First off, I have a standing promise to link to any current or former student of mine who starts blogging. (Note: this does not generally apply to Myspace blogs). Connie Chung (young enough to have been named after the television news presenter) has waded into the 'sphere. Welcome, Connie, and enjoy!
One of the immensely gratifying things about blogging is that every once in a while, it turns out that a post I wrote ended up being useful for someone. I got an e-mail recently from a fellow named Thomas, and rather than summarize it, I'll quote it in its entirety:
I would just like to thank you for your article - Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and the Right to a Private History found after conducting a Google Search.
Your quote - 'We all have the right to have had a past, and to have that past without apology' is sheer genius, many thanks.
Basically, I have been with a girl for 6 months now, who is a few years older than me, I'm 23. Now, I have had my share of sexual partners, and I'm sure that my 'number' would bother her. Although, we both declared that we didn't want to have 'that' conversation, I think we both know that both of us have had a colourful sexual experience. However, this has been bothering me for a while.
After a few brief chats about previous partners and flings, I became increasingly frustrated with the fact she has got an experience. Don't get me wrong, because the other half of me was thinking - 'of course she has you fool, she's 27 years of age'. The strangest part of my frustration was that ex-partners don't bother me…that has an emotional attachment which I think is fair enough, it was the flings and brief relationships that bothered me…although I have been doing exactly the same thing.
I have become frustrated with my own damn frustration, so you can see how confusing this is!!
So, in an attempt to alleviate my annoyance, I tried to seek some text, maybe an article that may explain my frustration…your's did exactly that. I agree that you shouldn't ask and shouldn't tell, I wasn't going to go that far. Some of the articles I read talked about various medicines and psychological help…I don't need that, I'm not a nutter. I just wanted to read something that would take the haze away from my ridiculous thoughts - your quote has done just that.
As soon as I read it - I said 'that's exactly what I needed' out loud, catching a attention of a few work colleagues no less, whoops. I'm already thinking much more clearly about what the past, in terms of the 'you' and 'me' situation you talk about in your article…frankly, in terms of sex it means very little, if anything…and my sex life would probably not be as good as it currently is, if my girlfriend hadn't taken the options she had available to her.
Only 20 minutes later I'm thinking much more positively about my thoughts, I don't want to know where they came from, just wanted to see something to help me get rid of them…I struggle to come to terms with things I don't understand. These thoughts I didn't understand because I'm no virgin. My issue was that I know she deeply cares for me. She has difficulty expressing feelings of love in words, due to past experiences, however she says she loves me, and I love her back…I've been in love before, this is it again, but stronger. She also mentioned for the first time that she loved 'making love' to me, an absolutely massive step for her, so I had no doubts there, and trust isn't really an issue. I need to clarify and get some information to back up the sheer affection we feel for each other, rather than having negative thoughts all the time.
So once again, thank you for your excellent words, I will keep a copy of your quote in my wallet and carry it with me as a reminder that often the past is not that important.
Well, it may be self-serving of me to quote Tom, but I've never been told someone carries around something I wrote in his wallet! That's very nice.
I get a lot of hits looking for that July 2005 post. An extraordinary number of men and women struggle to overcome their own anxieties and jealousies and obsessive thinking in regards to their current partner's sexual history. Indeed, when I posted on the topic last summer, I don't think I realized just how pervasive the problem was! The many comments -- and many, many e-mails -- I got in response convinced me that this is a significant issue for an extraordinary number of people!
What I honor about Tom's struggle in particular is that he was willing to cop to his own ugly double standard. He was no virgin, and his girlfriend (though slightly older) hasn't done anything with her past partners that he hadn't with his. Yet Tom, like countless men throughout the world, had been raised in a culture that conveys the message that women have a unique obligation to be virginal and virtuous. To his great credit, he was at least as troubled by his own hypocrisy as he was by his girlfriend's past.
I've worked with young men like Tom. I'm so often impressed by their willingness to go to any length to overcome their own learned sexism. In a sense, they too are victims of the vicious cultural double-standard. It's not much fun, really, to spend hours and hours consumed with dark thoughts about one's partner's past, not much fun to brood and obsess, not much fun to anxiously wonder how one "measures up." Foolish and sexist men blame "experienced" women for "making them feel this way." They preach a double-standard in order to spare themselves this sort of worry.
But a pro-feminist man (I don't know if Tom would use the label or not), knows better. He knows that the jealousy and the judgment he feels are his problem, not his girlfriend's. And rather than berate her, or ask her endless, prying, nagging questions, or sulk quietly, he gets pro-active -- and seeks help to overcome his programming.
I think pro-feminist men have a special role to play in helping younger men do this work. Too often, the burden of helping younger men work to transform their sexism falls on women. Girlfriends and wives and sisters end up spending a great deal of time helping men they love let go of their double standards, acknowledge their male privilege, and work to become more authentically egalitarian. To say that can get tiring for the women is, well, the understatement of the week!
Feminist men have an obligation to young men like Tom. Not all 23 year-olds are as willing to work to transform as he is. A vital part of male feminist work is creating opportunities for men in his position to talk openly about their fears, their obsessiveness, their anxieties. And once the space has been created where that discussion can happen, we can propose solutions grounded in our own experience. I'm glad that every once in a while, that can happen in cyberspace.