What it’s really like to be a man in 2019

Posted by for Life

The world is correcting its balance: women’s rights are being prioritised and male superiority isn’t a given. With this in mind, we asked our anonymous writer how it really feels to be a man right now.

Billie says:

I’d love to find out how it feels to be man in these times. The common complaint is that men are worried about putting a foot wrong, and that’s breeding resentment and making it very hard to coexist. 

Our anonymous male writer says:

I hadn’t thought about ‘institutional sexism’ or ‘internalised misogyny’ until recently. Not gonna lie, I had no idea what those terms actually meant before #MeToo came hurtling into full view. 

I’m in my late 20s and, for most of my adult life, I believed in equality without understanding it. I thought women were equal so they were equal, right? I’d done my bit in simply acknowledging that no human should be inherently inferior. Give me my ice cream, I’ve been a good boy. 

But my actions were different. I remember small things. An argument on a bus about nothing much at all. She was talking loudly on her phone and had pissed everyone off shouting about her boring office beef. I was tired, hot, annoyed. In the end I said something and she said something and then we were shouting. I called her ‘a fucking stupid bitch’, realising that power was mine. I was in no danger as a six foot-tall man, and could say whatever I liked.

"For most of my adult life, I believed in equality without understanding it."
"For most of my adult life, I believed in equality without understanding it."

That day, I got off at my stop and thought nothing more about it. I probably even felt a sense of smugness that I had finally stood up to an obnoxious mouth-breather. I’m not alone in living that contradiction: supporting women while taking advantage of them. My generation, I’d like to think, don’t see gender as a ‘superior/inferior’ situation. But that’s not true. A large percentage of men still think in quasi-caveman terms: men are strong and women are weak and everything else works off that concept. Though I didn’t realise it at the time, I was part of that. ‘That woman on the bus isn’t acting very ladylike, is she?’ I thought. ‘Someone should tell her.’

Every man owes themselves, and everyone around them, the courtesy of due diligence. If any man in your life hasn’t already done a comprehensive appraisal of their past actions then now’s the time. It’s usually too late to go back and fix the past, but I can have a red-hot go at not mucking up the future.

My own sheet isn’t ideal. I’ve used loaded language, condescended and dismissed, talked over and about and around women. Things I learned to call ‘microaggressions’, but sometimes there were larger aggressions, too.

Like calling someone a fucking bitch in an argument when I knew I wouldn’t call a man that. Or sleeping with someone I had no intention of being in a relationship with, but implying that I could be, just enough to seal the deal. And worse, it’s done without thinking. I couldn’t help accepting the role of superior in conversation even when that position was unearned. Generations of reinforcement flowed through me and gave me that power.

I don’t know many men that could tell me they haven’t done at least some of those things in their lives. And of that tiny percentage of perfect men, I can imagine a lot of women in their lives ready to argue differently. 

"A large percentage of men still think in quasi-caveman terms: men are strong and women are weak."

Misogyny has become such a part of our lives that sometimes it’s only with a bottle of wine and the light of a pale moon and a psychological magnifying glass and tweezers that you can see what is so painfully obvious.

This is a rare occasion when male introspection (usually the realms of failed poets and people who own guitars but, thankfully, cannot play them) is not only positive, but necessary. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do — dig about in my own memory for shards of pain I’ve unwittingly caused women. It’s that unwitting-ness that’s most tragic: for the longest time, I felt like I’d done nothing wrong.

Feeling like you’re clear of wrongdoing leads, inevitably, to feelings of victimhood – especially from men of the “How can I hate women? My mother’s one” variety. There were times when I’d think: why are women being like this? Maybe it’s because men have only recently had permission to dissect our own feelings, let alone those of others, but it wasn’t until I sat and thought about my actions – break-ups, arguments, sporadic flashes of spicy interactions in bars – that I was like: oh, OK, fuck: that’s why.

Comedy misandry is well represented in modern pop culture, and who can blame them? Men have affected a superiority complex for millennia. There are more women creators and decision-makers than ever, and men deserve a good old bollocking.

Self-assessment

My internal checks-and-balances sheet turned up little red, although quite a lot of yellow – more than enough to make me realise I had plenty of work to do. And I’m lucky to surround myself with smart women who will tell me when I’m in the wrong, which is hopefully something that happens less and less these days.

I try to read more writing by women about their experiences. But, even though I have good intentions, I know that can be a red flag too. There are so many predatory men who have used a minor grasp of feminism as just another tool to get their way. A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. It helps men sleep well at night and emotionally manipulate the women in their lives more effectively.

"I'm lucky to surround myself with smart women who tell me when I'm in the wrong."

At work, our approach to sexism is based on ‘common sense’ where – hopefully – genuine empathy is key. You know, rather than bragging about the fact that I know to spell bell hooks’ name in all lowercase. But we do worry. The office can be quite bawdy; do we make female colleagues feel uncomfortable? We joke about the fact that all this is not about us but Them. They’re all creepy weirdos, these Other Men, with belted coats and ingratiating smiles or snarling, rich-as-anything Bond villains. But we do this because the thought makes us uncomfortable. We know people we’re friends with – sometimes the people we are – are the ones who’ve inflicted that pain.

It’s on my mind all the time. From accidentally talking over female friends to honest worries over no-strings sex. From thinking, “Fuck, I fancy her”, to actually acting upon it. I’ve always been shy about chatting a woman up in public. Mostly (I’d tell myself) because I understood the power imbalance of a man (large, scary) approaching a woman (small, innocent) even in a space filled with people. Awful men hide in plain sight. But while, even now, I still wouldn’t want to chat someone up in public, my attitudes have changed.

Yes, there is a power imbalance, but why is it there? Is my painting of every woman as a fragile egg internalised misogyny? I’ve also started questioning the main axioms of sex. There can be as much nuance to ‘Yes’ as there isn’t to ‘No’. While ‘no means no’ is key, understanding why someone would say ‘Yes’ when they mean ‘No’ can be just as much so.

Now men have to think about their actions and the consequences of their actions. It’s the way it should be. It’s all as complicated as it is simple: treat people with empathy, treat people like human beings. 

Sometimes that doesn’t happen. We know that. Sometimes normal, functioning adults do hurtful, dysfunctional things. I don’t claim to understand it, but hope that my confusion at least shows I’ve thought about it. That’s the first step, I guess.

The generation before me seem to wave away stories of wide-scale sexual harassment. These Bad Men are dismissed as just that: cartoonish evil. Or the victims – mostly young women – as hysterical. As a man in my late 20s, it’s in my best interest to grow and change. For men twice my age, there probably seems little incentive.

While I often wonder why people seem to get more conservative as they age, it’s hard to imagine that a man in his 40s has ever felt differently about women. They are likely to always stay the same. And that is, of course, not to say that there are not exceptions. These Few Good Men are there, but just as I’ve grown up in a more socially liberal world, they have not. 

Rather than make dating harder, dating today has actually become more simple. It’s impossible to not hurt someone when dating. Upsetting people is my worst nightmare, but it’s gonna happen. That’s life. But there is now a sense of a playing field levelling and there is almost a weight off my shoulders.

Friends with benefits 

The dreaded ‘Friend Zone’ was the worst place I could find myself – but is it actually so bad? As if being friends with someone is less commitment than having sex with them. I’ve had a few dates that have turned into friendships and I have looked to make more friends with women in general. I can’t stress enough how important it is for men to have more female mates. They’re always on hand to sense-check and bounce off, and understanding women better has made me a better man.

There’s less emphasis on sealing the deal than there once was. Yes, I want to have sex. Sex is great! But more and more, if a woman wants to have sex with me, they’ll let me know. Clarity is hot. There’s a liberating sense of horniness in dating now, and for once it’s not all coming from the men. Women know what they want and are enjoying that power. So am I. 

But for all the potential for horniness and friendship, there’s plenty of talk of What Has Been Lost. Middle-aged men talk about how you can’t even open a door for a woman now without them pepper-spraying you. Like being polite earns them something in and of itself, even if you don’t respect the person. It all comes from this place of feeling ‘owed’ rather than human decency. 

But I have to admit, some things do feel more fraught now. I am acutely aware of my body all the time. Whereas before I didn’t think twice about squidging myself into a Central Line carriage and becoming unintentionally intimate with a fellow commuter, now I can’t help but feel how uncomfortable this must be for women. 

Going out dancing can feel a bit like that too. The fast-track to potential heavy petting, it has always been somewhat awkward, but now I’m on a tightrope. Where to put my hands? Or my eyes? Or my arse? Or my – sorry to say it – groin? Can I go and dance with a woman without her explicit consent? What if I pick up a ‘vibe’ from her? Can you trust a vibe? Sometimes I feel like I need it in writing. But if a little awkwardness is a price to pay for the decreasing likelihood of women getting harassed, I can swallow that. 

"Some things do feel more fraught now. I am acutely aware of my body all the time."

Do I feel sad that I can’t wolf whistle in the street or say “Cheer up, love, it might not happen” to a woman? No, I do not. Do I enjoy assessing my relationships with the women in my life – romantic and professional, friends and family – and question the way that I speak to them and have treated them in the past? No, I also do not. But do I appreciate the, admittedly, uniquely white male chance to fuck up multiple times and still have the opportunity to learn and grow and better myself? Yes, I do.

The question continues to be asked: is dating harder for men these days? Is life? And the answer remains the same: yes, because it should be. 

Photography: Getty Images, Rex Features

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