I’m a cis, straight white woman dating the man of my dreams. He’s liberal, progressive, handsome, young, he’s got a career and his shit in order, he is not afraid to call himself a feminist, he’s emotionally available and prioritizes me through his actions, and to top it all off at my place he puts the toilet seat back down after he pees.
I know you’re ready to throw this correspondence out as a humble brag or not so gently remind me that there are people with real problems in this world, but hear me out: he will call himself feminist, but when he says or does things that are micro-aggressive or sexist, I can’t get him to own up to it–he’ll argue it’s my wrong interpretation of a scenario because, after all babe, he’s a feminist.
Just to give you a quick example of one of these scenarios, I was discussing my coursework with him and explaining some of the problems I’m running into while we were lounging in bed reading one rainy afternoon. Instead of commenting on my ideas or asking more questions, he rubs his leg against mine and says “those are getting prickly.” When I was invited to an important dinner by a male colleague he said that this colleague, by doing the favor of inviting me and taking me to dinner, was looking for sex. I called him on that, asserted I had earned my seat at the table and was offended he thought of me so cheaply, and he did apologize but tried to play it off as a joke.
My question is, how do I respond to this soft sexism in an open, productive way? I’m otherwise incredibly happy in this relationship.
Seriously Over the Sexism
Something I’ve been thinking about lately is the fact that I exist in the world as a fairly privileged feminist. As I’ve gotten older and more mature and increasingly grateful for the work my elders did to ensure I would have all of the choices I do today, I can recognize that my experience must be odd for someone whose feminism was literally something that defined her daily life–something that entailed constant activism, demanded revision of the domestic and professional environment, and risked exclusion from mainstream benefits by living alternative relationship dynamics and taking radical political stances. I’m not suggesting that there weren’t aspects of second wave feminism that were quite problematic; there were. I’m also not suggesting that the privilege I speak of is universal–obviously it absolutely isn’t and many of us fight for visibility and safety every day. But as the third wave emerged, sex positivity and major steps toward inclusivity basically allowed anyone who shared a liberal politic and championed equality between women and men to assert themselves as feminist.
I know your question wasn’t about the pitfalls and snares of contemporary feminism and the above is cursory at best, but my point here is that with the necessary and urgently important inclusivity that third wave feminism upholds comes a potentially easy entry to the feminist cause. It’s cool, it’s academic, it’s commodified, it’s a t-shirt. I don’t have to be fighting for my rights on the daily to assert that I am a feminist.
I took a job once working in a feminist media organization. I was taken aback to see, upon arrival, that there was not one person of color on staff. And yet, I was not taken aback *enough* because I had sadly become used to this contingent of white, well-educated, upper middle class cis-women as the make-up of “feminists” in a given room. Imagine my surprise when I was also the only queer woman in the room. Imagine my horror when two of the women in executive positions would trash talk other women constantly, treat the junior staffers as though they were invisible, and seem to prize their own potential fame over any semblance of a positive, inclusive, equitable work environment. But there was that word, on every publication, on every piece of letterhead: feminist.
I dated a man for several years who would tell any roomful of people that he was a card-carrying feminist. An aging punk who honored grrrl bands like deities, read all the right books, voted for all the right candidates, marched in all the right protests, he even bought me SCUM Manifesto as a Valentine gift–what a catch, right? Except he objectified women, was a habitual liar and cheater, was emotionally abusive, and was *quite* comfortable with assuming patriarchal roles and narratives in all his relationships–though he used the lure of feminism to attract women he felt were smart and hip. By the time we broke up, I wondered if he actually secretly hated all women. Politically he could talk the talk, but his actions towards women were borderline inhumane.
SO. I’m not saying that your boyfriend is like my terrible ex. I’m also not saying he isn’t really a feminist. Not only is that not for me to say, but it isn’t the point of my anecdotal diatribe. What I *am* saying is that I think in order for any gesture to be meaningful, *something* must be at stake. Just as in art, as in literature, as in the way we, as individuals, identify and act. What’s at stake for your boyfriend? What does your boyfriend believe in that makes him want to be a feminist? What does he push against? What does he stand to lose? What actions does he take to back up this claim? Because that’s part of choosing this identification–otherwise it’s just a brand.
And I’m not saying this query is exclusive to your boyfriend, or exclusive to men. We all have blind spots–I am constantly trying to work against my bad feminism and not forgive the ways in which I uphold structures of historical privilege. Or forgive them, fine, but DISMANTLE them. One of the ways I try to do this is listen–to privilege voices above my own. Because I have a lot to learn.
So does your boyfriend. Because the examples you gave are not only non-feminist, they’re hurtful and disrespectful. At the end of the day, whatever our relationships look like, we are human beings in bed with one another trying to connect and share our lives and not wanting an institutionalized misogynist response to our earnest attempts at communication.
I believe you that he is great, that he complements you, that he is the person you’ve been looking for. All the more reason to ask him to do the work necessary to ensure a healthy relationship. It’s not your job to teach him how to be a feminist, but it is your job to communicate openly and honestly with him, and put work into the relationship just as you expect him to. It sounds like that’s exactly what you want to do. Nobody likes to be called out on their mistakes. Even the most progressive folks can be defensive. What I would do, is, in a very low stakes moment (*not* after he makes a sexist comment and *not* in the throes of an argument and *not* on a romantic date), say something like, “Hey, I want to talk to you about something that’s really important to me. I love you and I love our relationship. You know how much I value that you’re a feminist–this means so much to me because it means we both want to make a better world. So there is something that’s been bothering me. I know we talked about the thing you said about my co-worker valuing my potential as a sex object over my good work, and I know you said it was a joke. For me, that kind of joke, and the comments you’ve made about shaving my legs, make me feel like you don’t take me seriously and they don’t reflect feminism. I don’t think it’s a matter of interpretation. It’s important that we both feel respected and valued in order to have the relationship we want. I don’t feel that way when you say things like that–they cut deeper than I believe you intend them to.” In this case, I think putting this on the table–as opposed to asking questions and getting him to talk–is the better choice; it’s direct and not passive aggressive. When he responds, listen, and encourage open dialogue about these circumstances, or about your goals as a couple.
If this sounds soft, it’s because I think we must first try generosity when we want others to really hear us. Your letter portrays your awareness of this as you mention wanting to be open and productive. Trying to get an institution to change sexist practice and trying to get an intimate partner to realize a change is in order are obviously different rhetorical situations. But I want to make the point that his comments, much like institutionalized aspects of patriarchy, are insidious. (And, I should point out, both comments you describe came in response to aspects of your professional or academic development–aka, your growth, autonomy, and ability.) These types of comments are so embedded in the culture that they get laughed off as harmless, as no big deal, as though we’re all in on the joke. We aren’t. This is the work we, as present-day feminists, must do–challenge the notion that these micro acts don’t build like tidal waves, don’t continue to oppress, impose fear, and uphold historical power dynamics that contribute to rape culture, white hetero privilege/supremacy, and flat out misogyny. If your boyfriend truly is feminist, he will privilege your voice above his own in this situation, since his behavior has marginalized you. Hopefully it will even lead to some good conversation and a deeper admiration for each other. Relationships are always a process, on both sides, but there is no chance to grow together without mutual respect.
So this is an opportunity. Your question is so important. You are choosing to have a complex conversation instead of sweeping his comments under the rug. If we can’t do the work at home, how can we do the work in the world? In its simplest iteration, I truly believe that working toward better feminism means being better humans to one another. It means empathy and openness and acknowledgment and affirmation. It means fighting for the happiness of the person you are standing next to. There’s still a lot at stake.
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