I have been an anxious person for as long as I can remember. I was bullied growing up, and there is a family history of anxiety. My parents were always surprised at the difference in me between home and my behaviour at school. Anyone who knows me, knows that I am a social butterfly. I’m the kind of person that strangers feel comfortable talking to in elevators or waiting for busses. This is not at all compatible with social anxiety. I sometimes think of my anxiety as gremlins in my head or vultures hovering over me. Calling things like ‘they don’t really want you to come out with them, they just invited you because its polite’ or ‘he doesn’t care about you, why on earth would someone like him pay attention to you’. This is something I’ve been combating for years and I’ve gotten pretty good at covering it up and handling it in ways that allow me to have decently healthy friendships and relationships. That isn’t always the case though, sometimes the vultures get too close to consuming me.
I recently made an interesting connection in my head. I’ve always identified with my femininity, but I’ve also felt dissociative from a lot of things that are inherently feminine. I grew up in a household where I was told I was smart instead of beautiful; I went camping and hunted tadpoles and played in the dirt and climbed trees. My parents did a great job of instilling confidence in me. Telling me I could be whatever I set my mind to, without adding anything about gender. Society however, has never been kind to women. I remember having breakdowns as a teen and screaming at my mother “I’m sorry I’m not the perfect daughter” only to have her tell me later that she never expected perfection of me. Somewhere in school, or interactions with other kids or because of the media I had learned that I wasn’t perfectly feminine. Because I was loud and bold and emotive and a woman, there was something wrong with me.
I started trying to fit this role more, I developed a way of censoring myself. This is something I still struggle with, I’m working on it. I feel like my opinions often take up too much space. I tried to be more nurturing and caring. I tried to take up as little space as possible. I tried not to be so ‘hysterical’. Roxane Gay writes about this in her essay ‘Garish, Glorious Spectacles’. She calls this ‘playing the part of girl’ and talks about how this can be done in such a way that at times it stands in place of your own identity. She talks about a self-awareness that makes you close in on yourself.
I grew up with a lot of guy friends, maybe this had something to do with having a stay at home dad and a brother. I was always one of the boys. It also didn’t hurt that the few people in my class who would talk to me and stick up for me were mostly boys. As a kid this was fine, but when puberty hit all of a sudden we were more adversarial. We all know girls and boys ‘can’t be friends’. I remember wanting to have boys like me, wanting to feel desirable. All the girls who got this kind of attention fit the feminine mould better than I did. In my head, this meant I needed to change. In Gay’s essay she discusses how ‘girl’ craves attention but at the same time despises it. She dresses up her identity in a way to attract attention, and then feels removed from any pleasure she is supposed to derive from this because it isn’t actually directed at her, but at ‘girl’.
Throughout high school I changed from being the little sister, or the ‘bro’ and then took matters into my own hands and developed the ‘playful, sexy girl.’ I now teach sex-ed on a volunteer basis. If you told any of my friends from high school no one would be surprised. I wasn’t the most sexually active of my friends, but I was the most knowledgeable. Being the anxious person I am, I like to heavily research everything before I get myself into something. When I tried smoking I knew every chemical that I was inhaling into my body, I researched drugs and alcohol before ever imbibing (and choosing to generally avoid drugs because of the possible mental health outcomes I had read about.) The same applied to sex. When I started going through puberty I researched everything, from periods and uterus’s to testicles and androgen. When my friends started becoming more sexually active I researched STI’s and contraceptives. I really didn’t feel like the scary version of sex they told us about in health class could be accurate if so many people were still choosing to have sex. I was the go to for many of my friends to ask the embarrassing questions. I didn’t judge, I only informed and protected. I became, as one of my friends called me ‘Mama Sex Tips.”
I was doing pretty well at matching up pieces of my personality with things that boys found desirable. I did this so well that I managed to land myself a boyfriend. Unfortunately for me he ended up being of the manipulative and abusive variety. I looked back on this for the longest time with shame and pain. I was supposed to be an empowered woman, how could this happen to me? My feelings were the feelings Gay describes ‘girl’ having. Removed from your body, as if watching the whole thing being played out. I am lucky enough now to have a better understanding of what happened. In Gay’s essay she talks about how people ‘break themselves against each other in terrible ways.’ I can no longer demonize him in my head because I know he too was performing a sort of role that didn’t fit himself. Our matching cover stories seemed to fit together. Rather than realizing the part and admitting it to one another our real identities, we descended further into our roles. He was aggressive in his sexual demands, I was passive and nurturing, giving him what he wanted. If we had owned up to our true desires maybe we could have avoided a lot pain.
I read an article called ‘Queers, Kissing, Accountability’ by Shannon Perez-Darby in a zine called “Learning Good Consent”. The way the author described their desires and the relationship with them was familiar and validating to my own experience. ‘I’ve learned to go along with it, to not make waves…. I get lost in messy places between us and that’s not love and that’s not accountability…. I know I can do better than sort of showing up.” Radical feminism has put forth this idea that sexual interactions between men and women are inherently non-consentual because of the power imbalance. With our gender roles, men have been titled actor and given the agency while women are objects to be acted upon. While this may be true in discourse, it is not completely true on reality. Perez-Darby puts forth the idea of accountability on both sides, in all relationships. We’re creating a false dichotomy that is hurting everyone involved, that is what we need to change.
Perez-Darby puts forth that by not talking about the coercive dynamics we are simply isolating ourselves and allowing it to be perpetuated. I know plenty of men who struggle with a similar role play of ‘boy.’ ‘They shouldn’t be accountable for their actions but they also shouldn’t be demonized.’ This can be said both for perpetrators of sexual assault and for victims. I would bet there are many perpetrators who fail to see how their actions are wrong because that’s how they’ve been socialized. This occurs to victims as well, they blame themselves and never come forward because they are socialized to keep quiet and not make waves. These roles of perpetrator and victim are gendered in discourse, and in reality, but they aren’t cut and dry (like any gender role.) Women can perpetrate and men can be victims in both hetero and homo relationships.
There are some questions posed towards the end of the article. “How do we know when we have power, how do we figure out how to shift power dynamics and what do we do when we use our power in fucked up ways? How do we hear and respond when someone says they’re not feeling heard or that they feel like their lines have been crossed? How do we honour what an amazing thing it is that someone is even able to say that at all?” When someone uses their power against you inadvertently, how do you hold that person accountable without demonizing them and then reverting to the nurturer to make them feel better about what they’ve done to you? How do you step out of the role you are playing and back into your identity?
I was once told by a speaker at “Beyond 101: Consent” conference to explore my desires in a critical way. Be honest about the structures behind them, and be honest with yourself about how that makes you feel. For me, this has taken months of unpacking. I suppose I still am unpacking it, I think I may never be able to stop. Similarly to Gays ‘girl’ this hasn’t yet made me feel any less powerless against it, any less empty or filled with longing. Perez-Darby spoke to how understanding this complexity is painful. You can’t throw yourself into the fire again and again hoping someone has your best intentions at heart. We are all going to make mistakes but I, like Gay and Perez-Darby try to find hope from holding this knowledge. I’ve vowed to myself to keep an open mind to it, and to have open dialogue with people in my life about it. If we constantly engage in conversations that combat this maybe we can reconstruct the world into one that is more friendly to all of us. In the mean time, I’m learning to own my desires and my anxieties. I’m learning to talk about them, and to hold people accountable for respecting my boundaries. I’m hoping that by doing this I will allow other people a space to be honest with themselves and with me. These realisations could be terrifying, but I have to choose to see them as empowering instead.