Wrapping up Spermgate

It’s been an interesting week, as the original story I wrote about a boy who might or might not be my biological child caused a minor kerfuffle in the blogosphere. My friend Katie sent me a text Monday night, saying “it’s spermgate!!!” I liked the term, and so I started using it, even though I risk ridicule for naming my own little scandal rather than waiting for someone else to do it.

Spermgate has been popular at Good Men Project and Jezebel; at this blog, I’ve had my best week of traffic since last fall. (When this became my most popular post ever.)

I’ve done two follow-ups to the original column, including one that was reprinted at Good Men Project. The best summary of the story comes from one of the few bloggers to write approvingly of how “Jill” and I handled the original situation. Zach at 8BitDad writes

Long story short (and apologies to Schwyzer for summarizing everything in a couple sentences), he met a gal, and the gal met someone else as well. She got pregnant somewhere along the way, and Schwyzer never really resolved whether the baby was his, or the other dude’s. The gal ended up getting engaged and married to the other guy – possibly because he was more stable and wanted to be a father, while Schwyzer partied and lived his single life. The gal had more kids with her husband, and they live a presumably happy life.

That’s about the size of it.

The reaction has been both gendered and generally hostile. Google my name and you’ll find the blogposts and stories out there; the one discussion I found that was worthwhile and balanced took place here. The rest have been nearly all godawful.

Nothing I’ve read this week has changed my feelings about what happened with Jill, Ted, and Alastair. This was a complicated ethical situation of the sort that eludes easy answers. I was absolutely in the wrong to have been as sexually reckless as I was. And given my recklessness, I don’t have any position from which to criticize my old friend Jill. I might have chosen differently had I been in her shoes, but that is a moot point. I was in no position to do much of anything constructive back in the mid-1990s when this story began; all these years later, the most destructive thing I could do would be to reinsert myself into the lives of this family I have every reason to believe is happy. In other words, while there might be some ambiguity about what the right thing to do was back in the day, there is no such uncertainty now. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it 10,000 times again: in every imaginable way that matters, Ted is Alastair’s father. There is no doubt of that whatsoever, even if (and it’s a huge if) Alastair was conceived with my sperm.

I wrote this snippet of autobiography to illustrate a complex moral and emotional dilemma, and I wrote it to make a point about fatherhood. I’m pleased that it’s fostered a lot of discussion, even if a lot of that discussion has been unconstructive and tinged with violent invective. I’m grateful to the friends who have been so supportive in person and in writing — and grateful to the friends who’ve trusted our relationship enough that they can feel comfortable publicly or privately criticizing my stance. I’ve been around along enough to know the distinction between a thoughtful challenge and mean-spirited invective. I’ve had lots of opportunity to be reminded this week of that distinction.

My friend Harmony sent me a quote last night, from the artist Madelon Vriesendorp: “If you’re hated by the right people, it’s a compliment.” When someone says something hateful to me, I often ask myself, “Who else — or what else — do they despise?” While it’s not always true that the enemy of one’s enemy is automatically a friend, there is something to be said for being lucky in one’s opponents. I am indeed fortunate in my enemies!

I stand by the position that confessional writing matters. It’s certainly not the only kind of writing I do, and it’s not the only kind of writing I enjoy reading. But it has its place in fostering discussion about how it is we can construct happier lives for ourselves. Reading the intensely personal stories of other writers has helped me understand my world and myself. Of course, too much of a focus on individual experience is unhelpful; endless navel-gazing isn’t constructive. But it is a serious mistake to refuse to place personal experience alongside reason as a vital tool for understanding how to live.

I’ll leave the comment sections open on the older spermgate posts, at least for a few more days. But I’m ready to move on to other discussions, and with a few exceptions, I’d imagine most of my readers are as well.

The Son Who May — or May Not — Be Mine

My Good Men Project column runs one day early this week, and it’s turned out to be a controversial one: I May Have a Son, But I’ll Never Know for Sure. It’s a true story I tell, one I’ve not written about before. I had wanted to write a piece on the Casey Anthony trial, focusing on the anonymity of the father of little Caylee, but I thought better of stoking that fire.


In a medium-sized city in the Midwest, there’s a boy who will turn 13 next month. He lives with his parents, who were wed three months before he was born. He is tall, with dirty blonde hair and blue eyes. His name is Alastair*, and he may –- or may not -– be my son…

Fourteen autumns ago, I was casually dating a woman I’ll call Jill*. We had unprotected intercourse a handful of times in late October and early November. And just before Thanksgiving, Jill discovered she was pregnant.

She didn’t tell me until after New Year’s Day. While Jill and I had been in a “friends with benefits” arrangement, she’d also been growing more serious about another man, Ted.* She’d first slept with him for the first time two nights before she had last slept with me. It was that week that Jill got pregnant, and as she would later tell me, there was no way to know for sure which one of us was the father.

But there was no question which one of us was a better bet as a romantic partner. Jill had broken things off with me as soon as she and Ted had decided on an exclusive relationship (just before she found out she was pregnant.) Ted was several years older than I was, professionally and emotionally stable, and clearly falling in love with Jill. I was drinking, partying, with some time to go before I’d hit my rock bottom. Jill wanted to be a mom. Ted wanted to be a dad. I wasn’t sure what I wanted. In her mind, these facts settled it: the baby was Ted’s. Or it needed to be Ted’s…

At the Good Men Project and at Jezebel, where the piece was reposted this afternoon my choices — and the choices of a woman I slept with many years ago — are under intense debate. (The only thing I’m regretting at the moment is the pompous phrase “fourteen autumns ago”.) Not surprisingly, the GMP and Jezebel commenting communities don’t always agree.

Read the whole thing here or here.

When Harry Was Wrong: Desire and Non-Sexual Friendship

We’re home from a brief trip up to Northern California for the Fourth of July festivities with family. A happy time for all, including for Heloise, who has decided she loves the family’s “safe and sane” fireworks.

My Tuesday column at Good Men Project went up this morning. It riffs on the famed exchange in When Harry Met Sally about the possibilities of male-female nonsexual friendship: Harry Was Wrong: Lust Doesn’t Have to Ruin a Platonic Friendship. Excerpt:

We assume that male sexual desire is so powerful that it overrides everything else, including friendship. One of our great myths about men is that lust invariably cancels out empathy. Call it the sexual equivalent of being unable to walk and chew gum at the same time: Harry, Sally, and too many of the rest of us were raised to believe that men can’t experience lust and practice non-sexual friendship simultaneously.

The truth is that men and women alike are capable of being platonic friends with someone to whom they are powerfully attracted. That’s true regardless of the reasons why someone can’t act on his or her desires. Perhaps it’s because the attraction is one-sided, or perhaps it’s because one or both of the friends are in monogamous relationships with other people. Sometimes the attraction is openly acknowledged, more often it’s something of which both are aware but about which there isn’t necessarily much need to speak.

There are a couple of keys to making a platonic friendship work despite the presence of sexual attraction. First off, it helps to demythologize sexual desire. Too many of us speak about attraction as if it were an irresistible and destructive force, like a tornado or a tsunami. If you’ve genuinely fallen in love with a buddy who considers you “just” a friend, that’s one thing. But if all that’s happened is that you find yourself sexually attracted to someone who isn’t attracted to you (or isn’t your significant other), it’s worth saying so what? We’re hardwired to be sexual creatures. But we’re also equipped with the ability to “override” those desires for a host of other reasons—including preserving friendship.

Read the whole thing.

If you like you can also read it at The Frisky.

Elsewhere, I’m interviewed — along with my old friend and foil Glenn Sacks — in this piece for Good Magazine on the marketing of a male contraceptive.

Heat doesn’t require beauty: on “bowflex boy”, monogamy, and desire

A reader named Ryan wrote me last month in response to my reprint of this post on “bowflex boy”. I was writing to suggest that it’s possible to be drawn to an “ideal” without losing the capacity to be intensely aroused by one’s less-than-perfect partner. Ryan writes:

Your post on the Bowflex Boy touched on something that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. For me, attraction to other women and years of using porn have made me wonder whether I really find my girlfriend to be beautiful. I keep seeing her flaws. Often, I find other women to be prettier. That scares me, and I end up feeling ashamed and guilty. Then I question whether my girlfriend and I should be together at all.

I’m convinced that we can have a ‘Bowflex Boy’ on our walls and have it not be a big deal. That doesn’t mean we don’t love our partners. I know I don’t need my partner to measure up to some unattainable ideal. But I’m still so troubled by the negative thoughts I have about her appearance. It’s gotten to the point of being toxic. I don’t — can’t feel okay — and when it inevitably comes out in conversations with my partner, it naturally hurts her very much.

So, you talk about how we can see an ideal like the Bowflex Boy and still desire our partners. I agree that can be the case, but I don’t know how to stop being afraid. I love and do my best to respect my girlfriend, and I absolutely believe she’s beautiful. I’m working on letting go of the fantasies I used to have about the ideal relationship. . But when those unbidden thoughts come, I still doubt and I still fear. Your thoughts?

In my post, I wrote of being a college boy with an average and not particularly impressive physique who found himself having sex one night with a friend, Debbie, who had a poster of a stunningly perfect man hanging right over her bed. In post-coital conversation, I had asked why she (we had never hooked up before) would want to be with me when she had this flawless vision to look at. From the original post, Debbie’s words:

“Hugo, I like looking at beautiful bodies. He’s a gorgeous guy. But the fact that I think it’s beautiful, even the fact that I am attracted to the image, doesn’t mean that that is the only kind of man I can be attracted to…I can appreciate perfection without expecting it, and I can really be just as attracted to a normal body as to a perfect one.”

I wasn’t insulted. I was relieved. And it occurred to me, of course, that that was how I thought about my partners as well. I liked looking at sculpted, idealized bodies — but that was hardly the limit of what I was attracted to. As in so many areas of life, it’s helpful to think in terms of a spectrum of people to whom we could be attracted. The media offers us images we may or may not find beautiful, but they tend to offer us only a narrow slice of that spectrum. What we can want and what we do want is broader than we’re told.

As anyone who has been in a monogamous relationship for any length of time will assure Ryan, there will always be other people who appear more attractive than one’s partner, no matter how beautiful one’s partner is. The longer we’re with someone, the more of their ordinariness we become privileged to see. We discover the stretch marks, we smell the sleep farts and morning breath, we see the adult acne. That gritty reality can’t compete with either the airbrushed images of pornography or the well-coiffed and smartly attired people with whom we interact publicly. Add in the quarrels and struggles and mundanities that are part and parcel of any enduring committed sexual relationship, and it’s little wonder that the sex appeal of one’s partner appears to diminish over time. Continue reading

Hef gets engaged again: on Everlasting Novelty and Sexual Invisibility

My friend Bill asked me to post about 84 year-old Hugh Hefner’s announcement this week that he’s engaged to be married again, this time to a former Playmate exactly sixty years his junior. Knowing my many problems with age-disparate relationships, he wondered if I had a comment about the perpetually be-robed octogenarian’s latest assay into wedlock.

Still on vacation in Placer County, I’ll keep this short. It’s easy to see Hef as a caricature, and a rather sad one to boot. But more than one young man has looked at this aging cultural icon and said to himself, “Damn, I’d like to be like him when I’m old.” Some find instruction in what others of us find ridiculous. It’s important to remember that.

The tragedy of Playboy is, as I’ve said before, that it focuses on “everlasting novelty.” (The phrase is my father’s, but the point was originally made by Barbara Ehrenreich in a book I highly recommend, The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment .) Men wanting to look at beautiful women isn’t the problem — it’s the need to always see new beautiful women that is so troubling. Playboy wouldn’t have made money with one issue a year, after all. A new issue every four weeks guaranteed variety — or more accurately, encouraged a mindset that was only aroused by variety. It is Hefner who is widely credited (though it may be apocryphal) with the devastating line “Show me a beautiful woman, and I’ll show you the man who’s tired of fucking her.” It is trendy to accept that fascination with everlasting novelty as rooted in our biology, but the weight of the evidence suggests that pornographers like Hef are more creators than reinforcers.

