‘I Hate Men.’

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Dear Polly,

I hate men. It’s an opinion that feels more timely now in the era of Trump and Weinstein and Cosby and Ailes and [insert millions of other names here], but one that I’m afraid might ultimately ruin any chance I have of contentment if I can’t figure out a way to stop being angry all the time. I’m almost 27, live in a major city, have a job doing things I’m passionate about, have friends I like, have a good relationship with my mom — the whole works. I’m incredibly lucky in every single part of my life except my interactions with the opposite sex, which have been almost universally awful from day one.

I’ve never met my father, and the only times we’ve spoken he’s been heinous — most recently, he slid into my DMs (really) to get my email in order to ask me for a paternity test because “you know how your mother [the woman who raised me, and would give everything she has for me] is.” I was 24 at the time, and have never asked him for anything. My stepfather was an immature creep who would catcall women while I was in the car with him. After an ugly divorce from my mom while I was in high school, he showed up at my graduation uninvited. I went to an all-girls high school, which I realize in retrospect was the only thing that gave me the room to become the person I am now — naturally, I spent the whole time afraid no guy would ever actually like me, which unfortunately seems as pertinent now as it was hyperbolic then.

I got to college and still had no success dating (plenty of lovely male friends, though!), and finally lost my virginity while studying abroad to a guy who had a girlfriend. That would become a theme. The next guy I got involved with — my longest relationship, if you could call sporadic cross-country liaisons that — had literally been a pimp. The next guy I got involved with turned out to have a girlfriend. The guy after that also turned out to have a girlfriend, only he got me pregnant, too, so I had to get an abortion (which is obviously a blast). The guy after that was probably the only time I’d say I’ve been in love, but he didn’t want to have a long-distance relationship and then six months later slept with someone else in our same industry and basically made me feel like a pile of garbage. With the next guy, I thought I was finally playing my cards right — being patient and waiting for him to make an effort and treat me right. I thought it might go somewhere. Then he drunk-dialed me to tell me he loved me, and broke up with me 12 hours later when I told him what he’d said. I just found out he was on a certain viral spreadsheet, though thankfully I couldn’t corroborate any of the claims there.

All this on top of the fact that most of my male role models have hit on me at one point or another, and like every woman, I can’t leave the house without getting harassed and I am constantly underestimated for no reason other than the fact that I have ovaries. Friends with girlfriends keep flirting with me, and it makes me feel powerless. Oh, and my boss has an open sexual-harassment case that no one will talk about internally.

I really, really try to do things right and be open and friendly and receptive to the idea that someday a man might treat me like a human, but it just gets harder the older I get, and I can feel myself hardening as a result. Cranky old bitch is not a life I really want, but it feels imminent since I just keep getting burned. I’m finally coming around to the idea that this is not all my fault — yet I feel like I’m the common denominator. Clearly I have a history of making poor relationship choices. The alternative seems to be opting out, which just makes me feel like I’m wasting my youth.

I guess I just need some hope that it gets better, really. Everyone has always said, “Oh, you’ll find someone when you’re older!” Now I am older, and nothing’s changed except I feel more alone. I want to be able to meet a man (platonically or not!) and have some faith that he won’t be garbage instead of always assuming the worst. Is that possible?

Not All Men…?

Dear Not All Men…?,

You assume the worst about men because you believe in your heart that they are in control of your happiness, that their appreciation or disgust with you will determine your fate — in love, in your career, in life. You couldn’t be more wrong. You are in control of this picture.

Believing this, knowing it in your heart, will not require you to live in a delusional dream world. Most men are terrible. Most men will underestimate you no matter what you say or do. Most people in general are much more stupid and selfish and dishonest than we want them to be. Most of the world is overheating and going up in flames and flooding and imploding in ways that make any discussion about finding love sound like writing sad poetry as the sky falls.

On the other hand, this cranky old bitch might just be writing sad poetry as the sky falls, because that sounds like an appropriate action to take when everything is going straight to hell. I might even write some sad poetry today, after a night of nightmares about nuclear annihilation. Or I might do other cranky old bitch things on my list: Writing a bitchy essay about how pathologically passive our culture has become, or calling my cranky old bitch friends to bitch about some unbearably stupid thing that some unbearably passive human being said yesterday, or walking the dogs three miles in the apocalyptically dry and windy 100-degree October heat.

In other words, you should consider becoming a cranky old bitch, starting right now. Because we do what we like, period. And when you do what you like, the world opens up to you like a flower — as if you are in charge, as if you are a goddamn prince!

