(Hi again! I’m basically the least consistent writer ever. But this is on my mind and I wanted to try to write about it if I could. Warning: I think I’m pretty frank, and also I swear a fair amount. Also, I am writing from my perspective, not as a representative of women. Just as a representative of me. That said, I make the assumption that a lot of what I have experienced in the realm of sexual harassment/assault/intimidation is pretty across the board for women in my culture. The #YesAllWomen meme resonates strongly with me).
Like most of my friends, much of the news, and many of the writers I follow, I’ve been caught up in the terrible, horrible killing spree of Elliot O Roger, his misogynist manifesto, and what this event reflects about our larger cultural reality. And, like many (much better than me) writers and culture observers, I’ve observed that for women, the response is a kind of quick, frustrated rage while for men the response is a kind of shocked surprise. Terms like rape culture are being used (or studiously avoided). And the seemingly diametrically opposed hashtags #NotAllmen and #YesAllWomen have sprung into a kind of intensified existence.
Driving home today, all of this reminded me of a conversation I had with a very good (male) friend about a year ago. We were talking about a local writer we both adore, and discussing her increasingly sharp tone in discussing how women were portrayed in movies and television. My friend observed that he was growing kind of uncomfortable with how unceasing she was in pointing out the objectification of women, the ritual humiliation, and “the general shittiness” of the movie industry in general. He observed that as a male, he felt both helpless to change the larger culture and also like he couldn’t participate in the conversations that our female friends were having on these topics without being disruptive. He also felt like there was an undertone that perhaps all men were being tarred with the same brush. I remember most his comment that it was all so “depressing and fucking exhausting.”
Well. Yes. Speaking as a woman, it is actually all so depressing and fucking exhausting.
I didn’t say that to my friend at the time, because he had reached out to talk to me about this stuff and because I wanted to be supportive, and also because I really did agree with him and felt grateful that he, as a dude who really can chose not to feel all of those sucky feelings, chose to feel them. In fact, I didn’t even think to say that to my friend- I was really focused on listening to him and supporting him and validating his experiences, and it wasn’t until later in the evening, when I feeling kind of irritated and wasn’t clear why, that I sat down and thought about it and realized that there was a kind of frustrating irony in validating to a guy about how horrible it must feel to listen to the general experiences that I, as a woman, just sort of have learned to deal with. And then I didn’t say anything to anyone about it, because what was there to say? Yes, it pretty much sucks that a not small segment of the population sees me essentially as an object whose job is to be pleasing to them, and who thinks it is appropriate to punish me if I fail at that job. Yes, it sucks that I sometimes come in contact with individuals who compose that segment, and I don’t really get to control when that happens, and yes, it sucks that the experience can range from mildly degrading to physically threatening to bodily harm (and, as we have seen, to death). And yeah, I can imagine it sucks a whole lot to hear about that. And in a kind of snarky way, it sort of sucks even to support a friend in their emotional process in hearing about your experience. But since there didn’t seem to be any value in articulating that thought, and also because it isn’t at all my very good friend’s fault that all of this suckiness exists, I just tried to let it go and move on.
But today, driving home, thinking about all of what is going on, and about the conversations I see happening and the conversations I don’t see happening, it occurred to me that there was actually a way I could look at that exchange in a light where it could make sense, and where there could be something productive in talking about it. And I think it ties in to the larger conversation, and so I’m going to try to do my best. Here goes.
I.) It actually really does hurt to hear painful stories.
When I began my master’s program in counseling (sorry, dudes. This is going to be a counseling reference heavy essay. Counseling, misogyny, the misdeeds of my cat, getting my house ready for summer visitors and how much I love watching Veronica Mars with my husband- those are basically the major themes of my life lately, so those be the waters I am drawing from. You’ve been warned) one of my favorite instructors, a decades long veteran of the field, said again and again to us that the dangers of asking a client to share their stories did not lay in traumatizing the client, but in traumatizing ourselves. “Your client has already lived through there situation- they’ve survived it enough to tell you about it, so the act of telling isn’t going to hurt them. But you- you don’t know their situation, you haven’t earned the callouses yet to protect yourself from it. You are the person who is most likely to be hurt at first. You have to figure out a way to deal with that.”