And of course, Playboy Playmates — like the most successful and celebrated of porn actresses — are overwhelmingly young, 18-24 at the time they break into the industry. With a tiny handful of exceptions, few work successfully in the business after 30. This focus on youth suggests that women over 25 have passed their “sell-by” date; Hef has done more than his share to contribute to the sexual invisibility of older women. (The occasional issue focusing on an over-40 hottie is the classic example of the exception proving the rule.) It’s little wonder, then, that Hef has spent six decades chasing women in their early twenties. He’s sold himself on his own narrow vision of what is and isn’t desirable, and as a consequence has become incapable of experiencing sexual interest in any woman past the age of his Playmates. It’s one thing for nineteen year-olds to be drawn sexually to their peers, another thing for their grandfathers to lust after the same barely post-pubescent women.

This isn’t about the porn wars; I recognize the potential for liberation in visual depictions of the erotic. This is about the Playboy ethos. (As Ehrenreich suggested and as I always tell my students, it’s better to write it as “Play, boy!”, driving home the point that the opposite of a “playboy” is a “working man” who accepts responsibility and is capable of constancy.) The Playboy ethos is almost puritanical in its distaste for bodies that deviate from a narrow standard, and contemptuous(as well as fearful) of the sexual potential of women over 25. Above all, the Playboy ethos insists on the necessity of endless variety. Familiarity breeds contempt and aging breeds disgust, or so Hef’s world view holds.

It would be pathetic if it didn’t resonate so loudly with so many. We can do better.

Earning the epithet: men, deliberate cluelessness, and deserving the label “creep”

In my Facebook newsfeed this morning, I saw this post by Lu Fong at the Good Men Project: The “Creepy Factor.” Fong, a staff writer at GMP, used the word “creepy” in one of her recent posts, and was called on it by Jeremy Paul Gordon. Gordon’s take on what he calls “the worst thing a woman can call a man” is here. And it’s, well, creepy. Gordon:

Without a doubt, creepy is the worst casual insult that can be tossed at a guy. A guy can publicly scoff at something you say and be a “douchebag;” sleep with your best friend, never call her back and become an “asshole;” cry while listening to Neutral Milk Hotel and forever be a “pussy.” But creepy is not that simple. It doesn’t relate to someone’s appearance, actions, or behavior. More accurately, creepy is a vibe. You can’t define it — you just know it. It’s when a guy looks at a girl for a little too long, when he friends her on Facebook a little too quickly, when he doesn’t understand that no actually means no, not “Try harder.” It’s a tag that isn’t easily dispelled — after all, what are you supposed to say? “I’m not creepy! I’m NORMAL! I say normal things and act like a human being!”

Well, Jeremy, when a guy “doesn’t understand no actually means no”, that is — at best — creepy. When you stare at someone longer than is polite, or refuse to take no for an answer (read Gordon’s post for an example of where he had that problem) then the epithet is well-earned. In a world where women have good reason to fear men’s potential for sexualized violence, a man whose behavior or words suggest that he doesn’t grasp boundaries well is rightly called a “creep.” Merriam-Webster defines creepy as “producing a nervous shivery apprehension”, and women are not overreacting when they’re apprehensive or nervous in the presence of a man who sends the unmistakable signal that he’s not good at taking no for an answer.

Guys like Gordon complain about being labeled as “creeps” (or more commonly these days, “creepers”) even when their own words make it evident that they’ve done more than enough to invite the tag. Convicted on that point, they tend to fall back on an appeal to male cluelessness. “Judge me by my intentions, not by my clumsy actions”, they beg. To put it another way, these lads are asking women to be mind-readers, to possess the magical ability to distinguish between genuine danger and mere social awkwardness. That’s a huge over-ask.

