Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Social Pressure to Have Children

People who don't want to have children still seem to get a fair amount of flack. Especially women. Even queer women. I have noticed that tied to the drive to gain same sex marriage, there is also an underlying current of reproducing mainstream-looking family units, where two women or two men function quite similarly to mainstream opposite sex couples. The 2 children, house, nice lawn, "normal jobs," and white picket fence kind of vision.

Seven billion + humans on the planet and still, the social pressure to reproduce is strong. Entire religious and political movements want to restrict or outlaw birth control options. And all abortions, regardless of the reasons.

This, here in the U.S., supposed home of liberalized sexuality and individual freedom. It's more a tangled mix if you ask me. A push towards liberation on one side; a push towards "restoring" or maintaining patriarchal norms and controls on the other. With the majority of people lost somewhere in between these two poles, trying to figure out who they are, and what they want.

Consider these lines from the following post:

As a feminist, I feel strongly that I should have a choice in how I live my life as a person. I don't want to feel that someone else is making a decision on my worth or identity based on the fact of my genital parts.

I have a friend who chooses not to have children. I've witnessed the 'just give it a few years, you'll see' remarks (honestly, I should have given him a little kick in the shins for that one... but I punked out for social etiquette... and we were at a birthday party...).

Her decision is a great environmental decision, no matter how you slice it. The reality is that babies pollute. Instead of made to feel awesome (as she should) by her choice, she's judged for making a decision that is best for HER self and her body.

As if she were born to make babies. As if her uterus defines her entire point of existing.

Being in my mid-30s, I have been asked about children as well. And yet, as a man, it seems like I'm given more of a pass. Perhaps because people think "he's got more time. Maybe he'll want children in his 40s." Maybe I will. In fact, I have considered having children in a couple of relationships I have been in over the past five years. But I'm still on the fence. And honestly, the point about the environmental consequences has always weighed heavily on my mind. It might be a bit crude to say "babies pollute," but I have always wondered "how many humans is enough?"

Don't get me wrong. I love kids. I spent a good chuck of my 20s working with children in various learning settings. One of those places being a treatment center for children who had been removed from their homes. Seriously neglected children. Physically and emotionally abused. Some sexually abused. My job was to help these kids learn the basic social skills needed to get along with others, and to get their personal needs met as well. It was quite the sobering job. When people with children claim a sense of superior understanding about parenthood simply because they had kids, I immediately think of Paige, John, Samantha, Brianna, David, and dozens of others I worked with over the years. Their parents were an absolute train wreck. At 25, I already had a better sense of caring for their kids than they did.

Many of the children I worked with at the treatment center would go on to bounce around in "the system," never finding anything resembling a permanent home. They're the forgotten ones. When Americans, especially white Americans, think of adoption, they think of African babies, or Asian babies. Not the suffering kids living in a facility down the street. Adoption also seems to be a last resort option for most. Something considered because of age or infertility. What's that about?

But beyond all that, I also happen to believe that people can live full, vibrant lives without being parents. Direct parenting is only one way to influence the lives of young folks. My life to this point has absolutely not been lacking because I don't have children of my own. And that will be true if the rest of my life remains "childfree."

Human life is so much more than simply our ability, or lack of an ability, to have offspring. There are far too many of us on the planet to be placing the biological drive to reproduce above all else. If anything, we are much more in danger of overpopulation than dying out as a species from lack of reproduction.

So, I want to support the development of a society that moves beyond the function of our genitals, and beyond shame and guilt narratives, and supports a wide variety of decisions around children.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Intimacy Pedestal

There's an interesting debate going on in the comments section of this post from The Good Men Project. It's about intimacy. Men. Women. And social conditioning. I found myself agreeing with the majority, but also questioning some important sections of the post. Let's take a closer look.

Author Bill Cloke begins with this:

most men are taught from an early age to be competitive, that feelings are a sign of weakness and to avoid vulnerability and dependency at all costs. The ideal for men is fierce independence and strength.

Although there are signs of some change these days, this does reflect how boys are "trained," and how the men those boys grow up to be act, or try to present themselves as in any case.

However, I would argue that more and more American women are embracing "independence and strength" as core virtues. It's quite easy to find Gen X women and those of younger generations placing higher value on being happily single and financially sustainable, than upon being partnered up and dependent in any manner.

