Menchildren and Manic Pixie Dream Girls

After a week off, I’m back at the Atlantic. Today’s column looks at The Real-World Consequences of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Cliché. An excerpt:

Rabin defined the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as a muse whose primary role is to teach and transform a young man. As contemporary a trope as it feels, it’s as old as Dante with his vision of being guided through paradise by his saintly Beatrice. Bettina was my guide, and as much as my adolescent self thought it adored her, I thought less about her and more about how it was she made me feel. Though I questioned whether I was good enough for her, and I felt lucky that she’d chosen me, I didn’t question her role as change agent in my life. It was a one-sided relationship not because I was any more selfish than your average teen boy, but because I took it for granted that this brilliant young woman knew the world better than I did. As unstable as she may be, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl not only senses a young man’s potential in a way he can’t, she intuitively knows how to lead him to his destiny. She knows him better than he knows himself, or so he believes. That convenient assumption allows the young man both to adore the MPDG and to avoid any responsibility for reciprocity. How can he be expected to give anything back when she has this magical intuition about the world that so vastly exceeds his own?

Not long after we both started at university in our respective countries, Bettina’s letters stopped coming. I was in love with someone else, but I missed my exchanges with her. My notes went without reply; I only had an address; no phone number, and in the mid-1980s, of course no Internet through which to follow up. I asked my grandmother, who said she’d also lost touch with Bettina. Finally, one day in 1987, a black-bordered card came in the mail. It was a Todesanzeige, a death announcement. Just 20, Bettina had committed suicide by jumping out a fifth-floor window. I later learned from my grandmother that Bettina had suffered from depression for years, something she’d never told me. Something, of course, about which I’d never asked. I’d taken her self-sufficiency for granted.

Read the whole thing.

Why We — More than Ever — Need the Word “Creepy”

My latest at The Atlantic takes another look at a topic I’ve addressed before: “A Defense of the Word ‘Creep’”. Here’s an excerpt:

Congress can’t pass a law requiring people to be delighted by the advances of others they find unattractive. I can get my children to eat broccoli by alternating promises of rewards and punishments, but I cannot do anything to make my daughter love vegetables as much as she loves ice cream. Similarly, no law can compel “Ashley,” a barista at the local coffee shop, to feel the same way about the advances of an older co-worker whom she finds repellant as she does about those of the young hottie who joins her on the opening shift.

Until recently, however, few women could make sexual choices based primarily on physical desire and emotional attraction. In a world where few women had the opportunity to prosper without a man’s protection, marriage was about survival. The more educational and economic opportunities women acquire, the more opportunity they have to choose based on what they want rather than what they need for survival. As Daniel Bergner’s bestselling What Do Women Want? argues, once you level the economic playing field, women are just as likely as men to make sexual decisions based on desire alone.

The same principle works for sexual harassment: the Civil Rights Act of 1965 didn’t conjure the concept out of thin air. Women had always been sexually harassed in public spaces. What the government did was give the problem a name — and a remedy. It also formally recognized a woman’s right to decide for herself what conduct was welcome and what wasn’t.

Men’s rage about sexual harassment regulations and “creep-shaming” may well be rooted in an unwillingness to accept these cultural changes that have given women unprecedented power to say “no” to the lecherous and the predatory. Complaints that unattractive, socially awkward men are unfairly labeled “creepy” miss the point. “Creepy” describes having “the creeps;” it’s a word that centers on women’s own feelings. It’s no more “unfair” for Ashley the hypothetical barista to be “creeped out” by the advances of an older, unappealing co-worker than it is for her to be excited by the same approach from the man to whom she’s attracted.

In the Atlantic on dads and daughters; men and abortion

Two recent posts at the Atlantic. Why Do So Many Father-Daughter Movies = Feisty Kid + Bumbling Dad? ran last week. Excerpt:

Single fathers have long been a central presence in fantasy and fairy tales, as any reader of the Grimm Brothers knows. Until the coming of modern medicine, childbirth was among the leading causes of death for women—a fact that resulted in a lot of widowers. But while the fathers in these fairy tales were often stern and over-protective as in The Little Mermaid, or in thrall to the proverbial wicked stepmother as in Cinderella, it’s only very recently that they’ve become benign fools—fools who are mocked by the world but saved by a daughter’s love.

This paradigm shift began in 1991 with Disney’s hugely successful Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film ever nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. In From the Beast to the Blonde, her masterful history of fairy tales and their adaptations, Marina Warner argues that the depiction of Belle as a feminist heroine necessitated a loss in power for her father, “crazy old Maurice.” Disney “replaced the father with the daughter as the enterprising authority figure in the family,” Warner writes, a radical reversal from the 18th century French text on which the film was based. The runaway triumph of Beauty meant that Disney and its many rival studios have stuck to the same formula of heroic daughter and lovably inept (but always well-intentioned) dad ever since.

