After spending all of college in a couple of long, monogamous relationships, I naively decided that being a newly-single, newly degreed, twenties-something in New York City afforded me the freedom to explore who I was and what I wanted outside of being somebody’s girlfriend. That didn’t last very long. A few loveless, titleless situationships later, I would realize that the gray zones I imagined would bring me freedom often were disempowering; that they typically deprived me of the courage to ask questions and make demands; that their lack of clarity was confusing and agonizing; and that they did not spare me of the hard work, vulnerability, and pain that is inherent in any kind of relationship–temporary or permanent, formal or informal, with title or without. I quickly fatigued from having to ask, “what are we?” Plus I discovered I really enjoyed the intimacy the situationships I entered into were devoid of–I realized I liked being the guardian of secrets; the woman you call about job promotions and deaths in the family; and knowing my partner’s deepest fears, Chipotle order, and how he spent this past weekend. Some women genuinely find happiness and fulfillment in casual, short-term, or/and non-monogamous relationships. But for me, my situationships, which were supposed to be so fun, were actually a lot of work, a lot of drama, and a lot of pain for a marginal amount of pleasure.
But I didn’t know that then.
Nine months into one such situationship, I discovered that the person I was with had a girlfriend of at least a year and a half. Perhaps had I imagined myself in something serious, I would have paid more attention to the red flags and left him long before such news could devastate, but what makes situationships work is a willed refusal to contextualize a person, a vow to not ask questions, to maintain low expectations, and to keep all armour on. I respect relationships. I love relationships. I would never intentionally participate in something that would hurt another human being. And because I am bad at allowing people into my life without eventually caring about them (which may end up being more of a virtue than a fault) I found myself feeling betrayed and lied to by a man that was not even mine.
I was more easily able to recover from my feeling betrayed, however, than my feeling embarrassed. Although I was not to blame, I carried around his infidelity like a shameful secret. Even writing this feels like I am breaking some kind of unspoken code. Wanting to remain above the fray, I never exposed this man for his misconduct; I never took any time to tend to the feelings I should have known better than to have; and I never defended myself from what I knew were assumptions about who I was and what I must believed in to have ended up in such a stupid mess. I quietly, “lady-like”ly, walked away, no busted windows out his car, praying for a relationship that was clearly in need of repair and diverting my energy towards myself and what I could do differently moving forward. I figured that the folks who mattered would understand who I was and what I stood for, and though for the most part I was right, it stung that those things were ever in question.
I share all of this to say: you can be thotted without your permission and independent of who you actually are as a person.The words we use to categorize women are poor stand-ins for who women are and what they are worth. I am a work in progress, but I also am a smart, thoughtful, passionate, loyal, funny, dynamic woman who deserves love and respect and will be a damned good partner to any man who is fortunate to earn my commitment, but this man’s decision to position me as his side reduced me to less (well, at least in his eyes; I’m humbly pretty sure I am the shit). Furthermore, I would argue that I deserve respect even if I were not all of those things by virtue of being alive, that you do not earn the latitude to act like a hurtful jackass because you have decided a woman is dumb, shallow, immoral, promiscuous, or a gold-digger, and that you should simply walk away from people you cannot summon the energy to treat well.
There is currently a lot of cultural imagination devoted to punishing and ridiculing women for not being girlfriends and wives, whether they are Olivia Pope, V. Stiviano, Bambi, or K.Camp’s easily cut off “bird,” but no corollary for men. Whether they are cheating or are boyfriend # 2, everyone understands that men are much more than who they are and the stupid decisions they make in relation to the people they are dating or sleeping with.
Men are not the only ones responsible for perpetuating the wifey-side divide. “Good women” are deeply invested in otherizing women they think are unworthy because they derive a false sense of safety and self-esteem from the belief that if they behave and play by the rules, they will be accorded the respect they crave. Here’s the rub: mains and sides have a whole lot in common; they are both spending a lot of time and energy on a man who does not love them back, or at least loves them in the emptiest, unhealthiest, most dishonest way he can. We women, as much as men, believe that if a “side” or a “thot” is manipulated, abused, or disrespected, she “knew what she was getting into” and deserves it. I assure you there is no boyfriend #2 in the universe who carries around such low expectations for himself and how he is treated, however sloppy, stupid, or immoral the romantic or sexual arrangement he signs up for is.