These incredibly wise words (thank you, Colin Ward!) are, I think (and experience) powerfully true. If someone is sharing their story with me in a therapeutic setting, they are a) alive and b) have figured out a way to come to terms, at least partially, with the experience. They have figured out a way, in any case, to get up and out of their house and dressed and into my office carrying that experience. They’ve probably done a whole host of things- probably paid some bills, probably held down a job, probably experienced a relationship or friendship or parenthood. Maybe these things are stressed out- maybe these things are seriously affected- but on some level, unless I am meeting my clients in an acute crisis, inpatient situation, they are managing on some level to move forward with their lives. They might want to move forward better- they might be still experiencing active pain or limitations- but they are not dead. They are not totally paralyzed. They’ve figured out some coping mechanisms.
But me, well, I’m a first time listener, each time. I can make some educated guesses, but I don’t know what their life has been like and in the process of learning, while it’s always a privilege and an honor and a gift (and while there are *always* strengths in there- always), it’s not always easy. And some of the things my clients have to tell me- some of them are pretty horrible. Some of them are dark and intense and make me want to go home, bury myself in my blankets and never get out. Some of them make me spend a whole weekend crying.
And a big part of that- a big part of the painfulness of that- is that fundamentally, in the act of listening, I’m putting myself in the helpless position of witness. I’m just experiencing their trauma, but with the added guilt that comes from a) it not being my trauma and b) I’m terribly, terribly helpless about it.
This is not something easy to come to terms with. Helplessness is not easy. The pain of another’s story is not easy. There is no part of being human that wants to just accept pain, and there is no part of the empathetic experience of connecting that wants to not try to fix another person’s pain. It’s a completely uncomfortable situation devoid of peace.
And when there are imbalances- of race, of class, of any kind of power dynamic, it’s that much more terrible. If someone is experiencing pain as a result of something where I experience privilege, the desire to run away from it, or to hurry up and patch it up quickly, is that much more intense. Because not only am I in pain from the sheer injustice of it, I also now have to examine my own relationship to privilege, and it becomes that much harder to be a truly innocent bystander. (And, frankly, my desire to fix the problem becomes a little suspect- do I want to fix it to ease another’s suffering, or to ease my own discomfort?)
This experience of secondary trauma is not limited to being a therapist. Basically, any human being who is empathetic and hears the story of another’s trauma can be affected by that experience. And repeated exposure to the stories of other’s trauma, when not managed, can have a devastating effect- according the National Child Traumatic Stress Network:
“Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. Its symptoms mimic those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Accordingly, individuals affected by secondary stress may find themselves re-experiencing personal trauma or notice an increase in arousal and avoidance reactions related to the indirect trauma exposure. They may also experience changes in memory and perception; alterations in their sense of self-efficacy; a depletion of personal resources; and disruption in their perceptions of safety, trust, and independence.” http://www.nctsn.org/resources/topics/secondary-traumatic-stress
So I can only imagine (literally, I can only imagine) how hard it really is when the men in my life- my husband, my brother, my male cousins, my dear friends, my colleagues and classmates- hear about the things that I experience, just in the day to day act of being female. And I think that I can get the act of telling these things on my part is a lot less painful than the act of listening on theirs. I mean, telling can be kind of a relief, sometimes! In telling, I get to share my experience and get support, I get to feel validated and less isolated, and I get to work through my feelings, brainstorm ways to handle situations in the future. Telling can transform the experience! (I am a professional listeners of tellers, and my whole goal is to get to the point where the telling becomes a transformative experience!)
But listening- and I say this as a professional listener of experience who loves my job- listening is not always nearly as positive to experience.
And something else- I’m speaking here as a professional listener, but obviously I’m not always a professional listener. Sometimes I’m just a lady who wants to hang out with her husband or her friends, or ride the bus in peace, or chill out with the cat after we’ve made a truce and catch up on my Veronica Mars. And sometimes the people in my life want to talk to me about things because things are happening right then, and I don’t always want to deal with it, but I do want to be a good friend/spouse/sister/daughter/neighbor/person on the bus. And sometimes (hopefully more than fifty per cent of the time? ) I can set aside my not wanting to be talked to in the moment because, in the grand scheme of things, I really do want to support the people I love. And sometimes, honestly, I just can’t. But the point I want to make here is that I think I can safely say I am skilled in listening, and I can honestly tell you it can be painful and overwhelming, at times, when people you care about, regardless of the relationship, tell you hard, horrible things.
