“Ranking the Girls”: Creepy Professors and Homosocial Bonding

This post originally appeared in August 2006.

Yesterday on campus, I ran into a colleague I hadn’t seen in several years.  "Max" and I were hired around the same time as adjuncts in the early 1990s; I eventually was lucky enough to get a full-time job.  Max (who taught sociology and psychology) was not.  He taught at PCC for a number of  years, and then gave up his dreams of teaching and went into the business world.  He told me yesterday, as we greeted each other, that he’s back to "adjuncting" again — his business success has allowed him to return to his original passion of college teaching, even if only part-time. He’s maybe a decade and a half older than I am, somewhere (I think) in his mid-fifties.

I never saw Max teach.  But I vividly remember a discussion we had a few years ago, not long before he left the college.   He was in the faculty lounge one morning, going over his class roster.  He stood up excitedly when I walked in: "Hey Hugo, look at what I’m doing!"  I came over, and saw that he had placed numbers next to the names of many of his students.  My heart sank; I thought Max was going to share with me some new and complex grading theory that would be very tedious to have to listen to. 

But it wasn’t about grading: "Hugo, I’ve ranked all the girls in all my classes!"

I was stunned, staring at the sheet.  He’d ranked them two ways.  One, "ordinally", from 1 (the "hottest" in his estimation) up to about #20 (there were that many women in the class).  Then, he’d put a second number (in a different color pen) next to the first number.  This reflected, he explained, where the girls stood on the classic 1-10 "objective" scale.  His #1 in the class, therefore, ranked as an 8.75. 

I was so bewildered, all I could think to ask was "Max, how long did this take you?" 

Max told me he did this with every class each semester.  It took him a few weeks to make decisions, he explained.  "I can’t make a final decision on where they rank until I see them in different outfits; it’s usually not until the midterm week that I am sure of what numbers they deserve. But hey, Hugo, you should try it — it’s objective and subjective grading at the same time!"  And with that, I got a slap on the back and off he went.

I really agonized for a while about confronting Max about this.  The temptation to "let it go" was overwhelming.  I was certainly still quite tentative in my commitment to challenging older men.  But after running Max’s story by a friend of mine who was an active feminist (and not on campus), I summoned up the courage to confront him.  Of course, it didn’t go well.

I invited Max into my office, and I told him how uncomfortable I was with what he had showed me.  I used words like "sexist" and "unprofessional".  Max became very indignant.  "This is bullshit, Hugo.  I’m only doing on paper what every man does in his head.  I’m honest about it — but you, you’re a fucking self-righteous fraud!"  And he stomped off.  Later, he came up and apologized for his language , but not for his "ranking system."  And having said my peace, I let it drop.  When I saw Max yesterday, I instantly flashed back to our fight over his "rankings".  Honestly, I’m surprised I hadn’t remembered it earlier to blog about it before.

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“Filched this fellow’s heart:” on the crushes we get on students

This post first appeared in March, 2006.

In a comment below last Friday’s post on student crushes, Ryan writes:

There is, also, a reciprocal phenomenon that few of us talk about: the crush on the student. Let me first explain what I mean by crush, here, because it’s almost explicitly not sexual. Lord knows that my sex life was awkward enough at that age–I certainly wouldn’t want to revisit it with a 15 years older body. But there are students with whom I become temporarily fascinated. Just as students find that there can be something intoxicating about the presence, the experience, the passion of someone at the front of the classroom, there is something similarly invigorating about the potential, the excitement, the newness of a really compelling student. I regularly develop these crushes. They’ve never grown into anything more than an occasional email correspondence after the student has gone, but the crushes do go both ways, and they more we try to divorce them from taboo sexuality (which seems to have little to do with it at all), the more we can address what they are, which is excitement about the very act of teaching and learning, personified in teachers and students who seem to embody those ideals.

An excellent idea for a follow-up post!

Like Ryan, I scrupulously avoid sexualizing my students.  (Frankly, at this point in my life, that’s not difficult to do.)  But like Ryan, I get an occasional crush on a young (or not so young) student.  Not only are these crushes not sexual or romantic, they also aren’t primarily about my ego, either.