Although every last human on the planet is dependent to some degree on others, for the majority of Americans, male or female, being ok with dependence is just not ok. Heterosexual men best not have any financial needs of their female partners because those that do will roundly be slammed as lazy, good for nothing leaches. Heterosexual women best be in a financial position to leave a relationship at a moment's notice if things start going bad. Heterosexual women also would do well to "train" their male partners to not expect emotional coddling by cutting them off at the first pass. Guy starts talking about how difficult things are at work, and the girlfriend tells him to "toughen up." Guy expresses some form of upset about something going on in the relationship and he's told that he's "being too sensitive."
I could go on with more examples, but general idea is this: many Americans love to project independent and strong images of themselves, even when it might harm their intimate relationships to do so.

A little later on in his article, Cloke offers the following:

Men do not do as well as women in the clinches. Men have a harder time with stress reduction, and anxiety around conflict. Women have gears inside built for childbirth where they can tolerate pain. This internal mechanism to withstand anxiety and pain allows women to deal with emotional stress way better than men. Men usually avoid conflict and make every effort to make peace. For this reason they do not tend to resolve conflicts well which creates distance in their relationships. This avoidance of confrontation, pain and anxiety can build up over time and cause the eventual breakup of a marriage.

I don't really buy this. Stress is a cross gender, societal problem these days. Millions of people, for example, are on medications for anxiety, depression, and other stress-related fallout, precisely because they were never taught how to deal with stress naturally. Others have chosen a more destructive route, drowning their stress through illicit drugs, alcohol, or engaging in various forms of violence. In my opinion, what might be gendered is the ways in which men and women "act out." Men are more likely to avoid problems through distancing and silence. They're also more likely to engage in physical violence when things have gotten too pent up. Women are more prone to what I would call forms of emotional violence. Manipulation. Deliberate emotional and/or sexual withdrawal to get what they want. Mind games of various sorts. But all of these are maladaptive responses to stress and dissatisfaction, and none of them are the province of a single gender.

Getting back to the issue of intimacy, I think it's more accurate to say that men and women have somewhat differing intimacy-hindering patterns, and that perhaps the patterns the majority of men choose are more successful at keeping others - especially their partners - away. Distancing, cold silence, and physical violence are pretty effective at cutting off connections, whereas other approaches tend to require some level of connection in order to be successful. And these connections may be mistakenly considered intimacy by the casual onlooker, family members, friends, and even the partner him or herself. Partners enmeshed in elaborate mind games and emotional violence tend to appear "really close." It may be that the dominantly male patterns of avoiding intimacy are simply more visible and obvious than the dominantly female patterns.

One last piece in Cloke's article that I quibble with is this:

Women frequently complain that their partner wants to have sex even though they don’t feel connected emotionally. Men want to have sex to feel connected and women want to feel connected to feel comfortable having sex.

First off, how people express their sexuality is wildly diverse. It's probably always been so, but it's easier to find this diversity out in the open these days. I do think it's fair to say, though, that women in particular have benefited greatly from the sexual liberation of the past forty-fifty years. And one of the ways in which this plays out is that more women are into casual sex, sex without love, or other forms of sexual expression not dependent upon having a close, intimate connection with their sexual partner.

I do think though that there is a fair amount of accuracy to Cloke's statement, but what follows it misses something vitally important in my opinion. He writes:

Because some men want to skip over feelings and go straight to sex, porn and prostitution has taken off since the advent of the internet. Men who find themselves avoiding confrontations and intimacy will find anonymous intimacy in internet chat rooms, porn or prostitutes.

Here's the thing. In a society where other forms of intimacy are deemed by "man culture" as weak or "emasculating," sex becomes the main portal. As such, many men view having sex as the only "safe way" to express care, desire, and vulnerability - something that, if it goes well, pleases their partners and also makes them look good with their male buddies. This is probably a main reason why men are so apt to test long term compatibility via sexual connection. If the sex isn't good enough, a lot of guys probably think somewhere inside "well, there's no place for me here." The "me" being the person who is open, vulnerable, fully alive without being hindered by shame and guilt.

It's kind of ironic that sex - an activity so clouded with moralistic shame and guilt baggage - ends up being the place where so many men go looking for a safe place to be totally themselves.

Overall, I think Cloke's argument that men struggle with intimacy is a fair one. However, he seems to place women on an intimacy pedestal, and then expects men to work towards reaching them. In my view, the dominant patterns brought on by patriarchy and colonialism have made intimacy difficult for everyone. It's time for a more well-rounded picture of what's wrong, and also the many ways in which people might make it right.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The American Dream is Going Bankrupt. What Does that Mean for Your Romantic Life?

