I'm sick today. I was in bed performing that awful mental gymnastics of weighing whether to muster enough strength to make it out to a grocery store for drugs and OJ or to call up a friend and ask them to make the run for me. I ran through a mental list of people to whom this might not sound totally weird and imposing, and naturally the only person to qualify was my girlfriend.
It wouldn't have been the first time. When I had a severe and completely unexpected depressive relapse in May, my girlfriend Ela was at my house with drugs, bandaids, antiseptic spray, and protein powder to keep my nutrient intake up during a time when I wasn't likely to be able to eat much. She was warm and affectionate when I needed it, but her caretaking of me was brisk, almost businesslike. Eat this. Take these. Let's put a bandaid on that. As though she'd done this many times before, which, in all likelihood, she probably had.
It reminded me of the 2002 movie Kissing Jessica Stein, a rom-com about two romantically frustrated women who decide to try lesbianism in order to get their needs met. Helen, a sexualized femme fatale gallery owner, tells her new girlfriend Jessica, a bookish news reporter, about the men she calls on for companionship: "I mean basically, I call Roland when I'm hungry, Steven when I'm bored, and Greg when I'm horny." "Who do you call when you're sick?" Jessica asks. "I don't get sick," Helen replies. Jessica retorts, "Oh. Good system." Like clockwork, later on in the movie Helen gets a cold, and it's Jessica who's showing up bringing her homemade chicken soup.
There are a lot of pieces going around the internet lately about women's unpaid emotional labor, and in the social media sphere I've no doubt been one of the loudest. It's so sensitive a subject that one seemingly innocuous joke from a male grocery cashier about how I should make him the apple pie I was obviously buying ingredients for had me take to Twitter in a rant about how it's not my job to heal all the men of the world through making them baked goods. Sure, it was only a joke, but when you're an attractive woman in this world -- especially one who seems to emanate give me your tired, your repressed, your sexually frustrated yearning to breathe free vibes wherever she goes -- jokes about free emotional labor are no longer fucking funny.
I went to a class that one of my colleagues was teaching once, and he had us partner up to do an exercise practicing asking for what we want. The exercise was supposed to go like this: one person would make a request, and the other person, no matter what the request was, would reply "Yes," just so the first person could experience what it felt like to hear an affirmative response. It was made clear, though possibly not quite clear enough, that the second person was not to perform the original request, just saying "yes" was enough. I was at the class being on brand as usual, heels and a red dress and red glass heart necklace around my neck, all purposeful seductive femininity. (I've noticed that when I wear my leather jacket and motorcycle boots, I can slip by much less noticed.) The man paired up with me was probably in his 60s, wearing a sea captain's hat and a smelly old sweater, and as he made his request, he said to me, "You look so beautiful, I saw you as soon as you came in the room, and it's been so long since I've had a woman in my life, and I just... could I just have a hug?"
I hugged him. It was easier than re-explaining the exercise to him and hurting his feelings by rejecting what on his part was clearly a very real request. I still feel awful about that interaction to this day, and I can still feel the scratchy wool of his navy sweater against me as he grasped me. I was a paying student in that class; I was not there being paid to heal other people. I was there to learn for myself. I learned a boundary that day and now when I attend my friends' classes, I sit out of any group exercises. In fact, I sit in the back like the too-cool rebel I am, because I'm in the field too and I'm there to support more than participate.
Similar was my singular experience at a speeddating event. For an hour I spent three minutes apiece on twenty men who filed before me at the sound of a bell, and in those three minutes I asked them about themselves, their hopes, their dreams, their favorite foods. I remember my voice getting tired by the end, and when the next man approached me, I said, "How about we spend the whole three minutes just looking into each other's eyes?" Afterward he said, "That was amazing! That was the best interaction yet!" At the end of the hour I was exhausted. Had I been a stripper, the sound of the bell after each three-minute interval would have instead shown up as the dj changing songs, and I would have said, "Oh hey, let's have a dance now," and I would have left with $400.
Sex work is in fact a place where women's emotional labor has a price, which is one theory about why it's so deeply vilified -- men don't want to pay for the things they feel entitled to for free, and women don't want other women selling those things to men for cash and thereby diluting their capacity to use them as barter for patriarchal tokens such as the security of marriage. Sex worker rights have become a far more hot button topic in recent years, and I'm hoping that full decriminalization will be the next step in American progress after the recent victory of marriage equality and what is no doubt about to be the inevitable countrywide legalization of marijuana. The industry of sex work, including work such as stripping and pro-BDSM where intercourse itself typically doesn't happen, is confirmation of the fact that women's companionship, conversational skills, and willingness to be sexualized are things that have monetary value.
The blog HoboStripper wrote about "the cosmic titty," the construct that to be feminine is to play the role of selfless caregiver to men: "The strip club teaches that cosmic tittage, rather than being the birthright of all men and the duty of all women, is a significant exchange of energy that we should be compensated for." The author goes on to describe two times in her childhood that she played the role of cosmic titty -- once to her 30-year-old male babysitter, and once to her dad. I too can remember the awkwardness of my abusive bio-dad crying to me, and the weird way I felt obligated to tell him everything was going to be okay.
