“I can’t see you with a fat chick”: shame, homosociality, and desire

The title is godawful, but this Village Voice article is both interesting and important: Guys Who Like Fat Chicks.

Men who are sexually attracted to heavy women are more numerous than we’re led to believe, Camile Dodero writes, and that has important implications both for our understanding of male sexuality and for our ongoing conversation about weight and desire. The title of the piece, however, frames the attraction to fat women as an unusual fetish, an odd quirk that only a few men share. That’s unfortunate, because the article is more nuanced than that, exploring the ways in which fat has been stigmatized and heavier women have been both exploited and desexualized. The familiar myths (such as fat women’s much-hyped desperation for a relationship) are debunked. And though the article still centers men’s attraction to heavier women rather than women themselves, it’s a useful conversation starter.

In 2006, I wrote a post called Men, Women, Homosociality and Weight. So much of men’s focus on thin women, I pointed out, is wrapped up in the desire to gain status in the eyes of other men. One of the most basic tasks for heterosexual men is a simple one: learning to separate what it is that they personally find desirable from their desire to impress others. Our ruthlessly fat-phobic culture doesn’t give fat people “trophy” status, even if (as the article suggests) many men are sexually drawn to heavier women. I wrote five years ago:

Men are taught to find “hot” what other men find “hot.” The whole notion of a “trophy girlfriend” is based on the reality that a great many men use female desireability to establish status with other men. And in our current cultural climate where thinness is idealized, a slender partner is almost always going to be worth more than a heavy one. For men who have not yet extricated themselves from homosocial competition, their own self-esteem and sense of intra-male status may decline in direct proportion to their girlfriend’s weight gain.

Let me stress that this is absolutely not women’s problem to solve! My goal is not to make women who gain weight feel bad; protecting a fragile male ego is not a woman’s responsibility. The key thing men need to do is get honest about their own desire to use female desireability to establish status in the eyes of other men. And here’s where pro-feminist men can do a terrific service by challenging one another and holding each other accountable for the ways in which we are tempted to use our wives and girlfriends as trophies.

When I linked to the Village Voice piece on my Facebook yesterday, a friend asked if I had ever dated a “fat chick.” It reminded me that when my 2006 post appeared, one of my colleagues, a very heavy woman with whom I am very close, remarked “I could never see you with a fat girlfriend.”

I wasn’t surprised by the comment. When it comes to relationships, we expect a disconnect between what people say and what they do. Many heavy women do have painful stories of men who were quite happy to fuck them in private but refuse to date them in public. Continue reading

“If I Were Thinner, I’d Have the Right to Expect More”: on perfectionism and the scarcity model

This topic came up in my Men and Masculinity course yesterday, and an earlier version of this post appeared at Healthy is the New Skinny this morning:

It’s not news that girls are feeling more pressure than ever to be perfect. As I’ve written before in my posts on the Martha Complex, this generation of teen girls is more stressed about, well, everything, than any generation of women before them.* The pressure to do well in school, the pressure to please parents and peers, and the pressure to live up to an impossible ideal of physical perfection is crushing.

Tweens and teens grow up comparing themselves to models and tv stars. Few girls feel as pretty, as sexy, as skinny as the women they see in the media. As a result, many young women conclude that happiness is something that you only get when you get to your goal weight. And even more troublingly, when it comes to relationships, lots of straight girls think that if their own bodies aren’t perfect, they have no right to expect too much from guys.

Working with high school and college-aged young women, I’ve heard the same thing more and more often in recent years. These smart and amazing young women have somehow gotten the idea that in order to be treated with respect and love, they have to be damn near perfect. One student said to me last year, “If I were fifteen pounds thinner, I think my boyfriend would stop looking at other girls.” She didn’t feel like she had the right to ask her guy to stop checking out other women in public. “You have to be gorgeous for a man to want to be with you and only you. I’m not, so I can’t expect that.”

A mentee of mine has a boyfriend who uses porn regularly and plays video games for hours. “Sometimes he’ll just forget to call or text because he’s gaming”, she says. “I’m lucky to get a few minutes alone with him a week when we’re not doing something sexual. But this is the way boys are — unless you’re like freakin’ Megan Fox, you can’t expect a guy’s complete attention.”

Another girl told me that she doesn’t feel like she can have a boyfriend – because she’s not pretty enough. She has a lot of hook-ups instead. “I’m the girl you get with for a blowjob”, she said; “I’m not the hot girl you hold hands with in public.” (For more on the connection between perfectionism and promiscuity, see Kerry Cohen’s forthcoming Dirty Little Secrets, to be published later this year.)