I mentioned this topic to a colleague yesterday (I’d sent her the first post on student crushes), and she laughed at me.  "Hugo, you just like the students who soak up your every word.  You get crushes on your proteges as extensions of yourself.  You’re such a narcissist!" I was hurt, and I told her so.  Lord knows, I am relentless in my self-criticism — but after reflecting for some time on what she said, I’m convinced my colleague got it wrong.

What I mean by a crush on a student is this: every once in a while, no more than once or twice a year, I will have a young man or a young woman in one of my classes whose life and ideas and personal growth become powerfully interesting to me. I can’t always tell who it’s going to be, mind you!  It’s not automatically the "best and the brightest", and it certainly (I can’t stress this enough these days) has damn all to do with physical attractiveness.  It can happen equally often with men or women.  But suddenly, often out of the blue, I will find myself caring desperately about that one particular student’s development.  I daydream about that student, and look forward eagerly to their office visits and to their emailed questions and the stories they tell about their lives.

I know lots of my students read this blog, so let me be clear about something: you are all precious to me. I rejoice when you do well, I agonize when you don’t (and I wonder what I can do to help you do better.)  I think about you more than you realize, and even though you surely imagine that you are just a sea of faces and names to me, please know that you are far more than that.  I take seriously my obligation to teach all of you, to challenge you, to stimulate you.  And I worry, more often than you know, that I am failing you.

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First Day Jitters and Imposter Syndrome

An updated version of a post that appeared in 2010.

The fall semester begins today at Pasadena City College. If you look back through my archives, you’ll see that I usually have a “first day of school” post up on the last Monday in August. This year shall be no exception.

My mother tells me that my formal education began forty-one forty-two 43 autumns ago, in September 1969. I was two when I first went to Santa Barbara’s long-vanished Humpty Dumpty Nursery School. Since that year of Woodstock and moon landings and the amazing Mets, I’ve been in school every fall without fail. I went from nursery school to graduate school without a break, and began teaching full-time at the community college while still finishing Ph.D. work at UCLA. I’m in my fifth decade in the educational system, which astounds me. And I’m beginning my eighteenth 19th 20th year as a professor at PCC; this year, many of my younger students will have been born after I started teaching here.

In August 2004, I wrote about still having butterflies in my stomach the first time I met a class. Eight years later, things remain very much the same in my innards. I wrote then of the reasons for my nervousness:

The obvious question is this one: why, after all this time, do I still get so nervous about the first day of school? It’s not stagefright; public speaking has never been a fear of mine. It’s not new material, at least not this year; all four courses I am teaching this fall are courses I have taught in the past. It’s not fear that my students won’t like me; though I do struggle with vanity, it’s not at the root of my jumpiness this morning. All three of these might be small factors at different times, but the core reason for this almost-pleasant state of anxiety is more basic: I still believe that I have the best job in the whole dang world, and I can’t believe they pay me to do it.

Even after all these years of full-time teaching (the last 14 with tenure), I still expect someone to show up, and with an apologetic and yet officious tone, tell me “We’re sorry, Hugo, we made a mistake hiring you. There was this terrible mix-up, you see; we intended to get someone else. Though I can assure my readers that I did not lie or stretch the truth when I applied for this job, somehow after all this time I still suspect that I “got away with something” when I was hired to teach here.

I’ve talked about this with my parents and other colleagues who teach. My father (who taught philosophy for forty years at Alberta and UCSB) calls this feeling the suspicion of one’s own fraudulence. That phrase seems to sum things up nicely. Whenever I share these feelings, I note that it is often my most talented colleagues, students, and friends who say Really? That’s how I feel too! (One of the worst teachers I ever worked with, now thankfully retired, claimed never to feel this way.) I wonder if there isn’t some connection between periodic bouts of self-doubt (the imposter syndrome) and the drive to prove one’s self. Actually, that’s silly: I don’t wonder that at all, I know it with total certainty!

My office is a cheerful mess, I’m caffeinated and be-BrooksBrothered and readier than ever to begin the grand journey again.

