04: Relationships cont’d

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Assuming effective communication, we then have to return to the issue of power. The previous chapter closed with the idea that if there is a power imbalance in a sexual relationship (whether through age difference or social position), it is likely to be inappropriate. As mentioned above, power is the key element of the conspiracy and it therefore actively seeks out such inappropriate relationships. However, I’m conscious of the highly prescriptive nature of such a statement which closes down relationships based on significant differences in age or social status. So while I think it generally holds true, I want to first open up a space for how such relationships might be able to work.

In short, if you’re the significantly older or socially privileged person in a relationship, you have to find a way of giving your power away. You have to exercise what might be called a “radical vulnerability.” If, for example, you have managed to partner with some young lovely who is in awe of your achievements, you will need to find a way to empower him/her. Maybe the stereotype is an older man who is successful but emotionally distant, and the younger partner is in a position to be the guide towards greater emotional involvement (assuming this position is vested with the same hierarchical status in the relationship as the achievements of the older partner).

Indeed, that radical vulnerability is probably the key to maintaining power balance in all relationships. It may not seem like it to most men, but they are largely in the position of power (even if they feel they are constantly being denied sex and nagged to do stuff they don’t want to do). The power imbalance between men and women goes back thousands of years and even with the relatively equal opportunities of today this imbalance is still clear, most explicitly in the allocation of wealth and the split between the private and public domain (as discussed in Chapter 2).

Even progressive men have a weakness for glossing over this imbalance and repeating age-old patterns of power-grabbing behavior. Key ways power is wielded in relationships includes men assuming their work is more meaningful than their partner’s (whether it be paid or parental//housekeeping), not consulting on decision-making, withholding resources, being emotionally distant, let alone more explicit examples such as physical and verbal abuse. Apart from physical abuse, I’ve done all these things myself (sorry about that), which just goes to show the insidious nature of the conspiracy, even if one is fully aware of the way it operates.

All of this requires making a stance which refuses to take on board these unfortunately too-common masculine traits. Back in the 1980s this idea was picked up by one of the few feminist male writers at the time, John Stoltenberg, in a book called Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice. Stoltenberg’s general idea was sound, but like various feminist positions of the time it needs more nuance: no male person should be expected to refuse to be a man (which is, after all, a natural biological reality): a better title would be Refusing to Be Part of the Masculinity Conspiracy.



Written by Joseph Gelfer

December 14, 2010 at 3:35 pm

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