What It Feels Like For A Boy

"I'll tell you a secret I've never revealed: however we are is okay"

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That Nettling Assumption Of Ill Intent

I found this comic on gurl.com called “What It Feels Like For A Boy”, and it’s pretty great. It’s nice to see a feminist notice that it is our job as humans is to really try to understand each other, and that the privileged are people too. Do we not bleed? We do.

One thing that’s hard about being a guy is the assumptions about our intentions. For example, we can’t invite a girl back to our place without doing some work to prove we’re a gentleman, or that we’re not going to be angry if we don’t get sex out of it. Maybe for some people that work is done by their natural demeanor and/or charm, but for me, not always so smooth in my communications, it may have to be done consciously. It often doesn’t seem right to me to say to someone, “You want to come back to my place? We don’t have to have sex, but it would be a good place to cuddle or smooch or something, if you want”, even if that’s how I feel. Yeah, that’s a bit weird, not even sure if there is a mutual attraction or desire for such a thing until you hear how she answers the question in the first place. So the question “come back to my place?” hangs in the air, wondering what assumptions are attached to it. (Sometimes it does seem right, when the communication is exceptionally good. But if I had to wait for exceptionally good communication before I tried to make a move on a lass, I’d hardly ever be making moves at all, and would have missed some good opportunities.) In some cases it can feel like protesting a bit too much, like “Babysitter for hire, I’m not a child molester.” Or maybe it could cause her to call into question our red-blooded desire for the sex. “Is that weak? What if she really likes the sex, and wants a guy who will take some command here?” Maybe an addendum: “We don’t have to have sex, but actually I really like sex and would totally jump your bones if you gave me the go-ahead, but if it makes you uncomfortable we can stop whenever you want at whatever point and I won’t protest because I’m not a rapist.” Gah.

And these things weigh on us guys, we who want to do the right thing. They are a burden we carry around on our shoulders everywhere. It may not be on the same order as carrying that $10,000 around like attractive women do, or the assumptions carried around by a minority in a prejudiced society, but they are still there.

One way I would differ from a lot of feminists though is that I don’t really think this can be changed, at least not completely. I think men and women have our lots in life, bestowed upon us by evolution, and to an extent we have to live with them. I just think this is how sexual selection works. Societal attitudes should be constantly shored up lest they veer out of control and back into animal territory, but I think it’s a wishful fiction to assume the cultural work is going to get entirely get rid of our animal natures, the way we do the mating dance.

What the enlightened people can and should do is acknowledge them. Men should acknowledge and understand the specific difficulties of being a woman. And women should acknowledge and understand the specific difficulties of being a man. And carrying this nettling assumption of ill intent around our necks is one such difficulty.

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A Call For Compassionate Righteousness

The title of the article The Distress Of The Privileged makes it sound like another of the thousands of gleeful ten-minutes hate aimed at the privileged class of the world, the white and the male. But it is not. It’s actually something the ‘nets need a lot more of: compassionate righteousness, instead of snarky or angry righteousness.

For the record, I can’t fault the snark and anger too much if it is delivered by an actual person who has been oppressed or otherwise harmed due to being a non-privileged person, e.g., female or non-white. Being oppressed or harmed hurts, and it’s pretty insensitive to expect someone in that position to be a model of decorum when trying to point out that they’ve been oppressed or harmed. But the snark and anger mantle is taken up by so many on behalf of others in such a way that it is obvious many people do it because they take glee in having someone to beat up, and in being “safe” on the right side and no longer having to go through the psychologically uncomfortable process of critical thinking and examination of the self.

Further, laying down comfortably in your snark and anger is a nice and convenient protection from ever having to consider if perhaps you might be the author of some of your own problems, and not society. I talked about this in the previous post, Your Personal Problems Are Not Always A Social Cause.

I recommend reading The Distress Of The Privileged in its entirety, but I’ll pull a few choice quotes (slightly edited) to whet your appetite:

“He never set out to be the bad guy. He never meant to stifle his wife’s humanity or enforce a dull conformity on his kids. He never demanded a privileged role, he just uncritically accepted the role society assigned him and played it to the best of his ability. And now suddenly that society isn’t working for the people he loves, and they’re blaming him. It seems so unfair. He doesn’t want anybody to be unhappy. He just wants dinner.”

