Content warning: sexual assault, harassment, misandry, man-hating-angry-feminist rant. (and in case it wasn’t clear, that latter are tongue-in-cheek. If you didn’t get that, maybe you should stop reading.)
This is a pretty raw piece for me-it might be for you too. Do want you need to do if/when reading this. Take breaks, breathe, write down your thoughts, doodle… Whatever works for you. Feel free to write me.
I have exes who happen to be men and who happen to still be friends with me.
These are people who I have chosen to maintain a relationship with irrespective of the nature of that relationship, because of good memories, for old time’s sake and generally because I think they are good people. While I have been, I believe, a loyal friend, I am also not a doormat. At least, I liked to think so. But I want to talk about enduring relationships with passed cis-male lovers and the emotional labor expected of those raised female, because frankly, I have been noticing patterns that have left me, frankly, feeling like a door mat.
The fact that I did not disclose to these lovers-turned-friends my evolving gender gender identity connotes some lack of trust, it’s true. Mostly, it speaks to my fear of loosing a connection to people who have mattered to me and that I care for. These once-lovers-now-friends have seen me for me in various, important ways when others would not or could not. Yet, and most importantly, for all the love I carry for these men, some more negative aspects of their socialization as men, presented itself as loaded with a potential for violence. In particular, that is, as it relates to coming out to them. Each time I have thought of it, I somehow couldn’t bring myself to overlook this potential for violence. I want to highlight this fear or lack of trust because ultimately this sentiment was accurate in so far as I am finally surfacing for air, and seeing the harm in some our dynamics. I always had some fuzzy sense that a negative power imbalance of sorts existed between us, but unable to see clearly, I squinted, full speed ahead into our ever evolving friendships.
There are a few patterns that I want to name, to connect to my truth; irrespective of how these men have and continue to care for me; irrespective of the amazing ways they have shown this. Harm and love after all, are not mutually exclusive. Simply put, thinking about these patterns has made me rethink the kind if friendship I want to have (or not) with some of them, but does not mean I have stopped caring for them.
Late night drunken propositioning
This lover-turned-friend and I joke about this pattern that we have; we will get drunk, he will proposition me, I will refuse him and we’ll all joke about it merrily until the next time it happens. Innocuous though it seems and feels to me in the moment, it’s just not. For starters, it’s not because propositioning someone repeatedly when there has been multiple refusals reeks disregard for their boundaries and their consent. It violates the parameters of a clearly non-sexual relationship. More generally, it has dawned on me in some very real ways, that all of these so called lovers-turned-friends adhere to this pattern of behaviour to some extent or another. Alcohol, certain situations or contexts are widely accepted subtextual excuses for inappropriate behaviours that we are made complicit in and let cis-men off the hook. One example stands out in my mind: I have such a friend who attempted to have sex with me one night years ago (long after we had broken up) as I slept on his couch. We’d both gotten sloshed near his place and it just made sense to sleep over. Never again did anything of the sort happen, but the extent of that violation was also never fully acknowledged.
One significant element of the problem as I see it, is that I “let” these men get away with it. When these patterns of behaviour occur, it’s not my fault. However, some would argue that I do carry a certain amount of responsibility in allowing these patterns to continue. However, I just can’t see it that way. To use the aforementioned example ,at a time of my life where I couldn’t really afford a taxi, crashing at an exes’ place because of a late evening hang out, in the smack middle of a -30 degree winter night just makes sense. That, and there should be no reason to second guess crashing at a friends’ house for fear of putting my physical well being at risk. I have brushed it off and learned to excuse men who violate my bodily integrity, who make me feel always sexualized even when I have stated clearly that I don’t want to be. I have made excuses for them (like how drunk they were or our history or any reason at all really). On the other hand, some would claim I hold a degree of responsibility, yet, social pressures are set it up in such a way that I can’t win: I shouldn’t make excuses or brush off such inappropriate behaviours. If I do, I am partly to blame- I am acquiescing to its reoccurrence. Never mind that most of the time the instigators of these behaviours are people who are my friends, who should care about my boundaries and feel a deep commitment to respecting these. I would argue that widespread social norms are set up so that men are “allowed” to make passes and women responsible for dismissing these in ways that aren’t too loud and won’t hurt a man’s ego. The consequences of failing to nicely brush off unwanted advances include the threat or actual loss a friendship, being labelled as (insert negative stereotype here), being socially shamed or ostracized, etc. Basically, I shouldn’t have to bare responsibility for navigating these advances with tact, except that I do, and I can’t get out of it. Unless, I cut out people who have been there for me when others weren’t, who make me laugh, who I care about. In order words, I just can’t win.
2. New relationship? Old relationship flush
An other reoccurring dynamic that has me feeling like nothing more then a door mat, is something I came to notice most recently; that when these men get involved/start dating after being single, suddenly I don’t hear from them as much, or at all. I get to witness the first excitement of their burgeoning relationship, cheering them on, but soon thereafter, no more news. One particular instance comes to mind as particularly painful; one lover-to-friend, let’s call him Bill, communicates with me that he just found his father dead in his apartment. He is distraught. I ask if I can support him in anyway; he asks if I help him clean his father’s house before food goes bad, etc. Of course, I said yes without hesitation. It wouldn’t occur to me to think about wether he would do the same for me, and that shouldn’t even be a question. Incidentally, though, this is the same Bill who tried to have sex with me while I was sleeping on his couch one night. We meet up and I spend an hour or two helping clean up. It means a lot to me that he would ask me, it makes me feel trusted and relied upon. Unfortunately, I have barely heard from him since… You see, he has a new girlfriend. They were already (albeit very recently) dating at the time, but maybe the relationship felt too new to ask such a favour, maybe she was unavailable, who knows. This man has male friends, brothers-in-arms who showed up to get drunk with him the evening before, whom he has known since childhood. Why couldn’t he ask one of them? I ask this, because it seems illogical to me that you would ask someone to help with such a personal endeavour if you are willing to cut them out over a new girlfriend.
It is not the first time this friend does this and I am done with being a doormat disguised as a cared for friend. My conclusion, once again, is that an individual assigned male at birth is brought up to see female friendship as expendable, as secondary. We are also, all of us generally taught to put romantic attachment before friendship. That combination often leaves women with the shorter end of the stick in their friendships with men. We can be summoned for the dirty work and dismissed as necessary. It’s so common to it’s easily missed because we’ve grown so accustomed to it. Before you tell me about your exceptional feminist cis-male ex who happens to be your best friend, I’m obviously aware that there are exceptions in the world and that few things are black-and-white. I would however invite you to take a good look at the relationship dynamics you have with people whom you have dated, explore how those make you feel and how mutually supportive these relationships appear to be. If anything, this process has taught me a lot about myself and allowed me to reevaluate the kind of relationships I want to have with some exes. This might or might not be relevant to you, and that’s perfectly ok.
But I digress. At times, these male friends have been asked by a girlfriend not see their exes. Nevertheless, these men inevitably frame their ceasing contact with me as the fault of their then girlfriend… no apology necessary. I am expected to accept this as a given. These men seem to propose their stoping being in touch with me, as a sign of having a respect for these girls’ “poor nerves, a trivializing sentiment surrounding a lack of trust. I do understand though where these girlfriends might be coming from, if they have experienced any of the patterns I have just been describing. I even live in the fear that one friend who I frequented for a short time will eventually start dating seriously and just stop talking to me. It makes me feel sad because he is a confident and someone I truly care about. I have no way of knowing if this would happen with him, but I have experienced it enough times to believe it likely to pass.That being said, there is something really messed up about being willing to give up a friendship for someone you are dating. If you really care about someone and want them around in your life, that is. Unless, you are confident they will show up at the drop of a hat when asked irrespective of how you treat them but that you generally view them as expendable anyway. I am not expendable.
3. Expectations of unconditional emotional labor
The aggregation of these experiences have left me, and let’s face it many individuals assigned at birth/read as /presenting as female exhausted and full of self-doubt. Most of it comes down to this socialized expectation that females are responsible for emotional labor even if by omission. It’s well documented that men are taught to ignore the emotional wellbeing of a relationship, indeed their own emotions in most instances, and women taught to attend to these emotions in a hyper-vigilant manor. Women are taught this in particular as a means to anticipate and protect themselves from potential sexual violence. Therefor, if a male participant to an interaction fails to attend to emotions, the female party will feel responsible for absorbing those responsibilities which, we all “know” will be left unattended if she does not. But the stakes are higher for women then for men in this context. Marget Atwood put it so aptly: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” As such, women are made to live in constant vigilance of this, men’s fear, lest their own fear of bodily harm come true. In other words, they are being handed the short end of the stick and are boxed-in; they simply can’t win.
Ultimately, the men described herein are made oblivious by gender constructs that they too have grown up with- which is a level of fucked up I can’t begin to wrap my brain around. This does not excuse their behaviour- but it does frame my reluctance or inability to explain to them the harm they have caused me. It also helps me understand my lack of success when I have actually managed to jump all these hurdles and voiced the harm the dynamics described above have caused, to those who have harmed me. But let’s be real, these men aren’t really my friends. I serve a function in their life, an emotional anchor that can be easily dismissed, erased when convenient and conjured in times of need without guilt or accountability or a sense of responsibility to reciprocity. I suspect that when you are raised in toxic masculinity; a “woman” you’ve been involved with but will no longer “put out” becomes the ultimate disposable emotional punching bag. And I am not putting up with it anymore.