Until recently, I always thought of myself as a good man in relationships; happy to describe myself as a ‘feminist’ – respectful to women, good at listening and taking their needs into consideration; never aggressive. But after some self-reflection, which seemed urgently needed in the midst of the current flood of sexual harassment cases against high profile men, I can see that without ever having overtly harassed any women, there are some ways I’ve often been sexist.
I have often based my appreciation of a woman on her physical appearance, rather than on the person she was or her capabilities. And rarely meet a woman who was in any way attractive to me, within a reasonable age range (I had no wish to embarrass myself!), without harbouring at least a hope at the back of my mind that I might be able to get physically closer to her; unconsciously calculating what kind of actions or words might increase my chances. Maybe trying some flirtatious remarks; or initiating a little low-key physical contact in a gentle and unassuming way just to see what kind of reaction I got. Offering compliments; trying to find out if she was unattached and if so, what kind of man she might find attractive, so I could try to be like that and give the impression that I was a good match for her – as well as trying to show her that she was also just the kind of woman I’d been hoping to meet. Low key manipulation, in other words.
Very subtly, if there were any positive signals on her part, a part of me would stop seeing her as an individual, and she became someone I hoped to win over, and end up in bed with. My way of communicating changed; and looking for opportunities to gently encourage her to consider having sex with me became a hidden backdrop to all of our conversation – whatever the topic!
I automatically acted like this with any attractive woman I met, whether I had a girlfriend at the time or not – although if I was seeing someone, I didn’t try to actually follow through with my hidden intentions. It was enough for me to sometimes have the satisfaction of believing that ”I could have slept with her if I’d wanted to”. Which was a deeply dishonest way of interacting with a woman, because my suggestions that things could go further were not genuine. However, if I was single at the time, and my approach did have the hoped for result (I’m no PUA!), these encounters were usually short-lived and not very satisfying – other than briefly sexually – for either of us.
What I now realize lay behind this mildly compulsive behavior was my threadbare sense of self-worth. I only really believed I had value in the presence of a woman who seemed to accept me and wanted to be with me. Any intimacy she was willing to share with me mainly provided a validation of a mythical sense of manhood (as some kind of irresistible Don Juan) that I wanted to feel, but which escaped me most of the time. I was ‘using’ my interaction with a woman to try to live up a fake ideal, rather than offering an authentic connection from a place of strength and sufficiency,
I was like a little boy looking for reassurance. My guess is that this was apparent to the many women who diplomatically distanced themselves from me. The others who were more amenable probably had similar needs for affirmation themselves, which led to us having entanglements which always turned out to be dissatisfying because neither of us actually had much to give.
The upshot of all this is my acceptance that while I may not have overtly behaved in the abusive and damaging ways that so many men now stand accused of, some of my underlying needs and attitudes have not been so different to theirs. And as I join others in condemning what these men did, if I really want there to be a change in gender dynamics it has to start with me — respecting myself enough to be honest from the start in all my interactions and relationships with women.
In that way, with small steps, I can begin to contribute in a realistic way to change, in my life and in the society at large. This is my commitment now as a ‘good man’.
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