“But even as we accept the reality of his privileged-white-male distress, we need to hold on to the understanding that the less privileged people are distressed in an entirely different way. (Margaret Atwood is supposed to have summed up the gender power-differential like this: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.”) He deserves compassion, but his until-recently-ideal housewife deserves justice. His and her claims are not equivalent, and if we treat them the same way, we do her an injustice.”

“Once you grasp the concept of privileged distress, you’ll see it everywhere: the rich feel “punished” by taxes; whites believe they are the real victims of racism; employers’ religious freedom is threatened when they can’t deny contraception to their employees; English-speakers resent bilingualism — it goes on and on. Confronting this distress is tricky, because neither acceptance nor rejection is quite right. The distress is usually very real, so rejecting it outright just marks you as closed-minded and unsympathetic. It never works to ask others for empathy without offering it back to them.

At the same time, my straight-white-male sunburn can’t be allowed to compete on equal terms with your heart attack. To me, it may seem fair to flip a coin for the first available ambulance, but it really isn’t. Don’t try to tell me my burn doesn’t hurt, but don’t consent to the coin-flip.”

This is all really good stuff. I’ll add one of my own observations: If you can only muster compassion and empathy for the people that it is fashionable to have compassion and empathy for, and in turn take glee in a refusal to understand the difficulties of any individual who is not in one of these fashionable (under)classes, then what you have does not qualify as compassion and empathy. It could be a justified righteous anger, especially if you are the one being hurt directly. But it could also just be a masked self-interest. I think a lot of the supposed crusaders for justice are really just masking their own self interest.

Your Personal Problems Are Not Always A Social Cause

I originally wrote this as a response to a letter in Savage Love, in which a young gay fellow in college complains “It seems like every gay/queer person who is involved in anything gay/queer on campus has this idea that gay people are SO oppressed that we need to constantly discuss it and feel like victims. How do I respectfully say, ‘STFU, we’re doing just fine, you white, upper-class American kids’ without sounding like an insensitive assdouche?”

When I was young in high school and college and even into my twenties and thirties, I was often a miserable sad-sack. I was a virgin, including no kissing, until I was 26, though I had been falling in love with girls and dreaming about sex since I was about 5. And although I actually had and still have deep friendships with amazing people and was well-known and well-liked in college and at many other points in my life, I still found lots of reasons to be miserable, and whenever I was away from those friends (summer vacation or moved to a new town) I experienced long periods of deep loneliness and alienation.

At the time, whenever I was depressed, I would seek any kind of group identification I could find to explain my suffering. I’m an introvert! Introverts of the world unite against the extrovert world! I’m a Highly Sensitive Person. HSPs of the world unite against our oppressors! I’m too kindhearted in a world that rewards ruthlessness! Or, look how easy it is for attractive young women to make friends and find sexual partners! They are not ignored when they walk into a bar or cafe the way I am. Nobody looks annoyed and superior when they try to start up a conversation with a stranger. Nobody is threatened by them. Men of the world unite!

I don’t do this anymore. Good fortune and a little self-help have left me a pretty well-rounded and happy person, and looking back with everything I’ve learned, I can completely understand my position in the world as a young man. The me of today would have treated that guy exactly the same way everybody else did, maybe a little worse. He was socially awkward, sometimes insensitive, and yet emotionally needy.

But I also know that if at the time I had had any publicly legitimized oppressed group that I could have identified with to explain my unhappiness, I would have sat right in the middle of it and bitched and whined all day and night. Being black, or gay, or a woman would have not only explained all the shitty things in my life that actually did result from being black or gay or a woman, but would have explained any other grievance I might have had as well.

College age people are young and have lots of problems, and some people have lots of problems all their life. People who don’t understand their own role in their own problems will look for outside sources that cause their misery, but sometimes even if you are black or gay or a woman, it might just be a personal problem, either something you are unwittingly bringing upon yourself, or just a part of the messy world we live in, the kind of thing everyone goes through.

