A modest baseline

I’ve been staying out of the current debate over sexism/feminism because frankly it’s a bigger issue than I have time to address. It’s a big deal, though, so here’s at least a couple cents worth: I’d like to propose a modest baseline for inter-gender interactions, and I’d like to aim it particularly at guys.

The baseline is this: before interacting with a casual female acquaintance, I want you to imagine someone you find sexually unattractive. I think, for example, a lot of you might not be attracted to, say, the comic book guy from the Simpsons. Whatever attention you wish to pay to your casual female acquaintance, imagine yourself receiving the same kind of attention from the comic book guy, with exactly the same feelings and motivations. Would it bug you? Would it be unwelcome? If so, assume that you do not have a right to behave that way towards your female acquaintance. You may eventually earn the right, but don’t just assume you have it, or that you can quickly earn it with the right “techniques,” any more than the comic book guy could with you.

That’s a modest and inadequate baseline, but I hope it might have some use as an exercise in promoting a bit of understanding and sympathy. And above all restraint.



  1. Tyrant of Skepsis says

    So the box has opened on one of the Schroedingers bloggers who had not yet spoken on the issue – to find… a pleasant surprise. Thanks for not being the next Thunderfoot >D

    It’s a fun game you propose there, if I remember in time, I’ll play it whenever I approach someone of the other sex, might give me a different perspective. Then of course its easy to say for me since im currently not in the dating business.

    If you were female, this comments thread would explode with guys accusing you of calling them ugly, but look who’s talking you’re old and ugly yourself, or maybe you’re a lesbian because you don’t find them attractive, and you’re a feminazi taliban anyway. So, you’ve just provided an interesting control sample. Let’s see how that turns out.

  2. O'Hurlihee says

    I like this post from Marty Klein on the subject. An excerpt:

    The whole “Eek! An unwanted sexual invitation—gross! My day/week/year is ruined!” is a bit precious. The whole idea that women need to be protected from discomfort, or from men, or from sex, is a giant step backwards. Obviously, sexual violence and coercion are horrible and unacceptable realities in contemporary society. …[But]if we expect to go out and communicate effectively in a world that is often hostile to our ideas, we need to have the emotional skills to tolerate a wide range of responses. If we can’t even handle a friendly sexual invitation in a genuinely safe environment without losing our composure, how can we tolerate the rough-and-tumble of the world out there? Learning to say things like “that feels bad, please stop,” “I don’t like that you said that,” “You have obviously misread me completely,” and “I don’t think anyone would like what you just did” involves a fundamental skill that every grownup needs.

    As Dr. Klein points out, this in no way condones actually violent, sexually harassing attention, which of course includes any continuation of sexual attention after receiving a rebuff. But adults do have the right to try and connect — again: honestly, openly, and without coercion — with other adults, on whatever level they feel is appropriate, without being viewed as disgusting or predatory for doing so.

    • maureen.brian says

      If you pop over to Skepchick you’ll discover that Marty Klein has been outed as a liar and thoroughly discredited. But then you might not want to know that.

      • O'Hurlihee says

        Please don’t make assumptions about what I might or might not want to know. I haven’t even read a third of the post and I’m mortified over Klein’s misrepresentations and my perpetuation of them. Consider my statement duly retracted.

    • Gregory in Seattle says

      As has been talked already almost to death, the issue is not about looking to connect. It is about not being creepy or predatory when looking to connect. It is about taking everything that is not an explicit “Yes” as a “No,” and taking it politely. It is about not touching unless given unambiguous permission.

      Context is everything, and the context is determined by the person being approached, not by the person doing the approaching. That should be respected.

    • Aaron says

      To Marty Klein (and you), I reply thus:

      1) It’s easy to say “toughen up” when experiencing the usual daily load of harassing behaviors men experience (which is to say, “very little and subdued when present”). If this were an issue of tolerance to bad behavior (which it isn’t, see point two), she would still be facing a different baseline by virtue of being a prominent female and constantly exposed to men being men.

      2) You do not abdicate a man’s responsibility to act like a decent human being by telling a woman that she’s going to have to deal with a bunch of pigs. Even though it’s sadly true that guys are going to be assholes a lot of the time, it’s no less true that they should feel a responsibility to stop being such assholes, out of common decency.

