Feeling Alienated by the Gender Divide?

“In this day and age, with all of the rape allegations and social media callouts, how am I supposed to approach women at all?”

Change your paradigm.

Meeting women is about knowing women. Not approaching them.

We get to have mixed gender friends throughout our lives that honestly discuss their experiences from a place of trust. We get to notice and honor the family structure that we grew up in without painting it as the only way for society to thrive. We get to understand consent and act on it in relationships to make them more safe and healthy.

So, if all of this rich connection is possible, why don’t I see it?

Why is it that there is a severe divide between our understanding of the other gender and what is actually presented? Why are dating, working, and being in community being fractured by lines of gender and power?

Gender

Well, one major reason for this dissonance is that our public understanding of gender is flat out wrong. Scientifically, socially, and historically there has always been a spectrum of gender and sexual orientation. The fact that this matter of gender is left up to a “belief” rather than facts should be an embarrassment to all of us.

It is also true that those that are trans and intersex have been oppressed, shamed, and exploited for much of history. Exploiting this tragic truth for political divisiveness is dehumanizing and unacceptable. It leads to a cis-normative society that is so attached to gender roles that capitalism, propaganda, and religion can manipulate our very ways of relating to one another.

The pressure of gender roles could be massively relieved by the liberation of trans and intersex people instead of excluding them to the point of suicide and social disappearance.

Roles

The other is the system of man vs. woman in sex, dating, marriage, and institutions. This “men are one way, women are the other” mentality would fall apart if we were to be more inclusive to other genders. Another way it could fall apart is if we kept the truth about men and women in our hearts.

Because a lot of gender programming happens before we can remember, we tend to take it as the truth about the world. I’ve found that a lot of my fear of men and competition with women was mostly erased by authentic empathy (and years of active emotional work).

Rape statistics, twitter feeds, and studying history still have me keeping my guard up. However, when I peek over my fence at the people around me, I notice they are living similar stories about sex and dating.

That brings us to the question: “In this day and age, with all of the controversy, how am I supposed to even approach (talk to, compliment, hit on, meet, fall in love with) women?”

If men are painted as the invaders and women as the land, what hope do men have?

One hard consideration is: If you are asking that question to strangers instead of women you know, you might not be the kind of man women feel safe being approached by.

The other is: Approaching women is not how you connect with them and relationships with women is not something you are entitled to.

But What About?

As a queer woman and the daughter of a lesbian, I am very aware that the dynamic of men vs. women on the stage of intimacy and life-building is not the only one. Internalized misogyny and homophobia have negatively affected my very own dating behaviors. I have to confront the fact that I can make women feel unsafe even if that is not my intention.

When it was brought to my attention, I stopped and changed. The fact that I made even one person feel unsafe is enough that changing my behavior does not excuse or erase it. But it does mean it never happened again.

Just the societal stigma around femininity, queerness, and sex lead me to step over somebody’s boundaries. I never got told I had to be the one to make the first move. I was never given instructions on how to trick women into going to go home with me. I didn’t get all of the messages that boys get their whole life… And I still fucked up.

It seems that we need a huge shift in how we relate to each other but we’ve all learned similar things about sex, gender, and dating. Even in my leftist bubble, I encounter people that simply cannot admit that men are consistently more likely to take advantage of women. I encounter otherwise liberal people having really bad takes about consent when it comes to starting and being relationships.

Now, I also happen to live in the south. That means I don’t have to go too far to find the source of the problem.

The problem is us.

Childhood

There is an unfortunate truth that boys and girls get told at a certain age that they are not the same. While we receive messages in early childhood from media and family, there is an even more overt separation of the genders at around 9 or 10. Sometimes this happens earlier or later, but right before puberty, it becomes way more obvious. It is an illusion of “safety” and sometimes happens unconsciously. We all know that rape culture is taught pretty early but the lighter fluid on that trash fire is the separation boys and girls. Not only do we teach them to act a certain way to each other and give them really bad examples, but we also start cutting off sources of empathy by stigmatizing and sexualizing their friendships.

No slumber parties, less mixed sports, and always keep the door open when you study. While these are logical and prevent a lot of pain and confusion, there are ways that we damage the relationship between men and women before they even become men and women. We tell them with our words, our boundaries, and our concerns that we are not on the same team.

Most of that damage results in emotional barriers to connection but we can’t ignore that sex is the underlying cause. The story that men want to take sex and women have to protect is part of the fabric of sex education, even before we start having the sex talk.

The sad part of that is that is historically true that we have something to fear.

Adolescence

With the readjustment of power dynamics that the internet has enabled, it is time to admit how we have enforced those dynamics in our own lives. The fact that it has been okay (or “unseen”) for powerful people to abuse their power for sex left us with a lot of residual trauma about what sex and intimacy are. We made it truth far longer than it had to be simply out of fear of history repeating.

