Two New Posts: Boston and Testosterone, Delayed Marriage

I’m no longer writing at Jezebel, but I have new posts up this week elsewhere.

At Daily Life Australia, I respond to the claim by a New York Magazine columnist that testosterone was the ultimate cause of the Boston bombings. Excerpt:

rom Chechnya to Cambridge, Massachusetts, boys are raised to see “seeking help” as something feminine, and therefore to be avoided. When boys are beaten and mocked for showing weakness, they hide their vulnerability.

When they’re praised for aggression and taking foolish risks, they learn that recklessness and violence are key to establishing their masculine credentials. Our young men are not consumed with anger because they’re at the mercy of their hormones, but because they’ve been denied access to any emotion other than rage.

You don’t have to believe that “nature” has no impact on human behaviour in order to argue that “nurture” (how we raise our children) offers an equally important influence. Hormones are part of our human hardwiring, but socialisation is what teaches boys when and how to direct the aggressive, protective, sexual urges that testosterone creates.

Impulses may be rooted in biology, but how those impulses manifest has everything to do with culture. Create a culture in which boys have options other than violence and they will become less violent; create a culture in which women can pursue intellectual, sexual, and sporting ambitions, and they will become far more frank about what it is they want and how badly they want it.

And at Role/Reboot, responding to the latest woman-bashing alarmism about delayed marriage. Excerpt:

If there’s a consistent lament from anti-feminist social conservatives like Wilcox, Hymowitz, and Carroll, it’s that the expansion of the (admittedly fragile) safety net since the 1960s has displaced men from their traditional roles as protectors and providers. It’s why so many angry white men vote Republican—they imagine that they’ve been cuckolded by wily liberal Democrats who’ve seduced middle-class women with feminist theory and working-class women with welfare. Rather than working to wriggle out of the Protector/Provider/Patriarch straitjacket, young men like Chris the welder fall into self-pitying depression and conservative sociologists like Wilcox wring their hands over picky unmarried women who have lost the ability to distinguish “good men from bad.” Men derive their identity from women’s dependency, the authors of Knot Yet imply, and the refusal of so many women to return to that natural state of vulnerability threatens the happiness of children and the stability of society itself.

The Knot Yet study is right to note that there are a wide variety of social and economic factors driving these dramatic changes in American marriage and reproductive practices. And though their goal of making “family life more stable for children” may be a worthy one, it’s a shame that they see that stability as contingent more on a lowering of female expectations than upon male transformation.

An old parable for Anti-Street Harassment Week

It’s International Anti-Street Harassment Week, kicking off today. Follow here.

With the victim-blaming defenses of harassing behavior fluttering around, I’m struck again by how persistent the myth is that some women “ask for it” (harassment) because of how they dress or carry themselves. This famous image, with its appeal to the assumed male inability to resist staring at women’s exposed body, is making the rounds on social media again.

An even more famous parable.

Once, a great spiritual teacher was walking along the road with one of his young students. They were traveling for a whole day, and the young man was eager to learn one-on-one from such a renowned master. (In the best known version of the story, the two are Tibetan Buddhist monks. In others, they’re 7th-century Irish monks, or Jewish scholars in the Roman Empire.)

After an hour of walking, the two come to a river. The bridge has washed out. A beautiful, scantily-clad young woman is standing on the banks, looking dolefully across. When she sees the monks, she approaches them. “I can’t swim,” she says, “but I must get to the other side. Could one of you carry me?” She looks beseechingly at the fit younger monk, but he blanches; he’s taken a vow of celibacy that forbids him from even touching a woman. To the young man’s horror, his teacher gently volunteers to help. The young woman climbs onto the old monk’s back, wrapping her arms and legs tightly around him, and together they swim to the other side. The young monk swims alongside, confused and furious. How dare his teacher allow this beautiful young woman to touch him so intimately?

On the far shore, the old teacher bows politely to the young woman, wishes her well on her journey, and the two men continue down the road. The young monk is beside himself with confusion — is his master a fraud? Was this some sort of test, and he failed it by not volunteering himself? The image of the woman’s stunning body torments him. He can’t even speak to his teacher, instead giving into to a host of doubts and racing thoughts.

Finally, the two stop for lunch. The young monk can’t take it anymore, and questions come pouring out. “How could you let this woman touch you like that?” he asks angrily. “Didn’t you see what she was wearing? She was probably a prostitute and you carried her on your back! You… you’re unclean!”

The old man takes a sip of tea, and smiles. “I put that young woman down on the riverbank. You are the one who is still carrying her.”

In every tradition in which that story is told (there may be a Muslim version, but I only know the Buddhist, Christian, and Jewish ones) the point is the same. It’s not evidence of the old man’s special holiness that he was able to carry the beautiful young woman on his back. (In one version I’ve heard, he wades across the river with her in his arms.) It’s certainly not a sly reference to an older man’s declining libido. It’s about the obligation that all men — even young horny ones — have to treat every woman with human dignity and courtesy, regardless of what she’s wearing. The point is simple: to be distracted to the point of rudeness isn’t about what women have (or don’t have) on, it’s about how men choose — and it is a choice — to react.

Clearly, this point still needs making.

Male fecklessness, female anxiety, and the impact on romantic expectations

This week’s Jezebel column looks at a fascinating new book about young women and their life choices:

As feminists have been pointing out for some time, expanding opportunity for women without also expanding expectations for men leaves us with a lot of anxious and exhausted female overachievers. As Bell argues in ‘Hard to Get,’ one way that anxiety manifests is in young women’s growing “contempt for vulnerability.” If we want to get past this maddening dichotomy between romantic happiness and professional success, we need to do more than teach young women emotional self-defense. We need men to change.

We make public life less risky for women not just by encouraging them to take self-defense classes, but by demanding that men respect women’s bodies on the street, in the subway, and at work. We make romantic life less risky for women by challenging men to show the fuck up. The myth that excuses rape is the same myth that makes men into such apparently risky propositions as boyfriends or husbands. As long as we believe that men are too weak to control their sexual impulses, we’ll force the burden for preventing rape entirely onto women; as long as we believe that men are uniformly incapable of being exciting, reliable, and emotionally aware life companions, we’ll continue to mock and shame young women who make romance a priority in their lives.

Read the whole thing.

Two Genderal Columns on Men and Sexuality

Because I didn’t have a column at Jezebel last week, I’ve had two up in the past four days.

The first is based on the great research on male promiscuity by my friend Andrew Smiler: Why Do We Think Guys Just Want Sex? Excerpt:

In Challenging Casanova, Smiler notes that heterosexual young men tend to fall into three categories: a small percentage of “players” with a high number of sexual partners; an equally small percentage of young (almost always devoutly religious) dudes who are determined to remain abstinent until marriage, and a much larger third group whom he argues want to follow “a reasonably traditional, romantic approach to dating.” Even when they’re “hooking up” (a practice that is neither as novel nor as ubiquitous as wistful and censorious aging pundits imagine) these guys are engaging in the gateway behavior into what they hope will be a relationship.

These findings contradict most of our received wisdom about what young men really want. “I’m constantly told that the ‘boys are lying’ to me about what they really want,” Smiler says in a phone interview. “The Casanova myth is so deeply ingrained that people are convinced that boys who claim to want relationships rather than casual sex are either incredibly rare or full of crap.” The small number of genuinely promiscuous boys is explained away by absence of opportunity rather than absence of desire; the myth that most young men would be Casanovas if they could is as tenacious as it is unfounded. There seem to be few other aspects of human sexual behavior where the disconnect between reality and perception is so vast.

In the second piece, Why We Still Fall for the Myth of the Uncontrollable Boner, I look at the way the “myth of male weakness” still functions to excuse infidelity:

Wachs’ suggestion that “every man’s fantasy” is to cheat on an “aging” wife (who doesn’t appreciate him) with an “adoring younger woman” reframes an individual act of betrayal as an unavoidable male failing. This recasting is comforting. It’s a lot more pleasant to believe that your husband is weak than it is to believe that he had the capacity to resist temptation, but made a conscious decision not to do so. This is what makes the “myth of the uncontrollable boner” so seductive; it’s preferable to think that a painful betrayal was the result of irresistible evolutionary imperatives rather than choice. “My man is so manly that he gets urges that trump his very real love for me” is ever so much prettier than “In the end, he didn’t care about me enough to keep it in his pants.”

Ultra-Orthodox Men Wearing Blinders to Avoid Seeing Women

At Jezebel today in a very short piece, I look at the strange news out of Jerusalem: an ultra-Orthodox outfit is manufacturing special glasses to act as blinders for observant men, to prevent them from seeing anything that might serve as an occasion for sin. Excerpt:

On the one hand, this is good news. As the Times notes, these eyeglasses mark a “change in tactics” in the Israeli ultra-Orthodox campaign against immodesty. Rather than forcing women to cover up (and spitting on eight year-olds with exposed forearms), these blinders place the onus for avoiding temptation where it belongs: on men. If the choice is between harassing women for displaying bare skin and turning men into carriage horses, the latter seems like the preferable option.

At the same time, these eyeglasses and their stickers send two toxic and unmistakable messages. First, women’s bodies have such power to do harm that men need to partially blind themselves for protection. Second, men are totally incapable of exercising self-control. In the book of Job (Iyov in Hebrew) the title character says “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then should I look lustfully at a girl?” A covenant is a promise sustained by faith, not by a crude device that impairs the senses. Deeply religious men usually have the ocular muscles to redirect their vision from that which might prove a solicitation to sin. Outsourcing that willpower to a pair of glasses makes the idea of self-control almost meaningless.

