When I was in my 20’s — I’m 53 now—I was a textbook Nice Guy. I was raised to be as unthreatening as possible, to be on high alert to notice men being dicks toward women, and to stay as far away as possible from the toxic masculine paradigm.
Nope, no misogyny or chauvinism here! Me? C’mon! I love, adore and respect women! (In fact I kept them waaaaay up there on a pedestal.)
At the time, I lived and worked with people who loved to talk about things like this. For some these debates were philosophical. But some of us were much more personally invested, seeing these discussions about gender and sexuality as a foundation for the work we were meant to do with our lives.
Once or twice a trusted friend told me I had a chauvinistic streak. Skeptical but intrigued, I decided to ask the women in my life to point out whenever I exhibited chauvinism or misogyny. If they were experiencing it, I should at least understand it.
They pointed it out a lot.
At first, I didn’t believe what I was hearing. I couldn’t see anything in what I was doing that was the least bit chauvinistic.
Eventually though, I began to experience my own behavior through the lens of someone on the receiving end of it.
And I found it appalling, embarrassing, and deeply repugnant.
It was excruciating. I was shocked at myself.
Everything out of my mouth seemed profoundly insulting or condescending. Knowing it didn’t help. It wasn’t a matter of simply deciding to change, deciding to stay vigilant. This was fucking deeply ingrained.
Here are a few things I noticed:
I didn’t really see women as people. Not… really. I mean if you asked me, or I thought about it, of course I did. “Women are the most amazing creatures on earth,” I’d insist. But my behavior was worlds away from my words. If you could see the way I treated women — particularly women I was attracted to — compared to the way I treated men, you’d see the problem in an instant.
I didn’t treat women like people. People like me.
Men were friends, colleagues. Women were puzzles to solve. They were like complicated video games: mostly what they got from me was my best attempts to perform the right moves, at the right time, in the right sequence, to get the reward.
And I literally thought they wouldn’t know.
There were the ones who I figured would never, ever love me or fuck me; the ones who might love me or fuck me if I cracked the code; and those I wasn’t interested in for love or fucking. Only the middle tier got much of my attention. (If you can call it “attention.”) I saw other men who were successful with women and wondered what tricks they had that I needed to learn.
I treated women as a possessor of a thing between their legs that could give me pleasure. I certainly didn’t treat them as a possessor of a thing between their legs that could give them pleasure.
And I mansplained. I can’t speak for other mansplainers but I did it out of an urgent desire to impress. I held forth on a variety of topics that were (to me) fascinating. This failed for two reasons. First of all, trying to impress women by mansplaining the world to them just exposed the extent to which I didn’t take them seriously as intelligent human beings. Second — and even more importantly — in a world where women generally aren’t listened to, it would have been so much more impressive to listen rather than to know.
And I actively, almost desperately, sought out instances of women being mistreated, as opportunities to demonstrate my value. This created something of a conflict of interest. It’s a bit like someone having all of their self-worth tied to fixing flat tires, and driving around town publicly championing the eradication of flat tires everywhere, while, secretly, urgently needing there to be a flat tire for them to heroically fix. My own need to prove myself left no room for the idea that a woman can handle herself just fine. I had personal attachment to their need to be saved. Their strength was my loss. I was not conscious of this, or its effect on my view of them.
. . .
As I awoke to what all of this felt like to women, it was a shattering blow to my self-delusion that I held them in high regard. I most certainly did not. I was, in fact, the condescending prick I thought I was protecting women from.
And to think, all the times women had shared stories with me of silently ignoring some guy treating them like they’re dumb or weak, I had felt pride that I wasn’t that guy. How wrong I was.
During this time, each time a woman accused me of being a misogynist, I didn’t argue. I couldn’t. I had to stop and consider that it might be true, and glean what I could from it.
This process, of going from seeing it to changing it, went on for years. I learned a lot, grew a lot, and in time, changed a lot.
Were there women who took advantage of it — who knew that all they had to do to completely shut me down, to come out on top in any disagreement, was accuse me of misogyny? Yes. And it didn’t matter. I still had to stop and consider that they were pointing to something I was blind to, every time. I wasn’t in a position to trust my discernment. It was more important, more valuable, to listen and learn.
Then one day something shifted. While talking with a female friend, she said something about men that I found offensive. I politely called her out; she said, “Ken, you’re being a chauvinist right now.”
I stopped. I thought hard, felt into it as deeply as I could, and considered what she’d said.
And then I said: “Actually, I’m not. I called you out for saying something offensive and insulting about men. I know you don’t like it and maybe it’s embarrassing, but calling it chauvinistic is just you trying to throw me off-guard. Because it isn’t.”
This was a turning point in how I interacted with women. This was the day I graduated from being a people-pleasing Nice Guy. I respected my friend and I treated her like the intelligent, capable, responsible adult she was. Someone human, someone gloriously imperfect. Someone like me. Someone strong enough to handle a man saying something unflattering.
Because she knew what I’d said was true, she felt too deeply seen to take offense. Rather, her trust in me skyrocketed. She recognized me as a fellow truth-teller, trustworthy to reflect something valuable back to her, as I had relied on women to reflect my chauvinism back to me.
In demonstrating my ability to distinguish between helpful feedback and self-serving manipulation, I became infinitely more valuable to her. Nice Guy me would never have made sense of this. My idolatry of women had been inherently dehumanizing.
That one simple exchange was the culmination of years of feedback, internal examination, adjustment, and more feedback.
I didn’t and haven’t stopped listening to women’s feedback, though I no longer canonized it. I had developed a new internal compass, a discernment that many honest women had helped me forge and hone over years. We had rewritten my conception of what it meant to respect them. I trusted myself; I outgrew the perpetual outsourcing of my opinion in such matters to those around me.
This was the beginning of a very different way of relating with women. And my relationships with them became far better than I ever imagined. They no longer experienced me as a clueless guy sorely in need of training; we were equal partners, learning and growing from each other, and my intentions were transparent and multifaceted.
This post was previously published on Sex + Connection and is republished here with permission from the author.
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project and want to support our mission, please join us as a Premium Member today.
All Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS. Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.
Photo credit: iStock