You may have noticed by now that I'm not given to offering loads of advice and directives about relationships. That I find any universal notions about how we come together - whether in romantic intimacy or in friendship - rather suspect. That I tend to take on anything mainstream, even when it seems foolish or deeply unpopular to do so.

The only real directives you're going to get from me are these: pay close attention to your life, question the stories you have about what is happening, and be creative and experiment.

Here's a little bit about how I got to be where I am today.


Somewhere early on in life, a seed was planted within me that something was deeply wrong with how we have arranged ourselves. It didn't make sense to me, for example, that women were rarely considered leaders, and that many women lived in fear of violence from men. Images of destroyed buildings and dead bodies in Lebanon and other places were seared into my young brain, forever rendering warfare an idiotic affair driven by male hubris and greed.

During high school, I found myself careening between the aggression of raging hormones, and a deep fear of hurting anyone. I played multiple sports, excelling at soccer, and yet often fled to reading and writing for general solace. I recall a time when I flipped a teammate on his back during a soccer practice, and after a fierce chewing out from the others on the team, weeks of feeling guilty for having been so careless with someone who was my friend.

I was timid with girls, partly our of fear, but partly out of respect. When I listened to my neighborhood friends talking about "getting a piece of ass" and chasing "bitches," I nodded silently while inwardly cringing at the dehumanization of it all. My first girlfriend most likely dumped me because I wasn't bold enough, didn't take charge enough in certain situations, sexual and otherwise.

There was a battle in my sixteen year old mind between a man not yet born and a boy who wanted to be good and respectful. In some ways, this battle has continued to this very day.

During college, I started working hard to break down whatever sexism I inherited as a man in this culture. I voraciously read feminist literature, was active in women's rights events like Take Back the Night, and eventually dated a woman whose life was - at that time - immersed in trying to untangle the knots of patriarchy she saw around her.

The unlearning of believing that what was always had been was all around me. I was also becoming a campus leader, starting organizations, serving on the student senate, and learning how to talk with elected officials in an assertive manner. All of this brought me face to face with power - my own and the collective powers we share (which really are from the same source).

What I saw around me, I mostly didn't like. Young men, and some women, engaging in the kinds of coercive and manipulative games that are driving the halls of Congress, and the boardrooms of multinational corporations, schools, and nearly every major institution in our society. I recall conspiring with a friend and another member of the university student senate to upend some project the senate leadership was attempting to push through. Although I think we were "in the right," I also felt somewhat off about how we were going about everything behind their backs. In addition, the way in which personalized attacks on them glued us together later became something I have noted is an attribute of power-over sickness.

When dehumanization in any form is at the center of any action, we have stepped out of our true power, and into the land of domination and oppression.

As a white man living in a society that has been dominated by white supremacist patriarchy, locating and embodying that power amongst the layers and levels of oppressive falsehoods is quite a challenging task. It's a different challenge from that experienced by women, transgendered folks, and people of color, but the reality is that that we are all harmed, and we all are called, in our own ways, to be healed and become whole and liberated.

When I learned that my then girlfriend had been raped twice as a teenager, I took a similar course around much of my sexuality, enhancing the "good" and "respectful" aspects that I'd developed during high school.

I didn't want to be anything like "those guys." Not in my relationships, nor in how I worked and led in the world.

There was nothing wrong with this, but now I am recognizing that this was only a step towards liberation.


A lot of this blog has been dedicated to love relationships. To refining the skills necessary to be with, and unfold your life with, a beloved other. And yet, there's always so many other relationships in our lives. Especially the one with ourselves, from which all others are reflected back in some form or another.

Over the years, I have experienced deep, deep longings to be in some sort of ultimate partnership. In fact, it was writing about one that seemed like it could be it, and was quickly, almost violently ripped away from me, that this blog began.

That longing is genuine and good. Most of us have it. The power of a deep and loving partnership can be immense - beautiful and world changing even.

And yet, it's also treated like an high end object in our warped, somewhat crumbling American culture. "Finding and keeping love" is behind not only the billions and billions of dollars in profits being made by countless industries, but it's at the center of the old American Dream. So much of our worth, we are told, is based upon whether or not we've found the love of our lives, and have built a little family to focus all, or nearly all, our love and energy on.

I'm saying this not to disparage couples and nuclear families, but to suggest that it's really easy to get myopic. To become almost completely focused on two things: making enough money and finding or keeping a love partner. When I look around at all the crises, just here in the U.S. - never mind the rest of the world - the economic injustice, the sponsoring of wars, the environmental destruction, the sexism, racism, bigotry, crumbling education system ... all of this needs a piece of our attention.

