The underlying conflict so many of us have to navigate.
After last week’s email about “hating men,” I got a huge outpouring of responses, many of which were from cisgender women and non-binary folks who partner with men.
Generally these were folks who have experienced traumas big and small at the hands of boys/men as well, and are struggling to reconcile their feelings about “men” as a general population with their feelings about individual men in their lives that they love, respect, and (sometimes) desire. So let’s talk about that!
To begin, I want to say that our attractions and desires, like our emotions, do not follow the rules of logic.
That might sound kind of obvious, but it has to be said, because often who we find ourselves drawn to or repelled by—both sexually/romantically, and just in life—is very hard to explain or understand. Despite our habit of trying to justify why we like or dislike people by saying things like “I think they’re funny/nice/cool,” our responses to people are actually informed by a variety of subconscious, unconscious, emotional, and physiological factors.
Some of these factors are hard-wired into our biology, like the way we respond to a person’s pheromones, but a lot of it is learned and folded into our psychology, based on the unique details of our lives.
Like an epically complicated version of the Pavlovian response, you may have come to feel warmly toward people with certain characteristics that you associate with positive childhood memories, for example, and vice versa. If certain needs went unmet in childhood, you may find yourself especially drawn to people who either meet those needs, or repeat the familiar pattern of not meeting those needs. You may be attracted to people who reinforce the stories you believe about yourself, too, and who treat you the way you believe you deserve to be treated, for better or for worse.
I could go on, but the point I’m trying to make here is that the human brain is vastly more complex, clever, and hard-working than we give it credit for day-to-day, and there is a lot more going on under the surface than we tend to realize. Starting before we’re even born, our brains start putting together an understanding of the world that influences our preferences and decisions, and it adds to that understanding as we enter the world and start having experiences by looking for patterns, and then storing those patterns in us as “preferences,” urges, impulses, and feelings.
To keep us from getting utterly overwhelmed by every detail however, the brain keeps a lot of that processing out of our consciousness, so we don’t usually go around thinking “I find this person annoying because something about the timbre of their voice reminds me of a babysitter I had as a toddler, who made me feel unsafe.”
No, we just say “they’re really annoying.”
And likewise, we don’t usually look at a dating profile and think “this person looks like they come from a similar economic class, social status, racial/cultural background, and/or lifestyle/values as me, which makes them feel familiar and comfortable, and encourages me to feel connected to them, thereby making them seem more attractive.”
No, we just think “they’re cute,” and swipe right.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), trauma plays a pretty big role in this unconscious pattern recognition, world-mapping, and creating of preferences, too.
I read once (in The Body Keeps the Score I think, which I highly recommend to anyone looking to learn more about trauma!) that lion cubs who get chased by a predator, but somehow survive, will repeatedly play-act the scenario with each other after the predator has gone. They’ll replay what happened—how they got attacked, and how they escaped—over and over, improvising new strategies and trying out new escape plans, as a way of processing the experience and ensuring they have the skills and knowledge to escape similar situations in the future.
I love this story, because we humans often do something similar.
We may feel drawn to people who remind us of the people who hurt us, for example; even choosing to partner with them despite all evidence that this is a “bad decision.” Far from being proof that we’re stupid or broken or make “bad decisions,” this kind of behavior may represent a subconscious effort to process, heal from, and protect ourselves from that earlier hurt.
Other times, we may feel “irrationally” repelled by people who remind us of someone who hurt us. And while that can be healthy and adaptive when it comes to specific qualities or red flags we see in an individual person, the brain—which, remember, is constantly looking for patterns and drawing general conclusions about the world as a sort of “shortcut” to making quick decisions—tends to apply it’s conclusions not just to individuals, but to whole populations of people.
And this is where it gets tricky.
If you’ve experienced trauma at the hands of a dozen people all wearing red baseball caps, your brain might reasonably conclude that people wearing red baseball caps are dangerous, and you might find yourself feeling “irrationally” (read: subconsciously) disliking all people who wear them.
It’s not like you consciously believe that all people who wear these hats are bad people or anything, and you might even be able to make exceptions for a few people you know to be good people who wear them, by telling yourself that they’re different from most people who wear them, so as to not be bothered by it. But the pattern would still exist in you, and without even being aware of it, you may find yourself thinking, feeling and behaving differently around people in red baseball caps than around you do around everyone else.
Now, what about when you’ve experienced trauma at the hands of a dozen people who don’t share any particular quality other than their gender?
What about when the vast majority (if not all) of the people you’ve seen or experienced being violent, coercive, abusive, invasive, controlling, cruel, selfish, or indifferent to the feelings and needs of others… have been men?
To be clear, I’m not saying that men are the only people acting in these ways or causing harm. People of all genders can do any of these things, and often do. But I am saying that, by looking back on these qualities/behaviors in our own lives, and in the culture at large, we can see that men disproportionately cause trauma and harm to others.
Under such circumstances, what other conclusion could the brain possibly be expected to draw?
This is how so many of us have arrived at a place of seeing men as a population—and in particular cisgender and heterosexual men—as violent, selfish, and dangerous. We make exceptions for the men in our lives who we know to be kind, generous, and safe, but those exceptions do very little to change the underlying pattern our brains have identified.
And while the occasional person may structure their life to simply avoid close contact with men, most of us still have to navigate the world of men while holding this underlying conflict.
Most of us have to figure out how to love, respect, and feel safe with men as individuals, while also believing men as a population to be shitty and dangerous.
Understandably, this can make our relationships with men extremely complicated and painful, which is why so many of you connected with my last email, and reached out to share your own experiences.
And while I don’t have any catchy advice or answers about this, I do want to let you know that if you’re navigating the world with this conflict around men inside you, you’re not alone. Far from it, in fact. We’re all in this together, healing from the wounds the patriarchy has inflicted upon us, while also trying to keep our hearts open, love deeply, form secure relationships, and avoid doing more harm in the process.
Big hug, Jessi
PS I’ll be permanently retiring my cornerstone ebook The Avatar Guide at the beginning of April, so I’m putting it on a 75% OFF FLASH SALE until then!! It only costs $7, and this is your last chance to read it— plus I’ve recently updated the self-assessment quiz to better reflect my current understanding of the body image avatars, so you’ll have the most up-to-date info available! Grab it now, or tell a friend who needs it!
PPS While I’m putting shit on flash sale, I figure I may as well do the thing right lolll. So for the month of March, all my body neutrality merch is 20% off too!! Grab a super soft conversation-starting t-shirt for less than $25 here!