DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Thank you for your column and work. I really appreciate the niche you’ve carved out and the help you provide your readers.
I’m usually a friendly, encouraging, and empathetic guy, but sometimes, I get depressed and ruminate on the same stupid things. I’m pretty sure I’m wrong about this, but I wanted to ask you why I’m wrong on this and get some insight into something better I can tell myself when I start thinking in circles.
I’m 40 now, but I still feel pretty young and decently healthy. When I was growing up, in a conservative social circle, I was an overweight and insecure guy who put way too much worth on someone liking me (I’ll own up to that as my mistake). I would get the nerve to talk to cute girls and then watch them walk away mid-sentence for some athletic guy. I would hear them talking about how cute so-and-so classmate’s butt was. But it was always ground into us guys that we should never disrespect women by thinking or talking about them as sex objects. Ultimately, I believed that if I were good-looking and athletic, then someone would love me.
I went to college. I lost weight. I gained weight. I worked out. I became an adult. I became more progressive. I watched the world be more sex-positive for women and require more responsibility for men. I got married, and after a year, I decided to get in better shape.
So over the course of a year, my wife and I worked out and lost weight together in a group setting (she, 45 pounds; me, 90 pounds with significant strength and athleticism increase). I did all the cooking and got some good and mostly “meh” reviews on it. But I kept it up. I went to the gym and spent an hour a day on the elliptical and then 30-60 minutes on weights. Then I’d go home and cook dinner for us. Then I’d clean up, lest I get a comment about how messy I made the kitchen when I cooked. In the meantime, I would compliment her on her increased strength and athleticism, and I’d tell her I always found her attractive. I got told my butt was saggy, and I got the loose skin on my abdomen grabbed and jiggled. I never made any critical comments on her looks, athleticism, or effort.
When we went to our weight-loss meetings, I was usually the only guy there, so I got an earful of “how easy it is for men to lose weight,” and how “men don’t have to work as hard.” I thought our group (including my wife) was there to support each other and not blast each other for excuses or bogeymen, so I didn’t flip any tables or go into how 5 hours a week going full-blast on an elliptical followed by cooking varied, nutritious meals made it “so easy” for me. I sure didn’t get any backup from my female leaders, just a bunch of head-nods that it was much harder for women, and how nice it was to have a guy who understood the struggle.
When I stayed late at work, I would come home, cook first and work out later. When I did, I would get a “Well, maybe you’ll come home before bedtime” comment. When I worked out before work, I would get grouched out because I woke her up. Somehow, I was supposed to make time to work out, cook, and clean where no time existed.
In the meantime, my wife would get all googly over John Cena, David Boreanaz, or “her boyfriend” Randy Orton. A few times, I would get a compliment that I had gained more definition in my back or shoulders, but I’d never make her as starry-eyed as those big beefy guys. I’d nod or laughingly agree with her comments; I never brought up any celebrity crushes or talked about what body parts on other women I liked a lot. I think my wife is attractive, and I would regularly tell her so, partly because that’s what I always wanted in my life. Even though my wife tapered off her effort, I never stopped telling her she was hot and awesome.
God, what I wanted most was just the appreciation for how hard I worked at making our lives better and how many things I was trying to juggle. I spent that time just white-knuckling. My wife’s not real touchy-feely, and I am, so I was just hoping for a hand on my back or a hug. I got into CrossFit and obstacle racing and I loved it, and I tried to juggle that with work and home responsibilities. Ultimately, I couldn’t keep white-knuckling. After a year of maintaining my weight loss, I gained back my weight. After a rough patch at work, I fell off the wagon and gained most of my weight back.
And I travel for work, with a mostly 50/50 male-female co-worker mix, often working in a traditionally female setting. We’ve all been given the usual sexual harassment training and lip-service expectations. But when I’m doing my work, where I can’t just pick up and leave, the women I’m working with (co-workers or clients) talk about real-life or celebrity men like this verbatim exchange:
“This is what that guy from ‘Game of Thrones’ looks like in real life.”
“Oh, he’s cuuute. I’d follow that ass around like a lost puppy.”
“Let me find some more pictures…”
“Oh, yeah! That’s nice! Mmmm…”
And if I had stirred the pot by saying that this was disrespectful, hurtful, and uncollegial to me and made it hard for me to work with them, how hard would I be laughed at? Would I be known as the special snowflake who everyone must be Very Serious around?
So, here’s my circular thoughts that I can’t shake: Why is it okay (and “sex-positive” and “life-affirming”) and a non-issue for women to objectify men and talk about it around guys, when it’s wrong in principle for guys to talk about women that way? Why is it okay for women to have celebrity crushes, but it’s disrespectful and oppressive for men to have anything but tunnel vision? Why is it okay to remind a guy that other guys are much hotter than him and expect that he should just be attractive without understanding that it takes a sacrifice of time and effort it takes to get there? Why is it okay to lament how hard women have it and expect men to be out-of-the-box perfect and supportive at all times? Is a guy even able to say “I don’t appreciate the way you bring up (Mr. Celebrity) around me, It affects how I think about myself and I think I should be given more respect as a human being”? If that’s just silly, then why shouldn’t I opine on how fine someone’s knockers are and how I can tell she takes the time to work out regularly?
(Note: I don’t really want to blurt out how fine someone else is; everyone’s got their own struggles and goals and advantages and accomplishments. I’d rather not pontificate about an unattainable third party just to prove it’s my right to do so.)
