Emotion work: sexist or gendered?

man hugging woman sitting on chair
Dig deep. [Photo by Tan Danh / Pexels.com]

Following on from my three recent posts on change in modern hetero relationships, here, here and here, let’s dig into that emotion work. How do you feel, how do I feel? Do either of us feel we are getting a good deal, a fair hearing, right and proper treatment, in this partnership (or even because of it)? Boil it down further: Am I pissing you off? Am I exploiting you? Are you pissing me off or taking advantage of me? Where is this leading us? What do we want? If some of what we each want is the same, and some is different, are they compatible?

In my own life the most painful experiences I’ve had have been the results of what has happened as a result of me not being willing or able to speak ‘my truth’ clearly and at the right time. That’s not self-deprecation; there was no possible right time, and I didn’t know ‘my truth’ consciously. The second most painful experiences of my life have probably been speaking my truth. (Okay artistic license here, not looking to remember any more painful experiences than these right now lol).

The emotional pain I feel when I have to confront a truth about myself, and haul it, kicking and screaming, out from behind its slimy rock in my own swamp, is often just as acute as what I feel when I have to make myself say some horrible ‘observation’ about a partner’s imperfections – or infuriating oversights. Striving to be a good friend to someone, even while effectively saying they have some behaviour which is doing your head in, at least carries the sense of possible reward. So you tell them they are still using sexist language, or that they are too rude to shopkeepers, or why you are fed up with their post-work rants. You may be rewarded by some subtle but wonderful improvements, you can at least enjoy your own practice in being brave or kind or assertive or supportive. You also get to remind them (and yourself) of all the marvellous things about them that prove (hopefully), that this negative issue is no deal breaker, it’s just a thing – to sweeten the pill, so to speak. When there is fear of angry denial or retribution this is a different ball game for sure, not that men have the monopoly on anger.

Facing up to your own hidden flaws

When you have to hear it though, when you’ve been a dick and you don’t know it, the reward is a fucking long way off by comparison. We have to listen and hear, we have to be sure we’re not being bullied or gaslighted or manipulated, we have to stay focussed on awkward or embarrassing or downright painful topics to come up with creative compromises. Worse than all of this though, sometimes we will have to admit that we have been a dick. And, we will have to genuinely ask ourselves why. I don’t doubt that some of you find this easier than I do, because I suspect I was unusually closed-down emotionally as a child – who knows, it’s hard to compare. I do know it gets easier over time, which leads me to suspect that for lots of people it’s a normal part of everyday life and not quite so intense.

But what if we really can’t bear the pain that comes up when we are asked to question the roots of behaviour which impacts on other people? We are asking those people to make a choice: do more emotion work for me, or leave me.

Clarification: emotional labour vs self-analysis!

After a break from this post I realised I have been talking mainly about the process of investigating behaviours which cause others difficulty. Yet the emotional labour which first appeared in feminist discussions is that of carrying unexpressed emotions for another person. This is the labour of the wife who gets shouted at every night when her husband gets in drunk from the pub and has to convince everyone around them that everything is okay. Or of the single parent who has to pretend to their children that the other parent is not well when they forget to collect them for a day trip. We not only exhaust ourselves but also compromise our integrity by performing appropriate emotions for someone who is emotionally illiterate. We often can’t see how telling the truth is an option. So we build up a Sisyphean debt of emotion-tasks which we perform on rotation, too overworked to go looking for solutions or even allies.

The fact that I think of ‘emotion work’ now as the mutual critical engagement of fighting over who’s been the biggest dick is a symptom of how many hetero couples have indeed moved on to live lives where men cannot languish in emotional dumbness any more. No cultural phenomenon disappears overnight, and so for generations from now we will continue to remember and suffer for patriarchs whose behaviour made the whole family cringe – whether from fear or embarrassment. There are some pretty dreadful mothers and grandmothers out there too – can you think of one?

Luckily there are great rewards to doing our own ‘work’, as well as being fair and being together: you actually get better. Clearly this is truer when with a partner who does listen and change. It’s a terrible myth that people can’t or don’t change, or that it’s wrong to ask or expect a person to change, or that we’re right to be outraged if someone asks us to change. When someone resists hearing at first, but later after some persistence they get it, you develop trust and hope. This makes it more likely that you can later forgive yourself, when you look back at the times you have resisted someone’s observation of yourself fucking up … creating a positive cycle where self-confrontation gets less scary and painful over time.

Opening up

And let’s not forget, there are always going to be some situations where trauma is safer under its rock in the swamp, rather than flailing about in the public swimming baths! In this proliferated age, there are literally dozens of different types of therapists that can share significantly in carrying the load during the hardest phases. There is also a staggering variety of workshops you can now go to, to be supported in a group to practice the skills of speaking your (emotional) truths, and of scratching your own surface. For example, ‘family constellations’ is a workshop method where participants can literally reveal nothing personal about themselves yet still absorb experiences offering deep healing and change.

Any experiences we can open ourselves up to, that loosen that rock, reduce the dangers of trying to share a life with someone we can’t tell things to. That means reducing the burden on one person of having to guide us through a painful self-re-development which we are bound to fiercely resist at times (and which they may not be at all qualified for). It also means protecting that person from carrying the emotional package (baggage) on our behalf – the unexpressed emotion which leaks into our next of kin – because we are porous beings and we share emotions non-verbally even when they strike us dumb. I have always observed sex as a mechanism by which people exchange deep emotional build up, enabling a partial re-set, but at the same time passing a version of that experience literally into the other. But maybe that’s just me.

