On Not Holding Our Models Sacred: Some Feminist Theories And Their Flaws

Social science relies on models. (No, not that kind.) If you’re familiar with social science, you might be used to referring to them as “theories.”

A theory or model in social science is like a theory or model in any other science. It is developed based on evidence and used to explain various phenomena. A model that is not developed based on evidence (but rather introspection or assumption) is probably not very useful, and neither is a model that can’t explain much. (See: psychoanalytic theory.)

In a great post on models that you should read all of before going any further, Crommunist says:

The key to models is this: all models are wrong. All of them. Every last one. However, some models, carefully designed, can help us test hypotheses about the world without having to somehow re-create a process in real life and then observe it directly. But the models are still wrong. They are, as a necessary consequence of their utility, reductive. They omit some data, they make assumptions, they do not explain every single observation, and they force some observations into states that they might not actually belong in the real world.

And so we constantly look to improve models. We strive to use the appropriate model to answer the appropriate question: the nuclear model is perfectly useful for answering questions about electron bonding and valence, but it’s less useful when we want to talk about the behaviour and movement of electrons. Newtonian mechanics is great if you want to predict what a baseball will do, but terrible if you want to predict what a quark will do. In the case where an old model fails to properly predict reality, we develop a more sophisticated model.

It is important to critique the models we use because that’s how we make them better. It’s also important to distinguish between criticism and denialism. People who support and promote models that are often unfairly attacked by denialists who have a vested interest in suppressing those models may start to mistake useful criticism for yet more denialism. Critics should be aware of this and endeavor to avoid using denialist talking points, accidentally or otherwise. (For instance, this is probably not the best time to use snark as a rhetorical device.)

Supporters, meanwhile, can do their part by welcoming smart, useful criticism and by continually seeking to improve their own views and arguments. In fact, sometimes the best critics are supporters who care deeply about making their models better.

So what I’ve decided to do here is to look at three models commonly used in social justice and point out some of their weak spots. I probably won’t get much into actually improving the models or else this post is going to be book-length, but I might do that in the future. I think there’s a dearth of good criticism of social justice concepts from people who actually understand those concepts and are willing to engage with them in good faith and support the idea of social justice in general, so hopefully I’ll be able to do something the MRAs and biological essentialists will never be able to do.

Some caveats:
1. This post contains a lot of intellectualizing and a little bit of devil’s advocate as they apply to a few social justice ideas. If you don’t like these things, please don’t read this post, but please don’t argue with my decision to write it, either.
2. I’m pointing out a few weak spots in a few models. I am not–not–saying that I think these models are completely flawed and should be thrown out. I think privilege exists. I think rape culture exists. I think gender is largely a social construct. 
3. While you’re welcome to discuss strengths of these models in the comments section, please don’t try to do so as an argument against anything I’m saying. If I point out a way in which a model is flawed and you point out a way in which that model works, you’re not proving me wrong (and I’m not proving you wrong, either). If you disagree with my analysis of the flaws themselves, that’s a different thing.

The three models I’ll be looking at are gender as performance, rape culture, and privilege.

I. Gender as performance

The idea that we “perform” gender originates with the feminist theorist Judith Butler, who wrote a rather dense book about it called Gender Trouble that I confess I haven’t read. But most people who use that term probably haven’t read it. It’s a sticky idea.

Gender-as-performance works very well to explain why many people who do not identify particularly strongly (or at all) with masculinity and femininity feel compelled to act in masculine or feminine ways. It also helps explain why someone’s femininity doesn’t necessarily correlate with their sense of being a woman, or their masculinity with their sense of being a man.

However, for the people for whom their assigned gender role feels fitting and appropriate, gender-as-performance doesn’t really explain much. Here someone might argue something like, “Well, deep down, they don’t really feel that masculinity (femininity) is natural for them, they’re just doing it because that’s what’s expected of them as a man (woman). But I don’t know how I feel about making such assumptions about what’s in people’s heads.

Butler’s model is also weak when it comes to explaining the experiences of trans people, particularly trans women. In her book Excluded, Julia Serano discusses this:

The assumption that my gender is artificial or a performance is regularly cited by those who wish to undermine or dismiss my female identity. I refuse to let anyone get away with the cissexist presumption that my gender must be a ‘performance’ simply because I am a transsexual. And I similarly refuse to let anyone get away with the masculine-centric presumption that my gender must be a ‘performance’ simply because I am feminine.

I also find the notion of femininity as a performance to be somewhat disingenuous and oversimplistic. I mean, I can ‘perform’ femininity. I can put on makeup, skirts, and heels. I can talk with my hands or twirl my hair if I want. But performance doesn’t explain why certain behaviors and ways of being come to me more naturally than others. The idea that femininity is just a construct or merely a performance is incompatible with the countless young feminine boys who are not self-conscious about their gender expressions, who become confused as to why their parents become outraged at their behavior, or why the other children relentlessly tease them for being who they are. Many such children find their gender expression to be irrepressible, and they remain outwardly feminine throughout their lives despite all of the stigmatization and male socialization to the contrary. Other femininely-oriented male children learn to hide their feminine gender expression in order to survive, but at a great cost.

I was one of the latter children. I know that for many cis queer women, femininity is something that others foist upon them, an unwanted burden, an expectation that they are unable or unwilling to meet. THis is perhaps why so many cis lesbian feminists have gone to such great lengths to argue that femininity is artificial, a mere artifact of patriarchy. But for me, femininity was like ether or air–it was always there, just waiting for the chance to leak out of me. When I think about gender expression being a ‘performance,’ I think about myself as a kid, watching my S’s when I spoke to make sure they didn’t linger. ‘Performance’ was me fighting back the urge to be more animated with my hands when I talked, or learning never to use words like ‘adorable’ or ‘cute’ nonsarcastically. ‘Performance’ was going to the barber to get my hair cut short like my parents wanted it, when what I really wanted was to let my hair grow long. Like I said, for me, masculinity always felt artificial, while femininity felt natural.

Not all trans women identify with femininity, but Serano shows that the idea of gender as a performance does not resonate with her experience of wanting desperately to be able to express herself in a feminine way, even as a young child. In fact, if all gender is merely performance, the existence of trans identities makes no sense. Being socialized as a boy should make you a masculine man. Being socialized as a woman should make you a feminine woman. End of story.

(I wouldn’t be surprised if the inconvenience of trans identities for certain second-wave feminist theories helps explain, in part, the vitriol and exclusion that trans people have historically faced from radical feminists.)

Of course, it’s possible that, as a trans woman, Serano was born with a sense of herself as a woman, but not with a sense of herself as feminine. The latter might have been part of the meaning that Serano attached to being a woman, given the prevalence of messages in the surrounding environment about what being a woman means. While we usually think of gender roles as something children learn through socialization, they also pick up plenty of not-so-subtle clues about how people of the other gender ought to act. In this way, gender-as-performance might still make sense, in that Serano learned to perform femininity because she thought of herself as a girl rather than the boy that others saw her as.

But that seems pretty spurious. I’d have to see the evidence that children at that age even know what it means to think of themselves “as a woman” or “as a man.”

Further evidence against the model of gender as performance is that inborn psychological gender differences do seem to exist. They aren’t nearly as significant or pronounced as the media and some evolutionary psychologists paint them to be, but they exist. Some studies have shown differences in perception between male and female infants at ages as young as four months. While most psychological gender differences seem to be created as a result of socialization and all the processes associated with it, it seems very unlikely that in just four months, male infants could have learned, through differential socialization, to become better than female infants at mentally rotating three-dimensional objects. Although I suppose it’s possible.

If psychological gender differences that are caused by biology exist, then there may be a small biological component to gender roles, as well.

Butler’s model of gender-as-performance implies a false dichotomy between things that are both natural and genuine and things that are both constructed and performative (or fake). Even if gender is completely a social construction, that does not mean that its expression is always a performance. True, some people must perform gender, as Julia Serano had to as a girl who was expected to behave like a boy. But for many (if not most) people, their gender role does not feel, and never has felt, like a role they have to perform as an actor would in a play. Gender could be a social construction that still feels real to people, because in constructing it, they make it real. The fact that gender feels so natural to most people does not have to mean that it is all biological, and the fact that it is socially constructed (to whatever extent) does not have to mean it is a mere performance.

In her book, Julia Serano rejects both gender determinism (the idea that gender is determined completely by biology) and gender artifactualism (the idea that gender is completely a social construct) and argues in favor of what she calls a holistic model of gender and sexuality, which is based on solid scientific evidence and accepts a role for all sorts of factors in the development of gender: biology (including genetics and other biological factors), socialization, environment, and so on. Her new model is an improvement over the simplistic models promoted by both the most myopic biologists and the most myopic gender theorists.

II. Rape culture

(For reference, here’s a great introduction to rape culture.)

If the central premise on which the model of rape culture rests–that our society trivializes, accepts, condones, encourages, or even at times celebrates rape–were completely true in all cases, you might not expect rape to actually be illegal. And even if it were, you might not expect for there to be any stigma associated with being a rapist. But there is. The problem is that it takes a lot to be considered a rapist. Often, not even undeniable evidence of rape will do it, because we keep shifting the goalposts of what rape is.

