Of Never Feeling Hot: the missing narrative of desire in the lives of straight men (reprinted)

This proved to be one of the more controversial posts of last year. Here’s a link to the original comments section, which was very helpful in offering a corrective to what this post may have overlooked.

From May 2009.

I’ve been thinking this week about the experience — or lack thereof — of being the object of other’s desire. Two different posts got the wheels turning: Girls, Both Real and Otherwise by Daisy B., and Figleaf’s Unforseen Consequences of Men Believing Themselves Unseen. Both Daisy and Fig, in different ways, talk about alienation from their own bodies, at least as they appear to others (and, in a sense, to themselves). I recommend both posts.

In feminist circles, it’s common to talk about the tremendous damage that objectification does to women of all ages and adolescent girls in particular. Many young women remember a moment (painful, terrifying, or, perhaps less often, full of wonder) when they realized that they were the object of another’s sexual desire. Even more women have memories of being sent the mixed message of how both to entice desire (lessons on how to apply make-up, how to dress “sexy” taught at a young age) and how to avoid appearing either “slutty” or “ugly.” (the distinction, of course, is a shifting and elusive one.) For better or for worse, most young women grow up with a cultural awareness that their generally speaking, women’s bodies (though perhaps not their own) are intensely desirable to boys and men; strategies for managing that desire are much-discussed facets of women’s magazines, the advertising industry, and conversation.

But we don’t have a culture in which many young men grow up with the experience of being seen and wanted, in which young men grow up with the sense that their bodies are desirable and beautiful as well as functional. Our cultural discourse about young men teaches that managing their own (presumably insatiable) sexual desire is the defining task of their adolescence. A “jock discourse” that encourages young men to “score” with as many women as possible and an “abstinence discourse” which encourages young men to restrain themselves heroically have essentially the same perspective: your job as a man is to channel your libido, either into sexual conquests or radical restriction. Both discourses center male desire, just as most discourses aimed at young women teach teenage girls how to gain, manage, and direct that same titanic force. The missing element, of course, is the idea that female desire can be directed towards men in general, and towards their bodies in particular.

There’s some explicitness below the fold. Use your own judgment about proceeding.

At first glance, it seems that this argument is oversold. In my high school youth groups and gender studies classes, women — when the environment is safe — often admit to “looking.” There are spaces, more and more perhaps, in which women can acknowledge that a visually-stimulated libidinousness is not solely the province of the be-penised. Television shows like “Sex and the City” and “Gray’s Anatomy” make female desire a central feature of the dialogue — though of course, and this is critically important, the men who are obviously longed for are strikingly good-looking in some fairly obvious ways. Most young men grow up with what might be called the “Brad Pitt Discourse”: the idea that a small subset of particularly attractive men are the objects of women’s desire. But despite the abundant evidence that women’s desire is directed towards an extraordinarily diverse set of physical “types”, few men in our culture grow up with the sense that their bodies could be longed for and wanted.

Gay male desire, of course, is desire directed towards other men. Young gay men will, presumably, sense what it is to be wanted in a way that their straight peers will not. Of course, both gay men and women have been taught to be very careful about being obvious about their desire for straight men — the very real threats of homophobic violence and slut-shaming serve as effective controls, controls which (among many other things) rob young straight men of the strangely wonderful, albeit often disconcerting experience of being wanted.

I’ve written before about my sexual past with men. Most of my fleeting adolescent experiences with guys were with men considerably older than myself. And one of the things that drew me to them was, of course, my attraction to their obvious attraction to me. In high school and even in college, I felt clumsy; nerdy; awkward. Even after I had a girlfriend and a budding sexual history with women, I had never seen and felt obvious and intense desire for me from a female partner. I remember that the first time an older man made me — geeky Hugo — feel wanted, even craved, I felt a rush of elation and relief so great it made me cry. The sex I had with him was not based on my desire for him; rather, I wanted to make him feel good out of my own colossal gratitude for how he had made me feel with his words and his gaze. I was a bi-curious straight boy who had never felt someone ache for him — and the first time that happened, I was floored. Afterwards, this man (about the age I am now, a thought that discomfits me a bit) ran his fingers across every inch of my body, murmuring flattery of the kind I had never heard from a woman’s lips.

My early sexual experiences with men and women were deeply affected by these discourses about desire. I knew my first girlfriend and I were “in love” before we ever slept together; our sex, initially fumbling, became both easier and much more fulfilling over time. But when I thought about what made our sex good for her, I assumed that it was a combination of her emotional attachment to me and my own burgeoning proficiency as a lover. In other words, I assumed that my skill and our shared romance worked together to “make her have” an orgasm — because that’s what the discourse taught me. Neither of us had a vocabulary for anything else. She said encouraging things like “You make me feel so good.” When I first was with this older man, he said something that rocked me: “You’re so hot, you make me want to come.”

What a mammoth distinction between those two phrases! The idea that I could be sufficiently attractive to someone that his own desire could overwhelm him was beyond flattering — it was truly revelatory. And when I replayed what had happened between us, all that remained in my memory for years was my recollection of those words and how they made me feel. That distinction between how these two people described what was happening sexually isn’t unique, I think — it captures something real about the ways in which our cultural attitudes shape our vocabulary and experience of desire and being desired.

It took me years to unlearn these discourses, and years before I would experience being desired — in the most obvious visual sense — by someone other than a gay man.

In a men’s group a dozen years ago or more, I first read Delmore Schwartz’s famous The Heavy Bear, a devastating poem about what it is to be embodied. We read it to stimulate a discussion about male self-loathing; every lad in the room identified, at least in part, with what it meant to go through puberty feeling “in love with candy, anger, and sleep”, feeling the grossness and imperiousness of the body, a body which distorts the real self, making it into a “stupid clown of the spirit’s motive.” We teach our sons that it’s okay for boys to be dirty, to be heavy, lumbering, hungry bears. Feminists often frame that, rightly, as male privilege — it’s easier to live as a slave to impulse than to deny it altogether, as girls (who must be “everything nice”) are forced to. At the same time, many young men grow up with a keen sense of their own awkwardness, their own clumsiness, their own sense that their bodies are repulsive. The idea that someone could long for all of that shaking, raging, farting, sweating bundle of energy seems impossible; who could possibly want to touch this? Who could possibly be turned on by something so evidently unappealing?

So many straight men have no experience of being wanted. So many straight men have no experience of sensing a gaze of outright longing. Even many men who are wise in the world and in relationships, who know that their wives or girlfriends love them, do not know what it is to be admired and longed for for their bodies and their looks. They may know what it is to be relied upon, they may know what it is to bring another to ecstasy with their tongue or their touch, but they don’t know what it is to be found not only aesthetically pleasing to the eye but worthy of longing. As Fig points out:

Since (the) Rules of Desire are problematic, and since they conspire to make us (men) feel undesirable for any reason but the worthiness of our accomplishments or status (largely, I believe, as a byproduct of accommodating other of men’s preferences), it’s just one more barrier that needs to fall before gender equality is really gonna work. And not because men should be objectified equally to women (wrong direction) but because not understanding that we can appear as physically attractive leads us to go a little overboard on the worthiness front. From which much hilarity does not ensue.

Indeed. The very real hurt, the very real rage, that men often feel as a result of having no sense of their own attractiveness has very real and very destructive consequences. It’s not women’s problem to solve; it’s not as if it’s women’s job to start stroking yet another aspect of the male ego. The answer lies in creating a new vocabulary for desire, in empowering women as well as men to gaze, and in expanding our own sense of what is good and beautiful, aesthetically and erotically pleasing. That’s hard stuff, but it’s worth the effort. I know what it is to believe myself repulsive, and what it was to hear that not only was I wanted, but that I was desirable for how I appeared as well as how I acted. That was precious indeed, and far too few men have known it.

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61 thoughts on “Of Never Feeling Hot: the missing narrative of desire in the lives of straight men (reprinted)

  1. Well – this was really helpful to me the first time I read it. It was really the first piece of feminist writing where I could match a description of men, or men’s experiences, to myself, or anything I’ve experienced. (It’s not as surprising as it sounds, since mostly feminist writings are about women, and generally matched quite well to what I’d expect.)

    The answer lies in creating a new vocabulary for desire really sits wrong with me; not to adopt the “avatars of our demographic” approach, but I don’t see where we (those’ve us who’re straight men) have any moral standing to opine on whether anyone ought to regard us as attractive or not, and in what fashion, whatnot. But I don’t see how it’s my place to demand, suggest, or even imply that anyone might find me attractive. If (straight, bisexual, whatnot) women want a vocabulary they don’t have, that’s their right, and if they don’t want it, that’s their right too. But to even call the current situation a problem doesn’t seem to fall within our moral purview.

    It’s true, I guess, that a lot of it ends up (in my case, anyhow, and certainly not uncommonly) in a lot of Nice Guy behaviour. Maybe not the exact archetype usually talked about in feminist contexts, but since my analysis of any social/whatever relationship invariably concludes that any given woman would not be interested in a romantic/sexual relationship, and so I shouldn’t bring the subject up, deny that I’m interested (those are probably fair, but when I start avoiding someone for fear I’ll accidentally reveal that I’m attracted to her, that’s probably dickish.)

    Thanks for writing it all the same; it’s been really helpful to recall when I’ve been more offput by other descriptions of men’s experiences in feminist writings that are just so foreign to my own.

  2. Brian, we can’t demand desire, or demand expressions of desire. You’re absolutely right. But we need to see the ways in which we participate in shutting down women’s ability to express want. When we slut-shame, or permit slut-shaming to take place, when we repeat tired old lies like “men trade love for sex, women trade sex for love” we participate in making it much harder for women to acknowledge sexual longing. Our work lies in doing what we can to stop that discourse.

    Our work also lies in making ourselves emotionally ready to handle the truth that we may well hear. Women are taught to pull their punches because of the myth of male weakness; many think what Jack Nicholson’s character famously shouts in “A Few Good Men”: “You can’t handle the truth!” Doing the work to be emotionally ready to hear the truth without sulking is an excellent start, too.

