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.

Are the Fears about Sexualization Misplaced?

This week, I have a piece up at Role/Reboot: The Real Problem with Sexualization Isn’t Victoria’s Secret. Excerpt:

Sexualization is a very real problem. The backlash against it, however, can lead to the pathologizing of any and all interest in beauty, fashion, or traditionally feminine sports like cheer, dance, gymnastics, and figure skating. In the rush to make sure that girls have role models who aren’t primarily concerned with beauty, we risk labeling those girls who are interested in cultivating their appearance as either frivolous or victimized. When the APA calls for a culture that rewards accomplishments “based on young people’s abilities and character rather than on their appearance” (emphasis mine), they perpetuate a frustratingly false dichotomy. It’s the modern iteration of the lie that a girl can’t be both pretty and smart: In this new paradigm, you can’t care about your looks and be empowered at the same time. Achieving the latter means letting go (or pretending to let go) of any interest in beauty and sexiness.

Much of the anxiety about sexualization is really about outsourcing adult men’s self-control to the bodies of young girls. The real sexualizers aren’t the marketers, but the older boys and men who are unwilling to distinguish grown women from children. Men aren’t nearly as weak, stupid, or easily deceived as we like to imagine. We fret about sexualization because we fret that grown men will, inevitably, see a short skirt, or a t-shirt with a provocative message, as an invitation—even on the body of a 12-year-old. That sells men woefully short. It’s not an overask—really, it isn’t—to expect adult men to see a 14-year-old in heels and makeup as still a child. The problem is less girls’ self-objectification and more adult men’s refusal to stop using that supposed self-objectification as an excuse to be predatory creepers.

Beauty is No Prophylaxis Against Infidelity

This Genderal Interest column would have run last Friday, but was rightly postponed due to the Connecticut tragedy. Just Because You’re Hot Doesn’t Mean He Won’t Cheat looks at popular assumptions about looks and infidelity, and features a short interview with Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, whose writing on beauty is endlessly fascinating.


Betsy’s “calculus” had two flaws. First, it assumed that male infidelity is largely a function of opportunity. She assumed that a good-looking mate would be more likely to stray merely because he could, and that a less-desirable dude wouldn’t because he couldn’t. Second, she didn’t consider the particular way in which less attractive men may crave a sexual affirmation that they very rarely get. A man who knows he’s hot may be a narcissist, but the hotter he is the more likely he gets validated for it. The good-looking guy knows that fidelity is a choice; he’s presumably aware of his options. When faced with temptation, he can tell himself “I know I could if I wanted to, so why bother proving it, risking this great thing I have?”

On the other hand, the man who doesn’t see himself as good-looking is supposed to judge himself astoundingly fortunate to have ended up with a beautiful woman. That can lead – as Betsy assumed it would — to gratitude, but it can also lead to a destructive, ego-driven curiosity. Is this woman who has fallen for me an anomaly, or am I really more attractive than I imagined? Can lightning strike twice? Who else can I pull?

The end result is that “less attractive” men may have additional incentive (but of course, not justification) to cheat. It may be a pathetic excuse for dishonesty, but the unlovely dude’s particular set of potential insecurities do deserve to be factored in to the algorithm of infidelitousness. And whatever constellation of factors you use to pick a partner, leave out the false presumption that a homely guy will never stray.

Read the whole thing.

“I am a good-looking man”: on why looks privilege is as real as any other advantage

My weekly column at Role/Reboot runs a day earlier than normal. How Much Do Good Looks Help People in Our Culture? examines “appearance privilege,” riffing off a superb piece from America’s best writer on beauty, Autumn Whitefield-Medrano. In my post, I look at why it’s so much harder to cop to the advantages bestowed by being good-looking than it is to those unmerited benefits that come with race and class. Excerpt:

Does “looks privilege” function in similar ways in men’s lives as it does in women’s? How much do striking (or merely conventional and modest) good looks help men in our culture? These are two of the questions that jumped to mind after reading Autumn Whitefield-Medrano’s latest essay at The New Inquiry on Beauty Privilege. One of our best contemporary commenters on beauty culture, Whitefield-Medrano notes that this benefit functions as an elephant in the room, a presence everyone feels but few dare name: “…think of how you sound if you talk about it openly: It can seem hopelessly narcissistic to own up to one’s ‘beauty privilege,’ and hopelessly affirmation-seeking to talk about suffering at the hands of looksism.”

As she points out, we live in a culture where responsible people are expected to acknowledge their privileges, often with an almost confessional zeal. If you’ve got white skin, if you’re male, if you come from a middle-class (or more affluent) background, if you’re heterosexual or able-bodied or Christian or well-educated, then you do well to note the myriad ways that those attributes can ease your way in life. If I say, for example, that growing up a middle-class white male has eased my way in life, that my background and family connections have cushioned me from the repercussions of my own poor decisions, few will argue. No serious person could deny that race, class, education, and sex all impact how one is treated in the world. In and of themselves, they may not be determinative, but it is evident that unmerited privileges like color and wealth shape our worldview and ease our passage through public space.

Looks are different, exponentially more difficult to talk about. It shouldn’t necessarily be so. Most of us learned about the power of being pretty (or cute, or handsome) in elementary school. Long before we could spell a word like privilege (OK, fine, I still have trouble with it), we figured out that kids who were conventionally good-looking got more attention and enjoyed higher status among their peers—and, sadly, often among parents and teachers as well. Looksism is arguably the first unjust bias many of us encounter in life, particularly those of us who are privileged in the “other” ways like class and race. By the time we’re done with junior high school, we’re keenly, often heartbreakingly aware of how looks open doors for some and not for others.

Read the whole thing.

When Shaming Makes Good Sense

My column today at Role/Reboot looks at the redemptive aspect of shaming, drawing on an incident from last week where a TV anchor in Wisconsin movingly responded to a viewer who called her a bad example for young girls.


Leaving aside the question of whether Krause’s email constituted bullying (I think it did: Meanness often masquerades behind false expressions of concern), I’m struck by the question of whether calling him out, as Jezebel did, amounted to an unhelpful “shaming” of a well-intentioned dude who wrote a private email to a public figure, or whether naming him was a justifiable response to an act of colossal cluelessness at best or calculated cruelty at worst.

Part of the answer lies in recognizing the positive aspects of shame. In our contemporary culture, we tend to think of shame as an invariably unhealthy private emotion. In her popular TedTalk, Brené Brown builds on a distinction between guilt and shame originally made by John Bradshaw. Shame says “I am a bad person” while guilt says “I did a bad thing.” As Brown and Bradshaw would have it, guilt is about distinguishing right and wrong actions; shame is a negative judgment about one’s intrinsic worth. Guilt is a necessary reminder of the harm we can do to other people; shame is a corrosive force that eats away at our self-worth. The less shame we have, the better—or so one popular conception of shame suggests.

Sex educator and occasional Role/Reboot contributor Charlie Glickman takes a more nuanced approach, one that may help explain why the shaming of Kenneth Krause serves an important public function. Glickman writes about what he calls the “adaptive value of shame,” arguing that shame is a powerful emotion of disconnection:

“I expect the folks in my life to demonstrate respect for other people, regardless of their sexual orientation, sexual practices, or gender expression. If you don’t, I will call you on it. If you persist in not changing your actions, I will disengage from you. To the degree that you want to be in connection with me, that can be a motivation to explore your ideas and beliefs and perhaps, change them.”

Disconnection isn’t always about toxic alienation, Charlie argues, but about healthy boundary setting. Making clear that there are consequences for disrespecting others is a helpful tool to protect ourselves and our community. It’s a way of reminding people that their words and actions have consequences.

Six-pack or soft belly, I am still okay

In my column I look at my journey to — and away from — peak fitness. Letting go of exercise addiction for the sake of my family has been one of the most humbling and terrifying journeys of the past few years of my life. Excerpt:

I won’t pretend it’s been easy to give up the kind of peak fitness I once had. There are days where I avoid seeing myself naked in the mirror, nights where I touch my body before bed and fight back a sudden wave of shame. When I drive to work, I see lean runners on long runs, water bottles and Camelpaks strapped to their bodies, and I’m momentarily overwhelmed by a mix of nostalgia and envy. Those moments pass. I know I’ve got a finite amount of time, and a finite amount of energy, and I’ve made a choice to use my body for others rather than myself. There’s no resentment of Eira and the kids. They didn’t take my four-hour workouts away from me. I gave them up to have something better.

