Dipping my toes in the murky waters of privilege

So far on this blog, I haven’t talked much about privilege, or rather Privilege, with its capital letter. You know, that boring tedious thing that those boring tedious (not to mention sexually frustrated) feminists keep harping on about. And that’s because I’m still working out how to handle the privilege issue, and what the best way to talk about it without alienating just about everyone is. So this isn’t really an entry about privilege, but rather an account of exactly what happened on Friday night, which just happens to involve a striking if mundane example of male privilege.

If you’ve been reading this blog semi-regularly, you might have read On being sexually ‘responsible’ and what that actually means. The story of that one is that the condom split, I went to get the morning-after-pill, and it was all awesome and I’m not pregnant and isn’t it great that such medication is freely available in the UK. It’s all good. Except on Friday, it happened again. Well, not quite the same thing, but basically massive condom fail. Was it Leander’s fault? Personally, I’m inclined to say yes. I mean, he didn’t do anything wrong. He used it exactly how you were taught in year 9 sex ed classes (again, if you’re British or went to a British school). Opening it carefully, putting it on before any penetration occurred, and all that jazz. But somewhere along the way it broke or came off or something, and because of the logistics of sex, I’m really not in a position to notice these things. I thought – and I still think – that it’s the penetrating-partner’s responsibility to check that the condom is fine, and not to get too swept up to allow something like that to happen.  Leander said that he was doing everything he could and it really wasn’t his fault, that sometimes these things just happen. I don’t know. I am definitely wary about using those condoms again.

But whose fault it may have been isn’t the issue. The issue is that immediately afterwards, I was a little freaked out. Definitely irritated. And what was Leander’s response? To make an inane joke about it, and say ‘It’s fine, you can go to the pharmacy tomorrow’.

And I spun around at him in anger. Do you think it’s that simple? The magic off-switch in pill form, that miraculously makes everything okay? A quick-fix and then it’s like it never happened? I’ve been quite good about not getting angry recently, and keeping my emotions under control, but I was furious. Don’t you get what taking the pill is actually like? He looked blankly at me. First there’s the anxiety. Until I’m in the pharmacy, swallowing it down with water, my brain will be convincing my body that it’s already pregnant. And then I take it and I feel instantly sick. Whether it’s the medication or just adrenaline, it makes me feel nauseous. Then the after-effects. It’s like taking twenty-one doses of the regular pill at once. Headaches and mood swings and more nausea. Plus it fucks up your menstrual cycle completely, so you have no idea where you are, meaning that it’s impossible to know for sure without taking a pregnancy test (it’s only 70% effective anyway), and don’t even get me started on what that feels like. I will spend the next two weeks at least convinced I am pregnant, feeling sick and emotional with constant low-level anxiety, while you just go on utterly oblivious, feeling all smug and superior because you ‘did the right thing’ by driving me to the pharmacy.

I may have added that it was his fault I was in this mess (even though that’s debatable). And there may have been a lot more swearing. But I calmed down enough to look at him, and I asked if he got it now. And he just stared at me. He said he hadn’t known any of that. He had never stopped to think what taking a massive dose of hormones might actually feel like, the toll it’s likely to take even on a young and healthy body. No one had ever taught him any of this, but that’s not much of an excuse, because anyone who knows anything about hormones and biology should be able to work out that this stuff is not pleasant. Oh, it’s truly fantastic that it exists and it’s a hundred thousand times better than having to get an abortion. But it’s hardly nice. I knew that, even before I took it for the first time. (For the record, I have taken it five times over four years, which might sound like a lot, until you consider how much sex I’ve had in those four years, and then it sounds like a miracle.)

The point is (and this is what really made me angry), Leander had never had to think about this stuff. For him it really was that simple: condom fails, take girl to pharmacy, girl does not get pregnant. End of. And that in itself is, to me, a striking example of privilege. It’s not that he meant to upset me. He didn’t mean to belittle the experience or make it sound like my emotions and well-being didn’t matter, but that’s how it came across because he’d never had to stop and think before, so what was blatantly obvious to me needed step-by-step explaining for him.

