On “feminist pick-up ethics” at Daily Life

My latest at Daily Life looks at what it would mean to create egalitarian, feminist-friendly “pick-up” ethics. I chatted with Clarisse Thorn, Arden Leigh, Mark Manson and Michael Kimmel for their insights. Excerpt:

If there are to be such things as feminist pick-up ethics, they’ll have to be as much about empowering women to take the sexual initiative as about encouraging men to be honest and respectful. The reality is that getting what you want from whom you want it can be as challenging for women as for men. Just as men need to work, as Kimmel says, on “acting ethically”, women deserve the tools to act boldly…

The worst of the pick-up artists insist that men and women want such radically different things that only the cynical mastery of manipulation techniques will lead to happiness. The good news is the emergence of a different model for men and women alike, based on mutuality, kindness and willingness to prioritise other’s boundaries as well as one’s own pleasure.

To put it more simply, this new model rests on the idea that men and women aren’t adversaries, but collaborators. Even, perhaps, friends.

Shooting Tape: Sex, Editing, Masturbation, and Memory

NOTE: This is a sexually explicit piece and may not be what some readers want to read. I originally wrote this for the magazine Body Talk, and it appeared in their October 2011 issue. I retained rights to it, and repost a revised version now.

Shooting Tape

What’s hotter? The sex we have, or the sex we remember having?

I was 12 when I discovered how to masturbate late one summer night in 1979. What began as accidental exploration was quickly revelatory, and then — as it is for so many kids that age — it became my private source of pleasure and comfort. My fantasies were simple, and genuinely vague: I’d lie in bed, thinking about pretty classmates, fantasizing that I was watching them undress. (I was unclear, to about what ought to happen next, but I knew it involved lots of hot naked kissing, which is what I thought about.)

I had a few dates, but was a shy kid. I’d kissed two girls by the start of my senior year of high school, but nothing more. I was, not unlike many of my classmates an awkward, dorky, twitching bundle of longing.

And then, thanks to some mutual friends with a discerning eye for matchmaking, I met Michaela. (Name changed.)

Michaela and I went to different high schools, and could only see each other on weekends. We’d have sex in her bedroom on Friday and Saturday nights (she had a blessedly liberal mother), go to the beach or to the movies on weekend afternoons, and spend Monday through Thursday talking on the phone. During our time apart, I’d masturbate every night to the visual memory of what she and I had done together the previous weekend. Sometimes we’d have phone sex, but more often, I’d get off to the arousing images in my mind.

These memories were more exciting than porn could ever be. Thoughts of Michaela’s naked body popped into my mind while walking to school or sitting in class, unbidden and almost unbearably arousing. Thinking about what we had done mixed with excitement about what we soon do when we saw each other again. The straight As I got my senior year says more about the lenience of my teachers than about my intellectual focus. My mind was elsewhere.

Michaela and I had been sleeping together for about two months when it happened. We were having sex in her bed on a Friday night, and I remember a thought suddenly popped into my head:
I’m gonna love getting off to this next week.

Huh? I didn’t stop what I was doing with my girlfriend, but I remember my own surprise at myself. Michaela and I were sexually inventive and open by the standards of American high school students in the mid-80s. I told my friends the sex was great, and I meant it. But at 17, as randy as could be, I realized I got more physical pleasure from masturbating to the memory than from the actual sex with this young woman I loved.

Sex with real people is messy, and not just physically. Michaela and I fumbled, as people do, and sometimes we hurt each other, and not in a good way. Like so many young men, during sex itself I spent a lot of time worrying about my own performance rather than focusing on connecting to the woman I was with. All of that detracted from my pleasure – and all of that could be “edited out” in my masturbatory recollections.

Michaela and I had a lot of hot sex with each other, and, eventually, with other people. I had my first ménage a trois with her and a guy from her work; later, she encouraged me to “do everything but” with one of her good girlfriends while she watched. Though I’d started senior year as a virgin, by the time graduation came, I’d had quite a rapid learning curve. And though Michaela and I broke up when I went away to college, I took with me my now-extensive collection of “movies” – all of which lived in my head.

For years and years, through one-night stands I can’t count and a half-dozen long-term relationships, through three marriages and three divorces, the pattern didn’t change. Whatever and whomever I did, the real thing was never as hot as the subsequent recollection. By the time I was in my later 20s, I had a term for what I did when I had sex: “shooting tape.”

Living in L.A., I got the term from my friends in the TV industry. It fit what I did perfectly. I realized that I thought of the actual sex with other people as “raw footage”, and I the director, the camera operator – and eventually, crucially, the editor. The finished product was what I had in my head when it came time to have sex with myself, free from pressure and anxiety. The fear and the fumbling were on the cutting room floor; what was left was an exquisite highlight reel better than any porn video – and better than any reality itself.

