On Men Turning Lovers Into Mothers, and on Myths of Male and Muslim “Weakness”

Two new pieces up: at Jezebel, last Friday, I wrote about men who act more like sons than lovers. Excerpt:

While men’s neediness is a renowned slayer of lady-boners, part of the problem is that more than a few men aren’t clear on the distinction between being emotionally articulate and being emotionally dependent. These are the dudes who know how to relate to women sexually, but who still have their mothers as their most familiar (and sometimes only) model for genuine vulnerability with a woman. They know how to do courtship (which is still an arena in which traditional gender roles get plenty of use), and they know how to be sons to the women they love. The result is, as Sarah Innes writes at XoJane this week, “simmering resentment” that has inevitable “consequences in the bedroom.”

It sets the bar too low to argue (as virtually all of those writing about the “End of Men” have done) that women ought to resign themselves to the inevitable truth that most men will be either obtuse or whiny (or both,) invariably turning into sons rather than lovers. Letting go of low expectations is difficult to do when contemporary culture seems so intent on reminding women that “good” men are increasingly rare, and apt to disappoint. It’s hard to accept the much more promising (but less often repeated) notion that physical differences notwithstanding, most men have the same capacity for emotional availability and verbal dexterity as women have. Socially constructed lack of practice shouldn’t be mistaken for biological lack of ability –- even if the latter is a much more congenial excuse. Put simply, the problem isn’t that women want too much. It’s that we expect too little from men.

And at Role/Reboot this week, I look at the controversy over proposed blasphemy laws — and the ways in which both Muslims and men are depicted in the west as incapable of self-control. Excerpt:

Those who argue for blasphemy laws do so not only on the grounds that insults to religion violate the human rights of believers, but also on the premise that certain kinds of speech will inevitably incite a violent reaction. Writing in the Los Angeles Times last month, Sarah Chayes suggested that the “The Innocence of Muslims” was not protected speech because it was “deliberately tailored” to cause “intentional” violence. In other words, the filmmakers preyed on Muslim hyper-sensitivity. Speech that pushes fragile people past the point of self-containment isn’t protected, or so Chayes argues. Hers is a variation on the same argument used by the parents, pastors, pundits, and police officers that argue that scantily-clad women share some responsibility for the reaction their bodies provoke.

The “myth of male weakness” suggests that at least some men cannot control themselves in the presence of a sexually attractive woman. Women must cover up, the myth says, in order to protect these overgrown boys from their own impulses—and to protect themselves from rape. Defenders of blasphemy laws peddle a comparable “myth of Muslim weakness,” suggesting that Islamic religious sensitivities are so delicate that a schlocky YouTube video can push adult human beings into spontaneous and uncontrolled acts of violence. Each camp shifts responsibility from those who are offended or aroused to those who (intentionally or not) are doing the offending and the arousing. That argument infantilizes heterosexual men and pious Muslims by implying that neither group is sufficiently mature to resist sexual temptation or theological provocation.

Men Aren’t Over, But They’re Getting Needier

Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men:And the Rise of Women started as an epic article, and has become a conversation-changing book. I’ve touched on her work before, but pick up on one tangential thread in my Genderal Interest column at Jezebel today The Rise of the Needy Man.

Excerpt:

Rosin writes that men “theoretically can be anything these days.” What they lack, she argues, are qualities that they once had –- and that women now seem at least more likely to possess: “flexibility, hustle, and an expansive sense of identity.” Chloe Angyal is surely right that Rosin oversells the expansiveness of that self-confidence among young women. Even so, one key missing piece of the “end of men” narrative is not just the degree to which men have ceded “flexibility” and “hustle” to the women in their lives, but the extent to which men now turn to women not merely for partnership, but for mentoring, inspiration, and direction. What makes characters like Charlie, Dean, and the subjects of Rosin’s book so recognizable is that mix of people-pleasing and passivity that is designed to force young women to take the initiative and give instruction to the men they love.

Men, writes Matlack, are filled with yearning: to talk, to be understood, to be accepted. Men, he suggests, have more emotional depth than we give them credit for having. What he doesn’t say is that guys today have so much less emotional resilience than we need them to possess. The contemporary female version of “male yearning” isn’t just ambition, it’s exhaustion. Part of that exhaustion may be due to the “feminization of success” that Hanna Rosin describes. But surely a hefty chunk of that weariness comes from the reality that even as many women do surpass men educationally and financially, they’re still expected to play the traditionally feminine roles of sympathetic listener and constant encourager. Pay the rent. Make him feel safe. Tell him what to do and how to be. And make it all look hot.

