(Update: Amanda Marcotte just wrote a response to this post over at Pandagon, calling me a “megadouchebag.”)
It’s difficult to write about the sexual isolation of sensitive men without falling back on clichés. So I’ll begin this post with a couple of long quotations which are each somewhat unique. First, from a work of fiction:
With Manny around, Oscar was exposed to an entirely new side of Ana. All they talked about now, the few times they saw each other, was Manny and the terrible things he did to her. Manny smacked her, Manny kicked her, Manny called her a fat twat, Manny cheated on her, she was sure, with this Cuban chickie from the middle school. They couldn’t talk ten minutes without Manny beeping her and her having to call him back and assure him she wasn’t with anybody else.
What am I going to do? she asked over and over, and Oscar always found himself holding her awkwardly and telling her, Well, I think if he’s this bad you should break up with him, but she shook her head and said, I know I should, but I can’t. I love him.
Oscar liked to kid himself that it was only cold, anthropological interest that kept him around to see how it would all end, but the truth was he couldn’t extricate himself. He was totally and irrevocably in love with Ana. What he used to feel for those girls he’d never really known was nothing compared with the amor he was carrying in his heart for Ana. It had the density of a dwarf motherfucking star and at times he was a hundred percent sure it would drive him mad. Every Dominican family has stories about niggers who take love too far, and Oscar was beginning to suspect that they’d be telling one of those stories about him real soon…
… They met at the Yaohan mall. Ordered two chicken-katsu curries and then sat in the large cafeteria with the view of Manhattan, the only gaijin in the whole joint.
He could tell by Ana’s clothes that she had other plans that night. She was in a pair of black leather pants and had on one of those fuzzy light-pink sweaters that girls with nice chests can rock forever. Her face was so swollen from recent crying it looked like she was on cortisone.
You have beautiful breasts, he said as an opener.
Confusion, alarm. Oscar! What’s the matter with you?
He looked out through the glass at Manhattan’s western flank, looked out like he was some deep nigger. Then he told her.
There were no surprises. Her eyes went soft, she put a hand on his hand, her chair scraped closer, there was a strand of yellow in her teeth. Oscar, she said gently, I have a boyfriend.
So you don’t love me?
Oscar. She breathed deep. I love you as a friend.
She drove him home; at the house, he thanked her for her time, walked inside, lay in bed. They didn’t speak again.
– The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz, New Yorker, Dec. 25, 2000, p. 104. (Novel here.)
And, feminist Hugo Schwyzer:
Because the sensitive boy imagines that he is rarer than he actually is, he may be inclined to over-estimate his value to the girls he befriends and dates (or tries to date.) The classic scenario for such a Nice Guy works like this: Nice Guy gets very close to a girl. They become good friends, so much so that they are teased by their peers. Nice Guy starts to fall in love with his friend, while girl thinks of Nice Guy as “just a pal” or “more like a brother”. Eventually, Nice Guy confesses his love; girl rejects him. Nice Guy sulks or flies into a rage, usually saying something like “Why don’t you love me? Why do you like those jerks who only want to use you? I’m the only guy who understands you and values you!” Nice Guy, if he’s not careful, may begin the slow slide towards adult misogyny at this point. His own frustration at women (rooted in his sense that his unique gifts go unappreciated) may grow more toxic, as he starts to believe that “women don’t know what’s good for them” and they “always go for the bad boys” instead of who they “should” be dating (me).
–Hugo Schwyzer, Feb. 19, 2008. [Bold original.]
For many feminists, young women’s attraction to socially dominant men is either a fiction dreamt up by angry “men’s rights” types, or a fact of life that’s true, but somewhat trivial – important only insofar as it may lead to misogynistic attitudes on the part of men, as Hugo seems to imply. I would argue, to the contrary, that women’s attraction – some women’s attraction – to socially dominant men is both true and non-trivial. But I make this argument not in order to “debunk” feminism, as I hope I can explain.
First, I’d like to clarify what I mean when I say, “women are attracted to socially dominant men.” “Socially dominant” is the best phrase I can think of – the alternative would be “alpha male” or some such expression – and some caveats are in order. A working definition would be as follows:
“In their teens and twenties, at the time when most people are learning to be sexual and have relationships, women, on average, tend to overvalue such hypermasculine characteristics as dominance and a sexually entitled attitude, especially, but not exclusively, when they are looking for short-term sexual relations.”
Notice I’m not saying “women only like thugs” or any such thing. And I’m not trying to “disappear” anyone – I’m well aware that not all women have the same sexual preferences. But what I am saying is that both men and women have instinctual, biological influences on their behavior, and for many young women this often leads to a preference for socially dominant men. I’m not a scientist, and evolutionary biology isn’t my ball of wax, so I’m not going to argue the merits of this or that study. I can only speak from my experience and impressions, but I believe that what I have seen and experienced is not entirely hallucinatory.
