Olivia Davis discusses her year long brush with modern chauvinism in the form of a boy she liked.
Back in the misty mists of time, I dated this long-haired viking of a computer science major, Allen. Allen and I had a lot in common. We were students at the same university. We both prized rationality, we both enjoyed media analysis and often spent hours talking about song lyrics. We played D&D and Magic: The Gathering and had sleep schedules that were broken all to hell. Despite our similarities and the fact that we dated for about a year and a half, there were always tensions between the two of us. I enjoy horror movies, while Allen is so pathologically averse to violence that some music videos give him nightmares. This caused other issues since I’m a masochist and Allen is morally opposed to BDSM. And, importantly, while I was and always have been a feminist, Allen explicitly identified as a male chauvinist. This chauvinism went on to warp the entirety of our relationship.
On more than one occasion, he explained it: he came from the “older school” of dating, the one our parents had likely come from. He’s a man, so he wants to be the provider. When he goes on a date with a girl, he wants to pick up the bill. In return, he’ll want sex from a casual date. Since he’s fulfilled his side of the bargain, it’s reasonable for him to have at least some expectation that she’ll put out. From a girlfriend, he wants to be able to dictate what’s going to happen, and have her generally go along with it. She gets veto power, but the fact that he’s going to pick up the bill means that he gets to choose the restaurant. He wants to be supported, but not interfered with.
And, indeed, while we were together, we almost never split the bill when we went out. He tended to buy the groceries, he paid for utilities in our apartment and for internet, and he arranged the furniture to his liking. One month, he paid the rent for me when I couldn’t. He’s never asked for that money back. He gave small gifts freely, but downplayed his birthday and my part in Valentine’s Day and Christmas. He wouldn’t tell me his date of birth for months for fear that I’d do something with the information.
Sex was primarily about my pleasure, but was constrained to what he was comfortable with. When we first started sleeping together, I was pre-orgasmic. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that if I couldn’t learn to come within the next couple of weeks, it would be a problem for him and for our relationship. He didn’t respond well to having things requested, he didn’t like to know that I preferred oral to PIV. He dipped his toe into BDSM for me in the form of biting and occasional light choking, even though it’s the rougher stuff that I like the most. He wouldn’t even consider using toys. He wanted to please me on his schedule and in the ways he liked. By contrast, he wasn’t shy about making demands of me, physically shifting me into positions, or asking for anal, a thing enjoyed by one of us and suffered through by the other in an attempt to please.
I don’t know if Allen ever respected me. He often behaved in ways that made me feel as though he didn’t. He’s two years older than I am. He had lived in Europe for years and had slept with three times as many people as I had. He considered himself an adult, old before his time. By comparison, I was a child. He was fond of calling me an “impudent youth.” He policed my behavior and style of dress.
He told me I shouldn’t wear a blazer in casual situations because the formality would make others uncomfortable. My tendency to play Bejweled in class appalled him, even though he was similarly inclined to require something to occupy his hands during lectures. Fatherlike, he explained that punishments had never made sense to him, but he believed in consequences. These consequences, including his displeasure, automatically followed certain actions. I was free, always, to do whatever I wanted, but should bear the consequences in mind. I don’t think he ever told me not to do something. He’d just detail what would happen if I did.
When Allen and I broke up, an opinion spontaneously emerged from the woodwork: no one close to me had ever liked him. Even people he hadn’t met found his treatment of me uncomfortable, based on my reports. My mom told me that she felt he and I bickered constantly. He nitpicked at me, she said, he was unable to let my slighted mistake lie. He always put me down. She never saw me win a tiff with him and, indeed, I’m not sure if I ever did. The best I could do was pin him against information neither of us knew. These were the days just before everyone had smart phones, so arguments would be indefinitely paused until we could look something up, which we almost never got around to doing. That was my definition of winning. He rarely conceded a point, I was rarely right, but I could make him admit that the discussion hinged on facts we didn’t have immediate access to.