What isn’t an over-ask is to expect men to be capable of sufficient self-control so as to hear a “no” for what it is, a no. What isn’t an over-ask is to expect men to know the obvious difference between an appreciative smile and a hungry leer, and to refrain from offering the latter. And when we fail to do these basic acts of self-regulation, it is an over-ask to insist that women not call us “creepy” because it, well, hurts our feelings.

I’m not asking guys to man up. But jeepers, lads, clue in! Your capacity for empathy and intuition is there, it really is. Use it.

The right to pursue, not the right to have: a response to Miguel on sexual entitlement: UPDATED

Miguel at EmporiaSexus has had a pair of posts up this week dealing with male heterosexual desire: Men Can’t Opt Out and Sexual Entitlement. He takes issue with me in both posts, particularly the former, and with my friend Clarisse Thorn in the latter. Clarisse wrote in a comment on one of her posts:

…no one is actually entitled to sex, and if we start acting like a given class of person is entitled to sex, then that becomes extremely dangerous extremely fast… No one has a right to a sexual partner. … [I]t’s really important that we don’t ever make claims about how a given person “should” have a partner or other people are hurting that person by not partnering them, because these are tacit efforts to guilt people into having relationships they don’t want.

I don’t always agree with Clarisse, but I stand with her on that.

Miguel argues that Clarisse and I are missing the point badly, she presumably because she’s a woman and I because my own sexual experiences render me incapable of understanding the frustrations of the involuntarily celibate male. Miguel doesn’t argue for the obligation of any individual woman to consent to sex with any particular man, but he does argue that men — especially those who battle low or non-existent sexual self-esteem — should feel entitled to sex at some point:

Put an ordinary, sane person in solitary confinement, and that person will rapidly decompensate and become severely disturbed. And yet nobody would argue I have a right to coerce another person into being my friend, or to pressure another person to touch me, even platonically. Yet at the same time, to say that friendship and human touch are “privileges” – and they are either privileges or entitlements, there is no third choice – is to say it is wrong to feel entitled to a basic human need. The fact is, to survive psychologically as social beings, we are all desperately dependent on – and entitled to – that which other people cannot be ethically compelled to give us.

Bold mine.

I appreciate that Miguel isn’t endorsing coercion. But as I read further in his piece, it’s clear that he thinks women — and sexually “successful” men — have failed to appreciate just how devastating the condition of involuntary male celibacy can be. And it’s clear too that he thinks that this is because of the choices women make. His finals words in the post: young women’s preference for the aggressive, dominant man is unmistakable, obvious, and brutal. It’s fairly clear that he thinks the victims of that preference are the beta (or omega) males who are rejected and ignored — and in some sense, robbed of what is rightfully theirs.

I’m reminded, reading his piece, of a conversation I had with my mother when I was in fourth grade. I was in fourth grade in 1976, the bicentennial year when every elementary school in the country did something to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I’d memorized some of the more famous phrases, and on one occasion, when my mama wouldn’t give me something I wanted, I shouted at her “Jefferson said I had the right to life, liberty, and happiness. But you’re taking away my happiness!” My dear mother, with her doctorate in political philosophy, kept a straight face. “No, Hugo, you don’t have a right to happiness. You have a right to pursue happiness. But Jefferson never promised that the government would give you happiness. To pursue means to earn, and you need to do more around here to earn.”

I actually knew the correct quotation, but had left out the key words in order to attempt to convince a woman (my mother) that I was entitled to have my desires fulfilled. Miguel (a grown man) is doing what I was doing when I was nine: conflating the right to pursue fulfillment with the right to have it. But my mama — and Mr. Jefferson — were right: we are not entitled to happiness, and we are not entitled to sex. We are entitled to pursue both, and in a society that guarantees equality of opportunity but not equality of outcome, none of us are entitled to have our basic needs for friendship, or orgasm, or a romantic partner met. Continue reading

Not a dichotomy, a spectrum: on rape, consent, and desire

In yesterday’s post, I made reference to a “rape spectrum” (also sometimes called a “consent spectrum”). In the comments, SamSeaborn and CornWalker asked me to clarify the concept.

