Your boyfriend is truly amazing, and you’re perfect together…but sometimes, he doesn’t think twice about letting out a little sexist comment. He doesn’t realize it, but it can be offensive to your feminist ideals. Or maybe you’ve tried explaining feminism to him and he rejected the concept for some reason that evades you. Whatever the reasoning (or lack thereof) behind his attitude, it bothers you that he doesn’t support you in this way. Luckily, we’re here to help you make sense of this situation.
The situation: He misunderstands feminism
Even when we don’t realize it, feminism is a big part of our lives as modern collegiettes. We’re no longer pursuing our “MRS degrees,” and our world is getting closer and closer to embracing gender equality. We aren’t quite there yet, and this comes through in your boyfriend’s macho banter.
If your boyfriend tells or laughs at sexist jokes, he might just not realize that he’s being inappropriate. But if he undermines the concept of feminism specifically, this could be based on the all-too-common misconception that feminists are man-hating, domineering, cold women.
“It’s important to remember that just because a college woman’s boyfriend—or any other male peer—misunderstands feminism doesn’t necessarily mean he’s anti-feminist,” says Julie Zeilinger, author of A Little F’d Up: Why Feminism Is Not A Dirty Word and feminist blogger. Instead, Zeilinger says, it’s important to understand that “men today are raised in a culture that largely promotes (false) anti-feminist stereotypes, such as that feminists hate men or want power over men (rather than equality), which may lead them to be skeptical of the movement or people who associate with it.”
How to deal
“Just because [your boyfriend] may have been raised this way doesn’t necessarily mean that [he is] sexist,” Zeilinger says. “It more likely means that [he] probably [hasn’t] been exposed to the truth about the feminist movement.” As his girlfriend, you have the power to change this. College is for learning, after all!
When you bring up the subject, make sure you’re not angry at him. “You should always tackle a testy subject once you have cooled down,” says Laurel House, a dating coach and author of Screwing the Rules: The No-Games Guide to Love. “If you snap back or attack, absolutely nothing you say will be heard. It’s best to bring it up later that day or even the next day.” Proper timing is crucial if you want your boyfriend to truly reevaluate his beliefs about feminism.
One issue might be that he thinks there are no inequalities to fight in such a progressive setting as a university campus. “However, various types of inequality and discrimination are also present in the college setting—like, just to name one example, the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields/academic departments,” Zeilinger says. “In the face of this persistent inequality, feminism is as relevant as ever.”
If you tell your SO this and the other reasons why you identify as a feminist, he should understand where you’re coming from and hopefully rally to your cause!
Finally, if you’re unsure how to explain the concept of feminism to him, start with Zeilinger’s simple and effective definition: “Feminism is, on the most basic level, a movement that pursues social, political and economic equality.” But how does this apply to you? “Feminism is especially relevant for college women because college is a time to figure out who you are, what you’re interested in and what you want to pursue—all tenants of independence and self-realization that are inherently feminist,” Zeilinger says.
In other words, if he supports your right to personal and professional growth, he unknowingly supports feminism already. It just needed to be clarified!
The situation: He is openly against feminism
Emily Schulz, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, says her last boyfriend openly disapproved of feminism.
“I am a women's studies minor and a very outspoken feminist,” Emily says. “He was a conservative business major. I knew from the start we would never last based on our fundamental differences, but when we kept the conversation light, we had a lot of fun together.”
Feminism plays a central role in Emily’s life, and she wanted to share this with her SO, but he remained unreceptive. “There was one time when I knew we had to end our relationship,” she says. “I brought up something I'd read in various research studies for one of my women's studies classes. He continued to dispute anything I said, and in the end, simply said, ‘I think that information is wrong,’ as though all of my research and the scholars' findings that I was citing were flat-out made-up lies.”
There are two problems with Emily’s situation: First, her boyfriend undermined entirely legitimate facts and research findings. Second, he was unwilling to support his partner in an area that was so central to her whole belief system.
“After a while, he would just say that he didn't care and wished politics only revolved around the important stuff—meaning the economy—and that the social issues just distracted from that, which, again, undervalues feminism and social justice,” Emily says.
You shouldn’t have to stand for any behavior or speech that belittles who you are or what you believe in, but especially not coming from a significant other.
