Sunday, May 1, 2011

Dangerous Interests: Men, Romance, and the Challenges of Collective Behavior Narratives

One of the blogs I have been reading over the past several months is a blog by a woman who goes by the pen name of Clarisse Thorn. She writes about relationships, sexuality, and feminism, amongst other things. And unlike some of the more well-established blogs that intersect relationships and feminism, Clarisse is quite open to discussion from across the gender spectrum. Something I'd say is a gift, given how tangled and heated these issues can quickly get.

A recent post of hers has to do with some of the problems associated with the loosely defined "Pick Up Artist" community, or PUA. Although it's hard to really pin down exactly what PUA's aims and philosophies are, perhaps one constant might be that PUA is about helping men attract women. This might be through developing flirting skills, offering ideas about "how women think," or being a generalized support group for other men. Probably sounds a little crass to some of you; it often does to me anyway. And certainly, being focused primarily or solely on heterosexual relationships, and specifically in a one way fashion - men attracting women - it's easy to see how there might be some major problems behind it.

Clarisse's post lays out a lot of these issues, but what's even more fascinating is the discussion that follows. One of the reasons I'm interested in all of this is that the dating world is quite a mess these days, filled with conflicting narratives, sloppy manners, and unnecessarily hurt feelings all over the place. And as a man who has embraced feminist views on many issues, I have always felt some tension between what I know about how men can and do act, and how my own behavior in a dating or relationship context is interpreted.

In the comments comments
section, there is an exchange between AB, a woman, and Sam, a man, that highlights some interesting challenges:

AB writes:

I fail to see how women’s fear of sexual assault (encouraged by both men and other women) is the same as male sexuality being marginalised. I recall an article Hugo linked to earlier (trigger warning) about the coverage of a story about sexual assault, blaming the 11 year old victim and treating the behaviour of the boys and men involved as something to be expected. Just to give the other side.

But I’m starting to wonder if part of the discrepancy isn’t who we look at. I don’t see most of the things that tell me how normalised (stereo)typical straight male sexuality is in the way we talk about men and male sexuality, I see it in the way treat women and female sexuality.

And Sam responds a few comments later:

...if you fail to see the connection between masculintiy and male sexuality and violence, particularly sexual violence, you have probably never felt your touch is at least potentially “toxic”, or dangerous. You probably have never been told “don’t push a girl”, you never worried that you may be some sort of rapist when you’re misunderstanding signals and move in for a kiss and she doesn’t like it. The fear of potential male sexual sociopathy – “men are like that” – and ways to manage male sexuality (usually by managing access to female sexuality) is probably among the oldest governance challenges of humanity.

I have felt that fear of my looking, my touch, and really any expression of interest being mistaken as toxic, as the beginning of something potentially harmful before. And I have sometimes struggled, in the context of dating, to balance the that fear with being present in the given situation and just acting in an honest, and also respectful way as possible. As I have grown a little older, and seen more in life, I have actually become more reserved - maybe too reserved, when it comes to things like flirting and showing romantic interest. This has, no doubt, made finding a partner or developing a relationship a bit more difficult.

What's interesting is that I have experienced this "toxicity" Sam talks about in situations where I have no romantic interest in someone. Just walking behind a woman on the sidewalk, for example, I have had experiences where she has sped up or made some other such movements to get further away from me. I'm just walking, but her "potential predator" radar has clicked in.

So, my point is that as a man who genuinely does his best to care, be respectful, and who desires a partnership of equals - it's challenging to manage all the conflicting feelings and views that come up around a simple thing like touching a potential love interest on the knee or looking into her eyes. It's probably the case that I'm overly concerned about such things, but I think it's similar to the very valid concerns most women have around issues like sexual assault while walking at night or in other such contexts.

At the same time, AB's point about victim blaming just adds to the difficulties for everyone. Every time a woman who is raped or assaulted is treated like a liar or a "slut who did something to deserve it" by men, this makes it that much more challenging for women to trust men in general, and that much harder for men who aren't abusive and predatory to have their actions be perceived correctly by the women they are (or aren't) romantically interested in.

Sometimes, I have this foolish longing to return to the naive high school and early college days, when I had less of an understanding of how complicated adult dating and relationships often are. Perhaps this is where some men end up staying mostly when it comes to relationships, in this sort of arrested development place where they can operate with a certain level of confidence derived not from wisdom and honoring others, but from a kind of willful naiveté that isn't hampered by what other men do collectively, but which also completely ignores the needs and concerns of the women they want or bring into their lives.

I don't really want to go back there, but working with all the variables that come with being aware and knowing how other men can and do act can be quite difficult. Even confidence crushing at times.

The only thing that has ever really helped me is to be as present in the particular situation I am in, and to act out of that place of presence. Sometimes, I guess wrong about the others' interest or views about what is happening, but at least in the state of presence, I have more confidence to just be myself.


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