We perpetuate the cycle of taking and protecting intimacy by warning our children about it to the point of manipulation. Sex shaming, transphobia, and abuse dynamics are spelled out as realities rather than things to watch out for in our own behavior. Even worse, sometimes these things are never mentioned at all. When we exclude this from sex education, we leave children to learn about them on their own. By trial and error. Perhaps their whole lives.

If boys and girls are being shamed for their experience in puberty, it will be a long road of effort to unlearn that shame. That road also doesn’t have any maps readily available during any point in a person’s life. I grew up with far more warnings about “crazy hormones” than explanations of them.

Adolescence is an awkward but useful time where humans are becoming more sexually aware. Dating and sex are deterred and stifled to such a degree that it is inevitably bound to come out sideways in adulthood.

Sometimes this is systematic. Parents get to choose if their kids even take sex ed in school. The education they get is sometimes abstinence only. They don’t talk about the intersex and transgender puberty. There’s rarely a chapter on butt stuff or oral. Most of it is based on fear of pregnancy and STI’s rather than prevention.

Then, there’s the one that isn’t built into schools. The social one. The one that started when we got told

  • Girls are catty and fight over boys
  • Boys bully the girls they like, so you should be flattered
  • Kissing isn’t appropriate in public
  • Boys are gross
  • Girls are deceptive
  • Holding hands is only for romantic relationships

Adulting

How does the question of “How do I meet or talk to women now?” get taken down a Plinko game of sex ed, gender, and societal sex perception?

If a guy sees me at a bar and thinks I’m interesting, he might want to come talk to me. He is probably not unsafe. He might just genuinely be interested in saying hello and having a conversation with a friendly stranger.

The question is: Am I open to connection? Do I want to be talked to? Am I really interested in what I’m reading on my phone and I don’t want to be interrupted?

But on the empathy end: Is it a hit to his ego if I’m not interested? Is rejection of this conversation going to make him feel hurt or unseen or unattractive? Will it embarrass him?

When men are taught to hang their identity on the women they pull, they aren’t taught to ask for consent first- not just for sex. Compliments, conversations, and come-ons are not always wanted. When they are poorly received, it can deeply hurt a guy’s feelings. This has less to do with the interaction between that woman and that man than it does about all of the things we learned along the way.

  • Men only get to be close with women during dating or sex
  • Women have the power of rejection and use it to protect themselves
  • Men are looking for sex and women are hiding it in their underwear
  • People are supposed to be in relationships or looking for them at all times

We get told there are only two genders and then we get told they are on separate teams. What gets taken away from us when that happens is choice. When we get that choice taken away, we are taught that knowing people of other genders wasn’t as important as knowing things about them. We were also taught a subconscious lesson that choice doesn’t really matter, which deteriorates our relationship with consent.

Choice

We get taught all of this jacked up, untrue stuff through our interactions. We have all had our ego hurt and our boundaries stepped on to the point that we start to believe that these divides are true. The reality is: We learned them very young, acted them out on each other, and made them true in our adult lives with our actions.

I believe that all hope is not lost because none of us want it to be this way. We don’t want the fear of rape or of false accusations. We can still meet and fall in love and have sex without any police reports, public call-outs, or life ruining court cases (as long as you are not an actual rapist).

Unfortunately, men have been learning and taking advantage of these false truths for a long time. Nearly every woman you meet (and a percentage of people of other genders) have been raped or assaulted by a man in their lifetime. This leads to a massive distrust of men because they commit more rapes and assaults on average and most of us, no matter our gender, have experienced this first hand.

This collective scar on all of our hearts makes it difficult to heal any connections. It started when we pulled boys and girls apart, it was enforced when we taught ourselves about sex and love with bad models, and it continued when we didn’t know how to renounce it as adults.

It is not the fault of all men that this is true- it is only the fault of the men that were monsters. But because they are doing this under the spell of toxic masculinity, it has become every man’s responsibility to change that narrative with every action. Especially actions toward women.

It is up to men to heal their connection with the other men in their life and apologize to the women they accidentally or intentionally hurt. It is up to men to support and talk to one another about ending rape culture immediately so that we can all start connecting safely. It is up to men to learn compassion and empathy for women not through asking strangers for evidence and emotional labor but through having rich, safe, emotional conversations with women they have cared for in their life and the women that have cared for them.

We get to start expressing gratitude for social interactions, surrendering to empathy, and checking in verbally about boundaries even when it sounds awkward.

The intention of the man across the bar or in my tinder chat is not as important as his actions. It is up to men and those that have benefited from male privilege to take actions that are safe and comfortable. The only way to know what is safe and comfortable is to literally ask, in the moment, every time. To learn empathy for the experience of being a woman that is talking to a man. And dissolving the separation we learned along the way by earning trust.

Instead of wondering how to approach women, we get to start getting better at knowing them.