      And contrary to opinion, stuff like this *does* condone the violent behavior, because it pushes back that boundary of what it means to respect a woman as a human being. You may think this is a slippery slope argument, but there’s really not much difference between “I don’t perceive boundaries when attempting to force a connection with this woman emotionally” and “I don’t perceive boundaries when attempting to force a connection with this woman physically”.

      • Robert B. says

        It’s easy to say “toughen up” when experiencing the usual daily load of harassing behaviors men experience (which is to say, “very little and subdued when present”).

        That last part should have a “usually” in it somewhere. OTOH, those of us guys who actually have experienced a hostile environment from the target’s side tend not to be so dismissive. The difference between an “unwanted [but respectful] sexual advance” and “sexual harassment” is, in my experience, neither subtle nor minor. I’m not at all worried that anyone will ever be confused about which they are receiving.

      • O'Hurlihee says

        I don’t really see the Klein piece as defending pigs or assholes, or condoning anyone “forcing a connection.” Those both strike me as mischaracterizations of the argument.

        As for not being “at all worried that anyone will ever be confused about which they are receiving,” I certainly hope that your lack of worry is justified. To me it seems a trifle optimistic.

    • SallyStrange says

      Let’s not forget that Marty Klein had to lie about Elyse’s encounter with the card-distributing couple in order to make his straw man.

    • Blueaussi says

      Yes, because what we need is another man to tell us how we should feel and react.

      *rolls eyes*

      The problem is not that most women can’t handle unwanted sexual advances, the problem is that we shouldn’t freaking have to! There are places that I will not go because I just get so sick and tired of being hit on all the time.

      And let us not forget in all the verbiage swirling around the front end of the attempted transaction; many times after saying no, a woman has to deal with the wounded ego of the rejected male. It always makes for such a pleasant evening to have to go through the BitchDykeWhoreBarelyBetterThanNothing rant.

      So, please don’t brush aside the suggestion in this blog post because it’s a really good way to look at the situation.

      • O'Hurlihee says

        While I don’t agree that the post’s suggestion is a particularly good one, I can appreciate the difficulty of dealing with the blowback from a fragile ego. Dr. Klein’s post certainly could stand to emphasize the equal or greater importance of reading an interaction so as to minimize the risk of making an unwelcome advance, and of accepting rejection with equanimity and good humor.

    • A Hermit says

      That article by Marty Klein is a travesty; he started out by completely misrepresenting what happened to Elyse Anders, dismissed her feelings as irrelevant and went to argue against a colossal strawman. He compounded his errors by sneakily editing the post, without noting that he had done so, to change the story and to re-present it as a “COMPOSITE” hypothetical situation.

      Whatever larger point he was hoping to make was lost in a hot mess of dishonest reporting and poorly reasoned, self congratulatory mumbo-jumbo.

      The REAL story is here: http://skepchick.org/2012/06/psychology-today-blogger-your-facts-are-irrelevant-woman/“>Psychology Today Blogger Marty Klein: Your Facts Are Irrelevant, Woman

  3. thetalkingstove says

    That Klein response is truely horrible.

    ‘Learning to say things like “that feels bad, please stop,”’

    Uh. Seriously? That’s disgusting. Women need to learn how to tell men not to hurt them?

    So the message here is “Oh hey women, why don’t you learn how to deal with men who harrass you!” rather than “Hey men, don’t harrass!”


    “But adults do have the right to try and connect — again: honestly, openly, and without coercion — with other adults, on whatever level they feel is appropriate, without being viewed as disgusting or predatory for doing so.”

    Yes they do. Unless they behave in an inappropriate manner. Why is this so hard to get?

    • O'Hurlihee says

      Indeed, it’s not. As noted above, the full extent of the impropriety was not clear to me until now. My mistake for not researching the situation better.

      • says

        O’Hurlihee, I want to commend the spirit in which you’ve taken these repeated corrections. A bit part of the problem with Klein’s article aside from the major fact of his representing Elyse which you didn’t know about, is that he muddies the water by exaggerating both the harmlessness of the encounter and the severity of the reaction.

      • O'Hurlihee says

        Indeed. Also, the repeated, obviously dishonest untracked edits smack strongly of privileged/entitled intellectual cowardice.

        Thanks for the commendation and thanks again to everyone who pointed to the Skepchick post.

  4. Kevin says

    Gad I wish we could move on.

    The clueless will remain so. The educable have been educated. The conventions and their organizers have been put on notice that ‘funny stuff’ isn’t going to be tolerated.

    Isn’t that enough? Or do the floggings need to continue until morale improves?

  5. Sophia Dodds says

    A note to the people still unclear on the boundaries/harrassment issue:

    I’m currently living apart from my husband. He has a problem with respecting my physical boundaries; this manifests in the form of unwanted groping. He doesn’t see what he does as wrong.

    I have told him, repeatedly, that this is inappropriate with such scathing, nasty attacks on his moral character as ‘the groping is getting a little old’. I also tried many, many other avenues to voice my dissent. ‘Please, don’t do that, it makes me feel unsafe.’ (sound familiar?)
    Every time I’ve tried to speak my case I’ve been met with indignation – How dare I hurt his feelings by accusing him of something he doesn’t believe he’s doing wrong? It’s never been a problem before (not to count the times I’ve objected, of course) so obviously I’m the problem. I make him feel that way, so it’s my fault if I’m touched. Also, I’m his wife – isn’t marriage supposed to entail hanky-panky?

    Even his family’s been convinced that I’m some kind of horrible, manipulative person trying to smear his good name. The entire extent of my ‘crimes’ has been to voice my disapproval of a behaviour that is, technically, assault.

    People wonder why we’re reluctant to say no, to stand up to people and assert our rights to our own bodily autonomy.

    • mikespeir says

      I’m sorry to say that there was probably a time that if you’d been my wife I would have assumed I had just the same kind of prerogative. I doubt I would have persisted after being rebuffed, but I would have seen the problem as being mostly with you. So strongly is male privilege engrained into us that it’s like grabbing a river and dragging it onto a new course. It took some hard knocks to get me to grow up.

      I do hope your husband wises up in time so you two can work things out.

  6. jimmy60 says

    While I find your baseline thought exercise to be absolutely correct it won’t work. The problem is that the worst violators will never see themselves as comic book guy. They could actually be comic book guy and they’d still see a silver tongued, Adonis that no woman could resist.

    Guys, if you are heading out for an evening with the express purpose of having sex with someone, do us all a favour and hire a professional. You won’t be let down, you won’t have your feelings hurt and you probably won’t act in a way you’ll regret later. Otherwise just go out to meet people and make new friends. Women are people and they make great friends. Sometimes one even has sex with friends.

    If you’ve been paying attention to all this you’d see that women just want to feel safe. Personally, I wish women could actually be safe, but for now feeling safe helps. Don’t think you can fool a woman into feeling safe either. They are highly intelligent creatures who have been socialized to be wary of men. Be real, be honest and be safe and you might be shocked to find a woman who doesn’t care that much that you look like comic book guy, only that you aren’t that guy.

  7. Tige Gibson says

    The problem on the level of society is that most people are not able (or unwilling) to make the empathic connection with “the other” that your idea requires.

    I’ve made similar arguments about “walking in shoes” with Christians. People with a psychological tendency towards religion don’t seem to believe it is possible to empathize with another person unless you have experienced the same sort of suffering they have. I have observed Christians trying to mentally act out dying on the Cross in their minds and that “works” for them, but only in the sense that it achieves what they desire. Since when did a Christian ever wish they could go back and prevent Christ’s death? That’s what a normal person would feel. Real empathy requires that a person experience emotional distress for the sake of “the other”, but for Christians “the other” is just a utility and empathizing with them conflicts with their agenda. If hunters empathized with their prey, they would not hunt. If masters empathized with their slaves they would free them. It becomes necessary to rationalize *not* empathizing with people in order to function.

    People who act out in a way which denigrates women are what they appear to be: bigots. It is not a matter of training them to function in society using tricks, any more than an individual can be enlightened by force. True enlightenment is driven from within: I experience injustice just by witnessing it, not by “experiencing” it. I don’t need to “walk in shoes” the way Christians do. I don’t need to be told or explained what is right or wrong any more than I need to be waterboarded before I can know that it is torture.

    If anyone is clearly not able to tell these things, then why have we given them a benefit of a doubt?

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