I know these are not your life goals. You imagine me as bitter, weird, unkempt, out of sync. If I wanted to land a brand-new man, I couldn’t pull it off. Maybe, maybe. All I know is that I’ve never looked or felt better since I started doing exactly what I like at all times. Oh sure, I have a job and two kids and a husband and I have to do untold varieties of insane stuff with and for them every single day. Just last night, my daughter was making a diorama and … Fuck dioramas, that’s all. Public school is a never-ending scourge of dioramas. They drain your fucking time and your will to live, and for what? So your kid learns that clay figures fall to pieces once they’re fully dry? So your kid learns how to cry big salty tears at the sight of a little polar-bear head rolling right off a little polar-bear body, and screams, “THIS IS SO UNFAIR! NOW I HAVE TO START ALL OVER AGAIN!”

My husband is no help when this happens. He’s a professor of education, so he really fixates on the stupidity of these things. His ass drops out onto the floor every time he catches wind of another diorama assignment. That leaves me to coach my kid. And honestly, sometimes I just want to tell her, “Look, the whole world is stupid and selfish and lazy and nukes are about to rain down on us, so why even make another goddamn polar bear? Maybe it’s time to start experimenting with getting less than an A. You know I won’t mind. See how it feels! Try it on for size.”

But I do have some restraint. So instead, I tell her, “Dioramas, like all arbitrary, tedious, pointless educational exercises, require a higher level of Zen. You must expect pain and ruin, toil and suffering, and you must let go. Surrender to the excruciating nothingness of the task at hand, and try to enjoy it, knowing it was designed to crush your will and render you enraged and jaded and all alone in your pain. The real point of this bullshit, at least the point as far as WE are concerned, is to find some way to enjoy it, in spite of how stupid it is. So take your time, and focus on savoring every hideous moment of this.”

I really did say all of that shit to her. And I’ll say the same thing to you: Dating, like all arbitrary, tedious, pointless social exercises, requires a higher level of Zen. Surrender to the excruciating nothingness of the task at hand, and try to enjoy it. Yes, most men are shit. But you are not taking an exhaustive survey of most men. You are looking for one good, kind, exceptional man. They exist.

And honestly, the fact that many, many men are flatly terrible is not even faintly interesting or important. That’s like letting your ass drop out onto the floor just because dioramas are an abject waste of time and energy. Yes, it’s important to wage a vigorous war against the terribleness of men (and dioramas!) on many different fronts. But for your personal emotional health and resilience as a woman, you must choose to view the world of men through a new Cranky Old Bitch filter. Through this filter it soon becomes clear that men are simply too pathetic to waste your giant brain contemplating for too long. Sure, they lord their power over us, they cast their dismissive eyes on us, they attempt to jack off in front of us because they are sad deluded animals who always need a new fix to feel like more than nothing. It’s gross and it’s sometimes litigable but it’s also just hilariously unevolved. Imagine, the desperation of living that way! And sure, they might fire you if they catch wind of your total lack of respect for the way they operate. Many of them are in charge. What a hilarious irony, right? I mean you at least have to admire their tenacity. In spite of countless obvious deficits, they STILL find a way to stay on top.

But you know what keeps a human being fixated on power at all times? You know what keeps a person obsessed with fucking and jacking off and catcalling at all times? Having no self-knowledge and no soul and no belief system and no appreciation of the small joys of living whatsoever. That’s like being a fucking cockroach. People who do this shit are not at peace. Cowards are never at peace.

Imagine disappearing at the exact moment when someone asks you, “Why do you even do this?” or “How do you live with yourself?” Here’s a question you might want to ask: What kind of a human being doesn’t want to believe that the one good thing he created in the world — his daughter — is his? What sort of a sad coward wants to disavow his link to his 24-year-old child, when she’s not threatening to be either a financial or an emotional burden? Sweet mother of God, that is next-level malicious and sick!

At least it’s clear that your dad shouldn’t matter for half a second. He doesn’t want to matter. And in that scenario, you had no choice at all, and that probably feels wretchedly sad and helpless. But I want you to look at how you’ve taken your lack of agency there and spread it to every single interaction you have with men: In your view, you are never in control. You are never the one choosing anything. You are always the one being acted on: One guy got you pregnant so you had to get an abortion. Another guy made you feel like a pile of garbage. Your friends who hit on you make you feel powerless. No wonder you hate men as much as you do! It’s not just that you’ve known a series of terrible men, it’s that you don’t experience yourself as having even a modicum of agency over what happens when they’re around.