Of course, once upon a time, before the takeover of Christianity and the fall of goddess culture, women were revered and protected for their roles. They were the original priestesses, women skilled in the arts of love who would counsel and fuck their devotees in order to help them attain spiritual communion, because sex was (rightfully) seen as the gateway to spirit. Importantly, their societies valued them and protected them as resources, unlike our society's denigration of "hookers and strippers." Today's Delphic oracles are also more likely to show up as women who hold down everyday jobs to pay their rent while also offering counsel for free to the men in their lives, as in Jess Zimmerman's account for The Toast: "I’ve fielded hundreds of late-night texts, balanced reassurance with tough love, hammered away at stubborn beliefs, sometimes even taken (shudder) phone calls. I’ve actually been on agony aunt duty for male friends since high school, so if it’s true that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something, counseling bereft dudes may in fact be my only expert skill."
Of course, I get a disproportionate amount of requests for help and healing because of my job, too -- the difference there is that when something is my job, I can charge for it. The most respectful emails I receive are short and to the point, soliciting my coaching and asking my rates before even bringing up specifics regarding the situation on which they're seeking counsel; others, not as respectful of my time, will write thousands of words in an email about the boy or girl who's breaking their heart and then close with, "So, any advice?" The fact that the people behind the latter emails assume I am going to give them my time for free by reading their lengthy confessions is already insulting -- not to mention that I have a separate email address for free inquiries to my Ask Arden advice column for Auxiliary magazine. Maybe there are bloggers out there who are more generous with their time than I am, but I'd like to see you try to go into a doctor's office and list off all your symptoms to them without incurring a consultation fee.
About a month ago, Twitter saw the fascinating development of the hashtag #GiveYourMoneyToWomen, developed by Lauren Chief Elk and Bardot Smith. It was an exquisite point that was unfortunately wrapped in the trappings of popular misandry unlikely to appeal to anyone except similar women, and so I sincerely doubt any men were convinced to compensate the women in their lives any more than before. Nor was it helped by the fact that it was in part developed and trended by a number of financial dommes -- in character, not as women who happen to earn a living as dommes -- who appeal to a very niche market share of men. Most misinterpreted it as trying to say that men should fork over their money to random women for no reason other than perhaps their good looks (the maintenance of which, by the way guys, usually costs women a lot of money!), and so many #getajob tweets were hashtagged in response. Other men made jokes about strippers and hookers, and the fact that these were jokes rather than serious estimations of women engaging in consensual financial transactions for their skill sets was rather poignant. One tweeter, though, Trudy, got it right: "If you have the means, find 3 women whose knowledge on here has changed you and donate to their work right now."
That hit home. I blog and tweet about relationships and sexuality in such a way that many people, men especially, email me and tell me that my work has changed their lives for the better. I am always happy to hear that my work is resonating in the world, and it is nice to read that kind of feedback. But there's a bit of a sting to it sometimes, a sting that could be mitigated by these readers paying for an hour of coaching, or buying a few copies of my book to give to their friends. It's super cool that my labor has made your life better, but maybe you could do something in return to make mine better too? (One woman, afraid of buying my book with her credit card lest her husband spot the purchase, even straight-up told me she had gotten it for free as part of some Amazon Kindle free trial, which, if you don't get how offensive that is to an author, please only email me if you want coaching on empathy and manners.)
I have a poor history of free emotional labor, which is probably why this subject is such a sensitive one to me. During my awkward years in my teens and early twenties, I didn't possess the sight or empathy that would allow me to perform the task of caretaking men, and I envied the desirability of women who did. Becoming a pro-domme helped me to develop those skills, and studying seduction took them even further. In particular, Robert Greene's The Art of Seduction, the first book I ever read on the subject, advocates for a great deal of labor on the part of the seducer (though to his credit, he advocates just as much emotional labor on the part of male seducers as on their seductress counterparts, even if the kinds of emotional labor are at times gendered). Newly minted in the art, I took my temptress toolbox and went to town, and I found that putting in work got me decent results. I spent years in New York reveling in my role as the rockstar courtesan, baking cookies to take backstage to my favorite bands, inviting the scene's most talented musicians into my home where I'd pour them a glass of wine, make dinner, and fuck their brains out. And hey, I got some incredible experiences and relationships with the men I wanted, something my former self would never have been able to do. But after a while it got old. So many of them would leave and I would feel deeply unchanged. I was enjoying their company, but they were having no effect on me, because I wasn't allowing myself to be taken care of in return. It felt safer at the time to utilize the role of caretaker in order to maintain a position of power, because vulnerability is scary, and it's easier to do wifey shit for fuckboys than it is to admit that you need someone.
