Feminist Therapy: Sexist in-laws, ‘feminist’ jerks, and male guilt

I am a therapist, but I am not your therapist. Therapy, in my opinion, is not just about the information I give, but also about the highly individualized relationship I build with each client, getting to know their unique needs, strengths, and challenges. This column is not meant to substitute individual therapy. When in doubt, speak to a therapist about these issues — preferably someone who knows you, who you feel safe with, and who is equipped to support you exactly as you are.

** All of the questions I received were complex, and profoundly honest. Thank you for your submissions. The questions answered in this month’s column were edited for length and privacy, while attempting to preserve the original question.

Dear Feminist Therapist,

I suspect that a man I know has been spying on me and harassing me anonymously. He posts misogynist things on social media and clearly has an issue with radical feminism, yet he claims to be an ally to feminists and the feminist movement I don’t know how to address this, because if I confront him, I’m worried he and those who know us will perceive my reaction, as a woman, to be stereotypically paranoid and defensive.

What can I do?

– Y

Dear Y,

This all sounds so scary and infuriating — I’m frustrated just reading this. I think most, if not all of us, can empathize with the experience of a person infiltrating our thoughts and getting under our skin, all the while seeming to enjoy tormenting us in this way.

I don’t know this person, or what has happened in his life, but as with most people who do hurtful things (especially if they do it intentionally or enjoy it), I’m inclined to believe that they are replicating some patterns they’ve learned in their lives. As I mentioned in one of my previous columns, “hurt people hurt people.” I think it takes a secure, honest, and enlightened man to acknowledge the privilege he was born with and groomed into, as well as to understand the toll patriarchy takes on women. At the very least, this man may be afraid to step out of a way of thinking that keeps him comfortable and makes life easy. I think it takes a secure person to honour the worth and value of other human beings, and acknowledge their privilege and role in systems of oppression.

I wonder what it would take to feel something about this man, like curiosity or even sadness, as a way to step out of fear or feeling tormented? Whether he knows it or not — and whether you know it or not — living in fear of this man gives him power in your life. I don’t mean to say he isn’t doing awful things to you and that you shouldn’t be smart about that (more on that below), but I do think that letting his actions consume you might cause you to suffer more than you need to.

This is a hard thing to say, but this might be the kind of person that is just not going to change — not unless he decides he wants to (and I don’t know what it would take to get him there). So, the only option in this case is for you to change. This means noticing when your thoughts become more than appropriate strategic thoughts about how to keep yourself safe or more than simply processing in order to release your feelings about the situation, and instead when your thoughts are self-destructive, ruminating, and pull you into a spinning anxiety or paranoia that does nothing productive in this situation.

I don’t know if this is happening in your community, online, or at work. If it is at work, I would suggest talking to your HR manager if you have one and if you can trust them. If you don’t have an HR manager, if you don’t have one who is safe to talk to, or if this isn’t happening at work, I would encourage you to think about the ways that you can make things different.

