Earlier this year, I read an essay called Shining a Light on Cutoff Culture. It’s almost four thousand words long and before I was halfway through, my shoulders were drawn up around my ears and my head was vibrating with ill-defined rage. Fortunately, Captain Awkward chose to tackle it on her blog and helped me pinpoint exactly why this essay made me so deeply uncomfortable. It took me a long time to sort my thoughts out on this one, but here is my letter to the man who wrote that essay.
You claim to be trying to shine on a light the dangers of cutoff culture. But here is the thing.
Most women do not live in a cutoff culture. Far from it. Let me tell you a bit about the kind of culture women live in when it comes to dating, relationships and sex. Your essay extrapolated from an example from your own personal experience, so I’ll give you one from mine:
A friend of mine dated a guy for a few months. She emphasized that she wanted to keep things casual, he was incapable of keeping things casual. Due to this glaring incompatibility, things didn’t work out between them. After she ended their relationship, he started:
- turning up at parties he definitely was not invited to because he knew she would be there
- trying to corner her alone in bars and in other social situations because he still felt like they needed to “talk”, despite the fact that she had made it abundantly clear on numerous occasions that she had nothing more to say to him
- extremely obviously monitoring her social media by liking every status and photo within seconds of posting and jumping on her as soon as she signed into chat
- barraging her with erratic messages (“you’re a cold bitch”/“I miss you so much”)
After a few months of this, she couldn’t take it anymore. She unfriended him on Facebook. That was when their mutual friends – who had up until then studiously avoided the dreaded Taking Sides – suddenly became very vocal. Words like “harsh” and “unnecessary” were used. His manipulative, obsessive, borderline stalkerish behaviour? Unfortunate but understandable. Unfriending him, though? A step too far. Seriously. He’s clearly hurting a lot. He’s had a bad year. Don’t you think you’re overreacting? There’s no harm in being polite. Can’t you be more understanding?
This is the culture women live in.
We live in culture where our “no” – hard or soft – is constantly ignored and undermined and treated as the start of a negotiation process instead of the end of the conversation.
We live in a culture that demands we humour our harassers, coddle our abusers, go easy on our rapists and play nice with our stalkers. We live in a culture that is constantly asking us (and the rest of the world) to consider the feelings of men who have lashed out at us in anger. You don’t have to look far for examples of this – you do it in your essay, in the paragraph on domestic violence.
We live in a culture that casts us as cold bitches if we refuse to be emotional caretakers for men who have hurt us, scared us and scarred us. (For cultural reference, see: Skyler White.)
We live in a culture where we are supposed to smile and learn to take a joke and grow a thicker skin and not cause “drama” by drawing attention to the fact that sexual harassment, assault, and abuse are part of the landscape of our realities.
We live in a culture that sometimes feels like one long lecture on how to protect ourselves from rape and abuse. We are told that of course we should prioritize our personal safety and trust our own instincts and respond to red flags. In fact, if we fail to do these things, society will often blame us putting ourselves within the reach of men who want to hurt us. But the catch is that we must employ all these dubious prevention techniques without ever offending a man. We have a responsibility to keep ourselves safe, but we don’t get to decide who or what qualifies as “safe” for us. We have a duty to be constantly on guard against gendered violence, but never at the expense of a man’s ego or feelings. Because heaven forfend we cross the street to avoid a perfectly nice man out for an evening stroll. (See also: “Women shouldn’t accept drinks from strange men! Except for me! I’m obviously lovely! Why are you so uptight?”)
We live in a culture that tells us that directly rebuffing or rejecting a man is “unnecessary”, “harsh” and “overreacting”. And then once the situation has escalated, that same culture will ask “Why didn’t she just leave?” as though it is one of life’s greatest mysteries.
This is why women had such a strong reaction to your essay. Not because you said anything particular new or controversial, but because we’ve heard it all before, in hundreds of iterations, sugarcoated to greater and lesser degrees, but always boiling down to the same thing: “My feelings and desires are more important than your boundaries.”
Healthy communication is important. It does not follow that all communication is by definition healthy. Specifically, communication that one person demands from or forces upon another is the opposite of healthy. It’s not even real communication, because communication is a two-way process that cannot take place if one person has been pressured into participating against their will.
Your essay claims to shine a light on cutoff culture, and in a way, it did. It made me see, with stark clarity, that “cutoff culture” means a culture that respects boundaries – even boundaries set by women, particularly when those boundaries apply to men. A culture where men can accept a woman’s “no thank you” or “please stop” gracefully, without flashing into anger or sliding into sullen resentment. A culture where a boundary is not an invitation to poke and prod, and cajole and coerce in order to find a weakness or a loophole. Your essay also made me realize that we do not live in anything resembling a cutoff culture, because if we did you would be able to see how cruel and impossible it is to ask your ex to continue to serving your emotional needs to the detriment of her own.
Your essay implies that you think you know what your ex needs better than she does, allowing you to couch your desire for her attention in concern. You may truly believe that you are concerned about “Emma”, but Emma has made it clear that she wants neither you nor your concern in her life anymore. It’s no longer your place to be concerned about her. Her “growth” is solely her own responsibility. You also characterize her as unreasonable, immature and damaged for failing to make the decisions that you wanted her to make. This is deeply condescending.
For what it’s worth, I am sorry things didn’t work out with Emma. I am sorry that she decided, for her own reasons, that a friendship was not on the cards. I am sorry the break-up triggered your PTSD and I’m sorry you do not feel that you have a supportive circle of friends you can turn to in a crisis. The one thing your essay gets absolutely right is that people should be kind to themselves while they’re mourning the end of a relationship. It’s clear that you still have a lot of stuff to work through. With yourself, with a journal, with a therapist, with a support group, with travel, with meeting new people, with throwing yourself into your professional goals or your hobbies, with whatever it is you need to do. But not with Emma. Emma doesn’t owe you healing or closure. In fact, Emma can’t give you healing or closure, because healing and closure are not things one human being can bestow on another. They are things you grow within yourself over time after a lot of reflection and self-care.