Dedicated to a variety of men I have known: some who I have loved, some who have hurt people I love.
There is currently a vast communication breakdown between genders in how the process of love is meant to work. Although love is commonly understood to involve some levels of kindness, generosity and vulnerability, its current state under patriarchy means that many men flatly refuse to take responsibility for how much their behaviour hurts the women they claim to love. While not exclusive to any person or gender, this resistance to accountability is a general trait shared by those who hold power and are unwilling to relinquish it—wealthy people, white people, able-bodied people and so forth. But when it comes to masculinity, and particularly to heterosexual masculinity, this behaviour is deeply intertwined with gendered differences in understandings of what it means to love another and to be loved in turn. Despite how masculine power means that men generally retain a certain distance from and contempt for women as a whole, it is highly unlikely that a man will be able to live out his whole life without knowing, loving or needing a woman at an intimate level, even if it is only his mother. In turn, this is perhaps one of the most damning parts of patriarchy for women; to paraphrase what bell hooks wrote in her book Communion: The Female Search for Love, we cannot stop loving our fathers, our brothers, our lovers, our friends, our comrades, even “when they hurt us again and again”.
What, then, does love mean to men; what is the threshold of regard and care that women must provide him with before he will acknowledge it as love, and what will he return? People in power tend to define love as synonymous with adoration and total harmony; Gillian Flynn wrote in Gone Girl of many men’s desire to find the Cool Girl “who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain”. Man often becomes petulant when the women around him point out his flaws, even while demonstrating a deep interest in his life and commitment to improving his wellbeing, as patriarchy has taught him that to be loved means full allowance to ‘be himself’, even when that self is mediocre and hurtful. In reality, this kind of adoration is only possible from a distance, as all humans up close tend to be boring, annoying and gassy as well as witty, bright and kind. However, in love relationships (romantic, amicable or familial) men tend to demand adoration from women at every step of intimacy, despite a simultaneous refusal to change the parts of them that are deeply unadorable. When this behaviour understandably does not result in adoration, this reaction is interpreted as a lack of love, and used as justification for men to behave in profoundly unloving ways to the women around them as a way of supposedly balancing the scales.
This plays into the phenomenon Shulamith Firestone wrote of in The Dialectic of Sex where men evaluate women as ego extensions rather than equals in love; Virginia Woolf similarly wrote of women’s power of “reflecting the figure of man at twice his natural size”. Men’s subsequent dance with their own reflection becomes confused with the process of mutual openness and vulnerability that characterises loving another person; when the mirror starts showing a reflection with spots and age, men will break or discard it and select a more impressionable one. For women, however, to be treated like a person rather than a mass-produced fuckbot is an upgrade; hence why women will often describe men in their lives as “amazing” for doing fairly minimal things like not raping them, showing up for social engagements, doing equal shares of housework, and demonstrably listening to what they are saying. Receiving this positive treatment is unlikely when many men expect their ‘true love’ to look like an idealised figure that they adore in toto; hence the endless nitpicking men do over minor imperfections in women’s bodies or character, and the magnitude of their disillusionment when she becomes wrinkled or grumpy.
This imbalance in understandings of love leads men to truly believe that they love women (the homogeneous mass), or even that they support feminism, while violently abusing the women in their own lives, or while demonstrating a pronounced indifference to women’s voices, our pain, our art, our pedagogies, our strategies for political liberation. If men were to honestly submit to being held accountable for the frailty of their humanity—to openly acknowledge being chaotic, mean, fearful, unintelligent, or otherwise imperfect or lacking—it would potentially open up a demand that their women also be mirrored as such; that our own flaws and vulnerabilities be acknowledged, accepted and soothed. Men as a whole do not want to do this carework, owing to its cultural devaluation, myriad material disincentives, and the overall emotional cowardice of masculinity—Firestone wrote that “The question that remains for every normal male is, then, ‘how do I get someone to love me without her demanding an equal commitment in return?’” And yet men expose this frailty far more to women than to other men, as other men frequently react in ways that expose how unforgiving, dismissive, awkward, and generally fucking useless they are at developing strategies to look after one other properly. Women thus frequently become burdened not only with the carework for men’s pain, but the subsequent blame for not having fully cured it. Our demands for reciprocity, and our distress and anger at the lack of it, are ridiculed and condemned amongst men in their own circles; those they claim to love are angrily reduced to a shrew, a bitch, needy, crazy, overdramatic, cruel, selfish, and so forth. This stigma—often backed up by material danger—leads women to say little, to demand even less, to pretend to be ‘chill’ while our pain turns inwards and sometimes literally corrodes our organs.