Words like these break my heart, because these bright and beautiful girls are blinded to their own worth. They don’t see that they have the right to demand respect; that they have the right to set good boundaries; that they have the right to pursue a real relationship (if they want one). Believing that only women who meet an unattainable standard of perfection “deserve” to be happy sets girls up to settle for second-best in one area where they should never compromise.

This perfectionism dovetails dangerously with another theme in young women’s lives: the “good guys are hard to find” narrative. This belief that reliable and loving young men are rare reinforces the pursuit of skinny, sexy, beauty: the fewer decent lads out there, the more “choice” those guys have. And even the decent ones, so the culture tells us, will make relationship decisions based on women’s appearance. For some, that means all the more reason to compete — and for others, all the more reason to opt out and “settle” for what they’ve been told is the best they can reasonably hope for.

We need to see how the pressure to be perfect — a pressure that is nearly omnipresent in young women’s lives, even the lives of those who don’t seem to be pursuing an ideal — is rooted in a false scarcity model. There won’t be enough for you, the culture says, unless you try harder. And if in your own eyes, you’re well short of that ideal, then you need to be realistic and settle gratefully for the crumbs.

Young women often tell stories about their girlfriends, whom they often describe as amazing and wonderful. “It’s so sad”, Jessica will say, “Amy doesn’t see what we all see. She’s so pretty and smart, but she keeps dating these losers. She doesn’t know her value.” Of course, half the time, Amy is saying the same thing about Jessica. Teen girls are almost invariably fonts of great wisdom for their peers — but lousy at taking their own advice to heart. The truth is, of course, even the young women who most closely match the rigid beauty standards are bitterly aware of how they “fall short of the mark”, at least in their own minds.

It’s not a stretch to point out that the “scarcity model” combines with perfectionism to let men off the hook time and again. The less girls believe they deserve, the less they’ll ask for — and the less young men need to provide. Until we ask who benefits from this cruel system, we’re not getting close to solving the problem.

*For more, check out the work of Claire Mysko on Supergirls, as well as the solid books by the aforementioned Kerry Cohen, Stephen Hinshaw, Rachel Simmons, and of course, Courtney Martin’s seminal Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters.

Fondling the “brave” White Swan

As you can see in the photo below this post, Eira and I went to a Purim party on Saturday night, dressed as the “Black Swan” and the “White Swan.” Though my wife didn’t like the film, she was more than happy to go along with the costume idea that came into my head not long after seeing the movie for the first time. (Here’s my review of the picture, which I thought was the best of 2010.) I already have the obvious idea for next year’s party, which is to come as the Swans again, this time with me in the darker shade.

The costumes took a lot of time and work; the basic corsets and tutus came from Trashy Lingerie (on La Cienega), the tights and slippers from Capezio, and my wife’s red contact lenses from a specialty store in the valley. My mother-in-law, a seamstress, added sequins and fake feathers and made my headpiece; my brother-in-law, a make-up artist, did our faces. We were a big hit together.

At the party, I got a lot of compliments on my “courage.” (And when I posted photos on Facebook, more of the same.) I was surprised; we were at the Kabbalah Centre in West Los Angeles, hanging out with an ostensibly liberal, artsy crowd. In 2011, I wondered, does anyone think it’s particularly brave for a man to dress as a ballerina in L.A.? If I were a high school boy going trick-or-treating and wearing the outfit in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, that might be gutsy — but with my wife, in the 310 area code? It’s evidence that the bar is still set so disappointingly low for men; performing public sexual ambiguity shouldn’t be as revolutionary as it is.

I also got grabbed. A lot. On the crowded dance floor, drunken men and women alike squeezed the top of my corset, fondled my butt, lifted up my tu-tu. None of it was terribly aggressive, and all of it was done by people I know — and whom I knew to be intoxicated. I didn’t feel threatened, but I was exasperated. I knew damn well why they were doing it, because it’s happened to me every time I’ve cross-dressed for parties. They were grabbing me because they could, reminding themselves and me of my maleness. (Like it or not, we ascribe the willingness to be grabbed to men.) They were engaged, whether they knew it or not (almost certainly the latter) in “gender policing”. And they were grabbing me because it was a kind of safe transgression for them — an assault on something that was feminine without being female.

Of course, in real life, women are groped all the time, on dance floors and elsewhere. Though I didn’t need the reminder of that painful truth, it’s what I got on Saturday.