There are seasons in life. In one season, I was an addict, a self-mutilator, a recklessly promiscuous man who loathed his body and his life and found solace in sex, self-harm, and drugs. In the next long season, my body became an ascetic’s temple, rigorously disciplined by sweat and self-denial. At 45, in what I’d like to think is the high summer of my life, my body is here to carry small children and to love an equally exhausted spouse. When our kids are older and our responsibilities different (if not entirely fewer), perhaps there will be another season in which Eira and I will go back to the racing, the boxing, the hours of happy sweating. But that season won’t come soon.

Read the whole thing here.

On Fat, Status Seeking, and Authentic Desire

From 2011. This poem is making the rounds in the blogosphere today and it inspired me to repost this old piece.

The title is godawful, but this Village Voice article is both interesting and important: Guys Who Like Fat Chicks.

Men who are sexually attracted to heavy women are more numerous than we’re led to believe, Camile Dodero writes, and that has important implications both for our understanding of male sexuality and for our ongoing conversation about weight and desire. The title of the piece, however, frames the attraction to fat women as an unusual fetish, an odd quirk that only a few men share. That’s unfortunate, because the article is more nuanced than that, exploring the ways in which fat has been stigmatized and heavier women have been both exploited and desexualized. The familiar myths (such as fat women’s much-hyped desperation for a relationship) are debunked. And though the article still centers men’s attraction to heavier women rather than women themselves, it’s a useful conversation starter.

In 2006, I wrote a post called Men, Women, Homosociality and Weight. So much of men’s focus on thin women, I pointed out, is wrapped up in the desire to gain status in the eyes of other men. One of the most basic tasks for heterosexual men is a simple one: learning to separate what it is that they personally find desirable from their desire to impress others. Our ruthlessly fat-phobic culture doesn’t give fat people “trophy” status, even if (as the article suggests) many men are sexually drawn to heavier women. I wrote five years ago:

Men are taught to find “hot” what other men find “hot.” The whole notion of a “trophy girlfriend” is based on the reality that a great many men use female desireability to establish status with other men. And in our current cultural climate where thinness is idealized, a slender partner is almost always going to be worth more than a heavy one. For men who have not yet extricated themselves from homosocial competition, their own self-esteem and sense of intra-male status may decline in direct proportion to their girlfriend’s weight gain.

Let me stress that this is absolutely not women’s problem to solve! My goal is not to make women who gain weight feel bad; protecting a fragile male ego is not a woman’s responsibility. The key thing men need to do is get honest about their own desire to use female desireability to establish status in the eyes of other men. And here’s where pro-feminist men can do a terrific service by challenging one another and holding each other accountable for the ways in which we are tempted to use our wives and girlfriends as trophies.

When I linked to the Village Voice piece on my Facebook yesterday, a friend asked if I had ever dated a “fat chick.” It reminded me that when my 2006 post appeared, one of my colleagues, a very heavy woman with whom I am very close, remarked “I could never see you with a fat girlfriend.”

I wasn’t surprised by the comment. When it comes to relationships, we expect a disconnect between what people say and what they do. Many heavy women do have painful stories of men who were quite happy to fuck them in private but refuse to date them in public. Continue reading

The Privilege of Lusting for the Village Idiot

At Role/Reboot, writing about Ryan Lochte and the rise of the “himbo:”

Lochte’s combination of washboard abs and cretinous, perhaps calculated puerility (he made headlines as much for admitting he pees in the Olympic pool as for his medal triumphs) is hardly sui generis. Rather, the athlete Ryan calls “fratty as fuck” is the latest example of what Lauren Bans calls “himbos.” Writing in GQ earlier this year, Bans defines a himbo as a “man who is more attractive than he is smart. A bimbo with nuts, to put it testicularly.” Think of the hunks of shows like Jersey Shore; think of what many people assumed about the male stripper movie, Magic Mike (though the title character turned out to be far more complex than the himbo stereotype.) Though women’s attraction to lantern-jawed simpletons is not new (think of Miss Jane Hathaway on the Beverly Hillbillies remarking about Jethro Bodine: “I like my men big and dumb”), Bans is right that we’ve arrived at the “Golden Age of Himbodom.”