UPDATE: Both in person in the hallways, and on my Facebook page, former and soon-to-be-current students have wished me “good luck” today. This isn’t new; I’m wished good luck each time a new semester begins. It might seem odd to wish it to the tenured professor; I’m not applying for anything, I’m not being evaluated this semester, and I’m not trying to get into a class. But I’m wished luck nonetheless.

I like to think it’s more than just a pleasantry offered when someone begins something new (or in my case, resumes an old and familiar task.) I like to think that it’s because even the very young recognize that there is an element of chance and mystery in teaching; some classes sizzle with chemistry while others, as we all acknowledge, are duds. Perhaps they are wishing me great students, or wishing me success in avoiding spilling on myself or teaching with my fly unzipped. Or perhaps they know that anything really can happen in the classroom, from the marvelous to the heartbreaking, and they are wishing me luck and grace and strength to cope with whatever comes, and to be as present and effective as I can be for all whom I will call my students.


I will be teaching Women’s History this fall, and again in the spring. Though I did seriously consider dropping it from my schedule during last winter’s controversy, conversations with faculty and students on campus have changed my mind. For the foreseeable future, I will continue to offer History 25B, the college’s main intro to women’s studies course.

Who is still my neighbor? The sex offender

I wrote this in December 2006, long before I became a father. I’ve reread it in light of all the focus on child molestation this week (Sandusky, etc), and as a papa to two sweet, vulnerable children, I stand by every word.

Yesterday’s LA Times had a “column left” story by Peter Hong: On His Block, A Molester. Hong, a Times staffer, lives a bit more than a mile north of me in Altadena:

My neighbor was a child molester.

I know because of the signs.

Michael Miletti’s face, name and address appear on posters lining Wapello Street in Altadena, with the admonishment: “Leave Our Neighborhood Now Child Molester.” Up since May, the signs are staked into lawns, taped to trash cans and nailed to tree trunks.

IT started in April with an anonymous mailer sent to houses on Wapello. The fliers pictured Miletti, 53, above the words “Registered Sex Offender Movement Alert.”

Miletti had arrived a year earlier after marrying a widow who had lived for several years in a spacious Mediterranean house. Neighbors knew him mainly as a polite man who chatted with them while walking his two sheepdogs, Roy and Fiona.

After the mailer arrived, someone on the block checked out Miletti’s court record. It showed that Miletti’s 16-year-old daughter had turned him in to the police in 1993.

Miletti admitted repeatedly abusing his daughter — police said she was first molested at age 6 or 7 — and served three years in state prison.

Horrified, some residents began placing signs in an effort to warn others — and perhaps to drive Miletti out.

“We want to ostracize him,” said William Tell, 62, a retired businessman who lives across the street from Miletti.

Okay, first off, I have a hard time believing that “William Tell” is someone’s real name, but that’s beside the point.

The article, which is decidedly sympathetic to neighborhood residents and hostile to Miletti, made me very, very angry. Not angry at the sex offender who has done his time, but at the ugliness and hostility of his community — a community very close to where I live.

Let me be very, very, clear: from a Christian perspective, sex offenders are “our neighbors”; we are called to love them and to live in community with them. Should a registered sex offender wish to buy a townhome in our condo complex, I would welcome him as I would welcome any other neighbor. If I had small children, I might make certain that they didn’t spend time alone with the fellow. But I would not allow my fears to trump my responsibility to live peacably and amicably with my neighbors. Of course, if my neighbor is actively engaging in criminal behavior, then that’s something else; he belongs in prison or some form of intense, residential treatment. But if, like Mr. Miletti, his crime occurred years ago and he’s paid his dues to society, then I cannot imagine not treating him as I would any other neighbor.

Of course, I don’t have children. I have nieces and nephews whom I adore, however; I work with kids in a volunteer capacity. My concern for their safety is very high. Of course, I want to protect my future children from real and authentic dangers. But I will not allow my ungrounded fears about a man who once violated a child’s trust to override my higher call to love my neighbor. Just because someone becomes a father doesn’t mean he ceases to have vital responsibilities to the larger community of living creatures. If a sex offender came to hurt my kid, I would do everything I could to stop him — but preemptively lashing out at a man who struggled, fell, and has apparently amended his ways is not an acceptable way in which to provide that protection.

