"Females, however, and effeminate men enjoy having people to wail with them"


Around the time I turned thirty, I was dating the most magnetic man I'd ever met. Conversation sparkled as we sat close in cozy bar booths, our interests and ambitions perfectly aligning. Always impeccably coiffed and bursting with ideas, he seemed lit from within. "I love being around you. You're the smartest person I know," he told me. And then one evening, he suddenly dumped me in a candlelit restaurant while I was eating a forkful of branzino.

"I just want more," he said. He was unwilling, or perhaps unable, to elaborate further.  This was his delayed response to the topic I'd so carefully raised a week before, three months into dating: the feared question, "Where do you see this going?" Or rather, I'd tried carefully crafting my words in a variety of ways in order to ask the question without seeming to ask it, for fear of freaking him out. "I guess I want to know what the landscape of your life looks like, and where you see me fitting into it." I emphasized that I myself was open to a range of options, and (having for a long time been non-monogamous) wasn't asking for an exclusive commitment.

"What? I'm so confused."

"All you ever say is 'I enjoy spending time with you,'" I responded. I just wanted a sense of what we might expect of each other.

"I don't know. I like you." His mood sour, he said I was pushing him.

A week later, it became clear where the question had pushed him: into a bizarre crisis that led him to conclude that the answer to the real question was "nowhere," fast. So much for enjoying spending time with me.

As I nursed my wounds, I puzzled over whether one of us was to blame for the abrupt turn things had taken. Having met on a dating app and having no known mutual friends, I couldn't talk to anyone who knew him for clarity. I thought of the short-lived app Lulu, which allowed women to anonymously rate men they dated. Messed-up app, but might be nice at a time like this to see what exes had to say about him. Was I the problem? Were we just not right for each other, despite my feelings to the contrary? Or was this something he does? I'd never know, since he was so incapable of expressing his emotions. What?  I'm so confused.

Desperate for some sort of clarity, I turned to my books. It was while reading Mari Ruti's Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings that things fell into place. "Women have been trained to think that their emotional intelligence should give them the psychological resources to tolerate men's emotional opacity, to interpret enigmatic clues, to respect (and even to expect) romantic hesitation, to avoid making demands, and to prolong strained intimate connections in the hope that they might eventually right themselves," she writes2 Although I'd been working on feminist philosophy for a decade at that point and was familiar with the concept of emotional labor, Ruti's words hit me differently. This wasn't just emotional labor, I thought; it was something else. Soon after, I'd come to call it hermeneutic labor: the burdensome activity of interpreting one's own and others' emotions, and offering them up in tidy packages with the greatest of tact.3 Dating men often requires women to spend inordinate amounts of time trying to interpret the cues of emotionally inarticulate men and then figuring out whether, when and how to deliver those interpretations back to the men in question without spooking them.

The more I researched the care labor that women routinely offer to men in intimate relationships, the more I began to recognize the rampancy of this structure in my previous relationships and those of the other straight women around me. I encountered dozens of studies highlighting women's dissatisfaction with intimate relationships, and recognized in them the structures of misogyny that feminist philosophers had posited for decades. Women are tasked with being "relationship maintenance experts" for themselves and male partners, while men suffer from communication inefficacy so widespread that one psychologist has called "alexithymia," or the condition of not being able to put words to one's emotions, the normative condition among men today.4 The most common communication pattern among heterosexual dating couples, one study found, is the "female demand-male withdraw" pattern, in which a woman approaches a male partner with a point of discussion and he shuts her down by removing himself from the situation.5  Yet this pattern is among the least effective interaction patterns one finds among couples.6 Women tend to be the ones to raise difficult topics, to be disempowered by bringing them up, and to suffer from negative feelings as a result.

 In 1950, Simone de Beauvoir wrote, "until now, our society has never known a love that was not founded on inequality."7 For straight people, the record clearly shows that the same is true half a century later. And, as Sean Lambert points out in his essay in this cluster, it's only getting more and more contradictory.

Around the same time in 2019 that I was getting dumped over dinner, Asa Seresin pointed out that widespread dissatisfaction with straight dating has given rise to a popular stance Seresin terms heteropessimism. Heteropessimism involves "performative disaffiliations" from heterosexuality, in which straight people discursively distance themselves from straight culture by expressing "regret, embarrassment, or hopelessness about straight experience."8 For Seresin, these disaffiliations are "performative" in the sense of being all talk even if they are sincere, they are "rarely accompanied by the actual abandonment of heterosexuality." Seresin suggests that heteropessimism makes the political seem merely personal by treating women's attraction to men as a subjective preference they can lament about say, on Twitter (or Reddit, in the case of male incel heteropessimists). He goes so far as to say that heteropessimism is "usually little more than an abdication of responsibility," and does not have the power to collectively change the cultural conditions that give rise to it. Instead, it has an anesthetic effect.