I wish that this weren’t happening to you, but it may help you feel better if you move into a position of proactivity where you are making some choices about what to do. Whether the choice is to change your perspective on things, to seek support, to move some of your personal possessions out of your work environment or not check personal emails or make personal calls while at work in order to minimize his knowledge of what you do, I think putting time and action into doing something that supports your agency and strength is a good idea. If you’re finding yourself preoccupied with this, significantly distressed, or overwhelmed, it’s not a bad idea to talk to someone (maybe through a work Employee Assistance Program or just by seeing a therapist) to help you feel like you can move back into control in this situation. Thanks for writing in.

~~~

Dear Feminist Therapist,

My father-in-law seems to have contempt for women. Although he is kind to me and people in general, he speaks poorly to my mother-in-law, often dismissing her emotions and feelings, rolling his eyes when she speaks, and saying to all of us, “Can you believe her?” when she says something he doesn’t agree with. When in the right company, he can get going on sexist jokes. One time over dinner he said that he thinks women are becoming so powerful (because of feminism) that men are now being oppressed. It takes everything in me not to become enraged and frustrated at this complete misunderstanding of human history, his privilege, and his dismissal of experiences he doesn’t even understand. But, I married his kid. Help.

– L

Dear L,

I can only imagine how difficult this must be. You probably have to leave the dinner table every once in awhile just to cool down. It is hard disagree with someone and feel like they are doing hurtful things, but not to have the kind of relationship where you can talk to them like a friend or equal. And, even if we did have that relationship, there is a fear that speaking up would make all future family events awkward and potentially even more hostile. I have so many clients who have difficulties with their partners’ parent(s), I’m starting to think that the people who get along with in-laws are the odd ones out.

I’m not going to even get into how absurd his argument about feminism oppressing men is for fear that I, too, will have steam coming out of my ears. Instead, I’ll suggest a few helpful strategies to help you manage how incredulous/hurt/frustrated/annoyed/confused/afraid you must feel when dealing with your father-in-law:

– Try changing the subject (pre-brainstormed one-liner jokes or questions about upcoming holiday plans could be a useful strategy)

– With playfulness (that is key), make a statement that acknowledges the tension and redirects it elsewhere (“OK OK, we know how you feel — anyone else have any controversial or offensive statements they’d like to make while we’re here?”)

– When he is putting down your mother-in-law, do your very best not to engage with him. If it feels OK to, you could make a supportive statement to your mother-in-law, like, “It feels like we’re not really hearing you — what is it you’d like us to understand?”

– Plan self-care before and after family gatherings. If appropriate, share your feelings about the experience with a friend to let off steam. Try VERY hard not to shame your in-laws in front of your spouse, as he or she may feel caught in between protecting you and his or her parents. Even if your spouse knows your father-in-law is in the wrong, we’re neurologically wired to feel protective and aligned with our family members.

– If you do want to talk to your spouse about this, tell them how hard these interactions and experiences feel for you. Describe your experience (“I feel myself boiling — like my head is going to pop off — when I hear him talk about women like that. It makes me feel like maybe he thinks about me that way. I feel like I lose respect for him, but I don’t want to, because I love you and you love him. This is hard for me.”)

– If your relationship with your father-in-law is important and you want to maintain some kind of closeness with him, and if you feel brave, talk to him. (Don’t do this if you aren’t interested and feel it’s enough for you to simply tolerate each other…) Some people like to have these kinds of conversations formally or informally, via a letter or email, or over the phone to make it feel a little less formal or confrontational than a “sit down talk.” (Whatever you do, make sure to keep it about you — people are often less defensive if we talk about ourselves rather than label all the things they are doing wrong, even if they are doing things that are wrong.) Others might like to make a statement when the event happens. You could say, for example, “Ouch, it really hurts me to hear you say that… As a woman, I’d appreciate it if we could talk about myself and other women respectfully at the table.” I wouldn’t be surprised if you got an “Oh, I’m just joking” response, which is never fun. If that happens, you have some options. Try saying something less vulnerable: “I know you like your jokes, but keep in mind that I don’t find it very funny when jokes are made at my expense.” Or say something more authentic and vulnerable: “It’s hard for me to feel safe with you and to have a relationship that’s real when you make jokes or say disrespectful things about women, because I am a woman, so in a way it’s like you’re saying those things about me. I want to feel like I’m a part of this family, can we work on this?”

– Have a conversation (see above) with your partner and ask him or her to stand up for you and for women. Perhaps the a conversation with your father-in-law could be about how his comments are felt by your spouse (not by you), so that your father-in-law hears the pain from his own child.

There are lots of variables here, and I want to acknowledge how hard this is. Families can be messy, even when we love people and want to get along. No matter what you do, it’s important to be respectful and remember to uphold the dignity of all people involved (including yourself, as well as everyone else), while acting with integrity. I do not think this means you should be silent, but it might mean waiting until you calm down to have a more productive and thoughtful conversation instead of speaking out of anger, as you risk being written off as the “angry and irrational” feminist.

I bet lots of readers would love to hear what happens, so feel free to write in and let us know!

Good luck!

~~~

Dear Feminist Therapist,

My partner is a man who identifies as a radical feminist, but he has run into a lot of trouble with some of the radical feminist community who say that because he is a man, he is an abuser and an oppressor. He does not watch porn, although did when he was younger, and is now so distressed and disturbed by porn that he feels physically sick thinking about it. He feels shame for being a man, and has issues with having sex and being intimate with me because of his inability to conceive of sex being truly equal. He is afraid that he is pornifying me. He feels filthy for finding me attractive and for thinking of me in a sexual way. He now thinks he is bad and believes he is doing all the things radical feminists say that men do. I don’t feel objectified, sexualized, oppressed, dismissed, devalued, belittled, silenced, or anything like that. He is an amazing human being. But I feel like I’m losing him.