And that brings us neatly back to the conversation between men and women as such. Whenever my partner/s and I have had something really painful (i.e. involving fear, insecurity, shame, anger, jealousy or embarrassment) to deal with, I find sooner or later that it’s gendered, usually sooner. And no, I don’t mean that almost every dispute we have had comes down to ‘pink jobs and blue jobs’ – re-negotiating what is or isn’t okay for men or women to expect of each other, or imagine one another to be.

I mean that almost every deep scar either of us has sustained, links in some way back to experiences dictated by our gender. Maybe it’s an expectation put on us which we ‘failed’ to live up to, or one which we lived up to until it broke us. Maybe it’s a hidden belief that our aspirations are the wrong ones, or that our flaws make us unfit as a man / a woman. Or it may be common or garden sexuality issues, where our expression of who we are at the deepest level through our sexuality causes us to be fearful of rejection or mockery or failure. We may be blocked, stifled, reduced, constrained, as well as the possibility that we are oppressed, suppressed, exploited or abused. I cannot speak first hand about doing emotion work together as a same-sex couple but I cannot imagine that is different – except that perhaps there are more affinities in relation to past hurts resulting from sexual-orientation-related abuse or repression. Again, I have found it is more often that the deepest roots of a problem are not in the sexist behaviours of a partner, but in the sexed and gendered damaged we have each sustained in the past.

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Relationships: Part three

person wearing pair of yellow rubber gloves
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Finally here is a third installment of my thoughts following the discussion group held with friends back in May. The topic was ‘Have relationships changed?’ and here are parts one and two.

In these I talked about the consensus of women in my group regarding the difficulties of patriarchal-hetero relationships and how, because of our group’s demographic similarities, this came very close to a consensus that ‘relationships with men are too much trouble’. I am hopeful about younger generations’ creative abilities to come up with healthier ways to relate: kids universally love to outdo their parents, and they certainly have lots of examples of failed patriarchal nuclear families to improve upon.

Emotion work and economic independence

Then I started thinking through the ‘emotion work’ which men are sometimes publicly / collectively accused of not doing enough of. Before I go a little deeper into that, I have to ask you: Do you think that women’s gradual (collective), increasing financial independence is the definitive factor in enabling more women to remove themselves from hetero partnerships that are emotionally unsatisfying or abusive? Is it really that feminism has changed minds? Or have we just fought our way into the workplace to gain independence? I am tempted to think so and I daresay there are theorists and pundits out there who are certain of it. We know perfectly well that economic subservience traps people into tolerating abusive behaviour regardless of class or gender. However we do also know that race, class and gender factors profoundly shape our likelihood of our being subordinated by those with greater economic power.

I often find myself getting sucked into, and then questioning, the good / bad binary that feminism is accused of , even though all quality feminist writing works hard not to be so simplistic. Do we all get seduced by this binary? I hope not. But it occurs to me that, since we have come from / through a radically materially (economically) unequal culture, women continue to have a harder time in relation (collectively) to men in two distinct ways. This means we get frustrated when men ask for more – even when the request is for help with something we unanimously want them to have, such as emotional development. Number one: Let’s agree it is our collective improvement in financial circumstances that enables us greater bargaining power with regard to intimate partner behaviour – not simply re-defining what is considered abusive, but in demanding true emotional engagement. We are bringing this to the table and putting the energy in to get it started because it is our circumstances that have changed volitionally.

This sometimes substantial amount of ‘extra work’ has fallen to women in order to lay a foundation for heterosexual partnerships to be re-formed. Naturally that’s a pisser when one major orginal problem was having too much work. It has taken a long time to rebuild the energy needed to push through this type of equality, since the first massive push for equal legal rights was made. However demanding the psychological support process might be, women can get really fucked off when men refuse to engage in this process at all, and rightly so. Many women leave men if they can’t do it (as well as if they consciously refuse because they judge that their own interests are best served by continuing to be immature). But logically, it can only happen that way around. It is the social shifts leading to both men and women having to radically change which create the extra work needed.

It’s a means to an end and it’s an end worth having. The outcome will be a world where hetero relationships only begin when both parties can demonstrate that they have similar levels of this skill. Compare this to the past – it’s fucking enormous. We labour for daughters and for ourselves, and many men benefit and grow. Also of real importance is the emergence of some genuinely enlightened men’s groups where men do lean on and mentor each other. This will has always been there amongst a small minority of men, but it has taken a long time for the majority focus to shift. Where once the purpose of men’s groups was often a return to the wild, to demonstrate to themselves that being a man was tough and unique, perhaps even that women radically misunderstood the tribulations of manhood and would not be making their radical demands if they did understand. Now, although that feeling persists, many of the newer groups facilitate men to shift their focus from the lost past to the present, where we all do our work, and to the unwritten future. Here we can have a conversation about how to adapt to a changing world so that the people we become (and bring our children up to be), can be part of a better, more just and joyful world. This work by men is the sign that the burden of the changes which are happening to both sexes can begin to be shared more fairly.

Number two: work work

Meanwhile, my second thought about ‘life being harder’ for women, in this very broad-brush, aggregate sense, at this time, is simply that we have, in fact, had to (collectively) learn how to go out and earn money in a male-designed employment system. First were the trailblazers who simply refused to be refused entry to the trades and professions to which they were drawn and devoted themselves. Alongside, women have always worked ‘outside the home’ to earn money everywhere and anywhere there was a need for (more) money and this is, by definition, more likely the less well off you are. Now, women of every normal social class are expected, even assumed, to be both willing and able to earn money for equivalent reasons to men – i.e. because it’s what normal people do, because it’s necessary to secure a home, et cetera, and to develop any kind of nest egg, and / or because you are drawn to participate in the public world. Incidentally, just as for men, the more wealth you are born with the higher your chances of attaining a well-paid working life characterised mainly by your passions / interests and talents rather than necessity and compromise.

