Casual language hides the private shame of falling in love with men
Jessie Tu on 'breadcrumbing', the patriarchy and new models for human relationships.
A few years ago, I went to a friend’s house-warming, hoping to meet another queer woman I could date. For about two weeks in the middle of autumn, I’d begun to resemble the unlikable male character in Tao Lin’s novel “Taipei”, who only goes to parties to find a girlfriend. I’d recently come out of a deeply unhealthy relationship with a man and hoped to bask in the warmth and safety of female companionship.
Unexpectedly, that night, I met a man. He was dressed like he was about to meet his in-laws for the first time: collared shirt under a sweater, sensible jeans and Oxfords on his feet. We talked, and very quickly, I found myself intrigued and then, disarmed. The man seemed conscious of the fact that he was a white, heterosexual, educated cis-male, and spoke in a way that indicated he wanted to offer cerebral reparations to the historically disenfranchised, of which I am a member (being Asian in a white-dominant society, and a woman).
A week later, the man and I met at a local bar, where our conversations whorled into a miraculous trajectory I’d never before experienced with a person of the opposite sex. At one point, he leaned across his stool at the bar and stroked my knee with his thumb. I felt a dizzying elation and then the familiar ecstasy of male, sexual power; of being within its confounds, of being subject and privy to it. I thought I’d finally found an ‘Actual Nice Guy’, who according to Blythe Roberson in her book How To Date Men When You Hate Men, are men who ‘treat you kindly because they are kind, not because they’re trying to sleep with you.’
I didn’t invite him back to my place that night. Or the next. But the man was eager and showed it through daily text communication. Then he disappeared.
These days, our lives exist in the digital ether. As a millennial born at the end of the 80s, I’m compelled to design a life that consists primarily of being wired to a device. So when I say he ‘disappeared’, I mean, he stopped communicating with me.
For about three, four days after, I languished under a compact, unshakeable slab of unbearable grief. It was a sort of grief fuelled by a life-time’s worth of feeling inadequate. I excavated this pain thoroughly, spending whole days questioning myself, wondering what I had done wrong, why he’d suddenly lost interest. I shared this story with several female friends and discovered that almost all of them had similar, if not worse, stories — incidences of men showing fevered interest and demonstrating verbal commitment, only to disappear without communication or any apparent remorse.
I quickly realised what I’d experienced was the extremely common careless exercise of ‘casual’ emotional abuse; of bringing someone into your life in an intimate manner, only to flick them away like breadcrumbs off a dinner table. In fact, 'breadcrumbing is the relatively new term to expand beyond modern dating lexicon like 'ghosting' and ‘house-planting’, to mean someone who texts sporadically with no intention of committing to you romantically.
"For about three, four days after, I languished under a compact, unshakeable slab of unbearable grief." - Jessie Tu
This casual emotional tumult feels like a particularly zeitgeisty phenomenon and at the heart of it, is a misuse of language. It’s an economic model of emotional exploitation that functions best for the deliberately agile and cruel; don’t text, completely disengage — if you must, wait a week and respond with one or two words — max.
I felt ashamed that I went on to spend more than $350 on three therapy sessions to unburden my heart by talking about the incident with a psychologist; although I recognise my extravagant privilege to be able to access this service, I felt bitter that I had let this incident even make a dent in my wallet, not just my head and heart.
Later, I interrogated my history books (diaries from my teenage years) and realised that the source of all these feelings came from individual boys, and men; and from the collective body of men, and of operating on their terms; aka the patriarchy. As a fiercely committed feminist, I felt ashamed of letting my heart be swayed by a member of the group whose existence has historically oppressed people like me: women.
How can I fight men in my head and yet let them into my bed? Is there a contradiction there? Dating a man has its problems as a feminist. We end up placing our most invaluable resource; our finite love —which encompasses physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, psychological effort and our time, energy and emotional currency and strength — into a member of the group who is perpetuating the subjugation of women. It’s still true that we end up doing most of the unpaid labour across the world: we carry out at least two-and-a-half times more unpaid housework than men and 75% of the world’s unpaid care.
Why am I so ashamed of being sad over men? Because in a very deep and fundamental way, falling in love with a man is the basic system of how the patriarchy is sustained. Society has historically benefited from this existing economic and political infrastructure: women fall in love with men and then end up negotiating a deal where they do the majority of unpaid labour. Being in a romantic relationship with a man can sometimes feel like I am signing my own contract into consensual subjection. Could it be true that “men need heterosexuality to maintain their societal dominance over women?”
It feels like a special sort of feminist shame; falling in love with the enemy, contributing to this capitalist patriarchal model. I am not a feminist who is attracted to mid-century masculine men. The men I’ve been attracted to don’t fit that bill at all. In fact, they’ve been almost the exact opposite — hyper-sensitive, gentle, soft-voiced and introspective. But they’ve also been white, cis-male, heterosexual and well educated; exactly the type of men who fall within the realms of the most historically oppressive group in the world.
What distresses me is that I am falling into the trap of trying to win the affections of these people who hold the most political, cultural and economic powers. Perhaps that’s part of the appeal —I am attracted to these men because I envision myself to be expediently taken closer to their positions of power if I find my way into their hearts; if I can latch onto them, emotionally, if I can appeal to them in a personal, sexual way. (This is called ‘throning’.)
In 2010, Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke of the real dangers of taking something as intensely private as someone’s relationship and criticizing it with the same zeal as we would a social institution. NBC News recently featured a piece by feminist cultural critic Marcie Bianco on how celebrities like Miley Cyrus are subverting sexual norms and championing the separation of intimate relationships from sexuality and gender identity. But sexuality and gender have a history and individuals are not independent of the history of the cohort they embody. For instance, a cis-straight white male cannot divorce his personhood and operative functions in the world from the fact that historically, cis-straight white men have held most institutional power. He cannot deny that society has been constructed and maintained by privileging heterosexuality.
I want to build a model of human connection that’s not based on performance, power-play, or feigned neglect. I’m not interested in the cruel, male-ego centric machinations of manipulation and exploitation. But I also know it’s now harder than ever, with technology both fuelling and mediating our most intimate emotional relationships.
Jessie Tu trained as a classical violinist for more than 15 years. She's taught at refugee camps in the Middle East, volunteered with AUSAID in The Solomon Islands, travelled to complete residencies in the U.S, and now works as a journalist at Women's Agenda, and is book critic at The Age and SMH. Her first book of poetry was released in 2018. A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing is her first novel.