So let’s go back to my male friend, who is also a really good listener, but hasn’t exactly made that his profession of choice. And he definitely hasn’t had the experience to learn trauma stewardship, and basically while he is awesome for choosing to hear the stories of the women in his life, he really, validly, actually is being hurt by hearing those stories. Those stories are weighing him down, making him feel helpless and also kind of defensive, because ok, yeah, all of the women in his life are constantly having all these awful experiences and having to be so cautious and having to be mindful and having to figure out how to say “No” in ten thousand different languages and tones (So, in the immortal worlds of Louis C.K., men don’t kill us)- but *he* isn’t that kind of guy! He honestly, really, isn’t! And as much as I know he wants to, he can’t go out and just demolish all the dicks in the world. It’s just not possible. And he can’t stand between us and intervene between each of the women he cares about (and, because he is a really good human) all the women he doesn’t even know and each of the men who are jerks. So all he can do is listen and hear and feel awful and helpless and kind of terrible and kind of awful for being a guy. Which isn’t helping anyone, and he knows it. So what else is there to do?
Well, he has to tell someone, of course.
II) Men and intimacy/Men and isolation
Also last year, I had a conversation with my brother that comes to mind right now. We were talking about being adults and how relationships change over time. I was telling him about a study I had read about how health in men is positively correlated to being married, but this is not necessarily the case with women, and also telling him how I thought this had to do with the way that men tend to get most of their emotional needs met in the context of their marriage, while women tend to get their emotional needs met through a web of relationships- with partners, but also with sisters, friends, parents, coworkers, cousins, etc. We discussed how men with sisters had better long term health outcomes than men without sisters, but, again, women with brothers fared about as well as women without brothers, and we speculated that this is because, again, because women reach out to so many people, but men with sisters have a slightly greater likelihood of a solid and built in emotional connection than men without sisters. My brother listened to me telling him these studies I’d been reading, and told me that he could see some truth to them. Anecdotally, while my brother is someone who has some profound and deep relationships with several key, close male friends, he told me he had noticed that over time, he tended to these friendships less than he tended to his relationship with his wife and his children- particularly the friendships with other married men. On the other hand, he noticed that his wife continued to maintain her close emotional connections to other people- and we shared the experience that we both have, which is that Mamie (my sister in law) and I are much, much more likely to call each other, to email each other, to mail packages to each other, than my brother and I are. Through no conscious decision, and despite the fact that Luke and I like each other a fair amount and, occasional tension and rivalry aside, enjoy each other’s company, the natural course of things have tended to be that I contact my brother’s wife when I want to get in touch with my brother’s family. When I asked Luke how he felt about this- was he ok with the trend he was observing in his life to put more and more of his emotional eggs in his marriage basket? Did he miss his male friendships?- my brother reflected that when he talks about it out loud, he isn’t ok with the distance in those relationships, but in the day to day of things, they really take a lot of work. And of course he cares about his friends as deeply as he ever has (and, as a witness to my brother’s life, I will attest that he has been luck’s own favorite child when it comes to solid male friendships- some of his friendships stretch back to when he was eleven, and are with amazing, excellent human beings). It’s just, as he says, in the day to day of it all. You know?
(I mean, totally. In the day to day of it all, sometimes I can’t even manage the houseplants, let alone maintaining the enduring emotional connections that make up the bulk of my life. So I totally know, and I bet you do too.)
This bit of anecdotal evidence is hardly unique to my brother’s life experience. Last year (shortly after our conversation- I’ve always felt that Luke and I were trendsetters of the laziest sort) an article on the subject of male friendship was published in Salon (http://www.salon.com/2013/12/08/american_mens_hidden_crisis_they_need_more_friends/) which discussed the decreasing levels of intimate male-to-male friendships in white, heterosexual men’s lives, which contrasts, in turn, with the high levels of desire for emotionally intimate male friendships articulated by that same group. The article (which is well worth the read) explores all sorts of reasons why it might be hard for men to intitiate, cultivate and maintain the kind of emotional intimacy which women seem better able to do. One of the reasons explored in this article- and which *highly* resonates in my own life- is that culturally, it’s simple more accepted (and feels less threatening) for guys to share their intimate selves with woman. Be they friends or partners, it simply is easier and less stressful and more desirable to most men to share their feeling selves with women, and their fun/thinking/doing selves with other men.
