On deciding not to talk to a woman.

“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.

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2 Responses to On deciding not to talk to a woman.

  1. karak says:

    If you are so awkward that’s it’s leading to YEARS of social isolation, I don’t think consulting with random distasteful strangers is going to help. You should talk to a friend, a family member, the sister of a friend, anyone, to help you work with your personality so that you can reach out to others appropriately.

    But the fact that someone is lonely–and may be for years–doesn’t give someone else the right to socially trap me and make me feel afraid, isolated, bored, or annoyed. Simply put, just because you’re miserable doesn’t give you the right to actively make me uncomfortable. And, if you talk to the wrong woman, instead of a nice, polite response, she might get truthful–and brutal. Most decent people don’t want to public humiliate others, but most decent people don’t think they have the right to make strangers miserable, either. You have a LOT to lose by forcing random people to interact with you when they don’t want to.

  2. Just a metalhead says:

    One conclusion I have come to: it is hard for women who are dealing with a surplus of attention to understand men who have to deal with a severe deficit of attention, and vice versa.

    Karak, I understand the idea, you are annoyed by the fact that men come to you and try to strike up conversations with you and you want it to stop. But do make an effort to understand the other point of view. For many men, if they don’t take the risk to go and talk to strangers, they’ll live and die alone. As simple as that. Rare are the men who can simply go out in public and be certain that women will come on to them. If they don’t take the initiative, they’re screwed (pun not intended, but ironically funny nonetheless), unless they can find a friend of a friend that fits them or go out with a coworker (wait, scratch that, it’s frowned upon too, it’s sexual harassment to make such overtures to coworkers).

    Hell, if it weren’t for people daring to start talking with strangers, I wouldn’t even have been born. My parents met in a ski resort, they weren’t introduced to each other nor had they common friends. If they hadn’t decided to talk to each other, even if they were strangers, they would just have left and gone their own ways, never knowing the other’s name. In this example, they would have lost the opportunity to get to know each other, marry and build a family if both had chosen not to talk to each other. They would have done just what Kate Harding promised every guy they wouldn’t do if they chose to err on the side of caution: missed meeting the “one”.

    I also think you misunderstand what people mean when they say “socially awkward” men. They don’t mean people who are necessarily “creepy” to others, who don’t know the basic limits of social interaction and are just awful to be around. The awkwardness generally is interior, they may know social limits, but they have trouble picking up on social cues or “reading” others. They may have self-esteem issues and just be shy and anxious of talking to others. Many of them may seem like perfect friends or brothers or sons, people who respect others and are kind. So when you say that they should just “work with their personality” with their friends and families, you just completely miss the point. In fact, you pile it on on them, assuming that men who are alone are alone because they deserve it in a way, because their personality sucks and so they’re not “good enough”.

    Now personally, I think the key word here is “compromise”. There must be a compromise between the two sides here. Striking a conversation with a stranger shouldn’t be “verboten” but it shouldn’t either be done regardless of circumstances and manners either. Instead of telling men not to start talking with women if they don’t know them and aren’t 100% sure of reciprocal interest (and really, is interest just instantaneous and permanent so that you always know you have no interest in someone with merely a look at them? Couldn’t interest be raised after some conversation with each other?), why not say when and how you would feel acceptably comfortable with it.

    Basically, instead of saying “don’t do it”, why not say “here’s how and when you should do it”. At least some hints.

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