Read the whole thing here.

“Even When They Handcuff Me, They Always Call Me ‘Sir'”: on Privilege and Policing

An earlier version of this post appeared at the Good Men Project in 2011.

“I’m terribly sorry, sir, but you will have to come with us.”

Those were the words I heard the first time I was detained by police the spring semester of my sophomore year, caught with a small plastic film canister of cocaine in my pocket. The officer who cuffed me was firm but vaguely apologetic, an anachronistic quality that reminded me of the cops on Adam-12, one of my favorite childhood TV shows. I was placed in the back of a squad car, questioned for a few minutes while someone ran my history, and then released with a friendly warning. The coke was confiscated.

The last time I was handcuffed came just over a decade later; sheriff’s deputies broke down the door to my apartment to rescue me and my ex-girlfriend from what was for all intents and purposes a murder-suicide attempt using gas from the kitchen stove. (I’d called another friend to say goodbye, and she had wisely dialed 911.) I was drunk and high and half-addled from the huge amount of gas I’d inhaled, but momentarily able to stand. When one deputy handcuffed me, I said something to the effect that I wasn’t going to try and hurt him. One of the very few things I recall clearly from that night was his reply: “Sir, it’s not me I’m worried about right now. Why don’t you sit down?”

Though my parents raised me to have nice manners, I have no illusions that it is my particular personal charm that has – on these two occasions and several others – engendered such politesse from assorted officers of the law. (And forbearance: I’ve been “detained” and cuffed at least five times in my life, all before I was 31. But I was never actually arrested, much less charged with a crime.) I doubt it has much to do with a run of good luck, either. The deference and the genuine kindness I’ve been repeatedly shown have more to do with the color of my skin and my class than anything else.

In college, I had a roommate named Oscar. Mexican-American and dark-skinned, a first-generation college student, Oscar had none of my bad habits and (as far as I could tell) the same basic good manners that I did. Participating in an anti-apartheid protest our freshman year, Oscar had been roughed up by campus police when he resisted arrest – a charge he eloquently denied. He spent five days in jail and was eventually sentenced to probation and community service.

A little over a year later, in the fall of 1987, Oscar’s brother Sam had his skull fractured by sheriff’s deputies in a small Central Valley county jail. He’d been held on an open container violation – a lesser charge than the one for which I was detained but never arrested earlier that same year. Sam experienced severe seizures for the rest of his brief life. He committed suicide in 1989, not long after his brother and I graduated from college.

Oscar had been the first person to take me to church; after college, he stayed in touch with me for years as I struggled to get sober. After getting out of another nasty scrape, I repeated an old line about God showing special care for babies and drunks. Oscar– not unkindly but with an unmistakable edge — replied that the Lord seemed to be doing a much better job of it with white middle-class kids. “Any more cops apologizing and calling you ‘sir’, Hugo?”

Oscar had earned the right to be bitter, and to remind me that these second chances were due as much to white privilege as to divine grace.

That white middle-class privilege meant it took me a long time to learn that justice is not color-blind. Young men of color learn that lesson much earlier. In college and grad school, I was stunned by the stories of mistreatment and abuse at the hands of police that I heard from African-American and Latino students and colleagues. Their anecdotes of being stopped for “driving while black” or for “looking like a gangbanger” fit with the sad larger story of criminal justice in this country. Even now, black and Hispanic young men are far more likely to be arrested – and locked up for longer — than their white male counterparts. Though many individual cops are not bigots, only the hopelessly naïve or the deeply prejudiced could believe that these higher rates of incarceration are because young men of color simply commit far more crimes.

As someone concerned with sexual justice and ending rape, the reality of a racist justice system has shaped how I think about solutions to the problem of violence against women. Feminists and their allies have fought hard to stiffen penalties for domestic abuse and sexual assault. Getting law enforcement to take sexual violence seriously (and to stop slut-shaming survivors) is tremendously important. But while rapists deserve punishment (and, if possible, a chance for restorative justice), we should all be concerned that those punishments will be meted out more severely to poor and dark-skinned men.

The struggle to end sexual violence can proceed simultaneously on many fronts. We need to change hearts and minds as much as laws; we need to rethink our dim view of the male capacity for self-regulation and our outdated obsession with what rape victims wear. But ensuring that rape is taken seriously as a crime involves shifting the views of cops, D.A.s, and judges as well. If those of us who advocate for the victims of violence don’t remember that the prison-industrial complex punishes some perpetrators much more severely than others, we’re trying to solve one problem while compounding another.