This argument, while generative, has some problems. First, Seresin uses the term "performative" in a misleading, albeit increasingly popular, way: namely, as a synonym for "artificial" as opposed to "actual," "material," or "'real." In describing a "performative disaffiliation," he makes a similar point to those critiquing "performative allyship" and the like: namely, that it exists merely on an optical or discursive plane and fails to map onto actions. This is quite at odds with the meaning of the term "performativity," which Judith Butler adopts from speech-act theory to refer to the enactment of gender identities in the world. For Butler, to say that gender is performative is to say that it is enacted through repeated movements and bodily styles in the world (rather than being a core immaterial attribute of persons). Crucial to Butler's account is the fact that performing identity does have material effects: the performance creates the identity. In this sense, Seresin and other discourses of "performativity" today get the term backward. Although Seresin clarifies that "performative" is not meant to designate "insincere," in opposing the performative to "the actual abandonment of heterosexuality," the effect is the same.

But this is more than a semantic grievance, for Butler's approach reveals that the realms of material, agential transformation should not be conceived of as separate from those of optical and verbal identification. In implying that heteropessimism involves expressing without changing things, Seresin reinforces a naïve binary between the "actual" and the "virtual," a binary that feminist theory itself has done much to question.

This leads me to a second problem, which is that the critique of heteropessimism overlooks how complaint, which stands at the intersection between verbal lamentation and transformative action, can be an effective catalyst for solidarity-building and action. Seresin implies that a core problem with heteropessimism is that it involves complaining instead of changing things. Although Seresin's article does not use the word "complaint" in defining heteropessimism, it does associate expressions of heteropessimism with complaining, including "feminist complaint." Heteropessimism, one might conclude, is driven by a bunch of ladies on Twitter spouting dark jokes about emotional labor before getting into bed with men.

Yet it doesn't follow that heteropessimism is powerless to assist in "collectively changing the conditions of straight culture." For Seresin, heteropessimism must be transcended in order for the conditions of straight culture to change. I would counter that the very register of heteropessimistic complaint has far more transformative potential than he acknowledges, and is not limited to an anesthetic feeling. Complaint can be a major catalyst for collective change, as social movements have proven time and time again. Complaining often reveals that the personal is political.

In her recent book Complaint!, Sara Ahmed defines complaint broadly as expressing dissatisfaction with a situation. She suggests that complaints, by virtue of being about situations in which we find ourselves, may also reveal how the present carries on problems from the past.9 Following Ahmed, we might say that complaint is a catalyst for uncovering a situation's history: and as we know from Nietzsche, genealogy is no mere discursive matter. Dredging up origins is a patient, material, and infuriating process inseparable from the work of enacting new futures.

Ahmed also notes that the negativity of complaint "is not only a feeling or an attitude. It is a political action: a refusal to use the empty phrases of the nonperformative or to be bound by a positive duty."10 Hewing to the Butlerian meaning of performativity, Ahmed uses "nonperformative" in precisely the way Seresin uses "performative": that is, to designate speech acts that do not bring about material effects on the world. The world of the nonperformative is the world of the "as if," Ahmed states, referring particularly to the ways that institutions such as universities routinely dodge complaints by empty words and paper trails. In the face of such ineffectuality, lodging a complaint is performative. Sure, the online expressions of dissatisfaction with men failing to wash dishes is a far cry from Ahmed's paradigmatic cases of complaint making formal complaints to institutions. I would assert, however, that the negativity of heteropessimistic complaints, in their various forms, is no mere feeling (let alone an anesthetic feeling). Its negativity is a rebellion.

Philosopher Kathryn Norlock argues that complaints may have intrinsic value even in cases when they do not aim for a transformation of circumstances in the way Ahmed describes. Norlock suggests that complaining can be recognized as valuable in itself once we take seriously the "interaffective dimension of ethical and social life."11 Specifically, complaint is a plea for validation that "one's pains are not insignificant," and for the company of others who recognize one's suffering as significant.12 Complaint has historically been disparaged by virtue of its associations with the feminine specifically, with the feminine desire to share one's pains rather than remain an upright individual who acts in the public sphere as in Aristotle and Kant. Norlock argues that rejecting this masculinist value system reveals that complaining is an activity that "regulates the emotional life, articulating and discerning the causes of pains, affirming the feelings of others or oneself, or inviting disclosure and commiseration."13 Complaining performs key functions in our collective and individual emotional lives.

Thus, Seresin's conclusion that heteropessimism "reinforces the privatizing function of heterosexuality" is misguided. In fact, the very presumption that viral expressions of dissatisfaction do not in themselves already constitute a form of collective shift relies on the distinction between passive complaint and active protest that has historically functioned to exclude and denigrate women (along with an emotion/reason binary, as Norlock addresses). "Sure, some heteropessimists act on their beliefs," Seresin states the implication being that most don't. But, a feminist account of complaint that draws on Butler's view of performativity and the arguments of Ahmed and Norlock reveals that heteropessimists are already acting on their beliefs through their expressions of feelings. This is not to say that heteropessimism guarantees a better future, but rather that we don't necessarily need to move to a different register besides heteropessimism in order to effect change: change may happen, indeed is always already happening, through heteropessimistic expressions of complaint.