Yes I am essentially saying that life is harder for women because now we have to work and do the domestic labour – and that if we want this to be better shared out, we have to undertake the third job of painstakingly reforming men. But what I want to convey is a kind of taking stock of this situation – because my own way of doing ‘emotion work’ has been to continually question what I might be ‘doing wrong’ myself in relationships which appear on the surface to be equal. I have to wonder whether other women (you?) suffer with the same internal confusion? To show I’m not just bats, there are good reasons why I always stop and consider the idea that some men are pulling their weight, and as a result, that I might be in danger of unfairly blaming them for some of my own troubles.

  • Many men choose to live alone now (as do many women); they are choosing to perform their own domestic labour, even if by default (notwithstanding paying for professional services)
  • Many hetero partners agree that domestic labour should be shared out relative to work outside the home; it is not only men’s actual lower input, but women’s inherited expectations (including from other women) that unbalance their contributions
  • I’ve had a male partner who shared housework, and I’ve had a (non-cohabiting) partner who did a lot of emotion work (which often exhausted me)
  • The ways in which women require emotional self-questioning from men (collectively / culturally) challenges them to re-form their identities, which is not easy and almost always requires third-party support, whoever you are

Aggregate statistics again show us that men are still not doing as much housework as their women partners are. Meanwhile we are going nuts working outside the home even while / if we raise children, in order to take up the ‘normality’ offer: that we are entitled to job satisfaction in the public sphere. We earn money also in order to secure the basic security we need to enable us to refuse abusive partners. Which is not to say that money directly enables freedom from abuse, because it certainly doesn’t, rather that a lack of money can and does trap people.

Boy meets girl?

I come back now to propose the possibility that a hetero relationship can be of equal value to both parties, in the present time: if so, then to realise that requires us to be very careful when we take on board the implications of aggregate statistics. If two people can both handle emotional self-reckoning at the outset of a relationship, that bodes well, whatever their sexes / genders. If it is a fact that there are too many men who refuse to engage in this to make the current dating scene an enjoyable place for women, that’s shit, and it ought to change. Not least, because acknowledgement of the ways a partner may experience a harder life because of their sex (or race or class) are really fucking important in the grand scheme – and this is an essential part of truly knowing the other, who is partly formed by such limitations. But there won’t be a balance sheet for any relationship, because the damage sustained by different individuals, not simply different sexes, is always too complex for that.

As another aside, we do well to remember that many deep loyal bonds are formed between people – lovers and also friends – where one person has enabled this process of self-awareness to start in the other, so we should not view this criteria too concretely. Also, we may well find that the instances of difficulty that actually require ‘emotion work’ to take place are often gendered even when they are not about sexism – and that discussion will follow soon.

 

Relationships: Part two

relationship failure problem sad
Contracts: so last year?

So I am back in the women’s discussion group on ‘Are relationships changing?’ and the thread of conversation seems to have slipped from: “There are many more women choosing to be single …”  to: “… for obvious reasons.” I suddenly find myself both in and out of our club at the same time, by virtue of an imperceptible smile or nod. I am really well-trained to question my own pull towards being in a relationship with a man. Why? Partly because of the background anti-male sentiment that circulates around the actual collective oppressive and discriminatory practices of men – this makes it easy to imagine that being ‘independent’ of men is the wisest and safest standpoint a woman can take, personally. This doesn’t logically fit with being a girlfriend or wife – although casual dating seems superficially to be more compatible. The other, related reason, is the various pains that I’ve enjoyed first-hand – seen through the lens of break-ups and the retrospective analysis of what ‘extra work’ I was doing while the relationships were active (and afterwards). I am always alert for, and often anxious about, ways I may not have learned my lessons, ways my hidden needs and insecurities in relation to men may not be done with yet.

Nevertheless, here I am in ‘real life’ enjoying willfully being in a hetero relationship – shit we even talk about the future! And yet I almost fall into the camp where women tacitly agree that hetero relationships are so much hard work for a woman that being in one is an obviously crazy move. Remember those famous statistics about married men and married women? What gives?

If my belief is that the ‘benefits’ of my relationship somehow outweigh the ‘costs’, am I thereby deluding myself that somehow I or we are ‘not the norm’? Are we somehow better or cleverer or saner or more loving or enlightened or less sexist than the millions of other couples who constitute this statistical reality? Or, am I simply gambling with my life, telling myself, since the outcome of our relationship belongs in the future, that we are part of (unknown) future statistics and not past or current ones? You never know when divorce rates are going to suddenly slow down, right? Better still, let’s dodge all these pitfalls just by not getting married. Eureka!

Yet very time we hit a real pitfall, or a boulder or a pothole or even fall in a swamp, the horrible ’emotion work’ we drag ourselves through to work it all out does pay off. There’s work and there’s work. “Relationships are hard work” can mean different things, for example: “Only a woman with low self-esteem would willingly consent to being the lifelong unpaid caretaker for a manchild who may offer love but can never understand or empathise with her burdens.” Alternatively it can mean: “If you want a romantic partner who’s committed to a view of a shared future, then every so often you will have to confront unpredicted challenges, which is hard work. If you do not succeed in fully listening to and hearing each other and both making genuine compromises during those moments, what started as a healthy partnership will slide over time into a power imbalance.”

