Your Cleavage is Harassing Me, and Other Dumb Ideas about Male Weakness

My Genderal Interest column today looks at the risible claim made by many men’s rights activists that scantily-clad women are sexually harassing men. See Your Cleavage Is Guilty of ‘Biological Sexual Harassment,’ and Other Dumb Ideas. Excerpt:

The traditional arguments for women’s modesty have been that concealing dress was necessary to protect men from lustful thoughts and to protect women from being raped. But Arndt and the MRAs have a different rationale. They’re not offended by skimpy clothing on religious grounds, nor do they all buy into the myth of male weakness that says that bare female skin invariably causes otherwise nice guys to commit sexual assault. Rather, they seem to be arguing that by tempting all straight men while only being willing to sleep with a few, flirtatious or scantily-clad women are engaged in a particularly cruel form of sexualized discrimination. That, the MRAs insist, ought to be seen as sexual harassment.

For Arndt and her ideological fellow travelers, it’s sexually unsuccessful straight men (“betas”) that suffer the most from a culture in which women are free to display their bodies. Asking women to cover up isn’t about protecting purity; for the MRAs it’s about protecting betas from humiliation and from self-esteem-destroying reminders that they can look but never touch the bodies for which they long. All of that pent-up male resentment is women’s fault, Arndt implies, and it is women’s responsibility to consider the soul-scarring cost of the mixed messages their revealing clothing sends.

The kind of particularly male pain that Arndt and her allies describe isn’t rooted in women’s flirtatiousness, sexy clothing, or presumed preference for “alpha” males. Whether they’re genuinely hurting or just petulantly sulking, the confusion and hurt with which men cope is based largely on their own sense of entitlement. The calculus of entitlement works like this: if women don’t want to turn men on, they need to cover up. If they don’t cover up, they’ll turn men on. If they turn men on, women are obligated to do something to assuage that lust. Having turned them on, if women don’t give men what they want, then women are cruel teases who have no right to complain if men lash out in justified rage at being denied what they’ve been taught is rightfully theirs.

The Talmud and 1 Timothy: the real meaning of modesty

I’ve got a short piece up at Jezebel this weekend. It’s largely a response to this splendid New York Times op-ed from Rabbi Dov Linzer: Lechery, Immodesty, and the Talmud.  He writes:

The Talmud, the foundation of Jewish law, acknowledges that men can be sexually aroused by women and is indeed concerned with sexual thoughts and activity outside of marriage. But it does not tell women that men’s sexual urges are their responsibility. Rather, both the Talmud and the later codes of Jewish law make that demand of men.

In my follow-up, I note that the New Testament, much like the Talmud, is misinterpreted by its most fundamentalist followers today.  Modesty doesn’t mean what we think.


Don’t Settle for the One Who Loves You More

It’s an old and unhelpful aphorism: a woman should marry a man who loves her more than she loves him.  My Genderal Interest column at Jezebel today looks behind this truism, working in references to Lori Gottlieb and the Myth of Male Weakness.  .  Excerpt:

In this age where hormones and evolutionary psychology are commonly cited as explanations (or outright excuses) for the most appalling male behavior, it makes good sense to teach women to look for an effective and enduring guarantor of masculine reliability. That means encouraging women to make romantic decisions based more on men’s devotion rather than on their own desires. Shorter Gottlieb: “caring” trumps “tedious”, and don’t be so much a fool to insist that you can easily have the former without the latter.

Not only do we believe that men are weak when it comes to impulse control, pop culture relentlessly reminds straight women that they are hardwired to be attracted to “bad boys.” Evolutionary psychologists trot out all sorts of theories to explain why women are sexually drawn to unreliable alpha males, but the end result is that we teach women to be suspicious of their own longings. In a corollary to the myth of male weakness, grandmothers and Gottliebs warn that a woman who is head-over-heels in love and lust will be less likely to see vital warning signs; a woman who finds herself only tepidly attracted to a man will be able to assess his character more accurately. His greater devotion keeps him faithful; her less intense passion keeps her safe — and, presumably in control both of her own emotions and of her male partner.

And then of course, there’s always Auden’s take.



Perfect Little Bitches? Two links

Two new columns in the last 24 hours.

This week’s Genderal Interest piece at Jezebel looks at the recent Canadian study of college-aged women and their reactions to scantily-clad peers: Short Skirts Magically Turn Women Into Bitches. Excerpt:

Bitchiness (at least as defined by this study) is rooted in the same set of beliefs as the requirement in other parts of the world where women wear burqas. We demand that women cover up to protect men from temptation because we don’t believe that men are capable of self-control. We also pressure women to cover up as a sign of solidarity with other women; modesty is, as this research reminds us, promoted as currency for buying female friendship. By that calculus, revealing clothing gets interpreted as a sign of hostility towards other women. The “slut” is hated not just because she attracts male attention, but because she refuses to play by the “rules” that are supposed to keep women safe.

