The other day a friend sent me a link to a male feminist writing in The Guardian, “in case you could shed light on its creepiness”. Trying not to think too closely about the various ways this could be interpreted, I read the piece – called “What every guy should know about dating: consent counts” – and ended up agreeing with her that it somehow hit the wrong note. The basic message seemed uncontroversial, since it seemed to be arguing that consent is very important in our sexual lives, but that we should expand our notion of where “consent” matters. It had even received the online accolade of being totally trashed in the comments, with braying self-congratulatory contributions about “feminist sex contracts” from commentators who were at pains to make clear how much sex they were having without recourse to such legal instruments.
This is a topic which I can recall being kicked around at Pervocracy, Feministe and Another Angry Women, without strikingly different conclusions being reached. But something still seemed a bit…off. I think perhaps this piece is an example of how decent conclusions can be undermined by getting to them via questionable arguments. It also highlights some ways in which male feminists should be careful about the rhetoric we employ, and be aware of using feminist-sounding principles to shore up a sexist state of affairs.
The first alarm bells rang at the point where the author considered what affects people’s behaviour when dating:
It can be a minefield for men navigating the dating scene today. We’re supposed to exhibit some chivalry, yet we – rightly – should drop any notions of patriarchy. We have to be sensitive to cultural, religious, socio-economic and sexuality issues
This reads, as my friend remarked, rather like wanting points for being enlightened. As so many other writers have pointed out, it doesn’t count as basic human decency if you expect to be paid for it in admiration or indeed cookies. The problem for me is the nebulous forces lurking in the words “supposed”, “should” and “have”. The author doesn’t make it clear who is doing the supposing, whose norms inform the should, and what sanctions are brought to bear on those who don’t do what they have to. This is particularly significant as two of those forces are apparently opposed: men are “supposed” to be chivalrous yet “should” not have a patriarchal attitude.
Given that this paragraph is about the dating scene, there’s a strong implication that women are the ones imposing these demands upon men, that in order to be attractive to potential dates a man is in the difficult position of being both chivalrous and non-patriarchal. In other words, this article seems to be echoing the complaints of Men’s Rights Activists and misogynists all over the world: that women have jointly made impossible demands of men, wanting both the benefits of liberation and the comforts of benevolent sexism. The other option is that “supposed” refers to the assumptions and norms of a sexist society, and that men are in a difficult situation because they must be macho to be respected as a “real man”, but do not wish to treat women badly during that process. In which case the putative man on the dating scene really does want it both ways. He apparently wants women to understand that he’s a sensitive, non-patriarchal guy who merits their attention, whilst acting otherwise because he wants the respect of his sexist male peers. He wants a sexual pay-off which he feels his ideals entitle him to, whilst failing to live up to them because women don’t understand how hard it is to be a man. He is, in other words, a classic internet Nice Guy.
I’m not accusing the author of being this guy. But I am suggesting that if we are going to have the discussion which this article calls for, about shifting norms around consent, sexual ethics and gender roles, we need to be more rigorous than this. We need not to start from a position which seeks to solve social problems because they are getting in the way of men’s romantic and sexual fulfillment. We also need to be clear that feminist men benefit from the structural sexism in society even whilst they try to work against it. And we need to consider the possibility that some men feeling disorientation, anxiety about their place in the world and dislocation from their previous sense of self, might be signs that feminism is doing some good, not signals that it must be reversed. This passage demonstrates how easy it is for the discourse to fall into echoes of pick-up artistry, men’s rights activism, and anti-feminist backlash. The language of resentment against women (which articulates the same essential message as “Look what you made me do”) suffuses our media and we need to think clearly, and listen carefully, to keep it from poisoning the discussion.
The other section I had most trouble with was the quotation from “Consent Is Sexy”, next to the line “Sexual power is also communicative power”. Again, I don’t disagree with the basic point, but the way it is expressed frames the issue badly. As male feminists, we need to be terribly careful about loud declarations that ethical conduct is “sexy”. Asking first is sexy, treating someone as an equal is sexy, taking people’s feelings into consideration is sexy, “killing the mood” is implicitly sexy (because if it was a truly high-level sexy mood it wouldn’t have been killed by verbalization). All of these statements – particularly when they come from men – suggest that sexiness is the value criterion by which we are judging things. It installs “sexy” as the standard against which actions are evaluated. I think it was Cliff over at Pervocracy who said that we have to stop telling people that enthusiastic consent is the gateway to sexual plenty and nirvana, because that implies that the basis for our actions is how much sex will accrue to us, whether on a short-term or long-term basis. Cliff also pointed out that acting ethically, holding out for informed and enthusiastic consent, means you sometimes won’t have sex when you’d quite like to. Unless our putative modern man on the dating scene finds not having sex really turns him on, then “consent is sexy” has sprung a leak at this point. Sexiness as the standard for ethics concedes too much ground with pick-up artists and the kind of frat boy you don’t want to leave your friends alone with at parties.
This may sound like rhetorical pedantry, which misses the point of the article. But our society has already installed “sexiness” – the extent to which an imagined typical white heterosexual man finds something sexy – as the standard by which massive swathes of our culture are judged. Significant aspects of films, politics, business, advertising and social spaces are already calibrated according to the possibility of giving that white heterosexual man an erection. Male feminists whose rhetoric works to elide the difference between “good” and “sexy” risk signalling that they would like society not to change in any way which inconveniences them. We’re back to the image of the Nice Guy again. He’d like people to be happier and things to be more fair, but in a way which gets him personally plenty of sex. We need to resist the system of value which equates women’s sexual availability to men with a just society. Guys getting laid is not a test of feminism’s validity.