Sunday, April 24, 2011

relying on the kindness of "men".

have you ever felt awkward relying on other people's kindness, particularly men? throughout my life thus far, i have found myself confused as to what a gesture means or may not even mean. some say it's a matter of maturity, but really? like my mum always told me that it is never good to accept gifts as it means indebtedness until it is repaid to the person. this was pretty much normalised, as an understanding amongst our community in singapore. but this kinda screwed up my system in new zealand, where my encounters are with people who aren't as calculative as how I've been brought up to be. Then on the notion of men. When men offer to pay for meals, my feminist convictions teach me to go dutch - pay half - but really it's based on that assumption that we're playing ownership games and refusing the other the satisfaction of having the woman indebted to the man for whatever it could be - from another date or casual sex. This becomes more problematic, when I met a few "good" men who seem like they are pro-feminist to some extent AND behave chivalrously. you would think, a fine-mannered man like that, wouldn't be problem? i'm not so sure anymore. you know, i've been thinking: just like how in social-conscious movements where "white" people behave over-compensatingly or apologetically for the horrible deeds past and present, of "their" people to "our" people? Maybe the same is happening amongst men. While the mainstream consists of all these backlashes, bringing a revival of "Man-hood" that dominant, sexist patriacrhal, misogynist masculinities streaming through the media, advertising and social spaces, the "few good men", perhaps as a way to adjust or re-define their space and masculinity, find themselves off-centre towards that pro-feminist gentleman leanings. And if especially, these pro-feminist gentlemen are heterosexual, you wonder, what is their agenda? surely not confined to the advancement of gender equalities.

My issue is with this man who seem pro-feminist, gentlemanly, and social-apparently heterosexual. He has been very nice to me in many ways, from small gestures like buying me dinner or dropping me off after work, and seem to casually challenge our physical boundaries. This is not the first time I have had an experience like this; it has happened with at least 3 other men before, that is, when I felt uncomfortable with their "kindness". recently i felt slightly threatened but majorly awkward being in a position where he was basically always in my face, or hovering over me a lot. I felt quite panicked and extremely uncomfortable and this was in an environment where there was another person in the room who did not take notice perhaps. But I quickly escaped from that space, rather apologetically (which is another thing, how do i stop myself for feeling sorry for how i feel??) and tried to shift conversations away from him. I think he also noticed this strange transition but did not say a word. He later just said that this has been a stressful few days, and I just acknowledged it and tried to leave the situation as it is.

When I spoke to a female friend, she said that I was so naive to not have picked up the signs prir to this built-up situation. I don't think she was judging me, but plainly stating the obvious. But what are these signs? Through my different socialisations with different types of men, this becomes very confusing. When do I accept a gift, a ride, an act of kindness from a man, without feeling like that was code for "you owe me one" or "i own you bitch". these signs are so subtle, and becoming increasingly subtle as masculinities keep changing and taking different forms of being in everyday life. I just feel so mistrusting especially when socialising with pro-feminist heterosexual men. At the end of the day, these social identities were created as cloaks to fashion our bodies, and sense of being in the world. It just feels even more unsafe now, more than ever before, when they come into our circles, in our struggles as feminist women, and somehow us referring to them as these "few good men".


  1. Sorry to hear a man has been making you feel uncomfortable, if I knew they guy I would tell him to apologise, let you know how he feels and counsel him that being honest when you like someone whilst difficult makes things a hell of a lot less stressful for both sides.

    What I wanted to say though is that most pro feminist men would be struggling through similar issues. As men we have been socialised to show we are intested in women in a whole bunch of fucked up ways. Being conscious of this makes you rethink pretty much anything around how as men we behave towards women and areas of dating and sexual interest which are at the best of times complicated become a minefield. I think the best thing would be if pro feminist men and feminist women talked more openly about this sort of stuff I certainly don't think you are the only one that struggles with this sort of stuff. Many of the issues around interpreting signs certainly resonate with me.

    As an aside I'm going to try and be critical of when and why I pay for things for women as a result of this post.

  2. Random male advice injection: my feeling is you may be relying too much on the secret signs, and not enough on the saying what you think. I suspect your mother will disagree quite vigorously, but it's ok for nice girls to express their feelings. Exercising some cultural stereotypes, that's possibly more likely/more strongly felt in asian cultures.
    One of the hard things is being the first to say how you feel. Not just "making the first move" but the opposite too - saying no to someone who may not actually be asking. But it is a worthwhile thing to do, not just for the avoidance of your situation above, but for making friendships with hetboys easier too. It's much more relaxing if he's comfortable that if you want more you'll say so, rather than him looking hopefully at you every two minutes to see whether you do. Of course, if you don't and you tell him he's likely to lose interest, which is a huge cost to you that might also bear thinking about (how many of the gifts you get are because you're attractive?)

  3. @moz - i think its quite difficult to discern or be able to comment meaningfully with this post, because it is basically me blogging, train of thoughts' wise. am not quite sure how you're meaning to advise - if you're suggesting that i should have somehow 'known better' and just expressed my suspicions that i think he's interested or whatever, i don't think that's fair at all, because i didn't feel he was until the situation happened, and i started putting that situation into perspective of things i never took real notice of. Also, what's with "if i want more,...say so... rather than him looking at me hopefully?" that suggests that the burden is on every "nice girl" to somehow anticipate male interest and prepare to engage or ward off at her own cost, everytime she befriends or is approached by a "friendly" man?! How sexist! I take huge offence at how you've read this post and somehow came up with :"Of course, if you don't and you tell him he's likely to lose interest, which is a huge cost to you that might also bear thinking about (how many of the gifts you get are because you're attractive?)" -- as if that's how feminists or wimmin for that matter calculate human relations? It sounds like you've read this comment and assumed a whole lot of things about women (including beauty double-standards, somehow having to bear the burden of being attractive if such was the case?!) who are struggling to find safe ways to interact platonically with men.

    I also wish to state that it is still uncertain if this man was "interested" in me (as he has not expressed anything directly of that sort), and really we would be missing the point if we're fixated on that. this post was about negotiating/ defining spaces and boundaries with and without pro-feminist heterosexual men, albeit at the expense of my unfortunately awkward personal experience.

  4. @indofrenchie: I was trying to suggest that if you don't talk about it, and he doesn't talk about it, then it's no surprise that you don't know what each other is thinking. Sure, if you're only wondering what was going on *in retrospect* then yes, there's nothing you could have done differently. But if you are wondering right now about what some friendly bloke is thinking, you could ask. I know there are social penalties, that's what I was getting at in my comment. The cliche of a girl crushing a boy's dreams by saying "we are just friends, right" is a cliche because it happens so often. On the other paw, he might say "oh, of course". And on the gripping hand, "ooooh, what are *you* thinking".

    The point about "if you want more say so" is more about generally setting social expectations. In a social scene where women are more generally expected to hit on men that they like, men act differently as well. Less likely to push women into uncomfortable situations, for example, because it's more likely that if she was intreested she would have said something. I struggle with this because several of my girlfriends claim to have made the first move on me, while in most cases I felt I was making the first move on them. It makes for an amusing argument if nothing else. And perhaps says something about my odd personality that it happens so often to me compared to many of my male friends. Or perhaps I'm just odd in that I ask when the men that I know never do so they never find out that there's a disagreement.

    I hope you're not suggesting that you're ignorant of the privileges of beauty. I don't know you at all but you write of experiences common to attractive women, so I'm assuming you are one. And it can be horrible how everyone treats you better and people randomly give you gifts merely because you're conventionally attractive. The pressure to perform beauty is not trivial, but the shame of being ugly is also... ugly. There's some amusing research in this area if you are genuinely ignorant, some of it by feminist academics.

    At the risk of offending you further, I'm not convinced that platonic friendships (in the colloquial sense) are as common as some people like to pretend, or as non-romantic (in the classical sense) as you might imagine. Also, it does seem to change with experience. My current partner has quite a different view of male friends now than she did 5 years ago, even of the same male friends. The ones who were "just friends" but completely lost interest when she moved in with me... more accurately, the *number* of those male friends, was an eye-opener for her.

    (captcha: bumutate! speaking of platonic relationships...)

  5. this post was about negotiating/ defining spaces and boundaries with and without pro-feminist heterosexual men

    Just to be clear, I was suggesting that negotiating and defining has to fall back to explicit and verbal if anyone is unsure. And saying that you apparently hadn't done that, but left it at an unspoken wondering. While saying that that was problematic.

    I suspect I read the stuff about consent and assumed you were practicing that, or had at least tried to. And so much of active consent comes down to "if you're not sure, ask".

    There's a good quote in one of those links:
    And he wanted to keep and love me, and that’s why he was doing the things I was asking him to do. And that’s when I realized that wow I had this power over him that I did not know and it freaked me out. (

    Tying that back to the issues of power, some of the bad reaction to this sort of discussion is that men often hear it as "power is bad. BAD! You have power. You are bad!", and saying "but I don't want this power" is not an acceptable answer. Asking women to acknowlege their power during those discussions is often revealing - they are forced to deny having power since they *are* actually making the point that power is bad. I don't think anyone is completely powerless (hence my lack of patience with the Dworkin/MacKinnon nonsense, incidentially).

    Anyway, sorry if you have to read that 20 times to make sense of it. Where I'd like to go is a discussion of how power imbalances can be negotiated, in the context of consent within a relationship.

  6. hrm...i really like what was said in this series of comments. I think that the power thing is really important and whilst I imagine that there are soooooooooo many different dynamics and many, many different experiences of those dynamics, it is worthwhile to vocalise and question our individual experiences. empowering and powersharing are 2 totally different concepts and I, personally, think that the latter is more important than the former. It's not about pulling them down to our level, but acknowledging our own power as women in a heterosexual relationship (whether that's romantic or otherwise) and vice versa and seeing to it that we are equal in that relationship by the use of active consent. It could be as easy as checking in regularly on where we are at emotionally and doing it genuinely.

    As a queer woman-person my relationships with men are still much the same as when it was before I came out. I still have the ability to twist their arms backwards and use that to my advantage. I am not ready nor will I concede my power and privilege of my sex and good looks in that regard for the time being. Like I said on the facebook thread conversation, this is still a man's problem and discussing it amongst women is good for venting and debriefing but on the whole this topic should be put to the 'men' of our worlds.