When people ask what I write about, I often mention “women” as a topic I cover. The idea that one can cover the topic of an entire half of the population is absurd, of course. But people generally know this to be shorthand for a constellation of social and romantic experiences from a female perspective. I’ve realized, though, that even that is untrue. I actually write about men. Particularly, I write about how the unrestrained, unaccountable emotional lives of men wreak havoc on women. Like many women, I have grown accustomed to blaming myself for the fallout in professional, romantic, and sexual interactions with men and labeled my work accordingly. Women’s issues, I dutifully called the results of their juvenile tantrums masquerading as acceptable adult behavior.
As I scrolled through my portfolio recently, I was at first disturbed at how central men were to my work, how I wouldn’t pass the literary version of the Bechdel Test were one to exist. It was about men in the workplace and men in the dating field and men in pop music and men in politics. But years spent charged with determining my own income have made me a hustler at heart, and so I ran a mental tally of the wages I’ve earned writing about these experiences and found myself pleased. I’ve collected the suffering that men so recklessly visited on myself and other women and fashioned it into a livelihood. It is not a fortune but it is a tasteful empire of pain. I might be unlovable but I am not unsellable. I know some women who drink from mugs labeled “Male Tears.” That’s what I’ve labeled my checking account.
The first stories I put on the internet were about dating and sex and body image issues and I placed them where I could. It is part of the familiar hazing ritual that many women go through when we aren’t ushered into media through more respectable channels. I was happier than others to endure it. Some people call these women’s sites “the pink ghetto” but I consider them more like the girls’ side of the lake at summer camp.
Boys who dare to venture there will be outnumbered and shouted down. Girls who catered to the whims of the boys who do venture across the lake would be burned alive were it not for our ideological commitment to trial by jury rather than fire. Women are not pushed into the margins in these spaces so much as men are rendered irrelevant in them. I wrote about men I knew in these spaces as nameless, almost featureless, composite characters yet they were identifiable to scores of women who had encountered the same reckless, blinding emotions in other men. Their behaviors managed to be both truly harmful and profoundly dull. My rates went up as the audience grew.
As I shed my personal essay training wheels, I began to write about religious overreach and law enforcement and the control of women’s reproductive lives. Men played starring roles in most of these stories: dominating non-profit organizations that tried to intimidate women who supported legal and safe abortions and occupying the upper echelons of the FBI when it shut down a sex workers’ website where women exchanged safety tips and screened clients in the Bay Area. The cowardice of these men at the prospect of female bodily and financial autonomy so petrified them that they dreamed up racist bogeymen like genocidal OB/GYNs and sex traffickers who never managed to materialize to justify their terror against women. And yet I dutifully filed these stories under “women’s issues.”
I must stop momentarily with the admission that the reason I was able to write about these topics is not a matter of my courage and my skill at doing so. I am a young, thin, white, cis gender woman whose inner turmoil is often seen as poetic rather than dangerous. My conclusions about the culpability of men are met with less of the suspicion and vitriol that women without these privileges receive. This advantage cannot be ignored and it must not endure if we are truly committed to unwrapping the white male stranglehold on power in the world. But being in close proximity to their power is not to possess it in equal measure nor is it permission to attempt to neutralize its harms.
And though I am often accused of hating men, I am what might be considered rigorously and aggressively heterosexual so I am drawn to men forcefully and frequently. There have been countless times when I have been positively intoxicated by toxic masculinity. I fell in love with a man whose deep voice and substantial height were complemented by a possessiveness that looked like care and a habit of infidelity that I excused as sexual potency. He made me feel safe not because he was gentle but because I knew he was capable of violence and cruelty that I was confident he would never direct at me. Throughout of his antics, I had made only two requests for how he handle my heart. The first was that he never make me complicit in his infidelity to someone else and the second was that if he ever left me for someone else, to please spare me that detail so that I might not go mad with comparing myself with the newly chosen.