Finally, at what level of accomplishment do I have to make so that women (really, just my wife) will like me and appreciate me? What do I have to do to ever get the fangirl treatment that I have to endure in friends and strangers around me? When does a guy do enough to be good enough and be able to cash out on his effort (if he wasn’t born with natural talent)?
Most of the time, my relationship with my wife is pretty awesome. She’s smart and creative, accomplishes things, and is attractive at any weight or fitness level. But when things get rough at work, I’m often ruminating on these thoughts. I feel like I missed something in my youth. I thought that at some level of physical/domestic/professional accomplishment, I would get that treatment from my wife I saw others get. But, as you’ve said before “It has nothing to do with you.”
In the big picture, I’ve got a lot of privilege, and I wouldn’t trade my struggles for anyone else’s. I just occasionally get my thoughts stuck in these bad grooves, and I’d appreciate some better ways to challenge/counter those recurring assumptions while I work on the bigger issues.
Not Great for the Gander.
DEAR NOT GREAT FOR THE GANDER: Alright NGFTG, I’m going to level with you. You have two issues here, and one of them has very little to do with why you’ve written into me. But before I get to that, I want to address your primary question
First of all: you – and men in general – are perfectly welcome to have celebrity crushes and to talk about how attractive you find women. There’s nobody stopping you. It’s not even really an issue about talking about wanting to bang someone. Objectification isn’t really the issue either – most of us WANT to be objectified on occasion, particularly from folks we’re into. Were not people, we’re also slabs of meat. The problem is that so-called “locker room talk” tends to be less of the “Oh damn, Rhianna is so hooooot” and far more about the fact that said talk tends to not stay in the locker room… and how much of it gives tacit approval for really, really awful behavior.
Here’s what’s going on with the differences between what you’re “allowed” to do or say and what women are “allowed” to say: decades of social power differential. You grew up being taught not to treat or talk about women like they’re sex objects, and that’s good. But while you may have been raised one way, the culture that we grew up in had some radically different ideas about that. You just have to do a quick browse through 70s and 80s comedies – especially the sheer number of boner-jams like Last American Virgin, Porky’s and the others – to see that. And the 80s and 90s were slightly more evolved in that respect than the 50s, 60s and 70s. For decades, casual sexual harassment was basically the norms of accepted behavior. It was just “how things were” and women who couldn’t take it were told they were frigid b
*s who didn’t have a sense of humor or “couldn’t take a joke” – and if they couldn’t get a thicker skin, then they should just GTFO.
So you know. Basically Twitter, but everywhere.
And frankly, a lot of that behavior is still deeply embedded in our culture. Look at how much crap women get over calling out the Office Creeper, or the pushback over clapping back at street harassment. There’s still an overwhelming belief that women choosing to exist in the public space means that they’re doing so for the benefit of men.
Then there’s the fact that, for a long, long goddamn time, women were taught that they weren’t sexual, that they weren’t visually aroused like men were and that their sexuality was essentially receptive. It’s only really recently that women have been able to actually take ownership of their sexuality, and in a way that’s not a performance for men. It can feel weird to hear women talking openly about how hot a dude is, how nice his butt is or what-not because, frankly, a lot of us grew up in an era where that was a major social taboo.
It isn’t now and thank God for that.
But the fact of the matter is, there’s still a social power difference between men and women. Men are more likely to harass women, to creep on them and abuse them. Women are still treated as literal objects in media and in society; MRA and MGTOW complaints aside, that just ain’t happening to men.
This doesn’t mean that women can’t be creepers or harassers. Hell, I got creeped on by a woman. But the playing field is by no means level and likely won’t be for quite some time. Not when known predators can still expect to keep their jobs and be protected from the consequences of their actions.
Now, if their conversations really are bothering you or making you feel uncomfortable, then by all means speak up. You have a right to not go through your day listening to people’s sexual fantasies, regardless of gender. Even just a “hey, could you not bring this up around me?” is enough to let people know that this is something that gets to you and you’d appreciate it if they’d stop. If this actually got you laughed at and called a snowflake? Then that’s something to take to your company’s HR department, with the words “creating a hostile work environment”.
But I really doubt it’d come to that. Something tells me that this is more your jerkbrain telling you what you think would happen instead of the reality.
And to be quite honest: while I think it’s admirable that you try to be conscientious and (for lack of a better term) “woke”, I think you may have dialed the needle too far in the other direction. There is a point where you can go from trying to be a good guy to being so afraid of self-expression and judgement that you end up handicapping yourself. Be aware, be considerate of the people around you and be willing to enforce your boundaries as well, if you need to.
Now with all that having been said, I want to address something that leapt out at me from your letter. This, I think is your real issue:
Holy hopping sheep s
t dude, the way your wife treats you is abominable. I don’t think the problem is a dichotomy between how men and women are allowed to express themselves sexually, it’s that your wife treats you like crap. If you’d come to me just about your relationship with her, I’d start with telling you to get couples counseling and ending it with the Future Question: how long will you be willing to live like this, knowing that her behavior towards you isn’t going to change?
Because quite frankly? The sort of behavior you’re talking about is setting off my “emotional abuse” alarms like a goddamn tornado siren.
Now maybe it’s not that bad. Maybe this is getting filtered through some of the body and acceptance issues you have. I think the best thing you can do for yourself right now is get your butt to a therapist and start unpacking some of this pain and frustration you’re having.
But for real dude: if it is as bad as it sounds at the top? Then I think it’ll be a lot easier to improve if you get the hell out, ASAP.
Good luck. And write back to let us know how you’re doing.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com)