I hate the whole idea of making sex offender registries public. Let me be clear that I am not a sex offender, and indeed, most of the crimes that these men have committed appal and disgust me. But I can be disgusted by an action and still love, welcome, and live in community with the man who committed that act.

The sex offender is my neighbor. He is welcome on my street. And should I see any signs going up in my neighborhood, calling for his ouster, I will rip them down in the light of day.

Feelings Aren’t Facts: How to Be Platonic Friends Even When Desire is Present

From October 2010

I’ve written before on male-female friendship, most notably here. The short answer to the old question “can men and women be friends?” is “yes”, and there’s a part of me that’s always astounded when I run into serious adults who say otherwise.

I was reminded of my old post and the larger debate when I saw this series appear at Slate over the past ten days: Strictly Platonic: Friendships Between Men and Women. Slate offers several articles dealing with a variety of issues that arise around male-female non-romantic friendship, and there are some well-written contributions from both halves of these pairings. I enjoyed reading all of the short essays, and recommend them. (Including a nice explanation of how Plato gets dragged into the whole thing.)

I especially appreciated this Juliet Lapidos post on sexual desire within friendship.

This past winter I asked Slate readers to fill out a survey on “platonic friendship.” I said I was looking for subjects with a “platonic friend,” so it’s unsurprising that more than half of the 549 respondents who answered all of the relevant questions profess no attraction of any kind: they’ve never had sex with their friend, never talked about sex, and never thought seriously about it. Just over 5 percent are on the opposite extreme, and report significant sexual tension or ongoing sex. There’s a range of experience in the middle; mostly versions of the dating-to-friendship narrative, or accounts of fleeting romantic interest.

The survey indicates that the question “Are straight men and women able to forget sex and engage in a truly non-romantic fashion?” is too narrow. It’s wrong to think of platonic friendship as a binary proposition in which couples either avoid sex entirely and make the relationship work, or they don’t and it doesn’t.Sexual feeling within friendship exists on a Kinsey-type scale, and moderate attraction does not necessarily ruin or invalidate the relationship.

Bold emphasis mine.

I think that last sentence is vital. Many folks will admit that friendships between men and women can exist and thrive, but only in those instances where neither party has any sexual attraction to the other. But according to this view, if flashes of mutual desire surface, the friendship will inevitably transition into a sexual relationship or the friendship will end. If just one party “wants something more”, the strain of that wanting will invariably create a barrier between the two erstwhile friends, driving them apart with guilt and resentment. Or so the pop psychology argument goes.

First of all, this argument ignores the very real human capacity to weigh costs and benefits and consider friendship to be a particularly valuable example of the latter. Sticking with the heterosexual examples, a man and a woman might both be pledged to other people in monogamous romantic relationship. They might both be deeply invested in those relationships and in honoring the commitments they made. The two friends might also be keenly aware that if they were each single, then a very different kind of relationship would involve between them. Continue reading

Liberal White Men and Their Apologies

From February 2006

There’s been a lot of discussion in the feminist blogosphere about this February 13 post at Definition: “An Open Letter to All the Liberal, Straight Men.”  As the comments below the post make clear, the author struck a nerve. (As of 2012, the link is defunct.)

I had a “yes, no, and hmmm” response to the open letter. Here’s what I liked: the author asks men to resist derailing feminist discussions by talking about the various ways in which males also suffer in contemporary society:

So, first of all, it doesn’t all revolve around you. If I am discussing sexism or the unique difficulties women face, I can understand and appreciate the frustrations that men also grapple with in our society. Really, the problem isn’t so much men and women as the fact that all powerful institutions want to make everyone feel worthless, so that we will do whatever they tell us to. But, for now, I am talking about women and women’s unique position in the world, and it is not about the big picture. It is about us. About me. Your tangents derail the conversation and shift the focus so that the issues I want to raise are ignored. This is the problem.

