The Beatrice Interview

Kate Fillion

interviewed by Ron Hogan

In Lip Service: The Truth About Women's Darker Side in Love, Sex and Friendship, Canadian journalist Kate Fillion takes on one of the great myths of gender relationships: that women are always the sweet, innocent victims of male duplicity. It's a myth which, she argues, prevents women from taking responsibility for their own lives, and in many cases from breaking out of patterns of self-destructive behavior for which men wrongly take the blame.

RH: You make a point similar to that Wendy McElroy made in her book XXX. She argued that women should form their own attitudes about pornography, and not simply adopt a position of victimhood. Your point is broader, though: that women shouldn't play victim to any part of the stereotypical sexual roles laid out for them, that they should acknowledge their full accountability for their lives.

KF: It's important to distinguish between social inequality and psychological inequality. Social inequality is something women aren't responsible for creating; things like the glass ceiling and female- dominated job categories. But I'm not talking about that. I'm saying it's worse to dump psychological inequality on top of that, and buy into this myth that we're so much better than men. That myth inevitably makes women feel worse. One of the things that's missing from the discussion of women's lives, women's experiences, is the acknowledgment that sometimes they make bad choices. There's very little recognition that women are moral actors and sexual actors. It's a mass infantilization of women, and what I find troubling is that some of the people who promote that very idea are people who presume to care about women's rights. It does women no favors to treat them like babies who can't make a decision or aren't responsible for poor choices.

RH: You cite examples of sexual relationships and relationships with other women where, when things appear to be deviating from the script, women have no idea how to respond. They haven't been taught that this is an option, this is something that could happen.

KF: We lack the language for a lot of women's wrongdoing, and a lot of the language we do have is very blaming language. It's the language of women as evil or the embodiment of sexual sin. It's all taken from this bad girl/good girl motif, so naturally, when people start making judgments about women in movies, or in print, or at school, wherever they're making judgments, many feminists will stand up and say, "That's misogynistic; you're turning this back into bad girls versus good girls." But the point is that we then need to come up with a language of our own, and to fill in the gray areas. It's not just an either/or situation for women; there's a whole spectrum of options. And the feminist movement, by which I mean the entire spectrum of feminist movements, denies that at its peril. That's how you silence women's voices: by pretending we all speak in one voice, and that we're all saying nice, sweet things.

RH: You don't introduce yourself into the book until about halfway through, when you look at how your sexual behavior in your 20s revolved around taking actions of sexual aggressiveness that you didn't know how to handle and turned into 'romantic' relationships. How did you get to the point where you realized something had to change?

KF: I do think there's a moment for many people when a light goes on and you recognize a destructive pattern in your own life, your own thinking, and you realize it can't always be the other person's fault or the system oppressing me. But a lot of us adopt this conspiratorial thinking, particularly towards sex, and women are strongly encouraged to do so. For me, there was that moment, and I realized that there had to be a reason why I was always unhappy, with the same kinds of men. It's a very painful process to go through; you have to admit to yourself that you're responsible for getting into that position.

Second, part of what got me there was my own sexism, my own stereotyping of men. The notion that men had to be strong, aloof, not very interested in me, like a character out of a bodice-ripper. Somebody who was guaranteed to treat me badly. But what I think is unacknowledged is that when we talk about these kinds of relationships, many women talk about them in terms of low self- esteem. "Women get into these relationships because they have a poor self-image." I think the exact opposite is true; many of us are attracted to these men out of the arrogance that they can be the one woman who will change him, who will make him stay. The inevitable end of a relationship that starts with those delusions of grandeur is that, well, yes, you're going to wind up with low self-esteem. You're going to feel really crummy, but he's not necessarily the one who did it to you.

I put myself in the book at that juncture because it was easier to write about myself in a humorous but critical way than to criticize another woman for it. It's easier for the reader to take than if I lampooned another woman's behavior. But, also, most of my interview subjects only gave me details about one particular incident in their lives. With myself, I know what the larger patterns are. I can write about them with a little more knowledge.

