It’s hardly news to anyone: the english speaking world is absolutely polarized along pretty much every single possible axis. And while some of these axes are possible to ignore, others are certainly not. Some questions are simply too important for us to stay quiet on.
In particular, the question of how men and women can best live together and ultimately form successful relationships and societies is inescapable. The truth is, all of us want happiness, love, growth, and sex (as much we’d rather not talk about this last one too openly). But something’s gone terribly wrong between the ways men and women see and talk about the sexual and romantic world.
So, is there hope for understanding each other? Is there any hope for peace?
I am not sure. The more I try to combine the male and the female perspectives in my head, the more I wonder if the loud voices (and the many less vocal supporting ones) are truly trying in good faith to hear and understand the other side. Maybe the topics are so emotionally charged that a desire for cooperation and peace has long given way to resentment, mistrust and a longing for revenge.
Nonetheless, trying to make sense of it all is the best we can do at this moment. Otherwise, we’ll just keep radicalizing each other, women as radical feminists, men as anything but. Frankly, there is both truth and pain on both sides of this conversation. That’s why we should talk more and shut each other up less. Instead of discouraging it, we should encourage more and more (to use words whose divisiveness I rather dislike, but which serve well in this context) “man- and womansplaining” — that’s the only way to make sure we hear the other side and don’t stay closed off in our silos.
With that said, here are some thoughts — in no particular order — summarizing some of my attempts at making sense of gender relations today. My desire is to reach out to others like me who are dissatisfied with modern feminist rhetoric, but at the same time find the behavior of many guys just as dissatisfying. By my calculations, that should cover the vast majority of men and women who’d rather have the other side as lovers and not arch-enemies.
So, let’s start with the dangerous topic of sex. Most men and women would ideally like to live in a world where sex was free of any and all danger or discomfort. The problem is, that’s hard, if not impossible, to achieve when none of us can read minds. So, in a process of exploration, many mistakes happen. Uncomfortably many.
Now, “mistakes” in the above is not meant as an euphemism for violent sexual crimes. Instead, it is what happens when a man asks out a woman when she’d rather not hear from men again for at least week (because, say, her boyfriend has just cheated on her). Or when a woman tries to seduce a man who already has a partner. Not to mention the thorny topic of differing sexual orientations and preferences. Both women and men will sometimes try to seduce “the forbidden” and take risks which either pay off (and make for a good story) or don’t (and run the risk of offending the other side). Flirting with people already “taken”, or those that project themselves as the opposite sexual orientation are examples of this. But so is flirting outside the bars and clubs, perhaps the only socially acceptable real-life venues for strangers to meet and seek love.
From what I have seen so far in online and real life discussions, the conclusions men and women take from this are vastly different. That’s unfortunate (as it leads to misunderstandings), but hardly surprising — men and women simply live in different worlds. In particular, for women, the sexual realm is often explicitly a source of danger. Women have to defend themselves against both malicious as well as well-intentioned but incompetent advances. Moreover, being the traditionally passive side, women experience much more the displeasure of interacting with others whom they find unattractive.
Modern feminism has capitalized on this and portrayed an image of women as helpless victims on which males constantly prey. Most women don’t identify with this paranoia, recognizing that the, albeit real, the dangers are not ultimately what defines the female sexual experience. I guess this is why when feminists speak of “rape culture” it doesn’t register with the wider public. It’s simply a one-dimensional and biased view.
Of course, that is not to say that the male perspective is any more objective. Men are usually the ones who have to initiate and be the active ones (“making a move”, “advance”, etc.). This inevitably leads to a preference for risk-taking and results in a series of rejections and a lot of associated pain and frustration. As a way of dealing with this harsh reality, most men learn to deal with the discomfort and numb themselves to it. The sexual is almost inherently painful for men so they perceive women’s complaints as unnecessary whining — after all, being rejected is worse than doing the rejection! And if men weren’t physically stronger (and if a minority of men weren’t willing to abuse this natural fact for their sexual benefit), maybe men would find more sympathy. However, what happens is that the pain men feel (that of rejection) is not the pain women feel (that of anxiety and fear). Men want to speak about the dynamics of sex and relationships while women would rather talk about physical safety and comfort. That both sides are using similar language of pain and discomfort only seems to confuse both sides of what is being talked about.
Naturally, this difference of understanding would have been more obvious if men and women talked with and listened to each other more. Alas, that’s not the state of our society. What makes matters worse is that even when they sometimes talk to each other, men and women frequently discuss what’s common to both sexes and wrongly conclude that hardly there are any differences in experience at all (and that the public rancor is ultimately only a matter of differing temperaments). What I’m referencing are the common sexual pressures of the dating market (of being attractive to the other sex, dressing and acting the right way, being willing to be sexually open enough, but not too much, etc.). In some sense, that men and women can see the common difficulties is a sign of hope. Yet, it’s also dangerous because it may trick both sexes into believing that they all have equivalent experiences.
