FEATURE IMAGE: from jezebel.com.
NOTE: I always like to acknowledge when something I write is normative, and this certainly falls within that category. As a heterosexual male, the male-female romance is the only one I know intimately enough to feel comfortable offering advice on. It is never my intent to exclude or devalue other types of relationships, but feedback and advice are best when focused. Even if you’re not heterosexual, I’m sure you’ll still get something out of this because, at the end of the day, this involves all of us.
To all the men out there reading: you’re clicked on this link, so you probably consider yourself a proponent of feminism, or you’d like to understand it better. Maybe you advocate for feminism publicly, or perhaps you wear one of those “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirts (only legitimate if you don’t do it for social status or phone numbers). You support equal pay and equal rights, of course. You are pro-choice (most likely), you believe in the responsibility of fathers, you abhor sexual assault, and you want to empower the women in your life.
But what does all of that actually mean, day to day? Most importantly, what does it mean in your relationship with a woman?
Well, it’s actually pretty simple. Most of it involves treating your female partner the way you’d treat anyone you held in the highest regard. Of course, male regard of women is battered and distorted from the moment you leave your mother’s the womb. So, as with all deeply-embedded emotional habits, this one’s not as simple as believing in something. The real change comes from holding up a mirror and transforming your behavior.
I don’t pretend to have the ultimate list, but if you’re looking for ways to shore up your feminist tendencies, these five action groups are pretty fundamental. This is a vehement call to action to my fellow heterosexual men. Do not wait for others to lead the way or make something socially safe. Be brave, take some pride in your agency, and change.
- Listen. No, actually. Listen. And then communicate transparently.
A lot of men don’t know what it means to actually listen in a conversation. Listening is not just an act; it’s a mentality. It’s not as simple as letting someone finish her sentence before you say your piece. It’s about your intention as she speaks.
Are you already gearing up to counter her point in the midst of her making it? Are you frustrated by a woman who disagrees with you in the first place? Do you assume you know what’s right before you’ve considered all sides?
All that precludes the ability to listen fully, and it’s disrespectful. Truly listening requires patience, vulnerability, and humility. You have to be willing to accept that you might not know everything, and that you might need to reflect a bit before speaking. If you think you’re a feminist, then, man, listening is the foundation.
This is very tough for a lot of men. We’re taught from a very young age that we have to be right to be respected as masculine and worthy. But masculinity doesn’t equal obstinance and arrogance. Part of being a man, of being human, is the acceptance of imperfection.
Listening is letting her words wash over you and biting your immediate reaction; or, even better, not even experiencing an emotional reaction in the first place. Listening is asking follow-up questions. Listening is respectfully offering your opinion in concert with hers so that you might reach a better understanding of one another.
A commitment to listening as a mindset is necessary for healthy dialogue with anyone. With your partner, it’s Feminist Boyfriend 101.
The flip side of listening is communicating. Be a good listener, and then learn how to communicate honestly and respectfully, with vulnerability. Oh shit, the V word! No, not vagina, though you’ll someday learn how beautiful that word is, too. Vulnerability is the single most powerful way to build trust, respect, and mutual support with your partner. When we don’t communicate clearly and resist vulnerability, we engender resentment and misunderstanding, which leads to fights. And nobody likes fighting. This leads to number two.
You have to learn to share. It shows you respect and care about your partner’s autonomy, desires, and needs, and that you appreciate the value of reciprocity.
Men typically aren’t good at sharing. We are taught to keep power, resources, and emotions to ourselves. Give that shit up! This isn’t the 1700s. You’re not a feudal lord protecting a fiefdom from invasion. This is the 21st century. What are you holding on to? Shielding yourself from sharing is a useless behavior, part of a dying legacy of vestigial sentiments held by cowardly men of the past.
Sharing is fun and such a relief. And it takes many forms.
Meals— The easiest thing to do is share meals together. For years, I hoarded my food and loathed sharing, as if all the food in the world would run out and I’d wither away and starve. This was neurotic behavior. And I know I’m not alone!
Sharing food fosters trust and empathy. And not to worry, my power lifters — sharing doesn’t preclude eating a monstrous meal. Nobody said you have to eat the same amount. I’m three-halves my girlfriend’s weight, but she’s competitive and is annoyed that I can eat more than her. Now, that’s her own problem… But my point is that just because you choose to share doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice in volume. Take a deep breath. Feel better?
You also get to try way more food. No more decision paralysis at the restaurant. Admit, you’re never satisfied when you only order the chicken tikka masala, you had your eye on the aloo gobi too! Well… Share, and you get to choose two meals instead of one! (I sound like an infomercial, yikes.)
Emotions— Share your emotions! This is cliché, but it’s cliché for a reason. I’ll keep drilling it in. Vulnerability and transparency build compassion and avoid the type of festering resentment and confusion that leads to fights.
Talking about emotions isn’t “soft.” You don’t have to be your reserved father to be a man. He is not god. And you are not a child anymore. He is likely reserved because he’s afraid of the same thing you are, and he never got over it. That’s his fault, so don’t bear that legacy.
Talking about your emotions is just about the most confident, proactive thing you can do in a relationship. Self-awareness is attractive, and acknowledging your feelings proves that you’re in this together.
A recent study showed that emotionally intelligent husbands are the key to a lasting marriage, regardless of the genders of the couple. Think real hard on that, men. Do you want a healthy relationship, or days fraught with bickering? Is your pride worth more than the woman you are in love with?
Decisions— We are not the only people in the world with preferences. Disgustingly, our culture doesn’t actively empower our mothers, sisters, and lovers with the notion that their preferences matter all that much. So most women learn to hold their tongues, shrinking (love you Lily!); but silence doesn’t equal indifference.
