Romantic rejection, gendered blame, and narratives we need to change

I’ve been reading so much–probably more than I should–about the Isla Vista shootings. There’s been so much important analysis of Elliot Rodger’s misogyny and racism. There have been so many women sharing their stories of everyday sexism, harassment, and abuse–and their experiences of not being believed by men. There have been reminders that stigmatizing mental illness and Asperger’s syndrome is not the answer. I’ll be rounding up the best of these pieces soon.

But what jumped out at me is the tiny, innocent kernel of pain hidden somewhere deep inside Rodger’s twisted worldview: the pain of romantic and sexual rejection. And the ways that men and women are socialized to deal with that rejection differently. (I will note that this post deals with the socialization of men who date women, and women who date men. As a straight woman, I can’t speak to the experiences of queer people, but I would not be surprised if they’re similar in some ways, different in others, and compounded by constant cultural erasure.)

When I read about Elliot Rodger–or any of the innumerable men whose sense of entitlement to women’s bodies has turned deadly–I always have a brief glimmer of recognition of that pain, mixed with overwhelming sadness, disgust, and rage. Obviously, no amount of pain excuses Rodger’s actions, and most people manage to deal with rejection without resorting to violence. But his case is an extreme example of cultural dynamics that are all too common.

I know that primal need for connection. I know what it’s like to spend years wanting it, watching seemingly everyone else have it, wondering why you’re left out.

But what I don’t know is a feeling of entitlement to anyone else’s body. When men are rejected, they’re socialized to blame women; when women are rejected, we’re socialized to blame ourselves. This is what patriarchy looks like: no matter who does the rejecting, women are at fault.

I still remember trying not to cry at a school dance in sixth grade because my crush was slow-dancing with his girlfriend and I had no one to dance with. Over the years, it didn’t get better–I just got used to it.

Yes, I was angry. But I turned my anger inwards, like women are taught to do in a million insidious ways. Before I came across fat acceptance, I blamed my body; afterwards, I just wondered what was wrong with me, even when I knew intellectually that it was a matter of luck. I clung to Kate Harding’s “On Dumb Luck” like a life preserver, trying so hard to believe it.

Then, by sheer dumb luck, I was in the right place at the right time to meet Steve, and the rest is history.

Rejection happens. Dating is never going to be smooth or seamless or pain-free. Sadness and anger about that are perfectly normal. But too often our culture twists that anger into woman-hatred, both internalized and externalized. It’s time to say, enough. We need new cultural narratives, new coping strategies.

This is what I wish I could say to every young person–male, female, or non-binary–reeling from romantic rejection or lack of attention. This is what I want teenagers to know in their bones, long before their desires have the chance to twist into something malignant.

1.) You are enough. You are whole just as you are, whether or not you have a partner(s).

2.) Your desires are normal and natural. It’s human to want connection and to hurt when you can’t find it. (It’s also normal and natural not to want sex or romance, or to prioritize other things over them. There’s nothing wrong with you if you don’t care that much right now, or ever.)

3.) It’s ok to feel pain and anger. It’s not ok to take that anger out on other people. Punch a pillow instead, or buy some cheap porcelain mugs and smash them on the ground. Cry. Write in a journal. Write angry letters and then burn them. Rant to your friends. See a therapist if you think it might help. There’s no shame in that–going to therapy doesn’t mean you’re broken. It just means that sometimes shit is hard, and it can help to process it with someone neutral.

4.) You are never entitled to another person’s body. Repeat: you are never entitled to another person’s body.

5.) Likewise, no one is entitled to your body. No matter what. (Updated 5/30/14 to add this after Ziya suggested it.)

6.) As unfair as it can feel–and believe me, I remember exactly what that aching unfairness felt like–the world doesn’t owe you a partner. It’ll happen if and when it happens. There are things you can do to increase the odds of meeting someone, and to make yourself more interesting to potential partners, but ultimately it’s a matter of sheer dumb luck.

7.) Dating can be especially hard if you’re a member of one or more marginalized groups that are culturally desexualized and/or hypersexualized. That’s not fair, and it’s fucked-up as hell. It’s important to speak up, to call out the ways that racism, fatphobia, ableism, classism, transphobia, biphobia, and other forms of oppression play out in the dating scene. But it still doesn’t mean that any one person, or the world in general, owes you a partner.

8.) It’s ok to be jealous of people who have what you want. It’s ok to withdraw from them when it’s just too painful to be around happy couples. It’s even ok to hate them within the privacy of your own head. But it’s never ok to hurt them, or anyone.

9.) When you hear things like “The only common factor in your failed relationships/dates/etc is you,” take it with a grain of salt. Sometimes a string of rejections genuinely isn’t about you, especially if you’re dating within a small pool where the odds of finding a compatible partner are lower. But if you stop thinking of potential partners as human, and start seeing them as objects to be won or conquered, then you become the problem. So don’t do that. Remember that the people you want to date are people too, with their own interests and desires.

10.) You will get through this. You’re stronger than you think.