  3. Hugo

    Your second paragraph leaves some assumption unstated, and I’m unable to guess what it might be. What ‘truth’ might there be that makes us sulk when we’re coming from a position of being devoid of desirability?

  4. Well, we don’t come from a position of being devoid of desiring to be desired. And the fact is, that the more we liberate women to say out loud what they want, the more we liberate women to vocalize what they don’t want. And it just might be that they don’t want us.

  5. Funny, I was just reading a discussion of this very topic on another blog, and two men stated unequivocally that they couldn’t understand what women found attractive about men, that because they didn’t find other men attractive they couldn’t figure out what it was about them that *women* found attractive. I detected privilege (because, as you said, men aren’t conditioned to understand themselves as objects of desire) and homophobia (understanding what makes a man sexually attractive to women=being sexually attracted to men themselves) in their comments, but also a really sad self-loathing. I’ve had a difficult relationship with understanding myself as an object of desire at times, but at least I’m far more connected to my body than these men seemed to be.

  6. Hog, a female friend of minesent me a link to your article, and felt compelled to comment and say thanks to you and also to those who commented on your post last year.

    I especially enjoyed the way you were able to express a male issue which many women dont appreciate, and at the same time convey that the issue is caused by traditional gender roles, and that only by men allowing women to express themselves without fear of judgement will we be able to tackle this problem.

    Giving men a self-serving reason to embrace gender roles is a wondeful way to engage men in my opinion. I have never seen such a tactic (although honeslty my studies of such things have been limited.

    One question. Taking your concept outside of the western/US culture paradigm, do you think that you can apply that same method to make dominated cultures which would then allow men to alter their behavior in those cultures. I am thinking primarily of certain middle eastern, South Asian and East Asian cultures.

  7. Hugo,

    “And it just might be that they don’t want us.”

    If you’re not talking about the individual level – some person may or may not be wanted by some other person – this does indeed contradict the assertion that it’s mostly societal pressures keeping women from epressing their desire in men. If women still wouldn’t express their desire for men absent the social forces you identify as problems, then this would mean that any epressions of their desire are not affected by the social forces identified and hence cannot by changing the environment.

  8. I was talking about the individual level, Sam – the reality is that women, just like men, sometimes care very deeply for someone but aren’t particularly attracted to them. Or hell, sometimes size really does matter. Those truths can hurt.

  9. Wow, wow, wow, thank you thank you thank you! I am going to recommend this article for my students in my Gender course. There is sooo much more to say about this!!!

  10. And it just might be that they don’t want us.

    Shouldn’t anybody with this paradigm already believe that, though? I mean – if I already perceive myself an not being a plausible object of desire (and I’m certainly guilty of this), why would finding out something I already believe make me unhappy? (Or really, cause any reaction at all?) Maybe your experiences of these things is different from mine? If I could trade no women finding my attractive for some women finding me attractive, how could I sulk over a trade that’s all gains?

    (I’ll admit truthfully that I certainly did cry over the predictament of wanting to have sex with women when it was implausible that they’d want to have sex with me; I can’t recall doing much else between the ages of ten and twelve, in fact. Spoiled or entitled? Maybe. But once I figured that hanging myself would be unfair to my parents, I made peace with it as just something I had to live with, since there was nothing that could be done. Everyone who has this narrative must’ve dealt with it somehow. All I see is that if (some? all?) women honestly told me they weren’t interested, I’d save myself the time and aggravation of wondering whether I was correct in believing that they weren’t interested, or whether I was sabotaging myself. Which’d free me of some self-hatred.)

    Or do you mean that those men with a narrative of desire would lose something?

  11. The more details I hear about this “Male privilege” business, the more I feel as if it’s not nearly as much fun as it’s cracked up to be. I think I’m going to dump the whole thing.

  12. Brian, I’m not quite sure what you’re asking.

    There is often a big difference between BELIEVING you aren’t wanted and HEARING it from someone you yourself want. If we want to make it safer for women to articulate their wanting, we had better be ready for them to be equally articulate about their not wanting.

  13. while your talking about what women want theres probabley some bad boy doing your wife cause Ill give you the answer when it comes to attraction women want the thrill it gives them not some guy who wants be one of their girlfriends.

  14. Growing up in a seaside resort town filled with athletes and minor television celebrities, I was awash in female desire directed at other men, and was taught (by received messages and experience) to regard myself as a “nerd”, that is, an unattractive subtype of an attractive gender. PUA taught me to listen, to watch for signals of female desire, to trace the rhythms of an interaction, so that the equal time I spent interacting with the opposite sex–because unsuccessful men often spend as much time with and on women as successful ones–sometimes resulted in a more mutually satisfying result, although these results are sporadic, even today, because of my visible and invisible disabilities. While not necessarily embodying Amanda Marcotte’s critique of the idea of the “P*ssy Oversoul” or “P*ssy Vending Machine”, there are ways to learn what to watch for, and to recognize that outside an already explicitly gender-egalitarian relationship, the man is the initiator.

