Thoughts on Relationships and Privilege

The social contract between men and women may never be successfully renegotiated.

A video circulated recently on Facebook describing why Australian men find success in relationships with Asian women, with the rationale that “they both know their roles” and the subtext that Australian men are either frustrated with the lack of equity in relationships with Australian women or are confused as to what their role should be. It’s a volatile topic because there are issues of imperialism and culture, and the video attracted a heavy share of criticism. It’s hard to say whether these men are simply exploiting Western privilege and whether these Asian women given the power of choice would still adopt the same gender roles.

One person commented “1962 called, and they want their dated sexism back”, but I get it. I understand why this is a “thing”.

What is innate to being a man or a woman? One of the core ideas of modern feminism is that our traditional conceptions of this are founded in gender roles that are toxic, that gender is a construct and gender differences are artificial. While I agree with this to some extent, when taken to extremes and applied to biological sex this idea can erase the very real physical differences between them.

The privilege of being male is and will remain the advantage of being physically more powerful, not universally but as a rule. And the best possible use of a privilege is to put it to service of those that don’t have it, which is what is confirmed to me in discussions with women when what they say they want from men is:

Protection.

One of the biggest struggles of our age is the renegotiation of the social contract between men and women. That how we choose to show up for each other is fair and equitable. So in extending my privilege, what would I ask for in return?

I’m talking about what I think this means and what the concerns are from a heterocentric standpoint, not out of a desire to exclude queer experiences but because I think their concerns play out differently. And it is just as important to accept those of us who relate to and identify with gender-as-binary as it is to accept those of us who do not. I think that’s an important distinction.

One privilege women have mostly enjoyed over men is the granting and encouragement of emotional fluidity. I don’t know if this will one day disappear as an advantage but in 2016 it is very real. And it’s true that I see women being emotionally supportive of men and encouraging them to extend their emotional range.

But I also see women who refer to a man’s emotional rigidity with disdain, who ignore the cultural impositions men have grown up with and just expect them to “do the work” without any compassion for how difficult that might be. Who talk about “emotional labour” without conceding that emotional repression is labour for the one who carries it.

In my daily life I move amongst other men who still treat emotional sensitivity with contempt, and my reality as a man is that there are times I have to police myself in order to access some of the same social capital that in these days of greater equality women can take for granted.

The other day I was listening to another man talking about buying jewellery for his wife. Having mispronounced the name, I corrected him for clarification – “Swarovski?” I suggested. “What, are you a girl?” was his reply. I laughed at him. I have unpacked enough of my own gender identity rules that I can easily withstand a challenge to them, but this is only a recent development. At a younger age I might have been cowed into feigning an ignorance of “feminine” interests, or worse – questioning my masculinity.

This is what gender policing looks like. What’s interesting is how quick men are to impose our gender rules on others, after all that is what has been done to us practically all our lives.

Whenever I see a new book or a new idea proclaiming a vision of masculinity I shake my head. It’s the same problem, the same sickness, the same abuse. There is no “new” masculinity – only your masculinity.

Please don’t ever tell a guy to man up, or place conditions on what a “real man” or a “good man” is. Take a minute to gender-flip this and you will see that it is chauvinistic as hell.

It might be that we never arrive at a common-culture social contract between men and women, that those days are behind us and all aspects of our relationship roles are negotiated in each relationship. It means relationships are more work now. Or maybe relationships have always taken this much work.

What privileges would you extend in a relationship, and what would you ask for?