This is the second lengthy post in a three-part series of responses to Michael Kimmel’s new Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. Part One is here.
Sometimes, it seems to me that an entire generation of young men are lost to what might be called the siren song of the “Three Ps”: Pot, Pornography, and Playstation (video games). For an increasing number of young men, a fourth “P” is enjoying a renaissance: Poker, this time often played on-line. Ask any parent of a “guy” in the age range Michael Kimmel is focused on (16-26), ask any exasperated sister or would-be girlfriend, and you’ll hear many an anecdote about the hours lost and the commitments broken by young men indulging themselves in one or more of the aforementioned behaviors. Much of the recent writing about the “boy crisis” has focused on the influence of pornography and video games in particular on young men. By no means has all that focus been negative, though most thoughtful observers of contemporary society are deeply troubled by the tremendous amount of time that so many young men spend absorbed in the dubious “pleasures of the Ps.”
Michael Kimmel is not an anti-pornography activist. (From the perspective of the pro-feminist men’s movement, Robert Jensen’s Getting Off will remain the indispensable text on the subject for years to come.) Nor is Kimmel reflexively hostile to the “gaming” culture. Indeed, his writing on video games reveals a sophisticated knowledge of their appeal: his descriptions of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and World of Warcraft (perhaps the two most popular time-sucking games available) taught me a great deal about both these games and their stunning appeal.
Kimmel points out something every adult knows: young men tend to become hostile and defensive when queried about the amount of time they devote to online gaming.
Why are these guys so angry and defensive? In part because they feel a little guilty that they are spending so much time doing something they know is purposeless…
But it goes deeper than that. Guys’ defensiveness also has to do with the rage that’s both covert and overt in much of what passes for entertainment in Guyland. Because, as it turns out, the fantasy world of media is both an escape from reality and an escape to reality — the reality that many of these guys would secretly like to inhabit. Video games, in particular, provide a way for guys to feel empowered. In their daily lives guys often feel that they don’t measure up to the standards of the Guy Code — always be in control, never show weakness, neediness, vulnerability — and so they create ideal versions of themselves in fantasy. The thinking is simple: if somebody messes with your avatar, you blow him away. It’s a fantasy world of Manichean good and evil, a world in which violence is restorative and actions have no consequences whatsoever.
Kimmel rejects a simplistic connection between video games and “real-life” violence. Most psychologists and sociologists are justifiably suspicious of what he calls a “monkey-see, monkey-do” analysis of the influence of violent media. (And for what it’s worth, can we just leave the pigs and the monkeys and the dogs out of the discussion?) At the same time, he recognizes that gaming has tremendous significance in the lives of many “guys”. Explaining what these lads get out of their compulsive media consumption, he writes:
They’re getting a parallel education to the formal curriculum — complete with its own Three Rs: Relaxation from the weight of adult demands and of the rules of social decorum (also now known as political correctness); Revenge, against those who have usurped what you thought was yours; and, Restoration to your rightful entitled position in the world.
That’s not just alliterative, that’s right on the mark. In Manhood in America, his great primer, Kimmel focuses on the recurrent theme of “running away” from feminizing, civilizing culture. Huck Finn and Rip Van Winkle, two of the most memorable fictional characters of the 19th century, both go to great lengths to “relax”, to escape, and to create alternative worlds in which only “guys” can be found. (Think of Rip’s flagon of spirits as the modern-day bong, and the “bowling ghosts” he encounters as symbolic of men who live without the confining, restricting, civilizing impact of women). Young men today can’t escape as easily to the mountains or down the Mississippi, but they can escape into cyber-worlds that are largely male, rule-bound, and positively welcoming of violence.
They spend so much of their lives being bossed around by other people– teachers, parents, bosses–it’s really a relief to be the meanest, most violent, and vengeful SOB around. And they spend so much of their lives in a world that is, if not dominated by women, at least is characterized by women’s presumed equality, that it’s nice to turn back the clock and return to a time when men ruled — and no one questioned it.
I think Kimmel’s right, and therein lies the problem. How can escape be harmless if it is so inextricably connected to resentment of women? While some young men may return to the “real world” (in which women are people and violence is destructive rather than restorative) feeling relieved and rejuvenated, other young men seem deeply frustrated by the disconnect between their fantasy lives and their all-too-real obligations. And it sets up a destructive spiral: the more young men feel alienated from “real life” and its myriad attendant responsibilities, the more they long to soothe themselves with fantasies of revenge and restoration. The more time they spend in that fantasy world, however, the more strange and bleak and unfair reality may seem — and this drives still more video game use, often accompanied by pot or porn or other anesthetizing tools.