  15. Oh, sorry that I was unclear Hugo.

    I mean – I don’t get why there’d be a difference between hearing you aren’t wanted implicitly (the situation of the man you describe in the post) and hearing it explicitly. Not that my sample size of getting over myself enough to confess interest in a woman is large (it ain’t), but my experience is that (especially in the mindset we’re talking about) getting rejected is the easiest outcome. The social script (run off, deny you were ever interested) is clear and easy to follow, and what’s going on makes perfect sense, so there’s no fear or uncertainty.

    I dunno. I certainly feel ready to be rejected. I certainly don’t feel ready to not be rejected.

  16. Eurosabra, as has been pointed out over and over again in those discussions, there are parts of “PUA” that are valuable – understanding social interactions and give-and-take, and self-confidence. The part feminists object to is treating sexual interactions with women as a game to be won by ‘getting’ the woman to ‘give it up’, and using that to gain status with other men. Also, frankly, predatory social strategies (as promoted by some in the PUA community) are effective; they’re just creepy.

    Brian, that depends on your definition of ‘easiest’, doesn’t it?

  17. mythago,

    I’m glad you seem to have a nuanced view of self-help strategies, some of which have become known as the “Seduction Community”. There’s the good, the bad, and the ugly, of course, but it’s important to differentiate.

    “a game to be won”

    I believe that this is mostly a matter of vocabulary. I’m pretty sure that a lot of the Seduction Community lingo will hit the wrong buttons for a lot of feminists as much as I’m pretty sure that one could frame a lot of the PUA slang in feminist sociology lingo – but it would not be as useful for the target group.

    If you take the context Hugo is exploring in this post, it becomes quite obvious that the standard male experience is one of at least perceived scarcity of sexual attention (“of never feeling hot”) while the standard female experience is one of at least perceived abundance (or even excess of) sexual attention. Given this dynamic, early and plentiful rejection is something men have to learn to deal with – the game metaphor does this quite well, and it does it in a language the target group can relate to rather well. By describing initiating interactions in such terms, the vocabulary is a psychological tool to depersonalize a possible, possibly likely, rejection and a way of encouragement for the “player” to keep trying…

    I think this post by Hugo is so powerful because it is able to illuminate in feminist language the consequences of the perceived scarcity and abundance of attention and the behavioural consequences that follow – an issue usually completely overlooked in feminist analysis, or simply brushed aside as phmt collateral damage that will subside once the patriarchy has been abolished, thereby forgetting about the more immediate, more practical effects of this dynamic, particularly for women’s issues.

    I understand that making men feel sexually wanted is not particularly high on the feminist agenda, but I firmly believe that it would be one of the most effective tools of social change available.

  18. Sam, by ‘game’ I’m referring specifically to those PUAs who do make it clear that they treat their female ‘conquests’ with contempt, and brag about their ‘successes’ with other men. Things like the ‘neg’ are, in fact, predatory social strategies (that’s why they work) and are very different than simply dressing up basic social skills in “by the way, this will help you do well with women.”

    I think I’ve already told the story about visiting a friend of mine and hanging out in his library while he ran errands. He had a copy of a book titled something like How to Pick Up Girls with a shot of a woman taking off her panties. I was pretty pissed at my buddy, but when I read the book I was pleasantly astonished. The first chapter of the book was dedicated to telling the male reader that no, women aren’t crazy bitches, they have some bad shit happening in their lives that you should keep in mind, they’re people like you and yes, they like sex. The remainder of the book explained how to be a confident person with self-respect who nonetheless paid attention to the interests and conversations of others.

    I had sort of mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, the cover made it look like the sort of book you wouldn’t want anyone to see on your shelf, but on the other hand, maybe it was a way to lure in the kind of guy who needed to be told “How to meet and sleep with women? Be a mensch. Instructions follow.”

    Abundance and excess are two different things; having a lot of attention from people who want to use you as a notch on their belt and a living fucktoy is not really the same as “I have many desirable sexual partners interested in me.” Too, the perception that every women has all the hot cock she wants is a myth – as many women who aren’t conventionally attractive could tell you.

    And of course there’s the problem that for women, showing desire towards a man can easily get cast as desperation or sluttiness (or both).

  19. Mythago,

    that’s a nice story – I hadn’t heard the story. What happened when you confronted your friend?

    “the sort of book you wouldn’t want anyone to see on your shelf”

    yeah, but, honestly, cover art aside, isn’t this part of the problem we’re talkgin about here? There is the assumption that everything in the realm of sexuality is instintive – and that’s a much harder concept for those who usually have to initiate – men. And isn’t it somehow weird that a movement that is sort of built around the notion that much of the stuff going on between the sexes isn’t actually instinctive, but cultural (and even created a proper term to denote the idea – gender) would be opposed to telling men that they can change, too? And that changing would benefit them? I’d think that feminist HQ 😉 would be having meetings about sponsoring that kind of thing – you’d think they’d be able to see that what’s going on here is the teaching of “performative masculinity” (inspite of all their sometimes ridiculously simplified evolutionary psychology explanations for some behaviour). The meta-level is important. And if one book has been able to explain that “masculinity” is teachable and performative, it is “the game”. I’d totally like to read Judith Butler’s take on that, to be honest.

