Jessica Carpenter

Why Does Dating Men Make Me Feel Like Shit?

For the first time in years, I find myself feeling ugly. What changed was that I started dating men.

I woke up this morning with this terrible fucking feeling, and I was like I know this feeling. How do I know this feeling? Where is this horrible feeling from? And then I was like, oh yeah — this is that feeling from back when I had boyfriends. I haven’t had one in over 5 years, and I kind of assumed that those old weird insecure feelings I used to have were something I just matured out of.

But, nope. Apparently what happened is that I stopped dating dudes.

What does this feeling feel like? Well, like shame mostly. Like I am not worthy of being loved because of how I look. Like, that any man who is with me is only settling because he can’t get what he really wants. But… yeah, I think shame really covers it. I am ashamed of how I look. I am ashamed of my body. I feel almost physically sub-human, as if any man who looks at my naked body without saying something cruel is doing me a kindness.

And I didn’t used to be ashamed.

When I was dating women, and when I was not dating, I didn’t really stress out about my appearance. Sometimes I looked good, sometimes I looked bad and I feel like I had a fairly objective sense of the whole thing. And, even when I looked bad, I was ok looking bad. It didn’t really bug me. Which is sort of what makes this whole flood of emotions particularly puzzling for me. Since when do I care about not being pretty? And, when I looked in the mirror this morning, I didn’t even look that bad. I was able to see, in an objective sense, that my hair was fine (strangely, better than normal) my skin was fine. In another time or place, I would have looked in the mirror and thought I looked hot.

So, what the hell is going on?

I had a quick chat with a feminist friend of mine, and she said “ugh, fucking men and porn ruins everything.” And like… I don’t totally disagree with that, but I kind of feel like that’s not the whole story. Because I’ve dated women who looked at porn. In fact, often women seem to be more vocally superficial in the first few dates than men do (presumably, because we punish men more for their outbursts of superficiality) but somehow men leave me feeling worse. And, while I appreciate the feminist research that has gone into things like studying how this commercialist exploitation of hyper-beautiful models impacts women, I feel like we may be getting a little led astray here.

Because here’s the thing; when I was dating women, I was still living in this culture. I still saw those images; they just didn’t bug me as much. I mean, I think it was a reasonable hypothesis — women feel like shit about how they look because they see hyper-beauty everywhere — but again, I think there’s more to the story than that. Because, female fetishization of beauty was not as painful to me as male fetishization. Dating a butch women who is super into traditional high-femmes is not as painful as dating a straight man.

Why?

I think I got my answer when I was writing out my feelings before. Shame shame shame was basically how I described it, but when I wrote it out I saw this is how men describe their own sexuality. Dating men again and talking to them about their sexual feelings has exposed some spooky shit that I never noticed before, especially when I bring up being sexually assaulted. I remember one guy telling me, after I told him about the assault, that he thought society would be better if men were chemically castrated. I was like omg, dude… what is going on there?

“Creepy” is a word that comes up a lot when I’m having an honest discussion with men about their feelings on their sexualities. In fact, it is so ubiquitous, I think you should just go ahead and assume most men feel like they are creepy for getting turned on, or probably felt that way at some point in their lives. I also think this is why men don’t write about their sex lives. Damon Young tackles the issue of why men don’t write about sex in this piece here. For me, I think this was the most telling quote:

[I]t just doesn’t feel…right. Writing about sex makes me feel like I’m either humble-bragging or pandering. There’s no inbetween.

Why We (Men) Don’t Write About Our Sex Lives

And, ok, that’s a good explanation for why he doesn’t say “I had a threeway last week,” or “I haven’t had sex in over a year,” but it doesn’t explain why men don’t say “touching her breasts made me really horny.” However, I think that’s covered in It just doesn’t feel right. I think a man would feel fucking weird to openly talk about how turned on he got.

I think he would feel creepy. Because society labels men creepy when they are open about their sexual feelings.

And, I think because men are too ashamed to claim ownership of their sexual feelings, they push responsibility for their desire onto the bodies of the (usually) women that they’re with. It’s telling that gay men have body image issues more than lesbians. If the whole “warping female minds with super hot models” theory were true, you’d expect all women (straight and lesbian) to have body image issues, and all men to feel super fab. But, instead what we see, is that people who sleep with men tend to feel worse about how they look than people who sleep with women.

Those of us who sleep with men are absorbing the shame they hold about their own sexuality. That’s where all these bad feelings are coming from.

What is the mechanism through which this happens?

Well. Usually instead of saying “I am turned on by that woman,” a man will say “that woman is hot.” The first phrasing places the locus of control within his own body (aka, in a way, making it “his fault” if he gets turned on), the second phrasing places the locus of control within the woman’s body (making it “her fault” if he gets turned on.) And, he will be inclined to do the second because it absolves him of responsibility for his sexual feelings. The narrative that is most comfortable for straight men is that some super beautiful woman appeared out of the blue and basically made him get horny, and zomg she was SO HOT it totally wasn’t his fault. This relieves him of the shame, and to some degree, his feelings of creepiness. How can he be blamed for simply being an object that is being acted upon?