And this brings us to pornography. I’ve blogged a great deal on this subject, and a few paragraphs above I note Robert Jensen’s magisterial new book on men, masculinity, and porn. What Guyland adds to the discussion is, again, the relationship between pornography and male entitlement. Specifically, today’s pornography may not lead most young men towards direct acts of violence against real women, but it does foster a culture of entitlement to women’s bodies:
(Young men) experience their masculinity not in terms of what they had to give up in order to become men, but rather they experience it as anticipation — what they will experience. And more to the point, what they are entitled to experience. And as they begin to bump against the reality that they’re unlikely to become masters of the universe, omnipotent sex gods, and billionaire celebrities hounded by hordes of groupies, they begin to feel a bit resentful. It is ‘the men who do not feel secure in their manliness, who do not feel a solid part of the culture, who are more likely to take pornography’s lies seriously and to abuse the women in their lives’, writes (journalist David) Loftus.
Kimmel notes the ubiquity in contemporary porn of deception scenarios: in pseudo-documentary style, a group of men invite a woman for a modeling gig, promising all sorts of potential rewards. The young woman is then coaxed into first removing her clothes, and after being offered increasing amounts of money, has sex with one or more of the men. At the end, the men either escape without paying, or break the news to the model that the whole thing was a scam.
Of course, these are professional productions. The porn actresses are only pretending to be ingenues; they really did get paid. As Kimmel notes, every one of these porn videos begins with a quick statement of FBI conpliance, advising the viewer that signed consent releases and proof of age are on file. The exploitation and abuse is fictionalized solely for the purpose of heightening the arousal of the viewer. Consensual sex is less sexy, apparently, than sex that involves deception, humiliation, and — above all — revenge. Kimmel notes that this genre is primarily popular with young male consumers; older men are much more likely to be repulsed by deception scenarios.
Kimmel, who cites his own study on young men and porn writes of the connection between pornography, frustrated entitlement, and rage:
…aggression is simply the expression of frustrated impulses — in this case, the frustrated desire for sexual release is translated into aggression against the weaker and more vulnerable object, the one who can’t fight back, the woman on the screen. The men desire, the pornography informs and elicits that desire. But they cannot satisfy that desire. So whose fault is that? It’s not the guys’ fault: They were just sitting there, minding their own business, with no intention of feeling horny. But then this beautiful girl seduced them, elicited desire from them, and they can’t have her, and can’t do anything about it. Pornography evens the score by offering a fantasy of revenge.
So what are these guys getting out of getting off? They’re getting back. They’re not getting mad, they’re getting vicariously even. Getting back at a world that deprives them of power and control, getting even with those haughty women who deny them sex even while they invite desire, getting back at the bitches and hos who, in the cosmology of Guyland, have all the power.
Men’s Rights Activists, I’ve noted, tend to fall into two groups: older, usually divorced heterosexual men who feel victimized by family courts, and younger men still in the Guyland phase, convinced, as Kimmel writes, that they have been disenfranchised and exploited by the bitches who have all the power. The older men offer the younger men cautionary tales about grasping wives, ungrateful children, and biased judges; the younger men grow even angrier and more cynical as they realize the stunning disconnect between what porn and video games promise and the world the way it really is.
Kimmel has much more to say about the role of media (he has a great section on online poker tournaments) in guys’ lives, and I invite my readers to pick up the book and read more. But in concluding this second part of the review, I’m struck by how effectively Kimmel identifies the real source of the “Guyland mystique” into which so many of our young men have disappeared. The mistaken sense of having been disenfranchised (by women who now insist on being seen as equals) breeds a longing for revenge, a longing that is made manifest in video games and porn movies which feature narratives in which men are restored to their proper, dominant role. In video games and pornography, young men get a vision of what it might be like to exercise raw, unrestrained, restorative power. And in a world where so many young men feel so uncertain about their role, a world in which they are so confined by the contradictory and impossible demands of the Guy Code, video games and porn offer an alternative moral and sexual universe infinitely easier to understand than the one which these lads actually inhabit.
In the third post in this review series, I’ll look at “what is to be done”, and in particular, at the role older men can and must play in helping young men transition out of Guyland.