Every sperm is sacred: of Onan, menstrual blood, and facials

In my “beauty and the body” class, I’m using one new book I’ve never assigned before: Lisa Jean Moore’s Sperm Counts: Overcome By Man’s Most Precious Fluid. I gave my first lecture on sperm yesterday. After a brief physiology lesson where we distinguished sperm from semen and talked about things like the Cowper’s gland and the prostate, we went into the main material of the lecture, which was the spiritual significance of ejaculate in both Western and Eastern culture.

Both the Eastern and the Judeo-Christian traditions imbue semen with sacred properties. The differences, of course, are enormous. To oversimplify enormously, the Hindu and Buddhist perspective regards ejaculate as a source of divine energy. Refraining from masturbation for all, and the practice of celibacy for monks, allows men to retain rather than lose this source of inspiration and insight. Yogis and others who go without ejaculating for years and years are believed to be sustained and nourished by the retention of this precious fluid. The celibate’s batteries are charged, in other words, while the ejaculator’s battery is regularly depleted. Thus Taoist and Tantric traditions suggest that even for the married, sex should be infrequent so as not to exhaust the body of its most valuable resource.

On the other hand, the Judeo-Christian tradition is more explicit in connecting semen to “seed” — and thus to male domination. The Hebrew word “zera” means “seed” in the common agricultural sense, but it also means semen. I didn’t want to overwhelm my students with bible quotes, but the key passages are from Genesis.

Genesis 17:9, King James Version: And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. God’s covenant is with a substance — semen is the physical glue that binds a people together. It is, in a sense, the ink through which the covenant is written.

In Genesis 38:9, the wicked Onan “spills his seed” upon the ground (practicing the withdrawal method) rather than inseminate his brother’s widow. God kills Onan for the crime of having squandered the divine substance.

But what is so significant about “seed”? From a feminist standpoint, it’s quite simply at the very root of the Judeo-Christian hostility towards women. As is widely known, from the time of the Hebrews until the discovery of ova and the process of conception during the Scientific Revolution, Western authorities were largely convinced that women had very little role to play in the reproductive process. Women were like fields, soil which needed to be ploughed and planted and fertilized; the identity of the future child was entirely contained within the man’s ejaculate (the notion of the Homunculus).

Each act of heterosexual intercourse, therefore, mimicks the story of the human creation. In Genesis 2 (which is, of course, the second creation story, written well after the earlier story of simultaneous creation of men and women), God makes Adam out of the “dust of the ground.” The soil has no life until it is given life by God, just as women cannot give life unless animated by semen. Thus semen is not only the fluid of the covenant, it is the substance that makes each man in some sense like God, granting him the chance to share with the creator the joy of creating. To “waste” semen, whether through masturbation or the withdrawal method or barrier contraception, is not just missing out on a chance at making another life –it is the willful refusal to act like the Creator. (Hence the Roman Catholic and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish hostility to condoms and jerking off!)

The explicit connection to misogyny comes easily. In the Western tradition, women are dangerous because they tempt men away from their responsibility to “act like God.” The righteous woman is a careful guardian of men’s semen, and she guards it through modest dress (so as not to tempt men to lust, because then they might masturbate and waste the sacred fluid). A strictly observant Jewish woman makes sure that her husband’s semen only comes into her body after she has ritually purified herself through the practice of Niddah; she’s got to earn the right to take something so magical, so male, so pure, into her comparatively unclean body. Throughout much of the broader Abrahamic religious tradition, women are responsible for protecting semen in two distinct ways: one, by doing all that they can to keep men from irresponsibly “spilling”; two, by being radically open to conception. Contraception and abortion, the great bugaboos of religious conservatives, are hated not merely because they empower women but because they are seen as women’s rejection of the sacred spermatic gift. Continue reading

The season of “no”: revisiting and expanding an old post on celibacy

This post, a different version of which first appeared in 2006, was initially inspired by this poem by Lady Ki No Washika:


It’s not because I’m now too old,
More wizened than you guess..

If I say no, it’s only
Because I fear that yes
Would bring me nothing, in the end,
But a fiercer loneliness.

I found it in the Los Angeles Times Book Review back in the late summer of 1998. This was a time in my life where, after a very turbulent couple of years, I had taken a temporary vow of celibacy. Keeping the commitment to that vow was proving difficult. This poem comforted me instantly, because those last four lines ran so unbelievably true — they summed up in 22 words what had been up to then my entire sexual history.

When writing about my past, I choose my words carefully.  So many people I know and love read this blog, as do folks from my spiritual community, my youth group, and my college classes.  Much of my private life is thus obscured, and rightly so.  Yet I think I can share a little bit that may prove useful, or if nothing else, may explain why this poem means so much to me.

As I’ve talked about before, in late June of 1998, I had hit a kind of emotional, physical, and spiritual bottom. I attempted suicide after a prolonged struggle with drugs, alcohol, and compulsive sexual behavior. My family was frantically worried about me, my friends had largely pulled away from me, I had spent time in handcuffs — and extended time in hospitals.  While in the last of these hospitals, someone asked me "Hugo, do you have any idea how to be alone?  I don’t mean single — can you really be alone with yourself?"  I admitted that no, I really didn’t know how to do that.  I had already burned through a couple of marriages, and was, for lack of a better time, compulsively dating.  I was a walking, talking, incarnation of toxic neediness!   In the year or two leading up to that watershed summer, I had been going out several nights a week with lots of different people, addictively hungry for connection.  The whole process had left me alienated, lonely, and miserable; it had also made me a bit of a pariah. 

In that long hot summer of 1998 — the summer of Bill and Monica, the summer of the World Cup in France — I came home to God.  It’s an easy phrase to write, and it doesn’t come close to capturing the extraordinary turbulence and excitement of that time of conversion and transformation.   I can only say that I prayed as I had never prayed before, to a God I wasn’t sure I believed in, and I was given peace beyond any expectation.  It was an amazing time, one I hope I will never forget.  "Born again" is such a trite, overused expression — and yet truly, that’s what it felt like.

One of my earliest spiritual directors/Twelve Step sponsors told me that in addition to a variety of spiritual activities, I needed to be celibate.  He defined celibacy as not only no sexual activity, but also no dating, flirting, masturbating, or what he liked to call "intriguing" (I love that verb) with women.  I asked how long this period was supposed to last, and he gave me the typical spiritual director answer: "You’ll know.  For now, just do this a day at a time."

Continue reading

Radicals in the bedroom: a response to Julian

Julian, who blogs at Radical Profeminist, commenting beneath this post that concluded a series of responses to Factcheckme (FCM), asked this:

I’d prefer to know from the male-men contributors here what you do that is sex and oppressive: and what values get expressed when you do what you do that you call “sex”, because in my experience, men talk a good line about everything, and then when I speak with the women in their lives, I find out a whole other reality–one that becomes entirely apparent, yet is unowned by the men who proclaim themselves sensitive to this or that matter. So the oppressive behaviors hide behind the platitudes and proclamations.

We’d been discussing heterosexual intercourse, you’ll recall, and its feminist implications. The split between those of us who are classic liberal feminists (convinced that individual agency can be exercised even in the face of huge social pressures) and those who are radical feminists (who are far more suspicious of such claims) was on display for all to see. There was the usual name-calling, which went both ways and was uniformly unhelpful. There was the usual misunderstanding of what the name-calling meant, which compounded the unhelpfulness. And despite that, there were some very good comments. Perhaps it’s male privilege, perhaps it’s the nearly indissoluble bond of tenure, or perhaps it’s just that I’ve been having these discussions for 25 years, but I appreciated all the heat, even if it shed only a little light.

As the name of his blog implies, Julian embraces a line of inquiry and an intellectual tradition several steps to the left of my own. I don’t need to agree with his radical analysis to find much that is useful and provocative in his writing. I am not a radical, but as a liberal am made better and more thoughtful by engaging with interlocutors whose views are sharply opposed to mine. Radicals like Julian, Factcheckme, Andrea Dworkin, Robert Jensen, and Andrea Smith are great “cover-pullers”, rousing from slumber those of us who sometimes like to hide from the reality of the oppression all around us. That doesn’t mean that their criticisms are always right, or that their solutions are wise. It does mean that their perspective is useful and deserves to be taken seriously.

I’ve said it many times: part of living out a commitment to justice is consistency between one’s private behavior and one’s public pronouncements. That doesn’t mean that we share every intimate detail of our lives in order to prove that we aren’t hypocrites (we’re all hypocrites to one extent or another). It does mean that we work towards wholeness, where what we say and do and think matches up more often than not.