However, this comes at a cost.

If a man doesn’t get horny, this is also the fault of his partner for not being hot enough. For the “not my fault” narrative to hold, when a man has a long day at work, if he’s tired, or sick, or whatever and doesn’t get turned on, it can’t be his mood that’s affecting his desire, it must also be the fault of his partner. After all, if beauty is enough to absolve him of responsibility in the positive case, it must also absolve him in the negative case. If factors other than female beauty can prevent him from being turned on, we admit that other factors may also be at play when he does get turned on. And, these other factors may be things he has agency over — things like, his own openness to trying new things, for example, and that’s threatening.

Know why men fear having sex with fat chicks? Because when fat chicks turn men on (and they do) a man feels like a pervert for letting himself be attracted to a fat chick. He feels like he has succumbed to his creepiness, or the “weakness” of his sexuality. Society doesn’t allow for the blame-absolving narrative of “that girl turned me on so much it wasn’t my fault” when it comes to a fat chick because society pretends fat chicks aren’t hot. That’s where all this male anger at big women comes from; it’s not because men don’t desire them, it’s because they hate themselves for desiring them.

I experienced some version of this the other night. This guy I hooked up with mentioned, a few times, how much he likes very petite women. Now, I don’t think I’m “fat” but I’m not “small.” I’m sort of a middle build kind of girl. And, what do you know, yeah that was the comment that was playing in my mind when I woke up this morning. I felt fat. I never feel fat.

Why does this comment bug me? I wondered. Sometimes, my ex girlfriend would find other women attractive and I didn’t mind. I’m open to the idea that people can have multiple types, that just because someone is into — say — blondes doesn’t mean they’re not into me. But his comment really stayed with me.

The first conclusion that I jumped to was he’s settling for me, he can’t get a girl he’d really like, so he tolerates my not-petite body. But… that also didn’t seem quite right. I mean, I could be deluding myself, but the read I get on him is that he is physically attracted to me (and, I’m usually good at reading people.) So, I wondered, if he is attracted to me, why does he keep going on about these thin women he’d rather be fucking?

And, I think the answer is… dating thin women is part of his identity. One of the ways men absolve themselves for responsibility for their own sexual feelings is to make an identity out of it, and act as if their desires are out of their control because it’s just “who they are.” You see this this narrative clearly in the gay community (“I was born this way”) but it also happens with straight guys too. I’m wired to find tiny women attractive, when one crosses my path *BAM* I get turned on. Not my fault.

But being attracted to someone outside of your “type” breaks this identity a bit. I think he brought up skinny girls a few times because getting turned on by a not so skinny girl was giving him feelings of shame/creepiness and he was looking to mitigate those feelings by reinforcing the narrative and identity that had absolved him of those feelings before. And, the “skinny girl” narrative works because it’s conventional; it’s something a “non-creepy” dude might be into. Getting too turned on by an “average” girl kind of implies that you’re a desperate weirdo. If you’re too into normal looking women, that means you’re low status. Low worth. Unlovable.

Creepy.

Thing is, what I was really responding to was the unconscious realization that he is ashamed of being attracted to me. End of the day, I don’t think the specifics of the content really mattered, but more that I could feel the shame in him and turned that shame in on myself. If someone feels ashamed for being intimate with me, I must be disgusting. His skinny-girl stuff was just the exposition of that shame.

This leads to a rather paradoxical thing; we assume women feel shame about their appearance because men don’t desire them, but I’ve started to realize I feel shame when men do desire me. When I wasn’t dating anyone for 2 years, looked like a total lezzie, and men never hit on me, I felt great about myself. As I get “prettier” to men, and as men do express desire, I begin to feel worse. Even when they compliment me, I often feel worse, and I think it’s because any compliment that cuts their emotionality out of the loop leads me feeling — bad, objectified, ashamed. Something like that.

“You are so hot,” feels worse than “I am so turned on by you right now.” If I’m hot, there is no connection, no caring. Certainly no love, and not even real lust. Just, the meat of my body which is adequate to trigger an un-personified desire. And that, I suppose, is kind of part of the point. It’s just those kinds of “emotional complications” we condition men to run from. Women are a lot better about expressing their emotions, and are usually willing to tell me how they feel about me. Men won’t tell me how they feel because they are taught to be ashamed of their feelings (and, by the way, lust is a feeling.)

Anyway. Not really sure what to do about this one. Writing it all out did help me feel less fat, but I’m also not too sure how deeply I want to engage with male sexual shame. That shit is one of the the most toxic parts of toxic masculinity. But, I also know basically zero men who haven’t been touched by it to some degree, and if I’m being generous, it likely brings more pain to the men who are feeling it than the reflected shame does to me. However, I think any long term relationship with a man *absolutely* requires them to have a willingness to talk about their feelings, especially the difficult feelings, like feelings of shame which is about as easy as pulling tiger teeth. If they’re not willing to do that, they’re effectively demanding I mitigate their shame by feeling their shame for them and that’s just not a fair request. I don’t want to feel ugly forever to save some man the embarrassment of admitting to himself he’s turned on by average girls.