CW: mentions of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and abuse.
Written by Verónica Fraile del Álamo & Isabel Pfleger
Graphic by Abbie Holbrook
“He would never disrespect me, he’s one of the good guys.”
We live in a world in which we like to divide people neatly into boxes. Good or bad; people can be one or the other. In the discourse surrounding the (mis)treatment of women, it is widely believed that men fall into one of two categories – the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’. The bad men are the ones that we as women are taught to avoid, the ones that other men would acknowledge as being the perpetrators of bad actions against women. These are the men that society tells us do the raping and the abusing; they are the creeps and misogynists to whom other men compare themselves as adversaries. These adversaries are the ‘good guys’ (notice that in the discourse surrounding sexual assault in particular, this can often be a self-appointed title). These men may see themselves as the defenders of women, or at a basic level, they know that women should be respected just like anyone else. As women, we are taught that these are the guys that we can trust; we grow up assured in the knowledge that they won’t hurt us.
Often, these ‘good guys’ are also who we refer to when saying that not all men harass, assault, or disrespect women. And certainly, not all men mistreat women – it would be insulting and counterfactual to insinuate otherwise. However, as many women discover sooner or later, plenty of the so called ‘good guys’ also hold problematic views or damaging implicit attitudes towards women. The real world is a nuanced place, after all. Real people don’t fit neatly into the confines of a good-bad binary like they so often do on TV or in books; reality is much more complex than fiction or stereotype. The real world is full of ‘bad’ people who also do good, and ‘good’ people who also do bad things – and this is no different in the context of men’s interactions with others, including with women.
When we are young, our parents and teachers, the movies we see and the books that we read, all send us the message: “stay away from the wolf”. During childhood this can mean not talking to strangers on the street or accepting their gifts. As we grow up, the message becomes clear: stay away from the bad guys. As long as you stay away from the ‘bad guys’, everything will be fine. Accordingly, the men that I have dated have always been approved by family and friends as the right guy to have by your side – nice, respectful, responsible, and caring. I have always told myself that I won’t tolerate toxic or degrading behaviour and have been shocked to see some close friends – girls that I consider confident and empowered – put up with it. And yet, love (or the idea of it) makes you blind and I find myself reflecting on why we endure disrespect even when we know we deserve better.
Take, for example, my ex-boyfriend Zach*, whom I dated for almost a year. He was, by everyone’s admissions, a good guy – polite, nice, and respectful. He did all the things that we’re told a good guy is supposed to do, like introducing me to his friends and family, sharing the things that were important to him with me, and getting along well with my friends. But for all of the ‘right’ things that he was doing, I couldn’t shake off the fact that I felt bad. Why wasn’t I feeling confident about myself? More importantly, why was I putting up with feeling so bad?
I remember going on a trip together during which I got sick. I found myself having to go to hospital in a developing country, dealing with insurance and getting vaccinated. This entailed long hours spent waiting in the hospital and an awful number of calls to make sure everything worked as it should. While I was able to do this all on my own without issue, I would have appreciated more, even any, support from Zach. Instead, he said, “I don’t need to be here for any of this, do I? I’d rather take a nap”. And that’s exactly what he did. Now, I’m no damsel in distress but I wouldn’t have expected to be met with apathy in what was clearly a stressful situation – let alone from a guy that was by all accounts so ‘good’.
His behaviour did not include insults, emotional manipulation, or physical abuse, and yet I felt deeply betrayed by it. His (in)actions mirror something subtler and more pervasive – it is about trusting others with your vulnerability and having it met by indifference. Indifference can come in many forms: sharing something that is important to you and not getting a response, opening up about your insecurities and hearing back that they are justified, asking for help only to have your problems downplayed, and the list goes on. But importantly, indifference becomes disrespect when your efforts to explain why these things make you feel unloved or unappreciated are met with disregard.
This is often played out as a battle of logic versus feelings, or logic versus subjective experience. It can seem all too common, that whether your explanations and complaints are met with a smile or frustration, even the ‘good guys’ resort to using logic (or some interpretation of it) against you – you are simply being ‘irrational’. There’s something about being told or treated as though the way you feel makes no logical sense, and that you are being overly sensitive, that is infantilising. It is as if you were that little girl again, being told that everything will be fine if you just stay away from the big bad wolf. Only that now you know this isn’t true.
