self-doubt

Guest Post! An open letter to men who date women

[Hey, remember how I used to talk about feminism? Maybe one day I’ll get back into that. In the meantime, though, here is a guest post by Spice, who I’m hoping might actually be a recurring guest blogger here! Because, y’know, I am a lazy blogger and I like it when other people do the writing for me.]

An Open Letter:

I am a woman. I am also a feminist. A feminist who happens to find herself mostly attracted to straight cis men. And, this is cool. Cis men can be awesome! Especially when they are also feminists.

And yet. And yet, while we live in a society that is finally starting, in bits and pieces, to unpack sexism, and while I date men who are either feminists or want to be, and while these men tend to be intelligent, sensitive people with good intuitions, relationships are still a confusing thing to navigate.

Because there are mixed messages. How are we dividing relationship responsibilities? Is it heteronormative? If it is, is that okay? And what often happens is that guys – particularly those with feminist sensibilities – worry about doing anything that is sexist. And this is understandable. And great! And also, at times, deeply frustrating. Sorting what is ok from what isn’t is already pretty hard when you know what it’s like to be a woman. I also think that what’s ok and what isn’t varies from relationship to relationship, and person to person. And so one thing I really want to say is that we should probably just get more used to talking this shit out, instead of avoiding things or guessing or making assumptions or whatever.

But, I also want to put something out there, something that is based on my own lived experience. And while this probably won’t represent women *everywhere* (because women are not a monolith) I have had enough positive feedback from women regarding what I’m about to write about that I am pretty confident that this will be pretty useful for at least some of us.

In my first relationship I ever had, I had an argument with my boyfriend about the fact that he never told me he thought I was beautiful. “Of course I think that. But I shouldn’t have to say it. I wouldn’t be dating you if I didn’t think so,” he claimed. He also didn’t feel comfortable saying those things, he said. It wasn’t his style.

I have such compassion for my younger self, because looking back, I knew he was wrong, but I couldn’t for the life of me articulate to him what was wrong with what he was saying. But since then, I’ve come across similar tendencies in my own partners and in those of my friends, and so this is my attempt to write a public service announcement.

“But!” You might be thinking. “But reducing women to their looks is bad right? We don’t want to value people just because they are attractive. I don’t want to offend my girlfriend or feminism.”

And yeah. I get it. I get where this impulse is coming from. And look. Sexism is a thing. Women’s value being reduced to their appearance is a thing. And, there are some seriously fucked up beliefs that help to form it. And these are beliefs that I, and you, and many other people have consciously tried to undo. And consciously unpacking them is one way of attacking them, and goes some way to undoing the problem, but it can’t possibly fix it entirely. And this is in part because pretty much since we were born, we have been sent fucked up messages. As a woman, I have been sent messages about what being a woman means, how one’s appearance forms a huge part of that, and how I should be doing it. I am sent these messages all the time, every day. These messages are ubiquitous and pervasive and come from so, so many directions: advertising, movies, television shows, billboards, window displays, cosmetics stores, magazines, clothing stores, the way women talk about themselves, the woman behind me in the coffee shop right now moralizing about her work out habits, my friends on facebook talking about how they hate their bodies, how women police other women…. just so, so many aesthetic things that permeate everything.

Because capitalism is actively invested in maintaining a lot of sexist beliefs. It’s how it makes a LOT of its money. As long as women keep feeling badly about themselves, then women will keep buying things to try to fill in their perceived inadequacies. Now, in general, ads often abuse ideas about ‘dreams’ and ‘happiness’, so like, ‘hey buy this and you will actually feel happy!’ etc. They try to give you a sense of some lack in your life that needs to be filled.

But saying that someone doesn’t *have* something is very different, I think, from being the target of ‘hey, you should *be* this, but you aren’t are you? Well, this product will help solve your failings!’ – because the latter thing is attacking not just how we feel, but who we *are*, and insinuating that there’s this ideal that we’re not living up to, and who we are will always, no matter what, be tied to how we match up (or don’t match up, realistically speaking) to that ideal. And once that gets instilled in women – and it does – then that is an easy thing to prey upon, and to manipulate. And so I spend most days putting a lot of energy into fighting it. Into thinking: no, no I don’t believe this. I will not allow my sense of self to be reduced to this, because this is bullshit. At least, I do that when I realize that I’m thinking about it, which sometimes (often?) I don’t.