I sometimes wonder if a lot of us unconsciously drive to build these little families so we have someplace to hide from it all. A refuge that will keep us relatively safe. That worked pretty well for a fair amount of folks when America was an economic powerhouse, and an average worker could make a decent enough living to support a family. But the greed of the wealthy elite, and changing world conditions, have made this kind of refuge so much harder to sustain. And frankly, I think our collective over-reliance on the nuclear family as the total, or near total, focus of our lives was a major factor in bringing our country to the precarious place it is.

When political and civic engagement is reduced to pulling a level or filling a box in every few years, things are bound to go wrong. When people fail to know even their closest neighbors, things are bound to go wrong. When everything costs money, and when each person is expected to pay for everything with that money, earned somehow, in some manner, for years on end without any significant break, things are bound to go wrong. When nutritious food, clothing, health care, and a decent education become more and more the province of the privileged few, things are bound to go wrong.

And so, I write about relationships coming from this place. I question and ponder from this ground.

Because healthy, conscious relationships - in my view - aren't separate from all of this. Sure would be easier if they were. If we could just hole up with our significant other and perhaps a few children and be ok. But that just doesn't fly for me. And frankly, I don't think our country, or world, are going to support that kind of thing for the majority of Americans much longer.

This is just my opinion, but I really do think that 21st century relationships are going to be - by necessity, and also by blessing - about diversified interests, new and modified old forms, more active engagement in our communities and the world, more shared, community based child rearing, and more sharing far across immediate blood lines.

Going forward with this blog, this will be the ground upon which I stand.

As always, your comments are welcome. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Four Rules for Relationships

Four basic rules for approaching relationships, including with yourself:

1. Be positive and/or truthful. Sometimes being truthful looks negative, but learn to distinguish that from what is actually negative: whining, excessive complaining, self pity, blaming others, etc.

2. Don’t obsess about results, other lack there of. If you are not having any luck, experiment with a different approach. Don’t let perceived rules or gender roles limit your experimentation.

3. If you find yourself getting bitter, step away and take a break from what you are currently doing.

4. Stop being swayed by the endless amounts of contradictory advice out there and learn to feel confident and secure in who you are. That way, whether you are single or with someone, ecstatic with where you are or not, you won’t be controlled by feelings of desperation and the whims of others.

*Photo is of my nephew. He's got all this down pat so far.
If you like photography, more of my photos can be found here.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Sometimes, I Don't Want to be a White American Man Anymore

It can be exhausting. Trying to decolonize yourself from literally centuries of oppressive thinking and behavior tied to the very body you were born into. This body of mine - white, male, tall enough, thin enough, and attractive enough to fit nearly all the major privilege boxes. Check. Check. Check.

Body as trigger for oppressed groups. Body as receptacle of assumptions, associations, and projections. Body as justification for power and privileges, wanted and unwanted. Body as container of the unripened consequences of my male ancestors' thoughts and deeds.

Sometimes, I don't want any of it. Don't want to think about all the complications that come with dating and relationships because of it. Don't want to consider all the ways in which nearly every aspect of society has upheld my image, and yet twisted its possibilities so thoroughly that everyone, including myself, tends to wonder if we can ever liberate it. In a body like this. Liberate the several hundred year of European colonialism located in, and emanating from, the bodies and minds of generation after generation of white men who spread themselves across the planet, attempting to dominate every last corner of land, culture, religion, government, drop of water. A domination that's still going on, today, in a more expanded form - globalized capitalism - which includes more power players, but is really just another form of the same old thing.

Occasionally, I feel damned. Damned by the hegemonic masculinity that drives the corporations to gobble up resources, imprison or murder those who resist, and destroy the planet in the process. If I get angry or demanding in any way, I fit the image of the male oppressor. If I act kind, caring, non-demanding, respectful of differences, I get slammed by some of my fellow brothers as "weak," "a pussy," in need of "manning up." My sexuality gets questioned. Women who otherwise might be attracted to me disappear, or consider me friend-worthy, but that's it. I know I am not alone in experiencing all of this, but still, so many of those who look like me are lost in the fog of conditioning, all too happy to ignore the various elements of their colonized minds, if they even recognize them as such.

I feel often feel poisoned. Or haunted by some set of demons I can't quite eject. It's not that I don't have any peace and ease in my life. I do. At times. But the legacy of this body doesn't seem to allow for long stretches of peace and ease. This particular body and mind that is, one that often feels like it has one foot in the old world, and a foot in someplace else, new and so much less tarnished by the greed, hatred, and ignorance of my forefathers.