The shortcut to this is “Everything in life that’s really worth doing is hard work.” Show me someone who is really passionate about their job who didn’t have to struggle to study to qualify for it, or who finds it easy every day. Or find me a parent who will say that it’s easy raising a child, that they love them and they don’t encounter problems and experience excruciatingly hard work.

Our attempt to re-view hetero couple relationships as we reeled from the bleak realities of Thatcherism and absorbed the painful truths of the second wave has become increasingly individualistic. Relationships are ultimately part of the web of human commitments and community functioning that sustains not only family but all human social (and material) life. Make no mistake, individualism, as a stage in our development, has given us a lot of gifts. The idea that a woman is deserving of equal treatment by a male partner as well as in the workplace, in politics and so on, is an individualistic response to the idea that all women should just shut up and share womens’ work. Recognising individuals is a way to raise standards of care and dignity for all and the basis for understanding what equality means.

But we’re only vaguely, and only partially, individuals. In a relationship, we are never really half a person, but we are in certain ways half of a human unit, just as a kid is an integral part of its entire family, and that little family is often part of (one or two or more) bigger family networks. Our little personalities are composites of all our relatives, teachers and friends, with a strand of unique individuality hanging it all together and – crucially – enabling us to make decisions that don’t suit the community majority when we need to.

There are lots of threads here which still need untangling. How many men are still benefitting from being an individual while a woman does the team bit for them both as an unacknowledged domestic project-manager? Will they live happier lives than their wives? Are men learning to do emotion work? How are men learning how to do emotion work? And is the answer that women are doing even more emotion work to teach them? Is this always true? Is there anything wrong with the idea (or reality) of women ‘teaching’ a male partner how to communicate his needs and how to listen so he really hears? Is there anything wrong with a woman (or man) leaving a partner who is unable or unwilling to learn? Even if she/he has promised a lifelong commitment? Are there women who refuse to do emotion work despite pleas from a hetero male partner?

There are billions of us and we encounter such a tiny percentage (even if we have humungous social media networks), so we can never know in any detail what is behind divorce statistics, life expectancy figures, or what is occurring in the hearts and minds of women and men in hetero relationships, arguing about whether he is doing enough emotion work, washing up or childcare. We don’t even know how our own lives will work out.

To step outside the frame – someone once told me they were on a strict diet to reduce their cholesterol level, so that they wouldn’t be put on statins, which they don’t want. Their danger level was based on their lifestyle plus family history. They can’t do anything to change the effect of their family history on the software determining their danger level – presumably even if their relatives’ illnesses were rooted in ‘lifestyle’ factors – e.g. poor diet. This person was dieting to convince a computer of their health, but they were living an incredibly healthy lifestyle already.

How does this relate? Well to put it simply, we can’t live by statistics, and there is a danger that we may rely on them to stand in for truths about ‘men’ or ‘women’ which fit with personal experiences and make us feel better about them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware how easy it becomes as you get older to amalgamate concrete stories, first hand experiences and countless anecdotes into a truth. This kind of truth is not only helpful for our conversations with others, and to assist us in making sense of our lives, it’s also normally true! Nevertheless, we need to be sure we don’t let an amalgam of statistics and similar stories solidify into the idea that people aren’t changing, when in fact they might be. When it comes to men and emotion work, the chances are they’re changing faster now than ever before.

Whether the pace satisfies onlookers or not is another question, and to answer it we’d have to ask yet another: how can we possibly gain that kind of amalgamated overview for the here and now? Probably the answer is, we can’t, we have to move on with our lives in the same state of not-knowing that we were in when we were young and embarked on all the patriarchally-doomed relationships that those of us in the discussion group have in common. The difference is, when we were young we assumed we did know everything, and now we’re a bit wiser, we know we don’t.

 

Relationships: a blogpost getting way out of hand

less sex
Exhibit A: some yoof having less sex than we did

We picked the theme of relationships for a recent discussion group – more specifically: How have relationships changed? The first question I thought we would have to ask would be “Since when?” When the group actually took place, it provoked so many more questions that instead of simply writing this one post, I have inadvertently started an unending stream of words … which is what probably what a blog should be! Consider this part one. And here we go!

In our discussion group, we soon established our time zone, because most of us are similar in age: we zoomed in on how the war affected our grandparents and parents and then on how that has played out in the generations since. Being all women it was hard not to focus on how relationships have changed for women, but that was plenty to talk about (and don’t fight who you are…). We soon acknowledged substantial shared experiences and it became apparent that romance would probably fall off the agenda, if it was there at all.

Talking about the social developments of the twentieth century is a surprisingly effective way to view one’s own experiences (as a woman over 40) in a more objective light than usual. I was reminded of my grandmother’s joy at being in the Land Army as a youngster, and how last year I had powerfully symbolic dreams leading me to recognise that her life, in some crucial sense, went downhill ever after. She had managed to convey to me her excitement and pride at being in the LA, but never her regret at her transformation into wife, and mother of my mother (and four others). This solved the riddle for me of why this competent, jovial, affectionate person barely connected with me as her granddaughter: because she could not know or show what she ‘wanted for me’ as a woman. And because her real joy in life was at odds with the roles she embodied and modelled. She made great cookies, but she rarely looked me straight in the eyes.

Her last words to me were “I hope you find what you’re looking for.” I thought she meant “You’re a fool to jeapordise your marriage for your studies – chasing after something unwomanly, I can’t imagine what.” But perhaps she meant “Keep going and you will find your way back to the land and to yourself, for both of us.” Perhaps she was not being sarcastic.

Needless to say, changes in womanhood underlay much of our discussion and eventually I realised that I was joining in a discourse where the undesirability of heterosexual coupling, for women, was almost being taken for granted. It’s not that we had that outlook which surprised me. We each had faced significant past obstacles in hetero relationships. We had each freed ourselves from those, with varying degrees of difficulty and varying levels of damage sustained. We shared the statistics: the happiest subgroup in society (in these terms) are married men, the unhappiest are married women, and the highest level of divorce by age is by couples in their 50s. Single-person-households are still fast growing and may be (if I remember correctly) the biggest group.

What did surprise me though, is that this angle within the conversation flowed so easily for me, even while I am in a relationship that I love being in. This triggered a plethora of new questions, including:

  • It is comfortable or comforting for women across cultures and ages to hold a collective view of men as ‘trouble’ or ‘hard work’ in order to build solidarity and gain a solace which they cannot get from men?
  • If not, what does a community have to look like, in order that women-in-company can share their reflections in a balanced way, on men’s strengths and weaknesses, gifts and flaws? Can we start that conversation? Do we have the motivation?
  • Do women find themselves increasingly saying No to hetero partnerships because ‘men have got worse’, because women have become ‘more assertive’, or what?

On the whole, the most interesting spin-off question for me wouldn’t be “Since when?” or “What kind of relationships are we talking about?” or “From whose point of view?”, but “What are the major imminent changes that every generation is facing, right now?”

Young adults and adolescents are famously creating all sorts of new-fangled alternatives to apparently washed-up models like hetero marriage, not to mention ‘young people are having less sex’ in general (here’s my quick search which brought up no less than ten different articles reporting on this … take your pick of newspaper!). Many young people are reportedly scared of getting into relationships in the way that, perhaps, a majority of young women were ready and eager to do when we were their age. Is this because of the general precarity of adult economic life now? Quite possibly this is mixed, for both sexes, with confusion, or simple repellence, at the complexity and politics of hetero relationships in our time. I can’t imagine how much the appearance of likely happiness, long-term success, and equal treatment within hetero partnerships has changed in the past 30 years.

Hopefully this uncertainty is creating a fertile spawning ground for new configurations of family, romance, sexuality, companionship, solidarity, community building and shared living. It’s completely disorientating to begin regretting the demise of the nuclear family model after decades of criticising it with a vengeance.

This moment reminds me of a story I was told about the Great Storm that hit the South-East of England in 1987. An older friend told me he noticed many weeks of penetrating torrential rain, before the winds came and lifted all the trees out of the soggy earth. We saw the tragedy of millions of trees lost. Nature cares not for the 30 odd years it takes a tree to grow up.

Hearing the various statistics which each show how the nuclear family model is becoming less and less common – with 55% of children in school now NOT living with two biological parents – I do feel anxiety for young people now, in a temporary forgetting of how much I have voiced my criticisms of that model, and more importantly, lived through the hellishness of it. I pine for how my children will manage to cultivate love and perhaps even parenthood without these structures? What a fucking crock. Not only is the critique of the nuclear family a sound one, but when I was young I didn’t give a shit about how my parents did things (except to the extent that it gave me something I could be better than them at). It’s precisely because they never ‘succeeded’ in creating a nuclear family environment that I was determined to be one – and what a nice mess that made of my kids’ childhoods …

What comes to us as genuinely new is by definition not knowable in advance. Will it be better, or worse, or both? And is there anything new in the human world that isn’t, if you think about it really carefully, kids learning from their parents’ fuck ups?

Cuddle regeneration

cubsIt feels like a long time since I wrote about the explicit reason for starting this blog: to talk about non-sexual adult bodily contact. I was inspired by a dream, some other writing work, and Moulin Rouge (don’t ask me why) to come back to it, and make a massive fuss.

I have said before that I feel like the way society is currently structured means a great many people, far too many, are hugely unlikely to get as much tactile physical affection as they ideally need. Yes I know that kind of sounds like I’m just saying: some people need more cuddles. At which point you might smile kindly and say: some people should eat more vegetables, or some more people should learn a second language, et cetera. So it’s time to make my argument a bit hotter than that. (Hey, I do feel very strongly about vegetables.)

Cuddling is not a forgotten art, or a nice practice which correlates to coupledom and intimate family life. Cuddling is a birthright.

We don’t live in a society where everyone grows up getting plenty of cuddles, and then as we mature and turn into adults, we are divided into subcategories such as:

  • naturally affectionate people who are happy to hug trusted friends and family
  • people whose cuddling input was significantly compromised during/by adolescence and either re-learn over time as they mix with cuddlier adults, or drift towards a fairly low average cuddle rate
  • people who do not get cuddled because they are not that friendly or likeable, are mean or cold, or are not often trusted
  • people who do not get cuddled because they are anxious about physical contact
  • people who do not get cuddled because they prefer to avoid the social complexities that might follow on from establishing cuddle-positive friendships
  • people who hug and get hugged because they have learned that it is valuable for positive mental health and are pro-active in giving and in spreading the practice
  • people who get cuddled all the time because they are in a long-term relationship and/or family household where it is taken for granted

We are, I repeat, not living in a society where these categories I just had fun making up  explain anything at all. We are living in a society where cuddling has become much harder than it should be. Yes, I am using the S word. Should, should should should should get cuddled – more. Not could, should.

The more I come to terms with the various developed insecurities which my current relationship (and friendships) both reveal and heal, the more this primal, fundamental need shows itself for what it really is: a primal fundamental need. We have not simply evolved socially to be more independent, to be go-getters who can run for days, weeks, months and years without cuddle input, to no ill effect. We are tactile animals whose natural requirements for social belonging and emotional security include a lot of sleep-time contact with other warm individuals of the same species. This makes it sound rather psychological but it is a lot more than that. Emotionality is deeply physical.

We have evolved socially, to be expected to develop compensatory mechanisms for any lack of night-time sleeping cuddle contact to which we have become accustomed. I have no peer-reviewed scientific proof of this as yet, so sue me lol.

I am not sure to what extent hot climates and cold climates inform differences in the degree of cuddling which would be ideal for humans to participate in. Surely there are many alternative forms of physical affection, as well as of emotional reassurance and affirmations of belonging.

We are living in a society where several forces collude to deprive many individuals of night cuddle-time, regardless of how affectionate and demonstrable they are as they potter about their day.

  1. Many people live (and sleep) in households which do not contain other warm adults (or children) of the same species to cuddle up to at night
  2. Many people live (and sleep) in households which contain adults and/or children with whom cuddling at night would constitute a breach of social norms, such that cuddling at night would never arise, or if it did would be limited or be considered taboo – if it happened it might lead to anxiety, secrecy or shame
  3. The rise of individualism means it has become a cultural norm to perceive people who appear to be more or less independent of others in meeting their emotional needs as admirable and more likely to succeed in certain areas of life
  4. Showing the simple emotional need for affection, reassurance and affirmation has been discouraged in boys, sometimes brutally, over many generations in many countries – directly asking for these things has been particularly taboo
  5. Many women and men have experienced abuse by people who have close physical contact with them during their childhoods (conservative estimate about 12% globally)

Cuddling is a birthright, but to give and receive it requires relationships of trust and mutual respect and affection. Everyone knows a fake hug when they get one, though awkward hugs are not inherently bad. Ideally, they are necessary and valuable steps towards less awkward ones. Mutual trust and respect take time to develop. If we remain surrounded by an extended family and community network we grew up in we may be surrounded by people with whom we can take mutual respect and trust for granted, though see point 5 above. Even if we do not, we can, in principle, develop bonds with other humans at any time in our lives, and these can deepen over time. We can also make strong connections that are mediated by other people we have known for longer.

Cuddling is a human birthright, just as pecking is the birthright of chickens, and suckling calves is the birthright of cows. No wonder we can so easily take these rights away when we are so deeply adjusted to managing without our own.

 

 

 

 

Feminism-ism, or something

hands
Be what you are

It seems to me that as feminism enjoys a necessary resurgence it is becoming slightly easier to formulate the critique we need to get beyond it. What do I mean by beyond feminism? Possibly not what I thought I used to mean.

For a long time now I have been sitting uneasily on the feminist sidelines, refusing to refuse the label of being a feminist. Not only am I genuinely disturbed by the thought of feminist friends or any other women I know thinking of me as a non-feminist, a woman who doesn’t think women’s problems (such as structural inequality), are real or serious or worth campaigning or complaining about, I also feel by turns passionate about discrimination against women in its many forms, vile, violent and mundane, and that’s a central feminist sentiment right there.

What’s the but? I often come back round to the term pro-feminism, especially with all the waves overlapping and with post-feminism being such a hopelessly compromised term. What does it mean to be pro-feminist? What could it mean? I wonder whether identifying as a pro-feminist marks me out as not-a-woman somehow.

What does it mean to be pro-feminist if that means not quite feminist, or not feminist? Are there well-developed strands of actual feminism which I am simply not doing enough reading or research to discover, which perfectly situate me and my feminist perceptions?

To me, being pro-feminist is an essential ethical position for a man in this political and cultural moment, and I think it’s great that many more men now identify or describe themselves as feminists per se, often with explicit reference to their wives, daughters, relatives and friends, and the struggles and treatment they witness them withstanding. Is one better than the other? Is being a pro-feminist ally different from being a feminist ally? If you are a man, perhaps not. If a man calling himself a feminist was ever considered to be stepping on the toes of a woman’s identity, that time seems to have well and truly passed.

If you are woman however, and you are uneasy about the degree to which the philosophical essence of feminism may (or may not) be self-defeating, perhaps being a pro-feminist is a more honest position. Or perhaps it is just cheating, evading an honest position. If I want to support feminist causes and campaigns, but fear that there is a self-limiting aspect to the wider project, the best thing would probably be to be braver and say that I don’t identify as a feminist (because I cannot get fully behind it philosophically). But that would leave me estranged from my feminist friends: women who might be working harder than I am to effect real cultural change, which I will benefit from… back to square one. As a woman, my very indulgence in philosophy is probably indebted to past feminists.

It seems time may be a key factor. My wishfulness may be another. My perspective on men and on humans in general is obviously heavily involved, but perhaps it is the self-perpetuating nature of -isms that is at the heart of the issue.

Looking into the future I want to see feminism become redundant; arguably any feminist who doesn’t want this is a weird kind of feminist (a career feminist?). It can’t be that I want this more than most, so that therefore I distance myself from the movement in an ultimately pointless gesture of comforting, delusional futurism, or something. It can’t be that I think gazing into a post-feminist future helps anyone win battles, and it doesn’t help me feel less angry or less vulnerable each time I witness or learn about new (or old) affronts to women.