III) But when the person you go to tell things is the person who just told you things….
The problem I am seeing here- the place where this is unraveling- is that for men who are *hearing* about the traumatic experiences of women, and experiencing secondary traumatization over it, where do they go with those feelings? Who do they talk about their own (totally valid!) emotional reactions to feeling overwhelmed with the things that the women they care about- or just women in general- have to deal with?
Because if the answer is women, things go downhill.
I see the whole #NotAllMen http://time.com/79357/not-all-men-a-brief-history-of-every-dudes-favorite-argument// #YesAllWomen https://twitter.com/hashtag/YesAllWomen?src=hash as being basically a conversation that plays out this way:
Woman to man: Here is my experience!
Man (internal dialogue): Holy shit, that is really awful and I feel really bad about it. I need to go talk to someone about this. I’ll go to the person that I usually go to to share intimate/emotional aspects of myself.
Man to woman: Hearing this makes me feel really bad! And now I’m worried about how you think of me! #NotAllMen are like that! (Importantly, I’m not!)
Woman (internal dialogue): Wow, I just shared a part of myself and my experience and now this guy expects me to help him feel better about the experience of listening to me? And also seems to be devaluing the integrity of what I’m telling him?
Woman to man: Fuck off. Seriously. For Real. #YesAllWomen.
Back to talking about secondary trauma- there was an outstanding, outstanding article last year in the LA Times about how to support people who were grieving. This article is one you’ve probably seen- it showed up on my Facebook page with strong verbal “YES!” fistbumps by friends who had lost children to miscarriages, friends who were seeing their parents through the last stages of cancer, friends who were going through divorces, friends who lost loved ones to suicide- basically people going through really difficult processes of loss were resonating strongly to this article. My therapist and social worker friends were also passing it around, as very valuable reminders for how we work with people who are grieving. If, by some chance, you were absent from social media the month of April in 2013 and you missed the article, I’ll put it right here and strongly encourage you to read it, because it is fantastic and brilliant:
While I don’t mean to say that the fact of being a woman is any more grief filled than the fact of being a man, I do think that the notion of circles is extremely helpful in the conversations where women are sharing with men what their experiences are when it comes to being a woman and being harassed/intimidated/sexualized/preyed upon for not conforming to the desires of men. Women are at the center of that experience. The emotional energy/listening/comfort moves to the women. Not because we are weak, or because we can’t handle the stuff we are telling you. I basically assure you, given that are choices are a) deal with it or b) cease to exist, if we are telling you our experiences, we’ve figured out a (however imperfect) way of coping. But simply because in the act of telling you, we are asking for you to listen and witness our experience. End stop. And if you are a man who is listening, then, as overwhelming as it feels to you, you are not in the center ring. The men who are listening are in the next ring. Just by listening, they are being supportive and doing exactly what they need to do. Just by listening.
That’s it. Listening.
But! Of course, if you are a guy listening and being overwhelmed by what you are hearing, you absolutely need to go talk to someone. One hundred percent yes. That is the right thing.
Just (and, in my opinion, this is pretty critical, and also, if this could happen, could be pretty seriously transformative:)
IV) If you are a man who is becoming upset/depressed/overwhelmed/hopeless/defensive when you listen to the women in the world/your life talk about their experiences, you need to talk about it. With another man.
I really, really mean this. Not to complain about how crazy or uptight women are, please. (I mean, personally, I don’t think that would help you or me very much at all). But you absolutely need to talk to another guy. A guy you are friends with and who you trust is ideal. And if you don’t have that kind of guy in your life- and, seriously, you are not alone in that area- then you have the very hard, critical work of figuring out how to make that kind of friendship ahead of you. If you are feeling a restless helplessness over all of this, that can be your challenge. Because I think as women we really, really need you to form those relationships. We really, really need you to have an emotional connection to each other. And we need to know you guys can turn and talk each other through these hard things and support each other while you support us.