And one of the main arguments I'm making for women's sexuality is the argument of honesty. We have got to start being honest with ourselves and honest with others. My husband read the first draft of the book and said, "You know, you're talking about honesty, but I don't see any self-disclosure." And he was right.

RH: The point of honesty and acknowledgment of responsibility is important to the distinction between 'date rape' and coercion. You write about two women: one who claimed she was date raped when her date ignored her after they had sex, and another who blamed the man when she was the one who practically forced him into bed.

KF: You are in no better position to negotiate human relationships--be they sexual, professional, or whatever--if you start out with the premise that you're always right and the other person's always wrong, and that you're not responsible for what happens. It's a way of infantilizing yourself, of pretending that you have no control over your cicrumstances.

One of the reasons I wrote about female friendships is that this habit often starts as a comic habit between women. They sit around saying, "All men this, all men that," and usually the conversation ends with all men being jerks. When you say that enough times, it seeps into your brain and you start to believe it's true. It becomes a reflexive response. And that's what I think happened with both of those women. "The ending was unhappy; it must be his fault." Each of those women could have saved themselves a lot of grief if they admitted that they made dumb decisions instead of, in the case of the college student who decided she'd been date raped, talking herself into a state of victimization.

Women have such a deep sense of sexual shame, that we come by from the culture. In every study on double standards, women think that men hold double standards that men do not, in fact, have. The women run away after sex, thinking, "He's going to judge me, he's going to think worse of me, I can't stand that he saw me in this state of needing and wanting, and my god, what if he tells somebody?" But men don't have that double standard to the extent that women think they do. It's a false burden that we take on, and women have enough burdens in this lifetime. And women who make judgments about men holding double standards after they've had sex with themówell, what the hell were you in bed with him for? It shows poor judgment and haste on their part. If there's one thing I hope this book does, it's to explode the myth of the double standard.

RH: Another myth that you explode with great intensity is one perpetuated by the gender-relations 'self help' industry. You have some choice things to say about John Gray...

KF: The man is advocating a position that basically sounds like marital rape. If you've read Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, the guy is repackaging and recirculating ideas that have always been used to oppress women. Men are instrumental and women are expressive. That has no relationship to our lives. Men have feelings, too; women also want to have jobs and get ahead in the world. Right from that premise, it's nut.

The theme of his book is male insecurity. It's about how you, as a woman, should dance around placating every man who comes your way because he might leave you. It's that crap that's gotten women into the position they are now, not feminism. I'm not blaming him for all the ills that befall women, but he's a trademark brand of selling that particular hogwash.

RH: It's amazing to me that he can package something so psychologically crippling and claim that it fulfills women's greatest potential.

KF: "Leave the poor man alone. Don't nag him. Don't ask for anything." It's insulting to men, too. One of the best things that came out of Lip Service was that I interviewed all these men and confronted my own prejudices, my own sexism. ..

It's important to recognize a generational difference, too. Men born after 1960 are telling researchers they want an equal partnership. They don't want a cheerleader in their lives or someone to bring their slippers. They want someone they can have a conversation with.

The other thing about Gray that bothers me is right on page one. That creation myth: men lived on Mars, and then men invented telescopes, men invented spaceships, and they flew off to Venus, where the women intuited that they were coming, opened their arms, and said, "Martians, you are the answers to all our prayers." If people don't grasp from that page alone what sexist crap this is, there's a problem.

John Gray's very irate about what I have to say about his books. I don't think he's used to being challenged. In a culture where not many people read any more, most papers take a very dismissive attitude towards self-help books. They don't review them because they see them as so lowbrow as to be beneath contempt. Well, I respect the fact that three million Americans have gone out and bought this man's book. That's a huge slice of American culture, and we can't dismiss it. It affects how we think about issues. And nobody's bothered to read him and say, "What the hell is this crap?"

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Susie Bright | Jill Nagle

All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan