“Divided you fall”: the myth of male weakness and young women’s internalized misogyny

I’m thinking once again about the “myth of male weakness” this morning.

Jonah Goldberg has a piece this morning with the whoppingly patronizing title “Where Feminists Get it Right.” (Don’t get excited, folks. Hell remains unfrozen.) Jonah concludes his piece, which largely focuses on the now-familiar yet ever-depressing litany of abuses against women in the less-developed world, with this gem:

Women civilize men. As a general rule, men will only be as civilized as female expectations and demands will allow. “Liberate” men from those expectations, and “Lord of the Flies” logic kicks in. Liberate women from this barbarism, and male decency will soon follow.

Give Jonah credit. He’s not blaming women directly for their failure to civilize men. Rather, he’s blaming certain cultures that fail to give women sufficient authority with which to do their civilizing. But that doesn’t change the basic problem in his argument, based as it is on pseudo-science, Victorian sentimentality about women’s “nature”, and a William Golding novel about pre-pubescent boys.

As I sigh at Goldberg’s piece, I think about an email I got from my friend Emily. She recounts a Facebook exchange she had with a female friend of hers, a fellow Christian. Em’s friend posted on her status update that she was “really disappointed w/the female human species.” When Em inquired why, and whether her friend was also disappointed in men, she got this response:

It appears as if men are weaker when it comes to sex, money, power. With that I am realizing that it is the women that should be held at a higher standard because we need to set the tone for our weak counterparts. If women looked at themselves as holy temples and didn’t allow anything less than excellence this may force men to step up their integrity and priorities…

We could go through the gospels, pointing out over and over again the places where Jesus demands that men show self-restraint comparable to that demanded by women. But I’m not just interested in responding to a fellow Christian. Rather, what concerns me here is one of the most troubling aspects of the myth of male weakness: it creates an atmosphere in which both men and women feel justified in policing other women’s behavior.

If men cannot control themselves, and women can, then it is (as Emily’s friend suggests) women’s task to set the limits for men which men cannot set for themselves. All bad male behavior, it quickly follows, is invariably a woman’s fault. We’re all familiar with the loathsome notion that a cheating husband or boyfriend deserves less ire than the woman with whom he cheated. (The “he couldn’t help it, but she ought to have known better because she’s a woman” theory). The end result is a culture of mistrust and hostility among women.

A great many of the young women I work with claim to have trouble liking other women. Call it the “most of my good friends are guys” phenomenon, which is sufficiently common as to merit a word other than “phenomenon”. Many young women — even in feminist spaces — will list the countless ways in which they have felt judged, policed, or betrayed by other women. Many will say things like “I expect men to let me down. But when a woman hurts you, it’s worse because she doesn’t have an excuse.”

The point that feminists try and make in these discussions is that the myth of male weakness is at the very root of this internalized misogyny. The logic is inescapable. The less self-control women believe men have, the less they hold men responsible. The less they hold men responsible, the more responsibility they ascribe to themselves and to other women. The less they believe in men’s capacity to self-regulate, the more hostile they are trained to become to any woman who seems unwilling to engage in the rituals of female self-policing. At its most extreme, every mini-skirt becomes not only a threat to the fragile order women have established for mutual protection, it is perceived as an act of both betrayal and hostility towards one’s sisters. The hisses of “slut”, “whore”, and “bitch” soon follow. Continue reading

Spared from relapse: of divorce, sex addiction, and angels in hoodies

I got an email yesterday, asking me about advice for dating again after a divorce. It’s a post I intend to get to next week.

But something in the query reminded me of an another question I’d been asked by a mentee of mine. The mentee asked “Since you got sober and had your conversion, have you ever come really close to slipping back into old behavior?” The answer I gave dovetails with that of what one does after a divorce. I’ll share a story.

It was summer 2002. My third wife, E., had told me she didn’t want to be married to me anymore. E and I had met online (Matchmaker.com) in January 2000; she was finishing her doctorate at Fuller Seminary, I was 18 months sober and falling in love with Christ all over again. She had never been married before. I was eager to build a life with someone who shared my faith, shared my values, and was willing to accept a very troubled and turbulent past. E and I moved quickly; we were engaged within weeks and married in early 2001.