And if you are a guy who has already figured this out- if you’ve already figured out the circle thing and the male friendship and intimacy thing and how to be supportive of women thing- then my personal challenge to you is to go and find the guys in your world who haven’t totally made this connection, and pull them into your circle. Mentor them. Teach them how to do what you’ve figured out to do. Seriously, I can’t do that. Your girlfriends and lady friends and moms and sisters and classmates and bosses can’t do that. But you can, and that is absolutely invaluable.
Which brings me to a not altogether linear, but somewhat related, point:
V) Women are not magic.
This is the other thing that has been bothering me since Friday, when I read about the killings and then spent some disastrous time on Saturday reading Elliot Rogers screed. His seemingly dark faith that, somehow, if only a desirable woman would have sex with him, he would suddenly, magically be happy (I mean, beyond the moment of sex itself) just reminded me of ways in which women have simultaneously seemed to be granted dark, mysterious powers of happiness and wellness granting (particularly to men!) which then absolutely need to be controlled (by men!). This grated uncomfortably with my own personal experience- like the time in college when a lonely guy from my freshman English class began sending me unsolicited stanzas of poetry, and when I tried to politely explain that I appreciated his poetry but wasn’t interested in him romantically, transitioned to daily emails of short stories in which I experienced horrible (and painstakingly graphicly depicted) tortures to rectify the suffering I was putting him through by refusing to date him. This was so bizarre and irritating to me that I sat him down and asked him, in all seriousness, if he really wanted me to date him if I wasn’t interested in him, and was told that, well, how dare I not be interested in him? Didn’t I see how much my rejection was hurting him? How dare I do that when I could make him *so* happy?
I won’t go on. I feel like nearly every woman I know has some version of this story- of a guy who sort of imagines that she somehow holds the key to his happiness, and her refusal to provide that goes against some kind of natural law, and hell is to be paid. I have multiple versions of this story to tell, but it’s frankly not all that interesting to me. What is interesting to me- and what I really think needs to be explicitely laid out- are the following basic truths:
1) Women are not magic. Having sex with us will not cure a man’s problems. Dating us will not cure a man’s problems.
2) Not only are we not magic, but we weren’t created to be magic. It’s not a design flaw or a refusal on our part if a woman is not interested in any given man or (particularly) able/willing/interested in solving the problems of his life through dating/sex/attention. It’s not a design flaw if we are dating/sexually involved/adoring of guy and he still has problems. We weren’t designed to fix them.
3) That said, just as, culturally, men have been trained to wield power confidently, to move through public spaces with some assurance that their genitals won’t be touched and to channel emotions into lust and aggression, women have been trained, culturally, to be emotionally sensitive, to be good listeners, and to be comforting. So it makes sense to me that some men see us as magic. (Heavens, as the absolutely amazing article “Your Princess is in Another Castle” beautifully points out, men were raised to see us as magic! As magic prizes to be won! And on some level, we women have been raised to see ourselves this way as well. Observe: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/05/27/your-princess-is-in-another-castle-misogyny-entitlement-and-nerds.html) And it makes sense to me that more men see us as a really good place to explore their own emotions around discovering what our cultural experiences are around sex and violence, for those same reasons.
4) But ultimately, we aren’t magical. We’ve been trained to make connections in ways men haven’t, but, just as women have been learning how to negotiate male space and take on male roles and learn to do the things that men are taught to do in our culture, men completely have the capacity to make empathic connections with each other, to tend to their own valid, complex emotional processes, and to basically make themselves happy (or, as is the case with most women I know, at least baseline emotionally ok.)
VI) Women need men to do this.
Ultimately, I think this is true. Women need men to learn how to be emotionally connected to other men. We need men to learn how to draw emotional support and nurturing from other men. Not to do that in absence of us, but in addition to us. Because men being isolated and lonely- it really, really is killing us.
Men and women, it is really killing us.
So, my dear beloved very important to me guy friends- first of all, thank you for listening. I mean that. Listening is hard and crucial, and when you listen without being defensive it is a huge gift. Thank you. And second, when you are wondering to yourself- what can I do? What should I do? Please, don’t ask me. I can’t fix this or tell you how to fix it. I am not the one with that kind of leverage. But I have a feeling that you can make a serious start by finding another man and being honest and open with them about what it means to be male in this culture, and what it means to be female, and what you’ve heard from the women in your life. I think that can be really, really powerful.
Thanks for reading this.