Conferences, interpersonal encounters and unexamined assumptions

I’ve been neglecting this blog to focus on my thesis, but this needs saying. Some of the thoughtless, unexamined ways relationships frequently get discussed really bother me, and a recent comment directed at my partner and I has stuck hard in my craw.

First, a little context.

My partner, a long-time lover of tabletop RPGs, went to GenCon with a friend this year. On the second-to-last day, he was on his own for dinner and ended up being joined at the table by a woman. Long story short, she departed when his companions turned up, but not before leaving him with her phone number and an unambiguous invitation to use it.

My partner being my partner, he was flabbergasted and messaged me about it pretty much immediately. This is not the first time he’s gotten this kind of attention, and we have the kind of relationship where we can deconstruct it to our mutual amusement after the fact.

Here’s where the problem comes in. I went to pick up him and his friend from the airport on Sunday night, and practically the first thing remarked on as I led the two of them back to the car was that I “would be proud of my husband” for handling the situation the way he did. This, unfortunately, is not a unique sentiment. It’s loaded with how we, as a society, construct masculinity, perceive human nature and are taught to engage in adult relationships.

As one may gather, there are a lot of assumptions baked into that short remark. Most of them are, at best, backhandedly complimentary when one digs into them (I have similar issues with the highly problematic term ‘husband,’ but that’s fodder for another post and only tangentially relevant here).

So. His conduct is allegedly a source of pride.

That’s selling him substantially short. Yes, he’s an attractive man, whether one measures that by appearance, intelligence or general conduct; as I mentioned, this is not the first time he’s received female attention. However, they have no way of knowing his relationship status or whether the interest is reciprocated without engaging him in conversation. He chooses how to react in these encounters. His gender and appearance do not predispose him to particular behaviors or desires. He is attractive in these circumstances in no small part because he has the ability to treat people as people, not genders, not roles, not objects. This woman got conversation from him, not ogling or a come-on. He didn’t look at the encounter as an opportunity, because that’s his default.

People are not what is or isn’t in their pants. He isn’t to be lauded for not viewing this woman as chance to get laid. A man is not his genitals (he informs me that he ‘wears pants, not a boner-sling’). It’s a massive insult to assume that an encounter between two people of opposite gender comes down to sex. Yes, she was interested in him, but there is absolutely no reason why that had to be reciprocal, and though there is the possibility that taking her up on the offer could eventually have led to sex, there is no reason to assume that she wanted anything more than the company of someone she found attractive and interesting. People do not enter into conversations solely on the basis of whether it may lead to sex. If both parties are inclined, so be it, but it’s not a safe assumption to make from a brief encounter.

Constructing the encounter that way reinforces the idea of man-as-wolf and woman-as-temptress. It sets up relationships as adversarial on the basis of who does and does not get to have sex and on what terms.

No. Just, no.

This is gender policing of the worst sort. Maleness does not automatically make a person view women as sexual objects, does not guarantee he will be attracted to people of a particular type or gender, and certainly does not make him naturally chafe at a consensual monogamous relationship. Femaleness does not predispose a person to particular categories of attraction either, any more than an automatic preference for monogamy or a threat response when her partner is in the company of another woman. A man cannot be assumed to want to spread his seed any more than a woman can be assumed to want to control the interests of a single partner.

Whether one is monogamous or not comes down to choice. Nobody gets a cookie for behaving consistently within the strictures of a given choice, and no one can know the intricacies of a relationship as an outside observer. If he had taken this woman up on her offer, that wouldn’t automatically make him faithless. The popular narrative says men should be tempted by the offer of sex outside of marriage, that all of encounters with women are filtered through the potential for sex, that they are to be lauded for staving off their base urges and that they are cheating scum if they don’t. This is reductionist and judgmental. Perpetuating these attitudes does nobody a service.

He and I have committed ourselves to a particular kind of relationship, and how we conduct ourselves when these situations come up is entirely dependent on the terms of that relationship. We get to define who and what we are, individually and as a couple, for ourselves. Relationships of any kind – sexual or otherwise – only work in the long term when they’re negotiated to the mutual satisfaction of all parties. I shouldn’t have to lay out that there is a wide variety to sexual attraction, permutations of human contact desired, gender expressions, and negotiated relationships possible, and no one arrangement is more correct or laudable than another as long as it’s entered into from a position of informed consent.

Assuming someone defines themself, their gender and their relationships in a particular way is just plain rude. We’re not stereotypes. Neither of us are “supposed” to react or feel a particular way. I repeat: we get to decide that for ourselves.

Don’t imply he’s heroic for resisting, and don’t act shocked when I fail to be jealous.

[Edit: Revised for clarity. It’s the idea I have an issue with, not the person to utter it.]

2 thoughts on “Conferences, interpersonal encounters and unexamined assumptions

  1. (Me, again.) We seem to think along the same lines:

    Good to connect with you! I’m going to point to this post via our Twitter account, @TheParentduJour.

    • Amy D. says:

      Hello, again! You’re right – we do seem to be thinking along the same lines, and I’m encouraged by your article! Thank you for the Twitter shout-out; I post there myself as @lashingtail.

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