In my circles, it’s commonplace for women to express greater comfort around other women. Is it socially acceptable for a man to say he’s more comfortable around other men?
In class recently, we watched a video of a group counseling session. At one point, a male group member said he had difficulty trusting the group. When pushed by the facilitator, he noted that he had an easier time trusting men than women. This particular group had three or four male participants and ten or so female participants. In context, he was saying he found it easier to be emotionally vulnerable with men. I have noticed that many people feel more comfortable discussing personal, upsetting matters with others of a certain gender.
During the discussion, one woman in my class made a dismissive remark about that moment in the video. Basically, she made a joke to the effect that she felt uncomfortable when he said that, that perhaps he disliked women, and that she would have wanted some distance from him. Another woman chimed in along the same lines. They shared a laugh.
These comments got under my skin. As a man, I am used to women saying they prefer the company of other women sometimes. I completely accept it. Many women have had bad experiences with men, while others just feel another woman will be more likely to understand them. At the crisis hotline where I volunteer, I don’t work a single shift without a woman calling and asking to be transferred to a female volunteer. It doesn’t offend or upset me in the least–I know it has nothing to do with me.
I acknowledge that because of the very different social positions of men and women, female-only space and male-only space are not the same. To take just one important example, women are much more likely to have experienced violence from a man than the other way around.
Still, in a mental health context, it is imperative that we take individuals’ unique needs seriously. The fact that men and women have different experiences on average means nothing about the needs and experiences of a specific person. Men are less likely to receive mental health treatment; I attribute this to a masculine imperative around not asking for help. If an all-male environment makes it easier for some men to do this difficult work, I think we should encourage it.
It really bothered my that my classmate inferred that the man in the video disliked or disrespected women. What he said was that he found it more difficult to trust women. Note that he didn’t say, for example, he found it difficult to trust women with important responsibilities. He said he found it difficult to trust women he’d just met with his emotions and struggles.
I can relate. When I was in counseling recently, I asked for a male counselor, because I knew I’d feel more at ease. The only time I have been in group counseling, it was a group reserved for trans men. I love women, I respect women, I have wonderful close relationships with women, and I am an ardent feminist. But when it comes to the rather odd situation of sharing my personal struggles with someone I just met, I feel more comfortable with other guys. It’s easier to speak frankly about private and difficult topics. It’s easier to share challenging emotions. I feel less need to downplay bad things, to use inoffensive language, to look like a strong, tough dude.
“Safe space” is a concept we usually reserve for an oppressed group. While the gender system does privilege men over women, it’s not a simple case of one class of people unilaterally oppressing another. The gender system does profound, specific violence to men as men. Emotions and intimacy are huge, crucial areas where gender norms harm men. This happens in ways most women probably don’t understand.
So I think that, in mental health services, men should be able to ask for safe space. Maybe, just maybe, it will make men more willing to seek help and more able to really use it when they get it. These spaces harm no one and might really help some.
The appropriate response for women who hear men express these preferences–especially women who are aspiring mental health professionals–is not derision or laughter. It’s not taking it personally or as some kind of larger comment about women. The appropriate response is compassion.
I had just paid for two full pints and was headed back to where my friends were sitting. As I turned around, I found myself directly in front of a couple, two short-haired women with tattoos and gauged ears. I gave them my biggest tipsy grin.
The women responded with a barely perceptible look of disgusted surprise and instantly turned away, pretending they hadn’t seen me. I was left holding my beers in complete confusion. These two had to be the meanest lesbians I ever met!
Shuffling back to my table, I realized what had happened. While I had seen them and thought we were members of a common tribe, they had looked back and seen some drunk dude with really horrible gaydar, presumably hoping to chat them up.
This was about a year into my transition, right around the time I started being read as male with complete consistency. It was time to say goodbye to the lesbian smile and the lesbian nod, like I’d said goodbye already to lesbian identity.
I still sometimes give a queer nod or smile–when I see a butch with a badass pompadour, when I see a gay or lesbian couple in love. I’ve learned to pick the time, place and manner so that I don’t bother people. They respond pretty well, though they often look a little confused, like they’re trying to figure out if I’m just a really cool straight dude, or maybe thinking, That guy’s gay? Really? I doubt that they ever suspect the truth.
These days I’ve also learned to give women a very different kind of smile, what Alma rather glibly calls the “I’m not gonna rape you” smile. This is the distinctive closed-mouth, eyes-averted, head-down grin a man gives a woman in strange situations, such as being the only two people walking on a street at night, that’s meant to say, I am totally not a threat to you. The body language is exactly like a submissive dog, leaning way, hunching down to look a little smaller.
This gesture is second nature to me now. I do it without thinking, moving to give female passersby a little extra space. I hurry past them on my way, because I hate getting stuck ten feet behind a woman who walks the exact same speed as me, who keeps turning the tiniest bit, trying to look at me without showing it, obviously extremely uncomfortable. I can’t say anything in these moments–anything I could possibly say would only make it worse. All I can do is make a wide parabola around her, smiling with my head down, hoping she can tell that I just really want to get home.