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22 thoughts on “Romantic rejection, gendered blame, and narratives we need to change

  1. A lot of what you’ve written here sounds pretty scary in the context of a man rejected by a woman.

    If a man is rejected by a woman and chooses to channel his anger by complaining about her to his friends, or burning or breaking things, I think that has to be seen as extremely threatening. Not to the same extent as shooting somebody, no, but still, dangerous. But you advise people to engage in this kind of behaviour, so… that’s worrying.

    I think better advice for a man rejected by a woman is to take a good hard look at himself, the way he treats women anjd those less powerful than him in general, and maybe turn the negative of a rejection into a positive by trying to do some self-improvement. And maybe if he can relate to women in a more positive and respectful way, then the next time he is interested in a woman, she won’t reject him!

    • Really? You think that venting to your friends about being rejected, writing letters to get your feelings out and then burning them, or breaking things (that you’ve bought specifically for the purpose of breaking, and don’t belong to anyone else or have any particular significance) is dangerous? I think those are normal and healthy coping behaviors for both men and women.

      I should make it clear that when I talk about such behaviors, I’m talking about doing them in your own private space, not anywhere where the person who rejected you can see/hear. I thought that was obvious, but just in case it wasn’t clear and that’s why you think the behaviors sound dangerous, I’ll clear that up now.

      What I find dangerous is the idea that if you improve yourself and treat potential partners respectfully, you won’t get rejected. That’s just not how it works. You can be the most positive, respectful, awesome man ever, and you might still get rejected because the woman doesn’t feel that you’re compatible, or just met someone else, or isn’t in the right space to date right now, or any number of reasons that are not about you. Being an interesting person and being respectful of women are things you should do anyway, but they’re not guarantees that anyone will want to date you.

      I think there are definitely some cases in which your advice would be helpful to individual men, but as a blanket statement to *all* men, I don’t think it’s useful at all.

    • A few more clarifications: when I talk about anger, I’m talking about it as an emotion. Feeling angry doesn’t necessarily mean blaming the other person or wishing them ill–it’s just a feeling, and it’s neither good nor bad. It just is. (Can you tell I have a bit of a background in Buddhist thought?) What matters is how you act on the feeling, and the things I suggested are ways to deal with the emotion of anger without actually harming anyone else.

      Writing a letter to someone and then burning (or otherwise destroying) it is a particularly common piece of advice I’ve heard around the internet–it’s a good way to get all of your feelings out without dumping them on the other person. Venting to your friends is also a good idea–if anything, most men could use *more* intimate discussions about vulnerability and feelings with their friends, not fewer. I know there’s a fine line between talking about how hurt/frustrated/disappointed/angry you feel about this particular woman and ranting about women in general, but what I’m encouraging is the former, and I think it’s definitely possible to do it without sliding into the latter as long as you keep in mind that women are human (which I talked about in this post).

      Smashing mugs is something I’ve done when I was feeling hurt and angry over a particularly painful rejection, and I found it really helpful. Yes, I’m a woman, but I wouldn’t have a problem with a man doing the same thing in the privacy of his own space.

      • The thing is, your suggestions are what men are already socialised to do. Hanging out with your “bros” and complaining about women who reject you is a massive part of masculine culture. So is the idea that the most productive way to express strong emotions is through violence. These don’t produce healthy emotional processing, instead they contribute strongly to the horrific misogyny expressed by people like Rodger, and Sodini, and countless others.

        You’re right of course that no matter how feminist a man is there is no guarantee a woman will want to date him. I shouldn’t have said that. But I think if we look at our two different prescriptions, mine has definite advantages over yours. When a man chooses to deal with rejection through violence and character assassination of the person who rejected him, there is a chance that it will spiral into something even more toxic and directly dangerous. But if a man chooses to deal with rejection through feminist self-examination, what’s the risk? At worst he has become a better person.

    • So basically, if a woman rejects a man, it is always his fault and always because he doesn’t respect women. He shouldn’t allowed to just vent his own anger. He should, you know, just hold it in.

      That’s basically everything wrong with how boys are socialized.

      • Zazx- exactly!

        Kalvarnsen – what Zazx said. Encouraging men to bottle up their feelings is the opposite of helpful. Feminist self-examination is great, and all men should do it–but it’s not a substitute for processing the immediate painful feelings that follow a rejection or breakup.

        Also, venting your frustrations to your friends and engaging in non-violent, non-harmful ways of getting out your anger like the ones I mentioned in this post =! violence and character assassination. Healthy emotional processing can take a lot of different forms; anger is not inherently bad, as long as you recognize it as a feeling that will pass, rather than a justification to harm others.

        • It’s hard for me to imagine how a man can complain about a woman rejecting him without getting into character assassination, either of the overt kind where he calls her vicious names (that I won’t repeat here, but we all know what I mean) or the more covert but just as damagint ype where he sets himself up as a martyr, whines about being a “nice guy” who is “friend zoned”.

          Anger at rejection is a sign that a man feels entitled to a woman’s sexuality, a product of patriarchy that encourages him to feel rage and express it through verbal violence among friends and physical violence when his “right” to women’s bodies is denied to him. Anger is not inherently bad, I agree, but a man who feels anger after being rejected by a woman is part of the problem.