Read the whole thing.

The Peter Pan Presidency

This week’s column at Role/Reboot looks at Ann Romney’s recent ad about her husband, the presumptive GOP nominee, and her remark that at times he was more like another son than a husband. Excerpt:

That the campaign sees boyish naughtiness and mischievousness as selling points for the GOP nominee says as much about our contemporary culture as it does about the Romneys. What it says is that we live in a culture that celebrates everlasting boyhood as never before. In an earlier era, there was a clear demarcation line between male child and male adult. While women remained perpetual “legal children,” under control of their fathers and husbands, boys eventually crossed a threshold into adulthood from which there was no turning back. (Some put that threshold later than others; the Athenians famously believed that only men over 30 could be counted as true grown-ups.) St. Paul famously wrote, “When I became a man, I put away childish things.” The Romneys apparently don’t agree with that definition.

Thinking of the fulsome adultness of President Obama (and the allusions to puerility on the part of his two predecessors), one wonders too if being a Peter Pan president is something only rich white guys can afford.

The Monogamy Gap: Another Sociologist Sells Men Short Again

The myth of male weakness comes in so many different forms; I look at one of the more familiar ones in my column at Role/Reboot today: Does Monogamy Require Superhuman Strength? Excerpt:

Is monogamy an unattainable ideal? According to increasingly popular wisdom, it seems to be. One new book suggests that men (whether gay or straight) are particularly incapable of remaining faithful for extended periods of time. The end result of this disconnect between the expectation of fidelity and men’s inability to stay monogamous is heartache and disillusionment. The sooner we let go of the monogamy ideal, the happier we’ll all be.

That’s the argument made by sociology professor Eric Anderson in his new book The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating. Most men enter into heterosexual monogamous relationships planning to stay faithful, Anderson writes, but soon become “habituated” to their partners. Males are built to crave sexual novelty, he claims, and when deprived of the opportunity to licitly encounter new skin, guys begin to feel “sexually incarcerated.” The end result is almost certainly resentment, cheating, or both.

Anderson’s prescription is “sexually open relationships…in an egalitarian manner, a couple reserves emotional fidelity, while structuring in rules for extra-dyadic, recreational sex.” Jealousy, he insists, won’t be a problem, as the green-eyed monster is all bound up with our irrational fealty to monogamy. Let go of the belief in sexual exclusivity, he cheerfully assures his readers, and know that “open relationships can wither jealousy scripts that lead to emotional distress in a relationship.” One wonders who’s being more naïve: those who continue to believe in the viability of monogamy, or Anderson, who believes that jealousy will vanish entirely once we let go of the monstrous regimen of the one-man, one-woman ideal.

Do men have an obligation to witness the birth of their children?

Though this post first appeared in 2009, the topic of whether men have a responsibility to be present at the birth of their children (if the mothers want them there) came up again in discussion with friends this week.

Are some men just too squeamish to witness their children being born? If so, should we have compassion on that reluctance to be present — or should we ask these guys to grow the hell up?

The latest entry in the “men today have it so hard” sweepstakes is this Jonathan Last piece that ran in the June 4 Wall Street Journal: Present at the Creation. Remarking on the excellent new Judith Leavitt book Make Room for Daddy: The Journey from Waiting Room to Birthing Room, Last wonders if our contemporary cultural insistence that men be present when the mothers of their children give birth is such a good idea.

Explaining how the dinosaurs once rationalized keeping men in the Stork Club (the waiting room for expectant fathers), Ms. Leavitt quotes one doctor’s argument from the mid-1960s: “As the charm of woman is in her mystery, it is inconceivable that a wife will maintain her sexual prestige after her husband witnessed the expulsion of a baby — a negligee will never hide this apparition.” Another doctor concluded: “On the whole, it is not a show to watch.”

We all laugh at how benighted such views are. (Even if there is, just possibly, some truth in them.) Yet today it is socially acceptable to father a child without marrying the mother or to divorce her later on if mother and father actually do bother to get hitched. And at the same time there is zero tolerance for a husband who says: “No thanks, I’ll be in the waiting room with cigars.” Ms. Leavitt’s fascinating history suggests that childbirth is just one more area where our narcissism has swamped our seriousness.

My head hurts.

Last strains to connect the increased expectation that Dads will be present with an increasing divorce rate (never mind that the divorce rate has been in decline throughout the admittedly brief 21st century). If there’s a need for a case study for correlation without even a whiff of causation, this WSJ piece might be a good place to start. One is left to wonder if Last actually believes that men are more inclined to divorce their wives after witnessing birth; perhaps he imagines that the delicate masculine sensibility is so easily overwhelmed by the sight of the “bloody show” that future marital relations are inexorably damaged as a consequence.

This, in other words, is just another bit of popular sexual “wisdom” from the purity peddlers and the chastity crowd. Last implies that men’s sexual desire for their spouses (or the mothers of their children to whom they are not wed) is contingent upon denial about the bloody reality of how life comes into this world. Women, of course, can be expected to endure childbirth — despite the pain and turmoil inherent in the process — and then turn around and long to do again with their men the very act that ended up putting them through the whole traumatic (albeit, presumably, rewarding) experience in the first place. Women’s libidinousness, in other words, isn’t allowed to be contingent upon some carefully enforced ignorance about bodily functions. Instead of marveling that so many modern women are willing to give birth more than once, to make love with their husbands with the memory of what lovemaking can lead to still embedded in the consciousness, Last worries about the poor lads whose fragile sensibilities might be permanently scarred at the sight, sounds, and smells of a delivery room. This is the myth of male weakness writ large indeed. Continue reading

We Don’t Need Women to Civilize Men

What are women for, asked James Poulos last month? The answer, as it is for so many complementarians, seems to be to do for men what the Y chromosome crowd refuse to do for themselves. I push back against the tired old (but tenacious) trope that women are here to civilize savage men in my column at Role/Reboot today: Why Men and Women Do Not Complete Each Other. Excerpt:

As the great psychologist John Bradshaw pointed out many years ago, there’s a problem with the complementarian arithmetic. We imagine that romantic love on a micro level, or societal harmony on a macro one, is the consequence of two “halves” being added together to form one whole. Men and women look for partners to “complete” them; the likes of Poulos look for men and women to perform their distinct roles so that the world functions smoothly. But as Bradshaw points out, the truth is that wholeness is the consequence of multiplication, not addition. When you multiply two halves together, you get one quarter—both individuals (and both sexes) are diminished by the complementarian lie. The only way you get 1 as the sum* by multiplying two integers is if each is already 1; the way you build an honest and healthy relationship or an honest and healthy society is by challenging men and women to become full and complete people. If you want oneness, in other words, you have to have wholeness first.

The truth is that men and women are human beings whose capacity for love and rage, desire and empathy are in no way circumscribed by hormones, genitalia, or chromosomal structure. If we want romantic wholeness and global healing, we need to be serious about identifying the ways in which sexist structures have deprived men and women of the full range of their humanity, forcing us to be “half people” looking desperately for completion in heterosexual relationships. We need to accept and celebrate the male capacity to nurture and reflect—and the female capacity to embrace ambition and anger.

And I’m pleased and grateful that the Good Women Project has reprinted “Your Body is Never the Problem”. Lots of interesting comments from the evangelical crowd.

*UPDATE: A commenter at Role/Reboot reminds me that the outcome of two multiplied integers is a product, not a sum; sum is only accurately used for the result of addition.

Male Weakness and the Three Date Rule

At Role/Reboot today, I’m writing about Myths of Male Weakness and the Three Date Rule. Excerpt:

I was talking to a friend of mine recently about her dating life. “Joanna” is 33, single, straight, and interested in—eventually—getting married and having children. It’s not, as she says a “ticking clock thing”; rather, she’s clear that at this age, she’s done having casual relationships with men that drift for months and years. She wants to (as my evangelical friends put it) date “intentionally”—that is, with the explicit intention of moving toward marriage. If a guy isn’t marriage material, or has no interest in getting married—or is planning on waiting until he’s struck by divine certainty—Joanna wants to know sooner rather than later so that she can move on.

Joanna recently asked me a question:

“When is it best to bring up what my goals are? If I say—on our first coffee date—that I’m looking to get married, I’m worried I’ll scare most men away. On the other hand, I don’t want to wait indefinitely. If a guy is very clear that marriage and children are off the table for the next few years, I want to move along before I get too invested. So when’s the right time to bring it up?”

In answering Joanna’s question, I mentioned Tom Leykis. Leykis, a popular shock jock in Los Angeles for years, dispensed love and sex advice to a largely male audience. He was famous for his three-date rule: “If a woman won’t have sex with you after three dates,” Leykis opined, “dump her. She’s not worth investing any more time in.”

I think there’s a far more helpful version of the “three date rule”: By the third date with a prospective partner, one ought to feel free to initiate the “what are you looking for in a relationship” conversation. If the initial answer is a bit evasive, something along the lines of “let’s just go slow and see how things develop,” it’s not too soon for someone in Joanna’s position to explain what it is that she wants. If the other person flinches at this point, that’s a fairly definitive sign that your goals are unlikely to be mutual.