For feminist men in sexual relationships with women, this commitment to integrating justice and egalitarianism into one’s private life is especially important. We’ve got to make sure we’re not hiding behind “platitudes and proclamations”; Julian is quite right that “talking a good line” and living it out are, sadly, often two very different things. I’ve been candid about my own massive failings in this regard in the past, most obviously about my pattern of sleeping with students enrolled in my classes early on in my teaching career. Of course, at the time I was engaged in this unethical and decidedly un-feminist behavior, I wasn’t also opining that teachers shouldn’t sleep with their students. I wasn’t an out-and-out liar, but I was still abusing my position.

I also have been open about my use of pornography in my younger years, a use that probably met the standard for “addiction.” (I am beyond grateful that the worst of that addiction was prior to the coming of the Internet, which I’m confident would have made recovery harder.) Staying away from pornography and not sleeping (or flirting with) anyone other than my wife are obviously important commitments to me and to those who place their trust in me.

But virtue, including feminist virtue, is as much about what one does as one doesn’t. And Julian is right to suggest that heterosexual feminist men in particular integrate their principles into their sexual lives with their partners. Regarding heterosexual intercourse (PIV), that means more than assuming a degree of responsibility for contraception. Willingness to wear a condom is certainly commendable, but that’s not quite enough. Given that penis-in-vagina intercourse poses a host of risks to women that it doesn’t to men (ranging from pregnancy to a greater chance of contracting STIs to the genuine physical trauma of childbirth), feminist men need to be particularly careful that they aren’t prioritizing intercourse over all other possible sexual activities. Continue reading

Intercourse, suffering, pleasure, and feminism: more on “envelop” v. “penetrate”

I’ve gotten a few emails from readers in the past few days asking me to respond to something else Factcheckme (FCM) discusses on her blog. (See my post immediately below this one for an explanation of the disagreement she and I are having about the role of men in the feminist movement.) Though I don’t think FCM and I could have much of a conversation (a civil exchange requires a mutual recognition of good faith and legitimacy, and she’s made it clear she doesn’t think I possess either), her views are not unique to her and deserve a response.

One of FCM’s tabs is her Intercourse series, a lengthy set of posts exploring her reactions to Andrea Dworkin’s famous book by the same name. As even a casual reader of her blog will realize, FCM takes Dworkin quite literally in her insistence that heterosexual intercourse (penis-in-vagina sex, or PIV) is abusive to women. Women should generally resist PIV, FCM argues; any man who dares claim the label feminist ally for himself must renounce PIV if he wishes to be taken seriously. Refusing intercourse is the proof of one’s seriousness and credibility.

There’s a lot of debate among Dworkin scholars as to whether her work was meant to be taken literally in all instances, or whether she was often engaged in a complex and dazzling rhetorical performance designed to elicit shock and reflection. (I tend to hold the latter view, and I suspect that FCM leans towards the former.) I certainly think that feminists ought to challenge people’s conventional views about heterosexual intercourse. In my women’s history class, for example, I point out that until relatively recently, one of the leading causes of death for women was complications related to childbirth. (In some places at some times, pregnancy and childbirth have been the leading cause of female death.) The overwhelming majority of pregnancies are the consequence of heterosexual intercourse; therefore, it is logical to conclude that heterosexual intercourse has led to the deaths of hundreds of millions of women over human history, as well as to unimaginable pain and discomfort to those who did not die but were merely injured by everything from miscarriages to fistulas to prolapsed uteruses.

Though maternal death is far rarer today in the industrialized West (though troublingly higher here in the States than in Europe), it is still a very real danger in less developed parts of the world. But pregnancy is not the only consequence of PIV that can lead to death. In Africa the AIDS epidemic is primarily carried on through heterosexual intercourse; the vast majority of women who die of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa contracted the virus by having PIV. When fundamentalists speak of AIDS as God’s punishment for homosexuals, it’s worth replying that God has punished far more women with death for having PIV with their husbands than he has male homosexuals for having anal sex. And God is said to be a fan of PIV in marriage. Feminists do well to point these things out, and I do so in every class I teach.

(Parenthetically, heterosexual intercourse put me in the emergency room once, as I wrote in this post. There’s no comparison, of course, between the physical danger of PIV for women and for men. But PIV can bring everything from frenular tearing to broken hearts to males as well; to suggest otherwise is to be blind to the reality of male vulnerability. And vulnerability isn’t a zero-sum game.)

It’s also important to note that women’s legal right to resist intercourse with their husbands is very recent, and by no means universally accepted. The first successful prosecutions for marital rape in this country only took place in my lifetime; many traditionalists in many places still find the notion of marital rape itself to be an oxymoron. Empowering women legally and socially and psychologically to say “no” to their partners (including their husbands) is an essential part of the global feminist project.