Just ask her preference whenever you’re making a decision together. Empower her in her autonomy as a human being. You build trust, honesty, and nonjudgmental dialogue. Pretty basic, right? But we get the basics wrong all the time.
- Learn to Love Hair
Alright, we’re ramping up now. I know this is a tricky one and it’s going to agitate a lot of folks, but we really need to start thinking differently about hair — both men and women.
Whoa, whoa, wait a second. Don’t command-W me! For real, hear me out.
Hair is natural. Men grow hair all over their bodies… And so do women. Somewhere along the way, we decided this was no longer socially acceptable for women.
Which is weird, because hair is an important evolutionary trait. Hair on our heads protects the body part most dangerously exposed to the sun. The small hairs all over our bodies help us keep cool by regulating our sweat response to heat. Pubic hair protects our sensitive reproductive organs from abrasion, bacteria, and other pathogens. Leg and arm hair protect our extremities — the areas most likely to brush against plants and other objects and to be assaulted by insects — from scrapes, rashes, and bites. And armpit hair protects our underarm skin from abrasion as we swing our arms, helps us cool off, and releases attractive sexual odors from our apocrine glands.
Sounds pretty much essential for survival and attraction. So why are we so antagonistic towards this helpful feature of our bodies?!
Listen, I get it. I used to think hair was gross, too. I cringe at my immaturity. But this perception was not natural. It was forcefully socialized. I blame this distorted aversion on porn and harmful media targeted at youth that perpetuates body-shaming and insecurity.
The effect of the former has been to condition men to find women who look like little girls attractive — which, let’s be perfectly honest, is pretty damn creepy and screwed up. The effect of the latter has been to generate stigma around hair that causes teasing from peers. This leads to decades of shaving and trimming, and when men are intimate with this hairless world of women, it only further reinforces the perception young men form watching porn.
Pretty sick feedback loop, huh?
Hair is womanly. It’s sexy. I’m not saying you have to love giant bush, I’m just saying let’s at least move away from forcing women to look like little girls. And men, let’s grow up and learn to love women for what they really are.
- Don’t always pay for things
You’re just perpetuating an old-fashioned form of courtship reminiscent of intensely patriarchal social structures that limit women’s empowerment and agency.
I know men who are so desperately clinging to this behavioral artifact that they have to pay for everything even when their partner makes way more money.
Guys, we are still valuable and masculine and sexy without this form of chivalry. Let go of your ego and your pride and focus on true connection with your partner. She may have trouble letting go of wanting this in her own way, too, but we’re all victims of this type of socialization, so cut her some slack.
Which reminds me (and this applies to every category listed here): you’ll both be better off if you can just have an honest conversation about the expectations you have about male and female behavior. Women won’t always know that they would even prefer a change until they’ve experienced it consistently in a safe environment. This goes for anyone, across the board, experiencing any form of mental perversion. Many women are just as afraid of making a feminist statement through a behavioral change as men are of encouraging it. So. Grow together, as individuals and as a couple. Forgive each other for your harmful socializations and re-habituate together.
Anyway, just share the financial burden, okay?! That doesn’t mean it always has to be 50:50. I mean, it ideally would be for most basic things you do together. But she might make a lot more money than you and want to do expensive things more often than you can afford — or vice versa. If that’s the case, then whoever is pushing the luxury agenda needs to step up to the plate financially more often. Seems fair to me.
Just figure out what works best for you as a couple and go for it. Take turns buying drinks, buying dinner, buying presents. Have her immediately pay you back if you’re covering a meal because it’s convenient to use one card. That’s what equals would do, right? Compliment her for her ambition and salary, and gracefully accept when she offers to buy something for you. It feels damn good.
- Reconsider what you think sex is, and then get better at it
“Jamie, I also want to say: never have sex with just the vagina, you have to have sex with the whole woman.” ~Billy Crudup, 20th Century Women (2:02).
That’s certainly one, very plain way of putting it. I’d dive a little deeper, but, yeah, I guess that’s kind of the gist of it.
Men these days watch a lot of porn before they have sex for the first time. And modern porn overwhelmingly depicts: male dominance, often in the extreme; the woman’s body as an object for man’s pleasure; the woman’s body devoid of hair; the woman’s behavior as submissive, docile, innocent, and/or desperate for male attention and dominance; the woman’s pleasure immensely exaggerated; and on and on in a huge list of sexual and behavioral distortions.
So… When most men watch a lot of porn before losing their virginity, when parents in our country are depressingly and embarrassingly too coward to have honest conversations about sex with their children, and when sex education in our schools is a complete joke, then, yeah, young men and women are going to be pretty screwed up with dreadful expectations of what sex is like. This manifests in confusion, angst, and mistreatment of one another.
When it comes to sex, couples often confine themselves to one limited form of male-centric, male-oriented sexual interaction. If you fall into that category, no judgment — but if it’s like that, then you have been found wanting, and you and your partner’s pleasure is suffering immensely.
Just as friendships and relationships are about connection, so is sex. That’s why your folks call it “making love” and you think it’s gross. I’m not advocating for cuddly sex only, I’m just saying there’s a whole spectrum of interaction you need to explore, much of which involves taking a back seat. The first step is rewiring your brain and empowering your partner to behave differently.
But, listen, I’m not your sex therapist, and this isn’t a sex blog, so I’m not going to dive into the sexy detail. If you’re unsure of what good sex looks like, Google it and make sure the source is legitimate. Or ask a knowledgeable, trustworthy friend. Or just talk to your partner and figure it out together. I don’t know. Be an adult and figure it out! Just keep an open mind, love yourself, and, most importantly, respect your partner.