I'd be remiss here if I didn't also mention the fact that I identify as a service-oriented submissive, which means that I literally get off on performing labor for people I'm romantically involved with. I have my theories about this possibly relating to conditioning from a former D/s relationship and how it links to my attachment anxiety, but at the end of the day, it's a turn-on and I'm happy that I was able to transmute my issues into something positive. It also, however, means that I sometimes end up taken advantage of in relationships because free labor tends to attract narcissists -- although the symbiosis of giver and taker has sometimes maintained a weird but workable equilibrium, even if there was a ceiling to the potential intimacy therein. Conversely, I've been with guys for whom my service has brought up their self-worth issues, because receiving gracefully is difficult if in your heart you believe you're undeserving. And then the resulting shame from that self-examination gets unfairly conflated with me and taken out on me in not-so-subtle ways. So I'm not necessarily arguing against women's emotional labor, as long as they're volunteering it, because that would make me a hypocrite. I'm saying that in order for it to work, there needs to be an understanding and appreciation of what it means both to give and receive.
I've written and ranted some about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, the popular cinematic construct that for every moody and stunted Zach Braff there is a bubbly and adventurous Natalie Portman ready to zest up his life with her feminine charms. I don't actually have a problem with the trope itself, as I find the MPDG no less realistic than any other aspirational fiction. What I do have a problem with is how much her emotional labor goes unreciprocated (and how much the male counterpart to the MPDG, the Gothic Pixie Dream Boy, seems to live only onscreen without being appropriated to gain desirability by real-life men as the MPDG is by women). Women need support too, and arguably more so as we live in a patriarchy; there is something perverse about a person from a marginalized group dedicating her resources to the self-actualization of someone with exponentially more privilege (cue cringeing as I note that people in the BDSM community also face an extra layer of marginalization). If you are a privileged man living in a patriarchy and you have personally benefited from a relationship with an MPDG, you had better open your eyes to the struggles that she too faces every day, and you had better fucking fight for her. You have infinitely more resources than she does, and while your problems are real, they're likely not systemic as hers are. Nor is her pain any less real because you think she's pretty and probably has access to (bad, unsatisfying, potentially harmful) sex whenever she wants it, but that's a post for another day.
Healthy relationships are balanced relationships. Not every partner has to bring the same value to the table, but there must be reciprocity, and co-regulation, the very obvious concept that a relationship should entail two people giving a fuck about each other's well-being. Here we can get into the dubious concepts of masculinity and femininity, and what strengths each brings to the table. Women are, biologically speaking, better at listening, empathizing, and reading subtle social cues. Men are not obligated to reciprocate with the same set of feminine skill sets, but there has to be something that is given in return.
I've started to think of masculinity as being the quality of doing whatever needs to be done in the room, and the scope of sight that that entails. In February I went to a house party, and late in the night, as I was chatting with some guests by the fireplace, I looked up and saw my date helping to carry a woman who had passed out from drinking. Of course, I thought proudly. Of course he's the one who's going to stand up and help out. Similarly, I was at a fetish party this past weekend, and my friend Sir Rucifer saw me struggling to unfasten my corset and immediately came over and helped me with it. He also managed, even in the midst of scening with me, to spot a woman across the room whose boundaries he suspected were being violated by her scene partner and to send a friend over to make sure everything was okay and report back to him. At any Stockroom class, he'll sit in the back unobtrusively but be the first to start putting the chairs away as soon as it's over. He does whatever needs to be done in the room.
Femininity, I've decided at the moment, is to offer healing and communion; masculinity is to offer aid and protection.
In the majority of my past relationships, I've been endangered more than I've been protected. My move west has helped things a bit. I have better male friends here, especially in the kink and sexuality communities, who have helped model better behavior for me, the kinds of things that I want to see from potential partners. I've watched my bestie Adam Lyons as he provides for a family consisting of two girlfriends and two kids, and manages a business with at least ten staff members, one of whom is me. I've learned that just because you can seduce anyone you want with the emotional labor of a seductress doesn't always mean you should. I've learned that there is value in the work I do, whether it's the pies I bake, the blowjobs I give, or the counsel I dispense, and that that value needs to be met by someone who appreciates it with more than just lip service. I need a partner who will protect me as a resource.
I didn't end up calling Ela today. Instead I went to the urgent care for an antibiotic in a visit that my insurance didn't cover (hey, who wants to give me $195?), and then came home to nap and write this blog post from bed. It feels good to write but it also feels a little sad knowing I'm spending my sick day doing work to benefit others while I keep insisting on doing my own caretaking all by myself. Maybe I should have paid more attention in that "asking for what you want" exercise after all, because clearly I'm still learning that lesson while the old man in the navy sweater went away with more than his money's worth for the class.
I don't want this to embitter me. I don't want my softness and femininity to become collateral damage in the fight to protect myself from being usurped. I love men and I want to love them, I want to be there for them and do the things that I do best. But I need that investment returned. All women do.
I know that it's a difficult age in which to be a man. I've written about it. But I'd like more men acknowledging that it's a difficult age in which to be a woman, too, and maybe to display a little more empathy for it.
ETA: A few people have asked whether I have a paypal or a Patreon. I do have a paypal, it's firstname.lastname@example.org which is the same as my contact email. I'm working on setting up a Patreon. Thanks. :)