I’ve written and spoken quite a bit about consent. There’s an ongoing discussion about consent, enthusiasm, and agency at the splendid Yes Means Yes blog. The book with the same title, edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti, also explores the intersections of desire and culture and agency. One topic that has always come up in my talks about consent — and which came up in the book as well — was the difficulty of defining those sexual encounters that do not meet the prevailing legal standard for rape, but are still non-consensual to one degree or another. (This problematic concept is explored in a very fine piece by Latoya Peterson, a “Yes Means Yes” contributor: The Not Rape Epidemic.)

A recent survey in the Journal of Sex Research has led to the adoption of a new term to describe one aspect of the problem: sexual compliance. The authors define compliance as “consent without desire”. That’s an exasperating way of couching it — after all, as I usually point out in my workshops and lectures, consent comes from the Latin consentire, which means literally “with feeling” or “with desire.” Consent, I argue, both etymologically and ethically shouldn’t be understood as the mere absence of a “no” or even the mere willingness to comply with another’s wishes. Authentic consent is always charged with desire; “enthusiastic consent” is, in a very real sense, a redundant term!

But I recognize that the common understanding of consent refers to the granting of permission rather than the presence of desire, and I suppose that a lesson in Latin isn’t going to change that interpretation.

One way to think about sexual ethics and the problem of what Latoya Peterson calls “Not Rape” as well as what the Journal of Sex Research calls “sexual compliance” or “consent without desire” is to imagine a spectrum. Think of a long flat line, but without any numbers on it. (This isn’t quite the Kinsey scale of sexual identity.) Imagine that the left end point of the scale is marked “Absolute Enthusiastic Consent” or, better yet, “Hell, Yes!” The right end point of the spectrum is marked “Neither Consented to Nor Desired” or “Hell, No!” or “Everyone in Their Right Mind Would Agree that This is Rape!” It’s pretty clear that a lot of what happens sexually in our lives or in the lives of the people we love happens somewhere in between these two poles. Listening to the stories of how real people live — and in many cases, reflecting on our own pasts — most of us realize fast that it’s a false dichotomy to insisist that every act of sex is “either rape, or it isn’t.” There’s a lot of space in between our two poles. Continue reading

For pleasure, for justice, and against shame: on acceptance as a prerequisite for growth

The spiritual life is not a theory. We have to live it.

— Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous

While listening to Clarisse Thorn lecture in my women’s studies class last Thursday, this quote popped into my head. Though I didn’t mention it in my most recent post, it was already on my mind when I wrote about rethinking my dismissiveness towards the plight of men eager for “feminist dating tips.” One could substitute the word “feminist” for “spiritual” in the AA quote, I think, and get to the heart of what I’m wrestling with this week.

Theory has consequences. Ideas have an impact. That’s not a new insight for me or anyone else. But when it comes to writing about men, women, and feminist sexual ethics, I’m ever more keenly aware that those of us who seek to encourage the transformation of both the individual and society at large often end up inadvertently shaming the very people whom we are trying to inspire.

I wrote a three-part series a couple of years ago, praising Robert Jensen’s wonderful Getting Off. But when I actually assigned the book in my “Men and Masculinity” course, I found that Jensen’s radical anti-porn stance not only aroused disagreement (which is healthy) but shame (which isn’t). This past July, I wrote about rethinking my own anti-porn stance, and about my decision not to reassign Jensen’s book (which I still think is very useful) as mandatory reading for my masculinity course:

I loved Jensen’s thesis… Many of my students did too. But some of my students of both sexes who told me they viewed porn felt overwhelmed, shamed, guilt-ridden as a result. One young woman told me she had stopped looking at porn but felt guilty about the arousing images that still popped into her head. Another young guy, one of my best students, told me that he felt as if he’d been set up for failure, as if Jensen and I were positing abstinence from pornography as the sine qua non of being a decent male. “If I masturbate to porn can I still be a good man was the question I got from more than one anguished participant in the class. And if several of the students were willing to divulge such private pain to me, I can only assume that still others felt the same way but kept silent.