On the one hand, the ascendancy of the beefcake numbskull is partly good news. If straight women can publicly acknowledge that they’re turned on by men with ripped bodies and no other redeeming qualities, we can at last put to bed the hoary old myth that “women aren’t visual.” The lie that women invariably need a satisfying emotional connection in order to be sexually aroused can finally be allowed to die a very public death. In our national conversation, we’re beginning to recognize that the kind of sexual feeling we once ascribed solely to males is simply part and parcel of being human. Women aren’t becoming more like men, in other words. We’re just getting a long-overdue reminder that women are people too.

Read the whole thing.

Men’s Heroism, Women’s Mortality

At Role/Reboot this week, I look at the connection between historic rates of maternal mortality and the idea that men should be willing to die for women. Excerpt:

It is right to honor the brave acts of men like Matt McQuinn, Jonathan Blunk, and Alex Teves. They did well. But in the subsequent debate about masculinity and heroism, it’s worth pointing out two things. First, it’s time to let go of the myth that men have traditionally endured more physical danger and suffering than women. In Euripedes’ Medea, the title character remarks that she “would rather stand three times with a shield in battle than give birth once.” For all women, that’s a historically honest and accurate risk assessment. We may not have a Tomb of the Unknown Mother at Arlington, but the suffering of women’s bodies has been at least as important in guaranteeing our collective survival as men. In any discussion of sacrificial heroism, that truth deserves remembering.

Secondly, romantic proclamations about a willingness to die for someone else are cheap and easy. The kind of heroism that’s needed from men today has less to do with leaping in front of guns and more to do with showing up for the often maddeningly mundane tasks of living in relationship with another human being. Perhaps the greatest courage lies less in being willing to die for someone and more in being willing to partner with another human being in this difficult, confusing, marvelous business of living.

A Preference for Bare Genitals Has Nothing to Do with Pedophilia: a Mea Culpa

A story, and an apology.

When I was 16, I spent a month visiting my grandmother in Vienna. Oma gave English lessons from her apartment, and asked one of her best students — Bettina, who was six months older than I was — to show me around. Over the course of four weeks, I fell head-over-heels in love and lust with this witty, mercurial, dark-haired beauty.

One hot June day, Bettina took me swimming in the Old Danube. Like many others, she went topless. (I wish I had a photo of my face the moment my first love stripped down.) And like so many other European women in the early 1980s, Bettina had no interest in body hair removal. She had light down on her upper lip, dark tufts under her armpits — and luxuriant pubic hair curling out around the sides of her bikini bottoms. I thought it was the sexiest thing I’d ever seen. From that moment forth, I became an ardent advocate for swearing off razors and wax. And over the next 30 years, though it would never be a deal-breaker with subsequent partners, I’ve always made it quietly clear that my own erotic preference is for an entirely unshaven pubic area.

Like a lot of people, I’m guilty of having made personal predilections into moral claims. In a 2005 post on the lamentable John Derbyshire, I connected the growing popularity for Brazilian waxes to pedophilia (a link that, of course, others have made too.) I wrote that the preference for hairlessness “symbolized a lack of maturity” and a dangerous sexual fixation on girlishness.

What changed my views was having a daughter. Until Heloise was born, I’d never examined an infant’s nether regions closely. But I was a quick study on the diaper changing and the bathing, and it soon became clear to me what so many other people already knew — a hairless infant vulva looks nothing like an adult woman’s bare hoo-hoo. Whatever forces lie behind the preference for a waxed vulva, a desire to make a woman who has gone through puberty look like a girl who hasn’t strikes me as highly unlikely.

I repent of the insistence that those men and women who are partial to smooth, unobscured genitalia (their own or their partners’) are evincing a “lack of maturity” and a fear of adult sexuality. I was wrong to make that charge and will dispute that claim when I hear it repeated.

But as for me, I still have the same preference that was sealed — irrevocably — on a hot central European summer day almost 30 years ago. Napoleon is said, apocryphally, to have written to Josephine whilst on a campaign, asking her to forego bathing for at least five days before his arrival home. Were I he, I’d have thrown in a humble request that I’d also like skin untouched by razor or wax.