By Jessica Newsome
I want to tell you everything that happened when I was with my ex-boyfriend. I want to bitterly recount to you what I had to reckon with after our break up. I want to tell you how much it galls me when he posts feminist blogs and posts on Facebook as if he never behaved reprehensibly towards me—as if the principles of feminism mattered to him before I taught him that language. And that would be fun and cathartic. But, there’s more to it than that—and it’s not what I need you to hear.
If you need some concrete examples of what sexist behavior looks like in romantic relationships, there are some really great resources out there already. If someone overtly dismisses your experiences, then they’re not a good person to date. If someone consistently talks about how all women are crazy, but not you, then maybe they’re not the best person to date. I knew those things were wrong. I knew that sexism could play a role in romantic relationships.
But I could not believe that my self-professed progressive, liberal, “feminist” boyfriend was the kind of person who would treat me that way—even when he was actually treating me that way.
Even when female friends observed it and brought their concerns to me. It wasn’t until a mutual friend—a male—said to me after we broke up, “He’s sexist,” that I even could begin to think that it was possible. Which meant I had to come to grips again with a pretty important concept that I’ve had to re-learn over and over in different contexts.
Being a “progressive” or a “liberal” or a “feminist” isn’t a guarantee that a person isn’t going to be a jerk anymore than being a “conservative” guarantees that a person will be one.
This is the part that I need you to hear.
Progressive men have not “arrived.” Their actions and the way they treat women are not inherently “feminist” because of their politics..
They are not incapable of being manipulative or exempt from sexist actions or thoughts.
I grew up in a very strict cult, with concrete, culturally maintained gender roles. As a teenager, I hated that church leaders—mostly men—were assumed to be kind, rather than being required to actually demonstrate kindness in their actions towards others. When I left that church and its teachings, I was able separate the concepts of love and kindness from the actions of the church leaders. I was able to recognize that those in power were not inherently kind through their status as leaders—they had not arrived.
And after my break up I had to recognize that I had been giving my “progressive” boyfriend that “arrival” status even when he hadn’t earned it. No one is immune to this sort of thing. Both men and woman are capable of spouting progressive values publicly and acting completely backwards privately.
People are not the worst thing they’ve ever done—but they’re also not the best. If you’re still a fan of Joss Whedon because he created Buffy, that’s fine. But it’s also fair to say that he’s not growing with us and that his feminism needs a little updating from the mid-90s. No one is immune from treating another person poorly, even their intimate partner—no one. So if it happens—when it happens—try to ask yourself why, honestly, and not make excuses for their behavior. You don’t need to make excuses for anyone’s sexist behavior—not your father, your brother, your employer, you friend, your husband—no one.
When we refuse to interrogate even the “woke” men in our lives, we are doing ourselves a disservice as well as them. The reality is that anyone worth being with is working hard to become the person they want to be. Sometimes they are several people on the way to that person.
Sometimes they will take the criticism well.
Sometimes they won’t.
And sometimes it takes until months after your breakup to realize how sexist he was in the first place.
Jessica Newsome is a social worker who lives in Chicago, IL. She is not attached to any other writing projects at the moment but to read her outdated blog you can visit renaissance-muse.blogspot.com. Or you can try to follow her protected Twitter, @jess_news. She’s currently working on a better way to connect with readers.