And I think I do a pretty good job, quite frankly. And my self-esteem is also related to other things, like the fact that I’m funny and interesting, that I am good at teaching and that my own work is going well, and I sometimes write things people think are interesting and fun to read. My friends and family reinforce positive reflections of myself to me. I think of myself as a confident person.

And that is an achievement. It isn’t easy or straightforward to get that. But general confidence is not the same thing as confidence within a relationship. You can be extremely confident but that doesn’t mean that everyone is going to find you attractive, or like you. And needing that security within the context of a romantic/sexual relationship isn’t weak, or needy. It actually makes a whole lot of sense.

Certainly, acquiring a general sense of self-confidence as a woman is elusive. I’ve spent *my entire life* hearing/seeing/being told that the most important thing I can contribute to the world is being attractive and that I should place a huge part of my self-worth on that. And that being attractive is really important because it will make men want to sleep with you and by the way if men don’t want to sleep with you all the time you must be doing something wrong because that’s basically how men are wired, etc. (Even though… apparently you also have to work really hard at making them want to sleep with you by wearing makeup and the right clothes and and and?) And one major way to gauge your value, we are told, is via male desire. The importance of this cannot be overstated, because it has gone towards who I have built myself to be as a person, for better or worse. I can’t just decide to go back in and extract those pieces of myself because now I realize how fucked up those beliefs are. It doesn’t work like that. None of us is bigger than our culture.

And then I start having real relationships with real people (amazing!) and then I realize that these things are not true: my entire value is not based on my attractiveness, that my attractiveness is not entirely based on my physical appearance, and that men don’t want to have sex all the time. And sometimes I will want to have sex more than my partners do. And it’s confusing and I have to recalibrate how I’m judging my sense of self and desirability in a relationship and that is more work.

(And this is a great example of why sexism hurts men too, because all of a sudden a bunch of women are like, what do you mean you don’t want to have sex all the time, what’s wrong with me that you don’t? And the men are all confused, like, of course there’s nothing wrong with you, what is happening? And then the men are upset and confused and sad because women have these weird expectations and why would they have those expectations if they weren’t reasonable?)

And I know that many of these messages are wildly inaccurate. And so there is a programme in my brain devoted to fending off this tide of bullshit, and that is just so damn wearying. And I manage to keep my shit together, but then sometimes things leak out of the cracks in the dam that I build up against it. I’m *already* doing the work of constantly reminding myself of the fact that of course I’m attractive even though I don’t live up to (and couldn’t possibly live up to) all of these standards. And then, then to hear men express frustration with the fact that there’s so much pressure on them to reinforce women’s self esteem because sometimes we would like to be told that we’re beautiful? That somehow that is onerous? That we should just know that we’re attractive because otherwise they wouldn’t be dating us?

Are you kidding me? No. Just no. All of the No’s to that.

Despite the pervasive cultural voices telling me that I’m not good enough, and my own internalization of that, I’m supposed to just brush all that aside like it doesn’t matter very much and somehow choose to feel confident anyways? No. I need more than that. I deserve more than that. I cannot possibly reinforce this all for myself, I have no idea how I would do that. I have no idea how anyone would do that. And no one should have to.
Because our sense of ourselves is not divorced from our surroundings. It’s not as simple as just deciding to see myself in a certain way from inside a vacuum. And I take myself to be a pretty confident person, but I’m not a superhero. I cannot bootstrap myself up. I am a human being, who needs to hear that she is beautiful and desirable and admired and loved from the people around me. And again there is a distinction between how I feel about myself generally, and how I feel within the context of a relationship. You can be confident and still need positive feedback from your partner. I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive. In fact it’s pretty damn normal. Confidence doesn’t come from nowhere.

So, compliment your girlfriend if she wants you to. Don’t make her deduce that you desire her. Don’t cop out by saying it’s ‘not your style.’ Don’t make her feel like it’s out of line with ‘feminism’ for her to want that. Or that you feel ‘weird’ or ‘awkward’. This isn’t hard, it basically means taking the things you think anyway and saying them out loud. And isn’t the point to make each other feel loved and desired and safe and comfortable? We’re on the same team here, so let’s do what we can to help each other feel happy and loved.

