When I was in college, my friend “Jay” and I both knew a young woman, and as it happened I spent some time with her on a day after she’d gone on a date with Jay. She and I didn’t talk much about the date, but she implied in passing that Jay had been too “touchy” and that she was “not impressed” with his behavior. She didn’t say anything beyond this, nor did she seem interested in further conversation on the subject. So I voiced an expression of dismay about what she’d told me – I don’t remember exactly what I said – and then we talked about something else.
I thought about this while I was listening to Hugo Schwyzer’s recent lecture about sexual consent. His idea, in a nutshell, is that the absence of a “no” does not mean that a sexual experience is non-coercive or ethical; that men should not view a “no” as merely a “stop sign”; that women must learn to assert themselves in sexual situations; and that a situation in which a woman “gives in” to a man’s persistence results in a deflated sexual experience for both partners. True consent entails a mutuality of feeling, without which neither partner enjoys a truly intimate erotic experience.
True enough. The problem is, it’s only half of the story, and building a better sexual culture will involve more than merely following that advice. The other side of the equation (which I offer in a very oversimplified form) is this:
Good men need to be taught that it’s okay to pick up and seduce young women.
Now, you may think that is awful. Awful – an expression of exactly the kind of thinking about stereotypical gender roles that is part of the problem. But to acknowledge that men face different challenges than women is, in itself, not necessarily such a bad thing. To explain why, let me mention two belief systems that I believe stand in the way of a better sexual culture:
The first destructive belief system is the hyper-masculinized one: The belief that it’s a man’s “job” to do certain things: make the first move, seduce the woman, always be powerful and confident, and so on. This belief system usually has roots in evolutionary biology, and begins with the premise that male and female sexual behavior has strong biological underpinnings (true, generally speaking), but then reaches the false conclusion that, therefore, men and women are somehow ethically compelled to follow stereotypical sex roles for which they are “programmed.” This mistakes descriptive scientific conclusions for prescriptive ethical imperatives. And of course, this kind of thinking is very limiting for both men and women.
The second belief system is the opposite of the hyper-masculinized one. Call it the “ideal world” belief system: The belief that in an ideal world neither gender would be forced into rigid roles. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. In fact, it’s very liberating. The problem is, the “ideal world” belief system is usually followed by an unfortunate corollary belief, a belief that is especially pernicious because it goes unspoken and unacknowledged: Rigid gender roles are bad, therefore men should not be taught how to function within the traditional masculine role, and we should not even acknowledge the ways in which young men often have little choice, in a sexual setting, but to behave in a way that is traditionally masculine.
And I think this begins to explain why, as Hugo said, young men become so angry when they listen to his lectures about consent. They become angry because he frames the problem as “young men are taught not to take no for an answer” – with the implication that men need only be less aggressive sexually, and then everything will be great. And this is dishonest. Men become angry when they hear this, because he’s communicating that men choose their sexual roles, when often they to not.
I think young men would become less angry at Mr. Schwyzer’s lecture, if they were given the following “opt out” option:
Welcome to life. You are now entering a world in which young men who are aggressive and dominant are significantly more sexually successful than men who are shy. You are now entering a world in which women are going to test you. If you show that you are vulnerable or if you lack confidence, women are probably not going to view you as a fully sexual person. If you would like to live in this world, please check here ______.
If you would like to opt out of a world in which dominant, confident men are preferred as sexual partners, and would rather be transferred to an alternate universe in which heterosexual men can experience the same amount of sexual pleasure as gay men, without the need to be “suitably masculine,” please check here ______.
The problem is, when young men sign up for life, nobody gives them this kind of “opt out” form to fill out. Or as Camille Paglia put it:
A major failing of most feminist ideology is its dumb, ungenerous stereotyping of men as tyrants and abusers, when in fact-as I know full well, from my own mortifying lesbian experience- men are tormented by women’s flirtatiousness and hemming and hawing, their manipulations and changeableness, their humiliating rejections. Cock teasing is a universal reality. It is part of women’s merciless testing and cold-eyed comparison shopping for potential mates. Men will do anything to win the favor of women. Women literally size up men- “What can you show me?”- in bed and out. If middle class feminists think they conduct their love lives perfectly rationally, without any instinctual influences from biology, they are imbeciles.
– Camille Paglia, Vamps & Tramps, p. 35
Okay, I just quoted Camille Paglia and so I probably lost two-thirds of my readers, who are going to write off what I’m saying as the tired, old, misogynistic women-don’t-like-nice-guys argument. And that’s unfortunate. Because it doesn’t help to ignore the fact that young, heterosexual men often find themselves in a gladiatorial sexual arena, whether they like it or not.
Back to my friend Jay: If he was too “touchy” on his date, it was not because he’d picked up a macho ethic from his family. His left-wing, pacifist parents raised him to be anything but macho. If he was too “pushy,” it was not because he had a self-image as an aggressive, tough guy. Jay, like me, had endured his share of being pushed around by the tougher kids back in high school.
The fact is, whatever Jay did that “didn’t impress” his date, he did because he had no clue as to what to do. And progressive, feminist thinkers won’t help to clue him in, because they seem to have agreed to pretend that the gladiatorial sexual arena doesn’t exist.
And here, I should point something out about Hugo Schwyzer: He has said, in his writing, that as a young man he never had much problem meeting women and getting into relationships. And this makes it easy for him, and the feminists who take his experiences as being representative of most men, to write off or minimize the difficulties of men for whom meeting women is difficult. I also think there is a tendency to pathologize involuntarily celibate men. To assume, for example, that a young man who cannot find a partner must have Asperger’s Syndrome, or some kind of fatal personality flaw. This strikes me as an evasion, and what I suggest is that we acknowledge that a young man is often unfairly expected to know what he is doing in a sexual situation, even if, as was probably the case with Jay’s date, the woman he is with is more experienced.
It may sound like a paradox, but an important step in getting beyond restrictive sex roles is to acknowledge that they exist.
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…And, by the way, if you’re interested, here’s well known Pick Up Artist Neil Strauss, on “The View”: