I do not genuinely enjoy the same films/music/books that they do, and have subsequently treated me like I am cold, mean, or unreasonable for not actively embracing them despite the fact that they do not float my boat.
- The emails and private messages I get sometimes when I dip into areas of erotica they personally find uncomfortable. I don’t mean the guys who send me requests (which is very welcome, I’m always up for ideas!) or respond to me on Patreon when I ask for suggestions, but the ones who message me with a tone of surprise and sometimes genuine hurt after I’ve written some porn that is not specifically tailored for them. The implication being that when I’m writing I should make sure their individual likes and dislikes are given suitable weight.
- The way so many men not only deliver unasked-for advice, but react with shock and upset if I reject it. If I ask why they are giving me unsolicited advice, they are often genuinely taken aback that their desire to teach me is not met with a corresponding desire of my own to learn from them. Even if what they’re teaching is something I demonstrably already know, I am sometimes treated as if I’m impolite or mean for saying so. Like his drive to impart wisdom (or be seen to impart wisdom) should be more important, even to me, than my own desire not to waste my time.
- Men to whom I try to explain basic feminist concepts who take it incredibly personally if I don’t bookend that analysis with paragraphs of explanation about how I’m absolutely not talking about them and of course I know they would never even dream of doing this – i.e. men who expect me to elevate their own desire not to be challenged over my own need to articulate my experience. I bump up against this a lot because I so often forget that this step is required. I think I’m telling a guy something interesting, but he cannot hear me unless I first frame it within his own need to be recognised as ‘one of the good ones.’
I’m not always going to do what you want
It isn’t radical or interesting to tell men “I’m not going to do exactly what you want.” After all, Dorothy Parker said it long before I did:
In youth, it was a way I had,
To do my best to please.
And change, with every passing lad
To suit his theories.
But now I know the things I know
And do the things I do,
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you.
But it is a revelation to me to realise that there are many situations in which I am socially inclined to at least try. What men expect of me has, for a lot of my life, been the default behaviour I would model, and I have not always expected reciprocity. In relationships and outside of them: I’ll listen to men explaining their own work in detail, yet not expect them to spend the same time listening as I tell them about my own. I’ll bury myself in men’s hobbies and interests to the detriment of my own life, because I don’t want them to think I’m spurning the things that cause them joy. Yet on the other side, I’ve mastered the art of not ‘nagging’ guys to join in with my own stuff because I don’t want to put them out. I accept men calling me a ‘narcissist’ as a hazard of the job because… well… I’m a woman on the internet! Of course I’ll get more comments than I would if I were an opinionated dude!
The idea of people-pleasing (or more specifically: man-pleasing) is something I struggle with a lot personally. The drive to do it is clearly a powerful one, because even writing a post entitled ‘I’m not always going to do what you want’ – a trivially true statement that shouldn’t be in any way controversial when I’m talking to an audience of hundreds of thousands of individuals with different desires and needs – feels very very naughty indeed. I’m allowed to do it, and logically people would all accept that, but I’m stepping out of line by saying it so boldly. More: pegging it to men specifically feels infinitely naughtier. I’m not going to do exactly what women want either, but I don’t feel like I’ll get told off for saying so.
I have a lot more thinking to do on this, and I don’t expect everyone who reads this to agree. Apart from anything else, I’m not sure what you’d be agreeing with yet, other than my vague ponderings about this definition of misogyny, and the ways in which it could apply to a few scenarios. But I reckon there’ll be at least some women who can think of examples in their lives when men have expected them to not just be considerate of their desires but to actively embrace them as their own. To nurture and cherish and fight for the things they love without offering reciprocal support. Not because they’re mean, but because they’re just used to women doing that. Because that’s what women tend to do.
For many years I’ve been baffled by men who respond to my sexy posts by commenting or emailing to tell me they’re ‘not into that’. Likewise when men I’ve dated have told me they don’t like this outfit or that haircut or that method of shaving or not shaving my body hair. Or men in the pub who have told me I’m intimidating, or loud, or unladylike. Men on dating sites who go out of their way to message me, to tell me they don’t want to hear about feminism.
I have always known that there will never be a single man who is pleased with every aspect of who I am. It’s only in recent years that I’ve started actually questioning why they feel the need to tell me. Why did you say this? To me? What do you expect me to do?