This is symptomatic of a greater issue: the fact that men are trained to keep the focus on themselves. It’s not the conscious insecurity of the male ego which causes this to happen, but rather, the result in living in a culture which focuses on men the majority of the time. When attempting to give women equal time, and an equal voice, the fifty-fifty split (or, since this doesn’t exist yet in reality, even the attempt to approach it) seems unbalanced and skewed to the minds of many men. Women trying to have an equal voice seem to be silencing the men, simply because the men are not the ones currently talking about the current topic.

Resist the urge to assert yourself in defense of the male voice. We’ve already heard it, and doubtless we will hear it again. Save it until we’re finished. Do it somewhere else.

That’s right on.  Many well-intentioned “liberal and straight” (and some not-so-liberal or straight) fellas I know do tend to enter a discussion about sexism as if it’s an Olympic competition.  If women are to be awarded a “gold medal” for suffering, some men want to ensure that they at least make it on to the podium.   They change the subject of the discussion to the various hardships that straight white men face, and while perhaps acknowledging that these aren’t as severe as those faced by their sisters, these guys still demand at least a bronze or a silver medal in the “suffering Olympics.”   It’s an understandable, but tedious strategy.

One reason why so many “nice and liberal” men tend to try and derail feminist discussions is that they are eager and anxious to prove that they “aren’t like other guys.”  Too often, young (potential) pro-feminist men seek to establish their bona fides by stressing the various ways in which they happen to be “exceptions to the rule.”   One way these guys think they’ll establish their feminist credibility is by explaining that they too know what it’s like to suffer from sexism and stereotyping.  The goal is not always to derail the feminist discussion, but rather to win approval and acceptance.

But saying “Yeah, I understand, but I’m a victim too” doesn’t help the feminist cause.  Men do need to do the vital work of coping with their own very real issues, but we can’t do that by introducing them into a feminist setting.  What we need to do is create specific spaces — like men’s studies classes — for focusing in on the myths, structures, and social obligations that create the “masculine mystique.”  We need to find healthy ways to express our very real pain and frustration — and we need to express that pain to other men.  Too often, traditional definitions of manhood force men to only open up to women, thus burdening our wives, girlfriends, sisters and daughters with doing our “feeling work” for us.  While we should indeed share our truest selves with the women in our lives, we need to do more of our emotional work with other men — and not make as many demands on the emotional energy of women, energy that might better be spent elsewhere.

So, in a round-about way, that’s a big “yes” to the letter.  But I have a big “no” too.  The author writes, near the end of her piece:

If you aren’t guilty of the offenses I’ve outlined, you aren’t defensive about it. You’re one of those guys who reads the whole list and nods along and then genuinely apologizes for your gender (while not feeling the need to defend yourself by insisting you do not represent these men).


I don’t believe that any of us, ever, ought to apologize for the actions of others.   I’ve never apologized for all the lousy things men have done to women, or whites have done to blacks, or what-have-you.   We don’t overcome sexism by imposing collective guilt on any particular group.   That doesn’t mean that most men don’t have plenty to apologize for!  We can apologize for all those times we let a sexist remark go unchallenged, because we were too scared of losing the approval of other guys to speak up.  We can apologize for the times we have failed to listen, truly listen, to the pain and grief and anger that the women in our lives have tried to express to us.  We can apologize for the many things we have done or said that have dehumanized our sisters, and we can apologize for what we have left undone.  Frankly, there’s plenty in our own lives for which we need to take responsibility.  But there’s no need, not ever, to issue apologies on behalf of an entire class of human beings.   Though as men we experience privilege collectively by virtue of being men, we must accept responsibility for changing our lives individually.  Blanket apologies won’t do.

Men don’t ever need to be made to feel ashamed merely for being men.  We must be quick to identify those ways in which we fall short, and we must be better about taking responsibility for our own actions — and our failures to act.  But it is no crime to be male.  We are not complicit in the great crime merely because we possess a Y chromosome; we become complicit through our own choices, our own deafness, our own selfishness, our own cowardice.  The feminist goal is to help men feel more powerful, not through their ability to dominate, but through their ability to effectively relate as loving equals to women.