My thoughts are pushed forward by the inevitable question of what will result from our actions, or inactions. There are plenty of examples of things getting worse because of inaction and plenty of successes achieved. But where each of these are amalgamated to promote an overarching movement or philosophy, we must draw on huge generalisations – like men, and women. These are always dangerous. The million dollar question is: do they obscure far more than they reveal? I suspect they do.

My pro-feminism is about wanting to support a just cause without becoming an -ist. I have long felt happy to abstractly denounce ‘isms’ in their own right, and so this remains the simplest thread in my memory of doubt in adopting the feminist label, as my daily life and other struggles (related to my structural position as a woman and a mother), push and pull me so very far from this place where my intellect gets the luxury of forming opinions at all. I like to give isms a wide berth and I’m not afraid to say so, so why can’t I refuse (femin)ism? Because saying I am not a feminist aligns me with anti-feminists? This is the danger with isms, they are world-views, and thus by their very nature they encompass everything, and that includes everyone. If you’re not a feminist you’re part of the problem.

As a way of analysing gender relations in order to redress social inequality and improve the cultural attitudes towards women which have crushed them, feminist movements are superb and vital. Analysts still regularly provide new conceptual tools with which to assess common behavioural patterns which are covertly or demonstrably gendered power-plays, leading to real-life improvements for many people. How many of these particular gains could be achieved, or not, without the rubric of feminism? That’s not a rhetorical question. I know I don’t know.

Meanwhile, what if holding our image of ‘men’ firm, so that our project retains coherence, could prevent us from witnessing, and maybe even conceiving, the future we want where all individuals are held equally responsible for their own behaviour towards others (and, crucially, deserve the assistance of all others if they are not taught well in the first instance)? Maybe the categories of man and woman underpin a feminism-ism, an ideological layer which perpetuates the adversarial thread within gender relations. We know not all gender relations are adversarial, hell we love each other don’t we? And boy are there some noxious women about. Sure, some women’s noxiousness is rooted in their patriarchal subjection and identification. That’s exactly the same place men’s is rooted. They are still women, suffering the loss of a more enjoyable life, in the same way horrid men do.

Women aren’t responsible for teaching men how to treat women mind you; well yes in a way, but not any more than anyone else. We are all responsible for each other, because we are never really individuals in more than name. Are women responsible for their own abuse because they allowed it to happen? No. Maybe every woman who has been abused by a man because she trusted him had a father she could trust. Maybe every woman who has entertained a dangerous man even though she did not trust him had a father she loved but could not trust. Is it therefore every father’s fault if and when his daughter is abused? If not, can it be the fault of mothers that their sons abuse women and girls? How? Maybe every man who has been abused by a woman inhabits a special minority category, which we should research and give a label to? Maybe, maybe not.

To go beyond feminism used to mean to me: envisioning a post-feminist world, in the sense that major feminist goals were realised and the discourse around it fell away, and became a matter of historical interest and reflection, a celebration in fact. But it won’t be that simple. I am certain that there are fundamental obstacles to a true re-visioning of gender relations which the feminist framework holds in place. I still believe we need thousands of concerted ‘feminist’ actions and campaigns to keep bringing a better future closer, and to prevent the conditions of life for women from getting worse. I also believe we can make massive contributions to social change using feminist networks and women’s networks. Going beyond feminism means finding something which does all the work we need feminism to do, even better. It’s a sexy challenge, no?

I suspect that class now underpins virtually all social and cultural sexism and gendered abuse. (I believe that there are some evolutionary psychological reasons why it served societies to demean and devalue women. But it does not serve women, and the costs to societies of this strategy is now painfully obvious.) If ever there were a time when male and female persons were treated with a fundamental asymmetry of justice, within coercive social structures, and class was not a relevant factor, that time is literally prehistoric. The fact that men are a bit bigger is pretty interesting, but a strong person bullying a weak person isn’t sexism, it’s simply violence, it’s human immaturity. It’s also really easy to imagine through hypotheses about the work males have done while women nurtured babies, which they simply did a lot.

My basic understanding of humanity is that a civilisation or tribe or society which does not condemn almost all internal violence is more or less unheard of, and yet, yes, in every case still it erupts. I am categorically not an expert in evolution or anthropology, but I think the class roots of most contemporary sexism and oppression are sitting there waiting to be found.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Love letter to an infatuation (in two parts)

tattooPart 1. 3rd November 2016
This is the blog post I am too much of a coward even to publish anonymously to an audience of three people [until now]. By the way I love you you three people you are THE BEST.

This is the post about the man I’m currently infatuated with, written because, out of all the many people there are existing in the world, I know I shouldn’t tell him, for goodness’ sake. He won’t see it, because no-one I know sees it, because I hardly tell anyone where it is, and when I do it’s people who are almost certainly too busy to read it just as an exercise in letting me know whether my style is terrible.

He won’t see it, and so I can say that even though I am recently dumped (okay mutually separated), and have formally agreed with everyone who tells me I don’t need and shouldn’t have a boyfriend, I can’t stop thinking about him. He won’t see it, and so I can say that my memories of him have taken on a completely new direction in my mind and body and frankly, a life of their own. I can say that although I don’t know whether he finds me sexually attractive, he’ll certainly have to give it some serious thought if I get him cornered. I can say that one of the things that compels me is the way he can combine seeming to be really into me with being totally unbothered by the fact that now I am in a relationship, or that now I am single. I can say it is intoxicating to remember seeing him and feeling totally respected and cared for, without the slightest hint of enticement or aversion. I can say that his image in my mind is incredibly much like a really close, intimately trusted friend, even though from a textbook perspective we hardly know one another. I can say that I’m getting the most outrageous shots of energy through my body whenever I think about him. I can say that I am working double time to make sure that I take the steps I need to take to go forward with our friendship, knowing that it is one I want and need, without fucking it up by prejudicing its emergence so that it gets channelled by my behaviour to become either something sexual or nothing at all.