I also am fed up with people’s nostalgia for the good ole time when “sides” and “thots” knew their place. And their place, for clarity, is somewhere hidden and quiet. We culturally are very angry at women who dare to loudly and brazenly announce their status as other thans. We are angrier at them than the men who transgress. To be clear, I do not think there is anything joyful or free about being considered or treated unworthy, but my concern is not about women’s audacity to break rules. Those rules were not written by or for women and they are designed to make sure we lose in a game we do not particularly enjoy playing, even when we are “wifeys” and “mains”. So, no, Chris Brown, they ain’t loyal nor should they be: there is no winning by playing along with these stupid rules. What has Brown or other men offered in exchange for their ride-or-dieship, their silence, their good behavior, their loyalty? A “thot” who knows her place will still, in the eyes of the world and the man she is dealing with, be a “thot” and earn no compensation in the end for what Rico Love wants us to believe is some sort of honor–for “not talking like a lame bitch,” “keep[ing] it cool,” “staying patient,” and “play[ing] your post.” (Do y’all not see how insane this all is??)
Prime example. While some are truly concerned about Donald Sterling’s racism, there are a whole lot of folks at least in my newsfeed who are unconcerned that Staviano was subject to his misogynistic and racist abuse because afterall, she is a “side” and therefore has waived her right to common decency and respect. They are actually quite pissed that his “side” talked and that Sterling’s empire has potentially been toppled by “nothing but a thot.” See how “sides can ruin your life” if you don’t “keep them in check,” they muse. How sick is that? Your investment in sexism prevents you from holding the actual violator accountable and deprives you of your ability to see and call out racism for what it is. Not to mention the folks chiding “thots” for identifying with Maya Angelou’s homage to “phenomenal” women. I’m sorry, is there a moral litmus test for those who want Ms. Angelou’s poem and legacy to resonate? Ms. Angelou was an imperfect woman who adored imperfect women. Have the gatekeepers of Ms. Angelou’s art subjected themselves to their own test?
I am not arguing that we as a community of humans bear no responsibility for the relationships around us. Infidelity hurts and we should be held accountable for whatever role we play in it, but focusing so much energy on the “sides” distracts from calling out the people who are actually in relationships, who made real promises of honesty and commitment, who everyday contend with the humanness of you and for whom you are more than a theoretical existence–the people who remember your birthdays and eat in your kitchen and hear the stories of your bad days–but still decide to violate agreed-upon terms, thereby injuring, betraying, and humiliating you. They, and the brokenness of your relationship, are as much if not more your concern than the “thots,” and cheating, those who cheat, and those who help cheat, are much more complicated than we want to believe.
I am somebody that will likely be considered somebody’s “wifey” or “main”, but I understand, as should we all, how empty that designation is in a world of false dichotomies. Men benefit from us believing that Good Girls get wifed and Bad Women get thotted. The whole system would fall apart tomorrow if we women believed that we, just like the men who sow their wild oats in college but still rightfully believe they will be somebody’s good husband when they are ready to be (all the while stupidly devoted to the hypocritical belief that “hoes can’t be turned into housewives”) were more than whatever category some man decided to put us in–and that their apathy, their violence, their disregard, their disrespect, their infidelity were reflections of their deficits and not our worthiness. Women, just like men, are more than who they sleep with or the title they choose or are casted; their sexual identity is a breathing, evolving thing and their sexual past need not be an ironclad predictor for their sexual future; and the language we use that reduce us to who we are in the context of men–”thot,” “side,” “main,” “wifey,”– benefit no one. Women don’t have to be well-behaved wifeys to be fabulous, dynamic, beautiful human beings deserving of respect and worth. Opting out of monogamy is not necessarily lack of self-respect, and even when women are actually in unhealthy or lopsided relationships, we should offer them our advocacy, not our censure. There is no excuse to throw away our sisters–designate them as permanent, less than human “thots”–in a way we would never do our brothers.
I am over it. The whole thing. I unfortunately can’t change the fact that our world is obsessed with revoking women from the country of Wifeyness to permanently exile her to the country of Thoticca without even due process, but I can decide whether or not to play by the dumb ass rules. The solution is not to force everyone into relationships. Some, unlike me, find happiness in situationships, gray zones, and whatever variation of a relationship that exists. The solution is to conceive of your duty to treat others civily as not contigent upon who others are but reflective of who you are. I am working hard to be the woman and human being I want to be and trying not to break any bones or hearts while I do so. Which means I might have to take off my cool, risk getting hurt, and hold myself accountable to other people’s feelings. Big ups to the other human beings on that same journey.