I’m also not sure Allen loved me like I loved him. His love was conditional. Once, he explained to me something that sounded an awful lot like a mathematical formula governing his affection. On one axis was “common interests,” and on the other was “similar sentiments.” Some of the problems that had driven him and his most recent ex apart had been the fact that their sentiments were very much in common, but they had few similar interests. I was roughly the opposite, so my position in his affection always seemed shockingly tenuous. It didn’t help that he was vocally attracted to almost every other girl we knew or encountered, that he had a storied history of cheating on his partners, or that he was surprised to be attracted to someone with my body type.
As such, to some extent, I designed my life around pleasing him. I tried to change for him. I downplayed the importance of my kinks, I stopped watching movies that would make him uncomfortable and tried to develop his views on them. I listened to his music, even though he never showed the slightest interest in mine. I avoided going out with friends if what we’d be doing wasn’t something he was interested in. I shifted my style of dress for him and stopped wearing makeup or jewelry. He hated jewelry, even though it was fairly important to me. In exchange for my not wearing a necklace, he wore his hair down, but he simply wouldn’t hold my hands if I was wearing rings. I started playing World of Warcraft for him.
Why did I stay with a male chauvinist for a year and a half? Probably for the same reasons anyone stays in a sub par relationship longer than they ought to: I loved my boyfriend. There were a lot of times when we were really happy together. I thought that at least some of the things about him that I didn’t like would change, or I would change such that they didn’t bother me so much anymore. I wasn’t sure where I’d go next if he and I broke up and I’m a person who craves being in a relationship. Another reason why I stayed is that there are things about his style of relationship that appealed to me in theory, though without negotiation, conversation, or noticeable reward they mostly made life harder for me in practice. I’m a submissive person. Allen is a dominant person. He offered me a power dynamic, he offered me challenges, I sometimes felt like he offered me the ability to become perfect in someone else’s eyes, though I now realize that I ever could have achieved that goal with him.
I don’t know how I handled our political differences. I think I mostly just ignored them. Feminism and genderthoughts are a much bigger part of my life now than they were then, and so it wasn’t so hard to figure that we were just people with different opinions. And, anyway, I trusted and respected Allen. I figured that he held the opinions he held for good reasons and that so did I. The next time a man tries to persuade me out of taking a gender studies class, maybe it’ll strike me as a red flag. The first time, though, it was just evidence of the fact that we disagreed.
Some of the way that Allen treated me was chauvinistic. A lot of the way Allen treated me was a pretty bad way to treat a partner. These two things don’t always have to be the same, but where Allen is concerned, I can’t pick them apart. When I read accounts of pick-up artists shaming girls into their beds, I’m reminded of what happened to me with Allen.
I don’t know why Allen is a male chauvinist. I don’t know how he became one. I don’t know how the woman he left me for handles this fact about him—she identifies as a feminist, too. But I do know that male chauvinism was an important part of my life for quite a while, that it was inescapable in our relationship, and that it hurt me. It left me feeling ashamed of who I was and what I liked.
It made me feel stupid and bad, like I wasn’t good enough, and like I needed to improve. I’ve mostly recovered now, but I still dwell on the wounds from time to time. I realize now why the PUAs I’ve read about use the horrible tactics that they do. By the end of our relationship, I thought Allen was smarter than I was. I thought he knew better. If he told me that he wanted me to be a certain way, I’d be that way. He’d convinced me that it was right. Chauvinism works.
But, then again, it doesn’t. Allan never told me all of the reasons why he was breaking up with me and I never asked. The ending of our relationship was complex and protracted, someday it might get a post of its very own. But he did mention to me that he couldn’t depend on me. The woman he left me for is strong-willed, opinionated, and has a spine of steel. In the first place, I’m pretty submissive and pliable, but importantly, whatever spine I had, he beat out of me. I think that it was, in part, his influence that made me into a person he couldn’t be with. He didn’t break up with me. He broke up with the person he created. In the end, his chauvinism was bad for both of us. In the end, it’s what destroyed our relationship.