25 June 2012


A friend on Facebook just pointed me to the terrific post The Art of No at CaptainAwkward.com, talking about manners and ethics while dating. I cannot recommend this post highly enough.

But I have an itch because my friend pointed to it by way of a post on the Tumblr blog Gallery of Dangerous Women which just excerpted this segment:

Women are socialized to make men feel good. We’re socialized to “let you down easy.” We’re not socialized to say a clear and direct “no.” We’re socialized to speak in hints and boost egos and let people save face. People who don’t respect the social contract (rapists, predators, assholes, pickup artists) are good at taking advantage of this.

“No” is something we have to learn. “No” is something we have to earn. In fact, I’d argue that the ability to just say “no” to something, without further comment, apology, explanation, guilt, or thinking about it is one of the great rites of passage in growing up, and when you start saying it and saying it regularly the world often pushes back. And calls you names.

Now that alone is a rich and important point. It's one component in the great tangled mass of cultural screwed-upped-ness that feminists like me refer to as rape culture. A lot of men just don't know about it at all, and even those who do have a hard time seeing all of the implications in women's experience. We need to see to that.

Indeed, I'm a fella who read a bunch of feminist theory as a teenager and committed to it seriously and almost three decades later I have to admit that I still labor to truly appreciate the implications. I can tell you from that experience that it is very difficult for even attentive and conscientious men to figure out how to operate ethically and effectively in the face of our failure to make clear consent a part of our culture. I can also tell you from that experience that most women — including most feminist women — don't realize how tricky this situation is for men. The beauty of that The Art of No post is that it focuses, as we should, on the risks and problems which this presents for women but also takes seriously the challenge that men face at the same time and provides some sophisticated answers for how men should navigate these waters.

So check it out before you even get to the rest of my post. I also recommend spending some time with that link above to Shakespeare's Sister talking about rape culture because the first order of business is to look at how this affects women before I get all What About Teh Menz ... indeed I think that the point I want to make about men's perspective on this only makes sense if you take rape culture seriously.

That said, let me invoke the slogan no means no in the context of women are not socialized to say a clear and direct “no” and pointedly observe that a certain ... friction ... exists between those two.

Let me step that up another couple of notches. Here's comedian Louis CK:

Watch that video if you possibly can; getting CK's delivery is important. But for convenience, I have transcribed it:

I don't know how I ever got laid, really, ’cause I was awful at it. I still am. I never understood. Like, there's guys that just have this confidence, and they can like go out with a girl, know when to lean in and kiss her and shit. I just — I couldn't, I would just go “CaN i FuCk YoU?” Like, I'd just blurt it out.

I remember one night, I was with a girl, I was like twenty years old, I was already doing standup, and I did a show in Washington DC. And after the show one of the waitresses came back to my hotel. She was really cute. We were making out, in my hotel, and she's into it, she's like humping me. So I start to put my hand up her shirt and she stops me. I'm like, hmnn, okay. So then we're making out more, and I start to put my hand on her ass, and she stops me. So after a while she went home. Nothing happened.

And then the next night I saw her at the club and she goes, “Hey, what happened last night?”

I was like, “What?”

She goes, “How come we didn't have sex?”

I was like, “Because you didn't want to.”

She's like, “Yes I did! I was really into it.”

I was like, “W-why did you keep stopping me?”

And she goes, “Because I wanted you to just go for it.”

I was like, “What does that mean?”

She says, “I'm kind of weird. I get turned on when a guy just gets frustrated and just holds me down and fucks me. Like, that's a big turn-on for me.”

I was like, “Well, you should have told me, I would have happily done that for you.”

And she says, “No! It has to feel real, and dangerous.”

Like, “What, are you out of your fucking mind? You think I'm just going to rape you on the off chance that hopefully you're into that shit?”

That piece makes me laugh and gives me the Cold Spooky every time I watch it. There's a lot going on in it.

If you're not familiar with CK, I should underline that he affects a kind of Dopey Middle-Aged White Guy persona, but his cultural politics are not-so-secretly smart and sharply observed. His act commonly looks squarely at homophobia, and one of his bits on White privilege is justly famous. (Update: There's a good argument that his work is often deliberately feminist.) His TV series Louie is also one of the smartest, gutsiest things ever put on broadcast television. All of which is to not just plug CK, whom I do love, but to underline that this bit about a scary, funny sex and dating misadventure is deliberately constructed.

I say “constructed”, but I don't mean to imply that it didn't happen. I feel certain that it happened to CK pretty much the way he describes. I have that conviction because while his story provides an especially vivid example, practically all straight men have had encounters like that.

Encounters. Plural. Listen to the men laughing in the background as CK does his routine. They're not laughing because it's absurd; they're laughing because it's familiar.

Women send men mixed messages. A big part of it is the coercive socialization that the quote from Captain Awkward above talks about, but it isn't the only thing. Look at the way Louis CK plays the voice of the woman in his story: his responsible and necessary refusal to dance with her broken expectations about consent is confusing to her. She finds it surprising and mysterious and — most disconcerting of all — frustrating.

When my friend pointed to that CaptainAwkward.com quote above, I told her (having not yet discovered the rest of the post it came from):

At the same time, coercion culture — like women trained to send mixed signals — makes it difficult for men to figure out responsible behavior. The resulting confusions further reïnforce the patterns of the patriarchy.

And she replied:

Yes. So opt out.

Hell yes. I hope it goes without saying that Louis CK did the right thing for himself, for the young lady, and for the world.

But at the same time, one does not simply walk out of the patriarchy.

When I was a young fella I lived an opt-out ethic explicitly and deliberately. Recall that I alluded to reading a lot of feminist theory as a teenager? Being young and naïve, it did not occur to me that other people were not thinking about things in the terms I was, informed by that, approaching consent as deliberately as I did. This helped make dating and sex even more awkward and confusing than they already are when one is young. And one day a young feminist with whom I discussed these things took me to task, saying, “So you have decided that when women have an exchange with you, they should be able to discern that you're operating from a different ethic and using different communication patterns than the whole world they're accustomed to? Isn't that a lot to ask?” Because like Louis CK, by trying to date women in a way that took clear consent seriously, I was confusing and surprising and mystifying and frustrating the women I was interacting with. I had to find better solutions.

Not easy. I wish I'd had CaptainAwkward.com back then.

My friend is right, men must opt out, because opting in is the patriarchy and rape culture and I hope that I don't have to explain to anyone reading this why that merits deliberate and vigorous resistance. But let's notice that, per Louis CK's example, opting out means fellas opting out of the embraces of willing women. His example also shows that those women are generally Not A Good Idea To Get Mixed Up With anyway, but there are moments in a young fella's life when that is confusing and cold comfort and can have one asking if you have the whole thing wrong. Which is not to say Poor Men Not Getting Laid but to say that the world does not give men good feedback.

To be clear, I'll repeat that the first order of business is to look at how this stuff affects women and to attend to that. But since there are a lot of good voices talking about that, allow me this post to make a plea to my sisters in feminism, who often forget or don't know: that full post at CaptainAwkward.com talks about how respecting women's consent is genuinely tricky for men to do in the context of a coercive, sexist society.

In light of that, “so opt out” is not answer enough. Part of the conversation has to be to ask, yes, what about teh menz? and to expect that the answers are neither simple nor easy to figure out.

Update: Looking at this again, I realize that I didn't sufficiently emphasize an important point. The Art of No is terrific in large part because it exemplifies the kind of feminist discourse I'm advocating here. It makes the sexist injustices that women experience primary, while recognizing that an understanding of men's experience is also integral to addressing those injustices, and offers realistic practices for both women and men to use in responding to the challenges they present. Part of the frustration which motivates this post is noticing that the quote about women's socialization was separated from the rest and circulated well enough to reach me; while that quote makes its point well, in the context of feminist discourse it's something that has been said many times before, and thus to my point is in a certain sense the least interesting part of the post.

Update: Niki Whiting over on Google+ has an instructive comment.

one of the reasons girls/women don't speak up for what the want/don't want is that to know what we want sexually is usually equated with being a slut. If I say ‘I like it like This and like That’ then our experience as female is often being slut shamed, whether explicitly or implicitly. Hell, even just saying ‘No, I don't like that’ or even just ‘Yes, please’ can be taken as too much sexual agency.

Indeed. Women are subject to vigorous gender policing which punishes clear communication about sex. Men too, in very different ways, though it's important for men to remember that the stakes for women are much higher.



A. said...

I've spent a considerable time thinking about MY (female) role in clear communication, but I'll confess that I hadn't really considered how tricky it can be for a man trying to deal with vague, unclear communication. Women ARE trained to be unclear, and the world DOES push back and call us bitchy if we say "no" loudly and clearly.

This post about both sides of the gender communication chaos makes me remember when I was groped while walking down the street with my boyfriend (a fairly short, non-muscular man). I began shouting at the groper, who quickly ducked into a corner store. I followed him and loudly announced to the entire store, "This man just grabbed my ass!". Everyone stared at me, then the owner of the store came over and asked ME to leave. I went outside and my boyfriend tried to calm me down and told me that I was acting "crazy".

I sometimes wonder how my angry "no" was heard as "crazy" by TWO men (the store owner and the boyfriend, and probably by the groper as well).

So, while I agree that it's absolutely challenging for men to deal with vague communication, I'd add that men also need to learn how to hear a woman's firm "no" as clear communication, instead of "crazy" or "bitchy".

Jonathan Korman said...

men also need to learn how to hear a woman's firm “no” as clear communication

Yes indeed. You'd think that would be simple, but my post points to some of the sexist forces arrayed to ensure that men don't learn that .... with the consequences for women that you describe, A., and worse.

happydog said...

As an equally confused opter-outer who read a lot of feminist writing as an adolescent and ended up equally as confused as you and Louis CK...thanks for writing this. It makes me feel a little less alone. I wondered if anybody else experienced this.