How to deal
First off, you need to draw the line between unintentionally offensive banter and beliefs that just cannot align with your own. The harsh reality is that if you try to educate your boyfriend about feminism and he continues to subscribe to sexist ideals, he probably isn’t worth having in your life. In this case, you should probably break things off.
“At the end of the day, you should be with someone who makes your life better—who challenges you, who makes you a better version of yourself and makes you happy,” Zeilinger says. “I don’t believe any relationship in which one partner belittles another or believes [he’s] better than another can meet those qualifications.”
As an ambitious and independent woman, the last thing you need is someone ridiculing your core values. If your partner makes you feel this way, he’s a poor excuse for a partner. You deserve to be in a respectful, equal relationship, and if this guy can’t see that, you are SO much better on your own.
The situation: He follows a double standard
A guy might insist on paying for your dinner to show you he cares, but not accept that you pay for the same reasons. In this case he means well, but it might make you uncomfortable, as was the case for Naomi*, a recent graduate from Northwestern University.
“The guy I'm dating is super into paying for everything, and it took a while for him to come around,” Naomi says. “He would assure me that wanting to pay was just how he liked to take care of the women he dated and an important way, for him, to show that he cared.”
Naomi’s partner identifies as a feminist, but apparently not in this way. “He'd say things like paying for our dates had everything to do with being the man he wanted to be and nothing to do with the woman he thought I should be, and insisted that he didn't want me to feel any pressure,” Naomi explains.
Although Naomi felt uncomfortable, this guy clearly respected her as a person and as a feminist. However, there are instances when your SO could follow an unacceptable double standard, such as always wanting to know your whereabouts without disclosing his, getting jealous of you talking to other guys but flirting with other girls himself or thinking your sexual number says more about you than his says about him.
How to deal
If you are in a caring, balanced and understanding relationship, your partner will ultimately be happy to compromise to meet your needs.
Naomi eventually told her SO how she felt. “I went with it for a while, but eventually had to sit down and discuss with him that it made me uncomfortable and that I would love to split things more evenly in the future,” Naomi says. “After hearing my side of things, we did just that. It was easy as that.”
Before jumping to conclusions, try to make him aware of his behavior. “Communicate how it makes you feel when he hounds you for information, but seems to hide his whereabouts,” House says. “Reverse the situation for him. How would it make him feel if you constantly questioned what he was up to, but didn’t reveal what you did during your alone time? Relationships should be even, with fair and level expectations.”
If he cares about you, he will understand where you’re coming from and adapt accordingly, but if he openly rejects your argument, you should be very concerned. His attitude could be “indicative of abusive behavior,” Zeilinger says. “Tolerating abusive behavior, or any behavior which positions your partner as having or deserving more power than you in the relationship, is unacceptable.” You should break up with someone like this or speak to a school counselor if you don’t feel able to do it alone.
The situation: He treats you as inferior
There is a clear difference between a nice guy who speaks without a filter and someone who obviously thinks of you as inferior. Karina Reddy, a recent graduate from Boston University, was once seeing a guy who asked her to come hang out with his friends because she made him “look good”—a comment that makes us grind our teeth. “I felt objectified, and it made me feel, along with other things he'd said, that he thought women were there to sit next to him looking pretty to impress his friends,” Karina says.
You do not deserve to—and should never— accept any kind of patronizing, belittling or objectification. If your gender changes the way someone treats you, then that person is not one you want in your life.
How to deal
Some things can be tolerated, but lack of respect is not one of them. “As long as your boyfriend or male friend clearly respects you as an individual, cares about what you think and treats you with kindness, then it may be okay to take some tough behavior or macho joking with a grain of salt,” Zeilinger says.
As in the case of double standards, “it’s unacceptable if it’s not clear to you that this person [respects] you,” Zeilinger says. “If your boyfriend treats you like [his] property and makes it clear that [he’s] in control and [is] more important in some way, then that is a clear indicator that your relationship is unhealthy.” Here too, you should get yourself out of this potentially dangerous situation or seek out help to do so.
So many people misunderstand the essence of feminism, but the vast majority of them can be swayed by a proper explanation, including your boyfriend. If he’s smart, he’ll understand the relevance of this theory. If he cares about you, he’ll embrace your value system and respect you all the more for it. But if he insists on keeping up his sexist ways, it’s probably time to let him go (and dodge a bullet). Good luck, collegiettes!