Twin Demons: How I Learned About Toxic Masculinity and Toxic Monogamy

A drawing of the faces of 2 twin demons. The one on the left is drawn in red ink. The one on the right is drawn in black.
Image by caba kosmotesto / CC BY

Today’s piece is a guest blog post from Matthew Shadrake.

Matt is a polyamorous switch and a big ole softie. He previously contributed  “Firing a Gun Into a Dark Room: Strip Clubs, Sex Trafficking, and the Hidden Cost of Hedonism” to Poly.Land.

In addition to being a hell of a writer, Matt is one of the best conversationalists I have ever met and may even be a bigger psych nerd than I am. He’s definitely geekier about kink and the philosophical implications of hedonism and sex-positive shenanigans.

Matt’s regular blog is Confessions of a Hedonist. And check out what he wrote for Poly Land:

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I was always a taller, clumsier, and heavier child growing up. There was a running joke in my family about how I tended to break the dining room chairs. From the broken chairs, to the broken windows all the way to the rules about not being allowed to strike back at my younger brother or older sisters even if they struck me first – I knew that the world was not built with people my size in mind.

This eventually translated into a somewhat rational fear of heights. When you find that a steel folding chair is likely to buckle under your weight if you sit down too fast, you tend to distrust things like ladders, or roller coaster seats. But I was at Cedar Point with Sarah, my fiancée. And she wanted me to ride rollercoasters with her.  I refused, and she grew increasingly annoyed.

Finally, she made an offer she knew I wouldn’t refuse. She promised to try a particular sexual act I had expressed interest in, but only if I rode something of her choice. I convinced myself that maybe I was just being dramatic. Maybe today I could get over my fears. With my fiancée by my side, maybe I could overcome it.

She chose the Power Tower.

If you’ve never been to Cedar Point, the Power Tower is a ride where they strap you into a seat. You are launched vertically somewhere between 200 and 300 feet. Your back is to the steel structure that you’re rocketing up at nearly 50 MPH. You are launched up and down the tower repeatedly by hydraulics.

The ride operators had difficulty getting the harness latched onto me. I thought this would mean I would be saved from having to do this ride. Instead, it meant that my harness looked comparatively loose to everyone else’s. During the ride, the give of it had me convinced that I was about to fall out. I shut my eyes tightly and clung to the handles, pulling the harness in tight. Though my eyes were shut, I could tell exactly how high I was as the light of the sun on the horizon managed to make its way through my eyelids.

I don’t think I screamed, but I did shake. And after the ride was over my arms continued to shake as I had a hard time orientating myself.

Sarah tried to offer a bit of comfort. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize you would end up like this. You were really scared.”

“What do you think a phobia is?” I replied.

I didn’t feel I had accomplished anything. If anything, my fear seemed more real than before. To boot, Sarah didn’t keep her promise about kinky fun time. The entire exercise was a complete failure.

Twin Toxicities, Masculinity and Monogamy

I tried a number of times to get over my fear of heights. But I realized that for the most part my fear didn’t affect me in any material ways. Aside from needing to gather myself when climbing ladders, there weren’t any day-to-day activities my phobia was preventing me from doing. Literally the only thing I didn’t like to do was roller coasters, and there are dozens of other ways to have fun, even just at Cedar Point.

But two general things motivated me that day to try something that left me an embarrassed, quivering mess in front of dozens of people: masculinity and monogamy.

Masculinity is the idea that I had to have no fears, that fear was something to be conquered like a Viking warrior plundering the new world. Masculinity also demanded that when offered a particular sexual act, that this should be the thing that motivates me most. Even if I felt it was stupid to ride the Power Tower, at least I could say I was motivated by sex. Everyone laughs and rolls their eyes when a man does something stupid for sex. It’s an entire genre of comedy.

The other one was monogamy. I couldn’t let my partner down, I felt. She was to be my one and only, so I had to find ways to be her ride partner – she would need a ride partner for the rest of her life! And truly, if we were bonded by fate to be a couple, these were the sorts of things we could face down together.

I look back on my relationship with Sarah, and it seems so inevitable that it failed. I’m tempted to scream about what an idiot I had been. Sometimes when explaining it to someone new, I like to tell the story of this relationship as “count the red flags.”

The most obvious ones are the ones that led up to our engagement:

  1. We had been dating for only 9 months, and we had been broken up once already.
  2. We got engaged partially because her best friend had gotten engaged and she was envious. Her friend had only been dating the guy for a month at the time.
  3. I got engaged to her partially because she was going overseas for 9 months.
  4. It was my first sexual relationship.
  5. I was 19.

I had a hard time telling my family, who didn’t support the engagement and thought Sarah wasn’t particularly nice to me on the few occasions she had been over to their house.