That’s not putting all of the responsibility on you. These men you describe are awful. But you do have more control over your future than you seem to realize. Opting out is not the only alternative. Here’s another option: Stop choosing men who disappear.

Yes, that is who you choose. And sure, most men do disappear. But some don’t. Some men don’t have girlfriends. Some men show up and look you in the eyes and say, “I like you. I want to get to know you better.” You don’t like those men, though. You don’t like being noticed or seen by regular, earnest, vulnerable men. It’s safer for you, emotionally, to tell yourself that there is something ELSE that’s unattractive about them, or to lump them in with the bad ones, to suspect that they’re secretly malevolent. It’s safer to tell yourself the story that all men will drain your fucking time and your will to live, and for what? So you’ll learn that clay lady hearts fall to pieces once you’re fully invested? So you’ll learn how to cry big salty tears at the sight of another clay heart falling apart, and you’ll scream, “THIS IS SO UNFAIR! NOW I HAVE TO START ALL OVER AGAIN!”

That’s not how you’d do it if you were a cranky old bitch. Cranky bitches try to savor every hideous moment of life, even when it means starting all over again. Cranky bitches really, truly enjoy telling bad men to go fuck themselves. Most of the time, we do this by chuckling softly or shaking our heads slightly. Other times, we say the words “Fuck off” out loud. Other times, we tell them exactly what makes them disappointing and stupid. We aren’t even that angry about this stuff most of the time. “Bitter” is a name bad men call women who can see them clearly. What they call bitterness is actually just the faintest whiff of amusement, like that smile that says, “Ah. Of course. Another diorama. What else?” We accept that assholes exist and they are everywhere, but we’re not resigned or defeated. We fight the good fight against them, always. But sometimes, we don’t need a lot of words to do this. Sometimes we just look them straight in the eyes, and they know we see what cowards they are. Yet another delicious side effect of being a cranky old bitch, among many.

You need to learn to tell disappearing men and leering men to fuck off. Say it out loud: FUCK. OFF. Write your dad a letter if it helps, and send it or don’t. You also need to learn how to look a man in the eyes and say nothing and walk away. Go watch Viola Davis on TV. Pure power. Do it like that.

But it’s also best to resist thinking about men more than you have to. When a man passes me on the street and looks at me with some mix of lust and disgust — why are these things so closely related for them? I don’t know and I don’t care — it makes me laugh. I’m not talking about a “hubba-hubba!” look. When you’re past the age of 35, you get this weird fucking sneer from men when you don’t dress like a nun. I don’t even know what it means. I’m amused by how pissed off they are, though. I’m amused how often people seem to want to put me in my place. Maybe I look bad or offensive or crazy or arrogant. Fuck, I don’t care! See how good it can feel being a cranky old bitch? I wish I could hand you a slice of this feeling! It’s THE GREATEST FUCKING THING.

Right now, your brain is screaming THIS IS SO UNFAIR! You’re not wrong about that. I hear you loud and clear, and I agree with you. But even if all the men on earth disappeared, you would still feel powerless, because you define the world as acting on you. You believe that you have zero choices. But you do have choices. You can say “No thanks.” You can say “Fuck off.” You can chuckle. You can dump him. You can quit.

I know. You’re thinking, “You have a husband and a good career and you can afford to tell people to fuck off.” But I want you to understand something: You can afford to tell people to fuck off, too. Unless you have four kids and live in a small town and work for a bad boss at the only Walmart around for miles (or some equally restrictive equivalent, and obviously they exist), you can afford the luxury of Fuck Off, too. The more you dare to define what you will and won’t accept, the happier and more successful you’ll be. So be brave and be honest, and watch the cowards fall in your wake.

But it’s not just about speaking up for yourself after you’re treated badly. Being brave and honest includes warning people. Warn men about what you believe and what you need. Warn them about what you expect. Don’t ask if it’s okay. Don’t ask if they approve. Don’t wait to see what bullshit they’ll pull. Protect yourself. And spell it out for them, because a lot of them are really fucking dense. Tell them, “I can’t tell if you’re into this or not.” Then look at them without speaking and wait. Tell them, “You’re starting to seem like you might cross a line, and I want you to back the fuck off, period.” This is how you assert your right to have things the way you want them. You are the motherfucking decider, always. You say things like, “Do you have a girlfriend?” No flinching, no looking away, no apologies. Say exactly what you mean and then be quiet. Say things like “You seem a little wishy-washy. Totally fine, but that’s not for me.” Don’t check back to see how he’s processing what you just said. If he wants to use some words to explain himself, he will. Otherwise? Onward.