Yet another perspective on (my) gender-related self-doubts

I’ve written a number of times about gender-related self-doubt, but I also want to to preface this by saying it’s not that I particularly do doubt my gender all that much, so much as that I am always searching for different models and approaches to it, and often I am pre-emptively trying to think of what I might say to someone if I were to be questioned on it.

Today, I want to look a little closer at some of the things I’ve talked about before, around how my rejection of of my old largely-by-default identity as a “woman” sometimes felt like an expression of internalized misogyny, as well as the fact that I don’t think my gender identity is particularly innate, but rather that it is intensely and deeply tied up in the ways gender is socially constructed and the ways I make my way through the world in which I happen to be living.

The thing is, though, that for every “Am I *sure* I’m not really just a woman who can’t deal with being objectified/hates being stereotyped as a woman/[insert problem faced by women here]?” question that might flit through my mind, I could just as easily ask the same questions about why I don’t just identify as a man. (Is it because I hate the ways in which men are unfairly advantage in culture, and the idea of actively pursuing that gives me the heebie-jeebies? (Would that qualify as internalized misandry, or something like it?) Or is it because I know I would “fail” at it?

The fact that I know I am more likely to be challenged on the fact that I don’t identify as a woman, than the fact that i don’t identify as a man is rooted in cisnormativity – I feel more pressure to justify my non-identification with my birth-assigned gender than anything else, because my non-identification with anything else is simply assumed by most people.

But as soon as I let go of that normativity, it becomes clear that my feelings about either position in the gender binary pretty well mirror each other, to the extent that anyone who felt inclined to act me (in an exasperated voice, I imagine) why I don’t just identify as a woman, they might just as well ask me the same thing about identifying as man, for all the value that idea has. Those identities just don’t work for me. And so I don’t make use of them. It really, really is just that simple.

Demisexuality, confusion and self-doubt

I’ve written before about my sort of complicated experiences of sexual attraction, framing it in terms of demisexuality. I am not always entirely comfortable embracing demi as part of my identity, however.

I find that when other people talk about demisexual experiences, the kind of strong emotional bond that they require in order to experience sexual attraction takes something on the order of years to develop. And this doesn’t really reflect my experience, or at least not my more recent data points.

At the same time though, it is clear that my experience is not the norm, and I kind of want to start there. Here’s what I know about me that seems to be different from allosexual people:

  • I have literally never met or seen a person and felt sexual attraction to them or desire for them based on that first impression. I *do* experience strong aesthetic attractions – there are people that I find very pleasant to look at, or voices I find myself loving to listen to, but this is definitely not a sexual kind of pleasure. I am also pretty clearly alloromantic, in that I can very quickly develop sort of fuzzy feelings of wanting to be closer to and get to know people better, and wanting for them to notice me and reciprocate those feelings (which is the best way I can think of to describe ~romantic feelings right now). And I know a spent a lot of my life rounding these sorts of feelings into sexual attraction, even though it is clear ti me now that most people (i.e. allosexuals) these feelings will at least sometimes have a sexual element attached or alongside them.
  • Also possibly important: there is little to no correlation between my experience of aesthetic attraction (i.e. liking the look of) a person and actually developing romantic or sexual attraction for that person. This is sort of where I identify partially with demisexuality: as I understand it, this is somewhat equivalent to saying that I don’t experience “primary sexual attraction” (which I seriously have so little understanding of that I am apparently putting it in scare quotes, y’all). And it’s not as if I am just working on a slower curve than allosexuals, where I first experience aesthetic attraction, and that becomes romantic, and then sexual. My initial aesthetic response to people has no bearing whatsoever on whether those other kinds of feelings will develop, because they are simply based on entirely different things.
  • I experience sexual attraction rarely. And this isn’t about having high standards, or even just very specific preferences. I don’t have an identifiable type across any variable I can think of, really. And I often find myself “crushing” (really more like squishing) out on people who are just generally awesome in all kinds of ways, but just not feeling it for them in a sexual way for no apparent reason. Being in this space with people has caused me a great deal of confusion, since I used to have a bad habit of rounding this up sexual attraction, and then not understanding when it really obviously wasn’t.