And yesterday, on how men can talk about their feelings around abortion:

When we’d gone together to see the doctor for a pre-abortion appointment, he told us the approximate due date: February 7, 1986. At the time I filed it away as the most useless of facts. But when that date rolled around, I was stunned by how heartsick I was. April and I were no longer speaking by that point, and I was off at university. I cried on that due date and for days after, stunned and bewildered by my own delayed reaction to loss. Though my wife and I now have wonderful two kids of our own, not a February goes by that I don’t think about a child who would now be 27.

For those of us who support women’s rights, there’s a paradox when it comes to men’s feelings about abortion, one that my very well-intentioned mother taught me years ago. We want and need men to care about every aspect of reproduction, from being enthusiastic users of contraception to (when invited) devoted coaches in labor and delivery. Yet the danger in publicly focusing on men’s feelings about abortion is obvious.

One danger is political: Anti-abortion advocates are all too willing to politicize any sign of grief or confusion after an abortion as evidence that the procedure is harmful and ought to be banned. Anti-abortion groups often frame the issue as one of father’s rights: the more evidence of men’s post-abortion grief or anger, the more potential fuel for the pro-life cause. Another risk is more personal. As my mum made clear, it can be very difficult for a woman to cope with her partner’s turbulent emotions as she makes a decision about abortion.

All the Horny Women, All the Overwhelmed Men

My column this week looks at the remarkable new book by Daniel Bergner that is shattering a lot of treasured old myths about gender and libido. An excerpt from Turns Out Women Have Really, Really Strong Sex Drives: Can Men Handle It?

The research suggests that though both men and women struggle to extricate themselves from traditional gender roles, women are generally doing a much better job of it than are men. From the workplace to the university, women are far more willing to move into traditionally male spaces and adopt traditionally male behaviors than men are to do the reverse. Too many men are still stuck in the “provide, protect, and perform” model that requires women to be passive, focused more on pleasing than on their own pleasure. The “catch-22″ in which women find themselves is largely a result of men’s fear of being unable to perform up to women’s expectations—and to satisfy desires that men have only just begun to realize are as intense and earthy as their own.

Freud’s famous question, “What do women want?” has always invited another query in return: “Can you handle the answer if we tell you?” The widespread coverage of Bergner’s book raises at least the possibility that some men are. And what is at the heart of that answer? Though some women surely still want to play at passivity while men protect, provide, and perform, plenty more women want another “p” word: partners. Flexible, unintimidated, and (as Bergner shows) playful partners in the bedroom, in the kitchen, and in public life.

Read the whole thing.

How Marital Infidelity Became our Final Taboo

At the Atlantic today, I look at the new Gallup poll that shows a record number of Americans disapprove of infidelity, a figure up substantially since the 1970s. Why has sexual dishonesty become the last remaining taboo?


We expect couples who marry young to “struggle”—a common euphemism that encompasses everything from fights over money (of which there is almost invariably not enough) to extramarital flirtations and affairs. The cornerstone model presumes, optimistically, that men and women are transformed for the better by sticking it out through the “tough times” that everyone concedes will attend the marriage of the young, the poor, and the naïve. The expectation of struggle doesn’t condone infidelity so much as it concedes its near-inevitability.

The “capstone” model presumes, as one of my friends puts it, that you only should get married “after you’ve got your shit together.” Capstoners believe that marriage is something you enter into only after you’ve finished sowing your proverbial oats—and come into possession of the financial, emotional, and professional sophistication you’ll need to blend your life with another person without becoming dangerously dependent upon them. The capstone model is much less forgiving of sexual betrayal because it presumes that those who finally get around to marrying should be mature enough to be both self-regulating and scrupulously honest. The increased unacceptability of adultery is linked to the rising age of first marriages. The evidence suggests, however, that the capstoners are more than a little naïve if they imagine that a rich set of premarital life experiences will serve as an inoculation against infidelity.

The same Gallup poll that found near-unanimous disapproval of cheating also found rising acceptance of many other non-traditional, consensual sexual relationships. The new ethical consensus that you can do whatever you like as long as you’re not hurting anyone—and as long as you’re being rigorously candid—reflects a thoroughly modern mix of tolerance and puritanical censoriousness. We’ve become more willing to embrace diverse models of sexual self-expression even as we’ve become ever more intolerant of hypocrisy and the human frailty that makes hypocrisy almost inevitable.

Read the whole thing here.

On “feminist pick-up ethics” at Daily Life

My latest at Daily Life looks at what it would mean to create egalitarian, feminist-friendly “pick-up” ethics. I chatted with Clarisse Thorn, Arden Leigh, Mark Manson and Michael Kimmel for their insights. Excerpt:

If there are to be such things as feminist pick-up ethics, they’ll have to be as much about empowering women to take the sexual initiative as about encouraging men to be honest and respectful. The reality is that getting what you want from whom you want it can be as challenging for women as for men. Just as men need to work, as Kimmel says, on “acting ethically”, women deserve the tools to act boldly…

The worst of the pick-up artists insist that men and women want such radically different things that only the cynical mastery of manipulation techniques will lead to happiness. The good news is the emergence of a different model for men and women alike, based on mutuality, kindness and willingness to prioritise other’s boundaries as well as one’s own pleasure.