But if you do find your way into the rapist category, you might actually face consequences. And, while that infamous study suggesting that atheists are even less trusted than rapists was flawed, there’s a reason the “even less than rapists” part was so significant to so many people.

The prevalence of rape jokes is sometimes taken as evidence of the existence of a rape culture. I’m not sure where I fall on this. Some rape jokes, like the one Daniel Tosh famously made, seem very rape culture-y to me, because the joke is a woman being raped as punishment for not being quiet and feminine enough. Same goes for every time someone threatens to rape someone for having an opinion they disagree with on the internet, and same goes for every time someone makes a joke about prison rape, because again, that joke hinges on the unspoken belief that there are people who “deserve” rape.

Other rape jokes, however, resemble typical jokes about awful things like death or cancer. We (arguably) do not have a culture that trivializes or even promotes death or cancer, and yet we joke about them.

It’s the response that people get when they criticize rape jokes, though, that makes the strongest case. I find it hard to imagine someone saying, “Actually, my grandpa has cancer, so please don’t make those jokes around me,” and receiving anything other than an apology. Yet when women speak up against rape jokes, they are often ignored, ridiculed, or literally threatened with rape. (Because nothing makes the point “I am not a creepy rape apologist” better than threatening your interlocutor with rape.)

Because whether or not rape culture as a model explains the existence and popularity of rape jokes, it explains the fury with which many men respond tot he reminder that rape is a real horror that affects real humans.

Rape culture as a model is also not very useful for explaining the fact that consent and self-determination are devalued in many other contexts that have nothing to do with sex. Children are expected to hug relatives whether they want to or not. Pregnant women are subject to constant belly-touching by random strangers, so much so that laws have been passed against it. People of color have their hair touched without their consent all the time. People who don’t want to drink or go out or try a new food or play a game are often pressured into doing so by their friends. The idea of getting consent before hugging someone is often laughed at.

You could try to intersect this with the privilege model and claim that people who lack privilege in particular ways are more likely to have more powerful people try to override their right to autonomy, but then sex seems like just a subset of that general rule, as opposed to a special case called “rape culture.”

Some people extend “rape culture” to include all situations in which people’s consent is overridden, including non-sexual touching and various social situations. But parents inevitably (and understandably) bristle at being told that when they wheedle their child into giving Grandpa a hug, they are somehow promoting rape. While there are parallels between that and overriding people’s sexual consent, I don’t think those parallels are strong enough to justify claiming that a parent who wheedles their child into giving Grandpa a hug is promoting the very same rape culture that gets promoted every time a victim of sexual assault is asked what they were wearing at the time, or when a man expects sex from a woman because she smiled at him or because he bought her a drink.

Maybe a more useful way to conceptualize all of these patterns together isn’t by calling them all “rape culture,” but by referring to them as evidence that we lack a consent culture. That is, we have a culture that devalues consent in most (if not all) situations. (Here I make a mental note to write about this more later. [Edit: Actually, I sort of already have?])

III. Privilege

(For reference, here’s a great introduction to privilege.)

One problem with the concept of privilege is that it’s not always very useful at the individual level. For instance, say you’re talking about the way that women are taught to second-guess themselves while men are taught to be confident. This is true in a general, collective sense, but you can’t point at a specific man and say, “This man was taught to be confident.” Maybe he was, but maybe he was abused or bullied as a child and therefore learned not to be confident. Maybe he has a mental illness that precludes confidence. Maybe he’s a trans man who was socialized as a woman (and, in fact, whose very stratus as a man is constantly being contested). Maybe he simply missed out on this aspect of normative male socialization.

Privilege may also fail as a model when you try to use it to explain why some people understand certain things and others don’t. For instance, a feminist might claim that a man doesn’t understand why telling a woman not to wear revealing clothes as a rape-prevention tactic is wrong, and that he doesn’t understand it because he has male privilege that prevents him from ever having to deal with this firsthand. But many women also give the same slut-shaming “advice.” I’ve heard many women, including ones I know very well, say that a woman who goes out dressed “like a slut” is “asking for it.” But they also lack male privilege. What then?

Well, then many people use the term “internalization,” which basically means that you’ve accepted the messages our society sends about the group you belong to and assimilated these messages into your own beliefs. This explains why many women believe that women should stay at home and raise children, that “slutty” women “deserve” bad things, that women are less logical or capable of certain things than men, and so on.

But in that case, privilege isn’t doing very well as a model for explaining why many people believe these things about women. The women who believe these things may lack the same privileges as the women who do not believe these things.

(The internalization theory also works particularly awfully when used as a debate tactic. If you’ve ever witnessed a progressive man accusing a non-feminist woman of having “internalized” misogyny, or a white person accusing a person of color of having “internalized” racism, and cringed, you know what I’m talking about.)

Privilege as a model is also less useful in discussions of gender than discussions of other axes of marginalization. Namely, there are very real disadvantages to being male. There are. You’re more likely to be a victim of violence, more likely to end up in prison, more likely to be profiled by the police (especially as this intersects with race and class status), more likely to have the burden of supporting an entire family (at least in certain demographics; this, again, intersects with race and class), less able to show your emotions, more susceptible to certain mental illnesses, more likely to commit suicide (though not to attempt), less able to come out as a rape survivor, more subject to gender role policing, and so on and so forth.

I don’t know if this is sufficient to argue for a so-called “female privilege” (especially since most proponents of the existence of female privilege insist that one of those privileges is being able to get laid more easily), but I do know that there are disadvantages men face because they are men, while there aren’t really any disadvantages that white people face because they are white or that straight people face because they are straight. (Most people who argue that there are seem to think that it puts them at a disadvantage when other people gain access to the rights and resources that they have had for centuries.) The disadvantages that men face also seem to stem from the same screwed-up system of gender roles that harms women as opposed to any supposed “power” that women have over men, or unearned advantages that they receive at men’s expense. (This is why MRAs are so misguided when they point out ways in which men actually are disadvantaged and blame it on women or, more bizarrely, the small minority of women who are feminists.)

Male privilege is also not sufficient to explain the fact that men’s gender roles are policed so much more stringently than women’s. While a (female) tomboy may face some disapproval, she probably won’t face nearly as much as a boy who wears dresses (or even “acts” feminine in some way). But people of all genders who choose not to present as either masculine or feminine face opprobrium, too. Maybe the way to explain this is three intersecting privileges: the privilege of being perceived as a man, the privilege of behaving in a masculine way, and the privilege of having your gender “line up” with the sex you were assigned at birth. But that starts to get very complicated.

Another problem: once you start conceptualizing privilege as a quantity that can be had or not had, people inevitably start quibbling over who has more of it–the much-maligned “oppression olympics.” Not having privilege comes an optimal state, and having privilege becomes bad in and of itself (as opposed to bad if it causes you to be ignorant or hurtful). An an essay on how the privilege concept may prevent collective thought and action, Andrea Smith writes:

In my experience working with a multitude of anti-racist organizing projects over the years, I frequently found myself participating in various workshops in which participants were asked to reflect on their gender/race/sexuality/class/etc. privilege.  These workshops had a bit of a self-help orientation to them: “I am so and so, and I have x privilege.”  It was never quite clear what the point of these confessions were.  It was not as if other participants did not know the confessor in question had her/his proclaimed privilege.   It did not appear that these individual confessions actually led to any political projects to dismantle the structures of domination that enabled their privilege.  Rather, the confessions became the political project themselves.    The benefits of these confessions seemed to be ephemeral.  For the instant the confession took place, those who do not have that privilege in daily life would have a temporary position of power as the hearer of the confession who could grant absolution and forgiveness.  The sayer of the confession could then be granted temporary forgiveness for her/his abuses of power and relief from white/male/heterosexual/etc guilt.   Because of the perceived benefits of this ritual, there was generally little critique of the fact that in the end, it primarily served to reinstantiate the structures of domination it was supposed to resist.  One of the reasons there was little critique of this practice is that it bestowed cultural capital to those who seemed to be the “most oppressed.”  Those who had little privilege did not have to confess and were in the position to be the judge of those who did have privilege.  Consequently, people aspired to be oppressed.  Inevitably, those with more privilege would develop new heretofore unknown forms of oppression from which they suffered.  “I may be white, but my best friend was a person of color, which caused me to be oppressed when we played together.”  Consequently, the goal became not to actually end oppression but to be as oppressed as possible.  These rituals often substituted confession for political movement-building.  And despite the cultural capital that was, at least temporarily, bestowed to those who seemed to be the most oppressed, these rituals ultimately reinstantiated the white majority subject as the subject capable of self-reflexivity and the colonized/racialized subject as the occasion for self-reflexivity.

This way of thinking about privilege creates contexts in which it’s okay for someone without a certain privilege to say a certain thing, but not okay for someone with that privilege to say that thing. Of course, I’m being simplistic; often people without certain privileges are still rightly criticized for saying inaccurate or harmful things. But I’ve definitely come across situations where people have outright said, “If he/she/they weren’t a ______, it would’ve been okay.”

Sometimes this makes sense. For instance, it makes sense that members of marginalized groups can reclaim slurs and use them in a celebratory way while still reading those slurs as insults when used by people outside of the group, because you cannot reclaim a slur on someone’s behalf. And in many cases, our priors suggest that the same argument can read very differently when coming from different people. But this is just a heuristic, a cognitive shortcut that works in many cases but not always. At its worst, it can keep harmful people trusted by those they are harming, or it can cause good-faith critics to be ostracized when their criticism might have been useful.

For instance, when I imagine this blog post being written by a man, I imagine it being read much less charitably than it’s (hopefully) being read having been written by a woman. I’m not sure that I wouldn’t succumb to that bias myself, because I’ve read so few good criticisms of feminist theories written by men. (Which is not to say that men are categorically incapable of producing good criticism of feminism, just that the majority of it tends toward your typical anti-feminist talking points.)

But maybe this is just more evidence that more of us insiders should become critics, like Julia Serano, a feminist, did in Excluded, and like every progressive atheist does when they criticize some of the reactionary threads in this movement.

Almost everyone lacks privilege in some ways (not just the silly and illegitimate ways Andrea Smith mentions in her essay), so it might not be particularly useful to speak of “having” or “not having” privilege in general. It might only make sense to speak very specifically: “You have the privilege of being perceived as white, so cops don’t profile you.” Or “You have the privilege of having been born into a family with lots of money.” (I discuss this more here.)

Absent from my critique of the concept of privilege is the fact that it pisses people off. It’s this criticism I see most often, sometimes from people who actually concede that such a thing undeniably exists, but we shouldn’t talk about it because it’s divisive/makes people feel bad/turns people off of social justice/distracts from the larger issues.

The word privilege offends because the idea of privilege offends. You could call it whatever you want and it would still offend, because people desperately want to believe (despite what your mom told you when you whined that “it’s not faaaair”) that this world is just and that we’ve earned everything good that’s in our lives. Nobody who has not yet abandoned the just world hypothesis will react well when confronted with the concept of privilege. While I wouldn’t call this a feature, I wouldn’t call it a bug, either. Just something we have to be aware of and work around.

I’ve also heard the argument that privilege is a poor choice of name for privilege because in its original meaning, it has a negative connotation. It’s associated with having nice things you didn’t have to work for, like trust funds or inherited manors in the countryside. The negative connotation of the original word comes from the fact that people “of privilege” in this sense often feel entitled to what they have and are ignorant of the struggles faced by those who do not share those privileges.

But, negative as that connotation may be, it is not entirely inapplicable to the social justice context.

Inevitably, debates like these dissolve into arguments about whether or not a given concept’s name conveys its meaning accurately and effectively. I am sympathetic to these arguments at the same time as I find them not especially useful.

Of course I wish that every term we used when talking about psychology or sociology or politics sounded exactly like the concept it describes. If I could wave a magic wand and rename a bunch of these terms, I would. I’d probably even rename “privilege” and “feminism” (though I don’t know to what). But guess what? Plenty of smart people would still disagree with what I chose, and the people who chose the original terms were smart and knowledgeable, too.

Besides, I don’t actually know how to make thousands of scholars, activists, and ordinary folks all over the world stop using words they’ve used for years and use new ones instead. Even if I did, I don’t think that would be the most productive use of my time.

A better use of our time is probably cultivating in people the sense of free-spirited curiosity that will encourage them to look up terms they don’t understand rather than assuming, as many people do, that feminists use those terms specifically in order to blame, guilt trip, or hurt them.

It may feel sometimes that recognizing and acknowledging a model’s weaknesses will make it seem weaker to ideological opponents, but I’d argue that we seem more consistent and intellectually honest if we do so. Yes, privilege may not explain why men are disadvantaged in ways no other dominant group is. Rape culture may not really explain why so many people don’t give a damn about consent whether the situation involves anything sexual or not or not. Gender performativity seems to shrug its shoulders where the experiences of trans people are concerned.