It’s not news that women are socialized to be competitive with each other. It’s not news that, as my students remind me, sisterhood is easier in winter. And it will continue to be the same old news until we name the real root of the problem: our collective refusal to believe that men are capable of being strong, responsible, reliable adults.

And at Healthy is the New Skinny, I’ve got a little comment about the one word I heard over and over again during a certain TV broadcast Tuesday night. Check out The Victoria’s Secret Show and Perfectionism. Excerpt:

But even as we broaden our definition of what is beautiful, our definition of perfection remains as unattainably narrow as ever. As the tweets and the Tumblr posts and the Facebook status updates made heartbreakingly clear Tuesday night, you can be healthy and beautiful at almost any size – but true “perfection” requires skinniness. As one commenter put it “Not every thin girl is perfect, but every perfect girl is thin.”

We all want to be inspired by what we see. But there’s a huge difference between encouraging the healthy pursuit of beauty and celebrating perfectionism. Girls today are under more academic, financial, and emotional pressure than ever before. A big part of the problem is that increasingly, role models (and make no mistake, fashion models are role models) aren’t admired merely for their looks or their achievements. They’re admired for their perfection, and for the suffering they may have endured to achieve it.

No Grey Area: The Lolita Myth and the Lingering Lie of Male Weakness

Today’s column at Good Men Project asks a simple question and gives an even simpler answer: Can Young Girls Really Seduce Older Men? Excerpt:

Rightly concerned as we are about the sexualization of young children, we need to be careful to remember that teens and tweens are sexual. Children and adolescents need the space and the freedom with which to develop their own healthy sexualities, free from the unhelpful encouragement to “be sexy” for others and from the equally toxic pressure to repress all of their desires until marriage. And one key way we help young girls develop a healthy sexuality that is theirs alone is by creating a culture in which they don’t see themselves as objects of adult male desire. That means the onus is solely on adult men to set and maintain good boundaries.

Some teens do want, or think they want, sexual attention from older men. But the reality that underage girls (be they 11 or 17) occasionally behave seductively towards older men doesn’t mean that older men can “be seduced.” The word “seduce” means “to be led away” or “to be led astray.” No adult is so weak that he (or she) is powerless to refuse sexual temptation, much less from a child. As powerful as the libido is, it is not so strong as to trump the will. Testosterone may drive desire, but unless a man has sustained significant trauma to the moral center of his brain, hormones can’t override the power to choose. (Hint: an erection doesn’t constitute significant trauma to the right temporo-parietal junction.)

Sexy Halloween Costumes Don’t Cause Rape

A Happy Halloween (and Reformation Day) to all. My holiday column is up a day earlier than usual: Sexy Halloween Costumes for Girls Don’t Cause Rape. A little excerpt:

…those of us who advocate for girls aren’t primarily concerned that girls are showing too much skin. Rather, the problem lies in the compulsory sexualization that is so much a part of today’s Halloween celebrations for teens. A lot of us are more upset by the absence of options than by the absence of fabric; we know that pressuring girls to act sexy is not the same thing as encouraging them to develop a healthy, vibrant sexuality that they themselves own. I don’t have a problem with “sexy bar wench” costumes; I have a problem when those sorts of costumes are the only ones young women are expected or encouraged to wear.

Pitiful Husbands

Lots of controversy over at the Good Men Project with this post of mine: Poor, Poor, Pitiful Men: The Martyr Complex of the American Husband. (In this case, the title was mine, as it rarely is at GMP.) Excerpt:

The Guy Code teaches men how to pursue women, how to court, and how to charm; it teaches us nothing about how to be in an actual relationship with a woman once we’ve succeeded in catching her. (If you’re getting an image of a dog who looks bewildered and helpless when he’s finally managed to catch the cat he’s been chasing, you’re not far off the mark.)

Once in a relationship (much less a marriage) with a real-honest-to-goodness human being who didn’t grow up with the Guy Code (and thus wasn’t shamed out of her ability to articulate her feelings, as most of us were as boys), we’re often in awe of what seem like her “naturally” superior emotional abilities. Women seem to have this extraordinary capacity to describe their feelings with precision; they seem to be so much better at remembering the nuances of conversations we’ve long since forgotten.
Many young—and not-so-young—men feel overwhelmed by what seem to be the superior verbal and emotional skills of female romantic partners.

