On Women Who Lie About Having Boyfriends

[Content note: sexual harassment and assault]

Lately one of those articles has been going around again about how women should stop saying “I have a boyfriend” to deflect unwanted male attention. I’m not going to link to it, because I don’t want to make my entire post about that one article. I’ve seen that argument made in many different ways and from many different perspectives.

One I often see from men who date women, who are either not feminists and do not recognize the reality of systemic male violence against women, or are, sort of, but only recognize that reality to some extent and in certain contexts–never ones involving themselves, of course, because they’re good guys.

Another I often see from women, many of whom are feminists, who believe that it is each individual woman’s duty to uphold the author’s vision of Feminist Principles regardless of the individual woman’s priorities or needs.

Here’s the first argument, steelmanned:

It’s wrong to lie to people without a very compelling reason. If a guy is interested in you but you’re not interested back, just tell him so honestly. I’m a decent and respectful guy and I always back off when someone says they’re not interested. Besides, if all you say is “I have a boyfriend,” I might assume that that means that you’d be interested if that relationship ended, and it’s really hurtful to find out that you were lying and I got my hopes up for nothing.

Here’s the second one, also steelmanned:

Women have the right to have their desires and preferences respected. The reason you shouldn’t keep hitting on a woman who isn’t interested in you isn’t because she “belongs” to another man, but because she isn’t interested in you. If we keep using the “I have a boyfriend” excuse, men will never learn to respect our agency as individuals rather than as someone’s girlfriend. Being honest with men you aren’t interested in about the reason you aren’t taking them up on your offer is the only way to promote this feminist goal.

I resent both of these arguments. Both of them, even the second one, place the individual woman’s needs last and instead prioritize other needs: the man’s need for honesty, the feminist movement’s need for women to stand up for its ideals. Both of them expect women who are being harassed to just shut up and take it for someone else’s good.

Let’s start with the first one. I think we can all agree that, in general, lying is to be avoided. I think we can also all agree that sometimes lying is preferable or necessary. Where I think we disagree is where that line should be drawn. And I would argue that the person who stands to lose the most in a particular interaction is the one who is more qualified to determine where that line goes.

It’s like Schrödinger’s rapist. And I know dudes have so much trouble grasping the rape version of this principle, so I don’t expect them to have an easy time grasping the sexual harassment/unwanted flirting/whatever you want to call it version.

Say I am approached by a dude at a bar. Ignoring all of my signals (looking away, checking my phone, answering monosyllabically, desperately pouring my drink down my throat), he keeps trying to chat me up and hit on me, perhaps even propositioning me directly. At this point, I could say, “Actually, I’m not interested in you and I don’t want to keep talking to you.” Or I could say, “Sorry, but I have a boyfriend and I’m not available.” Which should I choose?

Given that this guy has already showed an apparent lack of interest in my desires and preferences by not reading my nonverbal cues, and given the wealth of experience I have with these situations (“Come on, why do you have to be such a prude?” “Fucking bitch, I was just trying to be nice.” “What are you talking about? I’m not even interested in ugly sluts like you” “Yeah, right. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t trying to get some.” [insert sexual assault here, and yes, groping is sexual assault]), I’m not likely to have a lot of confidence in this guy’s ability to take it well if I politely tell him I’m not interested.

Sure, this guy could be different. He could be perfectly nice! He could politely say, “Oh sorry, my bad, have a great night”! He could clarify that he’s not interested in anything sexual and we’d have a great conversation and maybe even become friends!

And that’s what men making this argument always say. “Yeah well how do you know he’d take it badly if you just told him the truth?” Exactly, I don’t know that. If I did, I’d have cleared the fuck out of that bar as soon as I saw him walking up to me.

I don’t know that, but I live in a world in which it can be very dangerous to assume that I can know that before it’s too late.

Now, a lot of men making this argument will sorta-grudgingly include the caveat that, well, if the woman is afraid for her physical safety, then of course she should do whatever she needs to do to get out of the situation! But otherwise, lying is not okay.

So. Why are we prioritizing physical safety over emotional safety? If you accept that ending up assaulted or raped is bad, why do you not accept that ending up feeling violated, terrified, or even traumatized is also bad? How much emotional pain and damage is worth avoiding hurting a guy’s feelings by lying to him? (Don’t ask me how telling a lie that he’ll never know is a lie hurts him more than saying “I’m not interested in you,” but ok.) How much emotional pain and damage is worth fulfilling some bullshit philosophical ideal of Not Lying?

Things impact different people differently–a point I’m always trying to drive home in all mental health-related discussions. Personally, I got over my sexual assault rather easily. What I still haven’t gotten over is feeling like a fucking piece of meat, a deer being chased by hunters no matter where I go. That’s the feeling I try to avoid on those rare occasions when I feel compelled to say, “Actually, I have a boyfriend.”

As for the “feminist” argument that we all, as individuals, have the responsibility to Uphold Feminist Principles in our daily lives at all times: I’ve already dealt with this more generally here. Specifically, the feminist movement will not be destroyed by some individual women choosing to prioritize something other than feminism at certain points in their lives. I promise.

Besides, any feminism that prioritizes The Good Of The Movement over individual women’s safety and happiness is no feminism of mine.

Of course, if we’re ever to get these remaining men who harass women and on whom “Actually I have a boyfriend” works to stop viewing women as property, we have to speak up. But we, as individuals, get to decide where and when and how we do that. Demanding women to turn every bar outing into a one-woman feminist protest is puerile beyond belief.

I completely understand that some women choose not to lie about boyfriends and husbands, and they find this empowering despite the risk. That’s great. Where I start to get irritated is when they translate this into “…and therefore all women have to do this too.” Your empowerment may be someone else’s trauma.

Some misunderstand this as some sort of convoluted Choice Feminism (not actually a real thing, by the way) about how All Women’s Choices Must Be Respected Because They’re Made By Women. It’s not. It’s an acknowledgement of the fact that choices are not made in a vacuum, and nobody has more information about a given choice than the person who made it.

I wish people who preached at women about not lying actually listened to the words of the women who do and tried to understand the circumstances that might lead someone to do something that most of us agree is usually wrong. For instance, from a piece at Shakesville by Ana Mardoll:

I live in a community where I have on more than one occasion been forced to haul out the words “because my husband doesn’t like me to” in order to get out of situations where I was being bullied and pressured into doing things that I didn’t feel comfortable doing. After saying firmly and repeatedly that I didn’t want to do these things, that I wouldn’t do these things, and that I didn’t feel comfortable being repeatedly asked to do these things — all to no avail — I dragged out the magic words that I hate-hate-hate to use. “My husband doesn’t like me to” is the mantra that evaporates every objection in my community; a protective cloak that I resent being forced to wear by a community that considers my own consent to be meaningless even as it values my husband’s consent not for who he is but for what he represents. (And, for the record, my husband respects my consent even when our community does not. I have his consent to use him as an excuse when I am forced to navigate these social hurdles.)

And because I am a feminist and because I care about the social messages involved in this daily navigation and specifically because I have entrenched issues with being Hard On Myself, I frequently feel guilty for making the compromises I have to in order to navigate safely through a conservative patriarchal environment. And I feel cowardly for not being more vocal, more obvious, more “out” — and professional and personal consequences be damned.

But then I remember how much I need my job and my health care just to survive and how strongly I require a robust social network in order to live with my disability, and I remember all over again all the reasons why I don’t say the F-word, why I don’t openly and vocally identify as a feminist in facespace: I can’t afford to. It’s too risky. It’s too dangerous. And so I creep back undercover and long for the day when my online activism can meet my facespace movements without fear of reprisals.

Ana isn’t talking about the exact sort of situation I’m talking about, but it’s similar enough to warrant a mention. Namely: not everyone always has the privilege to be honest and open.

Most people don’t lie for the fun of it; they lie because the alternative doesn’t seem reasonable. Others may judge them as taking “the easy way out,” but again, I’d question why there’s anything morally superior about subjecting yourself to sexual harassment and possibly violence.

It’s not surprising to me that people who don’t have a personal stake in this often start discussing it in grand abstract terms like Ethics and Honesty and Morality. Here’s the reality on the ground: I’m at a bar, some dude won’t leave me the fuck alone, and I’m scared and uncomfortable. Maybe you want to philosophize, but I want to escape this situation however I can.

And incidentally, for anyone who’s worried that I’m somehow abdicating my responsibility as a feminist by inventing a fake boyfriend, believe me when I say that I’ll be a much more effective activist if I take care of my mental health and emotional safety before I try to do activism.

The fact is that many women apparently feel like they can’t escape men except by lying to them. I would think that more of the responsibility for this should be allocated to the men who won’t accept any answer besides “I have a boyfriend” than to the women who feel they have no choice but to say it. And if you’re a guy who’s more concerned about the fact that women sometimes lie to you about having boyfriends than about the fact that women are subjected to constant sexual harassment just for existing in public, you’ve got your priorities pretty screwed up.

~~~

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Shifting The Blame For Sexual Harassment (Or, Damn Those Mysterious Women And Their Weird Mystery Feelings)

I’ve written before about how it’s actually not very difficult to tell the difference between flirting and sexual harassment. I’d like to get at this issue from a slightly different perspective by talking about the purposeful obfuscation of women’s* desires and boundaries that I often hear as a defense of those accused of sexual harassment.

What am I talking about? Things like this:

  • “Well, you know, you can never know when she’s gonna suddenly cry harassment.”
  • “Oh, women, they call guys ‘creepy’ only if they’re not attracted to them.”
  • “Oh, it’s only ‘harassment’ if they’re not trying to get laid right now, know what I mean?”

Often this is served with a large side of “Wow Women Are So Mysterious I Mean Wow Who Can Even Understand Those Women Their Emotions Just Change So Quickly Wow.”

The implication is that if a guy finds himself accused of sexual harassment or of being creepy, the problem isn’t with the guy’s behavior, it’s that the woman found him unattractive or she isn’t looking for sex or dating right now or she was just having one of those Female Mood-Swingy Things. The responsibility is shifted from the man who’s initiating to the woman who’s interpreting–from the man’s choice of words or actions to the woman’s supposedly unknowable and mysterious moods, desires, and preferences.

I can see how this is a convenient narrative. A guy who hits on a woman inappropriately and makes her upset or angry can just throw up his hands and be like, “Whoa, no idea what just happened there.” Or, worse, he can go post on an MRA forum about how women discriminate against unattractive men by calling them creeps.

Often even terrible ideas have a grain of truth, so here’s the grain of truth in this one. Sometimes people excuse bad behavior in those they really like (or who are skillful enough at manipulation to convince them it’s okay). The halo effect is a thing. That means that, in theory, a really attractive man could hit on a woman in ways that she’d consider creepy and off-putting if anyone else did it, but she reacts positively because she’s so attracted to the man. Maybe.

But in this case, it’s bad behavior being excused because the person’s attractive, not good behavior being problematized because the person’s unattractive. (I’m tempted to call this the Don Draper Effect, but I’ve been watching too much Mad Men lately.) Needless to say, it’s really creepy to hear someone essentially say, “I wish I were more attractive so I could get away with harassing and abusing people more easily.”

To use another example, sometimes men catcall women on the street and those women are flattered. (Before you dismiss this, women have actually told me that they find it flattering. It’s rare, but it happens.) That doesn’t mean that catcalling them is ethically okay. It just means that sometimes unethical behavior gets excused. Oftentimes, really.

More often, though, women appear not to be weirded out by the inappropriate come-ons of a guy they may or may not find attractive, but are too scared to tell him so or just don’t know how to react. (We aren’t raised to react at all, remember, except perhaps a polite smile and a “Thank you,” followed by burning whichever clothes we were wearing at the time because clearly that’s what caused it.) Another guy may witness this as a bystander and think, “Seeshe didn’t get pissed off when he did it!” Right, probably because she’s too intimidated to.

While there’s some degree of uncertainty in all human interactions, even ones that are very obviously inappropriate, that doesn’t mean there’s much mystery. Sometimes women don’t get creeped out by creepy men because they feel very confident in their ability to escape the situation, or because they weren’t raised by parents who inculcated in them a fear of men who act creepy, or any combination of factors. Often they do get creeped out, because it’s uncomfortable to feel like a piece of meat on a serving platter.

Women have been trying to explain to men how this fear and discomfort works for a while now in the form of the “Schrodinger’s Rapist” argument. Many men have resisted this explanation relentlessly because they get stuck in WAIT SO YOU’RE TRYING TO SAY THAT YOU JUST ASSUME I MIGHT BE A RAPIST I AM A GOOD PERSON HOW DARE YOU mode. They miss the part that basically explains this: if you send me the signal that you don’t care about my preferences and boundaries, then I’m going to assume that you don’t care about my preferences and boundaries.

There is no great mystery to this. If you make sexual comments to women you don’t know or persistently pester a female coworker to go on a date with you, those women are going to assume that you’re treating them like an object to be fucked and not like a human being, and they’re going to have opinions of you and your behavior in accordance with that.

Sometimes people misinterpret innocent behavior as malicious, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re “irrational” or “wrong” in doing so. Suppose that 90% of the time a man I don’t know has asked me what I’m reading, it has turned into him hitting on me or refusing to leave me alone when I was clearly sending “please leave me alone” signals or calling me names when I politely asked to be left alone so I could return to my reading. One day I’m sitting in Central Park reading a book and a guy comes up and asks me what I’m reading. I shoot him an angry look and ignore him. He walks off, confused and embarrassed. He had simply thought the cover looked like the cover of his favorite book about social psychology and wanted to know what I thought of it.

Maybe we could’ve had a great conversation. Maybe we could’ve made friends. But, unfortunately, his behavior just looked too much like the behavior of the men in 90% of these situations, who ruin a quiet and thoughtful moment by using my reading as an excuse to hit on me in public. And if he thinks about this, and reads this blog post or the Schrodinger’s Rapist one, he’ll realize that it makes complete sense that I reacted the way I did, given what I have to deal with 90% of the time. It was no mystery. It was unfortunate and disappointing, but at the same time, entirely rational**.

(If you think I should cheerfully engage all of these men and tolerate the 90% who are awful in order to “just give a chance” to the 10% who are not, you don’t understand cost-benefit analyses.)

As I noted in my post about women not actually being “mysterious,” acting as though they are mysterious keeps men from really trying to understand them and puts the onus on women to stop being so damn mysterious, not on men to try a little harder to listen and understand.

If you’re a man and you often find women responding with confusion, discomfort, or even disgust when you interact with them, it might be time to ask yourself why this pattern exists***.

~~~

*I’m using a male harasser/female victim dynamic here because that’s what the conversations I’m responding to are about. Obviously, anyone of any gender can harass anyone of any gender.

**These discussions always devolve into this, but for the moment, I’m not interested in answering any questions to the tune of “Wait so then how DO I approach a woman I don’t know in public and get her to talk to me?” You don’t. Meet women at places where people gather to meet each other, or through friends, or through online dating.

***I do want to note, however, that there are cases in which intersecting identities influence how someone is perceived. For instance, thanks to ableism, a woman may respond with disgust at (totally appropriate) flirtation from a man with a disability. This, I think, is the sort of dynamic that able-bodied cis white men are appropriating when they go on MRA forums and claim that women react with disgust to anyone who doesn’t significantly resemble George Clooney. In my experience, men who are actually impacted by bigotries like ableism or transphobia tend to know that that’s what’s really going on. They’re not being rejected because they’re men; they’re being rejected because they have stigmatized identities or conditions. We can–in fact, we must–fight the fact that some people are automatically perceived as disgusting because of the prejudice that others have against them.

Having To See It To Believe It: Men and Online Sexual Harassment

[Content note: sexual harassment]

Jezebel recounts the tale of Reddit user OKCThrowaway22221, who pretended to be a woman on OkCupid and was so dismayed, disappointed, and disgusted with the messages he received that he shut it down after two hours.

OKCThrowaway22221 is pretty clear about the fact that, at the outset, he did not truly believe that women’s* online dating experiences can be really awful, and, in fact, believed that they “have it easy” with online dating:

Last night I was bored and was talking with a friend on skype about her experiences with online dating. I was joking with her that “girls have it easy on dating sites” etc. etc. I had never really done anything in the online dating world but I had set up a real profile a few years back and didn’t use it much aside from getting a few nice messages and decided it wasn’t really for me. But, as I said, I was bored, so I decided that I would set up a fake profile. Set it up as a gender-swapped version of me essentially see what would happen. So I did the username, and I was up. Before I could even fill out my profile at all, I already had a message in my inbox from a guy. It wasn’t a mean message, but I found it odd that I would get a message already. So I sent him a friendly hello back and kind of joked that I hadn’t even finished my profile, how could he be interested, but I felt good because I thought I was right that “girls have it easy”

But soon enough OKCThrowaway22221 is realizing just how wrong he was:

At first I thought it was fun, I thought it was weird but maybe I would mess with them or something and freak them out and tell them I was a guy or something, but as more and more messages came (either replies or new ones I had about 10 different guys message me within 2 hours) the nature of them continued to get more and more irritating. Guys were full-on spamming my inbox with multiple messages before I could reply to even one asking why I wasn’t responding and what was wrong. Guys would become hostile when I told them I wasn’t interested in NSA [no strings attached] sex, or guys that had started normal and nice quickly turned the conversation into something explicitly sexual in nature. Seemingly nice dudes in quite esteemed careers asking to hook up in 24 hours and sending them naked pics of myself despite multiple times telling them that I didn’t want to.

I would be lying if I said it didn’t get to me. I thought it would be some fun thing, something where I would do it and worse case scenario say “lol I was a guy I trolle you lulz”etc. but within a 2 hour span it got me really down and I was feeling really uncomfortable with everything. I figured I would get some weird messages here and there, but what I got was an onslaught of people who were, within minutes of saying hello, saying things that made me as a dude who spends most of his time on 4chan uneasy. I ended up deleting my profile at the end of 2 hours and kind of went about the rest of my night with a very bad taste in my mouth.

I came away thinking that women have it so much harder than guys do when it comes to that kind of stuff.

That’s exactly it. The experiences many women have with online dating* are just so fucking icky that they made a dude who “spends most of his time on 4chan” uncomfortable.

As usual, I have two very different thoughts about the whole stunt.

On the one hand:

I’m tired of this. I’m tired of men getting attention for saying things that women have been saying for ages. I’m tired of the fact that men don’t believe women’s experiences unless they find a way to have those same experiences for themselves. I’m tired of the fact that women’s experiences are constantly being dismissed as overreactions or distortions or outright lies–until a man comes along to validate them. I’m tired of the fact that these men can then delete their online dating accounts or take the women’s outfit off, but I can’t stop moving through the world as a woman.

On the other hand:

Gender certainly plays a role, but so does the fact that most people aren’t that great at imagining how they would feel if they went through an experience they’ve never gone through. Just like appeals to kinship, experiencing something for yourself often helps make it feel more important and relevant to you. I hate the fact that this seems to be the only way this guy learned, but I’m still glad he learned. That’s one more person who’s going to stop spewing the bullshit that women are “privileged” when it comes to online dating, one more person who will hopefully be a little more supportive of his female friends when they get harassed and abused online.

I’ve seen a few comments about how this guy is speaking for women and whatnot, and while that obviously happens a lot, I don’t think that I see it happening in this case. He did a little personal experiment for himself, not for some grand political purpose, and shared it on a subreddit frequented mostly by women. The fact that his perspective inevitably gets elevated above many women’s perspectives is not something that he is responsible for as an individual; it is something that we are all responsible for collectively.

In that way, what happened here–the fact that this man didn’t believe women when they talked about online dating, the fact that he only started believing them when he pretended to be a woman, the fact that the story of his daring escape from the Land of Women Have It So Easy has been upvoted and shared so many times–this is not the problem. It’s a symptom of the problem.

It’s not just with online dating and harassment that this sort of thing happens. A little over a year ago, for instance, Cory Booker (then mayor of Newark, NJ; now senator) made the news for taking the Food Stamp Challenge, in which you live on the equivalent of a food stamp budget for a week. Writing at xoJane, Melissa criticized the stunt:

Dear Mr. Mayor and anyone else: Want to know what it’s like to live on food stamps? Read thisthis or this — or ask the 46 million Americans who do it every day, not as a “challenge” or for publicity but because they can’t afford food.

[…]There’s a big difference between being someone who is “challenging” themselves and has all the immaterial benefits of being not-poor, and being someone who is truly poor, and who’s suffering and has probably at other times in their life suffered from lack of food. It’s like Tyra Banks putting on a fat suit and acting like she gets it.

(Wearing a fat suit is, in fact, not very much like being fat.)

Of course, the difference here is that Booker is a well-known person, not a random throwaway Reddit handle, and was doing this to raise awareness–and probably for political reasons as well. Although he certainly didn’t intend to, Booker did sort of end up speaking for the millions of Americans who are actually on food stamps rather than elevating and centering their voices and experiences.

In her article, Melissa also points out that living on food stamps for a single week can’t possibly resemble the actual experience of a person living on food stamps, who may live in fear of losing what little resources they have and who may be chronically malnourished–and who doesn’t have the comfort of knowing that after the week’s over, everything will be back to “normal.”

OKCThrowaway22221’s experience is slightly more similar to that of a woman on OkCupid than Booker’s is to that of a person living in poverty, but at the end of the day (or at the end of two hours, rather), he could delete the profile and never have to think about it again. A woman can choose not to do online dating, but she can’t generally choose to stop being perceived as a woman by men and treated accordingly. The abuse women get on online dating sites is not unique to online dating sites.

I don’t want guys to stop doing things like this if that’s what helps them learn. In fact, I’ve suggested things like this to men in the past when they’d ask me, “Why do we still need feminism?”

I also want every guy who does this, or who learns something from reading about it, so ask himself why women’s stories weren’t enough.

~~~

In case you’re curious, here are some of my OKC experiences:

youlldo

Screen Shot 2013-06-14 at 6.30.01 PM

alpha

feministbuttplug

answermebitch

*It’s important to note that not all women experience sexual harassment in the same ways or at the same levels. Women who are marginalized in other ways besides gender are often harassed in ways that interact with those marginalizations (for example, this). Some women are largely ignored by men when it comes to sexual attraction, so it’s important not to present online dating experiences like these are representative of all women.

Edit: Heina of Skepchick also has a great post on this, which I didn’t see until after I wrote this because I’ve been traveling.

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.

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.

~~~

*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.
~~~

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.

“But I’m a man and I don’t feel like I have any privilege.”

Another one inspired by the comment thread of doom.

The hardest thing about explaining privilege to members of dominant groups is that, usually, the fact that you’re advantaged in certain ways doesn’t mean you’re not disadvantaged in many other ways. So when we’re talking about gender and a man is told that he’s privileged–or when we’re talking about race and a white person is told that they’re privileged, or whatever–their immediate response is often, “What privilege? Look at all the ways my life has been unfair!”

To be clear, this argument is not always made in good faith*. However, for the sake of this post, I’m going to pretend that it is, because there are important points to be made about this.

Privilege is best understood as a system of interacting benefits (or disadvantages). When people in a feminist space talk about “privilege,” they often just mean male privilege. All other things being equal–this is the important part–if you are a man, you are at an advantage relative to a woman.

Of course, that’s only useful theoretically. In practice, gender isn’t the only thing that matters. Race, sexual orientation, gender expression, gender identity, (dis)ability, religion, skin color (within race), class, weight, attractiveness, immigration status–all these things make a difference. (This is what feminists refer to as “intersectionality.”)

Say you’re a man but you lack privilege in another area–say you’re a man of color. Are you more privileged than a white, upper-class, straight, able-bodied, Christian woman? Probably not. Are you more privileged than a lower-middle-class, queer Latina woman? Probably. And your being male is only one of many ways in which you are more privileged than this hypothetical woman.

Many men have trouble understanding or accepting the concept of privilege because they do not feel that they have much of it. On one hand, this is true–men can be poor, men can be disabled, men can be non-white, men can be queer. On the other hand, privilege often remains unchallenged because it is invisible. If you are white, you don’t spend much time thinking about the fact that you never (or almost never) get stopped by the cops for absolutely no reason, searched, and subjected to harsh questions. If you are a man of color, this is something that’s almost certainly happened to you, and a problem of which you are very much aware. Likewise, if you’re a man–unless you’re very visibly gender-nonconforming–you don’t have to worry every time you go out alone at night that someone will harass you, that someone will rub up against you on the subway platform and make disgusting sounds, that someone will follow you down the street yelling at you to come back to him. All of these things have happened to me and most other women.

But this probably isn’t something you think about all the time. It’s natural that you’d think more about the ways your life can be challenging, not about how lucky you are to not get followed down the street by strange men all the time. The injustices in your life are probably more salient to you than all the myriad ways in which things work as they should. So it would make sense that, overall, you feel like you lack privilege rather than feeling like you have it.

Another way of looking at it is that a man can very much have a really difficult life that’s almost devoid of any privileges. But if, hypothetically, this same man with these same circumstances had instead been born a woman, her life would be even more difficult and even more devoid of privilege.

This is why privilege is best used as a theoretical concept and not taken too literally. It’s impossible to “measure” it. It’s impossible to know, for instance, whether a hypothetical man necessarily has more total privilege than me, or whether I have more than him.

This is also why, when discussing privilege with folks who aren’t very familiar with intersectionality, it’s best to be as specific as possible. “You just don’t get this because you’re privileged” or “Check your privilege” is never going to work if the person you’re talking to actually lacks privilege along every axis other than the one you’re talking about (well, or if they don’t know what the hell privilege even means). If I–a white, able-bodied, cisgender, middle-class woman–yell at a poor, queer man of color to “check his privilege” because he said something sexist, he would (and should) laugh in my face. Because he’ll probably immediately think of his class, race, and sexual orientation and wonder how, exactly, he’s so privileged.

When this comes up, it’s vital to remind people that the disadvantages they face in life are not a product of the fact that they’re male (or white, or whatever). If I tell you that being a woman means I have to worry about people harassing me on the street and you tell me that, well, being a queer man means you get harassed on the street too, you’re missing the point a little. It’s not being a man that gets you harassed. It’s being queer, because we have a society that’s unjust toward queer people.

Some have tried to get around this hurdle when educating about privilege by creating metaphors in which you get a certain number of “points” in different domains. If you’re white, you get more “points” than if you’re not white. If you’re male, you get more points than if you’re not male. If you’re straight…you get the idea. Then the total points you have is your privilege, and you can see that getting few points in one category doesn’t mean you can’t get many points in another category. (John Scalzi made a similar metaphor brilliantly here.)

Such metaphors are fraught with complications (should being male give you more points than being white?), they’re useful for showing that you can’t just look at one axis. It’s not just about being male. It’s not just about being white. It’s everything.

Privilege is a theory, a framework that can be used to explain how our social world works. Like all theories, it has weaknesses and blind spots. Some try to make up for these by continually inventing new forms of privilege–vanilla privilege and couple privilege are a few that I’ve heard relatively recently–but in reality, the problem with taking privilege too literally is that there are just too damn many variables that shape our circumstances and what we are able to achieve. It is completely possible to be a straight white cis able-bodied middle-class Christian mentally/physically healthy English-speaking American plain-ol-vanilla-white-bread man and still have your life completely destroyed and fucked over by circumstances beyond your control.

That does not mean that you do not have privilege.

All it means is that privilege is just a theory, useful for explaining many but not all things, and that you, my friend, were really unlucky and that legitimately sucks.

~~~

*Examples: “Male privilege? But women never answer my OkCupid messages!” and “White privilege? But [insert story about how you got rejected from a job/college because some Totally Unqualified Black Person got it instead].”

Why You Shouldn’t Tell That Random Girl On The Street That She’s Hot

Ah, spring. What a wonderful time of the year. Flowers are blooming, birds are chirping, terrified college students are graduating, and dudes on the internet are pondering that age-old philosophical question: “But whyyyyy can’t I tell that random girl on the street that she looks hot?”

It seems that men are finally starting to realize that many women do not like street harassment (or, in the parlance of the uninitiated, “unsolicited compliments about a stranger’s appearance”). This is really great and a sign that activists are doing a good job.

However, predictably, I’ve also seen a surge of men desperately trying to find loopholes so that they can still, yes, give women their irrelevant and unasked-for opinion on their appearance. Hence all the “But what if I say it this way? But what if I say it that way? But what if I make it REALLY CLEAR that I’m NOT TRYING TO BE CREEPY? But why can’t I just give a girl a compliment for crying out loud?”

Okay. Before I say what I’m going to say, here are some things I’m NOT saying:

  • Finding a random woman attractive makes you a Bad Person.
  • Wanting to tell her she’s attractive makes you a Bad Person.
  • Every time you compliment a random woman on her appearance, it makes her uncomfortable/scared.
  • Every time you compliment a random woman on her appearance, that is harassment.

Here’s what I AM going to say:

  • If you find yourself really invested in the idea of complimenting random women on the street, you should do some serious soul-searching and figure out why that idea appeals to you so much.
  • It may very well be possible to compliment a woman you don’t know on her appearance in an appropriate way.
  • But, if you choose to compliment a random woman on her appearance, you run a high risk of making her uncomfortable/scared, even if she doesn’t show any outward signs of it. Are you willing to take that chance?
  • If you choose to compliment a random woman on her appearance, you may be harassing her.

So, about really wanting to compliment random women on the street. I’ve seen this attitude from many guys that women “deserve” compliments when they look good or that they “should” feel better about themselves, and it bothers me for many reasons that are articulated very well in this article.

The idea that women are all wallowing in a miserable pool of their own insecurity and desperately need a man to come save them by giving them compliments is really just a modern take on the Prince Charming fairytale. Yes, many women are insecure. Most of them are insecure not because no guy has ever expressed a desire to fuck them, but because of the dangerously unrealistic standards our society sets for women’s appearance and for the behaviors they must perform in order to maintain that appearance.

So as nice as it would be if all that could be solved by noble, kind-hearted men taking valuable time out of their day to compliment female passerby on their appearance, that’s not gonna happen. Women don’t need men to save us from insecurity. We need to stand up and speak out ourselves against the ways in which our culture keeps us fearful and insecure, and the ways in which we help it to do so.

Of course, this is rarely, if ever, what it’s really about when men “compliment” women they don’t know on how they look. If it were, then the collective male response to women’s advocacy about street harassment and our insistence that these “compliments” make many women feel violated, scrutinized, and afraid, would be, “Oh fuck, sorry, I had no idea. I’m going to think very carefully before doing this again, if at all.”

And really, how often is that really the response?

Usually, it’s a little more along the lines of, “Oh come onnnn, it was just a compliment, why can’t you just say thank you, why can’t I tell a girl she looks good, why’s everybody so over-sensitive these days.”

So it’s not really about making me feel nice, now is it? If this is your response to our opinions and you’re still claiming that you “just want to make a girl feel good about herself,” then this is a serious look-at-your-life-look-at-your-choices moment for you. Because maybe it’s not really about making people feel good. It’s about making yourself feel good, about feeling the power that comes with judging and expressing opinions about a woman’s looks–even if those opinions are positive.

Here’s the thing. Men in our culture have been socialized to believe that their opinions on women’s appearance matter a lot. Not all men buy into this, of course, but many do. Some seem incapable of entertaining the notion that not everything women do with their appearance is for men to look at. This is why men’s response to women discussing stifling beauty norms is so often something like “But I actually like small boobs!” and “But I actually like my women on the heavier side, if you know what I mean!” They don’t realize that their individual opinion on women’s appearance doesn’t matter in this context, and that while it might be reassuring for some women to know that there are indeed men who find them fuckable, that’s not the point of the discussion.

Women, too, have been socialized to believe that the ultimate arbiters of their appearance are men, that anything they do with their appearance is or should be “for men.” That’s why women’s magazines trip over themselves to offer up advice on “what he wants to see you wearing” and “what men think of these current fashion trends” and “wow him with these new hairstyles.” While women can and do judge each other’s appearance harshly, many of us grew up being told by mothers, sisters, and female strangers that we’ll never “get a man” or “keep a man” unless we do X or lose some fat from Y, unless we moisturize//trim/shave/push up/hide/show/”flatter”/paint/dye/exfoliate/pierce/surgically alter this or that.

That’s also why when a woman wears revealing clothes, it’s okay, in our society, to assume that she’s “looking for attention” or that she’s a slut and wants to sleep with a bunch of guys. Because why else would a woman wear revealing clothes if not for the benefit of men and to communicate her sexual availability to them, right? It can’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that it’s hot out or it’s more comfortable or she likes how she looks in it or everything else is in the laundry or she wants to get a tan or maybe she likes women and wants attention from them, not from men?

The result of all this is that many men, even kind and well-meaning men, believe, however subconsciously, that women’s bodies are for them. They are for them to look at, for them to pass judgment on, for them to bless with a compliment if they deign to do so. They are not for women to enjoy, take pride in, love, accept, explore, show off, or hide as they please. They are for men and their pleasure.

Some men who want to compliment random women on the street are genuinely good guys who just don’t understand why their comments might be unwelcome. Some men who want to compliment random women on the street are creepy predators. Most are somewhere in between, and guess what? I don’t know you, I don’t know your life, and I have no idea if you’re going to leave it at “Hey, you look good in that dress!” or follow it up with “But you’d look better without it! Har har! C’mon, where’re you going? I know you heard me! Fucking cunt, nobody wants your fat ass anyway, bitch.”

When you compliment a random woman who doesn’t know you, no matter how nice you are about it, there’s a good chance she’s going to freak out internally because for all she knows, you could be that latter type. And I get that it’s really unfair that women would just assume that about you. I get that it sucks that sometimes, expressing totally reasonable opinions like “hey you’re hot” will make women terrified of you or furious at you. That’s not fair.

But if you’re going to lay the blame for that somewhere, for fuck’s sake, don’t blame the woman. Blame all the guys who have called her a bitch and a cunt for ignoring their advances. Blame all the guys who may have harassed, abused, or assaulted her in the past. Blame all the people who may never do such a thing themselves, but who were quick to blame her and tell her to just get over it. Blame the fact that if she stops and talks to you and then something bad happens, people will blame her for stopping and talking to you.

In a perfect world, none of this would happen. In a perfect world, you could tell a woman she’s hot and she would smile and say thank you because there would be no millenia-long history of women’s bodies being used and abused by men, no notion of women’s beauty as being “for” men, no ridiculous beauty standards. Complimenting a woman on her appearance would be just like complimenting a person on their bike or their shoes or the color of their hair; it would not carry all the baggage that it carries in this world.

But that’s not our world, and it may never be. Yeah, it sucks that women often take it “the wrong way” when you give them unsolicited compliments. You know what sucks more? Yup, patriarchy.

So, guys, if you find yourself wanting to compliment a random woman you do not know and who is not asking for your opinion, ask yourself this: why does your opinion on her appearance matter?

Why do you absolutely need to express that opinion, even knowing that it might make her uncomfortable?

Why is it her responsibility to deal with that potential discomfort or “get over it,” not your responsibility to keep your opinions to yourself unless they are relevant or solicited?

And, most importantly–if complimenting people matters so much to you, why not compliment a female friend who knows and trusts you? Hell, why not compliment another man?

