Terri Trespicio’s personal memoir of how she accidentally conflated being strong with being single.
Feminism has done a lot of good–for you, me, all the women you know, and all the women you’ll never meet–as far as social issues, birth control, employment, and your right to do anything and be a woman at the same time. I’m all about girl power, and go women. Yes.
But there’s one area where feminism has not served me well. And that is dating. Why? Because, having been raised in the 80s, I came of age with the strong impression that men were basically up to no good. In the movies, TV shows, general cultural messages, men were by and large aggressive, incorrigible boors. They could hurt you. At the very least, they might get in your way. The good news was you probably didn’t need them.
Men Not Required
This was easy for me to believe because I went to an all-girls’ private and progressive catholic high school. Training grounds for the “men not required” mentality. I wore a uniform, no makeup, and had not an ounce of concern for boys, as they were not on my radar, and not deemed central to my life in any real way. Sure, we talked about them, but they were more like attractions than people I had relationships with. Beings I’d ogle and wonder at from the stands of a high school football game or at a dance. They were infrequent visitors in my life and I was in a tourist in theirs.
I’d heard about how girls were cowed by the boys in public schools. Girls who didn’t get a shot at leadership, or acted dumb. I felt bad for them. I was certainly better off. For instance, we never mooned about waiting for someone to ask us to a school dance because when our school hosted one, it was on us to do the inviting. Every day was Sadie Hawkins day. We were running the place. And we would run the world.
As students of Oak Knoll High School, we were weren’t just students. We were “women of promise.” We were the promise of a better future. I took this as a promise not to let anything, or anyone, get in my way.
During our senior year, we were shown some horrible video about how to avoid being the unfortunate drunk girl who gets date raped at a frat party. Stay sober, stay smart, and if someone goes to rape you, run for ze hills, screaming your head off.
That was my prep for dealing with men.
I got the impression that I could, should, and would run circles around guys. I’d be smarter, stronger, and savvier. And I was sure as shit not going to let any of them hurt me. Probably a good idea not to let any even get near me.
I’m Embarrassed This Happened
And guess what? I succeeded. I sneered at, and even humiliated men as a teenager, and if a guy liked me, I fairly resented him for it. At 14, I had what might be considered my first boyfriend. I’d met him at a spelling bee (not kidding). After two daytime dates held within earshot of parental supervision, I invited him to a dance at the boys’ school.
That night, I had a change of heart. I realized that if he showed up, he was officially my problem and I would in some ways be responsible for him. I panicked. As I saw him lean cautiously through the auditorium door in the flickering disco light (skinny kid, blond crew cut, windbreaker), I felt my heart ball up in a fist, and thought, No, no this was a mistake.
Except, instead of greeting him and talking to him and being civil, I decided to ignore him. I returned to the safety of my friends and we watched him amble from one poorly lit corner of the room to the other, looking for me. I passed him once, and waved hi–and kept walking. I felt bad, but the way I see it now, not bad enough.
I left this boy stranded and friendless, at a school dance where he knew no one but me. I am not proud of this. It remains one of the cruelest things I’ve ever done. I went home that night and said nothing–until the phone rang at 11:30 (which in the days of one-family land lines, was a big deal), and it was him. He was shocked and furious–as he should be. I had nothing to say–I shut down. I had no defense. When my mother got wind of what happened, she scolded me, pleaded–”What is wrong with you? How could you do that?” And I had no answer. I felt tough, and cold.
Then the letters started–scrawled black ink on both sides of thin looseleaf, declarations of love and war, promises to kill himself (“And if you don’t hear about it, I either didn’t do it, or nobody noticed.”) I balled them up and threw them in the back of a drawer. I ignored and ignored, until he went away. I resented his neediness, his melodrama. I liked him a whole lot better when I didn’t know if I could have him, but once I did, I was done.
(I’ve since Google-stalked him and was happy to find that he was working as a computer technician in San Jose. I’m sure he never thinks of it–at least I hope he doesn’t.)
I can’t blame feminism for my piss-poor behavior of course, which I chalk up to fear, insecurity, and anything else that rules the mind and emotions of a 14-year-old girl. But it was reinforced by the notion that men were something to be dealt with, but not at all necessary or required.
I’m Not Proud of This, Either
But it was a bit of a pattern, it turns out. During my first year of high school, my best friend introduced me to her cousin–a sweet strawberry blonde track star from the boys’ school. I knew he liked me, and so of course I was suspicious and guarded. What did he WANT? I enjoyed the attention in an eye-rolling way, and was amused and compelled in ways I didn’t know how to handle except to keep some distance. The night my friend and I double-dated with him and his friend to a Seton Hall hockey game, I walked ahead of him and only hesitantly accepted his varsity track jacket to keep me warm, quickly returning it afterwards.
…And Why This Became a Problem
Flash forward to adulthood and you can imagine how this might set me up with a bit of a handicap. Little did I know the inability to accept anything from a man–attention, love, a jacket–would become a bigger problem. I guarded my virginity jealously, well into college, up until the bitter end, in fact. I believed to share “it”–sex, intimacy–was to give it away to someone who likely didn’t deserve it.
I’ve come a long, long way since the ensuing years of tense serial monogamy in my 20s, and have far to go. So while everyone was up in arms over Suzanne Venker’s article on foxnews.com (in which she says, essentially, that feminists are to blame for the lack of marriageable men), I acknowledged the nerve she struck in me. Because she’s right–I have been angry and defensive for a big chunk of my life, and I’m not even sure why.
Anything But Needy
I’ve worked so hard to be independent, thinking that, as the anti-chick, I would need nothing and no one–and that men would somehow love this. The very last thing on earth I ever wanted to be was a needy, awful girl. I figured if I needed nothing, I’d win. I just didn’t realize the cost of winning.
I certainly don’t regret how feminism has served me: I’ve learned to be aggressive, tough, resilient, and have had many successes in my life as a result. I never have let a man get in my way–are you kidding? No one ever stood a chance. But now I’m trying to unlearn some of that–to learn what it means to soften, not weaken, and to expand, not constrict. To have power without the shiny, hard outer shell. This is incredibly fucking hard.
The notion that some post-fem fallout is to blame, well, that makes sense to me. I swung really hard in one direction and am gradually finding my way back to a more balanced state. My understanding of feminism has evolved, too–in that you don’t have to hate men or beat them in order to be a powerful woman.
Make no mistake–I wouldn’t undo feminism. And I have no regrets about the choices I’ve made in my life (except, of course, for the school dance episode, and a few others to be sure). But I’m well aware that my tendency to fight and compete and fear losing to men has made it incredibly hard for me to love the way I know I could. Even though marriage has never been a goal for me, how silly to think that you can–or should–get through life without loving, as often and as intensely as you can.
Of course, love requires all the things that scare me most: vulnerability, need, want, rejection. It’s hard for me to turn down a challenge–but I’m facing an entirely new one now. Because the softening and revealing and opening up that love requires is the very thing I’ve been steeling myself against. And I’m discovering that to win at not wanting, and not having, may not be a game worth winning, in the end.
This article originally appeared at territrespicio.com.