In the end, progressive feminist men need to do a better job of truly hearing what our d sisters are telling us.  But we also need to do a better job of identifying the sources of our own frustrations and disappointments, and we need to do that in community with other men.   Adding to the emotional burden that our wives and mothers and sisters already carry is not acceptable; learning to tell the truth to other men is.

Title IX at 40: How Perfectionism Keeps Some Girls Out of Sports

It’s the 40th anniversary of Title IX, and there is much reason to celebrate. From June 2007, Title IX’s 35th anniversary.

The reason more girls still aren’t playing sports has everything to do with the pressures we put on them — and far less to do with a lack of interest in athletics.

On Wednesday, the National Review published this piece by Jessica Gavora, who is associated with the nemesis of women’s sports, the College Sports Council.

Gavora is worried that having had great success in defending the proportionality rule in colleges (which has led many schools to cut certain men’s sports, like wrestling, in order to meet quotas), the advocates for Title IX are going to push for similar measures in high school. Gavora, like most conservatives, is a fierce believer in gender essentialism; she is convinced that girls “just don’t like sports” as much as boys do. Thus mandating equal funding for both sexes unfairly punishes boys for their “natural” competitive nature. After all, many conservatives seem to believe that most real women would rather be at the quilting bee (or shopping at the mall, or writing sonnets in imitation of Millay) than running, leaping, or striking at balls with their bats or their cleats.

Okay, so maybe that’s not fair. Here’s what Gavora says that I did find interesting:

The reason high schools are having trouble finding as many girls to play sports as there are boys clamoring to take the field is apparent to anyone who takes the time to look: Girls have more varied extracurricular interests than boys. Girls out-participate boys in every extracurricular activity band, drama, debate, student government every one, that is, except for sports. The extracurricular gender gap so favors girls that the Independent Women’s Forum calculated that if the government were suddenly to require the same gender quota for participation in other extracurricular activities that it does in sports, 36 percent of female choir members, 25 percent of female orchestra members, and 33 percent of female debaters would have to be eliminated.

The implication of this is clear: If high schools follow colleges and universities in instituting gender quotas in athletics, boys will be forced to pay the price in limited or eliminated opportunities. Girls are too busy doing other things after school to turn out at the same rate for sports.

Bold emphases mine. There’s a grain of truth in what Gavora says, though it’s hardly an argument against proportionality. I’m convinced that the primary reason some schools have a hard time getting enough girls to come out for sports is not because of a lack of interest, but because of a perception on the part of these over-scheduled, over-pressured young women that sports isn’t the best use of their time. I’ve written before about the colossal pressure we put on this generation of young women to be successful; all things being equal, it does seem clear that our daughters are more anxious to please and to achieve tangible signs of success than many of their brothers.

It’s not that girls are any less competitive, any less interested in getting sweaty and dirty, any less interested in victory than boys. But as they think about college applications, as they look to their parents and adults for cues as to how to succeed, they are more likely to be pushed towards student government, the debate team, the French Club, or massive amounts of community volunteering. That’s not a function of nature — that’s a calculation about what will look good. When applying to a selective university, these girls imagine that being president of the student body will look more impressive than being an all-league mid-fielder on the soccer team.

Not everyone wants to play sports, of course. There are plenty of boys (I was one in high school) who have no interest in being athletic, and I know perfectly well that there are lots of girls who find the idea of playing on a team to be a dreary one. But I know full well that those boys who are interested in playing are more likely to be encouraged to do so, while their sisters are more likely to be pressured to choose other, seemingly more “prestigious” extra-curricular activities.

Applying proportionality to the high schools will force a necessary cultural shift. We’re going to need to do more than demand that dollars spent reflect the percentage of girls and boys in the entire school. We’re going to have to challenge the “culture of perfection” in which so many young women labor, a culture which often discourages girls from putting their hearts, bodies, and souls into sports. (Courtney Martin writes very well about that culture, I reviewed her book here).

And we’re going to need to get some boys up off the damn couch, away from the video games, and into not only sports, but those activities now so often dominated by girls: debate, band, student government.

Bring on proportionality.