Look. When women want your opinion on how we look, we will ask for it. But I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.

~~~

Note: I’ve written about street harassment before and I’ve tried not to repeat any of the same arguments, but regardless, you should read that piece if you’ve ever heard a guy say–or been the guy who said–“Yeah, well, I’d LOVE it if women ‘harassed’ ME on the street!”

Update: Hello, new readers! Please take note of my comment policy. I’m pretty strict about it and let’s just say that quite a few of you are failing to follow it! :)

Does Sexist Humor Matter? A Review of the Research

[Content note: sexual assault]

When people call out sexist humor, they’re often informed that “it’s just a joke.” While some seem to believe that humor inhabits a special dimension of the universe in which things don’t “really mean” anything, psychologists tend to disagree.

There are many, many reasons sexist humor matters. It hurts people, first of all. Beyond that, it may activate stereotype threat or generally make women feel unwelcome in spaces dominated by men. But it can also have effects on those who consume and enjoy it. Here, I’m going to examine one particular piece of that puzzle: sexist humor and men’s attitudes toward sexual violence.

An early study examined men’s enjoyment of sexist jokes and found a correlation between how funny they found the jokes and the degree to which they accepted myths about rape (such as that women lie about rape or that some women deserve to be raped), how likely they claimed to be to rape someone, and all sorts of measures of aggression (Ryan & Kanjorski, 1998). Men who found the jokes funny also tended to score higher on a measure of adversarial sexual beliefs, which is basically the idea that men and women are “adversaries” in the game of love and that women will deceive and manipulate men to get what they want (therefore it’s also a measure of good ol’ sexism). The study had female participants, too, and for them, the degree to which they enjoyed the sexist jokes was also correlated with their endorsement of adversarial sexual beliefs, but not with their self-reported likelihood to rape or any measure of aggression.

If you’re curious about the types of jokes used in the study, here are a few examples: “Why did the woman cross the road?–Hey!! What’s she doing out of the kitchen?” “What’s the difference between a bitch and a whore?–A whore will screw anyone. A bitch will screw anyone but you.” “What’s the difference between a woman and a light bulb?–You can unscrew the light bulb.”

Ha, ha, ha.

So anyway, that was a correlative study. It provides no evidence that sexist humor causes men to become more likely to rape someone or to accept rape myths to a greater extent.

So that’s useless, right? Not really. Women/feminists who dislike sexist jokes often claim that it’s evidence that the person who’s telling them is a sexist, to which they’re told that “IT’S JUST A JOKE GOD STOP BEING SO SERIOUS.” However, whether or not one causes the other, there’s good evidence that they tend to co-occur. (For you stats nerds, the correlation between enjoyment of sexist humor and acceptance of rape myths was .39, p<.01).

Later studies expanded upon the work of Ryan and Kanjorski both theoretically and methodologically. In their 2007 study, Viki et al. cited what’s known as Prejudicial Norm Theory to explain the possible effects of sexist humor:

Prejudiced Norm Theory (Ford & Ferguson, 2004) argues that prejudiced jokes activate a conversational rule of levity, resulting in a non-serious mindset on the part of the receiver, which prevents the message from being interpreted critically. By switching to a non-serious mindset, the recipient of the joke essentially accepts the local norm implied by the joke. As such, when exposed to prejudiced jokes people may begin to accept the norm of prejudice implied by the joke. This may result in greater personal tolerance of discrimination.

The authors then cite a bunch of fascinating studies on the effects of sexist humor on men’s tolerance of sexism in general, to which I may return in a later post. But the gist of that is that being exposed to sexist humor may make men more likely to accept sexist behavior, such as harassment, especially for men who score high on measures of hostile sexism. Remember when I talked about myths about man-hating feminists and discussed the distinction between hostile and benevolent sexism? That comes up again and again in these sorts of studies.

So, returning to Prejudiced Norm Theory. If prejudiced jokes can cause people to accept–to however marginally greater a degree–actual prejudice, what does this mean with regards to sexual assault and the various biases, such as victim-blaming, that go along with it?

That’s what Viki et al. examined experimentally. Male students were randomly assigned to either read a few sexist jokes or a few non-sexist jokes. They then read one of two vignettes–one in which a woman is raped after going home from a party with a man she met there, and another in which a woman is raped by a stranger while walking home alone at night. The participants then answered a bunch of questions about the extent to which they blame the woman for what happened, how likely they might be to act the same way as the man in the vignette (rape proclivity), how much they think the woman ended up enjoying the situation, and, finally, how long the jail sentence should be for the man if he were found guilty of rape.

To summarize, it was a 2 x 2 design; each participant was assigned to one of four conditions: sexist joke/stranger rape vignette, sexist joke/acquaintance rape vignette, non-sexist joke/stranger rape vignette, or non-sexist joke/acquaintance rape vignette.

The results were, to put it mildly, interesting. Rape proclivity was about the same for the stranger rape conditions; there was no significant difference between the self-reported rape proclivity of the participants who read the sexist jokes and the ones who read the non-sexist jokes.

But for the acquaintance rape condition, the participants who read sexist jokes reported a significantly higher proclivity to rape.

The same effect happened for victim-blaming. In the acquaintance rape condition, participants who read sexist jokes were significantly more likely to blame the woman in the vignette for her own rape. In the stranger rape condition, there was no significant difference. And likewise for recommended sentence length: participants in the sexist-joke/acquaintance-rape condition recommended a shorter jail sentence than those in the non-sexist-joke/acquaintance-rape condition.

Predictably, in general, rape proclivity and victim-blaming were both higher in the acquaintance rape conditions than in the stranger rape conditions.

In a later study, Romero-Sánchez et al. (2010) replicated these results and added two additional variables: ambivalent sexism and aversiveness of sexist humor. This second measure was meant to examine the degree to which the participants found the sexist jokes aversive–didn’t like them. The researchers hypothesized that aversiveness would be a moderating variable–men who found the jokes very aversive wouldn’t differ in rape proclivity regardless of what type of jokes they read, because reading sexist jokes wouldn’t increase their rape proclivity scores.

They were right. In fact, people with high aversiveness to sexist humor actually seemed to report a slightly lower proclivity to rape in the sexist joke condition, although it’s unclear whether or not this effect reached significance. The researchers also examined hostile sexism as a variable. They found that while participants high in hostile sexism reported greater rape proclivity overall, there was no interaction between hostile sexism scores and type of joke.

So, what does this mean? First, a cautionary note about self-reported rape proclivity. These measures typically ask participants how likely they would be to behave like the person in the vignette–that is, to rape someone–assuming they could get away with it. In reality, they may not be willing to take that chance. They may also find that despite their intention to rape someone, in reality, they may not be able to go through with it. They may also be responding in a biased way, assuming perhaps that the experimenter shares their beliefs and wanting to conform to what they perceive to be the norm. The authors of all of these studies are careful to state that they do not wish to imply that exposure to sexist humor necessarily causes sexual assault. Of course, it may, but no ethical study could possibly determine that for certain.

It’s important to note, too, that many rapists rape because they believe they can get away with it. In this sense, rape as a crime is not like murder or theft. With murder or theft, everyone generally knows that if there’s enough evidence to show that the suspect is guilty, then they will be convicted. With rape, many people realize that even clearly-guilty suspects often go free because the defense was able to discredit the victim somehow. So the hypothetical “Would you do it if you knew you wouldn’t get caught?” question might not be entirely hypothetical.

So, again, these studies do not show that being exposed to and/or enjoying sexist humor makes men rape people. They do suggest, though, that sexist humor may cause men to be more accepting of rape, to blame the victim more, and to treat rape as a crime less seriously by assigning a shorter jail sentence to a hypothetical rapist. They also show that, in general, enjoyment of such humor is correlated with acceptance of rape myths and endorsement of hostile sexism, or misogyny, and that men who have a strong distaste for such humor may not experience these effects. Finally, they show that it’s not stranger rape we should be worried about when it comes to sexist humor–it’s beliefs about acquaintance rape that seem to be affected, and people are more likely to blame the victim in these situations as is. These are also the majority of rapes.

To put it simply, reading and enjoying sexist jokes can change how you think about certain things–perhaps without you even realizing it. This is far from a novel concept in social psychology, but many people seem to have trouble accepting it when it comes to pesky stuff like sexism. Do all those sexist jokes you hear all over the place–on TV, in your office, from your friends at a party–really matter? It appears so.

An interesting future study might include some sort of behavioral component, perhaps assessing a male participant’s response to a female confederate who discloses having been sexually assaulted. That sexist jokes affect attitudes may seem like common sense, but if a study could ethically show that they also affect behavior, that would have even more important implications. A neurological component might be interesting, too. Do people show a different neural response while reading a vignette about sexual assault if they’ve been reading sexist jokes versus non-sexist jokes? I’m not a neuroscientist, so I have no fucking idea, but it’s interesting to think about.

As last time, let me know if you have any specific questions about these papers, since only one of them is freely available as a PDF. Also let me know if any of the psych/stats jargon was incomprehensible and I’ll try to make it less so. :)

Romero-Sánchez, M., Durán, M., Carretero-Dios, H., Megías, J. L., & Moya, M. (2010). Exposure to sexist humor and rape proclivity: The moderator effect of aversiveness ratings. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 25(12), 2339–50. doi:10.1177/0886260509354884

Ryan, K., & Kanjorski, J. (1998). The enjoyment of sexist humor, rape attitudes, and relationship aggression in college students. Sex Roles, 38(9-10), 743-756. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1018868913615

Viki, G., Thomae, M., Cullen, A., & Fernandez, H. (2007). The effect of sexist humor and type of rape on men’s self-reported rape proclivity and victim blame. Current Research in Social Psychology, 13(10), 122–132. Retrieved from http://www.uiowa.edu/~grpproc/crisp/crisp13_10.pdf