But, as already mentioned, men and women play different roles and have unequal physical sizes. And they don’t always talk about the same things even if they use the same words. It is a shame that the conversation around these topics is so radicalized that to get anywhere close to a nuanced understanding, one has to decode pages and pages of radicalized and ideological diatribes seething with resentment and hatred coming from both sides of the conversation. Whether it be on your favorite feminist website or the youtube comments / reddit threads / 4chan, to get to the truth one must be willing to overlook “rapist” and “whore” thrown around casually for no other purpose but deep resentment. Most people all fall somewhere in the middle, but if the radical voices are all that’s being heard, some men and women will inevitably read one article a bit too much favoring their side and ultimately end up radicalized. There has to be a better way we could handle this.
If I’m being honest, I’d presume most men and women in the fringes end up there for emotional and personal reasons. If the only conversation being had is one between the extremes, it is only natural that many women who are hurting will become radical feminists while many men will end up hating women. After all, if you’re in pain and you find a group that speaks to your pain without attempting to be fair (which you perceive as the problem — everyone always being so fair to the other side, the perpetrators), in other words, if you find a community that welcomes you unconditionally, then of course you will want to stay. And despite the temptation to see everything through a gender lens, all of this is ultimately neither male nor female, but rather a human phenomenon.
Simply put, we all want share the same human desires for love, safety, community, understanding. But equally, we all make the same human mistakes of being too egoistical at times, carrying resentment, generalizing too easily, and falling prey to our cognitive biases. And with a subject such as sex that is right on the border between comfort and discomfort, it doesn’t take much for divisive narratives to take hold. And if my intuition is correct, there is no real way to make the sexual and the romantic pain-free. This part of life is inherently revelatory and therefore a source of vulnerability. And since no man or woman is above abusing their situational power for their own ends, it’s naive to wish for some sort of painless sexual utopia. It doesn’t exist. It never will. (and although this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t always try to improve, it does mean that we might get blinded by this pursuit and be tempted to throw the baby — of gender peace — with the bathwater)
In the past, men and women used to joke much more about some of their misunderstandings. Today, this phenomenon is largely gone. Today, nothing can be funny. Everything is serious and everything is sexist. Crucially, everything is a reason for taking offense and everything deserves resistance. I personally find this banishing of comedy from our public discourse quite regrettable and detrimental. Humans react to pain by either conceptualizing it — potentially becoming bitter and angry in the process — or, alternatively, by making fun of it, challenging it, and taking it on, potentially remaining naively in denial about its real horrors. It doesn’t take much to tip the balance between these two until a conversation becomes dangerously unhealthy. It doesn’t take much to end up where we find ourselves today.
There are many directions this conversation can go. Extremists want us to focus on only source of pain and ignore all others. Ideologies would rather cast one side as angels and the others as devils. Toxic masculinity and men being potential (if not actual and culturally-enabled) rapists is normal talk in feminist circles. Women being heartless sluts who obsess over money and status and are always prone to cheat is standard talk in some of the opposite corners of the internet. Both sides hurt and describe some of the pain the dating scene requires of each of us. And both sides use incendiary language for the sake of narrative (or a venting out). There is almost no one who has tried to love / have sex and who hasn’t learned the bitter truth that it will hurt. To add to this, many women face the additional dangers of sexual violence while men — that of being unfairly cast as unloving and predatory.
Statistics always get thrown around at this point to justify one side as more valid than the other. Yet, everybody knows that it’s nearly impossible to conduct ideology-free research on these topics. Who defines violence, masculinity, femininity and what experiences count as hurtful or unacceptable are all up for discussion. A simple look at what other cultures consider normal in terms of sexual relations is more than enough to reality-check our western bias and see that what is allowed or disallowed is and always will be far from clearly defined. And while I’m not suggesting that all cultures are equally valid, I dare to say that in matters of sex and love, the west would be better off learning a thing or two from other regions and cultures.
The upshot is this: both sexes want love and both sexes can hurt the other. Men hurt women mostly through physical violence while women hurt men through their communication skills (women give and take away reputation points; they also form protective connections within their community — is it an accident we find the media narrative of women as victims so compelling?). Of course, because we favor non-violent resolutions to problems, we are more likely to only perceive men as the violent ones. Yet, that’s simplistic and runs counter to one of my favorite quotes of all time:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
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