Under the old terms, I'm not supposed to express needs and receive gifts that might help get those needs met. Not supposed to share power, be vulnerable, or remain in the background. I'm supposed to take what I need, take what I want; use people and the planet for whatever purposes I have. In romantic relationships, I'm supposed to lead, bring in the lion's share of resources (money, food, housing, etc.), be catered to, pampered, cared for emotionally because I'm too damned stunted in that area to do much more than holler and grunt and whine occasionally.

The old narrative is fucking exhausting. Obnoxious. Destructive.

Trying to forge a new way of being and living is also fucking exhaustive.

On good days, during good stretches - I am lighter than all this. There's humor and laughter at the myriad of absurdities. There's peace with so much being undefined, in process, not knowing what to do or how to act really.

So, I don't want to sound crazy. Or have this be dismissed as the writing of a guy who needs to lighten up and forget about it. That's not it. Guys need to talk about these things more. Need to lay the fucking bone bare in public and stop pretending like we're calm, cool, and collected all the time. Or that it's just over-thinking or hypersensitivity. I'm tired of being given so much permission by my culture to speak and act in exploitive ways, while at the same time being silenced and shamed for anything that bucks those norms.

There have been some strides in recent decades. Appearances of men's groups. Men practicing communication methods like NVC. Men studying and trying to put into practice feminist thought, and other related philosophies. Men sharing more power in politics, spiritual and religious communities.

But something is still off about a lot of what is happening. I notice more and more women stepping into and fully embodying the power of their birthright. Not the power of oppression, but of liberation.

Whereas with many of the men trying to eject colonization, and step more fully into that same liberatory power, there's something holding us back. Some are giving up half way, embracing some of the positive, while maintaining some of the oppressive ways. They often believe they've done enough. That they are good guys. And that women are others need to cut them some slack. Which is sometimes the truth.

Others are more like me. Trying to learn to be completely ok with ourselves at every moment, and also unwilling to stop half way, claim the "good guy" label, and be done with it.

Both groups actually are kind of weak. But not in the way those living and loving the oppressive mindset are calling us out for.

Nearly all of us struggle with identity. We claim labels like feminist, and then experience backlash from both some of the very women we're trying ally with, and the majority of men society says we are supposed to naturally ally with.

Do you understand the exhaustion I sometimes feel yet?

Because some of us have leadership qualities, we are elevated as such, and then get hammered for either being "too soft" or for acting in ways that fit the patriarchal paradigm.

We make mistakes like anyone else. Some of those mistakes are too easily excused by our society. Others are used against us by members of oppressed groups and oppressor groups in different manners. I have experienced the same display of anger on my part being condemned as sexist by a woman, and then used as a sign that I'm sensitive and possibly gay by a man. It's all rather insane. And humorous, if you can take a step outside of it.

Why I sometimes don't want to be a white American man is that this mind of mine - not separate from the body - more and more doesn't fit this body as it has been historically framed and socially constructed. There's a lot of cognitive dissonance. Who am I anyway? A kind of unanswerable question that still begs for answers.

Most people don't like unanswerable questions. Shifting identities. Shifting relationships. They want something solid, reliable, easy to understand. Which is one of the reasons why so many of us fight like hell to maintain certain definitions of gender, and gender roles - even when those definitions and roles neither serve us, nor suit us.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Break Free of Old Relationship Rules!

I have been thinking a lot about how people understand responsibility, and how that impacts our relationships with each other. If you believe that men are supposed to lead and women are supposed to nurture, what does that say about your understanding of responsibility? That one's biological sex determines what one is responsible for in a relationship? This certainly doesn't fly with GLBTQ partnerships. And I don't think it has to be the defining characteristic of heterosexual relationships either.

During the last post, an anonymous female commenter said the following:

"Everyone likes nurturing, patient, fun, happy, warm, open romantic partners. Not just men. Having all those qualities isn't feminine, it's just well adjusted."

Right. Exactly.

Here's the thing: we are all a little different. Some of us are more naturally nurturing and receptive, while others are more naturally strong, leader types. It's good that the skills are spread around. But I would argue that hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years of patriarchal cultures have squelched the "active" skills in women, and suppressed the "receptive" skills in men. It's only in recent decades that we are beginning to get a glimpse into what it might look like if humans - regardless of gender - could develop and express themselves freely.

Instead of living your life thinking men are more like this, and women like that, what if you opened yourself to the possibility that we don't really know. That if we raised children as human first, and had an education system that focused on fostering a diversity of skills and qualities within each child, maybe things would look at different. Instead of lopsided people caged by social constructs, perhaps we'd have many more well rounded humans living closer to their full potential. People who can at turns be the needed dynamic leader in one situation, and the calm, caring supporter in another.