When a man has grown up learning not to display feelings, or to talk about them, he may end up feeling as if he’s a first-year French student suddenly plunged into a conversation with fluent native speakers. He hasn’t got—or he feels he hasn’t got—the vocabulary with which to keep up. This isn’t because of testosterone, of course, or some inherent aspect of the human brain; it’s the hangover from growing up with the “guy code.” And the guy code, followed rigidly, leads to a kind of learned emotional helplessness.

Testosterone, fatherhood, nurturing

I have a brief blog post up at Good Men Project on the new fathers-and-testosterone study: Hardwired to Nurture: What the New Testosterone Study Really Says About Men. Excerpt:

One of our great enduring myths about males is that we are biologically hardwired for violence and promiscuity, and that any attempt to encourage us to take on a nurturing, tender role is destined to end in failure. The “Caveman Cult” crowd, which includes a great many popular writers on gender, suggests that female physiology is optimized for caregiving while male physiology is optimized for conquest. And when pressed to cite the chief factor in this supposed male inability to care for children, these defenders of traditional gender roles almost invariably cite the overarching influence of testosterone.

What this exciting new study shows is that men are far more biologically malleable than we had previously realized. Our male bodies are not obstacles to empathy or tenderness. Indeed, once we make the commitment to become active fathers to our children, it seems our hormones naturally shift to help sustain us in this all-important work of caregiving.

On sowing “wild” oats

This post originally appeared in September, 2006.

I was talking last week with a young woman who works as an aide to a colleague of mine. She’s 19, and has a boyfriend the same age. “He cheated on me”, she blurted out to my colleague and me yesterday; “We broke up.” We made vaguely soothing noises, and listened to her story as best we could. One part in particular struck me:

“He told me he can’t be faithful right now. He’s got too many ‘wild oats’ to sow.”

And this made me realize I’ve never posted about “wild oats.” Doing five minutes of quick Internet research reveals that the expression “sowing wild oats” to refer to reckless, usually promiscuous behavior on the part of young men, goes back to at least the 17th century. And while many old-fashioned phrases have vanished from the idiom of today’s college-age population, most of them are quite familiar with the “wild oats” notion.

The popular “wild oats” thesis is basically this: young men (usually in their late teens and twenties), have an enormous amount of sexual and creative energy. (Depending on whom you talk to, this is attributed to their “essential masculine nature” or “testosterone” or the “Y chromosome”.) It is natural and good and right for men in this age bracket to be a bit wild, a bit irresponsible, and to be unwilling to make enduring commitments. Those who love them — and are wounded by the carelessness of young oat sowers –are given the cold comfort of being told “Sooner or later, they grow out of it. They just have to get them (the oats?) out of their system.”

I’ve noticed that the “wild oats” theory is closely linked to the “get it all out of your system” idea. The latter notion is that we men have a finite amount of “wildness” within us. After we’ve sown our oats for three years, or five, or ten, we’ll be “done.” After we’ve slept with 5 women, or 25, or 250, we’ll presumably be “all out of oats” and ready to settle down into monogamy and responsibility.

There are a couple of things I loathe about this theory. One, women rarely get to use the “wild oats” excuse. Teenage and twenty-something women who exhibit reckless or sexually adventurous behavior get shamed as sluts. Since we all “know” that “women don’t really have wild oats”, a woman who behaves as if she does is “unnatural”, “perverse”, a “whore.”

Now, I spent a fair amount of time on a ranch growing up. I know a bit about oats. (Like the fact that if they were really “wild”, we wouldn’t sow them in the first place. But “he needs to sow his domesticated oats” lacks a certain ring.) Men don’t have them, women don’t have them — be they wild or genetically modified, oats are not found in the human body unless they enter through the mouth and get processed through the digestive tract. Now, both men and women — particularly when young — have adventurous spirits. Both men and women have strong sex drives, though we tend to want to deny that women’s libidos make much of an appearance before 32. But nobody got no “oats” no how.

The other great problem with the wild oats theory is more subtle. It suggests that if we indulge irresponsible and reckless male sexual behavior for a given period of time, young men will just “grow out of it.” Remember, the implication is that the number of oats inside each lad is finite. Once he’s sown them, he’ll be “done” and be ready for settling down. Clearly, this isn’t an accurate description of how most of us work! When we do something pleasurable and exciting, the more we want to do it. Rather than getting rid of our wild oats, we become more and more accustomed to the lifestyle of sowing them. If there are oats inside young men, and I don’t think there are, then the better understanding would be to say that the more we sow, the more oats we grow.

We all know many men who have prolonged their adolescence into their thirties, forties, and beyond. Some fellas out there have been sowing their oats fairly consistently since the early days of disco, and their internal barn shows no sign of being depleted any time soon. Pity the poor woman who waited years and years for Johnny to finally “get it out of his system.” I can think of half a dozen male friends of mine, all well my senior, whose “systems” keep right on producing the urge to be irresponsible and commitment-phobic.

We learn to do things by practicing them. If we practice recklessness, we become more reckless, not less. If we practice dishonesty, it becomes easier to lie — not harder. It’s bad psychology to suggest that engaging repeatedly in a pleasurable activity will ever get it “out of one’s system”. Rather, the more one does it, the harder it will be to change in the future.

When I was in college, I was encouraged to “sow my wild oats.” I sowed them. I enjoyed sowing them. And then I tried to transition seamlessly into my first marriage. I found that, whoops, I still had more oats. So that marriage ended. Back to sowing, in the hopes of getting rid of the last little clusters still lurking. I got married a second time. Wouldn’t you know it? The dang oats were still there! Second divorce (not yet thirty). I went on a wild oats rampage for a couple of years, ending only with a dramatic series of events that led to my complete emotional collapse and spiritual conversion. Trying to get “done” and get all the oats out nearly killed me, and it broke the hearts of quite a few other people in the process!

Years ago, not long before my final collapse, I had a particularly spectacular “oats sowing” experience involving a coke-and-Ecstasy-fueled menage a trois. After all was concluded, I walked one woman to her car, a woman I had only met hours earlier. As we made the kind of awkward small talk that often seems to follow these sorts of encounters, I looked into her eyes and said “You know, I can’t keep doing this.” “Why?”, she asked. “Because I want to be a father someday, and when you’re a Dad, you can’t do this sort of thing.” The gal took a step back as if I had slapped her. Her eyes welled up, and she stared into the distance. She shuddered once, and then looked back at me with a firm gaze, saying with great intensity: “No, you can’t keep doing this. Not if you want that.” She kissed me on the cheek (an odd thing to do, considering what had just happened between us) and climbed into her car. I never spoke to her again.

I don’t know why I said what I did. It wasn’t because I felt “done” with my oats-sowing. But I knew that as much fun as I was having, it was slowly killing me. Having the same experience over and over again with different people was as fun as ever — but it was making me progressively more and more miserable. I had just assumed, you see, that I would “grow out of it” naturally. But at the time I said this to this young woman, I was over thirty and showing no signs of “slowing down.” If my life changed, it would have to be because of grace — and, of at least equal importance, my commitment to changing my behavior despite the enduring desire to “sow oats” until the cows came home. (The cows, in my experience, never came home.)

So the point of this rambling, personal essay is simple: we do a great disservice to both young men and women when we encourage and indulge the reckless sowing of wild oats. While adolescents and twenty-somethings should have new and interesting experiences, we make a mistake in assuming that all of them will inevitably outgrow the desire to behave wildly. Put another way, if there are wild oats inside us, then it’s pretty clear that a lot of young women have them too. And it’s pretty clear that some of us have an inexhaustible supply, one that is endlessly replenished. What we practice at 19, I’ve found, becomes what we still want to do at 29, 39, 49, and beyond. That may not be true for all, but it’s true for enough to make the “just let him sow his oats” remark a very dangerous bit of advice indeed.

An Open Letter to a Sixteen Year-old Girl: “Your Body is Never the Problem”

Though I originally published this piece at Scarleteen, Healthy is the New Skinny reprints today my Letter to a Teenage Girl. Excerpt:

It’s important too to note that however much skin you are revealing, you are never responsible for another person’s inappropriate behavior. Save for the blind, we are all visual people. We notice each other. There is no right not to be seen. But there is a right not to be stared at with a penetrating gaze of the sort that makes you feel deeply uncomfortable. While it may seem that you get those leers more often when you’re showing more skin, you’ve probably noticed that you get those creepy stares at other times as well. And the key thing you need to know is that men can control their eyes — they really can — and women can control their judgment. Your body is not so powerful that it can drive others to distraction. (And yes, if we’re honest, sometimes we wish that our bodies were that powerful, particularly if it meant drawing the attention of someone to whom we are attracted!) If some men choose to be distracted by you, that is their choice, a decision for which they (not you) are solely responsible. No matter what anyone tells you, you need to remember that.

It is not inconsistent to want to be seen and not be stared at. You know the difference, I suspect, between an “appreciative look” (which can feel very validating) and the “penetrating stare” that leaves you feeling like crawling into a hole. While people are not required to give you the former, it’s not unreasonable to expect them to avoid giving you the latter. It’s also not unreasonable to want guys your age to be interested in you, and want the creepy old ones to leave you alone. Remember, it’s not hypocrisy or naïveté on your part to dress in a way that you hope will get you that positive attention you want without also bringing the negative attention you fear and loathe.