But it’s hard for anyone to disentangle the political/social from the personal, and so much more so for the still vulnerable minds of the young. We could certainly all benefit from having a lot more patience with each other.

But still, many people manage to do it quite admirably, keep these two separate. What I want to suggest here is that, if you wish to have your cultural criticism taken seriously, you would do yourself and your readers a great service by making it clear that you are aware of the difference, and that you make efforts in your theorizing to keep the two separate.

(Here’s the original Savage Love letter, if you want to read it. Dan didn’t run my response.)

Assault On A Train From Long Beach

This post about a young woman who was assaulted on a train from Long Beach is quite powerful. I couldn’t agree with her more that it sucks to be a woman. I do disagree though with the implication that this state of suckiness is entirely cultural, and therefore changeable. I believe it is only to an extent.

I think women often really underestimate how crazily powerful the sexual urge is in men. The truth is, being an attractive young woman is roughly like carrying about $10,000 on your person at all times. You didn’t ask for it, and there’s really no way you can get rid of it. You just have it.

Even worse, women have been endowed with few defenses against it being taken from you. (“taken”=”rape” or some other such assault.) In most cases, they are physically weaker than the men who desire to take it from them. The only thing protecting women is the culture.

One way culture can protect women is by making them the property of men. The more desirable women would become the property of the stronger or more powerful men.

But this is pretty much a shitty thing to be, someone’s property. If you believe that women are people, then we’re going to want to find a better solution than that. And anyway that system provides no protection from the protectors. Or, should I say, “protectors”.

Another way is to control the entire culture through elaborate rules of propriety. In Japan, women are generally quite safe wherever they go because of this. The downside of this is that Japanese people live a life of severely sublimated individuality. Americans would not tolerate living like this, and I can’t see any way of American culture evolving into this. (Though I can imagine Japanese culture evolving to be more individualistic and America-like.)

What we have in America now is an insistence that women be given every bit of freedom that men have. This is a good thing. But I think along with we have to realize that, no matter what we do to the culture, women are still saddled with that $10,000 in cash wherever they go. And they are waving it about in front of everyone’s face, whether they want to be or not.

Some men already have enough money, so they don’t care. Some men care about deeper matters than money, so they’re not going to bother women. Some men don’t have enough money, and really desire money, but they also possess empathy and/or a moral code, so they aren’t going to bother the woman either, or will feel bad if they do. And then there are the others, the dangerous ones, who really desire the money, don’t have much or any of their own, and also have little empathy or not much of a moral code.

No culture is ever going to get rid of those men. So a healthy and functioning culture is always going to have to acknowledge the unique difficulties of women in the world, and make special efforts to protect them.

If you were actually carrying $10,000 around, you would not go and wave it around in front of poor people in dark alleys, or any other such dangerous neighborhood. If someone gets mugged of their $10,000 after they walk into it waving around the money, we would have ambiguous feelings about how bad we felt for that person. We would certainly blame the muggers and think them bad, but we’d also tell the person who got mugged that they weren’t acting wisely.

And this is where the culture has failed the young woman who wrote that post. First, it has failed to make her public transportation a safe place for her to be. Second, it has apparently failed to tell her that that public transportation is not a safe place to be.

(Not all public transportation is unsafe for women. But I think this traih in Los Angeles is, for a number of reasons that could be the subject of another post.)

For example, the culture in America did a great job of telling white people not to go to places like, say, Compton. (But then, that’s one thing American culture is really good at, protecting the interests of white people, to an exaggerated extent even.)

That attractive young woman taking a 10:30pm train from Long Beach is like a white person going to Compton. Or a black person going into a white’s only lunch counter in Alabama in the 1950s. But the culture is not informing her or anyone of this.

We acknowledge that there is a sickness going on in the Compton and the lunch counter cases. (In both cases, the fault of white people, no doubt). We work to try to correct that sickness. But while we’re working to correct it, we don’t pretend like it doesn’t exist and just keep behaving as though were are completely free to do and go wherever we want.

So I agree with her basic thesis, in which she wants to demonstrate how much it sucks to be a woman. Truth. What I disagree with is that this is somehow going to be cured through cultural enlightenment. I don’t believe it will be. Women are always going to be saddled with that $10,000, and there are always going to be men who really want it and have nothing inside stopping them from thinking they are entitled to it.