I think masturbation is wonderful, life-enhancing, healthy. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with fantasy. But… I will say that for so many years, my relationships suffered because I preferred both masturbation and fantasy to the messy, complicated reality of connecting with another human being. It was only at 35, divorced for the third time and scared that I lacked the tools to ever connect intimately, that I began to take a hard look at how “shooting tape” had impacted my life.

In my next relationship, with the woman who became my fourth and (God willin’) my final wife, I tried something different. I decided I’d only give myself “permission” to masturbate when I was sure that I wasn’t using sex with this woman I loved to create new material. The results were almost embarrassingly immediate. And predictably, I was more present and connected. Even if my wife didn’t notice, I did.

The tapes are all still in my head, of course. Outside of the movies and the tragic reality of brain trauma, most of us don’t have a delete button on our memories (the theme of the wonderful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). I’ve got decades worth of “video” that I “shot” with a great many sex partners. Some tapes are more memorable than others. But those tapes still exist, I don’t bring them out often. I know better.

Fantasy stops being healthy when it becomes something with which our real-life lovers can never compete. And no real lover can compete with the carefully edited erotic images in our minds. If I’m going to stay fully present with my partner when we’re sexual together, I need to be present in mind as well as body. That means not replaying old tapes of past lovers – and it means not seeing the present experience as a mere opportunity to produce a hot new video for future private consumption.

If I want a passionate now, I need to keep the images of the past tucked away. But I also need to remind myself not to bring a mental camera to bed. I’m the best lover I can be when I stop performing, directing, and editing. And start being present.

There is no right to sex: the debate over “Nice Guys” at Jezebel

My first column of 2013 is up at Jezebel: No One is Entitled to Sex: Why We Should Mock the Nice Guys of OkCupid. Excerpt:

Besides the near-universal sense that they’ve been unjustly defrauded, the great commonality among these Nice Guys is their contempt for women’s non-sexual friendship. They rage about being “friendzoned,” and complain about the hours spent listening to women without being given so much as a hand job in return for their investment. Niceness, they make clear over and over again, is a mere tactic, a tool that they were promised would work to give them access to women’s bodies. Their anger, in other words, is that their own deception didn’t work as they had hoped. It’s a monumental overask to expect women to be gentle with the egos of men who only feigned friendship in order to get laid.

So how should we respond, when, as Penny writes, “sexist dickwaddery puts photos on the internet and asks to be loved?” The short answer is that a lonely dickwad is still a dickwad; the fact that these guys are in genuine pain makes them more rather than less likely to mistreat the women they encounter. A rage rooted in anguish is no less dangerous because it comes from the Great Big Sad Place. For that reason alone, we shouldn’t make men’s pain into women’s problem to solve.

I got a strong response from Ally Fogg, an English writer on masculinity, and his take is worth a read. Here’s The Self-Righteous Bullies of Tumblr and Their Feminist Apologists.

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

We’re entitled to private lives, not secret ones: a follow-up on Brian Presley and Melissa Stetten

One more note on the Brian Presley/Melissa Stetten case that I wrote about yesterday for Jezebel. We’re at over 600 comments so far, and the debate has been heated. (Also, check out this a response post at Good Men Project by my friend Joanna Schroeder; she stipulates that Brian was probably a “cheesedick,” but that Melissa behaved badly as well.)

One thing that keeps coming up in the discussion is the issue of privacy. By livetweeting about Brian’s clumsy come-ons , did Melissa Stetten violate his privacy? Even if he behaved badly — which almost everyone agrees he did — doesn’t he deserve better than to be humiliated so publicly?

This discussion reminds me that it’s helpful to distinguish a private life from a secret life, something I’ve written about before. On an ethical level, we surely have a right to keep some things concealed from public view. Most would assume I have a right to undress in my home without a voyeur snapping photos of me. But of course, when I’m undressing or bathing or making love with my wife, I’m not engaged in anything that is incongruent with how I claim to live my life. We all know everybody poops; almost all of us agree that society is better off allowing everybody to defecate in total privacy.

But privacy is not the same as secrecy. Privacy is about maintaining healthy boundaries; secrecy is about maintaining deceptions. We have a right to choose who sees us (literally and figuratively) naked; we don’t have a right to expect others to collude with us in our dishonesty by keeping quiet about our lies.

