Last night, writer Slim Jackson and relationship expert Paul Carrick Brunson hosted a Twitter chat under the hashtags, #just4men and #ItsComplicated (the latter is a reference to the title of Brunson’s upcoming book, It’s Complicated (But It Doesn’t Have to Be): A Modern Guide to Keeping and Finding Love). As moderators, Jackson and Brunson posed open-ended relationship questions to black men, before opening the conversation to women as well. Explained Brunson in an a tweet introducing the discussion, “This forum is an experiment to allow us men to dialogue & learn from each other (& inform the ladies) at same time. Brunson further explained that the Twitter conversation was the result of many questions he received about his recent blog post, “Ten Things Every Man Who Is Single Needs to Know.”
It started out innocuously enough, with questions like, “Fellas, if you could eradicate one stereotype about men and relationships, what would it be?” and “Is it our obligation as men to change how the ladies think of us?” Some responses were thoughtfully conveyed. Others quickly leaned into questionable territory. A lot was said about how men are “supposed” to lead and how when women claim that men are “intimidated” by them, it’s just an excuse to make them feel better (because women don’t “intimidate” many men). The last question raised had to do with how women can “keep sexual interest without giving up the cookie.”
Critics of the discussion weighed in with accusations of “nice guy misogyny,” asserting that the questions that framed the discussion were more about “informing the ladies” (as Brunson himself suggests) about what women should believe about men (that they’re still chivalrous, that they are not dogs, that they’re not intimidated by us and that they are not without emotion) and what we should be willing to do for them (don’t be a tease, but also hint at the sex they can eventually have without giving it to them?).
Part of the problem seemed to be that women were asked not to join the discussion until it “officially ended.” By then, they’d been inundated with tweets and retweets affirming these ideas (that our stereotyping, our belief that our accomplishments intimidate men, our provocative tweeting or online photos, or our inability to keep men’s interest without offering our bodies are serious-relationship hindrances that a large representative number of black men encounter).
It wasn’t so much the idea itself that rankled its opponents; it was how it was framed: stay out of this and let the men work. Then we’ll ask you how you feel about what we think of you when we’re done. It’s difficult to strike a genuine, productive chord in relationship forums. When the men or women get together independently, it’s all too easy to turn the whole thing into a commiseration about all the things that are wrong with the opposite sex. When the discussion turns coed, it’s in danger of devolving into a “battle of the sexes.”
It would seem that the best way to moderate a discussion about black relationships online would be to encourage people to remain respectful of and open to each other’s legitimate concerns (and I guess, for some, the concern that women can’t keep from “giving up the cookie” to maintain sexual interest is a legitimate concern?)–and to ask questions that aren’t so leading.
Ultimately, though, the best way to have a healthy, productive relationship forum with measurable positive results is to keep it small. Very small. So small that the only participants are you and the person you’re seeing. In large groups, everyone’s relying on past experiences and preconceived notions. But the only real way to have a strong relationship is to mutually define it with your current partner. That customized definition works best with the two of you.