The Gendered Implications of the Word “Manipulative”

“I feel like you were being manipulative,” his email read, “and I cannot tolerate that.”

He had dumped me, as far as I could tell, because I was hurt he canceled two dates in one week. We had just had a long conversation about how I needed to see more investment from him, that I needed to trust that he was in this relationship because he wanted to be. He reassured me, told me how glad he was that I felt safe talking about my feelings so openly, sent me home with a kiss and a wave.

Then he canceled two dates in a row, with plans to have his ex sleep over instead.

We had been dating for almost 9 months. Every text, every date, every time he held my hand I felt like I was deciphering some cryptic text bound tight in the worn leather of toxic masculinity. He said he loved my body, but wouldn’t touch me unless it was to tickle me, something I hated. He said he loved me, but wouldn’t introduce me to his friends. I had read this writing on the wall before and refused to believe it to my detriment, so this time, I felt exhausted.

He never asked me to read his mind, exactly, but he also didn’t offer anything up. When I asked him to tell me what was going on if there was trouble, his response would be, “I probably won’t”. I would tell him, over and over again, for months, that I didn’t want to do the emotional labour of dragging his feelings and needs out of him, but I did it anyway, because that’s what women and femmes are taught to do, because at the end of the day no amount of feminist critique shields us from the overarching expectation that women are here to nurture men. Including at their own expense. Perhaps particularly when it’s at their own expense.

Frankly, it got too expensive for me.

During our texting conversation where he pulled out on one date, then the next, I said “you know, you can just drop my stuff off at my house.” It was a declaration of defeat, an acceptance of distance that he was clearly asking for even if he never used those words. I had fought to stay with a lover the year before and it caused nothing but heartache. If this one wanted to go, and was too cowardly to straight up tell me, then I’d give him an out.

And then I was accused of being manipulative.

I’ve been accused of being manipulative before. Always by fit, white, cis men who identify as queer and almost exclusively date queer femmes. Men who almost seem like they’ve got some intersectional framework but then you realize that maybe they just went to a feminist 101 class to try and get laid. These men almost seem like allies- until you ask them to give 50%, to stop expecting you to carry the relationship on your back like a burden. They’re allies until you put your foot down and say “what you are doing is hurting me and it’s not ok”.

What kills me, and the reason I wanted to write this out, is that it’s these men who are being manipulative.

They never see it that way, of course. They don’t see the way they play both sides of the coin, that they’re socially aware and reject toxic masculinity, but also that they’re still wrapped up in it, leaving the women who love them to make excuses for their childish and selfish behaviour. “Oh,” we rush to say, “he knows this is hurtful, but he’s still unlearning old habits.” “Oh,” we say, “it’s not him, it’s society.”

We make so many excuses for these men that when they tell us that we’re manipulating them for snapping at their ridiculous expectations for constant emotional coddling, we almost believe that we might be.

This is my third white cis man to accuse me of being manipulative for having a boundary around being their mystical manic pixie therapist mother. The third lover to accuse me of disappointing their high expectations of me because I got tired of reading their minds. The third patronizing scolding for expecting them to give back the same amount they took.

Guess what, ex boyfriend? “I cannot tolerate that” either. I cannot tolerate being called a “filly” in your “stable”, or having you refuse to touch me or even TALK to me about intimacy while showing off other women you’re fucking.

I didn’t even notice how you manipulated me all along… while making me apologize.