– A

Dear A,

Thank you for writing in. I bet it took a lot of courage to do so. It seems like in his effort to be a good, informed ally, and not a hyper-masculine misogynistic man, your partner’s fear of being part of the problem has become a problem in and of itself.

I don’t know you, and I certainly don’t know him, but it seems like there might be something more going on here — maybe some anxiety or even some trauma that could use some skillful support. Getting support may help him start to entangle what is his to take responsibility for (being born a man in a patriarchy, and socialized into masculinity) and what is not his to own as it defines his identity and self-worth (the shamefulness of how men have acted out misogyny and patriarchy on women and participated in and propelled the oppression of women). When working with men to support their feminist education, I often distinguish between them being evil, as individuals, and the way that being born into a particular position in society changes the way men experience the world and how they can be aware of privilege and learn from those that have been hurt by those who share that privilege.

Some people may disagree with me, which is understandable, especially for those of us who have been hurt a great deal by men, but I do not believe that men are bad just because they are born male. Masculinity under patriarchy is toxic, not being a male person. We need to support men to unlearn what they’ve learned, in terms of what it means to be men in this world. Patriarchy and the stories it tells about what it means to be masculine hurts males too. I believe we should encourage and be supportive of men who become aware of their privilege and want to work towards ending women’s oppression.

Your partner brings up an important issue: How to be sexy to someone without being an object to them. Our sexuality can be a wonderful part of our lives, and it can feel amazing to know we are attractive and desired by a person who we also are attracted to and desire. When this becomes about using a “thing” (who is really a person) for sexual stimulation, and when we are not engaged in a mutually consenting and rich erotic experience of sensuality, desire, and connection, it can diminish a person’s inherent value as a human (not to mention decrease their experience of sexual satisfaction and relationship intimacy). But it’s not wrong to find someone you love sexy.

When it comes to sexual intimacy in relationships, porn and the prolific sexualized objectification of women acts like a filter through which all experiences (thoughts, desires, sensations, fantasies, words, emotions) must pass. This filter prevents people from seeing each other as they are and as fully human. Although in this case, porn is not the problem, I wonder if his anxiety and possible trauma have become a replacement filter — not objectifying, but still disconnecting, and making it harder for the two for you to be vulnerable, close, and seen.

I appreciate his desire to not want to be part of the problem. No surprises here, but I think it would be useful for him to see someone in therapy, and perhaps for you to see someone too, if this situation is starting to create insecurities, issues, and anxieties for you. Then, when it’s appropriate, you could perhaps see someone who is skilled in doing couples work and uses radical feminist approaches to sex therapy.

It may be helpful for the two of you to read Robert Jensen’s work together (particularly his recent book, The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men) and talk about it, or the work of other men who are doing feminist work to dismantle patriarchy. I might also suggest engaging in non-penetrative sexual touching, maybe even without a goal of orgasm, just to enjoy touch while having an intimate connection where the “filter” I mentioned earlier seems to not get in the way. (If you want to learn more, you can look up “sensate focus” and find instructions on how to do this powerful and evidence-based skill I use all the time in sex therapy.) With this kind of sensual and erotic practice, there are far fewer patriarchal scripts to navigate around. I can’t imagine there are pornified, violent videos floating around the internet, depicting people spending quality time together, engaging in non-penetrative erotic touch while they take turns patiently and gently exploring what touch feels good to the other person…

You can send your questions for Hillary, our Feminist Therapist, to [email protected] or [email protected] with the subject: “Feminist Therapy,” or tweet her @hillarylmcbride using the hashtag, #feministtherapy. (We will anonymize your questions, unless you specifically ask us to include your name.)

Hillary McBride
Hillary McBride

Hillary McBride is a registered clinical counsellor working in the Vancouver area. She specializes in women's experiences and feminist therapy. Hillary is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia, where she researches women's experiences using feminist methodologies. She is the author of "Mothers, Daughters, and Body Image: Learning to Love Ourselves as We Are" and recently won the International Young Investigator Award in Human Sexuality from Taylor & Francis for her research and clinical work on sexuality in mothers.

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