In short, I had gotten engaged for all the wrong reasons. But harder for me to tell is the story beyond that, where our relationship unraveled and became abusive. I haven’t told this story much because I’m not very proud to say that I was abused. I’m not proud to say that I stuck around with someone who did these things to me, and I was for the longest time entirely embarrassed by it. For the longest time, I didn’t have a way to articulate the things that were happening, like how she was attempting to control my access to friends.

“Watch Out for Her”

I met Kathleen at school while Sarah was across the Atlantic Ocean. We formed a relatively fast friendship over mental illness, pro wrestling and zombies. Like you do.  She quickly became part of my group of friends, the same one that Sarah had been a part of before she left. To Sarah, though, Kathleen represented a threat.

When Sarah asked what sort of things were happening back home over Skype, I would tell her about our mutual friends and new folks that had been added to the group. Sarah did not like Kathleen from the start. She formed quick opinions that Kathleen was an attention-seeker and worried that we had formed more than just a friendship. Stoking these fears were Sarah’s also-engaged best friend Hannah, who I would find out had been telling Sarah all sorts of things about Kathleen that were half-true or outright false.

Sarah at first told me in a somewhat concerned way to “watch out” for Kathleen. And I considered that I had perhaps overlooked something about Kathleen that I shouldn’t have. I did love Sarah, and I believed that she had only my best interests at heart. But I persisted in being Kathleen’s friend, and I tried to help her through a very rough time in her life. Kathleen at one point was hospitalized for an extended period, and when Sarah had found out about this she had become angry that I had gone to visit Kathleen.

At this point, Sarah told me I shouldn’t be hanging out with Kathleen and that I should stop seeing her. I am proud to say that in this case, I told Sarah that she didn’t get to choose my friends. We didn’t speak for a week, but eventually Sarah relented. It wouldn’t be the last time Sarah tried to tell me who I could and could not see.

And I’m still friends with Kathleen to this day. We’re both in much better places in our lives. Kathleen is a friend I am so very happy to still have in my life, and of all the bad decisions I made with Sarah, I’m glad that I made one correct one with Kathleen.

The One and Only: “I Don’t Trust Her”

When Sarah returned from overseas, we saw as much of each other as we could while working summer jobs. In the fall, we planned to share an apartment together, as a sort of test run towards marriage. For cost reasons, she wanted a friend of hers from overseas to live with us. She had made a group of friends there, and they were all coming back to college to live in the same apartment complex.

Quickly it became clear that these new friends of hers were to be my new friends. And while I got along with them all, Sarah complained about visiting our old friends from Freshman year. I was still close with that group and had been invited to play Dungeons and Dragons with them regularly. Sarah not only expressed reluctance to see them but even scheduled a few events with her friends on the same day.

Additionally, things had become tense between Sarah, Hannah, and a friend of theirs named Mary. Mary had developed something of a crush on me, and I had found this out specifically from Hannah. Mary had confessed as much to Hannah, and Hannah felt she needed to inform both me and Sarah instead of keeping it confidential.

In my estimation, Mary had never done anything to act on her feelings, and I could never fault her for them. As someone with a history of mental illness, it had been a long held truth of mine that feelings and emotions were not something to be guilty about. It was words and actions that mattered. Mary had never tried to come between me and Sarah.

Sarah, however, felt that I should cut Mary out of my life. “You know how it makes me feel when you see her.”

“It’s just lunch, we’re in a dining hall for it. You could join if you wanted to, she’s your friend too,” I said.

“That’s not the point! Why do you have to hang out with her?”

“Because she’s my friend,” I said. “Do you not trust me to be friends with her?”

“I don’t trust her.”

Her jealousy was my problem to manage. And because I was a heterosexual man, I was somehow incapable of ever being faithful when another woman might possibly make a move on me.

As we argued, those ugly twin demons, masculinity and monogamy, reared their heads, but I wasn’t even 21 yet, and I had no idea how to battle them. So I scaled back my meetings with Mary, and made a point to invite either Hannah or Sarah along when we had them.

I felt I had to set myself aside to be the best fiancée and soulmate I could be.

Some Qualifiers About Monogamy and Masculinity

Monogamy can work, and in fact has worked for me in the past. I come from parents who have been together 30+ years successfully. My grandparents celebrated their 60th anniversary not too long ago.

In many ways, I was trying to model their relationships when I got engaged to Sarah. I thought that the “traditional family” route would be perfect for me.

Similarly, masculinity can be wonderful. I am a cishet male, and I’ve been proudly wearing a beard on my face non-stop since I was 19. I do enjoy being tall and strong, and I have few discomforts with being a man.

When people say “toxic monogamy” and “toxic masculinity” what they generally mean to say is that by assuming these things are “normal” and demonizing their opposites, we invite a host of problems.

