They call and text and sext and email at strange hours, these men who don’t know how to move in the world. Most of the time they don’t know why they’re reaching out, but I suspect it’s because they feel a sense of kinship with you they haven’t yet figured out how to articulate.
Don’t get it twisted. These men are uncomfortable around you, and it’s precisely because you treat them like human beings. They’re so used to being put down or hypervalorised or made to feel unwanted that the smallest kindness from you, a fellow man, is enough to make their spirit flutter like a silktail. These men are artists and barbers and musicians and writers and lawyers, and even though they say they want your friendship, your brotherhood, your sex, your love, they don’t know what to do with themselves around you.
They don’t know what to do with themselves around you because you see them for exactly who they are and everything they are not. You see them and, in doing so, you give them permission to be their full, complicated, messy human selves for a spell, and this humanization is so startling that it rattles the foundations of their personhood.
But it’s exhilarating and addictive, this humanization, and so these men — gay, straight, bisexual; black, brown, white — begin to treat you like medicine. To them, you’re no longer just a regular bloke with your own wants and needs and frailties, but a hybrid being that is part mother, part father, part love interest, part sexual object, part spiritual healer: half-human, half-mirror.
These men begin to behave recklessly, willing to endanger their relationships and their already fragile mental wellbeing for regular hits of you until their company becomes a confusing morass of awkwardness and stress.
So, in order to preserve your own sanctity, you set boundaries. You remind them that you, too, are a mere mortal, and that you can’t be what they desperately need you to be for them.
To be seen, which is to say, to be really understood, is a privilege not often afforded to most men — regardless of what the prevailing culture repeatedly tells us. Even though it’s embarrassing to admit this, we implicitly or explicitly expect the men in our lives to be leaders, lovers, teachers, sex gods and saviors, regardless of our gender alignment or place on the sexual spectrum. We tell them from a young age that they are the man of the house or to act like men or to man up. We expect more from the men in our lives even though they often lack the tools or emotional capacity to hold their own shit together. When they act foolishly, when they do stupid, damaging shit to themselves and to us, we begin to resent them and they start to resent us, too.
The world is full of men who don’t know how to navigate it. Because you used to be one of these men, you see them everywhere. You develop a Spidey sense for these men. They are the ebullient Scottish hipster who runs the rooty-tooty shop where you buy overpriced whiskey; they are the charming British-Chinese man who delivers your groceries; they are the gorgeous Black British policeman who comes to your apartment, notices your Sade poster, and simply wants to tell you that he once hung out with her at a party in the eighties and she was ‘wicked, man. A right sweetheart.’
You listen to them and you nod and you offer words of solace, but none of it will ever be enough. These men think they need you when what they desperately crave is a mirror that will magically affirm them from every angle until the day they die.
I have learned to remind these men who don’t know how to move in the world to go ahead and make space for themselves, and then I very lovingly, very gently, tell them I’m emotionally, psychologically, sexually and spiritually unavailable after 6pm.
Image by DIRIYE OSMAN and TOM HENSHER