This doesn’t mean that those who are in danger shouldn’t call the cops if they find themselves threatened. Discouraging the victims of rape and assault from involving the police because of institutionalized legal racism just compounds injustice; women should never be asked to protect their abusers with their own bodies. But those of us who advocate for women and children should partner with those who advocate for prison and policing reform. Fighting rape and racism needn’t be a zero-sum game.

I didn’t deserve to escape arrest for cocaine possession. I didn’t deserve to avoid prosecution for attempting to kill another person as well as myself. Sam didn’t deserve to have his skull beaten in for having an open can of Coors in his car. What we both deserved was respect, and what we both deserved was justice. Only one of us got the former, and arguably neither of us got the latter. Sam’s dead, and I got away too easily for too long. Our stories aren’t just anomalous anecdotes; they reflect patterns of policing that are old and enduring in this country. And those patterns need to change.

The list isn’t life: on aging, life goals, and the disturbing successes of people younger than you

I posted this in 2010. With last week’s announcement that Mitt Romney has chosen Paul Ryan (born in 1970) as his running mate, I’m faced with my first candidate on a national ticket who is younger than I, this column came once again to mind.

On Saturday, the Labour Party in Britain chose Ed Miliband as its new leader. As a dual citizen with a keen interest in UK politics, I followed the election with some interest, and was not surprised at the result, which had been widely predicted in the days leading up to the party balloting.

But I also greeted the Miliband ascension with a mild degree of chagrin. The new Labour leader was born in 1969, and is more than two years my junior. He becomes the first major UK party leader to be younger than I am (though to be fair, Nick Clegg and David Cameron, the deputy PM and the PM respectively, are both less than a year older than I.) It is only a matter of time, obviously, before both of my countries are led by men and women who came into this world after I arrived.

I confess that throughout my life, I’ve always felt a twinge of jealousy, however minor, when I see someone younger accomplish something extraordinary. As emphatic as I am that men do well to accept and even embrace aging (particularly when it comes to seeing much younger women as daughter figures rather than as potential sexual partners), for years I was haunted by a sense of not quite living up to my potential. Until recently, that sense tended to be exacerbated whenever I saw someone younger than I was achieving fame and recognition.

I first felt this feeling of jealousy when Boris Becker won Wimbledon in 1985. The shock victory of the unseeded 17 year-old, still the youngest All-England men’s champion ever, stunned me; the red-headed German sensation was just a few months my junior, but he represented a generational shift away from the Borgs, the Connors, and the McEnroes who were comfortably older than I was. Becker was younger than me, and on the cover of newspapers across the world. My ego, prone to grandiose fantasies, was strangely bruised. As a result of Becker’s victory, I developed a penchant for rooting for the oldest athletes on the field, regardless of anything else. (Hence I’m a Brett Favre fan these days, though the NFL’s only grandfather is also a couple of years younger than I am.)

Perhaps my sense of “not living up to my potential” began even earlier, when my father told me the story of Mozart, who had composed his first serious works at five. I was perhaps seven when I heard the story, and felt an awful sense of having failed at something. I looked worried enough that my father, an amateur musician and passionate classical enthusiast, had to reassure me that he wasn’t expecting me to match the genius from Salzburg.

I thought about Becker and Mozart again on Saturday when I heard the news of the Miliband victory. And I thought also of the many young women with whom I work who suffer from something similar: the terrible sense that they are running out of time.

I’ve written often about what I call the Martha Complex: perfectionism in adolescent girls. One feature of the Martha Complex is the urge to make lists, particularly those that include the ages by which the young woman expects to accomplish key goals. A high school senior might write in her journal that she wants her B.A. by 22, her M.A. by 24. She’d like to meet “Mr. Right” by 25, marry by 27, and have her first child before she’s 30. Often, the chronology is more compressed than that, but the inclusion of educational, romantic, and reproductive goals is very common. Usually, there’s a lot that’s expected by 30! 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.

“Worth the Wait:” a short story about how I met my wife in the Times of Israel

Today is Tu b’Av, the Jewish holiday of love. As part of the Times of Israel’s series on “how I met my bashert,” I contributed this short piece: Worth The Wait. Excerpt:

We didn’t meet again until 2002. I was divorced; Eira was single. We were both much older. The professor-student dynamic was long gone, replaced by a chemistry that was as instant as it was overpowering. A coffee date that was supposed to be a quick catch-up turned into a hike in Malibu. That hike turned into a romantic dinner and a first kiss on the beach. A decade on, we’re married with two beautiful children.