Note. This isn't about making everyone look and act the same. It's about actually enhancing the quality of our lives so that our uniqueness can shine through much more strongly.

Although getting smarter with children is vitally important,adults still have flexible minds. There is plenty of plasticity in the brain, even into later adulthood for many people. The idea that we are locked into acting and thinking certain ways as adults is a 19th century concept being taken completely to task by 21st century research.

Adult men can learn to be more receptive, warm, caring, and supportive. Adult women can learn to be more assertive, strong, and powerful.

And I would argue that in doing so, they would become not only better romantic partners, but also more fully realized people.

Going back to the opening theme, what does all of this have to do with responsibility?

Instead of understanding responsibility as something which is mostly your duty, you can see it being fully able to respond to the needs of any given situation. In intimate relationships, one person might still be more gifted in leading, or in supporting, but there can be a lot less expectation that said person is responsible (as in it's their job or duty) to do or be X all or most of the time. And even if they end up doing so, it's out of a conscious choosing, and not adherence to gender norms and the social pressure to fit in.

If a heterosexual couple, for example, chooses to maintain what looks like a more "traditional" approach to their relationship, that's fine. No problem. But it's not because of pressure to conform, a belief in inherent roles for men and women, or because one partner is controlling the way the relationship is held together. All three of these issues are still commonplace these days, even in supposedly liberal places like the U.S.

Which is why I'm going to keep writing about it. I don't believe that just because something seems to work for the majority of people, that it makes for a better life.

* The photo of the old building above is from my new photo blog. If you're interested in photography, come check it out!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Sex, Power, and Patriarchy

This post has garnered a lot of heat over the past few days. I had to sit with it awhile, and take in some of the other reactions first before making any comments of my own.

The author writes of feeling frustrated by the fact that she's turned down for sex by an Ex she's still attracted to. That, in and of itself, isn't terribly novel. Men experience this kind of rejection on a regular basis. And the thing is, it's often not even about rejection per se. There are any number of reasons why someone says "no" or otherwise indicates not wanting to have sex.

Clearly, the article writer knows this. And yet she also sees a bigger pattern going on. One that she frames in a way that's controversial, and in my opinion, somewhat problematic. She writes:

Now that women are prioritizing sexual pleasure, men are changing the rules. They are recognizing that sexual performance can decline with age just like beauty.

But frankly, strictly speaking from my own experience, I think that men say no as a way to regain power.

I have a strong personality, I’m outspoken, and smart. Whatever the fuck Steve Harvey says, I know some brothers have found it intimidating. Denying sex becomes an easy way for men to let you know who’s boss.

Of late, I’ve had more than a few homegirls tell me about the negative reactions that they have gotten from men they were casually involved with, when they tried to prioritize sex in the interaction. Apparently, even when these brothers weren’t all that interested in a relationship, they took it as a serious blow to the ego, to find out that sisters just wanted to engage them for their bodies and sexual talents.

And in the classic fashion of those with privilege, they played the victim, changed the rules, and refused to give the thing they had the power to give. In this case, sex.

In the comments section, there is a large amount of blowback focused on the issue of consent. The fact that men (like women) should have the personal agency to choose whether or not to engage in intimate relations. And that saying "no" does not mean also having to defend yourself through extended explanations.

I'm totally on board with this. As a man who has said no to sex a number of times for various reasons, I think it's high time to put to rest the view that men are always thinking about sex, and are ready and willing whenever, wherever, and how ever. The article author seems to also be on board with all this, but the way she wrote the passage above, that belief isn't really clear. Which is one reason why, in my opinion, so many people missed a lot of what she was trying to do.

The first mistake was focusing on casual sex at the center of her main argument. Mixed groups of people tend to give less credibility to discussions where casual sex is the sole focus. By "mixed" here I mean people who have a wide variety of understandings and ethical/moral views around sexual activity.

The idea that these guys being talked about, who got upset when discovering that the women they were with were just looking to get laid, were somehow in the wrong doesn't fly to well. Women are frequently offering the flip narrative about men wanting to use them. The reality is that unless you're ok with casual sex in the particular situation, you're probably going to feel used and unhappily so, regardless of gender.

Here's the thing, though: I agree with the author that some men who say no are doing so to maintain power. That for them it has nothing to do with feeling used, and everything to do with the fact that the woman initiated, was assertive, etc. Some men absolutely can't handle strong, smart, and outspoken women. That's just the plain truth of it.