Clarisse is a well-known advocate for what is usually called “sex-positive” feminism, as well as an activist for BDSM acceptance. She takes the position that some folks may have an innate orientation towards BDSM, a stance of which I am deeply suspicious but not immediately dismissive. But watching my students’ reactions to her — and reading the emails and Facebook messages I got from several of them afterwards — I realized how important it is to have feminist voices that celebrate pleasure and desire. Theory matters to Clarisse as it does to me; justice matters to her as well. (In her real life, where she goes by her birth name, she is a committed activist for a variety of causes.) But though she recognizes that our culture is deeply corrupted by what is increasingly often called “kyriarchal” influences, she understands that all of us have to live and love and fuck and create and nurture within that culture. Just as ringing Sunday sermons in church aren’t of much use if they aren’t applied in the weekday lives of the congregation, so too a feminism that is heavy on inspiring classroom rhetoric needs to offer folks reassurance and encouragement in every other aspect of their lives.

One of the critiques that feminists of color had of mainstream white feminism a generation ago was that middle-class white feminists tended to prioritize “sisterhood” over all other values. Women of color who lived in what white feminists considered “patriarchal” and “oppressive” ethnic groups were encouraged to extricate themselves from their families and their cultures for the sake of individual happiness. Black, Latina, and Asian feminists insisted — quite rightly — on a different kind of feminism, one that could be synthesized with traditions and values that they held dear. What seemed hopelessly oppressive to well-to-do WASPy feminists was experienced very differently by many non-white women.

The same problem happens around sex. Continue reading

The pro-feminist pick-up artist: rethinking a blind spot

Clarisse Thorn, the noted sex-positive writer and blogger, came to speak to my women’s history class today. Clarisse was in Los Angeles on another engagement, and was kind enough to come and talk to my students about sex-positive feminist masculinity. We had a short and very amiable debate, as I challenged some of her positions. (More on that in a future post.) I look forward to getting some good feedback from more of my students, but have already had a few enthusiastic emails and Facebook messages.

UPDATE: Clarisse notes her visit here. Her post lists some links from each of our archives that cover some of the areas where we disagree.

Clarisse’s article on the pathologizing of male desire got a great deal of attention in the blogosphere last month, and there were over 100 comments in the debate about it here on this blog. A follow-up post has a still-active comment thread. Those two posts received more comments than any others I wrote in October. Clarisse is clearly an instigator of good discussion.

I took Clarisse to lunch to thank her, and in our discussion over various vegetarian goodnesses, we returned to this challenging theme of constructive sex-positive feminist masculinity. I talked about how frustrated I’ve been in my exchanges on the topic with many men, who — as my comment threads indicate — find my writing on the topic to be shaming, or unhelpful, or privileged. I’ve been asked before for “pick-up tips for feminist men”, a request I’ve resisted for both ideological and experiential reasons. I haven’t spent much time around the “pick-up artist” (PUA) and “seduction” communities, largely because I find their views to be deeply demeaning to women (as well as men). Clarisse has a more nuanced view, as one of her many interests is focused on “bridging the gap” between the PUA and feminist worlds. I’m leery that that gap can be bridged at all, but I’m open to discussion.

But in talking with Clarisse, I realized how often I’ve been unnecessarily contemptuous of those men who have sought out techniques and strategies for approaching women. I’m married, of course, and devotedly so. I’m obviously not looking for sexual or romantic partners. But even when I was single, I never had trouble “meeting” women, finding sexual partners, or getting into relationships. (I had tremendous problems making relationships work, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.) Writing those words makes me uncomfortable; they seem filled with macho swagger. I’m not boasting of my sexual prowess, or at least, I’m trying not to. But though I have had myriad challenges in my life (particularly around drug and alcohol addiction), one problem I haven’t had since I hit college was finding sexual partners. Learning to be celibate was hard; learning how to be monogamous in thought and word as well as in body was hard. Unlearning flirting was hard. Getting laid — and every few years, getting married — was easy. Continue reading