I’ve been thinking this week about three pieces of writing. Each is about a different subject, but they all touch on men’s sexual desire: Amanda Marcotte’s Buyers and sellers, Julia Serano’s essay Why Nice Guys Finish Last (no link), and Andrew Sullivan’s My First Gay Bar.
I’ll begin with Amanda’s essay. Her post over at Pandagon critiques the dysfunctional “market mentality” of sex, summarized as: 1) women are providing sex for men at a “price”, and 2) a man gets sex by meeting a woman’s asking price (“displaying high value”), or convincing her that the asking price is too high.
This, says Amanda, creates a transactional environment in which women have the sexual “goods” and men have the right to “haggle” – pester an unwilling seller to give it up for a lower “price.” What’s more, says Amanda, thoughts of sex as a marketplace go hand in hand with the idea that men are entitled to partnered sex so long as they can “display high value” and thus earn the right to a woman’s sexual favors.
Is this dynamic toxic? Yes. But the problem with Amanda’s analysis is she sees this driven almost entirely by men’s sexual privilege: entitlement as both a product of the buyer/sellermentality, and also a cause of the same. Granted, she also says that women are often seen as having little desire or agency of their own, and that this feeds the idea of women doing men a favor sexually, rather than enjoying the sexual connection for the pleasure of it. That’s an important point. Yet the weight of her argument seems directed toward men’s sexual entitlement, and she misses entirely the perverse social incentives that encourage men to act like “buyers” rather than emotionally aware human beings.
These perverse social incentives and their effects on men are explored very thoughtfully by Julia Serano in her essay Why Nice Guys Finish Last, in the anthology Yes Means Yes by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti. Julia’s piece focuses on the predator/prey mindset, but her analysis is relevant to Amanda’s post because “predator/prey” and “buyer/seller” are both metaphors describing very similar mindsets. In both cases the idea is that women are sexual objects from whom men try to “get” sex. But Julia’s analysis of the origins of predator/prey differs from Amanda’s take on buyer/seller. Notably, Amanda buys into the concept of unilateral sexism; Julia does not. Consider, for example, Amanda’s explanation for how men become pushy, entitled “buyers” in the sexual marketplace:
… Pick-up artist books and websites aren’t interested in teaching men how to improve the product so more women want to buy. Seriously, PUA guides read like guides on buying a car – show up looking like money, demonstrate to the salesman that you fill out the checklist of requirements to get a car, talk down the price (which PUA guides suggest you do by insulting women, hoping the loss of esteem in their product will cause them to sell at a lower price), and you’re done. Actual improvement of one’s self is as strange an idea as suggesting that you have to have good character and a tight waistline to get a car. You just need to have the cash, the credit rating, and a solid ability to bargain.
The problem with Amanda’s analysis here is that it doesn’t very well explain why these “pick up artist books and websites” exist in the first place. Her implied explanation, that it’s all because men feel “entitled”, is unconvincing. After all, gay men want sex as much as straight men; if feeling entitled to partnered sex is a sin, then gay men are probably just as guilty. Yet “pick up artistry” is an overwhelmingly heterosexual phenomenon. Why is this? Well, I think Julia’s essay points to an answer. In contrast to Amanda, Julia explores the motivations underlying the darker side of the pick-up-artist – motivations that cannot be ascribed simply to “entitlement”. In her most salient passage, she describes the change in personality of a young man she knew in college, whom she refers to as “Eric”:
[Point of clarification: Julia Serano is a transgendered woman and the experiences she relates in the following passage happened prior to her transition, at a time when other people identified her as male.]
… In high school and college, I had several male friends who, apparently concerned with the lack of action I was getting, literally told me that women like it when guys act like “assholes.” For them, it was just something one did to attract women. And as much as I hate to admit it, it generally seemed to be true. During my college years, I watched a number of “nice guys” transform into “assholes.” And when they did, women suddenly became interested in them. The most stunning transformation I witnessed was in this guy who lived in my dorm, whom I’ll call Eric. Freshman and sophomore years, he was a super-sweet and respectful guy. Despite the fact that he was fairly good-looking, women were not generally interested in him. Somewhere around his junior year, he suddenly began acting like an “asshole” (around women, at least). Instead of engaging women in conversations (as he used to), he would instead relentlessly tease them. The things he would say sounded really dismissive to me, but often the intended recipient would just giggle in response. Suddenly he was picking up women at parties, and I’d occasionally overhear women who never knew Eric back when he was a “nice guy” discussing how cute they thought he was.
The last time I saw Eric was about two years after college. We had both moved to New York City, and a mutual friend came up to visit and suggested we all go out together. The bar that we went to was really crowded, and at one point, Eric started talking about how in situations like this, he would sometimes fold his arms across his chest and subtly grope women as they walked by. Between the fact that the bar was so crowded and the way he held his arms to obscure his hands, women weren’t able to figure out that it was Eric. Upon hearing this, I walked out of the bar, appalled.
The reason I tell this story is that it complicates many of the existing presumptions regarding the origins of rape culture. Some have suggested that men are biologically programmed to be sexual predators. The existence of Eric (and others like him) challenges that argument because, after all, he was a “nice guy” for most of his life until about the age of twenty – well after his sex drive kicked in. Eric challenges the overly simplistic men-are-socialized-to-be-that-way arguments for the same reason: He made it to early adulthood – well beyond his formative childhood and teenage years – before becoming an “asshole.” It would be really hard to make the case that Eric became a sexual predator because he was influenced by media imagery or pornography, or because his male peers egged him on. Like I said, I lived in the same dorm as he did, and I never once saw any guys teasing him for being a “nice guy” or coercing him into being an “asshole.” I would argue that the primary reason Eric became sexually aggressive was that he was interested in attracting women. And, as with many men, once Eric began disrespecting women on a regular basis, the lines between flirting and harassment, between sex and violation, between consensual and nonconsensual, became blurred or unimportant to him.
Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power & A World Without Rape
by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti, p. 234-5, Seal Press 2008
What’s important here is that Eric didn’t just feel pressure to be “confident”. Rather, he felt he had to amputate the best parts of himself in order to attract women. And given his experiences – being unable to attract the attention of the opposite sex for the first two years of college – I am particularly interested in a comment Amanda added (#156) to her buyers and sellers post, saying that “men should be treated like women” when it comes to romance and dating. As it happens, I agree. Men should be treated more like women when it comes to dating. But this implies more than Amanda thinks. Most importantly, if men really were treated like women, young men like Eric wouldn’t be alone for the first two years of college and wouldn’t have to do the “asshole” routine in order to get laid. After all, how many “super sweet”, “respectful”, and “fairly good looking” nineteen year old women do you know who can’t get a date? Not too many.
So what would the sexual arena look like if men were really “treated more like women”? It’s an impossible question to answer conclusively, of course, but one place to look for clues is the sexual culture of gay men, a snapshot of which was recently offered by Andrew Sullivan, who described his first experience visiting a gay bar:
If it were a movie, it would shift from black-and-white into 3D color as I entered the bar. I was staggered and more than a little thrilled at how normal everyone looked, how attractive, diverse and mellow. I edged up to the bar and managed to blurt out, “A gin and tonic please.” The bartender picked up my vibe. “Get that stick out of your ass, honey. This is a gay bar.” And so my first impression of gayness was actually removing something from my butthole rather than violating its tightly-puckered virginity.
23 years of repression unwound in that bar. I am grateful for the kind condescension that must have greeted my spirited spinning to “You Turn Me Round (Like A Record, Baby)” or the latest Whitney. It was there that a man pulled his shirt off in front of me on the dance floor for the first time and I nearly fainted with desire. It was there that I returned Friday night after Friday night to discover who I really was.
One more thing. It reminded me of church. The colored lights; the smoke; the synthesizers; and the legions of men. And I distinctly recall as I watched the scene a premonition that one of my tasks in life would be, in whatever way I could, to convey this benign hidden world to the wider universe beyond it. I believe it was God speaking to me. He appears where Jesus would have. And it is a scene of revelry and hope.
What’s notably absent from Andrew’s account is any expressed need to “display high value” or offer “social proof” or act “cocky funny” to attract a partner. Surrounded by men who already found him attractive, he didn’t need to pretend to be someone he wasn’t and was able to discover who he really was. Too bad Eric couldn’t have done the same. In fact, what’s tragic about Eric’s story is that he couldn’t be true to himself and still be perceived by women – at least not the women he knew at the time – as a fully sexual man.
Okay, since this post is called “My First Heterosexual Bar” I’ll share my own story, which didn’t actually happen in a bar, as I was eighteen at the time. It was a college party with booze – in a dormitory basement, or some such place – and I remember standing by myself feeling a bit out of place when a stocky guy came up to me. He stood directly in front of me, then gave me a shove and told me to “lighten up”.
The first time he shoved me, I thought he might have been joking around, horseplay, and that the shove had been harder than intended. So I tried to respond nonchalantly to his “lighten up” by saying (absurdly in retrospect), “I’m light”. But then he shoved me again, harder. I’d held my hands up but he knocked them aside and shoved again with what seemed a single well rehearsed motion, telling me again to “lighten up”. And at that point I knew I had a problem on my hands.
Now that I’m all the way grown up, I’m a lot less tolerant of people getting in my face like that. But at eighteen I was, as they say, a deer in headlights. Fortunately, there was another guy nearby who saw what was happening and, after the third or fourth shove, he sauntered up behind the guy, put him in a wrestling lock, and pulled him away from me.
I tell this story because I suspect a lot of young men have had similar experiences dealing with this kind of low-level aggression. It’s also a counterpoint to Andrew’s much more welcoming experience in his first gay bar. And, if it’s true that there’s less aggression and fewer fights in gay bars – as the always delightful Peter Tatchell has argued – then here’s my thought as to why: The highly toxic buyer/seller and predator/prey dynamics are much less prevalent. And they are less prevalent because the social incentives are much less perverse. Here’s Julia Serano:
I have heard many feminists critique men who prefer women that fulfill the sexual object stereotype. Many of these critiques (rightly, I think) suggest that the man in question must be somewhat shallow or insecure if he’s willing to settle for someone whom he does not view as his intellectual or emotional equal. What I have seen far less of are critiques of women who are attracted to sexually aggressive men. Perhaps this stems in part from the belief that such comments might be misinterpreted as blaming women for enabling the sexual abuse they receive at the hands of men. While I can understand this reluctance, I nevertheless feel that it is a mistake to ignore this issue, given the fact that many men become sexual aggressors primarily, if not solely, to attract the attention of women. In fact, if heterosexual women suddenly decided en masse that “nice guys” are far sexier than “assholes,” it would create a huge shift in the predator/prey dynamic. While I wouldn’t suggest that such a change would completely eliminate rape or sexual abuse (because there are clearly other societal forces at work here), I do believe that it would greatly reduce the number of men who harass and disrespect women on a daily basis.
– Yes Means Yes, p. 237-8
To this I would add that a shift in the predator/prey dynamic would also reduce the number of men who are aggressive toward other men. Once a man adopts an aggressive, contemptuous mindset, his ethical lines vis-à-vis women aren’t the only ones that become blurred or unimportant to him; his dealings with other men become coarser as well. And this should bother us no less than harassment of women. Because young men need spaces within the sexual culture where they can let their guard down – where they can discover who they really are.