    “Too, the perception that every women has all the hot cock she wants is a myth – as many women who aren’t conventionally attractive could tell you.”

    And occasionally even conventionally attractive ones. But recognizing that doesn’t mean that there is no fundamental difference in the sexual attraction dimension. You see it on Chatroulette.com, you see it Las Vegas, you see it in every club in the world. Even if you insist that it’s *only* a cultural phenomenon, it still *IS* a phenomenon and won’t go away by wishing it would. This is the world we live in, and it is the world we have to date, mate and reproduce in. So the here and now matters. A lot.

    And if you have only scarcity, it’s much harder to understand why someone would be annoyed by abundance, and perceive it as excess. It’s like asking someone who’s dying of thirst to understand that it’s possible to die of too much water (drown). That’s asking too much of most people’s imagination.

    “Be a mensch. Instructions follow.”

    In my (personal) experience in talking about attraction and gender aspects with women and men, I got to the point of concluding that most men are looking for behavioral advice on a *MUCH* more specific level than most women are. Maybe that’s a consequence of many women being – in my experience – much more detailed in their general discussions of such matters, while many, I’d say most, men aren’t used to talking among each other about these things beyond nods or single line statements. Still, or perhaps accordingly, there seems to be an immense need among these men for specific advice on any number of interactional aspects – the instructions you mention. Saying “be a mensch” or “be yourself” will usually not be enough to break their own often unhelpful behavioral routines. It’s really like marketing – “being oneself” is such a complex thing as “oneself” is usually a complex, often even contradictory, concept. When someone says “just be yourself” they usually mean – be like you are when you feel you’re in a safe environment. But that person rarely mentions that meeting new people is by definition not a safe place – it’s always *out of the comfort zone*, and thus something where a relaxed presentation is likely very hard to achieve, and often actually has to be learnt.

  20. And if you have only scarcity, it’s much harder to understand why someone would be annoyed by abundance, and perceive it as excess.

    Aiiyy. You’re selling men short. I think most men can wrap their imagination around the idea that a “hey baby, nice ass!” yelled from a car window is nowhere near the same thing as having a sexual partner extol the virtues of one’s appearance and sexuality during sex. One is reductive. The other isn’t. One is disrespectful and insulting. The other isn’t.

    Or, to put it another way: saying that the sleazy behavior of PUAs or drive-by casanovas is flattery….is kinda like telling the kid who gets jacked for his lunch money by bullies is….better off than he would be if he were ignored. “Hey, at least they’re paying attention to you” doesn’t cut it.

    But we’ve talked past each other about this before. I think it’s good to keep in mind just how often people are manipulated on a daily basis—so any technique that puts yet another manipulative sales pitch as the forward strategy is already starting off wrong.

  21. La Lubu,

    as I said, it’s *harder* to imagine, not impossible. And I really wasn’t talking about obvious examples of harassment like the case you mention. I was thinking of, say, a club, where both women and men go to meet potential partners and where the attention-ratio is – excluding obvious harassment – usually quite different, which, as I still believe, makes it harder for men to understand why women can be annoyed by yet another compliment. We don’t get it that much. As I’ve explained before, I’ve become quite good with women, but when I see a woman checking me out while I’m walking down the street, it still makes my day :). Everytime. So imagining that women may feel “objectified” by men checking them out is *harder* to imagine for me because being checked out makes me feel so good. That’s the kind of thing I’m referring to.

    I think “manipulation” is a problematic word, particularly in this context, because it doesn’t have a clear definition. Every communication is “manipulative”, to a degree, because it usually intends to influence behaviour of someone else. “I love you” is rarely just intended as a statement, however pure the love may be, it is usually seen as a question inquiring whether the stated level of affection is reciprocated. So it puts the loved person in a “corner” of sorts, a corner in which she or he have to decide how to act. In that sense, “I love you” is definitively a manipulative statement. So basically, I think the term “manipulative” should be clearly defined before introducing it, since it has a clear negative connotation but no clear content.

    So we don’t talk past each other again 😉

  22. Even avid club-goers spend a fraction of their time at clubs in comparison to the rest of their lives. So, a compliment from a stranger at a club (apropos of nothing other than being there) is going to be judged in the context of what’s going on in the rest of the backdrop of life.

    That’s why you feel complimented when a woman looks at you with physical desire, or expresses physical desire. You don’t have that backdrop of putting up with demeaning insults couched in sexual terms. Or that step-up in our heart rate that comes from the fight-or-flight response, because you’re not sure if the woman saying “nice ass” to you means it in the “I’m gonna rape your ass” way. You probably aren’t getting paid less money at work than your female colleagues with the same (or less) experience and education. You probably don’t have your intelligence equated with your physical appearance. You probably aren’t walking a gauntlet down the street or in a club or bar of leering women making obnoxious or scary comments. You probably aren’t worried about your physical safety on a date, let alone a one-night-stand. You probably don’t worry about the multiple messages your clothing is sending to others, either in the morning when you get dressed or at a clothing store when it’s time to buy new clothes (you probably think only of how it fits, if it flatters you, if it’s comfortable, or if it is well made).