We do get second (and third, and seventeenth) chances at love. And so very often, those later chances come in the form of bit players from our pasts, suddenly promoted to starring roles.

Read the whole thing. And chag sameach!

Compliments and Risks

This week’s Genderal Interest column looks at compliments. Inspired by some extraordinary writing on the subject recently by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, I examine male-female praise dynamics. Excerpt:

Though she writes that she’s never “really found a comfortable place to exist with compliments,” Whitefield-Madrano said in a Skype interview that part of that problem lies in how men themselves deploy compliments in a relationship. Just as guys are taught to praise a woman’s looks as a strategy to get her into bed, many use compliments to soothe or distract anxious or discontented girlfriends or wives. (The classic example: woman asks man if she looks okay; he avers that she looks “beautiful” or “fine,” but does so without even gazing at her closely.)

Though Whitefield-Madrano says that men “can’t win,” the blame for that isn’t just due to what she calls women’s “contradictory” expectations for men’s compliments. Just as women are raised to “perform beauty,” many men learn early to “perform compliments” as a tool for everything from seduction to conflict resolution. Men’s compliments come with an agenda every bit as intentional as women’s efforts to look a certain way in order to invite validation. When Whitefield-Madrano insists “it’s me, not you,” she’s letting her male partners off the hook a little too quickly.

Read the whole thing.

Genderal Issues at Jezebel: Bad Boys and Self-Deprecating Dudes

In this happy holiday week (which saw baby David make his first trip to the family ranch in Northern California for the Fourth), I’ve had two Genderal Interest columns up at Jezebel.

The first: Your Love Does Not Conquer All. Excerpt:

Long-term relationships have many benefits. One of the best of those benefits is that they tend to destroy any illusion one has about one’s own unique power to heal or change another person. People can and do change, and sometimes they change with the help of a partner. But ultimately, all growth and change is an act of individual will. You can’t love an alcoholic into sobriety, or a sex addict into fidelity, or a bulimic into healthy eating. No human love is strong enough to conquer another’s addiction or to heal the hurt of a terrible past.

When we’re talking to our daughters and younger sisters, most of us probably do a good job of stressing the simple message that you “don’t need a man to be happy.” Most of us also probably do a good job of warning against the dangers of falling for destructive bad boys. We’d do well to add in a more basic reminder: self-worth isn’t measured by the oversold ability to love another human into changing.

The second, running today: “I Suck:” How Guys Use Self-Deprecation Against You. Excerpt:

It isn’t clear to what degree young men themselves buy into the idea of men in decline. What is clear — as anyone who has watched a Judd Apatow movie knows — is that we’ve rarely seen men so quick with the self-deprecation, so willing to acknowledge doubt. There’s a lot that’s refreshing about that shift towards hyper-aware self-mockery. What’s frustrating is that a lot of that self-criticism isn’t about copping to a need to change. Rather, this disparagement of men in general and the self in particular has two enduring aims: To lower women’s expectations and to defuse women’s anger. It’s more successful at accomplishing the former.

In the past week, the epic discussion online and in real life about Ann-Marie Slaughter’s “having it all” article has shifted to the question of how men might better step up to help women achieve a better work/life balance. Men aren’t pulling their weight, as new data about housework in dual career families makes clear. Though younger dudes today may have a better vocabulary for feelings than their dads did, that doesn’t mean that they’re any better prepared to respond to statistical reality. As Lindy West wrote last week :

“Some of the most thoughtful, liberal, egalitarian men I know have trouble swallowing this issue — they get defensive, tabulate how many dishes they’ve washed, frame the argument as a hacky, divisive, “men suck/women rock” feminist caricature.”

That “men suck/women rock caricature” gets used by men in different ways. Some guys don’t believe for a second that “men suck;” they think that women aren’t seeing just how equal their domestic efforts really are. That’s the type to which Lindy seems to be referring. But other guys genuinely believe (or pretend to believe) that males in general (and themselves in particular) are inferior to women. And whether they stand accused of infidelity or emotional obtuseness or of not pulling their weight around the house, these guys trot out some variation on what poet Robert Bly calls the “all men are shits” speech.

In Arguments about Sex and Power, Are Women More Often Right?

My latest at Role/Reboot deals with “strong objectivity” and “epistemic privilege.” No, I’m not trying to be a philosopher like my papa. I’m looking at the ways in which men’s and women’s different experiences around sex and power give often women a more complete access to the truth. An excerpt Why Women Are More Often Right:

When my wife and I are having a discussion about race or gender roles, topics about which we don’t invariably agree, standpoint theory doesn’t say that my wife (because she is a woman of color who grew up poor) is always right and I (because I am a white man who grew up in comparative affluence) am always wrong. What standpoint theory does say is that the one in the privileged position (and in my marriage, around issues of race and sex, that would be me) has a special obligation to reflect on the ways in which privilege may serve to blind—and the equally important ways in which sexism or racism may serve to give women and ethnic minorities a deeper and more profound understanding of the dynamics at play. To put it simply, I have to ask myself a question over and over again: How is my “WASPy privileged maleness” distorting what I see?

We can never adopt a true “view from nowhere.” We can defy gravity in outer space, but we can never slip the surly bonds of our human imperfection. Our experiences impact us each day of our lives, and our experiences are shaped by our gender identity, our race, our class, our faith, and our communities. And while everyone sees “through a glass darkly” as a result, it seems eminently reasonable to say that the experience of being a member of a historically disadvantaged group (women; sexual, ethnic, or religious minorities; the working class) creates greater clarity about the dynamics of oppression. This is what the foremost advocate for standpoint theory, Sandra Harding, calls “strong objectivity.”

It’s only the well-off who say “money doesn’t matter”; the poor have a superior standpoint about the necessity of having it. It’s generally only whites who say “racism isn’t a problem in America anymore.” Here’s the basic axiom: power conceals itself from those who possess it. And the corollary is that privilege is revealed more clearly to those who don’t have it.

Read the whole thing.

Women’s Anxiety and Perfectionism Driven in Part by Over-Hyped “Man Crisis”

At Role/Reboot today, I take another look at the way in which the much-hyped “guy crisis” is a key driver of women’s body image issues. Excerpt:

In an op-ed in Sunday’s Independent, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown asks why so many people end up falling prey to “toxic self-hatred.” She notes that despite rising rates of eating disorders for men, the problem is still demonstrably worse for women. Alibhai-Brown decries the media culture that exacts a devastatingly high price, both from women in the public eye and from those who look to them for inspiration. She laments: “Across the globe, professional women, bright young girls, artists, and even magazine hacks cannot deal with their self-hatred except through self-punishment.”

I wish that were hyperbolic, but we all know it’s not.

Where Alibhai-Brown stumbles is in the assigning of responsibility for this tremendous female self-confidence crisis. She blames what she calls “the enemies within—female editors, businesswomen, and TV high priestesses who, for professional and personal gain, coldly destroy girls and women.” Though she admits that these powerful women have male collaborators, Alibhai-Brown leaves little doubt that these “enemies within” are chiefly to blame.

There’s no question that internalized oppression is a very real phenomenon, just as there’s little doubt that more men than ever are starting to suffer from poor body image and eating disorders. But these realities, as important as they are, shouldn’t obscure the reality that there’s another force driving women’s intensifying pursuit of perfection: the much-hyped “man crisis.”

Last month, Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan issued The Demise of Guys: Why Boys are Struggling and What We Can Do About It. Later this summer, Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men and the Rise of Women (based on her seminal 2010 Atlantic article) hits the shelves. These are merely the latest iterations in what’s become the standard media trope that while women are more successful than ever, men are floundering. Some (like Zimbardo) blame video games and porn, others (like Rosin) suggest that men are less capable of adapting to the rapid social demands of the modern workplace. Some blame feminism for blurring gender roles and leaving men without any clear sense of masculine identity. But as different as they are, all the voices peddling the narrative of a “man crisis” have one thing in common: They all argue that in this increasingly feminized world, successful men are becoming rarer and rarer.

The same magazines that relentlessly promote thinness also center the importance of heterosexual love in women’s lives. With tips on how to lose weight sitting side by side with articles on how to spice up a dull sex life or how to navigate an office fling, women’s media has long reinforced the message that beauty and romantic fulfillment are closely correlated. Lately, of course, many of these same media outlets have featured stories on the male crisis, driving home the message that “good guys” are ever more difficult to find. The takeaway is an obvious one: If women want to compete for what they’re told is an ever-shrinking number of ambitious and attractive men, they’ve got to intensify their efforts to pursue physical perfection. Thus, this growing perception of “good guy scarcity” is what makes the body image crisis worse for women even as female participation in higher education and the workplace soars.

Read the whole thing.