“I Can Only Be Naked When I’m Naked:” Sex, Friendship, and Male Vulnerability

From 2009.

I’ve been thinking lately about some friends of mine, getting a divorce after more than a decade of marriage. Children are involved, but the two spouses are as amicable as one could hope to expect. What is clear, however, is that the husband and the wife each have very different support networks — or more accurately, that the wife has a fairly strong support network of family and friends, and the husband has virtually no one. And looking at the two of them is a reminder of one of the particularly unfortunate ways in which we structure white American middle-class masculinity; too often, not only is a wife a man’s best friend, she is his only friend.

We live, after all, in a culture which shames displays of male vulnerability. Though some sociologists detect signs of a shift among younger men, millions of boys in this country still grow up with the “guy code” and its rules about toughness, competitiveness, and a steadfast refusal to cry. Even those young men who do everything they can to avoid playing by the “guy rules” — the sensitive, bookish lads, let’s say — find it difficult to find other men with whom they can be open, vulnerable, and safe.

A great many young women have had this experience: they’ve been dating a fellow for a while, things have started to get serious. A fight happens, or perhaps the dude has a setback of some sort or another. One night, he breaks down in front of her, surprising them both with his sudden vulnerability. He may say something like “This is the first time I’ve cried in years” or “I’ve never cried like this in front of someone before, not since I was a kid.” Now, it’s possible that he’s just being manipulative, seeing how far this kind of emotional flattery will take him. But dollars to doughnuts, there’s a good chance that he’s being honest — it’s only in romantically and sexually intimate relationships that many men find the chance to be vulnerable.

One rather flippant but generally sound piece of advice I gave (and still do give) in youth group about sex: “Don’t get naked until you’re ready to get naked”, meaning that in relationships, it’s often wise to have some degree of congruence between emotional and sexual intimacy. Generally speaking, emotional intimacy is a good precondition for sex; the danger lies in the attempt to reverse cause and effect, and using sex as a way of generating enduring intimacy. But of course, for many men, sexual intimacy is a kind of trailhead into some deeper and more concealed parts of themselves. This doesn’t mean that heterosexual men can only trust those women with whom they are sleeping, but it does mean that sex gives a kind of permission for a man to be vulnerable. (If I had a dollar for every woman who has ever asked me if it was “normal” for men to cry after sex, I’d have enough to take my family out for a nice vegan dinner. Many women are floored by these sudden post-coital displays of strong emotion; though not universal, it’s more common than many think.) Continue reading

Ayn Rand, Muggledom, and a Road to Feminism

An earlier version of this post appeared in November 2009.

In my reprint of a post about young conservative students, I made a crack about Ayn Rand. Since Rand has been the subject of a pair of recent biographies, and has been much discussed on the right as a kind of ideological mother figure of the Tea Party, I think it’s time to say a bit more about her work.

I discovered Ayn Rand at 16. A friend of mine finished “The Fountainhead”, and came to me one morning before class: “This book has changed my life, Hugo, and it will change yours. Read it!” I liked and respected Lisa, and accepted the thick and battered paperback she proffered. I took it home, and showed my mother, a philosophy professor. She took one look at the book, grimaced, and then said “Darling, I won’t say anything. Make up your own mind.”

It wasn’t until I read “American Psycho”, many years later, that I had a comparable experience of near-instant loathing of a text, an author, a prose style, and a worldview. I was a young lefty at 16, struggling through John Rawls and Herbert Marcuse. My favorite novel that year was Steinbeck’s “In Dubious Battle” one of the most polemical works that the great local writer (I grew up on the Monterey Peninsula) wrote. Rand was ideologically and stylistically abhorrent to me at 16, and though it’s been years since I’ve picked up any of her work (I finished “Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” through sheer acts of will in my youth), my general feeling of disdain on every imaginable ground remains.

Rand’s objectivist philosophy advocates for a kind of reckless heroic individualism, where what she calls the “second-handers” (those who lack the substance or courage to be great) can be ignored or used by the heroes who can and do anything they like to accomplish their dreams. It’s not just contempt for mediocrity, it’s contempt for mundanity, domesticity, and the lives that most people actually lead. Not to mention that Rand famously justifies rape (Howard and Dominique’s first sexual encounter in the book). It’s an ugly vision of women needing to be fucked hard by a strong and powerful hero in order to find herself.