    If you hear ten insults for every one compliment, can you really blame someone for putting more emphasis on the insults? And doubting the veracity of the compliments?

    Every communication is “manipulative”, to a degree, because it usually intends to influence behaviour of someone else.

    I disagree. Most communication between people isn’t intended to influence another’s behavior. And most communications that are intended to influence another’s behavior come in the form of direct requests. If you want someone else to do something, why not…..just ask?

    When I use the term “manipulative”, I’m thinking of….duplicity, lies, bait-and-switch…..I’m thinking of basic dishonesty. “Games People Play”. That sort of thing.

    So it puts the loved person in a “corner” of sorts, a corner in which she or he have to decide how to act.

    The loved person is only in a “corner” if that love isn’t reciprocal, and the loved person is unwilling to tell the lover about that lack of reciprocity (usually for fear of the consequences). If the love is mutual, there is no feeling of being “cornered”.

    (FWIW, I think this example is kind of bizarre. The first thing I thought was, “damn, Sam….doesn’t your family tell each other, ‘I love you’?” But even in the context of romantic relationships, I can’t think of “I love you” being said before the reciprocity is obvious….kinda like no one really proposes (marriage) unless they’re already sure of the answer. But…maybe that mileage varies.)

  23. Except that as time goes on, I’ve been more sanguine towards the so-called “coercive” or “game-playing” elements in PUA, because I tend to see them as just more impotent acting-out, as opposed to real pick-up, which is (at least in Mystery Method) the kind of manic, big-man-on-campus entertainer play that it mirrors Amanda Marcotte’s concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl/Guy. As someone who really did once learn hypnosis party tricks to get chicks (irony alert), I tend to regard that sort of thing as personally unsustainable (in chi, karmic, body-energy terms) for introspective intellectual types, but staid, nerdy, introspective masculinity is (IME) across-the-board sexually unexciting to straight women. The latest trend in angry, failed PUA is rape advocacy, and it has legs because very few men are willing to go without partners for years because of the limits of (female perception of) their performance of masculinity, or, like me, go from 3 partners in 3 years to 3 concurrent polyamorous relationships the following year to monogamy to relational celibacy/chastity, which is where I am now. (My disabilities and my work life have gotten more arduous, basically, I have minimal comfort, a small rented room in a shared apartment, such that sex involves 19th-century tenement lack-of-privacy, I have pretty much lost in the kyriarchy’s rat race and my relationships have involved a race-to-the-bottom trade of marginalized sexualities by marginal people. All of this in a context where I am the White Man, although it gave an extra piquancy to my relationships with middle-class women of color. A Coetzee novel come to life. I do have some pathetic privilege but I see that privilege as something that merely prevented permanent homelessness with my whiteness, education, etc. allowing me to avoid permanent homelessness through a relationship with a woman who COULD get state disability assistance.)

    I have 99 problems, but a woman ain’t one. Really.

  24. Coercive game-playing, as opposed to “real pick-up”, which consists of….coercive game playing with funny hats and costumes. And lies! (“did you see those two girls fighting outside?”—bet that one works really well after 911 first responders show up wondering where the fight is).

    Try again. You just contrasted lavender to violet, and claimed only one had a relation to purple.

  25. La Lubu,

    “That’s why you feel complimented when a woman looks at you with physical desire, or expresses physical desire. You don’t have that backdrop…”

    I’m confused – aren’t you basically making the point I was making? About explaining why putting ourselves in the other’s shoes is difficult? You paint the perception of abundance darker and more excessive than I think most women (I know) do, and not only those who don’t get a lot of attention as such, including positive attention. But basically that was my point, I suppose, just argued from the other side.

    “I disagree. Most communication between people isn’t intended to influence another’s behavior. And most communications that are intended to influence another’s behavior come in the form of direct requests. If you want someone else to do something, why not…..just ask?”

    Well, not in the world I live in. Glad you live in that world.

    “When I use the term “manipulative”, I’m thinking of….duplicity, lies, bait-and-switch…..I’m thinking of basic dishonesty. “Games People Play”. That sort of thing.”

    Problem is, of course, it’s hard to quite “games people play” while being people, however much any single people may want to. Because as long as there is a standard about the rules of these games, communication according to the rules will be interpreted according to the rules and thus non-rules inspired honest communication has a higher potential to be misunderstood. If people are speaking Italian, it’s useless to speak Swedish with them. So you’d have to find people who speak Swedish first if you want to quit speaking Italian.

    Apart from that, I agree that the things you singled out as “manipulative” are communicative strategies that should not be employed.

    “The first thing I thought was, “damn, Sam….doesn’t your family tell each other, ‘I love you’?””