I'm guessing she has run into enough of these kind of guys that it's difficult to see beyond that pattern. Furthermore, I would argue that she is completely accurate in assigning that pattern to the larger pattern of patriarchy.

Unfortunately, that gets lost not only in the tussle over consent and perceptions about casual sex, but also in what appears to be - to several male and female commenters - a sense of entitlement.

In the comments section, the author writes:

I’m exploring how to get my needs met. Of course I get the incongruency of the other person’s needs with my own. But as my needs were not his concern, his needs are not my primary concern.

What bothers me about this statement is the linking of the Ex boyfriend's particular "no" to sex with a total disregard for her needs. Here's how she writes it:

Exasperated (and horny) I asked “Why?” Lo and behold, he flipped the gender script and told me some version of: “I’m happy to have you back in my life. I don’t want to move too prematurely because we are rebuilding our relationship.” Riiiiight. What I wanted to know is what our “relationship” had to do with the sex that I needed to have right then and there.

Now, perhaps he was just giving her a line. Who knows? But it sounds to me like the kind of thing many women say and do after a fight with a boyfriend, or when getting back together with someone. In that way, it is a script flip. However, if he indeed was being sincere, I'd argue it's a healthy script flip. And that she comes off looking selfish.

On the other hand, though, there's this section from her post, which complicates the notion that she's just being entitled:

Truth be told, it sucks to feel like on the one hand, good long-term relationships are hard to come by (and 70% of Black women with advanced degrees are single, mind you) and on the other hand, your sexual empowerment strategy is literally a life and death situation, every single time.

This is the kind of ish that professional women of color confront on our journey to trying to find the balance, the all, that highly educated professional white women rarely have to think twice about. {Good reply here though.} I mean, fuck ALL. Can I just get some?!

Unfortunately, the majority of women still don't feel like they can be open and assertive when it comes to sex. Especially in newer relationships, or with men they don't know well.

Hell, it's commonplace to find debates about whether heterosexual women should even ask men out on dates, or offer to pay for first dates.

In some ways, I think the male blowback towards assertive women is generational. The over 30 crowd seems much more challenged when the old scripts are flipped than younger men. However, I also believe that plenty of women reinforce aspects of the old narrative. For example, there's this from a female commenter responding to the author's post:

I think to make this a feminist issue is disingenuous IMO. One phrase I’ve read a long time ago and that make sense even in this topic is that if you put yourself out there like a man, then you need to learn to accept rejection like a man.

The idea that assertiveness is a man's domain is sexist, and of the old paradigm. And yet plenty of women (and men) not say things like this, but also run their romantic lives in such a manner.

In the end, I find myself resonating with these words from the author in the comments section:

Indeed it is a power struggle, and I’m [not] sure how to mitigate it, but I think radical empathy, the intentional commitment to understanding your potential partner’s position and needs in the interactions and the ways in which your privileges affect those needs, is a starting point.

Given that I write about conscious, healthy relationships, I think that ultimately, the only way to be in such a place is to move past power and control games. It is possible to do so, but there are plenty of challenges present. Including the many ways in which gender is still tied up in the old, patriarchal structures.

Another thing that got lost in the discussion was the fact that the author is sincerely - as I see it anyway - trying to figure out how to be fully herself in less than ideal conditions. As a man who has never felt connected to the male norms, and who has struggled to locate himself within notions of maleness and masculinity, I sympathize. And want to uphold her struggle, because it's really part of the broader struggle of liberation from oppressive cultural norms around relationships and sexual expression.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Teenaged Dating Mind Lives On

Dismissing people through crude judgements is a favorite past time of daters these days. A relationship falls apart and the partners place all the blame on each other. A first date doesn't turn into a second date, and the people involve tell their best friends about the "bitch" or "asshole" they spent the previous night with. Dating bloggers who bandy insults around and peg people into judgmental categories get loads of readers. It's so much more fun, apparently, to blame and commiserate in victimhood with others than to take a good look at yourself, and also consider how adults become the way they are.

A friend of mine posted this brilliantly insightful article written by a 13 year old boy about the sexualization of girls, and the peer pressure boys feel to seek out "perfect" girlfriends. I encourage folks to read it in full, but here's a large segment that I'd like to comment upon.