When a married man and public figure claims — as Brian Presley does — to be both faithful and sober, society has a right to take him at his word. If his actual behavior contradicts his public representation of himself, he’s living a secret life. While we all do things in private that other people don’t get to see or even know about; we are not entitled to invoke the right to privacy to protect ourselves from having our hypocrisy revealed.

I have a right to shut the door when I’m using the toilet. If someone places a hidden camera in the lavatory to film me, they’ve violated my privacy. But if I — like Brian, a married Christian sober man who has made his commitment to his family clear — start hitting on a woman on an airplane, I’m being secretive and dishonest. I’m living a lie. To the extent that I’m a public figure, that’s newsworthy. And I don’t get to hide my hypocrisy behind a claim of the right to privacy.

Had Melissa Stetten followed Brian Presley into the airplane restroom to film him drinking (or taking off his wedding ring), she would have violated his privacy. She did nothing of the sort. Instead, she provided real-time, moderately snarky, documentation of the ways in which his off-the-record behavior was radically at odds with his public image. That’s called holding someone accountable.

We have the right to retreat from the world. We have a right to be naked — in every sense — without others watching. But we make a mistake if we assume that right extends to asking others to help us conceal behavior that blatantly contradict our public commitments.

UPDATE: A point made on my Facebook page by my friend Alyssa Royse captures another key aspect of this:

“You cannot expect another person to hide their own lives, if they don’t want to, just to protect yours. The moment you do something with another human being, it becomes their story, and they have a right to tell it.”


A weakening of the sexual double standard? On straight men and slutshaming

Tracy Clark-Flory, who writes so ably about sex and relationships for Salon, has a post up tonight that asks a simple question: can a man be slut-shamed?

Tracy interviewed me and Jaclyn Friedman for the piece, an interesting juxtaposition given recent events in the feminist blogosphere. Had I known what he’s been up to, I would have suggested Tracy also talk to Michael Flood, the great Antipodean pro-feminist who left a nice comment on my Facebook page this evening and shared publicly the abstract of a forthcoming article on Australian men and slutshaming. Here it is, with bold emphasis mine:

Abstract: Sexual and gender relations are in a state of flux in Australia, with both growing gender equality and persistent inequalities, the pornographication of popular culture, and increasing assertions of female sexual agency (Flood 2008). The sexual double standard – the differential judgement and treatment of women’s and men’s sexual behaviour – and the policing of female sexual reputation long have been features of the sexual landscape. However, there is some evidence that these formations are shifting. While “slut” and related terms remain powerful disciplinary mechanisms for regulating women’s sexual behaviour, particularly among young women, such terms also are being subverted and reclaimed. This paper reports on the emergence of a new term in heterosexual sexual relations, the “male slut”. In qualitative interviews in Australia, some young men express a desire to avoid this version of male sexual reputation, one earned through excessive or inappropriate sexual activity. The term “male slut” signals a slight weakening of the sexual double standard and an increased policing of male sexual behaviour.

What Michael’s seeing in Australia I’m also seeing here in Los Angeles, as the cultural tide may be beginning to turn against a cavalier acceptance of male promiscuity. It would be absolutely wrong to claim that we’ve achieved “reputational parity”, where slut-shaming functions in equivalent ways for both men and women. But we’re closer than we were, both because of the acceptance of what Flood calls “increasing assertions of female sexual agency” and an evolving understanding among young guys that there’s more to being a man than sleeping with as many women as possible.

I’m eager to see Michael’s article when it appears. In the meantime, do read Tracy’s.

Should the libido mature?

About five years ago, after I’d written a blogpost about my work as a youth group leader, I got an email from someone named Fiona. She asked:

Do you ever worry about being sexually attracted to your students or youth group kids? Don’t you ever think you might be tempted to cross the line? You write as if you are immune to temptation. Just because you don’t act on it doesn’t mean you don’t feel it!!

Do male youth leaders like you “behave” because you don’t have sexual desire for teens, or do you have sexual desire but just control it?

My answer was a simple one: no. No, I was never attracted to the kids in my youth group. No, it’s not about control; it’s about the genuine absence of desire.

One thing I’ve been blessed with: a consistent track record of being attracted to women my own age.  When I was 16, I thought about my fellow teens.  In my college years, I was attracted to other students.   Unlike some of my peers, when I was in college I had little interest in older women (honestly, I found them intimidating beyond words!)  I certainly lost interest in high school-aged girls not long after leaving Carmel High.

I think a case can be made that being peer-attracted throughout one’s life is developmentally healthy for everyone concerned. But it’s possible I’m universalizing (and worse, moralizing) from my own experience.