    To be honest, not really. We know we do, but it’s not something that has been talked about. Apart from that, I chose the example on purpose because of the strength of the emotion involved (and also because I recently saw a “friends” episode in which Ross said “I love you” and the woman said “thank you”.)

  26. Sam – I didn’t confront my friend at all. What I thought was a cheezy “how to get pussy” book (the cover really was the kind of thing you’d expect to see on a soft-core novel) turned out to be a really intelligently-written guide on how to meet women by being a confident, decedent person. What was to confront? And yes, the book was a lot more specific than “be a mensch” or “just be yourself”.

    Your thirst/drowning analogy doesn’t quite fit. If I said I was drowning in ammonia, would it make sense for you to say “Man, I wish I had your problems?”

  27. You would like Denise Romano’s Game Over Now blog at gameovernow.wordpress.com. And I doubt anyone has ever called an ambulance to a club on the Sunset Strip over a report of a fight, unless the contenders were still there showing blood, and the police had been called. Plus most of the routines (“Jealous Girlfriend”, “Two Girls Fighting”, “Who Lies More?”) have passed from the Earth, having been exposed by the VH-1 TV show. Sic transit gloria mundi. Most of it is just now amusing carnival patter.

  28. I guess what I don’t understand is why men would want to be subjected to the female gaze the way that women are subjected to the male gaze. All that would do is make you unnecessarily self conscious about your appearance, give you another thing to spend time worrying about (am I hot enough for women?), and make you the target of marketers preying on those insecurities. Your life will become that much more expensive and fraught with anxiety. As if you don’t have enough things to worry about in the dating arena, why would you want to add one more?

    Be thankful that women don’t place quite the same importance on appearances that men do on women. Besides, because it is so unusual for a man to be objectified, therein lies the reason for the pleasure found in it. If it were to become culturally par for the course, it would quickly lose it’s novel appeal and excitement and become more of a burden. Please let us retain the pleasure of doling it out judiciously so that we can, when occasion befits, rock your world and delight in it’s consequences.

  29. Ms. S., while I understand what you’re saying, I don’t really think it’s rare at all for men to be objectified. There is a “female gaze”- however, one important difference is that, as you’ve said, women (generally) don’t place quite so much emphasis on appearance, so said appearance may not be the dominant factor in choosing a partner. This isn’t to say unattractive men don’t have it rough, but perhaps not quite so much as the conventionally unattractive woman. Furthermore, men’s appearance (barring extreme cases) will not have much of an effect on their life outside of romance- for example, women are often judged by their appearance in the male-dominated business world. This does not happen so much with men.

  30. So enlightening! I love when i have “ah-ha” moments like this!

    It honestly never occurs to me to tell my partner how sexy I find him. Which, now that i think about it, is strange. So from a male perspective, it is good to hear “I desire you” for your partner? I never know how to respond to my boyfriend when he says I’m sexy during sex. I just feel like: oh. well. alright. But then again I suppose the slut-shaming has left me so jaded I no longer care how sexy I am to another person.

  31. I think one thing that separates men’s gaze with women’s gaze is the issue of a sense of violence that comes with the gaze. With the male gaze, there’s some feeling of violence associated with it. It doesn’t feel like a compliment when a guy stares at me.

    That being said, it doesn’t mean I can’t pay guys a compliment if I like what I’m looking at. 😉 Once I was sitting having a beer with a girlfriend, and the men’s row boat team were doing laps around the bar. I’m ashamed to say but I could not concentrate on the conversation every time they passed by. I have a little bit more sympathy now for guys who get distracted.

  32. “nerdy, introspective masculinity is (IME) across-the-board sexually unexciting to straight women.”

    Aww, I’m a straight woman but I still don’t get to be on the board :(

  33. What meerkat said! Imagine someone saying “nerdy, introspective femininity is (IME) across-the-board sexually unexciting to straight men.) That’s obviously silly because any number of straight men are wildly drawn to nerdy, introspective women. Chances are you can quickly extrapolate that experience to women and say “oh, duh, women probably do have ‘types’ just the way men do.”

    Meerkat’s main point is more subtle though: imagine telling one of the men who’s attracted to nerdy, introspective types that no, he’s across-the-board mistaken. Actually that’s much harder to imagine because for the most part men have the “privilege” of assuming their taste — in both women and men — is reference/authoritative.

    That’s Hugo’s big insight in this post as well: it’s not that straight men aren’t visually attractive to women, it’s that we’re so certain of our own authority we a) ignore straight women’s assertions when they do make them or else when we do pay attention we tend to b) dispute, shame, or overblow what they’re saying in a way that strongly discourages them from saying it again.

    And then we go around imagining we’d better be handy because women will never find us handsome. The resulting alienation hurts. Petard meet hoist.


  34. Figleaf for the win! My gf wears a t-shirt that says “Nerd Boys are Hot”. Thank god she means it: she chose me.

  35. figleaf,

    “we a) ignore straight women’s assertions when they do make them or else when we do pay attention we tend to b) dispute, shame, or overblow what they’re saying in a way that strongly discourages them from saying it again.”