So, I think it is likely that women will never truly be free in the same way men are. They’re always going to have to be aware of what their bodies mean in the minds of men, and that complaining about this state of things won’t make it go away. Part of being a woman will always and forever be strategizing about how to keep themselves safe while they are carrying around this $10,000.

In this particular case, I think it is the duty of the city of Los Angeles to keep women safe on public transportation. If that was the thesis of this blog post, I would be behind it 100%. One simple thing they could do is have women-only cars. Japan does this. And then have mechanisms of enforcement for this.

Until this happens, this woman should not be under impression that public transportation is a safe space for her. It’s not. It’s a poor black neighborhood and she is a privileged white guy walking around waving $10,000.

She is right to be enraged that public transportation is not a safe space for her. Her city has failed her. This is deeply unfair.

What I think she should stop being enraged about is that she has to carry around this $10,000, and that there are men out there who will do anything to get it, or who otherwise feel entitled to it. This is a fact of life. As the culture evolves I hope it figures out better ways of dealing with this than it is now. But denying that it is a permanent fact of the human race is not a good way of dealing with it.

Hitchens’ Razor And Gender Performativity

“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

I think Hitchens (Christopher) was referring to religion when he said that, but a quick Google search doesn’t reveal the source of the quote. It certainly applies to religion. And it’s a statement that I find powerful and true, and is a useful tool in trying to weed out sloppy thinking in yourself and in others.

But I think it can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Like any razor. It could be used as an ego-booster that prevents you from really thinking about a proposition if you don’t like it, a “thought-terminating cliché”. Take for example how it might be applied to feminism, and particularly to the idea that gender is a performance rather than a biological fact, an idea which I’ve become familiar with through reading Judith Butler (or more accurately, reading books about Judith Butler, as I cannot understand most of what she herself writes.)

This is a threatening idea, to the culture and to individuals who base much of their identity on their gender. And it would seem that gender-as-performance is a mere assertion, not accompanied by evidence the way, say, practitioners of evolutionary psychology attempt to use evidence to demonstrate their truths. I don’t know if this assessment of both sides is true in an objective sense, but I know that many people would see it this way. So my question is, if gender-as-performance is merely being asserted without evidence, can it be dismissed without evidence?

At one point in my life I probably would have thought so. Having Hitchens’ razor at my side to slice this idea up would have made me feel quite powerful. But I was forced, or cajoled, under several different circumstances to instead give the idea a chance. It sank into my mind and took root, and slowly it started to make sense. And then I realized an important corollary to Hitchens’ Razor: the lack of evidence in support of something doesn’t make that thing untrue. Humans don’t know everything.

The way I understand it, Butler came to her ideas by intuition when she was young (first paragraph in 1990 preface to Gender Trouble). Certainly, lots of people come up with some crazy ideas when they’re 15, and even crazier ones when they’re 35, so someone “knowing something to be true” is no reason in itself to have to take it seriously. Life is short, there’s only so much time to consider crazy ideas. And we could even summon perfectly reasonable reasons to not give Butler’s idea the time of day: if you see her (for example in the philosophy film Examined Life), you realize that her performance of gender, as it were, is somewhere right in the middle between what the culture at large would consider masculine and feminine. So of course she’s going to think gender is a performance. Makes perfect sense for her. But that doesn’t make her theory apply to the rest of us.

But that does a disservice to her stroke of insight. We can flip it and see that she was just the type of person, because she was so down the middle gender-wise, who would be able to see and articulate the truth of this idea, which most of the rest of us, acting out our gender in the culturally acceptable way, missed. And we can be led to take the idea seriously when we get to know first how committed she is to it and second how many other people, when they hear it, find that it makes sense to them. Butler’s Gender Trouble was a sensation, in academic and feminist circles, when it was released, and it continues to resonate with many people, and this often indicates that the idea hits at the core of something many people have felt but have not been able to articulate. If something strikes a chord with a lot of people, it is at least interesting to consider what it is in the idea and the people that is connecting.

