Ladies' Man

[Content Note: Misogyny. This post has been published with Iain's informed consent.]

My husband likes women. I don't mean that he is a flirt, or a skirt-chaser, or some other euphemism for straight men who primarily center their attraction in interactions with women. Although I wouldn't blame you if you thought that's what I meant, since men who are attracted to women aren't meant to relate to us in any other way.

It's so pervasive, this notion that straight men's relationships with women are exclusively and inherently sexual in nature, that it's tough to describe what I mean without invoking it.

To say that he sees women is likely to be heard as "he objectifies us." To say that he pays attention to us is likely to be interpreted as "he notices our bodies." To say that he hears us is just as likely to be (mis)construed as "he's good at figuring out how to get laid via marginal listening."

There is, after all, an entire pick-up culture that has turned "listening to women to get in their pants" into a cottage industry. Where "listening" itself is totally divorced from meaningful conversation, and is simply a tool to curry favor and access—a quantifiable action designed to oblige reward.

Straight men who do listen to women, simply because they find women interesting to listen to, are so unusual that listening has become an exploitable resource, a tool of sexual manipulators.

It's difficult to describe what I mean when I say my husband likes women, because it's so rare that we don't even have words for it. And because any words I might use are corrupted by the urgent defense of patriarchal standards, which reject any dynamic that isn't framed to center women as the objects of men.

Even to say "he treats us like human beings" is fraught, because men are designated as the default humans in a patriarchal culture—and it is not true that he treats us the same way he treats men. Because we are not men, and our lives and experiences necessitate sensitivities to that difference.

It's also not accurate to say that he is a male ally, because it would be a lie to suggest that his interactions with women are primarily guided by conscious feminist thought. And he doesn't succumb to any of the alienating approaches of many self-identified male allies: He does not put women on a pedestal, nor does he fancy himself an expert on womanhood, nor is he cookie-seeking, nor are his interactions with women distorted by caution or apology or deference or the cringeworthy hyper-consciousness of credit-seeking allies whose insistent focus on one's womanhood can be just as unsettling as the leering objectification of a street harasser.

I cannot for a moment escape my womanhood (nor do I want to), but I also don't want it to define my every interaction with a man. Not because he wants to fuck me, and not because his ostensible respect for women morphs into an aggressive fear of offense and/or elaborate display of expertise which requires constant acknowledgement of my womanhood.

It's a reductive sensitivity that makes me feel diminished, not liked.

My husband likes me, in a way for which I don't have words. He likes women in a way that I cannot easily define. But when I say he likes women, what I mean is that he can tell you all about how much he loves Rihanna and Adele, without ever talking about what they look like; or tell you all about how he was so wrong about Anne Hathaway playing Catwoman, how he didn't expect her to be great but she was so great, and how she totally won him over, without ever reflexively making a shitty joke about how hot she looked in that catsuit; or tell you about this or that female colleague, who he thinks is so terrific; or sit on the porch with you and have a long and winding conversation about a book you've both read, and he will be enthusiastic about your insights that he hadn't considered, and excited to share his own, and he will laugh at your jokes, and his eyes will glimmer with the precise exhilaration that only a tumbling discussion with a friend can engender.

I don't have that experience with many straight men. And I rarely love Iain more than in moments when I am watching him interact with other women. With my friends. Women of all shapes and colors and sexuality and genderedness and age and ability. My friends tend to really like Iain right back.

(That is an understatement.)

Since I couldn't find the words for this rare thing that is so precious to me, I asked Iain how he would describe the way he regards women. He pondered that for a moment, and then he replied, "I would like to say that I enjoy the company of women, but that has sexual connotations, too. Everything describing men's interactions with women is sexualized."

Everything. When I tell people that I adore Iain for how much he likes women, the very compliment is received with suspicion. Don't I worry that he works so closely with women? Don't I worry that he likes talking to other women? Inherently suspect. Straight men aren't supposed to like women, unless they want to fuck them.

And for so many straight men, this is not just the expectation of them, but their truth. They don't like women, have no use for us, unless they intend to bed us.

Which is why I have no words for how my husband, and other straight men like him, regard women. It is too rare to have a name. Indescribable. At least without caveats.

He likes women. Not in that way. I mean, he does like women in that way, but doesn't only like women in that way…

I cannot name it. It's vanishingly rare words so thoroughly escape me. Whether that is testament to my own failing as a writer, or testament to the rarity of straight men who genuinely eschew the imperatives of a patriarchy that devalues women's complex humanity, or both, I don't know.

What I know is that I deeply appreciate and respect Iain, and the other straight men like him, for making me feel liked, and making me feel safe.

And now that I understand what that feels like, I will never again tolerate anything less.

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