But of course, there is another side to all of this discussion. As Dworkin’s critics have long pointed out, much of her objection to PIV is rooted less in physiological reality than in the language we use to describe it. I wrote about this last fall, describing an exercise familiar to all my women’s studies’ students. An excerpt follows.

One of the first gender studies courses I ever took at Berkeley was an upper-division anthropology course taught by the great Nancy Scheper-Hughes. It was in a class discussion one day (I think in the spring of ‘87) that I heard something that rocked my world. We were discussing Andrea Dworkin’s novel “Ice and Fire” and her (then still-forthcoming, but already publicized) “Intercourse”. I hadn’t read the books at the time (they were optional for the class). One classmate made the case that on a biological level, all heterosexual sex was, if not rape, dangerously close to it. “Look at the language”, my classmate said; “penetrate, enter, and screw make it clear what’s really happening; women are being invaded by men’s penises.” Another classmate responded, “But that’s the fault of the language, not of the biology itself; we could just as easily use words like ‘envelop’, ‘engulf’, ’surround’ and everything would be different.” The discussion raged enthusiastically until the next class irritably barged in and chucked us all out. I was electrified. Continue reading

“I’d be more nurturing if I thought it would get me laid”: how the straitjacket of masculinity is reframed as women’s fault

In a comment below last Thursday’s post on the myth of male inflexibility, SamSeaborn wrote:

…mating, at least in the early stages, is dominated by female choice, and women do have a tendency to prefer doers, not feelers as partners. Sure masculinity and feminity are ever-adjusting, but the problem at this point is, it seems to me, that masculinity is squeezed between an expanding concept of feminity (the best man for the job may be the woman) and the reality on the ground that forces most men to compete more intensely for the fewer places in the sun because, put in overly simplified terms, it’s those men most women seem to be interested in. I’m not saying men have no power in sexual negotiations, but those who have tend to be the ones who are in scarce supply, and that’s those who managed to get through the fiercer competition.

Again, I’m all *for* changing that, but I don’t see female CEOs being interested in male kindergarten teachers. This is the crux of the problem, and feminism isn’t really offering any advice.

He got a number of replies, of which La Lubu’s was both typical and cogent:

Where I come from, teaching and nursing do not take a man out of the “wanted pool” it’s the polar opposite. Those are considered decent jobs. Are female CEOs (yeah, there sure are a lot of those) dating those men? No. But are women of the same social class dating and/or marrying them? Hell, yes. People — men and women both — date within their social class. Men of high socioeconomic status might recreationally fuck a woman of lower status, but they sure the hell don’ marry them (or even introduce them to their country-club friends).

Who do you know, in your life, that has rejected a man with a decent paying but below six-figure job because of his earning power? If you don’t have any anecdata, what statistical evidence can you show me that states this? I have never seen that ever. I see the opposite: heterosexual men who hold those jobs that you (as a male) regard as unmasculine, are almost always married. Evidently, women have a different measure of what constitutes masculinity. We don’t really give a hot damn who is King of the Mountain.

The argument that SamSeaborn advances is basically this one: “Men don’t like wearing the straitjacket of masculinity, true. But women want us to. In fact, the only way we get laid is when we engage in stereotypical male behavior. Therefore, it’s women’s fault that we’re suffering from the constraints of manhood, and women have only themselves to blame that they cannot find the male partners they claim to want. If women would only change their sexual decision-making, then men would behave better. But as long as women reward hyper-masculine asshole-dom with sex, then men have no incentive to change.”

I hear this argument frequently from anti-feminists of both sexes.

Stay with me for a second: I’m old enough to have gone to elementary school when they still showed movies in class: proper films, the sort that came on reels. Students fought for the privilege to “thread the projector”, a term that will be meaningless to anyone under thirty. And many of the films I remember best came from Disney’s “True Life Adventures” series. These had been filmed in the 1950s, but they didn’t seem dated in mid-1970s classrooms. I remember film after film exploring the wonder of mating. Everything was G-rated, of course, but the basic idea was obvious: males in the animal kingdom do all that they can to put on impressive displays in order to attract a female. The latter had all the power when it came to sex selection. Reading Sam’s comment, I can’t help but wonder if his sexual worldview owes more to Disney nature films than to 21st century human reality.