But I’ve met many young people, more often women than men, who — like my friend Lisa in high school — find great inspiration in Ayn Rand. Generally, there’s a specific type of teen who falls in love with either “The Fountainhead” or “Atlas Shrugged”. She’s usually very bright, raised to one degree or another with the “pleasing woman discourse” (what I call “the Martha Complex.“) She often finds her classes dull and her teachers pedestrian. She suspects she’s destined for something extraordinary, that she’s somehow different from everyone else — but unlike the immensely talented dancer or athlete or actor, she doesn’t have one specific skill that stands out as a ticket to stardom. She vacillates between feelings of intense superiority — and feelings of equally intense guilt for the way in which she looks down on so many of those around her.

She picks up Rand, and suddenly it all makes sense. She is superior, one of the elect. She isn’t what a far more interesting and talented writer would call a “Muggle”. She has an exalted destiny, just as she had suspected. Rand inspires her; telling her that it’s time to throw off the chains of obligation and guilt which have left her confined and miserable. In an odd way, Rand — who would be exceedingly difficult to classify as a feminist — is often a gateway into feminism for some young women. It’s through reading Rand that not-insignificant percentages of young women begin to think seriously about what they want for themselves rather than what others want for them. Young women who have the false impression that feminism is about collective victimization find temporary inspiration in “The Fountainhead” — and in due course, when they encounter real sexism in the real world, they reluctantly concede that perhaps those nasty old feminists had a point after all. I’ve met a hell of a lot of strong young progressive feminists in their twenties and early thirties who were enchanted by Randian philosophy in their teens.

So yes, I think an infatuation with Ayn Rand is developmentally appropriate for adolescents. She flatters and inspires the bright and the isolated and the uncertain; she’s useful for helping some young people, girls in particular, break the deadly people-pleasing habit. So if reading “Atlas” or “Fountainhead” is what it takes to inspire the lonely, the introverted, and the insecure — then may the God that she rejected bestow blessings upon that poor unhappy soul that was Ayn Rand.

“Feminism Made Women Too Picky:” Male Entitlement, Male Rage

From May 2009

We recently debated the “problem” of men “never feeling hot.” (Note: The subject of my piece in Best Sex Writing 2012 as well.) Commenters of all sexes shared painful stories of feeling unattractive and unwanted. No question, it’s hard to live with the sense that one is physically undesirable, particularly in our beauty-obsessed culture. The psychic toll that sense takes on men and women alike is real and undeniable. But where it gets really ugly (intended word) is when we see flashes of male entitlement, part of what is often called the “Nice Guy” syndrome. That entitlement manifests as the angry, indignant claim certain men make that women “should” see past their physical shortcomings and their social ineptness: Why can’t they see what a nice guy I am? Why are women such superficial bitches? Many women have been on the receiving end of hostile, sometimes whiny tirades such as these. Whatever sympathy might be possible for the unlovely and the awkward vanishes utterly in the face of such astounding entitlement.

I wrote last fall against the tired old “male responsibility requires female vulnerability” thesis peddled by an array of social conservatives from Brad Wilcox to Kay Hymowitz. The thesis is that men “need to be needed”, and in the absence of feeling needed (by women) they will behave badly. Therefore, women need to make themselves vulnerable and dependent, forcing men (or giving them the opportunity) to take charge, to play the role of the knight-in-shining-armor, to feel indispensable. To listen to the right-wingers tell it, once men are given the sense that they are indispensable, they will shape up and fly right, illegitimacy and crime will vanish, the rise of the oceans will cease, and all God’s children will say “Amen.” Or something like that. Of course, in order for men to feel indispensable, women will need to surrender, become docile and nurturing rather than independent and ambitious. We’ve heard this hooey a million times before, but like supply-side economics, this belief in the “responsibility for vulnerability” transaction remains a difficult bogeyman to slay. Continue reading