As I’ve written before, my third wife and I had terrific intellectual and theological compatibility. We also had very little physical chemistry. I saw that as a plus. I had grown mistrustful of “heat” with another person — in my experience over the course of many years and many relationships, the most intense sexual relationships were invariably the most unhealthy. I ought to have known better, but at this stage of my recovery, I equated heat with danger. I thought of the line I’m too lazy too look up (but I think it’s from one of the translations of Medea), the one in which a Greek chorus prays for a “small fire” of love, just enough to warm a house — but not a big fire, which will invariably burn the house down. Having burned down many houses, as it were, I was ready for something different.

My third wife did me the great favor of leaving me. We were not cruel or unfaithful or dishonest. We were incompatible in a very basic way, a way that could not be overlooked. She was unwilling to settle for kindness and conversation alone; she wanted passion, and that was something we could not generate. She promised me that I would thank her someday for leaving. I have done so. She is remarried, as am I. I hope that her new marriage is joyous.

In any case, back to 2002. I was heartbroken when E left. I also experienced a brief crisis of doubt. I doubted God. I doubted the wisdom of staying sober. The perfect narrative of fall and recovery had been shattered; I wasn’t supposed to get divorced again, not now that I was sober and faithful. In my mind, I had done “everything right this time” and still things hadn’t worked out. And as a consequence, I began to flirt with the idea of going back to old behavior. I don’t mean drinking again — that option wasn’t on the table. I meant returning to casual promiscuity.

I moved out of the home E and I shared in early October, 2002. I had rented a small apartment a few miles away. And I had a date lined up for that first weekend with a woman I’d known for years. To heck with celibacy again, I thought; I’d done that as a healing tool before. What I wanted was new skin. I was in danger of going back to a pattern I’d stayed away from for many years.

But I never went on that date. The day before I moved out, one of my favorite students, Katie, came to my office. Katie had taken a few of my classes, and regularly visited me in office hours. Katie had been “out” for quite some time; she had been in the first gay and lesbian history course I had taught at PCC. Katie had been dating her girlfriend, Jackie — whom I knew vaguely but who hadn’t been my student — for about six months.

Katie was in tears. She told me that Jackie had been chronically unfaithful to her. Jackie was sexually compulsive, she said, hooking up with and having nearly-anonymous sexual encounters with both men and women. Jackie kept pledging to stop — and kept breaking those promises. She had begged Katie to stand by her, and Katie had tried, but was now at wits end. “I’m ready to leave”, Katie told me. “But I was wondering if you would be willing to reach out to Jackie. I know your story, and I know you went through some of these same issues. I trust you, Hugo, and I was wondering if you could take Jackie to some meetings and see if you could help her.” Continue reading

Discourses of desire and the problem of rejection

Last week, Rachel Hills guest-posted an explosive piece at Feministe: But Women Don’t Rape. Rachel began by reflecting on this post at the Feministing Community which dealt with a woman’s sudden awareness that one of her female friends had coerced her boyfriend into having sex. The comment threads at both Feministing and Feministe are substantial and well worth a read.

Rachel and her commenters note the constellation of factors that make us believe that women cannot force men into unwanted sex: our misconceptions about male physiology (the “guys can’t have erections or ejaculate against their will” myth); our belief that men are more resistant to psychological pressure and invariably less eager to people-please: our notion that, as the Feministing post put it, “nice girls” (especially feminists) simply are incapable of forcing their boyfriends to do anything against their will.

Please join the great discussion at either site. I have posted a bit on the issue of men-as-victims, as well as on the notion that pleasure is not evidence of consent. In a 2005 post about Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau I wrote:

For too many of us, pleasure and orgasm are inconsistent with (being a victim of) sexual violation. But to assume that pleasure and orgasm are always acts of volition is to defy practically everything we know about adolescent development, sexuality, and power.

I’d amend that to say that the statement holds fairly well even if we remove the “adolescent” from it.

But there’s another issue that Rachel raised at Feministe that I’d like to tackle: the way in which we socialize women to believe that they ought never be the higher-desire partner in a heterosexual relationship. She writes:

…one of the interesting threads that has come through in my interviews is how very poorly many women take it when their male partners don’t want to have sex with them. They don’t like it at all. For these women, being turned down for sex – even if only occasionally, even if only once – is read as communicating a whole lot of nasty things about them and their relationship. That their partner doesn’t find them attractive anymore, that he’s cheating, that their relationship lacks passion, that they’re bad in bed, that he’s not into women at all.