I hear from a great many young men the familiar complaint that “girls just want bad boys”. There are lots of reasons why we socialize young women to want disaffected, hostile, and brooding young men. Mostly it has to do with the “my love can change him” notion I wrote about in this post. It’s a phenomenon of the very young, however; relatively few adult women continue to buy into the delusion that they have the capacity to love a violent and unreliable man into compassionate responsibility. The point is, a great many young men oversell the “good girls only want bad boys” trope because they sense the obvious benefit: if they then themselves mistreat women, they are not doing it out of any defect in their natures, but out of a rational strategy for improving their mating odds. It is women themselves who have made these rules, these boys and young men say (often with sincerity); we fellas just have to adapt as best we can. It’s yet another corollary to the myth of male weakness: bad male behavior gets cunningly reframed as an evolutionary adaptation demanded by women, and the blame for everything falls nicely once again on the shoulders and hearts and libidos of the be-uterused.

Sam is talking about the grown-up version of this. In a world which is still in some sense a jungle, he argues, even the most well-educated and successful woman wants a man who can take care of her. This may be more likely to mean “make lots of money” than “beat up creepers who ogle me”, but it’s still the lament that women’s hearts and sex drives don’t really match up with feminist politics. Though all of the evidence suggests that more men don’t seek out nurturing professions because of a combination of socialization and fear of ridicule by other men, many anti-feminists suggest that women’s refusal to take male nurses or kindergarten teachers seriously as potential mates is the primary force driving men away. When real-life women like La Lubu and Mythago and the others in the comment thread suggest that this is just so much pap, their experiences and desires are dismissed as anecdotes that are entirely unrepresentative of the mass of “real women” about whom the likes of SamS apparently know so much.

It is axiomatic that heterosexual men and women regularly misunderstand what the other sex wants. These misunderstandings are reinforced by a media that hypes absurd caricatures of masculinity and femininity, leading young boys to imagine that without an eight-pack on their tummies, they are destined for lonely celibacy — and leading girls to believe that all young men insist on being partnered with those who have bodies like Khloe Kardashian’s. These misperceptions are excusable in adolescents, less so in adults a decade or two (or three, or four) removed from puberty. Too many men and women assume that their acquaintances of the other sex are lying when they say things that deviate from culturally-imposed expectations. So when a man hears a woman say, “No, I really do want a partner who will be an equal rather than a non-communicative workaholic”, he may tell himself, “Bullshit. She’s just saying that. I know what women really want.” This “knowledge” is often rooted in random anecdote, or his own imagination, or some slick purveyor of misogyny masquerading as common sense like Tom Leykis or Laura Schlessinger. (To be fair, many women have a hard time believing that male weakness really is a myth rather than a biological reality. When a man says to his partner, “Honey, I only want you”, she may have been so conditioned to believe in the impossibility of male fidelity that she too thinks her own quiet “bullshit.”)

To the extent that men really are being “left behind” in the new economic and educational paradigm, it is because of the inability of so many men to slip the surly bonds of traditional masculinity. The problem isn’t female teachers who “don’t understand boys”, the problem isn’t “feminism”, and the problem isn’t the imagined disconnect between heterosexual women’s politics and their libidos. The problem is a hopelessly constrained vision of what it means to be a man, a vision largely created and maintained and passed on by men. Fathers and brothers and peers; rappers and ballers and professional pugilists; these are the all-too-faithful perpetuators of the myth that women will only accept “sturdy oaks” who “give ’em hell” and never, ever, display grief or vulnerability.

Individual men suffer from what is, in the end, a collective masculine crime; we are, to paraphrase an old AA saying, the architects of our own adversity. The relentless attempt to shift the blame to women’s irrationality or inconsistency cannot long obscure that hard and heartbreaking truth.

Celibacy, denial, and escape: memories of a vocation thwarted

A name I hadn’t thought about in a while came back into the news last week: John Cummins, the retired Bishop of Oakland, California. The story has been widely covered: Cummins, who served as bishop in the 1980s and ’90s, wanted to laicize one particular predatory priest, Stephen Kiesle. In 1985, Cummins wrote several letters to the Vatican office of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would have had what was essentially the final say on defrocking priests for sexual abuse and other grave sins. Ratzinger, who of course is now Pope Benedict XVI, was exceedingly reluctant to grant Bishop Cummins’ request to remove this pedophile from the priesthood, suggesting that the scandal of the laicization might do more damage to the church than Kiesle had done.

