I’m actually asking this for a (former) friend with benefits. This is the question I imagine he would ask you: “I’m getting the message from a friend (with benefits) that I’m kind of sexist as a lover. Could this be true? Or is it because she’s been dating women for the past two decades and just doesn’t understand things between men and women? She said I implied that going down on a woman was asking more than going down on a man. She also felt that our conversations focused much more on my problems and interests than hers. Eventually I stopped sleeping with her, because I could tell she thought I was deficient in so many areas! Could you make a quiz that I could use to objectively judge whether I am or am not sexist in my interactions with the women I date?”
Thanks for channeling your FFWB’s question, Unfriender. This would be my response:
Dear Benighted Male,
Your former friend has some life experience—shared by this columnist—that helps her to notice sexist male dickishness and distinguish it from universal inhumanity (which is, of course, also widespread). Here’s a quiz, as requested, to help you do the same:
1. When women speak, do you listen, or are you just waiting for your turn to talk? I ask this because it sounds to me as if listening to this woman might have saved your friendship—along with the benefits. Please read Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, a wry and funny account of the difficulty some men have in doing this. Failing to listen is not only rude; it also impoverishes you intellectually, because many women are really quite interesting.
2. Relatedly, do you ever ask her about her work or life? I mention this because nattering on about your life without asking about hers replicates tired and ancient hierarchies. Capitalism values women’s labor outside the home far less than men’s, while patriarchy (an old-fashioned-sounding word if you skipped women’s studies in college, but bear with me) teaches us that women exist to provide company for men. That’s the context of your one-sided conversations, but you can change this.
3. Does your FWB have to travel farther, and more often, than you to enjoy these benefits? If so, then expecting her to do this communicates that you think your time is worth more than hers. There’s a social context for that (see previous question). Gallingly, though, between working and taking care of kids, many women have less spare time than men do.
4. Do you suggest—through your words or behavior—that it’s somehow asking more for you to give oral sex to her than vice versa? If so, keep in mind that she deserves pleasure as much as you. And if you don’t eat pussy, Benighted Male, you and she are missing out on the supreme potential of the world’s best body part.
5. Do you always pick up the check? Trick question! If you do, this is not sexist. If she assumes you will simply because you’re a man, that is (mildly) sexist. But with women making 77 cents on the dollar, your picking up the check is often redistributive.
As a black woman with radical politics, I feel like I’m torn between two outcomes for my life: one in which I stay faithful to my politics and end up alone, and one in which I actively seek a partner but end up betraying my politics in some way. My life growing up in a first-gen immigrant family imposed a lot of expectations on me to be docile and acquiescent to all authority figures, so a lot of the ways that I’m trying to be in the world now actively resist that socialization.
The problem is that I know all the ways that people can be demeaning or misogynistic, or how they can fetishize me. I don’t want to put up with that in a relationship, but I fear that my insistence on respecting my own boundaries and not wanting to put up with folks’ anti-blackness has doomed me to be forever alone. The other hard part of this is that, for the moment, I don’t make a living wage and currently live with a parent. Even if a person initially expresses interest in me, once they learn this, it’s the ultimate deal-breaker. It’s been a crash course in the privileges you need to have to make a relationship possible. When I was younger, I believed that being in love meant people would try and sacrifice for one another, regardless of the obstacles. News flash: not true—especially in New York City. Even if I do change these circumstances, are there people out there who earnestly want to date a woke black women? Is it even possible?
—Woke Black Woman
Dear Woke Black Woman,
Racism and sexism will complicate your search for romance, but people absolutely do want to date you.
It’s frustrating that anyone reacts this way to your living situation. Capitalism isn’t just an economic system; it’s also an ideology that leads us (wrongly) to judge others by how much money they make and shapes our definition of adulthood—if a person doesn’t have her own place, we assume she isn’t mature, which is bullshit. But you aren’t alone; so many of your generation are struggling financially. Try to find others in the same boat. Solidarity is not only critical to our survival, but it’s also an excellent basis for romance.
Actually, I’d say the same for your political dilemma: You feel very alone, but you’re not. Gonzalo Bacigalupe, a professor of counseling psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, wonders: “Does she feel that no one shares her politics?” In fact, Woke Black Woman, you live in New York City, where plenty of people do—and they’re also black, recent immigrants, and share many other experiences with you. Political activism—immigrant-rights groups, as well as Black Lives Matter, which attract many diverse, feminist radicals your age—could help. Not only might you find political comrades, but also, as Bacigalupe puts it, “other young people who are struggling with the same things.” And you might well find better prospects in the streets than on Tinder.
Consciousness can feel burdensome, but it provides a useful asshole filter, protecting you from falling for someone who doesn’t see you as a full human being. Yet you also have to be willing to have necessary conversations. Don’t dismiss others too quickly or be too harsh on their imperfections. It’s common these days to hear young social-justice-minded people say, “I’m not here to educate you,” but this attitude is as unhelpful in relationships as it is in politics; we all do need to educate one another. Also, people fall in love all the time across the lines of race, class, and—most common, yet hardly a walk in the park (see previous letter)—gender. It helps, Bacigalupe says, if couples are able to see bigotry as a force located outside the relationship. If one of you says something racially insensitive, for example, it’s less helpful to label that person a racist than to think of racism as, in Bacigalupe’s words, “something that takes over the couple.” Then ask yourselves: How can we fight this together?
Have a question? Ask Liza here.