In a world where men are supposed to dominant, physical, and altogether rational, a man dealing with an abusive partner is silenced because how could he ever let a mere woman do those things to him?

To assert that certain aspects of masculinity are toxic is not to assert that men are terrible and flawed; it is to assert that society doesn’t actually understand men as well as it thinks it does.

We are not simple creatures, bound only by our dicks and our coldly calculating brains. We are not just sports, food, and porn. Society asserts that we are all a bunch of Al Bundy types. But the truth is that our understanding needs to evolve for us to evolve.

These understandings are typically framed in such a way as to show that women, trans folk, everyone in the LGBTQIA community, poly people and kinksters need these things for equality. But if you’re a man in this culture, it sucks for you, too, and you might not even realize what you’ve been missing.

I meet with men and women who assert that men and women can’t be “just friends.” It’s an unfortunate side effect of working in an industry drowning in unchecked sexism – the casino business. But I manage to be just friends with women every day at work. Weirdly, it gets me asked a ton of questions.

I made a point of knowing the names of almost every waitress or waiter on the same shift so that I could introduce them to customers. The not-so-subtle accusation made by people in my department is that I’m only learning their names in an attempt to sleep with them. But I really don’t want to date or fuck coworkers, as I’m a pretty risk-averse person, and I see way too many ways that could go wrong. But moreso, I recoil at the notion that two heterosexual people of opposite genders can’t be just friends.

I had a coworker ask the other day “How do you know all their names?”

“I ask them,” I replied.

The Fight: “You Can’t Do It Back Because You’re a Man”

I came home that day already a bit frustrated. Sarah and I had been fighting constantly for the last few months. Our sex life had disappeared entirely. Tensions had grown over my friendship with Mary. Household chores. And Sarah feeling I spent too much time with my old friends, and not enough time with hers. It had gotten so I didn’t look forward to coming home to our apartment on most days. And on this day, she was already visibly upset.

“So… I was on your computer today. I was going to save something I found that I thought was really nice for you… when I found this folder.”

Sarah had broken her laptop earlier in the year and had been using my computer for internet access and schoolwork. Apparently she went to download some image, and the default folder it suggested for downloading an image to… was my porn folder. She pointed to it as if she had discovered a corpse in my closet.

“Yeah… so?” I replied.

“So? Really? That’s all you have to say?”

I shrugged my shoulders. I could see this wasn’t going to go well for me, but I genuinely felt no issue with having a folder of various models and actresses I found sexy.

“So what… am I not enough for you? You have to have this trash on here?” Her voice was raised now, and our roommate quickly shut her door. She knew where this was going. I knew where this was going.

Over the course of the next 20 minutes or so, she cried and implied that I was some sort of addict for needing to get off. We screamed at each other about our deteriorating sex life, in an apartment complex with thin walls that would shelter no nearby neighbors from our exhausting display.

Toward the end of it, she struck me on the shoulder. I jolted upright, shocked more than hurt. This was the love of my life, supposedly, and she was now throwing fists at me with intent to harm. I looked at her, and my expression must have shown that I was shocked.

“I can do this, and you can’t do it back because you’re a man” she said, swinging and hitting me again.

On the third swing I grabbed her fist. I had no goddamn idea what to do with it. I was stronger, sure, but I knew that if I hurt her that I would be absolutely considered a domestic abuser. I knew that police reports would be filed. I knew that she would essentially win by getting me to hit back. I remembered my dad telling me all those times that despite my sisters being older than me and bigger than me when I was younger, I was never to hit a girl.

It’s funny that while that advice is usually dispensed, you think it’s because you’re stronger and it’s society protecting women. But it’s actually advice that helps men, too, in situations exactly like this one. We train men to be passive in these situations, to absorb the blows and then either forget them or move on from them later. In a world where men are expected to be the abusers, self-defense is no defense at all against a “girl.”

I held her fist there. I looked her in the eyes, and I refused to let go. She swung her other hand, and I managed to catch that, too. She tried to kick me, but I blocked it. I maintained my distance, and I let her go once I understood that she would no longer attempt to swing at me.

I left the room, I closed the door, and I seethed for hours, trying to process what had just happened.  I wondered if I should have just let her hit me, if even the act of grabbing her was wrong enough to make me a monster.

It literally took me years to tell anyone about her hitting me. I thought I would have to keep that a secret forever.

Loyalty and Stubbornness

Hannah’s fiancé told me later that he agreed with me about the porn not being a big deal but that he thought that I should delete it anyway to make Sarah happy. He used some version of the old cliché “happy wife, happy life,” and I about wanted to throttle him.

Still, I felt that Sarah was the love of my life, and because of that, I might need to make some sacrifices to make things work. They talk about that all the time in the media – relationships are work, it’s not always easy, sometimes you do have to let certain things go for the benefit of the relationship. There’s a ton of ways you can rationalize these things.