(For more on Rachel’s research and to take her survey, visit here.

I think that Rachel’s right. The male sexual desire discourse tells us that men are always in the mood, invariably hornier than women. Indeed, our whole notion about the myth of male weakness is linked to assumptions about the overwhelming power of men’s libidos. But as countless women have discovered in relationships with heterosexual men, this discourse founders on the rocks of reality. As Rachel says, many women are confused when boyfriends or husbands evince less interest in sex than they themselves do. Rather than question the discourse, many choose to blame themselves, assuming that they are insufficiently attractive. Sometimes, they externalize that self-doubt, accusing their male partners of being gay or of having an affair.

As several of the commenters have pointed out, there’s an old axiom in marital therapy: the lower-desire partner has more power than the higher-desire partner. The one who has the power to please or disappoint by saying “yes” or “no” gains the upper hand. (I’ve posted about that a couple of times. Sorry to always link to myself, but here’s a post on that subject too.). And of course, one of our most traditional (and loathsome) discourses with which we raise young women is the one that teaches that a woman’s power comes from her ability to control men sexually. Sex is a bargaining chip, and its value is created by men’s impetuous libidos.

Though most younger women today, particularly young feminists, intellectually reject the “sex as leverage” trope, the idea continues to exert an uncomfortable hold on many. Many women don’t realize the degree to which they had “bought in” to the discourse until they find themselves in relationships with men whose desire for sex is less than their own. And while it’s never easy to be rejected, and never easy to deal with sexual frustration and self-doubt, men are more insulated than women from the effects of that rejection. That doesn’t mean men are less sensitive, or less vulnerable to hurt. But a man whose sex drive is higher than his female partner’s can comfort himself that theirs is “a normal relationship.” His frustration is par for the proverbial course; his masculinity is not called into question when his girlfriend is not in the mood.

We have many inanities that pass for common wisdom about men and women and their different attitudes towards sex. We say things like “Women need a reason; men just need a place” or, when describing the speed of arousal, that “Men are lightbulbs, women are ovens”. My readers can probably think of more. And while like all cliches, they prove true in some instances, the exceptions are sufficiently numerous as to disprove the rule altogether. The problem is, of course, the effect on the many for whom the opposite of these “truisms” is true. A woman who does “feel like a lightbulb” when it comes to arousal is made to feel abnormal, as is a man who is more “like an oven.” And while these bits of common nonsense comfort “higher desire men”, reassuring them that they are normal, they suggest that all sorts of things are wrong with a woman if she finds herself more easily and frequently turned on than her boyfriend.

It is axiomatic that the fewer freedoms women have, the more their beauty is valued. Some of the most repressive societies on earth value that beauty by concealing it from all but her husband, who is entitled to possess it as he pleases: others encourage young women to display their bodies (whether they want to or not) for men’s consumption. This isn’t about burqas and bikinis again. It’s about the idea that we raise our daughters to see their beauty as a particular source of power. And while most of us would like to be found attractive, our craving to be wanted sexually is often in inverse proportion to the amount of leverage we can achieve using our other talents.

A decade into the 21st century, and many of us still believe that a woman’s desirability is among her most valuable assets. And many women who don’t think that they believe that nasty old sexist notion discover that it still has a strange hold upon them –and they discover it at the moment that they find themselves in relationships with men whose desire for sex is less than their own.

Of burqas, mini-skirts, and whopping presumption

A couple of folks have asked me about the French attempt to ban the wearing of the burqa or the niqab in public. (Google about for various discussions about the not-always-clear distinctions between the two.) What is important to note is that the burqa and the niqab, terms sometimes used interchangeably and in slightly different ways in various parts of the Islamic world, both involve concealing much if not all of the face. This is distinct from the notion of hijab, which normally refers only to the covering of the hair, and perhaps the concealing of arms and legs.

Before I go any further, let me recommend this short and sensible response from Jill at Feministe. Another good post is here, at Muslimah Media Watch.

