Many men feel the same about their hearts, as women do about their bodies.
We don’t expect a woman to open her body to someone who doesn’t respect her boundaries, because we understand (correctly) that a woman’s sexual desire, and her sense of safety are linked together.
The same can be said about a man’s heart.
We’re quick to judge men as emotionally unavailable, but we rarely ask why. We don’t consider that maybe the choice to not share his inner experience — his insecurities, his vulnerabilities — is rooted in an honest attempt to keep him safe from harm. In the same way that women have the right to be selective about their sexual partners and who they share their body with, men have the right to be selective about who they choose to open up to, and who they share their hearts with.
Alright, I guess it’s time for me to get this out of the way. I’m one of those guys.
I’ve been called emotionally unavailable, I’ve been pathologized, and I’ve had countless friends and mentors point to my unwillingness to open my heart as the cause of many problems in my relationships. And maybe they’re right. Thanks to their nudging, I’ve done important work in this area. I’ve learned to share my insecurities, I’ve worked on showing people my fear instead of masking it, and the more I open to others, the more joy I experience in my relationships.
Yet, I wish we collectively did a better job caring for men like me.
It’s almost a cliché to point out how many men have been traumatized by patriarchal bullshit such as “boys don’t cry”, “suck it up” and “be a man” tropes. Regardless of the progress we’ve made (and I do believe we’ve made progress), many of us grew up with a constant fear of being seen as weak and insecure.
I can still remember one moment that’s been burned in my brain ever since it happened. It was in the football locker room my sophomore year of high school.
One of my teammates (let’s call him John) was one of the “alpha” males of the group. He pushed people around, and frankly, most of us were scared of confronting him. He had a rough childhood, and we all just hoped that if/when he snapped we wouldn’t be on the receiving end of it.
The locker room was a combination of sophomores and freshman, and one day while we were all changing out of our uniforms, John turns and points at one of the freshman named George.
George was a shy, nerdy kid who kept to himself, and he was one of the smaller guys on the team. John shouts at the top of his lungs, “you were looking at his dick you fucking faggot!” Instantly, the whole locker room bursts into laughter and echoed John’s accusation. I looked at George and he was mortified. He became two feet tall, and that incident became a kind of death sentence for his social standing on the team.
I remember looking at George and imagining myself in his shoes. We knew this wasn’t some revelation about George’s sexual preference, it was just him doing what everyone does around other naked bodies and getting bullied. Had it been a different day maybe it would have been me, and that terrified me.
Every boy knows that fear of being vulnerable, whether major incidents happened to us or not. It may be a distant memory, but it still lives on in our bodies.
How did we respond to experiences like that in the locker room? We made a shield, and carried it proudly. Where once we were vulnerable and fragile, now we are strong and protected, but it came at the expense of intimacy. But what of intimacy? We were told we didn’t need that either, so everything was fine until women came along, and we wanted communion with them.
Our friends and lovers want us to be more emotionally available, but what does that even mean? It’s hard to leave a place you’ve never been. To be emotionally available would presuppose that we’re aware of the emotions in the first place, and many men aren’t. Unless it’s anger, because that emotion is fine, but we can’t show that. That’s not what is meant when we say “emotionally available”.
Do I think women need to learn to hold space for men’s anger? No. I think men should hold space for men’s anger, but what I really wish is that we all just accepted the fact that anger is the only emotion many men have given themselves access to. Instead of trying to suppress it, why don’t we treat them like soldiers with PTSD and find a healthy way to express it?
As we’ve seen with sexual trauma in women, the road to recovery is complicated, and not at all easy. I’m proud of the advances we’ve made in giving women the space to open at their own pace when it comes to sexual healing, and I know that’s possible for men as well.
My hope is that by comparing what men have gone through to women’s sexual trauma it creates a sense of solidarity, not competition. These experiences aren’t equal, but they are related. What we’re all fighting here is patriarchy, and when it comes to changing a system, a win for anyone is a win for all.
Thanks to the work that feminism and other movements have done, we all collectively agree that no woman should ever feel like she owes a man sex. Now we have the chance to apply that same wisdom to men. Men don’t owe anyone their hearts, and when we look at their inability to open from a trauma perspective, we realize that holding an expectation for men to open something when they aren’t ready is not just ill-advised, but pushes them further into feeling damaged and broken.
The healing we want men to experience will come a lot faster when we can look at them not as broken, but as the product of a broken system. A broken system that’s failed them just as it’s failed women, but in a different way.
We all have our battles, but they’re not the same.
If we want men to put down their shields, we need to also put away our swords.