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Love and Feminism

imagesUntil I read Bell Hooks books on feminism and love – Communion: The female search for love and All About Love – I would have sworn that I supported women (and men’s) liberation in every aspect of my life. But after the first few chapters I became painfully aware of the fact that I haven’t applied the same understanding and equality I try to faithfully practice at work, with friends, raising children and doing household chores to my intimate romantic life.

In Communion, Ms. Hooks says, “Some men cared enough to consent to feminist thinking and to change, but only a very, very few loved us – loved us all the way. And that meant respecting our sexual rights.”

I always think of my partners pleasure and satisfaction during sex and am turned on by her joy as much or more than my own sensations, but I also see how I have used coercion, control, emotional distancing and blame in the past to get what I wanted. I continually gave her the message (unconsciously and nonverbal) that she was never “good enough”. I always wanted her to be more sexual more often with greater variety and be different than she was or is, in order to fulfill my desires, perceived needs and fantasies. The underlying implications were “if you don’t change or be more like I want you to be, I’ll have to leave and find someone else.” It created a sense of fear and rejection.

Seeing this reality shattered my self-image of always being a loving, caring man and helped me acknowledge how often I and the continually reinforced messages from society, have caused such intense and long lasting loneliness for those women seeking loving, shared partnerships with men. Hooks states, “Feminist silence about love reflects a collective sorrow about our powerlessness to free all men from the hold patriarchy has on their minds and hearts. Our heartache came from facing the reality that if men were not willing to holistically embrace feminist revolution, then they would not be in an emotional place where they could offer us love.”

I began to realize that it is love and connection that I desire most, not sex. I no longer need sex to reassure me that I am loved or wanted. In the past, having someone desire and want me sexually meant that they loved me. If they didn’t have sex as often as I wanted I reacted out of fear and sadness believing it meant they didn’t love me completely. Out of this sadness I would react with frustration and anger by trying to get them to “prove” their love for me with sex or by emotionally distancing myself and not talking in order to “protect” myself from having expectations or “being hurt”.

These reactions and I believe that of most men, are not realities I have totally ignored, but until reading hooks words I hadn’t really taken them to heart and honestly confronted my own patriarchal fears and thinking in the matter of love and relationships. It felt like Bell had me in her sights when she said, “Feminist women stopped talking about love because we found that love was harder to get than power. Men, and patriarchal females, were more willing to give us jobs, power, or money than they were to give us love. Women who learn to love represent the greatest threat to the patriarchal status quo.”

While reading Communion some kind of switch went on in my head. At first it opened the floodgates of grief over my part in perpetuating such alienation and pain. Then a kind of peace engulfed me – a new found love and acceptance of myself and my partner. I am less stressed and anxious about the future and don’t try to make people be different than who they are. Is it any surprise that my partner has also experienced more peace with herself and in bed? She no longer has to worry or wonder if she will ever “be enough” or meet my suffocating patriarchal images of how she “should” be.

As I learn to love, without depending on her to fulfill or “make” that love, she to is finding that our mutual appreciation and respect for what is present, rather than what is absent, has deepened every aspect of our lives. Neither of us need the other person’s “approval” to love or be loved.

Ms. Hooks insightfully reminds her readers that, “Knowing that both women and men are socialized to accept patriarchal thinking should make it clear to everyone that men are not the problem. The problem is patriarchy.” The problem is our refusal to acknowledge our own behavior in the most intimate moments of our lives and the fear of real connection and closeness that keeps us perpetuating the myths and lies about the minor differences of genes, gender and genetics.

My Dream Girl

Cindy was a mature woman of sixteen. I was an immature man of eighteen. We met in the afternoon at a teen drop-in center, gazed hopelessly into one anothers eyes, like puppy dogs and within hours were talking about hooking up. That night we slept together for the first time and I was in heaven. I’d had several previous relationships, but none had ever been this intense or instantaneous.

Within a week Cindy had her mother’s permission to live with me and my grandmother said we could rent her trailer. Everything was set. Life was good. Cindy taught me the joy of sexual freedom and living in the moment and I obediently followed her every wish and whim to “make her happy”. I was so enmeshed in the sensations of the relationship that I failed to recognize my co-dependent and needy behavior. In my mind sex and love were one and the same.

