So long as men aren’t stepping up, women’s empathy needs limits

While everyone deserves love and compassion, women’s empathy towards troubled men happens too often at our expense.

Women, above all else, are meant to give. Give pleasure, care, food, children, endless nurturing, and domestic labour. We are to be selfless empaths, who understand and tolerate the pain and suffering of those around us. While of course none of these things are bad, in and of themselves — certainly empathy is something the world could use more of — these things hurt women.

It seems incredibly unfair to be punished for being tolerant or understanding — for putting up with bad behaviour because we know it comes from a place of suffering, but we are. We end up caught in a trap where we must become hardened in order to avoid being hurt once again by a pained man — punished for doing so by being accused of being too “tough” and cold-hearted — or absorb the emotional (or physical) blows dealt to us by sticking around and trying to support a “damaged” man. That women believe in the good in men — that they can change, that they can work through their trauma and emotional challenges, that they will stop hurting us — is of course an admirable quality, albeit one that does not serve us.

I have perpetually been unable to find a healthy balance between empathy and anger towards men. Sticking around to process men’s pain — pain that manifests itself in addiction, rage, violence, cheating, lying, “commitment issues,” or simple emotional distance — inevitably has led to my own suffering, trust issues, and, yes, sometimes rage.

Ironically, it is feminists who are consistently accused of hating men. I say this is ironic because feminists are in fact the ones who believe men are not inherently bad — that they can be good, that they can change, that they can choose respect and non-violence. Anger and hate are sometimes treated as one in the same, but they aren’t. Our anger often comes from disappointment, frustration, hurt, or betrayal — a desire for a different outcome or reality. But hatred is dehumanizing — it renders people one-dimensional.

In a 1983 speech, Andrea Dworkin — whose legacy will likely always be that of a raving man-hater, on account of her passion and penchant for telling the brutal truth — said:

“I came here today because I don’t believe that rape is inevitable or natural. If I did, I would have no reason to be here. If I did, my political practice would be different than it is. Have you ever wondered why we are not just in armed combat against you? It’s not because there’s a shortage of kitchen knives in this country. It is because we believe in your humanity, against all the evidence.”

Indeed, it’s strange to consider those who imagine a better world to be the extremists and lunatics, rather than those who believe men will rape and kill and brutalize and abuse for eternity.

Of course, the million dollar question is: why haven’t men changed yet? Why are men still abusing and killing and raping? Why do they actively refuse to change — refuse to question their approach to sex, to women, to relationships, to communication? While women are far from perfect, it must be acknowledged that we are constantly trying to change ourselves. We are going to therapy, reading self-help books, signing up for various new age seminars that promise to help us understand and address our spiritual and psychological flaws, and processing anything and everything with our female friends. We are meditating, doing yoga, going on every diet possible, reconstructing our faces, finding new exercise regimes, practicing non-violent communication and a myriad of other activities in our lifelong quest to fix ourselves.

We can see evidence of this in the way we date and break up: when our heterosexual relationships end, women ask themselves what they did wrong, and try to address their failures so they can be more successful the next go around. If a man doesn’t want a second date, we spend hours wondering where we went wrong: are we not pretty enough or thin enough? Are we too old? We question every comment, beating ourselves up for fucking up our chances at love, once again. Men, when rejected, blame women.

Incels — a group of men who identify as “involuntarily celibate” and have congregated online to commiserate about the lack of sex they are getting from desirable women by discussing how much they hate said women — are a glaring example of this pattern. They want “Stacys” (feminine, attractive women), but “Stacys” apparently only date “Chads” (attractive, masculine men who have sexual access to ample women), and despite hating “Beckys” (average, basic, decidedly unremarkable women), are still bitter even these subpar women won’t sleep with them. (To be fair, they hate all women, not just “Beckys” — they hate “Stacys,” too, on account of their supposed promiscuity and shallowness, as well as unattractive women.)

The incel rose to recent fame after it was revealed that Alek Minassian, who killed 10 people by driving a van down a busy street in Toronto last month, dreamed of an “Incel Rebellion” and idolized “Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger.” Rodger killed six people in a stabbing and shooting spree in Isla Vista, California, in May 2014, before killing himself. Rodger’s violence was, as he explained in a manifesto of sorts, driven by his anger at not having the sexual access to women he felt he deserved. “I am the true victim in all of this,” he explained. “I am the good guy.”

It is incredible that men can all at once despise women but still consider themselves “good men” who these awful women should sleep with. It also makes for a terrible conundrum. What is the solution?

Psychologist and professor, Jordan Peterson, who achieved a startling level of fame after refusing to refer to students as “zhe,” suggests “enforced monogamy.” In a New York Times profile, he tells journalist Nellie Bowles that Minassian “was angry at God because women were rejecting him,” adding, “The cure for that is enforced monogamy. That’s actually why monogamy emerges.” Bowles says Peterson tells her that, without enforced monogamy, “women will all only go for the most high-status men.” In a blog post, Peterson clarifies that what he actually means is not state-enforced monogamy, but “socially-promoted, culturally-inculcated monogamy.” He says the need for this is simple: “monogamous pair bonding makes men less violent.”