When one examines the bleakness of this situation, the number of men who want it to continue is bizarre. Men’s furious denial that masculine power gives them significant advantages over women perhaps partly emerges from the partially-mistaken idea that holding power is synonymous with being happy; many men may thus deny their exercise of power as harmful (or even existent) when they do it from a place of heartbreak, depression or insecurity. The power differential between men and women cannot entirely be measured by overall levels of happiness (although it is worth noting that women are generally more anxious, depressed and suicidal than men). Much of the difference is in how much extra work women will do to shield men’s own imperfections and harmful behaviour from themselves, as compared to how men will criticise women for the slightest defections from flawlessness. A woman will do this work for various reasons: out of genuine kindness to the men she loves; to ensure that she receives an ongoing openness and surface reciprocity of care; to avoid being psychologically, physically or financially broken; or simply from reaching patriarchal saturation point where she can’t be bothered calling out the fiftieth sexist remark because there will be fifty more to deal with in the next week.
Masculine power ultimately creates a wasteland of lovelessness for everyone involved. The men who are most unwilling to interrogate their own masculine power generally also have the most miserable intimate lives imaginable; these are the sorts of men who end up murdering their family members, or who commit suicide when their partner leaves them. Such men are more likely to question the existence or viability of male-female friendship, as to enter into an emotional agreement with a woman that didn’t involve fucking or ensure her unconditional adoration of him would be unthinkable. Moreover, to acknowledge that one could care about a woman other than one’s girlfriend or wife might force a man to admit that many women are interesting and valuable people, and that he might then be compelled to treat all women as potential peers, and thus to harness the emotional energy and bravery to and effectively care for more than one person at a time. This is not, however, to argue that non-monogamous or open relationship arrangements are less exploitative of women than exclusive monogamy; as Barucha Peller argues in her excellent article Polyamory as a Reserve Army of Care Labor, “since there does not exist an actual social impetus for men to meet women’s needs, polyamory can make it all the more difficult for women demand that their needs be met. Rather than do the work to fulfill one woman’s needs in exchange for getting his needs met, a polyamorous man may simply drift to another lover.” No lifestyle is inherently safe under patriarchy.
Even relationship anarchy—an emergent political philosophy which attempts to put friendships on an equal emotional and material footing to sexual relationships—will suffer without an inbuilt interrogation of men’s currently emotionally bankrupt interpretations of what it means to love and be loved. Women are breaking under the expectation that we will put up with horrific abuses and neglect and yet still be willing and able to dole out motherly levels of love to every man and his dog. We do not have inbuilt supplies of unconditional love for everyone forever, and even mothers are only human. Adages about human connection say that ‘you reap what you sow’, but gender has poisoned the soil in a way where women may put patience and empathy into men and yet only reap cruelty and indifference, and men vice versa. The garden needs to be destroyed and rebuilt; perhaps then it might produce life.
Firestone, Shulamith: The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. (Chapter 6 called ‘Love’, available here, is brilliant and has significantly informed this work.)
Flynn, Gillian: Gone Girl.
hooks, bell: Communion: The Female Search for Love.
Peller, Barucha: ‘Polyamory as a Reserve Army of Care Labor’ (available at http://propagandalalaland.blogspot.co.nz/2013/03/re-blogged-polyamory-as-reserve-army-of.html)
The Thinking Asexual: ‘Relationship Anarchy Basics’ (available at https://thethinkingasexual.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/relationship-anarchy-basics/)
Woolf, Virginia: A Room of One’s Own (tbh I haven’t read it, I just googled the quote about looking-glasses cos I’d heard of it somewhere)