As a psychologist, I work with men and women, and I see different versions of the same concerns all the time: "Will anyone ever love me? Will I be alone forever? Why don't my relationships work out?"
But I had a rude awakening not that long ago. I was talking with a male client who was discussing the difficulties and challenges inherent in heterosexual online dating.
"Why am I always the one who has to take the risk?" he asked me. "Why do I have to be the one who suggests we get together? And once we've met, why is it up to me to somehow figure out what works and make it happen? Doesn't anyone get that it's hard to take the risk to ask someone out? Are there any women who realize that by always asking, I am courting rejection at every turn?"
My first response was to talk about the ways in which men have historically misled, subjugated, and mistreated women in pursuit of sex. Thankfully, this articulate, emotionally aware young man stayed engaged in the conversation.
"Why do you think that a man is only, and always, interested in sex?" he responded. "I'm not saying this doesn't happen and hasn't been the experience of women for years. But really? What does it take to be seen as who I am rather than be painted by the brush of who women expect men to be?"
It was a wake-up call for me.
Truthfully, the first time someone talked to me about "men's needs," I scoffed and replied in a completely dismissive manner. Seriously? Isn't that what we've been catering to for centuries?
As a feminist, I've always been a loud proponent of the need for men to own their vulnerability, increase their awareness of emotions, and start talking. We are all human beings, joined by the common bond of humanity. We all have the same nervous system, the same bodily functions, and yes, the same range of emotions. Contrary to what mainstream cultural media and messaging tell us, women don't have an exclusive lock on feelings and vulnerability.
Understanding these facts, I have strongly decried this apparent lack of emotional intelligence exhibited by many men: "Why can't men just express their emotions? What stops men from sharing their vulnerability and their fears?"
Well, the truth is, I do. And it's likely that you do too.
When that male client of mine called me out on my assumptions about men in the dating pool, countless moments flashed before my eyes. I could hear myself telling women, time and time again, something like that old cliché: "If he's interested, he will pursue you. If he wants to be with you, nothing will stop him from getting in touch." Why had I never suggested that, if a woman was really interested in someone, she should be the one to take the risk and reach out?
That's just not how it works, you might say—and I'm sure that's what I subconsciously thought back then, too. We've all read the books, watched the shows, listened to the podcasts. We're not stupid. We've figured out that there's a playbook, and we're hip to all the moves.
Except somewhere in there, we missed the boat. The reality is that our culture's heterosexual dating scripts overtly invalidate men's emotions, and we all play along. The whole idea of "he's just not that into you"—and with it, the standards that straight men have to meet to demonstrate that they're legitimately interested in a woman outside of just sex—collectively casts men as creatures totally devoid of human feeling. Instead of considering realistic reasons why a guy you're texting with might be slow to respond (he's in the hospital; his mother had a heart attack, and he's out of state; his phone died, and he lost his charger; he's just plain nervous, like you are), women are taught that if a guy really wants to be with you, nothing will stop him from following up and making his interest crystal clear.
But risk is a two-way street. Reaching out can be just as hard as waiting or accepting. This isn't gender-specific: There's a huge risk in asking someone to get together. It's hard to be vulnerable and put your ego on the line, and the fact that we struggle to acknowledge this hardship placed on men's shoulders says a lot about our view of male emotions.
So many women like myself still actively perpetuate this myth of men as unfeeling—meaning all of us are to blame, not just the men themselves.
We want men to share their feelings, their doubts, their insecurities, their questions. And yet much of our culture still operates around the idea that they won't—or that they don't have any of those vulnerabilities to start with. And when men do voice them, many people still have a really hard time tolerating it. Every time we are frustrated, disgusted, or uncomfortable with a man appearing "weak" or "sensitive," we contribute to the problem.
The fact that it took so long for even a psychologist like me to realize my role in upholding these toxic gender myths shows just how much work is left to do in the movement for true equality. The entire point of feminism is that we are all equal and deserving of love, care, and compassion. As human beings, we all have a range of emotions, including fear, doubt, discomfort, and shame. If it would make me or any other woman anxious to do it, I can't expect a man to simply be immune to those very same feelings. If I am asking someone to step up and share their inner self with me, I better be willing to honor that risk for what it is.
Ending the patriarchy means everyone letting go of the assumptions and core beliefs that have kept it alive for so long. We need to champion vulnerability. That means allowing men to have feelings, cry, and screw up without calling into question their "manliness." It's time to redefine manhood to celebrate emotionality and softness—and it's up to all of us to uphold this new ideal.
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