The French initiative (which has not been finalized) is motivated by concern for the rights of women. Though only a tiny fraction of Muslim women in France actually wear the burqa in public, they are highly visible symbols of a particular kind of conservative Islam, one that severely circumscribes women’s public role. It is no doubt true that women who wear the burqa do so on a spectrum of volition. Some are presumably forced to wear it; others — and the evidence for this is considerable — do so in opposition to their family’s expectations rather than in acquiescence. One person’s oppression, after all, is another’s vigorous assertion of independence and identity.

Reading coverage of the burqa story in the mainstream and feminist media, I’m struck by what a number of other feminists have also noted: the degree to which those who claim to be acting on behalf of women seem to be certain that they know what women are actually thinking. Concealment of the body that goes beyond a cultural norm is automatically read by some as oppressive, something no woman in her right mind could want for herself. It reminds me of the same damn argument I hear from some of my students about classmates who dress in more revealing clothing.

We’ve all seen it happen in the classroom on a hot day (of which we have a surfeit here in inland Southern California). A young woman walks into class a few minutes late. Perhaps she’s wearing a mini-skirt or very short shorts; perhaps she also has a low cut shirt or a tube top on. From at least some of her fellow students, she will be on the receiving end of both hostility and lust. Listening carefully, one can hear the sotto voce whispers, “Who does she think she is?” and “This is school, not a night club”, or even the simple, devastating, “What a slut.” In nearly twenty years of college teaching , I’ve witnessed this umpteen times. (More so at two-year schools, for reasons discussed in this post on clothing, class, and community colleges.)

When I ask young men and women why they think a female student might wear revealing clothing, most discount the possibility that she’s doing so for comfort or for her own pleasure. “She’s insecure”, they’ll insist. “She just wants attention.” Some get into advanced pop psychology: “She probably doesn’t have a good relationship with her Dad, so she needs male validation.” The notion that a girl could be expressing agency, courage, and genuine self-confidence is almost always dismissed. As those of us who teach gender and sexuality know, young people are all too often strangely puritanical in their insistence that a strong sense of self-worth can’t be congruent with sexual display. And they are certainly nearly universally presumptuous in their certainty about what their be-miniskirted classmate is “really thinking.”

The argument in favor of banning the burqa has never struck me as feminist. I’ve never for a moment bought the notion, advanced by some media-savvy social conservatives in all the Abrahamic religious traditions, that concealing a woman is a kind of feminist act. The notion that men can only respect as an equal a woman whose flesh is concealed is absurd; it sells men short and it does something even more decidedly unfeminist, which is make women entirely responsible for how men conduct themselves. The idea of mandating headscarves, or banning short skirts, troubles me. But the banning of the burqa bothers me equally.

One of the hallmarks of an illiberal, anti-feminist society is that it sees women’s bodies as threats. A society horrified by a display of self-confident sexuality is no better and no worse than one scandalized by the equally public display of deep piety. Religious feeling, like sexual feeling, is in some sense private — but it also is so much a part of us that it is unreasonable and bigoted to ask us to conceal it entirely when we come into the public square.

The French Enlightenment tradition is a fine if not untroubled one. (Rousseau makes me shudder, but Voltaire offers some comfort.) Certainly, the French grasped the rights of the individual before many of their neighbors, and they shed blood to guarantee those rights. And if there is one Enlightenment principle that I cling to, it is the notion that the right of the individual to trouble the conscience of the many ought to be damned near sacrosanct. On a public street, the right of a woman to walk unmolested and unchallenged in a burqa or a bikini is worth protecting. And when we see that woman, we do well not to rush to judgment about what particular constellation of religious and psychological influences led to her sartorial choices.

“I just cannot turn it off”: on not wanting to be attracted to younger women

I’ve got a four-hour layover at Heathrow. Why not blog?

I got an email last week from “Jake”:

I was very much attracted to your blog writings on Older Men and Younger Women as this issue has always been on my mind. I am a 25 yr old guy, and for quite some time, I often find myself attracted to 16-18 yr old girls. As I find the age gap to still be too big (university graduate vs. high school almost graduate), I would very much like to not be attracted to girls that age, but it seems like I cannot just turn it off. None of this will matter to me once the girls hit 20, but I am wondering what to do about it now as it is difficult for me to ignore such an attraction and wanting the friendship. Any advice on what should be done here?