I do understand, I think, why this subject raises the hackles of some feminists. As a whole, men who loudly criticize women’s sexual choices don’t have a good track record when it comes to women’s rights. And there is a long and sordid history of slut-shaming. Unfortunately, many feminists have chosen to deal with this by pretending that women’s preference for dominant men doesn’t exist. Hugo, for example, has written, “I hear from a great many young men the familiar complaint that ‘girls just want bad boys,’” but he then proceeds to immediately invalidate what young men are telling him. And although you’d think that a “familiar” complaint coming from “a great many” young men might be based on reality, the fact is that women’s preference for dominant men is something many feminists are extraordinarily reluctant to acknowledge, and so you get this:
[A] great many young men oversell the “good girls only want bad boys” trope because they sense the obvious benefit: if they then themselves mistreat women, they are not doing it out of any defect in their natures, but out of a rational strategy for improving their mating odds. It is women themselves who have made these rules, these boys and young men say (often with sincerity); we fellas just have to adapt as best we can. It’s yet another corollary to the myth of male weakness: bad male behavior gets cunningly reframed as an evolutionary adaptation demanded by women, and the blame for everything falls nicely once again on the shoulders and hearts and libidos of [women].
– Hugo Schwyzer, June 14, 2010. [Bold original.]
In my view, if young men oversell the “good girls only want bad boys” trope, the simplest explanation for why they do so is because they’re in emotional pain stemming from being rejected in favor of socially dominant men – a very real experience to them. (See: Occam’s Razor.) But the explanation Hugo offers, if I follow him, appears to be this: (1) Young women’s preference for “bad boys” is a myth of unknown origin. (2) Young men anticipate that they will mistreat women at some future point in time. (3) Young men decide to perpetuate the “bad boy” myth in order to “cunningly reframe” their own anticipated, future mistreatment of women as a necessary adaptation to women’s demands.
Caveat: The gist of what Hugo is saying is sometimes true. Women’s preference for dominant men is sometimes used as justification for misogyny. (Awful example here. Commentary here.) The problem is, feminists sometimes conflate two distinct arguments: (1) “Women’s sexual choices should never be used to justify misogyny, slut-shaming, or victim-blaming.” True, and probably a message that bears repeating. (2) “If you are a man and you express dismay in regard to the sexual choices of women, you are by definition engaging in “slut-shaming” or (if she’s in a toxic relationship) “victim-blaming.” False. Consider, for example, what feminist writer Jackson Katz said in regard to women’s attraction to the rap star Eminem:
Boys and young men have long expressed frustration with the fact that girls and young women say they’re attracted to nice guys, but that the most popular girls often end up with the disdainful tough guys who treat them like dirt. We all know that heterosexual young guys are forever struggling to figure out what girls want. What are they supposed to conclude when 53% of the 8 Mile audience on opening weekend was female?
What are men to make of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd when she writes, uncritically, that a “gaggle” of her female Baby Boomer friends are “surreptitiously smitten” with a 30-year-old rapper whose lyrics literally drip with contempt for women?…
…Girls and women, even those who have been coopted into Eminem-worship, want to be treated with respect. They certainly don’t want to be physically or sexually assaulted by men. They don’t want to be sexually degraded by dismissive and arrogant men. But they can’t have it both ways. They can’t proclaim their attraction to a man who’s gotten rich verbally trashing and metaphorically raping women and yet expect that young men will treat them with dignity.
– Jackson Katz, 8 Reasons Eminem’s Popularity is a Disaster for Women.
Mr. Katz is criticizing the sexual choices of women who “proclaim their attraction” to men such as Eminem. But no one would accuse him of “slut-shaming” because he has feminist cred and isn’t speaking from his own emotional pain. But why should feminists so ungenerously assume that men who do speak from their own pain always have some sort of nefarious misogynistic motivation for doing so?
Just to be clear, if a man is sexually isolated, and he thinks the only reason for this is because women choose the “wrong” sexual partners, then he’s deluding himself. As for my own experience, there’s no question that my own shyness and anxieties played a huge role in my involuntary celibacy. But it isn’t sufficient for feminists to say that sexually isolated men just need to “get therapy,” without also acknowledging the cultural forces that work to isolate men, and that one of those cultural forces is – yes – the preference that many young women have for dominant men.
(Aside: There are a lot of other cultural forces that also isolate young men – lack of social support, the idea that it’s somehow wrong for men to seek sexual pleasure for its own sake, etc. – that feminists, to their credit, have criticized.)
Even among men who are more “successful” sexually, I think a lot of young men who are sympathetic toward feminism feel they have to behave hypocritically – be a little bit pushy, arrogant, and entitled – in order to get laid. Indeed, the life course of many male feminists seems to entail a period of acting out – usually corresponding to that point in life during which most people explore their sexuality – followed by a period of contrition. It’s almost as though there’s an unspoken deal between feminist women and their male counterparts: “We’ll forgive you for your youthful sexual arrogance and entitlement, so long as you don’t mention that a lot of us were turned on by men’s youthful sexual arrogance and entitlement.” This is a lousy deal, and it’s unnecessary. Not only does it freeze out and sexually isolate a lot of shy young men, but it causes men who are otherwise sympathetic to feminism to conclude that, in the sexual realm, feminism isn’t telling the whole story.