So when he told me about his new girlfriend who didn’t know about me in the same breaths that he first uttered “I love you,” it was either with intentional cruelty or callous disregard for my wishes. He was careless enough to text her while pulling me toward him, allowing me to see her name on his phone and make a mental note of it. I asked that he leave and wished him unwell and the next day I informed her of his ongoing relationship with me in a Facebook message. It came complete with graphic text message screenshots of my correspondence with the man we were unknowingly sharing. In hindsight, more details about my sex life than I ought to have put on display were sent in my efforts to warn her off him.
I was naïve to think that he would find out and react with anything but the same cruel impulses and violent fantasies I had seen him direct at others. I wanted to burn every fiber of the bridge that connected us but did not account for how easily that might inadvertently let him burn my life to the ground. I was soon inundated with text messages and shouted screeds from him that oscillated between fantasy and threat and always culminated in my death. He hoped first that I choke on my own vomit and die. He said how much he’d like to hear the sound of my bones crushed under a subway train. He told me I was decent on the outside, ugly on the inside, but that I’d look beautiful with a bullet in my head. He perhaps knew that more brutal than the bullet he imagined in my head was the claim that I was merely “decent.” He was well-acquainted with the appearance-based insecurities that made my fear of superficial mediocrity more potent than my fear of death.
And in nearly every tirade or message he called me a whore, a word that was more than just disparaging shorthand for my job as a stripper. I had once cut a particularly intense sexual encounter short when he called me his whore during roleplay and then explained the particular poison of the word in a world so hostile to women that it might accurately describe. His mocking references to vomiting were digs at the eating disorder he had so often grieved and the use of my cat as a prop to indicate my pathetic loneliness replaced his previous affection for my favorite living thing. I marveled at how long my secrets had sat idly in his arsenal of intimate details before emerging as the weapons of war. I retraced my steps in search of some sign that his purpose in listening to me so intently had been to collect valuable intel to manipulate later but found no trace of his present malice.
He faked an overdose between berating me for thinking that I was a credible judge of character, what with my bipolar diagnosis and my work uniform of sequins and tits. He made the secret of this job more public than I ever cared to fully investigate. He said he would find me. All 6'3" inches and 220 pounds of him was trying to find all 5'2" and 108 pounds of me. I went halfway through the nightmare of seeking an order of protection only to give up when I didn’t know his address because I only knew his apartment by sight after a year of spending time there. I felt numb to anything but the aftershocks of my own resistance to his lies and was certain he had destroyed anything good left in me. But unbeknownst to either of us, his violent and vulgar emotions were setting the stage for me to become a woman of something like means.
I decided that if I was going to be identified with my sordid professional past, I would be compensated accordingly. And so in the fall of 2014, after years of hiding my forays into the adult industry, I nonchalantly mentioned my stripping job in an essay. It would be the first of many stories in which I would insert a moderately titillating but wholly unnecessary facts about my time doing sex work because, as it turns out, the perceived humiliation of a woman combined with the erotically charged emotions of men is where profitability reaches its disappointing apex for young female writers. In any case, the first essay fortunately attracted the attention of a literary agent with no predilections for the vulgar. Her initial email included the line, “I’m very interested in books that examine the modern female experience, and the female perspective of fresh, exciting, subversive moments of culture, history, or craft.” I replied that I had interest in “a number of topics pertaining to lived female experience” that I would like to discuss. I did not mention that the particular lived female experience I wanted to write about was being afraid I was going to die at the hands of a man. We remained in touch but made no official deal.
Then in January 2015 I gathered the courage to write about what had happened the summer before in an essay titled, “Being Winona in a World Made For Gwyneths.” It chronicled the break-up in tandem with the unraveling of the well-liked but chronically misunderstood Winona Ryder in whom I’ve always found a kindred spirit. My phone buzzed all night with notifications of the story being shared on social media. Women flooded my inbox with stories of similarly ghastly men. The literary agent with whom I had only informal correspondence extended an attractive contract within 24 hours of the story going live.
