Monday, August 12, 2013

In Which I Expect Better

I have one friend who, upon hearing any complaints or concerns I have about living as a woman in this world, or in any discussion of poor behaviour by a member of the male gender, invariably responds "What do you expect?  You're dealing with men."

The answer is "Better.  I expect better, and I get it more often than you seem to think I would."

I reject the cynicism inherent in the idea that I just can't expect more than the most basic, short-sighted, thoughtless actions from the men in my life, that the poor dears just can't be expected to stand up for equality with me, to treat me as an equal, to examine or challenge their own experience, unless I nag and berate and bully them, unless I dumb down and ease up the experience until it's easily palatable for them.

"They're just like that and you'll have to drag them kicking and screaming to make them better," is an outgrowth of "Boys will be boys," the harmful mentality that says little boys can't be chided or disciplined for acting out in ways that are detrimental, because that's just their natural masculine rambunctiousness and they don't *mean* any harm.  You can't *teach* them that teasing little girls or pulling their pigtails as an indicator of interest is a precursor to not respecting other boundaries or communicating clearly, because That's Just How They Are.  They can't overcome their basic boy natures to be self-aware, thoughtful, compassionate, or mindful.  They can't be taught consensus-based negotiations, or open communication, because those are just things girls are better at.  And you can't teach boys *or* girls that the other side is not the enemy, because, well, girls and boys are so different that they're just natural adversaries.

Yes, by all means, let's spend their childhoods lowering the bar when it comes to respectful, mindful interaction, so that when they're adults we can say, "What do we expect?  It's how they were raised."  Let's spend the first twenty years of their lives dividing boys and girls into armed camps, setting them against one another, teaching boys to be active and girls to be passive, teaching girls that they shouldn't fight for what they want and boys that they shouldn't accept compromise, and then shake our heads when adult men and women don't have the tools to work together effectively in ways that utilise a broad skill set balancing cooperation and competition.

I expect better, and oddly enough I get it an awful lot of the time.  I expect the men in my life to support women's equality, to embrace the idea that women deserve equal pay, accessible healthcare, educational opportunities, and the same respect men get.  I expect the men in my life not to say "Well, but she wore that skirt," or "It's not sexist; women just aren't as good at math," or "Of course women don't get paid equally, because employers have to account for the fact that they're going to take time off to have and raise babies.  Plus, women just can't be aggressive enough about demanding better compensation."  When we discuss relationships and the possibility of children, I expect the men who want to be part of my life to approach that discussion without assuming I'll be the one staying home to care for them.

How do I get better behaviour from the men in my life?  I challenge them, but I don't take responsibility for how they respond to that challenge.  I let them know what my expectations are, and the ones who aren't already living in a way that meets or exceeds my expectations for decent behaviour often respond by rising to meet expectations when they know what they are.

If I communicate a boundary, I expect a man to honor it.  If I explain something about my experience as a woman, I expect him to consider it.  If I talk about inequality, I expect him to look for ways he can challenge it.  If he doesn't, or won't, then he doesn't stay in my life very long.  I won't waste my time spending six months 'training' someone to respect a clearly-communicated boundary, because there are SO MANY men I've met who respond to "These are my expectations" with "Oh, thank you so much for telling me, so I don't have to guess and fumble around and worry about offending you by saying the wrong thing, and by the way THESE are MY expectations, clearly stated and openly communicated, and man, it's kind of awesome to start a friendship/relationship from this level of understanding."

And what have these expectations for decency and equality brought me?  Some frustration and some lost friendships, to be sure.  But...the last several men I've been involved with respected my competence and intellect and felt secure in their own.  The practice of communicated expectations and boundaries has meant that my relationships have a lot fewer miscommunications and hurt feelings.  Among my male friends are people who fight as hard or harder for my equality as I do, who speak up when they hear sexist comments or rape jokes, who are mindful of the complexities of gender.  I know many fathers of daughters they're raising to be curious and fierce and smart, and fathers of sons they're raising to be empathetic and cooperative, and in general the fathers I know are raising their children to carefully consider and challenge expected gender roles (as are the mothers, but this conversation is about the quality of men in my life).

The men in my life are my allies.  They have my back, and I have theirs.  They're fighting beside me, and I stand with them.  They genuinely care about women because those women are half the population, because they don't accept the status quo, because they can see that inequality hurts everyone, not just the disenfranchised.  Even the man who asks me "Hey, what do you expect?  They're men," believes in and works for women's equality, because exceeds what he seems to believe his gender's capable of.

It won't get better unless we expect better.  And regardless of how many times I'm told that men are dogs, men are pigs, men just can't be trusted or counted on, I'm going to continue to expect better, and I'm going to choose men to be in my life who honestly, genuinely, consistently meet those expectations.

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