So I deleted the folder. I started getting savvy about deleting my internet history whenever I browsed porn. I knew I wasn’t going to give up masturbation for someone who wasn’t even having sex with me, but I figured I could at least be more discreet.

What I realize now with the benefit of hindsight is that I was rationalizing some truly atrocious behavior on Sarah’s part, because I felt that a relationship with her was a way to live up to some ideal of monogamy. The truth is that we were both young, stupid, and experiencing limerence (aka New Relationship Energy) for the first time. We had no idea how to deal with jealousy, how to deal with unmet sexual needs, or even how to discuss these problems without screaming.

We weren’t compatible. I knew I would always find other women attractive, and to Sarah this was unacceptable. She didn’t get along with my family and made no effort to change that. We wanted different friends. She wanted to live in the country somewhere, and I was drawn to the city. I was happy with the way we both looked, and she would tell me that we both needed to diet and work out more (while never actually doing either).

We made so many promises and compromises to each other that ultimately left neither of us happy. We imagined that these were a show of our loyalty, when in reality they were only a testament to our refusal to admit the obvious. We were stubborn and attempting to bandage over gaping wounds.  The last failed bandage ended the relationship for good.

When There’s Nothing Left to Lose

We only ended up living together for a semester. Toward the end of that semester, we found out we had to renew our lease if we wanted to live in the same apartment complex the next year. I told Sarah that I would not sign the lease. I had been miserable living with her and wanted to live elsewhere while we tried to repair our relationship.

We had another semester left on the current lease, but Sarah told me I had to sign the new lease before we left for winter break. She told me she would not be in a relationship with me if I wasn’t living with her and committing to living with her. I told her I would give it two weeks to see. Maybe, I reasoned, with my feelings out there in the open, things would improve and we would get back to a happy place.

In fairness to her, those two weeks were lovely. We didn’t argue, the sex returned, and we had some lovely meals together. But two weeks of good behavior were never going to be enough to offset a year and a half of concerns. Weirdly, it was an interaction with Mary that showed me that Sarah was not meant for me.

My 21st birthday was right before the semester let out. On that day, Mary took me out to lunch and paid for me since it was my birthday and she felt I should feel special.

In comparison, Sarah brought her friends over to drink, despite knowing that I wasn’t a drinker. Sarah and I had tried to get me drunk on several occasions, including one spectacularly bad idea of a night where I did roughly 15 shots of tequila in half an hour, to no effect. Once they came over, Sarah simply drank with her friends. There was no birthday gift for me, no cake, and not even any sex. It felt like my birthday was just an excuse for her to do what she wanted. To drink with her friends. And to keep me from mine.

The end came shortly thereafter.

“I’m willing to work things out, we can spend next semester here and live together, but I can’t sign up to live next year with you when this has been a disaster so far,” I tried to explain.

“But we’ve been so good the last two weeks!”

“I know, you’ve been on your best behavior. And I appreciate it, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’ve been screaming at each other for months.”

“I’ve already told you, if you don’t sign that lease… if we aren’t living together then I’m leaving you.”

“I understand that.”

“And?”

“That’s your choice, then.”

She cried, she threw her engagement ring at me, and quickly I found myself exiled from our apartment. I gathered up what I could that night, and I crashed on the couch of a few of my friends – the ones she tried to keep me from. Those friends got me out of that lease, into a new place for the next semester, and welcomed me back with open arms.

Shortly after, I started dating Mary. And she was wonderful to me, and I’d like to think I was good to her, too.

I’m not a believer in god, destiny, or fate. But in moments like those, when everything in your life seems to reaffirm to you that you’re making the right decision, it’s hard to ignore the pattern. My friends and family pulled me out of a bad situation. They showed me that my relationship with Sarah was what had made me unhappy. They showed me that I had nothing to lose by losing her.

Accepting that Masculinity and Monogamy Aren’t for Everyone Is What Saved Me

I’m still learning about polyamory, feminism, kink, intersection, LGBTQIA issues, race, gender norms, and more. I sincerely hope I’ll never stop learning. Because in the 7 years since I split from Sarah, these things have brought me happiness through an understanding of who I am and what I can do in the world. There’s a perception that these things work against men, to undermine us, to undermine our power.

But that’s not true at all.

The reality is that our notions of masculinity and monogamy can rob us of our individuality, which robs society of our best contributions. A diverse species is one that can survive any hardship, can adapt to new challenges and can conquer any new frontier. People in general can achieve so much more when they aren’t prevented from achieving more by social barriers placed around race, gender, orientation, mental illness and so forth.

Masculinity and monogamy aren’t bad things. They just aren’t for everyone, and accepting that is what saved me.

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