The first sentence of the first proposal I wrote for her read, “All She Should Be is a title born of a lie told by a man about a woman.” The final proposal took a more measured approach and now has the title All The Lives I Want but its defining feature was a 7,000 word essay about that particular man and about the moral bankruptcy more generally of men who seek women for their brokenness but punish them when they break. The book sold for a generous sum that ushered me directly through more than one tax bracket, most notably his. I’ve since written a television pilot loosely based on our time together; it is populated with sex workers and overly emotional men because the pain he and scores like him inflict is acute and endemic enough to monetize across mediums.
I have written about other kinds of men too. There are men who are callous and clumsy with other people’s hearts and there are men who cannot accept the reality that there are women more deserving and talented than them in the workforce or on the world stage. Many women recognize these depictions not as caricatures concocted by a bitter harpy but as the frightful inevitability of men too often raised to believe that their birthright would be exclusive ownership of truth and virtue. When they are informed by exasperated women that they hold no monopoly on the former nor do they particularly embody the latter, they declare themselves the victims of women’s hatred. They mistake the discomfort of being confronted with their own violence for the suffering of being on the receiving end of it. I am in awe of women who write courageously about men more dangerous and intent on destroying women than the ones I’ve written about. They are the giants whose shoulders I could only hope to stand on in writing about the destructiveness of men. But I have been heartened by the solidarity of women who support my modest enterprise in occasional boldness. I like our side of the lake.
I learned to ignore the vitriol of men who barge into my inbox demanding uncompensated, personalized Op-Eds because I dared to make an unfavorable observation about men (or the world they dominate) in public. When several men’s rights activists devoted a few days to picking apart photographs of me and diagnosing me as unfuckable, I had some shrill girlish feelings about the whole ordeal. Then I took two hours to type out these feelings out in order to publish them for hundreds of dollars. Some might accuse me of shaking a cobra’s nest when it is known that the bottomless well of male hatred for women is best left undisturbed. But I am detecting venom and inoculating myself against it, not bearing the poison myself. And this is work I had to do in a world that was not designed with me in mind anyway. I might as well profit from it while it remains a genre that generates profits.
I became a writer because I adhere to the radical notion that the female experience on its own has sufficient worth to warrant both chronicle and sale. My chronicle expanded to include the lived realities of other women and then contracted again back into my own microcosm and expanded out again. But too often these stories are not about women living in the abundance of a shared world. They are about surviving in the brutality of a world held hostage by men whose interior fragility is conveniently offset by material might. In these stories, the faces and futures of women are obscured by the uninvited specters of these men, their feelings swelling to overwhelm places that contain room enough for us all. Enraptured by the very fact of their own beating hearts, these men’s sprawling existences overwhelm what might have been home to women’s unencumbered declarations of what being in the world is to them.
It is a rare privilege to make a living chronicling this grim spectacle but it is dangerous too. Foolishness, privilege, and the good fortune that the man I spoke of left the state and was not heard from again make writing this story possible. But fear and true disadvantage make a thousand more stories just like it or worse impossible to speak aloud. The injuries left by these stories swell like abscesses in the memories of women who have neither the platform nor the institutional trust to speak these truths. Women like me are very lucky and exceedingly rare. Womanhood is still characterized for many as the expectation that we quietly possess the wisdom and wounds of an oppressive world not designed for us but the weight of which we are expected to carry regardless.
Though some of us joke of quenching our thirst on male tears or of making a small fortune exploiting them, the world is awash in the madness and terror of men crying out injustice at not inheriting the world in its entirety. They will not tire quickly in the effort to take back the tiny corner of it that we’ve wrestled from their exclusive reign. We dismiss the depth of their outrage at our peril. Even those of us who can presently afford to make light of their tears remain a single outrage away from drowning in them.