An anecdote:

When I was in college, I remember having a discussion with a male friend of mine.  "Sean" and I were talking about my friend’s father, who had recently left his mother for a younger woman. Sean was understandably disconsolate.  But one thing he said haunted me for a long time.  I’ll paraphrase:

Dad left mom for someone only a couple of years older than us. (We were 20 or so at this time).  I don’t find women my mom’s age sexy at all.  It seems my dad doesn’t either.  What if I get married, get to be my dad’s age, and find out I’m still attracted to girls in their early twenties?  What if my sex drive doesn’t mature along with the rest of me?

Boy, do I remember when Sean asked that question in bold!  I had no answer for him, beyond a feeble "Man, that would suck."  But it frightened me.  All around me I saw evidence of men in their forties and fifties who were strongly attracted to young women in their teens and early twenties.  It wasn’t just a media phenomenon; in my early years of taking women’s studies classes, I heard countless anecdotes from my female classmates about harassment at the hands of much older men.  It made me angry, it made me cynical, but it also terrified me.  Sean was right about me too: when I was 20, I didn’t find women twice my age to be at all sexually attractive.  What if I felt the same way when I too was 40?   For whatever reason, that fear nagged and nagged at me.

But I was lucky.  I found that my libido evolved along with the rest of me.  As I aged, my interest in my peers remained the same.  Gradually, girls in their teens lost their appeal.  Women in their 30s, and then older, began to become far more interesting.  By the time I was in my early 30s, this maturation in my own psyche was quite clear to me, even as I was going through a series of unsuccessful relationships.  My behavior was neither feminist nor gentlemanly, but even at my worst, it was always age-appropriate. Yes, I slept with some of my students early in my teaching career; almost all of them were within half a decade of my age, older than the traditional students. One was three years older. That doesn’t make my behavior any more defensible, but it does make it, perhaps, less overtly predatory.

Today, I can say that my wife’s beauty awes me.  With a body that bears the unmistakable marks of having given birth, she’s beautiful late in the fourth decade of her life, and I have every expectation that I will find her every bit as lovely in her eighth decade on this planet.

Once I began working with teenagers regularly at All Saints Church (some 12 years ago), I found that my emotional response to "my kids" was, not surprisingly, often intensely paternal.  I’ve wanted to be a father for a few years now, and the teenagers with whom I work today are easily old enough to be my biological children.  And while I adore these teens in the specific, I find that those protective, paternal feelings exist for all boys and girls of similar age.  While I can certainly acknowledge the aesthetic beauty/handsomeness of certain teens, juvenile loveliness strikes no chord in me.  This is not merely due to my very happy marriage, but also due to this strong internal sense that sexual desire is rightly directed towards one’s approximate peers.

When I was in my early teens, one of my first celebrity "crushes" was on Kristy McNichol. (Famous for "Little Darlings", but also for a favorite TV show few of you remember, "Family.") Then in high school and college it was on Jennifer Jason Leigh.  Now, if I were to admit to one at all, it would be (as I’ve posted before) on Mariska Hargitay.  All three are just slightly older than I am.   And while I admire Scarlett Johannsson as an actress, hearing her dubbed "the sexiest woman alive" made me laugh out loud with disbelief — not because she isn’t lovely, but because she seems so damned young to me.

I do not mean to suggest that someone who is 44 (as I am) shouldn’t be attracted to someone who is 34 or 54.  But those ages seem to me — and this may be my own peculiarity — the outer limits of acceptability.   Anything beyond ten years either direction seems, well, odd.  At the same time, I acknowledge that age-disparate relationships can work, as long as the younger partner is genuinely emotionally mature.  A relationship between a 35 year-old and a 15 year-old is immoral, criminal, and indefensible; a relationship between a 55 year-old and a 35 year-old is none of those things. 

Still, I admit that I am perplexed by those who find such disparities to be erotically or emotionally exciting.  For me, the truth is simple: since I hit puberty, I have never experienced sexual attraction to someone old enough to be my mother or young enough to be my daughter.  And I acknowledge that one reason why I am often so hard on men who do experience that attraction to much younger women is because I can’t empathize with it, not even for a moment.   I try and "get it", and I just can’t. 

It is possible that my experience that the objects of my desire age as I age is just a quirk of my personality.  It certainly hasn’t been the result of any conscious effort on my part (and my regular readers know I am quick to sing the praises of conscious effort!).  But I can’t help but think that "my way" is the fundamentally healthier way.  It just seems to me that a great deal of heartache and exploitation could be avoided if we could all just match our libidos to our approximate peer group.  Or am I wrong?