Now, I’m not proposing that this is any kind of algorithm to find the truth. You can’t just believe anything that is fashionable or popular. If that were the case, I’d have to be down with The Secret too. The deeper point is one I will return to often, which is to consider why you are so quick to dismiss an idea that one very intelligent person has put forth and many other intelligent people find quite agreeable. Is it because you are threatened by it? The work required in dismissing such an idea is a lot greater than simply whipping out your Hitchens’ Switchblade and cutting it down.

Because what evidence could there be that gender was a performance, especially when the idea formed in the first mind? How are you going to prove that? It seems to me that this is the kind of idea that has to take root first, and then evidence for and against it can be found. The world of human culture is not as easy to extract evidence from as biology. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t truths hidden in it that can be brought out. Often the way to see those truths is through strokes of intuition, the subconscious ordering of all the cultural input we get, not evidence. Someone else’s intuition need not be accepted, but if you can let yourself not be threatened by it, then it need not be rejected either.

In the end, I’ve found this stroke of insight of gender as performance to be transformative to the way I see myself and the way I see others. In the end, I still believe men and women do tend to be biologically  inclined towards different behaviors and desires, so I am not a strict Butlerian, but the idea of gender performativity has enabled me to see much more clearly the extent to which culture amplifies those tendencies. And this has made me a much freer person.

(As it happens, in 2005 Hitchens wrote a review of a guide to literary criticism for the New York Times in which he touches on a similar theme, and reaches the conclusion one would expect. Speaking of Louis Althusser, who was (presumably) a ‘guru to the theoreticians’ like Butler, he writes, “Althusser was renowned, even at the height of his fame, for ignoring the difference between asserting something and establishing it. But in the entry for St. Augustine, the same euphemistic and emollient prose is employed, in discussing a father of the church, as is used to discuss a 20th-century pseudo-intellectual: ”Augustine stresses that the knowledge of nonsensible realities is always problematic and approximate at best, though he argues that the human predicament of unknowing will be overcome in the next life, where the saved can encounter God/Truth ‘face to face.’ ” Surely ”he asserts” would have been better in this instance than ”he argues.” We are speaking, after all, of someone who is credited here with the foundation of ‘medieval semiology.'”)

What It Feels Like For A Boy

I’ve named this blog after the Madonna song “What It Feels Like For A Girl”. It’s one of my favorite songs of all time, with it’s awesome ethereal and funky Guy Sigsworth production. His work with Imogen Heap in Frou Frou is also great.

The song starts with words written by Ian McEwan, spoken by Charlotte Gainsbourg from the film version of McEwan’s The Cement Garden:

“Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short and wear shirts and boots because it’s okay to be a boy; for girls it’s like promotion. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, according to you, because secretly you believe that being a girl is degrading.”

I’d listened to those lines dozens of times over the years, and always in the back of my mind I was thinking, “interesting, but mostly bullshit.” Madonna’s lyrics too, while I appreciated that yeah it probably was difficult being a young girl, I kind of thought it was bullshit that Madonna was the one telling me this. Why was it that I as a man was expected to feel sorry for a sexy and confident woman (Madonna) who had access to all the varieties of relationship experiences in life that I (at that time) did not? Moreover, why was her pain and vulnerability an empowering social movement and mine was not?

I’ve changed my mind about that. I understand that my experiences with troubles don’t negate messages like the one in this song, which is trying to put across a truth about our culture as a whole. I don’t have to take it personally. And in fact there’s a lot I could and have learned from it, because not only is it a truth about our culture–we do still treat being a girl/woman as being degrading–it’s also about me and the way I relate to women, whether I like it or not.

But the blog is still what it feels like for a boy. I want to try to help women understand what it really does feel like for boys and men in this world, for any who want to listen. I already know that a lot don’t want to.

But I also want to trick some men who might come here looking to indulge in a whinge-fest into taking the ideas of feminism–such as that being a woman is considered degrading in many ways–seriously. I definitely know a lot of them don’t want to.

Complaints are annoying, especially when they’re aimed at us. But there is often truth contained in them. If we, men and women both, can remove our ego from the situation, we might just learn something by listening each other’s complaints.

(Try Your Personal Problems Are Not Always A Political Cause for further introductory material.)

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