When guys at my school and at my summer camp talk about girls, they mainly mention their looks and bodies. There are often raging debates (like the one above) in the boys’ locker room at my school, and probably schools all across the country. All of these arguments basically discuss the same three things: a girl’s facial features (glasses, braces, acne); a girl’s curves (usually a girl’s lack of curves); and finally, a girl’s waistline (“Ew no, Maria is not skinny enough”). Now you may have different ideas about why boys discussing a girls’ bodies is so common, but I believe it is for the same reason that Ben brought up: in the media, mostly in magazines and commercials, guys are seeing images of women with perfect complexions, huge breasts and unnaturally thin waists. In fact, guys are so constantly bombarded with these images, that what we see becomes our idea of the “perfect woman.” So, whenever guys see girls who don’t fit that description exactly—which is every single girl they meet—the boys think the girls look “fat,” “flat-chested” or “flawed” in one way or another. But even the models don’t actually look like their pictures in the magazines, thanks mostly to the incredible deception powers of Photoshop.

Since girls are ridiculed if they don’t appear like the models, I think many girls feel that their only way to be accepted is to conform to what they see. This pressure is clear to me in the clothing choices of my female friends. Even if we’re just hanging out in the park or going on a school field trip, my friends always try to dress attractively and “sexy.” Spaghetti strap and strapless dresses, pencil skirts, tight spandex for gym class, and “booty shorts” in the summer. From what I see, magazines make girls think they have to dress alluringly and show off their bodies in order to avoid criticism from the gender those same magazines set up to be their judges: boys.

I’ve also noticed that girls are starting to shave their legs earlier and earlier. My school recently had an end of the year ceremony where the fourth graders attend their first Middle School event. It’s a formal event, so many of the fourth graders were wearing dresses. I noticed that many of them had shaved their legs already. Fourth grade! I told this to my mom, and she wondered why any fourth grader would want to get started with such relentless body “upkeep” so soon. I mean, if you think about it, it’s kind of a simple equation, really: since the boys think that the models are hot, and the models have smooth legs, then these girls think that shaving their legs will make them look hot in the eyes of the boys. These fourth graders are shaving their legs because there is a lot of social pressure for girls to look attractive and sexy all the time—at any age.

I distinctly remember being attracted to two girls in high school that didn't "measure up" to the media-driven "standards." They were both cute, but not "hot." The thing is, I wanted to date both of them, but was afraid of what my male friends would think. It was bad enough when I dated a girl a year younger than me. "Robbing the freshman cradle" type comments were frequent, although some of the same friends were jealous that I had someone and they didn't.

Being on the shyer side, I often found myself internally calculating how much potential damage an action might bring me. It's painful to think how much other people's opinions controlled me back then. And given how fraught with confusion and landmines teen dating is to begin with, the idea of putting up with a bunch of flack for dating a girl who wasn't "a hotty" just wasn't worth it in those two cases. Which is sad, because not only were both of those girls actually plenty cute, but they also were both kind, intelligent, and friendly.

Meanwhile, I also recall being attracted to another girl who was more stereotypically "hot," but who was also stereotypically mean. Those of my generation might think of the movie "Heathers." Even after she unceremoniously agreed to a date with me, and then rejected the idea, all in the same lunch period, I continued to long after her for weeks. Was she playing hard to get? Or was she really not interested? I don't know. But already, the "hard to get" narrative had been planted in my teenage mind, and I figured that it was up to me to figure out how to get her to pay attention again. The fact that I couldn't gather the guts up to really respond ended up being translated into a "I'm not good enough" story, which got reinforced by other high school dating situations, and followed me into young adulthood.

For most of my college days, I dated women who chose me, but who actually weren't great matches. Happy to be wanted, I overrode the fact that I was settling for women who I didn't have enough in common with, and didn't feel that much attraction to.

It took a lot of reflection to get to the point where I realized all of this. I was twice the age of the boy who wrote the article above. And yet, the majority of men it seems haven't done the kinds of reflection needed to unearth these early experiences, and the forces - internally and externally - that helped shaped those experiences. More women seem to "get it" about this stuff, but plenty still don't, and end up repeating the same old patterns over and over again.

Going back to the opening paragraph, the main reason why I reject the blame and blast games is that it impedes our ability to see into ourselves. You don't learn why you keep dating people who aren't good for you by judging their every last move, and running those stories endless in your head, and in your conversations with others.

If it's all about them, you will never see the real you. You'll probably keep choosing people who aren't good matches for you, and/or will stay with someone far too long because you can't see your way out.

The teenaged dating mind lives on in many adults, responsible for much of the poor behavior and confused decisions. If you don't understand the kinds of experiences that led you to where you are today, odds are you won't figure out how to have a better, more fulfilled tomorrow. With or without a partner.