Sugar Daughters: why “Sugar Daddies” bother me more than johns

I’ve got a short piece (a blog post rather than a more thoughtful column) at GMP today on the Sugar Daddy phenomenon: Buying ‘Sugar Daughters’: What’s Really Wrong With the Sugar Daddy Phenomenon. Riffing on this Amanda Fairbanks piece in the HuffPo, I note that I’ve known students who’ve sought out these “arrangements” with varied results. And I touch on why the Sugar Daddy phenomenon bothers me far more than traditional prostitution:

By blurring the lines between a genuine romance and prostitution, the sugar daddy relationship is more problematic than a traditional john/hooker encounter.

That pretense of intimacy is inherent in the term “sugar daddy” with its hint of the incestuous. While the term “john” (for a male client of a sex worker) suggests anonymity, “sugar daddy” reeks of emotional (as well as sexual) boundary violations. The implication is that the real fathers of these young women have failed to provide the right combination of emotional and financial support; the term reinforces the not-entirely inaccurate trope that younger women who seek older men have “daddy issues.” And it suggests that the older men who seek out “sugar babies” are looking for young women whom they can spoil and fuck, deliberately blurring the line between paternal indulgence and sexual objectification.

The real question is whether the term “sugar daddy” is an unfortunate misrepresentation of what’s going on, or an all-too-accurate description of something dark and especially ugly.

Read the whole thing.

See also this terrific Alternet piece from Sarah Seltzer.

Love, Venn Diagrams, and the Private/Secret Distinction

It’s not as complicated as the title suggests.

In a reversal of how it usually works, I wrote a piece for the Frisky that then got picked up at the Good Men Project: What’s the Difference Between Privacy and Secrecy? (Here’s the identical piece, but with a different formatting and comments section, at GMP). Excerpt:

Guarding the other’s solitude is about allowing your partner the right to a private, not a secret life. It’s a recognition that even the most sexually exclusive relationship functions a bit like a Venn diagram, in which the largest portion is a shared intimacy, but in which each partner is left with something that is theirs alone. It means having the trust to expect the truth, but also the respect not to ask questions that invite dishonest responses.

I’ve never asked my wife how many people she slept with before me. I don’t know how often she masturbates, or what she thinks about when she does. I trust her to manage her private sexual life in such a way that it doesn’t rob our shared intimacy of passion and power. And I trust her to be faithful as she trusts me.

We don’t have the right to a hidden life that contradicts our public commitments. But we have the right to a private world – and a private sexuality – that is ours alone.

Read the whole thing.

Note: Obviously, this is not a distinction I invented, though it’s one that doesn’t get discussed often enough. My cousin Tom Bishop gets credit for reminding me to write about it, and Charlie Glickman gets the hat-tip for reminding me that Marty Klein does a nice job of distinguishing privacy and secrecy in his now out-of-print 1989 classic, Your Sexual Secrets.

Are you a controlling shrew if you don’t want your partner using porn?

The now-infamous Newsweek report on men who buy sex has drawn the predictably tremendous response throughout the blogosphere. The best take-down of the report’s methodology and conclusions came from the always excellent Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon. I recommend reading the original Newsweek piece and Clark-Flory’s response together.

But the conversation soon switched to the great evergreen of pornography use. I wrote a short response for Good Men Project (which got picked up at Jezebel). In the comments section below the GMP version, I got into a friendly argument with the magazine’s managing editor, Aaron Gouveia — which begat a post of its own here: A Vehement Disagreement about Porn.

Leaving aside the issue of whether pornography is degrading or empowering, putting on a shelf the question of whether its use is compatible with feminism, pressing the pause button on the debate about whether it casual use will invariably turn compulsive, there’s a basic query that has come up again and again: what right, if any, does someone have to ask for a “porn-free” sexual relationship?

We all come into sexual relationships with our “stuff” — our physical libidos, our private histories, our most enduring fantasies, our painful memories. Our sexuality is shaped by a constellation of factors: biology, faith, experience, will, fantasy, and more. Our sexuality belongs to us; as the authors of The Ethical Slutso famously put it, “the fundamental sexual unit is one person.” That makes good sense.

But when we come into any kind of sexual relationship, as so many of us will do or would like to do , we have to balance our own desires with those of another. We don’t get to do whatever we want. To pick a stereotypical heterosexual dynamic, the fact that a dude wants to come on his girlfriend’s face doesn’t mean she has to let him do so. We’re responsible for naming our wants, and responsible for self-soothing when those wants aren’t reciprocated by a partner. And the basic rule is simple: my right not to have something done to me that I don’t want done trumps your right to do to me what you’d like to do. To say otherwise is to give tacit approval to rape. Continue reading