Relationships are not about logic, and it is unrealistic and unhealthy that anyone should have to bottle their feelings from their partner/s. A partner should be someone supportive and respectful, and above all, should not be indifferent to the way that you feel. But when one of the closest people in your life – someone that your friends and family love and trust – responds to you as though you are crazy, you often end up asking yourself whether they can really be wrong. Consequently, many women find themselves putting up with men’s indifference by bottling up our feelings and our frustration.
This indifference – the failure to attribute worth to your experiences and take your feelings seriously – can occur in a myriad of settings, both directly and indirectly. My friend Fred*, for example, is a great person. We’ve been friends for many years, and sometimes know each other better than we know ourselves. The reason I am telling you about him (other than to highlight a functioning, male-female platonic relationship), is that, for all of his virtues, Fred holds some attitudes towards women that I find highly troublesome. Though he doesn’t subscribe to an obvious all-women-belong-in-the-kitchen sort of approach, Fred exhibits more implicit, specific attitudes – sentiments that have only slowly been revealed over the years.
Fred is by many accounts a modern man: he is looking for an equal partnership when it comes to romance, and on a broader scale believes in equality for all genders. It is shocking then, to hear him describe the emotional wounds that his girlfriend carries from a previous, abusive relationship as an ‘imperfection’ (his exact words were “nobody is perfect”). I find myself struggling to reconcile the friend that I like and trust with this alarmingly unsympathetic view towards something that is a formational and traumatising experience in the life of many women – including the girlfriend that he deeply loves and otherwise respects. What I want to stress here is that, while his view is shocking and personally hurtful (I myself carry around the emotional wounds that he denigrates), this could be forgiven if only he would listen. After all, he has fortunately never had a similar experience from which to draw a shared understanding (though many men have).
When men are raised in a culture that regards their needs and experiences as the norm, it can be a strange and confronting proposition that other people’s lives are often shaped by situations that they may not even be aware of, let alone have faced. It can be difficult to believe what you can’t see, but being blind to something does not negate its existence. If Fred would just listen when I explain to him why his views are problematic, if he would just believe my testimony though he has none of his own, then all of this wouldn’t be such a big issue. But it is the somewhat bemused indifference with which he met my clarification that makes me question what actually makes this ‘good guy’ so different from all of the other men who have expressed their lack of understanding as a lack of empathy to me before.
The inability of those close to you to empathise with your situation serves only to deepen the wounds that you carry. This is all the truer when it comes from the men that we love and trust, who we know to be otherwise good and caring people. We all have that male friend, that family member, perhaps that (ex)boyfriend who is by no means objectively ‘bad’, yet seems to hold certain, if implicit, detrimental attitudes when it comes to women. These attitudes are hurtful, not so much because they are disrespectful (though this is an issue in and of itself), but because the men behind these attitudes often downplay or fail to comprehend their damaging nature even after being made aware of it.
We by no means think nor intend to say that all men are bad, just that categorising men into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ is reductionist and unrealistic. As we have become aware through our own experiences, it is too simplistic to equate a ‘good guy’ label with a warranty of ‘good’ behaviour only. All people are nuanced, complex beings. Inevitably, all people will eventually fail to live up (or down) to the labels they are associated with. Our issue with the ‘good guy’ concept is two-fold: women who experience bad behaviour at the hands of ‘good guys’ often find themselves torn between their hurt feelings and the attributes that make a guy ‘good’; being characterised as a ‘good guy’ may bias others to downplay or justify bad behaviour. For women who are already questioning whether their feelings are warranted, given that they are not dealing with someone demonstrably bad, hearing the ‘good guy’ rhetoric from others does not help.
While we want to stress that we do not think that all men are disappointing or bad, we conversely do not accept the behaviours and attitudes espoused by men (no matter how nuanced) that are inherently damaging or disrespectful towards women (or anyone). This can place us in a confusing position, in which we grapple (often unsatisfyingly) with balancing our right and need to be truly understood with maintaining our connections to the men that we like, even love, who – for varying reasons – can fail to empathise with us. We do not have all of the answers. Ultimately, choices will be made by each individual as to whether the indifference we receive regarding issues of fundamental importance to us is tolerable, or whether it makes a relationship untenable (or even where the line between tolerance and untenability falls). What we do know is that the ‘good guy’ rhetoric surrounding men’s interactions with and attitudes towards women is misleading. All humans are too complex to be defined by labels; the idea of the ‘good guy’ as we know it is a myth.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals