By CHERYL STRAYED and STEVE ALMOND, New York Times
How do I deal with my anger toward men? I go to therapy, I’m on anti-depressants and I’m trying to practice self-care. But I’m still angry. I don’t think it’s unwarranted. I’ve been sexually assaulted at least twice. We live in a time where women have more rights than ever, but our president is an alleged sexual predator. Men are socialized to be condescending toward women, and even the few who check themselves often fail.
The only way to tell if a man is a sexual assaulter is to say no, and once you’re in that position, it’s too late. I have male friends who care about me — some who’ve even been sexually assaulted themselves — but they still don’t understand my pain. In my observation, there are elements of sexism in even the healthiest relationships, and that makes me angry.
I don’t want to be emotionally unavailable to the entire sex that I am attracted to. How am I supposed to find a life partner if I can’t even find many men who treat women like equals?
— Justifiably Angry Feminist
Steve Almond Your letter made me think of James Baldwin’s famous formulation that to be African-American in this country “and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time.” You have every right to be angry with men who have harmed you, in word or deed. No man can understand how it feels to grow up female in this culture, especially not an affluent white man like myself. We are largely ignorant of what it’s like to be economically, socially, professionally and sexually bullied. Having said that, your essential beef here really isn’t with men, individually or as a population. It’s with patriarchal thought and behavior, those monstrous forms of privilege by which men control women. The deeper question we need to reckon with is why boys and men are socialized to derive their self-worth from the denigration and domination of women. The symptoms of this mind-set — discrimination, abusive behavior, rape — are infuriating. But beneath this rage lurks a deep sorrow that belongs to all of us.
Cheryl Strayed Your rage is justified, Angry Feminist. I won’t list all the reasons, because you already did that quite well. We both know the list of injustices goes on. It stretches around the globe and dates back through all time. Strangely, it helps me to remember that. Perhaps remembering that will be solace for you too. Here’s why: There’s no way to make an accounting of that infuriating list without seeing also that progress has been made. I know your most immediate fury is rooted in the specific problem you have in your own life — the question of how you can love (or even find) a man when so many have wronged or disappointed you. But sometimes our most particular sorrows are eased ever so slightly when we take a broader view. The fact that your anger can even be expressed in the terms that you’ve expressed it is evidence, to me, that change is afoot. The reasons you cite for your anger — the high incidence of sexual assault, the misogyny of our president and the nation that elected him, the sexism that even enlightened men (and women) enact — aren’t topics being discussed on the margins anymore. They’re being addressed far and wide, loud and clear. And many of our most powerful institutions and assumptions about men and woman are being rocked, if not yet toppled. Take heart in that.
SA Abusive men are beginning to be held to account, which is to say: Women are being believed. But there’s still a vast segment of our population that refuses to confront the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault. They’ve chosen, instead, to normalize and even lionize cruel and predatory behavior. In my view, this moral regression — like the resurgence of overt bigotry in our political discourse — marks the panicky response of a dominant culture feeling the tremors that Cheryl alludes to above. But this style of thought is also nourished by a consumer culture that profits from sowing doubt. Men are indoctrinated to associate power with predation, and women with seduction and submission. This paradigm, epitomized in the simulated pleasure of hetero-normative pornography, will only begin to diminish in force as we reject the dishonesty of a sexual discourse founded on misogynistic myths.
CS I can’t predict if you’ll ever find a man who treats you like an equal, but I can say you’re more likely to find one if you seek love from a place of personal power rather than desolation. We change our lives (and sometimes the world) by deciding to do things differently than we’ve done them before. Perhaps for you that means reframing your justified anger. Your rage is a simmering pot of despair that can do nothing but sink you. If instead you can direct it down channels that empower you, it will serve an important purpose in your life. This could be as small as speaking up rather than remaining silent when you observe sexism or as big as getting involved with an organization or cause whose mission is gender equity (and you might even meet some good guys there). It’s difficult not to feel burned by the patriarchy. We have been burned. But, as we know — around the globe and through all time — the best things rise from the ashes.
SA Anger is a proper response to injustice. But so is empowerment, as Cheryl suggests. Place your faith in the feminist philosopher Bell Hooks. “Love cannot exist in any relationship that is based on domination and coercion,” she observes. “A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to loving.” Any man worth your time will recognize this. This does not mean that men will cease to disappoint you. The patriarchy wasn’t built in a day; it won’t be dismantled in a day. Nor do any of us move through life free of darker impulses. But there are men capable of owning their self-doubt rather than turning it against women. You deserve such a man. We all do.
Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.