When the pandemic hit, I discovered on social media that the guy who'd dumped me had a new girlfriend, a local influencer with a name oddly similar to "Lulu." In the quarantine depths of May 2020, a friend of mine took a peek at her profile and sent me her Instagram story. I saw a sobbing face explaining to her thousands of followers that her boyfriend had dumped her how he could never say how he really felt, and she wanted to be his everything but he just couldn't open up. What? I'm so confused!

And then, deep under the influence of isolated ruminations and the newly released Fiona Apple album Fetch the Bolt Cutters ("We're the only ones who know / We were cursed, the moment that he kissed us / From then on, it was his big show"), I DM'd her to say I was sorry, and that he'd done the same thing to me. She sent a kind response, and we had a short and cordial exchange about how hard it had been to date him, despite his being wonderful. While I wrote an academic article on the heels of my experience, she went on to write a beautiful song about it, which I still sometimes get in my head.

This isn't exactly a story of social transformation: all we did was talk a bit online. But we didn't need more than that, since our mutual ex had simply acted shittily in an everyday way that many men act shittily. Our exchange exemplifies Norlock's defense of complaint in the sense that commiseration, in this case between strangers wronged in the same commonplace and minor manner, helped regulate the interaffective realm. We felt compassion for him, even as we felt compassion for ourselves, for each other, and for the countless other women who experience far worse along the same gendered lines. What we needed most was some assurance that we'd done our best: that the failure wasn't ours to bear. Our messaging gave me that, and my hope was that it might give her some of that, too: it provided a glimmer of solidarity in the face of a shared experience of heteropessimism.

I saw her recently at a local meditation group, each of us there with a male partner. Sure, I haven't disaffiliated in the sense of turning toward political lesbianism or celibacy. But the years that have elapsed since the branzino dinner have brought change for me. I've had many more conversations with people of all genders in my life, especially men, as well as my students, about the structure of hermeneutic labor and how they can shift gendered asymmetrical burdens. I've heard from many strangers that my work on this topic has helped them see things differently and seek different things in relationships. I've established a core partnership with a man about whom I am not at all heteropessimistic, and deepened my commitment to the intersections between non-monogamy and justice for people of all genders. Sure, there is much more to be done. But if feminist complaint is performative in the original sense, then change is already happening as we work within this register. The future we want to create through it is up to us.

Ellie Anderson (@ellieanderphd) is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Pomona College in Claremont, CA. She is the author of "Hermeneutic Labor: The Gendered Burden of Interpretation in Intimate Relationships Between Women and Men" (Hypatia, 2023), "A Phenomenological Approach to Sexual Consent" (Feminist Philosophy Quarterly, 2022), and a variety of articles on phenomenology, existentialism, and sexual ethics. Anderson specializes in continental European philosophy and feminist theory, with emphasis on theories of selfhood and love. She is the co-host of Overthink podcast and YouTube channel.


  1. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated and edited by Roger Crisp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).[]
  2. Mari Ruti, Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings: The Emotional Costs of Everyday Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 86.[]
  3. Ellie Anderson, "Hermeneutic Labor: The Gendered Burden of Interpretation in Intimate Relationships Between Women and Men," Hypatia, 38, no. 1 (Winter 2023), 177-197.[]
  4. Ronald F Levant, "Desperately Seeking Language: Understanding, Assessing, and Treating Normative Male Alexithymia" in The New Handbook of Psychotherapy and Counseling with Men : A Comprehensive Guide to Settings, Problems, and Treatment Approaches, edited by Gary R. Brooks and Glenn E. Good (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 2001): 424-443. []
  5. D.L. Vogel, S.R. Wester, M. Heesacker, and S. Madon, "Dating relationships and the demand/withdraw pattern of communication," Sex Roles 41 (1999): 297-306.[]
  6. Lauren M. Papp, Chrystyna D. Kouros, and E. Mark Cummings, "Demand-Withdraw patterns in marital conflict in the home," Personal Relationships 16 (2009): 285-300.[]
  7. Simone de Beauvoir, "It's Time Women Put a New Face on Love," in Feminist Writings, edited by Margaret A. Simons and Marybeth Timmermann (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press), 76.[]
  8. Asa Seresin, "On Heteropessimism," The New Inquiry, October 9, 2019. []
  9. Sara Ahmed, Complaint! (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021), 102.[]
  10. Ahmed, Complaint!, 68.[]
  11. Kathryn Norlock, "Can't Complain," Journal of Moral Philosophy 15 (2018): 117-135, 132.[]
  12. Norlock, "Can't Complain," 129.[]
  13. Norlock, "Can't Complain," 132.[]