    I don’t know who you’re referring to with “we”, but it seems to me that b) is *assumed* more than it actually happens (which is not to say it isn’t a problem when it does), and a) is, I believe, more about inability to perceive input than about ignoring it because it’s usually communciated rather subtly given the assumption of b). So, yeah, we can do something to encourage women to share their desires more openly even though we may not like every single part of that, but we’re not the only ones responsible here. And I think you underestimate the effect of internalized feminism telling women that “objectification” is bad as such – of course they won’t be open about doing/liking something they’re told is bad when they’re on the other side.

  36. I have always told my husband that he is sexy and have complimented various body parts some sexual, some not sexual. However, he is overweight almost bordering on obese where as I am not, while I am absolutely sincere in my sentiments he suspects me of “just saying that because you love me.” I think this stems from the fact that I don’t just compliment his physical attributes, but also aspects of his personality…mix that with the stereotype that women aren’t sexual, and it’s a recipe for potential disaster (on occasion he accuses me of treating him like a piece of meat, which leaves me perplexed to say the least). I think what needs re-defining is the word sexual… Is the word sexual culturally defined as a relationship based on physical attraction alone, or is it a relationship defined on a dynamic of physical attraction and a deeper understanding of love?

  37. @SamSeaborn: I’d like to push back a little against the notion that feminism has anything to do, at all, with women’s reluctance to express what they find visually attractive about men.

    For one thing feminism of any sort is scarcely 150 years old, and feminist ideas about sex and sexuality only began to have an impact in the very early 1970s. So it’s hard to imagine how feminist self-consciousness could be responsible for something that goes back at least as far as the Elizabethan era.

    For another it seems like pretty much since the 1970s the women most likely to be outspoken about their visual likes and dislikes about men’s bodies have tended to be… feminists. Going back at least as far as the once nominally-feminist Cosmopolitan Magazine’s Burt Reynolds centerfold.

    Point being while I think it’s important to consider feminist’s self-checking for objectification I’m pretty sure silencing of women’s erotic appreciation of men comes mainly from anti- and afeminist influences.


  38. figleaf,

    well, I don’t want to debate percentages, seems somehow pointless. But feminism is certainly the most vocal proponent of sexual political correctness today, and, well, I think it’s established that feminism wasn’t and isn’t always sex-positive (hence the creation of a categoy “sex-positive feminism”)… Remember the sex wars? The shaming of women who are using their sexuality in ways many feminists consider problematic (sex work, bdsm, earlier also heterosexuality…) as some sort of “agents of patriarchy”?. I believe that feminism has had sexually empowering effects for a lot of women, but in my experience these women tend to not consider themselves feminist – I’m sure that’s an interesting aspect in its own right, but I do think it is important to point out the collateral effects of feminism for both women and men when I perceive them.

  39. @SamSeaborn: re the feminism argument it sounds like you’re making a “no true Scotsman” argument. I mean, yes, a hard-core separatist like Mary Daly might agree with Pat Robertson that women should feel ashamed to be physically attracted to men, let alone to express their attraction. But the observation that there are “sex-positive” feminists trips the argument that feminism inherently discourages admission of physical attraction.

    But that’s sort of a distraction: what really matters is that even today Pat Robertson and his ilk have had far, far, far, far, more negative, not to mention sex negative influence than Mary Daly ever had or ever will.


  40. figleaf,

    well, there’s “inherent” and there’s “inevitable”. I do believe the influence of the Mary Daly’s of this world is more than noticeable in today’s feminism, most importantly in its epistemological assumptions, and these *do* have considerable influence even on those who disagree with the most absurd points.

    But again, no percentages, they’re impossible to prove anyway. I think it’s much more complex, as I once mentioned in reply to a post on your own blog.


  41. meerkat, figleaf: Eurosabra seems to be mostly right. There seem to be *vastly* more male nerds than there are women attracted thereto…

  42. Meerkat,

    I’m no longer bitter and cynical enough to offer you a way to get on the board by typing “Age/Preferences/Location?” or suchlike, particularly since I’m crankier and far more curmudgeonly than in my previous days, and actual issues of sexual and emotional comfort preclude sex with strangers or near-strangers right now. I do think that figleaf needs a counter-narrator from the MRA/PUA end of the spectrum who is not a straight-out rape advocate, and agree that (pivotally) we need to encourage women to reach (metaphorically and literally) for what they want. (I find initiating unambiguously sexual touch to be the specific communicative gateway/burden, such that ‘signaling’ as Sam Seaborn describes above is not the crucial factor in miscommunication.) Game advocates also argue that only 20% or so of naturally non-seductive men can master reading female non-verbal communication sufficiently to win over the women who *already* like them, meaning that non-verbals will remain an absolute barrier to ca. 64% of men, leading to my contention that initiated TOUCH will make the difference, if anything makes a difference at all. (And that feeds back into Kate Harding’s “Schrödinger’s Rapist” thread, etc.)

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