There’s quite a bit to unpack in Jake’s short note. First off, I think it’s commendable that he realizes that the age gap of 25 and 16 is “too big”; if only more men Jack’s age (and older) realized the same. And I suspect that Jack can self-regulate, knowing that his desires are not irresistible imperatives. On the other hand, he’s troubled by the desires themselves, and that’s a bit trickier.

I’ve regularly made the case that we have the capacity to transform ourselves and reshape our libidos; I’ve argued consistently that our sexual identities are more fluid and more malleable than we like to believe. Most folks think that’s a sound argument when it comes to suggesting, as I do (and in a moment, will again) when we’re talking about redirecting sexual attraction away from someone with whom the age gap is too great. Ideologically, the danger of this argument is that it dovetails a bit too neatly with the religious right’s view that homosexuality can be “cured”. I’m not interested in revisiting that issue, save to say that I’ve always believed that the case against so-called “reparative therapy” for gays and lesbians is not that it can’t work, but that it tries to fix something that isn’t broken. (My objections are on the grounds of ethics, not efficacy.) And with that out of the way, let me get back to Jake’s question.

First of all, Jake needs to see that he lives in a culture which works very hard to condition him to see girls of 16 and 17 as being at the pinnacle of desirability. Pornography, which he may or may not view, has long had as one of its most lucrative niches the so-called “barely legal” sector, featuring young women of 18 or 19 who look two or three years younger. The modeling industry tends to develop superstars when they are that age. One notes that Ringo Starr was in his mid-thirties when he had a major hit with “You’re Sixteen, You’re Beautiful, and You’re Mine.” And though the arrest once again of Roman Polanski has demonstrated an admirable move towards a greater recognition of the damage done to teen girls by older males (many have pointed out how far we’ve come from the more predatory Seventies), courts can’t quickly undo the toxic fetishization of adolescent girls.

Jake isn’t a victim — adults are volunteers, children are victims — but he can acknowledge that his sexual desires have been shaped by an unhealthy culture. Those who misunderstand evolutionary psychology like to suggest that it’s “natural” for older men to be drawn to teen girls because of fertility issues, ignoring the reality that for many 16 and 17 year-olds, pregnancies are often much higher-risk than they will be a few years later. Claims of “biological imperatives” are nothing more than prurience hiding behind the cloak of science. Yet the influence of popular culture is real — and Jake has been raised to see teen girls as the zenith of desirability. It’s not easy to undo that programming, but it’s certainly possible.

Part of what Jake also needs to see is that, as I’ve pointed out many times before, the attraction to the very young is part of a fear of dealing with the demands of adult women. Teenage girls may appear sexually mature, and they may have very real libidos. But despite their not-infrequent claims to the contrary, the overwhelming majority of adolescents don’t have a very good understanding of their own inner terrain. Though they imagine that they are exceptionally intuitive (many young women who do have sexual relationships with older men overestimate their own maturity), few 17 year-olds have the vocabulary and the experience and the courage to engage as an equal with an older guy. And they almost invariably don’t have nearly as developed a “bullshit detector”. Teenagers wear cynicism as an affectation — their naiveté is always there, concealed behind truculence or feigned apathy or ironic detachment or sexual assertiveness. Bottom line: women Jake’s age will be much clearer on what they want; girls of 16 or 17 will be much more eager to please and have a much harder time setting boundaries and limits with someone they care for. And though Jake might not like to consider it so, there’s no question that for a great many men, the sexual fascination with much younger women lies in the not-entirely-incorrect assumption that they will be less demanding and easier to manipulate than their older sisters. Continue reading

The not-so-quiet American: a note from St Petersburg

I’ve spent the last day or so in St. Petersburg, and will be heading back down to Moscow tonight.

I spent almost the entire day yesterday on a city tour, including much (but certainly not all) of the Hermitage. We got started in the dark and finished in the dark — given that the sunrise isn’t until after 9:00 in the morning, that wasn’t as long a day as one might imagine.