Because he won’t see this I can say that when I think about how he is, and what he’s told me, it forces me to rethink my fears and doubts about good connected platonic relationships between men and women being possible, and that in a blatant irony this is a huge turn on. I can say that the way he holds himself in his body makes me think he is fit and well and a good catch, that I want to fuck him. I can say that the way he engages me in conversations about things that I can’t stop talking about, and that strictly speaking I almost never get to talk to anyone else about, makes me think he is either really skilled at manipulating me to open up and jabber jabber jabber because he likes the sound of my voice, or my company, or that he finds my opinions interesting and shares them (or both), both of which are ridiculously attractive features for a human to have. I can say that if his interest in the things I am interested in, that I have barely begun to have decent conversations about, in spite of craving them for many years, is half as strong as mine, then if we did feel sexually attracted to one another, and we were able to act on it, that we would have something to explore that I have never had the chance to explore. I can say that that would potentially blow my mind. Good job he won’t see this because you know, no pressure.

Because he won’t see this I can say that the fact I don’t know where he lives or who with or how he spends his evenings or whether he can cook or whether he is damaged beyond repair or whether his anger management problem is under control or whether he is a recovering alcoholic or someone who just has to treat alcohol with respect or whether he hates all the music and films that I love, doesn’t matter to me, because I know how to find him, he can take care of himself, he has high standards and good taste, he has learnt when and how to protect himself, maybe even in ways that I haven’t, and he knows what is important in life, and he has laboured to heal himself, and he already knows how to be direct and touch my heart without sentimentality.

Even though I am getting tired and cold I have made another hot drink because I still want to say that I don’t want this moment of my mind to be wasted if we don’t become friends or if we do become only friends or if we almost become lovers and then fall out. I want him to know that all these things are true right now, and that most of them are always going to be true. I want him to know that even if I turn out to fuck this up totally it is not because I plan to barge headlong into his life and make assumptions about him being interested in me because he is a man and I am a woman and we are a similar age and we are, possibly, both single at the same time and because he has shown interest in my thoughts and smiled a lot and been there for me. I want him to know moreover that thinking about being truly, holistically, irresistably attractive to him makes me feel more certain than ever that I need to improve myself, in the sense that the abstract idea that one of the reasons that not being in a relationship is a good thing is that it gives me time to create greater trust in myself, to forge a deep sense of emotional independence, of self-love, to improve my physical fitness and explore my sexual body better, so that I can be a better lover in the future, better for myself and for a lover, less complacent sexually and more self-aware emotionally.

But I also want him to know that when I started to become infatuated with him I had to question these goals which I realised are really quite negative. I do want to become fitter, healthier, more productive; not like a pig in a cage; more agentic, more adventurous, more alive, more assertive, more in tune with my need to realise my dreams and my ability to make things happen. But I don’t want to use the idea that I’m not there yet as a screen behind which to hide myself from potential lovers. I don’t want to look for casual lovers so I can have sex and play with connection whilst maturely accepting that I am not really ready to be loved or worth loving by anyone with high enough standards for me to want them. I don’t want to play around with polyamory just so that I can tell myself it is okay however many times I get dumped for being not quite fit enough, a bit too passive, a bit lazy, a bit depressed, a bit smelly, a bit too poor, a bit self-deluded, a bit slow. I don’t want to look for lovers who I can be sure won’t want me for too long, so that they won’t be there to remember years later that the first time we made love I wasn’t as fit and strong and agentic as I aspire to be. When did it become okay to expect myself to be different in order to be loveable and able to love?

And if I’m loveable, if I am still however not supposed to get another boyfriend too soon, what are the criteria for being capable of taking care of myself in a relationship sufficiently, and who will decide when I am that? Am I an object of suspicion because no-one approved of my choices last time: because they understood my lover better than I did, or because they never understood him at all? Or is it a simple maths game: that I have been too long in relationships and too brief between them, and that the energy I have expended trying to sustain and protect those relatiosnhips has not only cost me dear, but has demanded energy from those around me, who I love and who love me enough to have to stay and participate? Or is it more important that I am ‘brilliant in my own company’ and therefore must not do or say anything that could create a situation where my gradually growing independence is reversed by a co-dependent relationship where my time is once again not really my own but a constant subject of negotiation, spoken and unspoken, between me and another who needs more than I am able to give or is present less than I need? Am I really at risk of being subsumed as a result of choosing to give myself over to a person who would not support me totally in doing what I need to do to become as fully alive and engaged with my passions as I can be? Can I hope to fully engage with and explore my passions while holding an arbitrary boundary around myself against passionate love?

And if I am friends with someone who I find attractive, I want to ask him, does that mean that one day I will suddenly know I am there, at the right time, because the boundary will fall away leaving desire clearly visible between us? Or does it mean that I will always fret about whether he is equally interested in me or not, and about whether while I am looking the other way, being brilliant in my own company and working on my goals and my intentions and my independence, he could be falling in love with somebody else?

Part 2. 11th November 2016
He can cook.