I’m not angry anymore. We talked it through, he took me to the pharmacy, and it’s all good. (Though of course, I won’t know for sure for another couple of weeks, but if, heaven forbid, it turns out to not be all good, I’ll be writing up that experience on here too.) While I still think he should have been more careful at the time, I understand how difficult these things are, and if I still resent him from not having to worry about this the way I do, I know that’s not his fault. Also, he’s promised to buy me a slice of cheesecake every time I get anxious in the next two weeks, and I really do love cheesecake.

But I still think this is a good example of how someone can be totally well-meaning and rationally completely onboard with feminist issues and the concept of privilege, and still make these kinds of mistakes in practice. Because it wasn’t enough for Leander to know that he has privilege (he does) and to try to check it (he does that too) – there are still occasions where he slips up and genuinely doesn’t realise he has until it’s explained to him. Does that make him a bad person? Not at all, because when I did explain it, he listened and accepted what I was saying. The problem is when well-meaning people can’t accept that they may have made some mistake and get defensive about it, because they think I’m accusing them of being a terrible person, and don’t I know that they fully support women’s rights (or LGBT rights or racial equality, or whatever it is), and would never say or do anything to hurt anyone?

And the truth is, I do know that, but that’s not a bulletproof defence against ever saying something sexist or offensive, and if they’re not going to listen to me when I try to explain why what they’ve said is wrong, how are they ever going to learn?

Leander is way ahead of almost every man I’ve ever met, but he’s still learning. I know I am too.

Fuck, I really hope I’m not pregnant.

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6 thoughts on “Dipping my toes in the murky waters of privilege

  1. Oh my god this. I have a complete douchebag ex who I was fooling around with and i wasn’t planning on having sex but even so he ‘had to’ / ‘couldn’t help himself’ and thrusted a few times then came… so I had to go and get the pill. he was all “I love you and everything but I don’t really want kids”. He’s also, in retrospect, an absolute ahole and completely dismissive of anything I say regarding women/POC’s rights. Ugh. But thank you for expressing what I couldn’t. I’m going to send this to my absolutely awesome boyfriend and hope it makes him think a little :).

    • The first time I had to take it, it was because of a complete bastard (referred to here as Tereus, he’s listed in the Characters section), who basically did what you’ve described. And it was awful. I hope your douchebag ex got/gets what he deserves! But yes, please do show it to your boyfriend, because even lovely sweet caring guys can benefit from having this explained to them sometimes. Really pleased someone else can relate to this.

  2. Oh dear God, can I just say, with deep and utmost sincerity, FUCK HORMONES. You’re right: it’s not fair that men do not have to deal with the sheer fuckery that are the contraceptive /morning-after pill that mess you about and confuse your brain and mess with emotions and your cycle and everything else besides. (Yes, I’m bitter – switched recently and they’ve made me a wreck).

    Also, the horror that is *reading how effective pregnancy tests are in the leaflet in the packet*, especially as I remember the first time I used one I was absolutely terrified, then to read it was only mildly accurate, particularly if I didn’t know which part of cycle I was on at time.

    So yes. Somewhat off-topic rant but inspired by post. Hope things go well for you; it’s nice L seems to be a listener/learner.

    • Oh god, taking a pregnancy test is a whole other layer of horror! You read the leaflet, and then no matter how clear it is (and I’ve used some that are not clear at all), you still can’t quite shake the feeling that you might be pregnant. It’s horrible.

      Sorry to hear that your current pill isn’t working out for you. I’ve been on five different types, all of which have fucked me up in different ways, but one of them did make me want to kill myself within five days of taking it. I give you hugs and support, and hope that you manage to find the one that works best (even if none of them are anywhere close to perfect).

      When are they going to invent male contraception, we ask ourselves…

      • Thank you. But also, with regards to your last sentence, it’s in the pipeline apparently. Not enough to be newsworthy quite yet, but still. Progress.

  3. Pingback: The adventure of reading free London newspapers | Procne The Swallow

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