Acknowledging these flaws allows for better, more useful models–which will inevitably have flaws of their own. And we’ll critique them too, and start the cycle over again.

~~~

Edit: Awkwardly, I forgot to link to my relevant posts on strawmanning rape culture, parts one and two.

How Sex Education Can Combat Sexual Violence

[Content note: sexual assault]

I have a post up at Secular Woman for their sex ed series! Here’s a preview.

Comprehensive, evidence-based sex education is usually framed as a remedy for the usual culprits: STI transmission, teenage pregnancy, having sex “too early” or with “too many” different partners, and so on. Although this sex-positive feminist bristles at the fact that one of the goals of comprehensive sex ed is to delay sexual initiation and reduce teens’ number of sexual partners, overall these programs are extremely important to promote, and they are effective at reducing STIs and pregnancy in teens—unlike abstinence-only sex ed.

However, I would argue that the goals of secular, scientific sex education should not end there. I believe that we have the responsibility to teach young people sexual ethics and to use education to challenge a culture that too often excuses or even promotes sexual violence.

How do we accomplish such a monumental task? The same way as we teach kids to do school projects: by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable parts.

Rape culture is an ideology that consists of a number of interrelated but distinct beliefs about gender, sexuality, and violence. These beliefs are spread and enforced by just about every source of information that a child interacts with: parents, friends, teachers, books, movies, news stories (on TV, in magazines and newspapers, online), music, advertising, laws, etc..

Traditional, abstinence-only sex education promotes a number of these beliefs in various ways. Here are a few messages that these programs send to teens either implicitly or explicitly, along with how these messages support rape culture:

1. It is a woman’s job to prevent sex from happening.

Abstinence-only sex ed is full of religious ideology, and one example is the idea that women are “clean” and “pure” and must safeguard their own chastity before men can strip them of it. This idea suggests to women that 1) men who keep pushing them for sex are not doing anything wrong, and 2) if they eventually get pressured into having sex, that’s not rape—that’s just the woman not being strong-willed enough.

2. Men always want sex.

A corollary to the previous message, the “men always want sex” meme implies that men who use coercion and/or violence to get sex are only doing what’s natural for them. It also erases male victims of sexual assault, because if men want sex all the time, how could they possibly be raped?

Here’s the rest.

Making the Normal Abnormal

Much of progressive activism focuses on making things that seem weird, abnormal, and wrong to many people seem more ordinary, normal, and acceptable. For instance, activists have tried to show that being attracted to someone of the same gender is no different from being attracted to someone of the opposite gender, that eating vegetarian or vegan is no big deal, and that abortion is just another medical procedure that everyone should have access to.

Making the abnormal seem normal is a crucial part of activism, but so is the opposite, which is less talked about: making the normal seem abnormal.

Here is a “normal” thing in our society: a young woman walks down the street at midnight, one hand clutching her keys and the other holding her pepper spray with her finger poised on the trigger. Her heart pounds and she walks as fast as possible. Few other women are still out, but plenty of men hang around, walking freely down the street. A few of them shout sexual comments at the woman just for shits and giggles.

This is our normal. This is okay to many people. Not only do they think this is normal, but they might even advise this woman to do this whole keys/pepper spray/avoid certain streets/don’t show skin charade. They might even consider her stupid or foolish if she does not perform the charade well enough.

So what I want to do is to get people to look at this differently. I want them to see how weird, how artificial, how bizarre this actually is. I want them to imagine a sentient alien species visiting Earth and furrowing their brows (if they have brows) and wondering, “Wait, so, you divide your species in half and one half can’t walk down the block without getting harassed or threatened by the other half? And your solution to this is not for the ‘men’ to stop harassing and threatening, but for the ‘women’ to stop walking alone?!”

I want them to see how utterly fucking weird it is that one half of humanity has a socially-imposed curfew every evening because we won’t teach the other half to leave them the hell alone.

Here’s another normal thing. An 8-year-old boy likes the color pink, so he brings a pink lunchbox to school. He gets bullied mercilessly. People might agree that this is sad–the more liberal among them might even say that they wish things weren’t this way–but many will agree that responding to a little boy wearing pink by bullying him is normal, understandable, “natural.”

No. It’s not. It’s really fucking weird. Wearing or possessing something of a certain color makes you a target for abuse? And our solution to this is to teach children not to have or wear things of certain colors?

We created pink as a signifier of femininity. Girls are not born swaddled in pink blankets (and neither are boys in blue ones). This is not some all-powerful, hurricane-like force of nature that we just have to live with and plan our lives around.

But we throw our hands up and let children be abused by other children because of their aesthetic preferences.

One more example. In this country, unlike in many others, you have to pay inordinate sums of money to get an education that will allow you to have a job that you can actually support yourself and your family with (unless you’re Bill Gates, but most of us are not). And unless you are lucky to have a family with tons of money, you have to take out loans with horrible interest rates to get this education. Sometimes these loans will be 3 or 4 times what your starting salary will be. People will tell you that this is a “bad idea,” but you don’t really have much of a choice. No, being born into a rich family is not a choice.

Isn’t that kind of weird? We need people trained in all kinds of professions (not just business, finance, and engineering) in order to have a functioning society. But rather than making this training affordable to those who want it, we either discourage people from getting it or make them take out huge loans that they may default on. We shoot ourselves in the foot, and we wonder where all the good teachers and therapists and so on are.

When you start to see how abnormal many aspects of our day-to-day existence are, you realize that changing them is not optional.

People have a vested interested in seeing injustice as “normal,” not only because that frees them from the obligation to fix the injustice, but also because it spares them from the despair of realizing–really realizing, not just in the abstract, platitudinous, “yeah well life’s not fair” sort of way–that injustice exists.

Always remember that. And know that most people do not do this intentionally. Most people do not maliciously decide to treat terrible things as okay because they want others to suffer. And although intent matters when assessing an individual’s character, it doesn’t really matter when it comes to the consequences of that individual’s actions, especially not when viewed in the aggregate: many individuals making many little choices that all add up to create a society in which it’s viewed as “normal” that, for instance, a teenage girl should expect to be brutally gang-raped if she decides to hang out with some male classmates.

Whether or not anyone intended to create this society, it is nevertheless the one that we created. Debating intent diverts attention from the more important question: how do we fix it?

When someone says that rape is “just a thing that happens” or that “it’s only natural” for poor people not to be able to have healthy food and a safe home, what they’re doing is normalizing injustice. They’re constructing injustice as a regular, expected, run-of-the-mill fact of life, to be met not with anger and collective action, but with a resigned shrug of the shoulders.

Don’t let them.

Women Are Not “Mysterious”

I came across this meme in my Facebook newsfeed (with criticism, thankfully):

A man opens a huge, several-feet-tall book. Caption reads, "The book 'Understanding Women' has finally arrived in bookstores."

It was shared by the page “Engineer Memes,” which makes sense given the trope that it references. You know the one: the brilliant, successful scientist/engineer/mathematician who can solve any problem, invent a lifesaving drug or device, and understand the most complicated theories of physics, but there is one enigma in this world that even he cannot comprehend…the human female.

This trope is tired and old and boring. It’s also harmful.

Here’s an abridged list of things women are not:

  • an alien species with incomprehensible thought processes and behaviors
  • rocket ships that require years of training to operate
  • ancient scrolls written with indecipherable runes
  • never-before-seen weather patterns that have meteorologists stumped

Nevertheless, women are invariably referred to (by men) as “the ultimate enigma,” “mysterious forces of nature,” and other such lofty descriptions. Women’s personalities and sexualities are considered infinitely more complex than men’s supposedly simple ones. When it comes to sex, especially, many people continue to believe that there is something “complicated” or “mysterious” about pleasing a woman, but not about pleasing a man. The female orgasm glimmers in the imaginations of men like Atlantis.

At first glance this sounds like a compliment. Shouldn’t women be glad that they get to be “mysterious” and “complex” while men are simple and boring? Shouldn’t women feel flattered that their male partners are willing to brave the dark labyrinths of their Complex Lady Brains in order to try (in vain) to Understand Women? Isn’t this proof that it’s really women, not men, who are superior, in that they captivate helpless men with their feminine mysteriousness?

I view the women-are-mysterious trope as an example of benevolent sexism, which I’ve written about here before. But here’s a refresher. While hostile sexism consists of the beliefs we typically think of as misogyny–women are stupid, women are weak, women are shallow and catty, women just want to fuck men over and get their money, etc.–benevolent sexism is the set of beliefs that puts women on a pedestal. For instance, the idea that every man needs a woman to take care of him and to make sure he washes his clothes and eats good food is an example of benevolent sexism. So is the stereotype that women are better caretakers than men and that they are superior at communication.

Benevolent sexism and hostile sexism are strongly correlated; people who score high on one tend to score high on the other as well. Benevolent and hostile sexism each also includes beliefs about men, such as “men are strong and competent” on the benevolent side and “men are all lying cheaters” on the hostile side.

Although hostile sexism (toward either gender) is arguably more directly hurtful, benevolent sexism has negative consequences as well. It tends to promote gender roles and it allows men to stigmatize and marginalize women who don’t fit the tropes associated with it (if “real” women are good caretakers, what do you do with a woman who has no interest in taking care of anyone?). Benevolent sexism is a system in which women who conform to their roles receive limited rewards for doing so, but attain little actual power for themselves.

Besides the fact that it’s a type of sexism, the women-are-mysterious trope is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It prevents men from learning how to understand women by teaching them that trying to is a waste of time. In doing so, it ensures that women will remain “mysterious” to men.

Over at Crates and Ribbons, Leopard writes:

It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that Stephen Hawkings can declare women to be “a complete mystery”, and have newspapers gleefully latch on to this, declaring women “the greatest mystery known to man”. It is a common refrain for men to bleat about not understanding women, but this is because they have simply never tried, because society has trained them to never look at life through the eyes of a woman.

In other words, the women-are-mysterious trope is not an accident and nor is it free of consequences. It stems from the historical privileging of men’s viewpoints (and the marginalization of women’s viewpoints) and results in men’s unwillingness to try–to really try–to understand the women in their lives. It’s much easier to write off women’s behaviors, attitudes, and emotions as “mysterious” and “indecipherable” and perhaps arising from mystical female biological processes than it is to actually listen to and try to understand them.

It is, of course, false that men and women are completely the same in every way. They are not, largely because of different socialization. If men were encouraged to learn about and understand this different socialization rather than throwing their hands up and giving up on understanding these mysterious forces of nature, men and women would communicate better and gender roles would break down faster. It’s a win-win!

Understanding women is, indeed, not at all like understanding physics and mathematics. It’s like understanding people, plus being aware of how different groups of people sometimes face different experiences and expectations in society. It also means understanding that while there are some differences between men on average and women on average, the differences among men and among women are much larger–and, arguably, more significant if you’d like to understand individuals as opposed to groups. The best way to understand a particular woman’s–say, your girlfriend’s–needs, desires, expectations, and preferences isn’t to try to Understand Women, it’s to try to understand her. And that means actually communicating with her.

You don’t need a two-foot-thick book to understand women. You do, however, need to learn to listen.

~~~

P.S. Not the subject of this post, but women who claim that it’s Impossible To Understand Men should stop doing that, too. It’s not impossible.

Strawmanning Rape Culture (Part One)

[Content note: sexual assault]

Rape culture is a very difficult concept for many people to understand, perhaps because, like many sociological constructs, it works in such a way as to make itself invisible. Understanding rape culture, especially if you are someone who isn’t affected by it very much, requires a keen attention to detail and a willingness to examine your own complicity in things you’d rather not believe that you’re complicit in.

For a great introduction to rape culture, read the Wikipedia page and this Shakesville piece. If you’re not familiar with it, read these things before you read this post, because this is not a 101-level post. Here’s another definition, from the book Transforming a Rape Culture, that may be useful (although you’ll notice that I’ll expand on it a bit later):

A rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.

In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes. This violence, however, is neither biologically nor divinely ordained. Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.

Many people hear about rape culture briefly, perhaps online or in a text assigned in a sociology or gender studies class, and don’t really read about or grasp the nuances of it. This makes it very easy to strawman the rape culture argument, to reduce it to clearly absurd and obviously inaccurate claims that are easy to strike down–and, crucially, that nobody who claims that rape culture exists ever made to begin with.

Here are some common strawman versions of rape culture, and why they are inaccurate.

“So you’re saying that people think rape is okay.”

When many people hear “rape culture,” they assume this is supposed to imply that we live in a society where people actually think rape is okay and/or good. That’s an easily falsifiable claim. After all, rape is illegal. We do, in some cases, punish people for committing it. If someone is known to be a rapist, that person’s reputation often takes a huge nosedive. We teach nowadays that “no means no.” People obviously resist being identified as rapists, and they wouldn’t resist it if it weren’t generally considered a bad thing to be.

So how could we really have a rape culture? More to the point, if people who say we live in a rape culture are not claiming that people literally think rape is okay, what exactly are we claiming?

One way rape gets shrugged off and thus accepted in our culture is by constantly shifting the goalposts of what rape is. If you flirted with someone, it’s not rape. If you had an orgasm, it’s not rape. If you dressed sluttily, it’s not rape. If you’re a sex worker, it’s not rape. If it was with your partner or spouse, it’s not rape. If you’re a prisoner, it’s not rape. If you’re fat or unattractive, it’s not rape (because you must’ve wanted it). If no penis was involved, it’s not rape. If you were unconscious, it’s not rape. The fact that we have politicians debating what is and is not “legitimate rape” is evidence that we do not consider all rape to be legitimate. And, unsurprisingly, studies show that people will admit to having committed sexual assault provided it’s not called “sexual assault” in the survey.

Another way rape gets excused is through victim blaming, which I’ll discuss a bit later. Even when we admit that what happened to someone is rape, we still often blame them for it, thus implying that, in some cases, rape isn’t really so wrong because the victim was “asking for it.”

One more related way in which rape gets excused is through claims that rapists (male rapists, generally) “can’t help themselves.” By framing rape as the inevitable result of masculinity, hormones, sexual tension, and so on, we’re implying that rape is a normal part of our society that we’re not going to do anything about. The hypocrisy of a society that pays lip service to the idea that rape is bad while also suggesting that in some cases it’s not “really” rape and in some cases it’s just what you’d expect and ultimately it’s inevitable anyway is emblematic of rape culture.