I continued working at a counseling center and Cindy finished up her last year of high school. I studied Eastern religions on the side and she enjoyed drawing and working part-time at a florist shop. The only “minor” issue was that I couldn’t “make her happy” or give her the answers she was seeking. We were two young teenagers growing up together who had no idea what we were doing, what we wanted or where we were going.

After two tumultuous years we figured the answer to our dilemma was to get married. Why not? Wasn’t that what you were supposed to do? And even though it didn’t mean much to us at the time, we figured the worst that could happen is that we’d receive a lot of cool presents! Getting married was “just a piece of paper” we reasoned. Both of our parents had divorced and we knew we’d “always be together” regardless of any societal contract we may sign.

The wedding turned out as planned. All of our friends and relatives showed up at the reception, we got plastered and received a lot of money and presents. But after the money was spent and the wedding hangover wore off, the realities of what we had done creeped into our daily lives. We didn’t know what being married meant. I thought it implied getting a “steady job” and having children. So, I obtained a nine to fiver at the local phone company and we talked about having kids and buying a house. Lukily, neither the house nor the kids worked out because a year later it was splits-ville, as in divorce, finale, kaput, the end.

Screaming was the only thing that finally got my attention. Slamming the door shut behind her, Cindy entered the living room late one evening and yelled at the top of her lungs, “I can’t live with you anymore. I want a divorce!”

“Why,” I pleaded. “What do you want me to do?”

“Nothing,” she said. “Why don’t you stand up for yourself? Will you be real with me just once?”

“OK,” I replied, “What do you want me to say?”

“You don’t understand do you?” she replied. I sat silently with my head in my hands. After a deathly silence she quietly said, “I just need some space to be by myself. I moved in with you right from home. I’ve never been on my own.”

“So it’s nothing I’ve done or said?” I asked, my lip quivering.

“No, its not you,” she said.

In fact, it had a lot to do with me. She moved out a few days later and in a month was living with another guy.

Her decision to leave was not entirely out of the blue. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, she had been trying to separate for months. Other than running away, she had given me every clue possible, but I was blind. Her anger and judgments were an attempt to alienate me. She had thrown every name in the book my direction, at one time or another, assuming I’d leave. But like a faithful lap dog I had kept coming back for more.

At one point she insisted I sleep with her friend Lewellen and that we have an “open relationship”. I tried to do as she wished and acted like it was all cool, but it wasn’t. It turns out that the reason she had wanted me to be with other women was because she had already been having affairs with some of my best friends and I assume would have felt less guilty about her own behavior if I’d done the same.

When she left my bubble burst. I thought it was the end of the world. My dependence on her “being happy” as an indicator of my well-being had been total and complete. In the process of making her “OK”, I’d forgotten about myself; my wishes, desires, joys, ambitions and dreams. I had no sense of who “I” was or what made me happy.

Time didn’t heal anything, but it did give me some perspective. Clearly, I had sacrificed what little sense of my self I had ever had for Cindy. As long as I left all decisions to her it would be “her fault” whenever something didn’t work out. I was absolved from all wrong doing. I could blame her for everything. I could wallow in my self-pity and externalize all my troubles. “She did it, not me. She lied to me. She left me. She hurt me.”

I slowly recognized that I had made decisions by not deciding. I had lied to myself. I was equally responsible for our breakup. She tried to force me to be honest and state my needs, but I had cowered from the task. Shock tactics and reasoning never worked. Getting a divorce was what it finally took for me to wake up. It was the brick wall I needed to run into. If Cindy had not had the courage to leave I may have been lingering in a false identity for eons.

Like a snake that sheds it’s skin but still longs for its security, I kept aching for Cindys return. Even though I learned many things about myself since the divorce, images of us getting back together still lingered with sweet agony. Intellectually, I understood such images were fantasy, but my dependence on her for my well-being had been so complete that it took constant reality bites to loosen my grasp and let go of her as my emotional crutch.

Attachment is a strange thing; it can cause bliss and joy or pain and sorrow and you can’t have one without the other. When I grasped for love with Cindy I actually pushed it away with my wanting and neediness. She lost respect for me. The thing I wanted most didn’t want me. There was no substance or core to who I was. I decided to never put all my cookies in one jar. Until I knew who I was and what I wanted, I would not become involved with another woman. I silently swore that I’d never become so dependent on another for my happiness and well-being.

Such self-promises proved to be fruitless. Three more women entered my front door over the next three years and sooner or later left out the back porch. Each time I “knew” it was different than before. But sure enough, as each relationship ended and I had some perspective, it become clear that I couldn’t hide a wolf in sheep’s clothing. No matter how much I wanted to think I had changed, my basic behavior in response to each situation had been the same. They decided when to do what and when the relationship was over; not I. It wasn’t until a conflicted eight-year marriage ended, that I took responsibility and made a painful choice to leave.

After many years I believe I’ve finally figured out how to love and be loved, but I know that isn’t the most original idea that’s ever been planted in my head. I’ve been known to tell myself the most wonderful stories; and they always have happy endings. Every woman I met was the girl of my dreams. It wasn’t until I became more of who it was I was looking for, that I woke up and found the partner I’d been seeking in all my fantasies.

In Bed With Feminists

Until I read Bell Hooks books on feminism and love – Communion: The female search for love and All About Love – I would have sworn that I supported women (and men’s) liberation in every aspect of my life. But after the first few chapters I became painfully aware of the fact that I haven’t applied the same understanding and equality I try to faithfully practice at work, with friends, raising children and doing household chores to my intimate romantic life.

In Communion, Ms. Hooks says, “Some men cared enough to consent to feminist thinking and to change, but only a very, very few loved us – loved us all the way. And that meant respecting our sexual rights.”

I always think of my partners pleasure and satisfaction during sex and am turned on by her joy as much or more than my own sensations, but I also see how I have used coercion, control, emotional distancing and blame in the past to get what I wanted. I continually gave her the message (unconsciously and nonverbal) that she was never “good enough”. I always wanted her to be more sexual more often with greater variety and be different than she was or is, in order to fulfill my desires, perceived needs and fantasies. The underlying implications were “if you don’t change or be more like I want you to be, I’ll have to leave and find someone else.” It created a sense of fear and rejection.

Seeing this reality shattered my self-image of always being a loving, caring man and helped me acknowledge how often I and the continually reinforced messages from society, have caused such intense and long lasting loneliness for those women seeking loving, shared partnerships with men. Hooks states, “Feminist silence about love reflects a collective sorrow about our powerlessness to free all men from the hold patriarchy has on their minds and hearts. Our heartache came from facing the reality that if men were not willing to holistically embrace feminist revolution, then they would not be in an emotional place where they could offer us love.”

I began to realize that it is love and connection that I desire most, not sex. I no longer need sex to reassure me that I am loved or wanted. In the past, having someone desire and want me sexually meant that they loved me. If they didn’t have sex as often as I wanted I reacted out of fear and sadness believing it meant they didn’t love me completely. Out of this sadness I would react with frustration and anger by trying to get them to “prove” their love for me with sex or by emotionally distancing myself and not talking in order to “protect” myself from having expectations or “being hurt”.

These reactions and I believe that of most men, are not realities I have totally ignored, but until reading hooks words I hadn’t really taken them to heart and honestly confronted my own patriarchal fears and thinking in the matter of love and relationships. It felt like Bell had me in her sights when she said, “Feminist women stopped talking about love because we found that love was harder to get than power. Men, and patriarchal females, were more willing to give us jobs, power, or money than they were to give us love. Women who learn to love represent the greatest threat to the patriarchal status quo.”

While reading Communion some kind of switch went on in my head. At first it opened the floodgates of grief over my part in perpetuating such alienation and pain. Then a kind of peace engulfed me – a new found love and acceptance of myself and my partner. I am less stressed and anxious about the future and don’t try to make people be different than who they are. Is it any surprise that my partner has also experienced more peace with herself and in bed? She no longer has to worry or wonder if she will ever “be enough” or meet my suffocating patriarchal images of how she “should” be.

As I learn to love, without depending on her to fulfill or “make” that love, she to is finding that our mutual appreciation and respect for what is present, rather than what is absent, has deepened every aspect of our lives. Neither of us need the other person’s “approval” to love or be loved.

Ms. Hooks insightfully reminds her readers that, “Knowing that both women and men are socialized to accept patriarchal thinking should make it clear to everyone that men are not the problem. The problem is patriarchy.” The problem is our refusal to acknowledge our own behavior in the most intimate moments of our lives and the fear of real connection and closeness that keeps us perpetuating the myths and lies about the minor differences of genes, gender and genetics.

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