          I don’t blame men for feeling this anger, they are victims of patriarchy too. But the best thing to do is question where the anger comes from, try to understand what they are really feeling, try to see things from a different perspective. What I talked about above isn’t part of that.

          Anyway, I totally disagree that feminist self-examination is not a way to process feelings.

          • “It’s hard for me to imagine how a man can complain about a woman rejecting him without getting into character assassination…” How about this: “Ugh, so-and-so rejected me and it really hurt, I am so pissed off I just want to smash things, ugghhhhh.” Complaining about a a painful experience doesn’t necessarily have to entail name-calling, martyrdom, or nice-guy whining.

            Anger at rejection *can* be a sign that a man feels entitled to a woman’s sexuality, but it doesn’t have to be. As a woman, I’ve been angry as hell over being rejected, and it had nothing to do with feeling entitled to the other person’s body; it had to do with feeling hurt and upset and pissed off at the universe that I had met this guy who seemed really awesome, and we seemed to click, and then he decided he wasn’t interested. It had to do with feeling like something I wanted so badly was finally within reach, and then having it ripped away from me for reasons beyond my control. I knew, intellectually, that the guy in question hadn’t done anything wrong–but I still felt anger toward him, and in general. It had nothing to do with thinking I had a right to his body, and everything to do with being in intense emotional pain.

            It’s not hard for me to imagine a man feeling basically the same way. Yes, men are generally socialized to feel entitled to women’s bodies, but that doesn’t mean all men do. If women can feel angry without necessarily feeling entitled, I’m pretty sure men can too, even if it’s less common.

            “Anger is not inherently bad, I agree, but a man who feels anger after being rejected by a woman is part of the problem.”

            WOW, no. Shaming men for having feelings is not helpful to women, not at all. I don’t know how many times I can say that what matters is not the emotion you feel, but how you act on it. A man who feels anger after being rejected by a woman is human. A man who uses that anger to harm women is a misogynist. There’s a huge difference.

          • One more thing: I am not on board with shaming people for having emotions, period. I think it’s important to analyze the way that male anger often functions in ways that enforce entitlement and misogyny, BUT that’s not the same thing as saying that it’s inherently wrong for a man to feel angry after being rejected (but presumably, ok for a women to feel angry?). It’s ok for people to feel however they feel, especially about something as deep and personal as romantic rejection.

            • Yes, the anger of a woman is different from the anger of a man. Female anger is often the product of being oppressed. When a man rejects a woman, all too often he does so because of the patriarchy – because she doesn’t fit into the patriarchal mold of what a female sexual partner should be. The anger of a man, on the other hand, similarly all too often stems from his failure to attain the entitlements to women’s bodies that the patriarchy tells him is his birthright. In other words, the woman is angry because she’s denied something she actually does have a right to (that is, the right to be considered a genuine desirable woman regardless of her body type, sexuality or appearance), but the man is angry because he’s denied something he actually has no right to (the unquestioning sexual submission of whatever woman he expresses an interest in).

              No, I’m not saying this is true literally 100% of the time, but it’s true an awful lot, which is why I think we need to be careful about making general statements encouraging men to wallow in their anger. I know you’re not actually encouraging men to go out and attack women, but I think my suggestion does a lot more to discourage them. And as I said below, a man who says he is too angry about being rejected to do any self-examination is just another man making another excuse as to why he can’t examine his actions through a feminist perspective. Women’s anger doesn’t prevent them from seeing the world through feminist eyes, so why should men get a pass?

      • I am not saying he should hold it in, I am saying he should process it through feminist formed self-examination. He absolutely should not give in to the urge to indulge in verbal violence or physical violence, particularly verbal violence against women.

        Teaching boys that breaking things and insulting people is an appropriate response to disappointment is actually EXACTLY how boys are socialised. Is that your problem with patriarchy, that it doesn’t encourage boys to break things enough?

        • I think we disagree on some pretty major foundational stuff, because I don’t see any of the things I listed as “verbal violence or physical violence, particularly verbal violence against women.” I see them as safe, non-harmful ways to release anger for people of any gender.

          “I am not saying he should hold it in, I am saying he should process it through feminist formed self-examination.” But when you’re in pain, sometimes you just need to release that pain and anger before you can do anything constructive. Sometimes you just need to vent before you can get into the headspace for thoughtful self-examination. Again, I am all for feminist self-examination. I just don’t think that telling men they need to process their feelings in one way, and only one way, is useful or reasonable. People (including men!) are complex, and sometimes need to use multiple coping strategies, multiple ways of working through emotions.

          • In my conversations with men I’m always hearing excuses for why they can’t look at their male privilege in a critical way, and “Oh my feelings just aren’t ready for that” is a pretty common one. It’s not an excuse I’m very well disposed towards. It saddens me that these men are so unwilling to do anything that would hurt their feelings, but are just completely ignorant of the feelings of the women that their privilege hurts.

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