Remember, though, that some people do actually think rape is good and/or okay. Some men do openly admit to wanting to rape women, and even if they’re attempting to make a so-called “joke,” their choice of joke says a lot about their beliefs about rape.

“So you’re saying that without rape culture, there would be no more rape.”

People also misinterpret the rape culture argument as a claim that all rape is caused directly by rape culture. While some people probably do believe that there would be no rape in a society free from rape culture, I don’t. I think that rape culture drastically increases the prevalence of rape by encouraging attitudes that lead to it, reducing penalties for rapists, and making it more difficult for victims to speak out and seek justice.

Strawmanning the rape culture argument in this way makes it seem patently ridiculous. After all, we don’t claim that there’s a “car theft culture,” but people steal plenty of cars. We don’t wring our hands over “identity theft culture,” but lots and lots of people fall victim to identity theft. Same, unfortunately, with murder. So if you think we’re saying that rape culture is the entire reason rape exists as a phenomenon at all, it’s easy to refute that claim by pointing to other crimes, and also by pointing out that people often commit crimes because it gives them some sort of advantage.

If rape culture did not exist, rape would still exist, but things would look very different. Rape would be much rarer. When there is enough evidence to show that someone committed rape, that person will go to jail. Although there may still a bit of stigma surrounding being a rape victim, that stigma will not be any greater than it is for being the victim of any other crime (right now, it’s much greater). Rape would not constantly be threatened and used as “punishment” for being queer, for being a woman who speaks out, and so on. There will still be researchers trying to understand what causes people to become rapists and activists trying to stop them from doing so, but the key difference will be that when someone gets raped, we’ll ask more questions about the person who raped them than about the person who was raped. We’ll ask what led the rapist to do such a thing, not what led the victim to be so careless.

“So you’re saying that the fact that a given crime exists means that ‘[crime] culture’ exists. Why isn’t there a murder culture, then, huh?!”

Closely related to the previous one. The existence of a given type of crime is not sufficient to show that a “culture” exists that encourages and excuses that crime. The reason there is a rape culture but not a murder culture is because, overall, our culture does not claim that murder is acceptable, okay, inevitable, or even commendable in certain cases. Are there individual people who believe this about murder? Certainly. But for the most part, these people lack institutional backing. Police officers and judges and jury members are not constantly going on record saying that, well, it wasn’t really murder in this case, or the victim’s past behavior suggests they have a tendency to lie about these things

It’s still absolutely reasonable to say that we have a problem with murder or theft or [other crime] in our society without having to make the claim that a [crime] culture exists. These crimes do have sociological causes, not just individual ones. Economic inequality, for instance, tends to contribute a lot to these types of crimes; they are not simply personal failings as we often dismiss them to be.

Culturally, however, rape gets a lot more support and excuses than theft or murder do. Victims of rape are blamed to a greater extent than victims of any other crime; and not only that, but that blame is used by people in positions of authority to avoid finding, trying, and sentencing the rapist.

The second half of this post will be up tomorrow. If you have more strawmans to add in the comments, try to hold on to them until that post comes out and you see the rest of them.

The Allure of the Beautiful Woman Who Doesn’t Know She’s Beautiful

You’ve probably heard this song:

You’re insecure,
Don’t know what for
You’re turning heads when you walk through the door
Don’t need make-up
To cover up
Being the way that you are is enough

Everyone else in the room can see it,
Everyone else but you

Baby you light up my world like nobody else
The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed
But when you smile at the ground it ain’t hard to tell
You don’t know
You don’t know you’re beautiful
If only you saw what I can see,
You’d understand why I want you so desperately
Right now I’m looking at you and I can’t believe
You don’t know
You don’t know you’re beautiful
That’s what makes you beautiful

This is “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction and it exemplifies some common attitudes about women and beauty. While this song makes it a lot more explicit than you’ll see it elsewhere (that’s why I bolded that part), this trope comes up all the time in film, television, literature, and music (is there a TVTropes page for this? There should be). Something about beautiful women who don’t realize how beautiful they are seems to appeal to many men. But why?

I think there are a few things potentially going on here:

First, being unaware of one’s beauty could be a marker for “innocence,” “purity,” or “virginity.”

A woman who doesn’t realize she’s beautiful is a woman who’s not experienced enough in love and sex to have been told otherwise. She doesn’t understand her own sex appeal. She doesn’t yet realize that her beauty can be used to control, manipulate, and ensnare men (remember, this is one of the dominant cultural narratives we have about what women’s beauty is “for”).

Of course, some inexperienced women are aware of their beauty and some experienced women are not. However, I think that insecurity is often read as innocence by many people when it comes to women and beauty (unless of course, the woman is not considered beautiful by conventional standards).

Second, for a woman, being unaware of your beauty means that you are not confident, cocky, or narcissistic.

Men and women face different pressures when it comes to communicating and performing confidence. Women must be humble and self-effacing (“Oh, me? I’m nothing special.”) while men must be confident and sure of themselves. Neither gets that good of a deal, really: while women have to perform a sort of humility that will inevitably feel fake to many, men have to perform a sort of confidence that they don’t always feel, either.

None of this means that there’s no such thing as “too humble” for a woman or “too cocky” for a man. There are. But the social costs of them differ from the social costs of being too cocky as a woman or too humble as a man. Women who are “too” confident (which often means women with a reasonable, healthy level of confidence) are disliked much more than men who are “too” confident (which is more likely to mean men who are truly unpleasantly full of themselves). Men who are “too” humble or insecure (which often means men with a reasonable, healthy level of humility or insecurity) are disliked much more than women who are “too” humble or insecure (which is more likely to mean women who are truly extremely insecure).

With beauty specifically, women end up in a weird double bind. Women must be beautiful, but they must not be confident. So they must play up their beauty while denying having done so and while claiming outwardly that they’re not actually beautiful. The subject of One Direction’s infamous song may very well know how beautiful she is, but she gives off a good enough impression of not knowing that she’s managed to attract the singer anyway.

Third, being painfully insecure makes you a damsel for the guy to ride in and save.

A woman who doesn’t realize how beautiful she is isn’t just an innocent and non-threatening partner; she’s also a project. She’s “broken” and needs to be “fixed” by making her “finally see” how beautiful she truly is.

I think many people, not just men, conceptualize relationships as a sort of mutual repair job. They think that their love will “make” their partner recover from a mental illness, stop drinking and partying so much, stop chasing others, realize they want marriage and kids after all, get a job, become more sexually open-minded, convert to the proper religion, recover from past trauma, or any number of other improvements. Although the repair job isn’t always mutual, it often is: people also want to depend on their partner to fix their faults for them in turn.

It would take another post to explain everything that I think is wrong with this approach to relationships, but I’ll just leave it at this: it’s codependent. It presumes that your partner needs you to fix them, and it abdicates responsibility for fixing yourself.

I have known many, many sweet and generous guys who have fallen into this trap with women, particularly women who were insecure, from difficult family situations, and/or suffering from mental illnesses. Although the concept of saving “damsels in distress” is certainly a patriarchal concept, that doesn’t mean that all (or even most) of the men who do it are somehow bad people. That’s just how they’ve learned to “do” relationships.

I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with helping a partner improve themselves somehow, but this has to be 1) mutually acknowledged and agreed upon by both people, 2) free of any emotional manipulation or pressure, and 3) the icing on the cake of a relationship that’s premised on something other than that–shared interests, mutual respect, great sex, similar visions for life and the future, or whatever else matters to you and sustains a relationship. If your entire relationship is based on trying to fix someone, one of two things will probably happen: 1) you’ll succeed in fixing them and realize that the only thing keeping you together was the repair job; or 2) you’ll fail at fixing them and become extremely frustrated because you premised your entire sense of self-worth as a partner on your ability to fix someone else’s problems–problems that are deep-seeded, complex, tenacious, and probably in need of attention from a mental health professional.

The type of attraction that’s going on in this One Direction song is, therefore, unlikely to lead to any healthy and mutually satisfying relationship. Most likely, the girl in the song will finally see what everyone else sees and will lose her appeal to the singer because she’ll no longer be innocent, humble, and in need of help. Relationships like this also have a huge potential for abuse, because the person doing the fixing can say, “You’re never going to find anyone who loves you like I do” or “Nobody but me could ever be attracted to you.” In fact, these are things that abusers often say. A slightly less abusive but still extremely manipulative possibility is that the person doing the fixing implies, directly or indirectly, that the person being fixed can’t do it on their own.

The qualities we admire and find attractive in people do not, in fact, appeal to us simply because of our own immutable “natural” tendencies with which we are endowed by genes or early childhood experiences, although these probably play a role. If you spend your life hearing from every possible source that confident women are unattractive while confident men are attractive, that’s probably what you’re going to think unless you challenge your own beliefs. But there’s nothing inherently attractive about women who don’t know they’re beautiful (however you define “beautiful”), and there’s nothing inherently attractive about women who do know they’re beautiful.

What you find attractive says more about you than it does about the person you find attractive, because it’s an indicator of your own values and beliefs about people and how they ought to be. Should people be confident and unapologetic about who they are and what they like about themselves?

I think so.

Confession: I Basically Never Ask People Out

Every progressive has a traditional streak in them. It might be little, it might be huge, it might be a secret, it might be totally obvious.

Mine is this: I do not take initiative when it comes to sex and romance.

Save for some occasional exceptions, I don’t ask people out on dates, I don’t proposition people for sex, I don’t disclose romantic or sexual feelings to anyone unless they’ve done so first, I don’t initiate conversations about moving relationships “to the next level” (I hate that phrase, but it’ll suffice here), I don’t say “I love you” first, and if I ever get married I doubt I will be the one to propose.

This is not a random personality quirk, and it’s also very localized. In the context of friendships and professional relationships, I take lots of initiative. I let people know that I’d like to get to know them better and I’ve initiated lots of coffee/lunch dates with friends. In the context of existing sexual/romantic relationships, I’m also very assertive and often suggest dates or initiate sex. In general, I set and enforce boundaries clearly (although this costs me friendships and relationships) and make my needs known.

So what is it about initiating new sexual/romantic relationships and making existing ones more serious or committed?

For lots of people, this is difficult because they fear rejection. They find themselves paralyzed with fear at the thought of asking someone on a date or telling them they want to have sex. They worry that asking and being rejected will lead to ridicule or ostracism. They worry that the person won’t want to be friends with them anymore.

I don’t. Rejection bothers me to the extent that it bothers everyone–it sucks and it’s unpleasant. But that suckage isn’t nearly enough to keep me from pursuing relationships that could make me really happy.

For some people–a group that overlaps with the fear-of-rejection group–initiating things is hard because they are insecure. They believe it’s pointless to even try because nobody could possibly like them or find them attractive anyway. Perhaps they believe this because of past romantic/sexual failure, or because they have depression and this is what depression does to you, or just because they haven’t tested this particular hypothesis yet.

That’s not the case for me either. Although I have a few insecurities, I’m quite confident in my ability to find partners.

For me, passivity in initiating relationships has little to do with fear or insecurity, and everything to do with the lessons I’ve absorbed about what it means to be a woman who initiates relationships and how people–men, mostly*–have responded when I’ve done so in the past.

First of all, as I mentioned, I do initiate sometimes. It has ended very badly almost all of those times. Not in the sense that I got rejected or that stuff happened and later didn’t work out. Rather, what inevitably happened was that the guy I asked on a date or disclosed my crush to or wanted to have a casual friends-with-benefits relationship with would string me along to see what he could get, and then reveal that he’d actually never been that interested to begin with. In the friends-with-benefits case, the “friends” part would quickly disappear. In the crush case, he’d persuade me to have sex with him and then claim that I should’ve known it “meant nothing.” In the date case, he’d act bored and blasé on the date and explain that actually he hadn’t really wanted to go on a date with me at all but just didn’t think to say no.

Of course, I get that at the beginnings of things, it’s hard to know what exactly you’re interested in, if anything. But this is why language exists. “Sure, I’d love to hang out, but I’m not sure yet if I’m interested in you romantically.” “I’d totally hook up with you, but I don’t tend to stay friends with the people I fuck.” “Right now I don’t see you as someone I’d have a relationship with, but if you’re okay just being friends who hook up sometimes, I’m down.”

Now that I’m older and more experienced, I know what to look for when someone’s purposefully being vague just to see what they can get from someone who’s expressed interest in them. I also understand why men might do this. Having a woman initiate things is probably rare enough that they want to “take advantage” of the opportunity, even though they’re not actually interested and even though that’s extremely manipulative.

Nevertheless, this has happened most of the times I’ve initiated romantic/sexual things, and that makes me extremely reluctant to do it again. If initiating things means wading through someone’s obfuscations and asking them to specify what they’re looking for from the situation and knowing that they might lie and lead me on anyway, no thanks.

The second reason involves all the patriarchal stuff I’m sure you know. All my life I’ve been told that women who initiate are whores. In fact, I’ve been warned by plenty of well-meaning women that men will string women who initiate along to see what they can get (or just assume that what they can get is sex and act accordingly). Obviously, I don’t believe any of these things. But the latter happens to have been confirmed by my personal experiences, which makes it really difficult to break out of that mold.

Along with that are the fears that many of us probably still have and try every day to overcome. In my case, it’s that nobody will ever like me if I take charge and ask people out or whatever, and that everyone will think I’m “a slut” and make fun of me behind my back (this has also happened, so believe me when I say I’m not pulling this shit out of nowhere).

And yeah, people say that men who take advantage of a woman who shows initiative aren’t the kinds of men you’d want to date, and that friends who make fun of you and call you a slut aren’t the kinds of friends you’d want to have.

But does that make it hurt any less?

The third reason is that, in my experience, many men who claim to like women who show initiative don’t really mean it–and, more to the point–they don’t realize they don’t mean it. They say, “Oh, I’d love it if a girl asked me out.” “I’d love it if a girl asked me for sex.” But then it actually happens, and the caveats come out: “Well, sure, I like assertive women, but she’s just too aggressive.” “Well, I just felt intimidated when she asked me how I felt about her.” “Wow, she just seems really desperate and obsessed.” “I think she’s like, in love with me, and I’m not ready for that right now.”

It’s not a coincidence that men tend to feel intimidated by assertive women and to view them as aggressive, desperate, and obsessed. First of all, that’s how women who initiate sex and dating are constantly portrayed in the media. Second, while more and more women are feeling comfortable initiating things, it’s probably still rare enough that men might assume–without realizing they’re assuming–that if a woman asks them out, she must be so desperate or in love with them that she was willing to ignore our society’s taboo against women who initiate relationships.

People tend to talk about fear of rejection as the ultimate reason for not making a move and the biggest obstacle for folks to overcome if they want to take charge of their love lives, but honestly, I wish rejection were the biggest problem I faced when it comes to asking people out. Rejection seems like a walk in the park compared to this other stuff. At least rejection is honest. “Sorry, I don’t like you that way.” But in my experience, taking initiative means dealing with people who don’t say what they mean, or say what they don’t mean, or don’t realize that what they say they want is not what they want, or blatantly lie. Who has time for that?!

For me, it’s not so much a conscious decision not to ask people out or proposition them even when I want to, but rather a nearly-complete lack of any desire to do so. When I meet someone I’m interested in, I often find myself thinking that it would be nice to date or hook up with this person, but there isn’t really any part of me that wants to make that happen. Instead I sometimes befriend them and see what happens. Worst case scenario is that I make an awesome friend; best case scenario is that they initiate things. Often they do. (And note how the worst case scenario and the best case scenario are actually equal in terms of awesomeness.)

But this is what makes it hardest to fight. If I really wanted to do something about my feelings for someone, I could absolutely drum up the courage to do it. But I just don’t. Apathy is always the worst enemy. I’ll meet someone and get a crush and tell my friends and they ask me what I’m going to do, and I usually just shrug and say that I don’t feel like doing much of anything about it.

To be clear, I’m not happy with the fact that I’m this way. Although I don’t feel any guilt over it (I find guilt over not being “feminist enough” or “progressive enough” to be counterproductive anyway), I’d like to change and I hope I’ll be able to. But it’s not a huge priority right now because I’m more concerned with making sure my depression doesn’t relapse and that I move to NYC successfully and do well in graduate school and make friends and all that. Sex and dating is quite a few burners away from the front.

In any case, this post should not be taken as an endorsement of How People Ought To Be, and the personal history I described should not be taken as my impression of What Men Are Like. It’s just how my life has happened to go so far. It’s likely that someday my life will go differently. I will look forward to that day.
~~~

*I specified men because this post is primarily about my experiences with men. With not-men, I have a completely different set of challenges and experiences that I didn’t want to get into here.

Extra moderation note: Posts like this one tend to bring out a lot of condescension and unsolicited advice. Note that I didn’t ask for any advice in this post, so please don’t offer it unless you’d like to talk about your own story and how you overcame problems like these. I wrote this mostly to work through my own thoughts on it and see if anyone else feels the same way, and as much as I love you all I have other people to turn to when I need advice.

Also, if you’re going to comment with something like “wow I could never have expected this from you I mean YOU you’re always all like feminist and talking about communicating and going for what you want I mean wow if even you can’t do it” please consider just not doing that.

Is All Pickup Advice Sexist?

I was reading an article that started out with the question, “Is all pickup advice sexist?” So of course I immediately started thinking about that. (I proceeded to write the following without having read the rest of the article, and when I did go back and read it, I realized that I and its author basically agree on everything. I love it when that happens.)

If you’re unfamiliar with pickup advice/pickup artists/the seduction community, it generally refers to advice targeted at straight men who would like to meet and “pick up” women for casual sex. For a less charitable explanation, see this Twitter account that collects actual quotes from pickup forums.

I don’t know if all pickup advice is sexist because I am a skeptic and I would need to either review all pickup advice or see a large representative sample of it to come to a conclusion, and that’s impossible. However, I think I can offer three reasons for why pickup advice so often tends toward sexism.

First, pickup advice is meant to be generic; i.e. “here’s how to pick up chicks” or at least “here’s how to pick up this subtype of chicks.” There’s no way to give advice on how to “pick up” an individual person because, well, people are extremely different. So pickup advice must by necessity use stereotypes and generalizations as its basis, and because all you know about your “target” is that she is a woman, the advice uses stereotypes and generalizations about women and what women like and how women’s sexuality works.

But there is no such thing as What Women Like or How Women’s Sexuality Works. Assuming that there is is sexist. And while pickup artists may still pay lip service to the fact that there are some minute differences among women, the entire thing is predicated on the notion that there are “tricks” and “techniques” you can use to “get” women.

(And that’s not even getting into the coercive and rapey elements of pickup advice.)

Second, pickup advice is, for the most part, not focused on establishing a relationship or a one-night stand or anything else that takes the needs and desires of both partners into account. Pickup advice may grant that you shouldn’t do things women explicitly say they don’t want (sometimes), but the emphasis is still on the man getting what he wants from the woman, not on having a sexual experience in which both partners have equal agency. The age-old notion of men dictating the terms and boundaries of a sexual encounter is, needless to say, also sexist.

Even when these types of advice suggest ways to please women, the emphasis tends to be on establishing yourself as Everything She Needs and a Manly Man, not on helping someone with sexual desires of her own fulfill them and feel good.

Finally, when pickup advice does center on things the guy can do to improve himself and how he comes across to others, the advice tends to center on “faking” things, exaggerating stories, and performing a certain stereotypical version of masculinity. It does not focus on genuine self-improvement, on the things that most people will tell you help make you more appealing as a partner: having real interests, being curious about the people you meet, working on developing your confidence in yourself (yes, it’s a process!), having good hygiene (guys, you wouldn’t believe how much more this matters than being “attractive”), and so on.

In this way, pickup advice is sexist because it presumes that women can be tricked into sex with cheap ruses, and because it presumes that the only way for a man to be attractive is to perform stereotypical masculinity.

Many people defend pickup advice as occasionally legitimate “self-help” for men looking to make themselves more attractive to women. I do think there are decent men in the community, and decent bits of advice. However, my take on this view is that genuine “self-help” when it comes to dating should not focus on “picking up” women; it should focus on becoming the sort of person who is ready to be a respectful, attentive, and consent-conscious partner, whether it’s just for a random one-night stand or for a serious relationship.

A big part of this that I would like to stress to any man considering pickup advice is that if everything about you screams “WAHHH CHICKS NEVER WANNA FUCK ME I HATE ALL THESE FUCKING BITCHES,” I promise you that women will stay far away. Being lonely and sexually frustrated is extremely difficult, yes. It’s even more difficult to maintain a positive, open attitude both about yourself and about your potential partners when you feel this way. But it’s important to work on developing this sort of attitude before you try to find partners*.

If you become this sort of person and you put yourself in situations where you are likely to meet people who are similar enough to you to be interested in you, you will be infinitely more successful than someone who reads every single pickup guide in the galaxy and then heads out to bars and plies women with alcohol.

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*That’s not to say that people with insecurities can never get laid or get into relationships, of course. But there’s a fine line between insecurity and WAHHH CHICKS NEVER WANNA FUCK ME I HATE ALL THESE FUCKING BITCHES.

*Edit* OOPS I FORGOT A REALLY IMPORTANT FOURTH REASON. Here we go.

Pickup advice is predicated on traditional gender roles; namely, that 1) that men are the pursuers and women the pursued and 2) that men want sex more than women, who must be “persuaded” into “giving it up.”

In this way, actually, pickup artists and feminists agree on one thing: many women are unwilling to have casual sex. But they take this premise in two very different directions. Feminists argue that the problem is culture and socialization: women are taught that casual sex makes them bad and dirty, but even women who escape this sort of upbringing must deal with the social consequences of having casual sex, which leads many of them to avoid it even if they do really want it.

Pickup artists, on the other hand, often couch their observations of human behavior in evolutionary-psychological terms and view their techniques as ways to circumvent the ways in which women are “wired.” Or they claim that women who say they don’t want casual sex aren’t “being honest with themselves” and that sort of B.S.. (I’m now reminding myself once again to write an article about how creepy it is when people say things like that.)

“Women Just Want Men To Take Control.”

[Content note: sex/BDSM]

One trope I often hear about women’s sexuality is that “women just want men to take control.”1 I encounter this everywhere–in pickup artist how-to’s, in pop psychology articles, in Cosmo magazines, in Sigmund Freud’s theories. At its best, it’s a harmless meme that simply reflects the gender roles that our society has. But at its worst, it’s rape apologetics.

In a rather old Newsweek piece, Katie Roiphe (she who claims that date rape is just bad sex that you regret) uses the 50 Shades of Grey series and the TV show Girls as evidence that, well, women just want men to take control. She also goes on to make a terrible argument that the reason women just want men to take control is that they have too much power in the workplace now, or something. (She also seems to think that the reason people are ashamed of these fantasies is because Feminism Has Gone Too Far, not because, newsflash: non-vanilla sexuality is really stigmatized, and so is all sexuality, actually.)

Anyway, I could write multiple articles about why this piece by Roiphe pissed me off so much a year ago and continues to piss me off, but for now I will focus on one reason: her implicit assertion that women ultimately just want to be dominated.

Some women want men to take control. Some women don’t want men to take control. Some women want men to take control, but only under certain circumstances. Some women want men to take control, but only in their fantasies. And some women aren’t interested in having sex with men at all. And that’s important to point out, because when you say things like “women want men to be X/do Y in bed,” you’re completely ignoring the fact that some women don’t give a single flying fuck about what men do in bed.

First of all, statements like “Women just want men to take control” are wrong because, well, plenty of women don’t. I don’t have the statistics on me, but any cursory conversation with women who trust you enough to talk about their sex lives will reveal plenty of these mythical women. And no, don’t say that they’re “not being honest with themselves” or “just don’t realize what they really want.”2 Yes, people are, at best, mediocre judges of their own selves. But they sure know themselves better than you do!

Second, now that we’ve established that some unspecified percentage of women don’t want to be dominated: even if there are many women who want men to be dominant in bed, that still doesn’t excuse not asking. Many women also like oral sex, but that doesn’t mean they want it ALL THE TIME AT EVERY MOMENT THEY’RE WITH YOU. Ask! And it doesn’t have to be something like “Do you grant me permission to forcibly hold you against the wall while I remove your clothing without your aid and perform acts of my own choosing upon your sexual organs?” It can be, “I really want to take control tonight. Is there anything you don’t want me to do? Just say [safeword] if you want me to stop.” Better yet, though, would be to talk about this beforehand, at some point when you’re not naked or about to be, and ask your partner if they’re interested in this and what boundaries they have about it.

The reason this is important, aside from the consent part, is that we use the words “dominant” or “take control” to mean many different things. For some people, “take control” may just mean initiating everything that happens that night, choosing what stuff you do, being on top, etc. For some people, “take control” may mean tying their partner up and shackling them to the bed and doing whatever they want to/with them unless and until they say the safeword. And for some people, “take control” means that your partner is your 24/7 slave who does absolutely anything, sexual or otherwise, that you demand. If you’re someone who uses the former definition while your partner uses one of the other definitions, you might find yourself having an unpleasant miscommunication unless you talk about these things.

And that brings me to my third point: even if you’re 100% sure that your partner wants you to “take control,” you don’t know what they want that to look like until you ask. If you don’t ask and just do and happen to do something they want, good for you. But most likely you’ll do something they don’t want, which means they’ll be bored, annoyed, or even upset and violated.

Fourth, even if your partner wants you to take control, and even if you do happen to be on the same page about what you want, getting explicit consent is still a really good idea. Why? Because it sends the message that you care about your partner’s comfort and agency.

As one of those infamous women who want their male partners to be dominant almost all of the time, I’ll tell you this: I would be appalled, disgusted, and turned off if a partner just assumed that I want them to be in control and started doing it without having asked me or heard from me that this is what I want. Of course, it’s different with long-term partners because they know each other’s quirks and desires, but if we’re just starting out, you’d fucking better ask first. If you don’t, I might enjoy it at the time, but I’ll be left with the really uncomfortable feeling that you actually didn’t really care whether I wanted to do that or not. These tend to be the people I do not see again, because I can’t trust them not to cross my boundaries in the future.

Sure, they got lucky: they didn’t get explicit consent, but it turns out I wanted to do that anyway. But what about when they fail to get explicit consent for something I don’t want to do? How are they going to know what I want to do and what I don’t? Why should it be my responsibility to stop them from doing things I don’t want once they start to do them, rather than their responsibility to ask first?