But, once I get to this point in my analysis, I start to feel like I really have no idea what my sexual attractions *are* based on.

I mean, it is actually true that most of the sexual partners I have had in my life are people I had known for between three and five years before the relationship become sexual, and this is a thing that I have in common with many demisexual people. But, then again, my more recent data points include time-lines from first in-person meeting to sex on the order of 12ish hours (with the person who was to become my husband) and a few weeks (with my boyfriend of now a little over a year). So, I mean, I don’t know anymore?

On the (other) other hand, though, it’s not as if there’s a rule that says “strong emotional connection” must automatically imply a years-long relationship. Because, I mean, that first date with my husband was pretty spectacular (totaling 36 hours before I really had to go home and attend to real life responsibilities), and the kind of thing that allowed for intimacy of a real kind to develop quickly. It was very open-ended, and we just kept exploring the city and finding more things we wanted to do together. And if I’m being totally honest, I developed feelings for him so fast that I actually felt comfortable saying after we had had literally just that one (admittedly epic) date, that I already thought I was falling in love with him. I seriously said that. Out loud. To another human being. (Confidential to RS: I don’t think I ever actually told you that. But now you know <3)

So… maybe this post just turned into an exercise in reconfirming what I had already previously concluded re: me being demisexual? It is definitely the most useful model I've found in helping me navigate and understand this stuff, at any rate.

Which is less interesting than I thought it was going to be, actually. But I shall post it anyway. I actually have more to say on this topic, re: the fact that I am also kinky, which I haven't talked about much here, if at all. The ways that my kinkiness interacts (or doesn't) with my experiences of sexual attraction are actually kind of interesting, at least to me.

Sometimes I am afraid…

Sometimes I am afraid that my genderqueer identity is just rooted in misogyny. Or at least in running away from it.

Sometimes I think I identify as genderqueer because I hate what it means to be a woman in this society. Sometimes I think I identify as genderqueer because women are at high risk of being raped, and I do not want to belong to a group that is vulnerable in that way. Because being a woman means being sexualized everywhere you go. Being a woman means always, always being the subject of other people’s judgments on your appearance, and having those judgment reflect directly on your worth as a person. Being a woman means you cannot escape objectification, means that you are considered unworthy, less-than, and only-good-for, in so many ways.

Becoming a woman, for me, meant even that my father began sexualizing me, in small ways that made me uncomfortable but that I could not speak against because of subtlety.

Of course, being a woman means many other things, too. Good things, wonderful and meaningful things. Women are smart and strong and creative and often pure badass. I know this. And when I am not wallowing in self-doubt, I realize that the reason I feel less connected to those aspects of womanhood is quite simply because I am not a woman.

And yet, sometimes I am afraid that I do not identify as a woman anymore because I am not strong enough to proudly wear a label that carries so much weight. Womanhood was too much of a burden for me to bear, and so I left it behind.

This post kind of needed a cuteness break.

This post kind of needed a cuteness break.

Sometimes I am afraid that I hide behind genderqueerness.

Sometimes I am afraid that I am nothing but a coward.

And then again, I know that this is not the whole story. It’s not as if declaring myself genderqueer has stopped much of the rest of the world spending much of the time perceiving and treating me as a woman. It’s certainly not a magic protection against the threat of rape. It simply allows me to maintain a psychological distance from some of the microaggressions that regularly target those perceived as female; I am immune to suggestions that I am not doing womanhood correctly, or that I am not a real woman, simply because I am not one. I am not trying to be a woman, and so it doesn’t matter whether I am doing it correctly, you see. Though of course, the suggestion that womanhood can be done “wrong” is bullshit in the first place. But still, most women feel the sting of the suggestion, and fear the repercussions of transgressing one time to many, even if they simultaneously see through the misogyny of it all. And I don’t, not anymore.

There are ways in which I miss it, sometimes. Expressing solidarity with women is more complicated as a genderqueer person, in part because I have claimed for myself some small islands of immunity from misogyny. I cannot simply add my voice to the oh-so-important collection of women’s voices and stories anymore, I add only (“only”) the perspective of one who was raised as a girl, and is usually perceived as a woman. But I am not one of you, of them, not any more. And I experience this shift as a loss.