I had lots of opportunities to talk to my guide, a St Petersburg native and an excellent English speaker. Over lunch (at the famous and vegetarian-friendly Café Idiot), we talked about Russian society and (since she she asked me what I did with myself) gender roles in our respective countries. Anna (not her real name) took the same view of both politics and male-female relationships: we human beings are under the influence of forces beyond our control. She volunteered willingly that she didn’t consider Russia to be a democracy, describing it instead (as many have in recent years) as an authoritarian state which tolerates a certain amount of freedom. Anna certainly prefers the present situation, however imperfect, to the USSR in which she was raised (she’s a few years younger than me, and was on the cusp of adulthood when the Soviet Union collapsed). But she regards voting as an exercise in futility; “All the important decisions are made by powers greater than us, and our vote has no effect on that.” Anna suggested tactfully something that any American who pays attention abroad will hear often: “Democracy is not the key to happiness, and I think that sometimes the USA connects the two too much.”

Anna took a similarly fatalistic, albeit cheerful, view of gender relations. “I think what you are talking about is fascinating”, she said with the politeness of someone whose services have been engaged, “but I think most men — and most women — can’t change their nature, and don’t want to.” She made a direct comparison between her belief that sex roles ought to be fixed more or less where they were and her belief that a benign authoritarian state guaranteeing security and an opportunity for at least a little prosperity was the best system of government. Anna suggested, with tact, that I — and perhaps many other Americans — placed far too much faith in the human capacity both to change and to self-regulate. Her cynicism about democracy, in other words, was rooted less in a belief that the current Russian government of Putin and his ilk wouldn’t permit it, and more in her conviction that most of her fellow Russians were too poorly informed or too blindly self-interested to be trusted with the electoral franchise. Having lived in the Soviet Union, as well as through the chaotic (and relatively democratic) transition under Boris Yeltsin, Anna finds the current regime (as undemocratic as it may be) to be vastly preferable to either. Similarly, she argued that a system which allowed women to work and be educated was of course better than one which didn’t permit either — yet Anna felt strongly that women should allow men to lead. “It’s more in their nature than it is in ours”, she insisted with a smile, shaking her head and laughing at what she saw as my naiveté about the mutability of gender roles.

My brother and I were both born in Santa Barbara, raised in the same home and with the same influences. (My half-sisters grew up in a slightly different environment). My brother has made his home in Europe, and is raising his three children in England and Austria. His worldview is hardly fatalist or quietist; he remains a thorough democratic socialist. But if I can speak of “souls”, his is far less American than mine. The sons of an Englishman born in Vienna and a mother descended from California pioneers, we were given two nationalities and exposed to different perspectives on the world and human possibilities. And I’ve come to see that the deepest aspect of my Americanness, if you will, lies in what Tocqueville noted nearly two centuries ago: an irrepressible belief in the human capacity for self-improvement and self-reinvention. I wouldn’t be so adamant about the myth of male weakness being just that, a myth, if I weren’t absolutely convinced (on historical, psychological, and experiential grounds) of the possibility for self-transformation. My brother doesn’t disagree with me about the need for progress, but he is alternately bemused and exasperated by what he (like lots of Europeans) sees as the mix of cheerleading and hectoring and preaching that is part of how Americans make the case for personal and political transformation to everyone else. (And often, as we both know that cheerleading is accompanied by military intervention, as the most powerful nation on earth engages in one of its quixotic liberal internationalist projects. When I read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, I shuddered at how much I identified with Alden Pyle.) Like my father, he also worries that in a world with such enormous and pressing environmental and human problems — the tragedies of deforestation, of the Congo, Haiti, and Palestine — this focus on self-reinvention is both myopic and self-congratulatory. And I insist, like so many Americans, that self-transformation is a necessary pre-condition for global peace and justice, something that strikes so many folks elsewhere in the world as both back-to-front and hopelessly bourgeois.

I’m typing this blog in the lobby bar of my St Petersburg hotel. Snow is falling outside; Nevsky Prospect lies a few yards away. Soft Russian voices surround me, and the smell of cigarettes (permitted almost everywhere in this country, it seems) brings back memories of my smoke-saturated childhood. And I miss my wife and daughter even as I am so grateful for the opportunity to see this city I’ve long wanted to visit; I miss my home, my Los Angeles, my city unburdened by an over-long history, my irony-and-cynicism-free zone.