There are a couple of problems with this suggestion. One, the claim that monogamy discourages male violence is provably false. Every six days, a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner; in the US, three women are killed every day by current or former romantic partners; and one in three women will experience domestic violence, worldwide. Indeed, domestic violence is a leading cause of death for women between the ages of 16 and 44. Two, traditionally, what “monogamy” means is marriage. And marriage is something that benefits men much more than women.

Single women fare better than single men, in large part because of the emotional and domestic labour women provide in heterosexual relationships. Statistics show that men are not only emotionally and socially better off in marriages, but physically as well. This all makes a lot of sense, if you think about it, and explains why marriage originated as and remains a patriarchal institution.

Today, most women work outside of the home, but continue to do the bulk of the child rearing and domestic work, meaning men, in marriages, are able to continue to prioritize their own careers while women work double duty. Women are still taught, through socialization, to suffer for “the family,” to compromise, to try to work things out. We still feel we need to stick it out with emotionally deficient men who don’t contribute near the same levels of work in the home, never mind the emotional labour that goes into making a relationship work. It’s incredibly rare to hear a man suggesting couples therapy, for example, and far more common for a woman to have to cajole her partner into participating (and then, of course, do all the work of finding a therapist, making the appointments, etc.) We want to fix things, and men, too often, don’t want to do the work.

In other words, the solution offered to men’s unhappiness and suffering, according to incels and men like Peterson, is women’s unhappiness and suffering. Women’s liberation is a problem, not for women, but for men, because our liberation means we are no longer obligated to suffer for years in oppressive, unhappy, inegalitarian, or violent relationships. (We still stay, often, for a variety of reasons, but divorce — or simply not marrying at all — is much more accessible to many more women than in the past.)

Much ado was made about writer Junot Diaz’ piece in The New Yorker, detailing the ways his childhood trauma led him to treat women badly throughout his adult life. Despite the fact that he was atoning for his sins, as it were, many women online were unable to forgive.

While some might ask, frustrated, “What does it take? If men can’t be screwed up and make mistakes and feel bad and try to work to do better, what can they do to redeem themselves?”, I get where these women were coming from. We’ve all been through too much with too many men and been too sympathetic. We’ve stuck around with men who called us horrible names, who threatened us, who cheated and lied and raged and hit us. We’ve stuck around with men who refused to talk honestly and openly with us, who shouted us down or shut us out — who refused to be our friends, never mind our partners. We’ve been understanding and sympathetic to our own detriment, while too many men did nothing to change, despite our commitment, empathy, and belief that they could change — that they could be better.

An article published in Men’s Health last week, originally titled, For Many Men, Seeing a Sex Worker Isn’t About Sex — It’s About Therapy, talks to various “sex workers” about their own benevolence. A former stripper named Moriah Ella Mason tells Jessie Sage:

“The point of the bachelor party lap dance isn’t really about a sexualized encounter for the bachelor. It’s really about the bachelor’s friends showing their love for him and reassuring themselves that their friendship will still be important, even after he gets married.”

In other words, the strip club isn’t about objectifying women or cheating on your partner, it’s about male happiness and emotional comfort.

Sage writes:

“Mason says that for many men, going to a strip club wasn’t so much about seeing naked women, but about men performing a specific type of hyper-masculinity for each other and building a community with their friends.”

I mean, as if we didn’t already know what a central role misogyny plays in male bonding….

Stacey Swimme, a former escort who produces custom pornography for men online tells Sage that “many of her clients have viewed their time together as an opportunity to ‘be vulnerable and confess to me all of their fears and insecurities.'” Swimme says, “They started saying things to me like: ‘You are the only person in my life that I can say everything to.'”

Sage, who is a sex phone operator, says that the men who call her “after their wives and kids fall asleep” often want more than just phone sex. She says these men and lonely and wanting “connection.” It’s telling, though, that these men aren’t connecting with their partners — supposedly the people they are most committed to, and who are meant to be their primary and most intimate relationship. I very much doubt that a man who believes he can have a deep connection with a stranger he is paying to pretend to be sexually interested him is a very good partner, and I also very much doubt these men’s supposed loneliness is the fault of an absent wife.

Reframing men who use women to support their male egos and who disrespect and lie to their partners because they are emotionally damaged or deficient as victims only exacerbates the problem. Women are sympathizing themselves into a never-ending cycle wherein men are excused for being emotionally cruel or irresponsible (or worse) and women are expected to be their caretakers, for better or for worse. There is no incentive within this for men to change — to change the way they deal with their suffering, trauma, or “loneliness” — so long as women keep picking up the pieces.

While of course men deserve love and compassion, like anyone, it’s happening, too often, at our expense. And we are expected to grin and bear it — to provide an endless supply of empathy for these troubled men. I often wonder what would happen if women did actually become a little more “tough” and a little more “cold-hearted” towards these men, and focused that energy instead on being kinder and more generous with ourselves.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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