“I promise you, guys, you will not miss out on meeting “the one” by erring on the side of caution here. You will still talk to loads and loads of women in your lives, some of whom will be both attractive and attracted to you, and will make their interest clear. You lose nothing by not talking to a woman when you can’t quite tell if she wants to talk — and you gain the satisfaction of helping to create a culture in which women are treated with respect and can feel safe in public. Why do you keep insisting you’re owed more than that?” (Comment left by Kate Harding, on October 12, 2009 at 9:07 p.m., in response to other comments about the post Schrödinger’s Rapist on her blog “Shapely Prose.”)
This comment by Kate Harding caught my attention because I think it summarizes a belief held by feminists, some feminists, that is wrong and leads to misunderstanding. To help explain why this is wrong, let me mention an acquaintance of mine, whom I’ll call “Frank.” He’s a really nice, confident, friendly kind of guy. Frank is the kind of man everyone would like to know.
So, a few months ago Frank and I were talking. We had been hanging out for a few hours, and the conversation became somewhat relaxed and uninhibited. I alluded to my desire for sexual intimacy with a woman. (Tastefully, of course.) When I mentioned this, Frank said, “Sex? Oh, what do you mean? That’s easy. You just go to a party, meet someone, and have sex.” Frank wasn’t boasting. The tone of his voice was friendly, and he was expressing genuine puzzlement. Sex? You just go to a party and meet someone. No problem.
I mention this because I’ll bet Kate has met men a lot of men like Frank, and for Frank, most of what Kate said in her comment holds true. Frank has talked with “loads and loads” of women, and Frank probably gets a lot of unequivocal expressions of interest from women whom he also finds attractive. Good for Frank.
The problem is, there are a lot of men who don’t talk to “loads and loads” of women, and who don’t get unequivocal expressions of interest from women. But when Kate creates her standards for “good” men, she thinks of men she knows and admires. Men like Frank. And Frank is usually sure when women are attracted to him, because he has experience with sex and relationships, and has learned to “speak the language.” And so when Kate sees a man express sexual interest in a woman, and that woman is not “obviously” reciprocating the interest, she immediately assumes that he must be motivated by some nasty feeling of “male privilege” or by “disrespect for women.”
Kate takes the experience of sexually successful men she knows, like Frank, generalizes to men as a whole, and reaches the conclusion: “Relationships and sexual opportunities are a given and should come naturally and easily for men. Therefore, when a man continues to engage a woman who is not unequivocally interested, he is engaging in a gratuitous expression of male privilege for the purpose of gratifying his own ego and desire for power and control.”
This is the conclusion that seems to have been reached by a number of feminists, and it is not only wrong, it’s harmful.
It’s harmful because one of the goals of feminism – which I share – is greater intimacy and mutual respect and caring between men and women. And you don’t create a world in which there is greater intimacy, respect, and caring by teaching young women that socially awkward men are creeps and freaks, or by teaching socially inhibited men to think of themselves and creeps and freaks – or by tacitly encouraging socially inhibited men to withdraw from the social realm.
When Kate says “you lose nothing by not talking to a woman when you can’t quite tell if she wants to talk” she is wrong. The fact is, a socially isolated man can lose a lot by erring on the side of caution. What Kate doesn’t understand is that a series of missed social connections can result in years of social isolation for some men. But she doesn’t see this, because she sees the world from the perspective of a woman who has been the object of desire, and she judges men by the standard of socially successful men whom she knows.
In the social calculus of many feminists, the sexual discouragement of socially isolated men is “a small price to pay” for, as Kate puts it, “helping to create a culture in which women are treated with respect and can feel safe in public.” The problem is, when a basically good man is sexually discouraged and socially isolated for being socially clumsy, (or just shy), this does not make the world a better place. It does not “create a respectful culture” when a man is unable to find intimacy or withdraws from the social realm entirely. In fact, it has the opposite effect. It makes the world a less loving place and ultimately, I believe, a more aggressive and misogynistic place.