Fifth, what Katie Roiphe and others who try to understand Women’s Sexuality from romance stories fail to grasp is that sometimes fantasies are just fantasies. Many people think that if you fantasize and get off to something, that must mean that that is Who You Really Are Sexually and you must want to act out that fantasy ASAP. Actually, no. (Sometimes I hesitate to tell partners about fantasies because then they’re immediately like OH OKAY LET’S DO THAT I’LL GO TO THE SEX STORE AND BUY THAT THING when I might not actually want to.) But there are plenty of valid reasons you might choose not to do something no matter how hot it is to think about: it’s unsafe, you have physical limitations or disabilities that make it impossible, you’re worried about how it’ll make you feel, you can’t afford to buy something that you’d need for it, you don’t really want to do it with any of the partners you currently have, you don’t want to go through the hassle of negotiating it, you don’t think it would be as fun in real life and you’d rather just keep it as a nice thing to think about, and so on.

Finally, another thing that Katie Roiphe et al. don’t get is that women who have fantasies about submission aren’t necessarily having them for some reason like Men These Days Aren’t Aggressive Enough or Women Have Too Much Power In The Workplace And Feel Too Powerful. I can think of many reasons fantasies about submission might be fun. Submitting to someone requires a degree of trust that many find sexy. The idea of being so into someone that you’re willing to let them control you is a powerful idea to many people. Submitting means being vulnerable, exposing yourself, and some people find that hot. There’s also something about relinquishing control that’s comforting–especially, I might add, to women, who often find themselves stigmatized for being dominant and upfront about their sexuality. Being dominated is a way to enjoy sex without having to open yourself up to the possibility of being shamed for expressing your desires.

On that note, it’s important to recognize that the reason we’re seeing all these stories about female submission but not male submission is not an accident. It is extremely taboo for men to express a desire to submit to a female partner–perhaps even more taboo than it is for women to want to dominate. If someone wrote Fifty Shades of Grey with the gender roles reversed, would any man want to be caught reading that book?

But men who want to be submissive, sometimes or all of the time, are not rare. If you date men and you’re open-minded and supportive of your partners’ sexualities, you have probably met them. If you are Katie Roiphe and you spew outdated gender stereotypes like a broken toilet spews…you-know-what, then men are very unlikely to “come out” as submissive to you.

I think that the dismantling of gender roles would bring about an increase in the number of men who are openly submissive, and an increase in the number of women who are openly dominant. But dominant men and submissive women would obviously still exist, because playing with power can be fun.

The science of sexual desire is still quite nascent, so we don’t really know what actually causes people to like what they like in bed. But, honestly, I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to figure out, and that doesn’t really bother me. The most important thing is to not make assumptions about what someone likes based on their gender, or based on anything else. As humans, we have been gifted with the ability to communicate our desires clearly rather than relying on clumsy guesswork. Let’s use that ability.
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1 When I typed this phrase into my phone at like 3 AM one night to remind myself to write this blog post, I initially typed “men just want women to take control” by accident. HMMM.

2 Remind me to write another piece about why people who claim that others are “not being honest with themselves” or “just don’t realize what they really want” really creep me out and raise a bunch of red flags.

On Being A Bit Of A Stereotype

It’s not exactly a secret that social work is an extremely gendered profession. About 86% of MSW students are women, and the percentage of licensed social workers who are women varies by age from 100% of those who are 25 and under to 75% of those who are 65 and over. This should come as no surprise. Social work requires excellent listening skills, lots of empathy, willingness to work for little money and advancement opportunity–traits and interests that women are socialized to have.

Of course, I have thought it all through and realized that gendered expectations played absolutely no role in my decision to study social work and that I, unlike the rest of these people, am going into it simply because this is Who I Really Am. And frankly, I’m offended that you’d even think that I’m going into this field for bullshit reasons like that. I chose it completely on my own.

Just kidding! It never works like that. Of course gender plays a role.

Ironically, the story starts with me being the exact opposite of who I supposedly needed to be. For most of my childhood, adults were always telling me that I was immature, selfish, insensitive, blunt, and socially inept. That I never put anyone’s needs before my own. That I never appreciated the people in my life enough.

So for a while I didn’t understand how it could be that as a young adult, I’ve suddenly become the opposite of that. When did this miraculous transformation happen? Why didn’t anybody tell me?

Of course, kids change as they grow up, and qualities like selfishness, insensitivity, and, obviously, immaturity are sort of hallmark traits of childhood. Maybe I really was all of these things. Maybe I was even all of these things more than most children were. Hell if I know.

But here’s the thing. Although nobody ever sat me down and was like, “You need to become more sensitive and empathic and self-sacrificing because you are female,” I nevertheless got that message for a number of reasons. First of all, when boys did something insensitive or immature or socially inept to me, I was informed that “boys will be boys.” (This is a dangerous thing to tell children for all sorts of reasons.) Second, I knew plenty of boys, and none of them were ever being exhorted to be more sensitive and to consider others’ needs before their own. (If anything, they were being exhorted to be less sensitive, which is also a problem.)

So it’s quite likely that I’ve become the way I am now partially as a way of compensating for those (perceived or actual) flaws, and that this way of compensating just happens to be perfectly aligned with certain gendered expectations about personality traits and career paths.

Well, now what? Should I abandon my dream job because it’s feminine? Am I a bad feminist unless I force myself to study math or science instead? Should I cultivate a persona of not giving a fuck about people?

Nope!

Sometimes when you realize that you’ve been doing something largely because it’s gendered, you lose the impulse to do it. For instance, even though I still like makeup, I wear it very rarely now that I realize that I only felt expected to spend time and money on it because, well, I’m female. However, realizing that being female probably played a huge role in my career decision hasn’t dampened my passion for it at all. It really depends.

Leaving aside for now the fact that I’ll be able to do more for individual women and for women’s rights as a social worker than I could in most other jobs, to claim that I now need to realign my personality to make it non-gendered would be to, well, miss the point of feminism.

In a previous post about feminist criticism, I wrote:

For me, the most important insight that feminism has given me is that we do not live, love, consume, and decide in a vacuum; we do so under the influence of society. That doesn’t mean we don’t have “free will” (and I do hate to get into that debate), but it does mean that we might not always be aware of all of the reasons for which we want (or don’t want) to do something. We will probably never be able to disentangle ourselves from the influence of society, and that’s fine. What’s important to me is to be aware of what some of those influences might be.

I think a lot of people are reluctant to admit that things like gender roles have played a part in their choices because people like to think that we have Complete Total Free Will. While that’s arguable (just please don’t do it on my blog because I find it so damn boring), I think it’s best to view sociocultural influences as just that–influences, not determinants.

For instance, nobody would think it controversial to assume, say, that they enjoy spicy food because that’s what they were always served at home growing up, rather than because there is some intrinsic aspect of their being that “naturally” prefers spicy food. Nobody would be appalled if you suggested that maybe the reason they can’t stand nasty Chicago winters is because they spent the first 20 years of their life in Florida.

With choices a bit more loaded than what food you eat and what weather you like, though, it gets tricky. Why does anyone prefer any particular occupation? We like to think–unless, that is, we are blatantly choosing a career for its status or earning potential–that occupational choices are indicative of Who We Really Are Deep Down. The first question adults ask each other is often, “What do you do?” A question that we often ask children is, “Who do you want to be when you grow up?” Note the particular construction of that question as it’s often asked: What do you want to be, not What do you want to do or What job do you want to have. In some ways, I think, this reflects the fact that we view a person’s job as a reflection of who they are as a person, not necessarily as a reflection of a lot of complicated factors including who they are as a person, what opportunities they had growing up, what they were encouraged to do by friends, family, and communities, how much money they could afford to spend on education, and other factors that are external to your own unique personality traits, skills, and interests.

Of course, on some level, everyone knows this. It’s not like people don’t realize that a lot more goes into choosing an occupation than just personal characteristics. But it’s one thing to admit to yourself that you can’t really be a doctor because you can’t afford the education, and another to admit to yourself that you don’t really want to be a doctor because you have, to some extent, internalized gender stereotypes that make that choice seem…wrong to you.

So, let me reiterate: there is nothing intrinsically “wrong” with being affected by gender roles or with admitting (to yourself or others) that you’ve been affected by gender roles. You are not a bad person if you’re affected by them. It’s not a sign of “weakness” in the sense that strong people resist gender roles and weak people cannot resist gender roles. There are probably many factors influencing one’s willingness and ability to resist them, and I doubt that whatever the hell “strength” even is has much to do with it.

I do think that being honest with yourself is important, though, and I think critically examining your own preferences and desires makes you more self-aware and interpersonally effective. And only you can do that for yourself. If I meet a woman who wants to be a model or a man who wants to be a football player, it’s categorically not my place to presume that they’re choosing these paths because of gender roles. I might suspect so, because it’s a fairly likely (partial) explanation, but people know themselves best.

They don’t always know themselves very well, but they still know themselves best.

In a post about women who change their names to their husbands’ after marrying, Kate Harding responds to those who claim that this is still a feminist choice:

Look, you’re a feminist who, in this particular case, made the non-feminist choice. That’s all. I assume it was the right choice for you, or you wouldn’t have done it, and that’s fine! But feminism is not, in fact, all about choosing your choice. It is mostly about recognizing when things are fucked up for women at the societal level, and talking about that, and trying to change it. So sometimes, even when a decision is right for you, you still need to recognize that you made that decision within a social context that overwhelmingly supports your choice, and punishes women who make a different one.

There are parallels between this and my career choice. I recognize that, as a woman, social work is a much easier choice than it would be for a man, or than it would be for a woman to choose engineering or pro sports. (Of course, it’s a very difficult path for other reasons, but that’s not what I’m talking about.) Social work is a profession to which women who wanted to work in mental healthcare have historically been relegated because they were not allowed into professional psychology/psychiatry. That doesn’t make it any less a good choice for me. It’s just something I want to be mindful of.