And anyway, I know that being a genderqueer person in this world carries its own burdens, its own weight. It’s not as if I am somehow carefree now. I am simply facing new challenges than the ones I used to, ones that to me do not seem so daunting or unsurmountable.

But then, this is, perhaps, part of what makes me genderqueer in the first place. The shape of the identity, this role that I have cast myself in, it fits me, it feels doable and correct.

Because the thing is, for me gender is very much a contextually constructed thing (by which I mean *my* gender specifically, as I know not everyone experiences gender identity in quite this way), and my identity is, in fact, constructed by the all the fears I have mentioned here, in addition to many, many other things. It is the sum total of many of the ways I navigate the world, and how I understand myself and my place in the society in which I find myself. More than anything else, it is who I am, here and now, and that is inevitably informed by all of the things that have affected me in my life.

And I am ok with that, most of the time.

But sometimes I am afraid.

——-

I am also afraid of putting these fears into words, because I know that some people will take my doubts as an excuse to not take my identity seriously, that it will make my genderqueerness less real or valid or worthy of respect. But that’s part of why I am doing it. There is a great need for us to problematize the narrative of gender as we know it. The born-this-way narrative works for a very many people, both trans and cis, but not for everyone. And it shouldn’t matter whether I was born this way or not.

I don’t know what I was as a kid; I really didn’t give gender much thought at the time. What I do no for sure is that this is the way I am now. This is *who* I am now, and who I may have been yesterday or last week or a year ago isn’t a relevant consideration in whether my identity is worthy of respect today.

Brief Thought: Gender Identity and Self-doubt

i_amI’ve been thinking a lot lately about the apparently common experience of trans* people (of binary and non-binary varieties) doubting their genders, or whether they are “really” trans. To some extent, I think that this is something people can be afraid to talk about, because unless you fit the story of knowing since you were a child that you were in the “wrong body” you run the risk of having all the cis people in your life doubt, and thus feel like they can disrespect, your identity, or ignore your transition of stated preferences around your name and pronouns. If you’re not sure, how can anyone else be?

But I actually think that one of the roots of this doubt is very simple. Trans people have lived their entire lives surrounded by people and embedded in a society that is heavily invested in gaslighting them about their gender. Our entire lives, people have insisted to us that our sense of ourselves is wrong (starting from before we even really have a sense of ourselves or who we are in society). Of course we are confused and doubtful! We have been trained from birth to think of *ourselves* as something we are not.

And even after trans* people come out, our identities are often policed in really unfair ways that cis people’s identities are not. Trans* people who do not fit the stereotypes of “woman” or “man” (or genderqueer people who aren’t all androgynous all the time) are doubted and questioned to a much greater degree than cis folks ever have to deal with. Everyone is gender policed, and deals with being told they are doing their gender wrong, but cis people are far and away less likely to be told that they are just plain wrong about their gender. We are told we are wrong in many ways, explicit and implicit, all the time.

So, of course my internal monologue sometimes slips up and I misgender myself. It doesn’t mean I’m not genderqueer. It means that I am digging myself out of years of (well-, or at least neutrally-, intentioned) brainwashing.

And that’s not easy. Sometimes it’s very, very hard. Often it’s plain exhausting. And sometimes I wish I didn’t have to do it, and I think about just accepting a female designation and going back to the way things used to be.

Except I also know that I don’t want that, that being referred to in female terms makes me squirmy and uncomfortable, it makes me feel like people are talking about someone standing right behind, like they aren’t even seeing me, they’re seeing some idea of a person that they have constructed who just simply isn’t me.

And so I can’t. It’s not a choice. It’s who I am, and it’s how I need to be in the world in order to feel like I am me and to feel seen. The fact that I sometimes find myself doubting that or wishing it wasn’t so does nothing to change that fundamental truth.

And maybe now that I’ve written it down, I’ll actually believe it?

Also, seriously y’all, if you’re not already reading Matt Kailey’s Tranifesto, you should get on that. He is so incredibly, beautifully sensitive, thoughtful, and fucking real in his answers to people’s questions.