This approach might sound kind of tough and cranky, but it actually feels more like brave, vulnerable honesty when you practice it. You need to permanently shake off this idea that a good, attractive woman is one who hangs back, who plays her cards right (as you said). It’s easy to feel that way. Not only is this such a prevalent mood at the moment, culturally (I mean passivity is SO OVERVALUED at this moment it’s fucking pathological), but it’s also such a dominant part of the platter of shit we’re fed as young women growing up. I want you to trust me: The less you embrace the idea that there’s some right way to be attractive and loved and adored by a good man, or some right way to be successful and impressive and upwardly mobile, the happier and more free and less oppressed by men you’re going to feel. (You’ll also attract men like never before, but don’t focus on that part!)

Forget what men think and just be the cranky old bitch you want to see in the world. That is not only the best strategy; it’s the natural order of things. LOOK AT NATURE! BITCHES BE BOSSING. Men be scurrying around, trying to keep them happy and mostly failing. Bitches be eating men’s insect heads as they come. Too bad, so sad!

Cranky old bitches are realistic, too, though. They know that clay polar-bear heads roll off when they dry, and bad men sometimes get bored when they get what they want. That’s why cranky old bitches don’t give a second of attention to men who are distracted, men who seem half-interested, men who seem like they could maybe have girlfriends tucked away somewhere. Right now, these are the guys you notice the most, thanks to your heartless dick of a dad. You have to learn to appreciate men who are visible, who respect you, who see and hear you clearly and like what they see and hear.

This will probably take some therapy. It’s hard to change a preference that runs that deep. In fact, you probably think I’m blaming you for what you’ve been through. I’m not. A few years ago, I had no idea that I preferred female friends who seemed like they had waaay better things to do than to spend time with me. A few decades ago, I had no idea that I couldn’t bear to date a guy who was actually into me. I just defined guys who liked me as unattractive, full stop. Like “I don’t know, there’s just something gross about him.” This happened because I believed that I was gross. I was confident and capable in so many ways, but I also believed that I was way too much for most people. I cared too much and said too much and that made me repugnant somehow. These beliefs were so deep and so resilient that they controlled my decisions, but if you repeated them to me, I would think you were crazy and then probably also hate your guts for saying such an unfair thing out loud.

I think you believe so strongly that you’re terrible that you don’t believe a thing I’m writing to you and you probably hate my guts right now. I want you to take that as a sign that I’m right.

You’re projecting your deep belief that you are pathetic and deserve to be abandoned onto men. But instead of simply trying to make a sharp turn and saying, “NO I AM GORGEOUS AND SPECIAL, IT’S THE MEN WHO ARE BAD” or “OH GOD I’M FUCKED I’M CRAZY IT’S ALL MY FAULT” I want you to say to yourself, “I am gorgeous and special and I am also fucked and crazy, but the whole goddamn world is gorgeous and special and fucked and crazy.” Then I want you to say: “Even though I’m scared and passive and confused and enraged, I’m still worthy of love right now. I don’t have to play my cards right. I don’t have to wait and hope he doesn’t have a girlfriend. I can say WELL, DO YOU HAVE A GIRLFRIEND? I can seem angry. I can confirm that I AM angry. This will scare some guys off who need to be scared off. I can be whatever the fuck I want to be, and I will still be deeply loved.”

You don’t always have to get an A. See how a B+ feels. What about an F? Try it on for size. Telling bad men to go away is not a failure. Asking hard questions is not a failure. Recognizing a man’s disgust and disapproval without internalizing it is not only a victory, it will STRAIGHT UP GET YOU HIGH. And tolerating those jittery, uncomfortable, escapist feelings you feel every time a man actually seems to like you, in earnest, for real, with no reason to disappear: That is your new challenge.

Experiment with being brave and honest. Experiment with towering over men like the colossus that you are, and casting your mercy upon them, because most of them are small and weak. Experiment with feeling vulnerable and saying so, because you are sometimes small and weak, too. Experiment with writing sad poetry as the sky falls.

But even as the sky falls, know that you are the decider. Feel that in your heart. Yes, you’re broken and the world is exploding. But you’re still alive. You’ve been staring into a tiny diorama instead of seeing the gorgeous, windy, overheated horizon right in front of your eyes. Step onto this broad landscape, feel the hot wind in your hair, and know that you are powerful beyond measure.

Polly

Order the Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘I Hate Men.’