I meet Bishop Cummins in early 1988, when I was seriously considering the priesthood. A brand-new convert to Rome, I was a junior at Cal. I had fallen in love with God and the church, and was dividing my worship time between the campus Newman Center (run by the liberal Paulist Fathers) and the Dominicans (whose small seminary was right across the street from my co-op on Ridge Road.) I met with several Dominicans in Berkeley and Oakland, as well as various priests and officials in the Oakland Diocese. Even though I had a girlfriend at the time, and even while I was volunteering as a peer sexuality educator on campus, I began to explore the idea that I had a vocation to serve as a priest. I began the discernment process, though without breaking up with the woman I was seeing or interrupting my progress towards my bachelor’s degrees at Berkeley.

Though I had fallen in love with the Dominicans, it was my Paulist spiritual advisor, Father Al Moser, who helped clarify for me that I was not called to be a priest. I met with Al not long after I had had a brief meeting with Bishop Cummins, a meeting that had left me on fire for the priesthood. (Not because of anything the bishop said; it was more what I what projected onto him when we had a quick little talk after a mass in Oakland.) Father Al said, “Hugo, most young men who make it in the priesthood are answering a call, not running away from something. And I think if you’re honest with yourself, you’re running away from something.” He was right — I wanted the certainties I imagined would come with being a priest. I also imagined, as I know many young men in my position have imagined, that a life of public celibacy would magically make my sexual struggles vanish.

In my late teens and early twenties, the struggle I had around sexuality was not about my orientation. I had had some attraction to men, but recognized that the passions of my heart and my body were primarily, albeit not exclusively, directed towards women. I certainly didn’t struggle with attraction to anyone age-inappropriate. Rather, I was having trouble reconciling my feminism with my own sexual ferocity. I was compulsively promiscuous and dishonest; the gap between my desire to see women as my true equals on the one hand and my desire for novelty, validation, and sexual release seemed impossible to bridge. I imagined that if I took a vow of celibacy, God would grant me the strength and the courage to live up to that vow. And I would be able to love everyone, men and women alike, without objectifying them.

I went back and forth in my college years between different strategies for reconciling my sexuality with my humanity. I worked for the university’s Peer Sexuality Outreach program, leading workshops on safer sex, consent, and relationships. I took women’s studies courses (there was no “gender studies” program in those days), and sought an academic and intellectual understanding of sex. And I converted to Roman Catholicism and explored a vocation, hoping to find a way to take all of that rambunctious sexual energy and redirect it into something purely selfless. I was a not terribly unusual, though rather persuasive, bundle of neurosis and compassion, shame and defiance, narcissism and generosity. Thank heavens Father Al called me out on what I was trying to do, and gently suggested I needed to rethink my strategy for reconciling my sexual impulses with my ideological and theological commitments. Continue reading

A survey on attitudes towards casual sex

Heather Corinna, founder and executive editor of the indispensable site Scarleteen, is doing a large study on multigenerational experiences with and attitudes about casual sex. The data will ideally be used for publication, but answers are completely anonymous and will only be used anonymously.

There’s a lot of buzz now about “hooking up,” the newest term for casual sex, though casual sex isn’t new at all — nor does it only belong to the current generation, despite often being presented that way. Unlike most of the buzz out there, she’s not interested in telling anyone how to have sex, warning people off any given kind of sex or in presenting any one kind of sex as “the best way.” She’s just looking for what’s real, both in sexual attitudes and experiences among a diverse array of ages, genders and sexual identities, races and sexual ideologies/constructions. The only requirements for participating in this study are being over the age of 16, and having had some kind of sexual partnership before, even if none has been casual. The study will take around twenty minutes.

She would like the study to show as diverse an array of people as possible, especially since so often media representations or cultural conversations about casual sex are usually only about heterosexual white women or about gay men. She particularly wants to be sure LGBT people, people of color, those over 45 and social conservatives are adequately represented, so please share this link with your networks after you take the survey yourself, especially if your networks include people in any or all of those groups. I know I have a number of readers who fall into those groups, and urge them to take part.

You can take the survey by clicking here.

If you don’t know who Heather is, she’s been working in human sexuality for around 12 years. She is the founder and executive director for Scarleteen.com, does sex education outreach at youth shelters and women’s clinics in Seattle, and has been a sex columnist and writer online for sites like The Guardian and RH Reality Check. She has also been published in a handful of anthologies and is the author of S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know-Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College (DaCapo Press), a book which I regard as the single best sex education text available anywhere.

If you have any questions, you can contact Heather at hcorinna@mac.com