To put it more simply, this new model rests on the idea that men and women aren’t adversaries, but collaborators. Even, perhaps, friends.

Navigating Pornography at The Atlantic

I’ve written about my Navigating Pornography course before (I Don’t Need to Know if You Masturbate), but today at the The Atlantic, I give a little overview: I Teach a College Class on How to Think and Talk about Pornography.. Excerpt:

Even more than history lessons and an introduction to feminist debates, my students need and deserve the tools to combat sexual shame. I never ask how many of my students use pornography, nor do I inquire about any of their other sexual habits. A safe classroom environment hinges on respect for students’ right to privacy. I don’t need to pry, however, to hear stories—as I invariably do—about confusion, guilt, and fears of “addiction” to porn. Millennials may be more tolerant of sexual diversity than earlier generations, but many grow up in homes where masturbation—which is, after all, almost inextricably linked with pornography viewing—is still seen as shameful or sinful. Many worry that they watch porn too much, or watch the “wrong kind,” while quite a few have had bitter arguments with romantic partners over the ethics of porn use in a committed relationship.

Students need more than history and theory. They need safe spaces to think through—and in some instances, talk through—their fears, desires, and uncertainties. When it comes to a subject like porn, a safe space means a place where they won’t be judged, mocked, or sexualized regardless of what they reveal. Of course my classroom is not a therapist’s office and I am not a therapist. The safe space they choose to talk through those fears, desires, and uncertainties probably won’t be in class, in front of me and their fellow students. What I want them to take from my class is a vocabulary with which to initiate the conversations so many people find impossible to start. For better or worse, we live in a world seemingly permeated by the pornographic. In such a culture, there are few more valuable skills than the capacity to talk with candor and insight about what turns us on, gets us off, shapes and shames us.

Sex and Self-Mutilation at Jewrotica

I’ve got a second contribution up at Jewrotica today: I Can Read You with My Fingertips: Scars, Ink, Sex, and Leviticus. It may be a little triggering to some who’ve had issues with self-mutilation.. and a little PG-13 in terms of sexual description. Here’s how it finishes:

My ex-lover Amy, one of the first women I slept with in my early sobriety, was the first to find evident erotic delight in my scars. I’m grateful that she didn’t turn out to be the last. As I learned to have sex without the crutch of drugs and alcohol, I also learned not to flinch from curious fingers and playful tongues as they explored the marks on my skin. “I can read you like Braille,” one woman said; “all these stories at my fingertips.” I shuddered in gratitude when I heard that.

My four year-old, Heloise likes to sit beside me as I read her a book, or as we watch Scooby-Doo. In recent months, she’s made it clear she wants to sit on my left side so that she can explore the scars on that forearm. While she listens to me read, or gazes at the television, her little fingers rhythmically and repetitively trace the bumps and raised lines. Heloise knows only that they are marks “where abba got hurt;” she’s years away from hearing how or why. There is of course nothing sexual about her caress. But my own ability to sit still and welcome that gentle touch from my child grew out of what I learned from the lovers who loved on my scars with their hands and mouths.

My face is weather-beaten and lined from years of running in the sun and the wind. My arms and torso carry the innumerable marks of a chaotic and hard-lived youth, and though they may not be beautiful to many, they are treasures to me. When I meet G-d at the end of things, I will meet him with this battered body. Returning to the faith of my ancestors, I will go down to the grave as a scarred, tattooed Jew.

Ten Male Feminist Allies You Should Know

As a man who writes and teaches about gender, I’m often asked for examples of good male feminist allies. In no particular order, here are just ten — some well known, some not — of the many whose work I admire and recommend. Not all would call themselves feminists, but all have a tremendous and demonstrated track record of support for women’s equality — and an equally strong commitment to transforming men.

1. Michael Kimmel, the founder of masculinity studies in America, author of Guyland.

2. Jay Smooth, founder of New York’s longest running hip-hop radio show and a veteran “v-logger” who often focuses on gender issues and sexual violence.

3. Thomas Page McBee, Vice’s “masculinity expert” and author of the “self-made man” column at the Rumpus.

4. Michael Messner, USC sociology professor currently conducting (with his graduate students) a comprehensive study of male anti-violence activists from the 1970s to the present.

5. Michael Kaufman, veteran activist and author of Man Talk: What Every Guy Oughta/Gotta Know About Good Relationships, which is now available by request FOR FREE.

6. Jackson Katz, perhaps the nation’s leading male anti-violence activist. His Tough Guise video is a college staple, and his latest TedX talk “Violence and Silence” is deservedly viral.

7. Carlos Andrés Goméz, poet, actor, activist, performer and author of Man Up: Cracking the Code of Modern Manhood.

8. Allan Johnson, activist, speaker, and author of The Gender Knot: Unraveling our Patriarchal Legacy.

9. Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior Atlantic editor and columnist whose analysis of race, class, and yes, sexual politics is nonpareil.

10. Buck Angel, pornographer, transgender activist, inspirational speaker whose very body raises — and answers — questions about what it means to be a man.