Friday, March 04, 2011

"Nice Guys," sex, and self-confidence

A few feminists have weighed in on Miguel's recent post about "nice guys," and the social roadblocks standing in the way of the Nice Guy and a satisfying sex life with women, who apparently only like assholes "socially dominant" men.  He begins by saying that 
It’s difficult to write about the sexual isolation of sensitive men without falling back on clichés. 
And it's true.  Men and sexuality is a topic that is difficult to discuss without cliches, and especially without resorting to misogyny or gender essentialism, for a myriad of reasons.  Not being a guy, I can't speak with any authority on the topic, but I don't imagine I'm wrong in noting that a combination of societal, gender-based expectations are the root of the problem, with a healthy side of understandable bitterness over said expectations.  As a feminist concerned with equality between men and women, and with an interest in eradicating all gender-based oppression, I take interest in this discussion, because I want to see it extended further, beyond the little section of the blogosphere and a few social circles.  Without people really talking about it, and listening, we won't see much in the way of improvement.

As far as Miguel's post is concerned, I found it to be inoffensive, personally.  I've read Miguel's work before (his blog's About page states that the blog is about feminism, "written from the perspective of a man who was involuntarily celibate for eight years" -- clearly, it's a blog that, at the very least, centers on his experiences) and he doesn't strike me as the type of "gender-thinker" (I hesitate to call people an MRA who I am not sure actually identify as such) who likes to blame women for his lack of success in dating them.  Miguel's approach  is wider and seemingly deliberately more focused on the structure rather than the individuals.  And he is, more often than not, not only respectful of women he writes about, but also of feminism-- a movement with which he clearly sympathizes.  Perhaps my standards for what should and should not be offensive to feminist sensibilities are lower than Hugo's and Amanda's due to my insistence on trying for honest, thorough conversation with presumed "opponents," but I personally see a lot of benefit to this piece, and those that are similar around the web, and wish the larger feminist community would be receptive to them in a more supportive way.

Amanda Marcotte and Hugo Schwyzer, conversely, take issue with Miguel's post.  I'm not sure if you will be able to see Hugo's comments and the ensuing discussion, because they took place on his Facebook page, but I'll try to summarize as best I can.  Hugo said that while he thinks Miguel is a good writer, he feels that he's wrong in his post.  I asked why, and added the following comment: 
There is a small but growing section of MRA-ish guys who accept most, if not all claims of mainstream feminism, but simply focus on the ways in which patriarchy harms men in their own lives or writing. Miguel strikes me as one of them, and not really an "enemy," for lack of a better term.
Some other people were quick to respond to me, but they were with arguments that I'm bored of having, like "feminism addresses men's issues perfectly fine; a man critiquing feminism is always wrong and bad!" types, so I didn't respond to them.  But Hugo's response:
April, when Miguel writes:  

"Even among men who are more “successful” sexually, I think a lot of young men who are sympathetic toward feminism feel they have to behave hypocritically – be a little bit pushy, arrogant, and entitled – in order to get laid."

The implication is that there is some sort of unspoken feminist disconnect going on, a bait and switch in which women claim to want X but in fact clearly want Y. I think that disconnect is oversold to the point of being illusory, and is part of a convenient narrative to suggest that women don't really know what the hell they want.
While I am intimately familiar with so-called Nice Guys (I gave a good example of one in the comments on Amanda's post), I don't see Miguel's post as having been written with the kind of feminist-baiting, Nice Guy mentality that he's being accused of.  I believe that Miguel was, as I failed to later address on Hugo's Facebook post, really trying to write a post about his experience in the dating pool, while being a guy who lacked what he believed women really looked for in a guy, and a disconnect that he experienced, and that his experiences shouldn't be what feminists have a problem with, but rather a misogynist or gender-essentialist perspective, which I don't feel Miguel had.  Miguel went out of his way on several occasions throughout the post to ensure that he wasn't generalizing all women or even speaking disparagingly about them, and to note that he was only speaking from experience and not trying to inappropriately extrapolate ("I can only speak from my experience and impressions, but I believe that what I have seen and experienced is not entirely hallucinatory.")  

Now, I did find some flawed logic in the post, and my opinion here aligns with what Amanda says about Nice Guys in general:

I submit to the jury that “socially dominant” is not the same thing as being abusive or even insensitive.  After all, by his own measure, Miguel appears to be proof of this.  He is on a pity trip because he’s not socially dominant, but he is quite clearly an insensitive prick. 

I would argue that it is true that women---and men---are quite often attracted to socially dominant, i.e. confident people.  “Socially dominant” is a deliberately ambiguous term, and Miguel is choosing it so as to conflate a bunch of disparate personality traits, such as self-confidence and popularity with being aggressive or cruel.  Which Miguel then proceeds to do, equating social dominance with “hyper-masculinity”, and blaming women’s biology.  Without this assumption that confidence is always coupled with aggression, that popularity is always coupled with abusiveness, that straightforwardness equals pushiness, his entire argument falls apart. 
Emphasis mine.  

A few years back, I wrote this long screed about so-called Nice Guys on my now-defunct MySpace blog that followed similar lines.  I was fed up with hearing them all whine so much, and confuse "assholes" with "confident, friendly people," so I attempted explaining the difference.  (Be warned; I wrote this in 2005, before I became much more aware of the implications of the language I was using.  I used strike-throughs to reflect which parts I wouldn't think of saying, these days.)  While my ultimate conclusion is a bit... lacking... ("just fake the confidence, dudes, and you'll be fine") ultimately, this is really the crux of it.  It's not so much that women are idiots who keep falling for abusive assholes and walk all over the "nice" guys; it's that just about everyone is probably going to be attracted to the more confident members of their preferred gender; at least, at first.

But, I digress.  The real issue here, for me, is that it continues to be difficult for men to write about the issues they have with their sexuality without either [a] resorting to misogynist and gender-essentialist conclusions or insults; or [b] women not giving them much of a fair chance at discussing it without falling into one of these tired old traps.  Sometimes, women try to do it for them, which, if done respectfully, can help bridge the gap between the understandably-skeptical feminists, and the men who are trying to have their experiences and feelings (the latter of which are notoriously frowned upon when it comes to men) heard... without resorting to misogyny and an abundance of bitterness.  On the other hand, of course, relying on a woman to try to do this on behalf of men, without allowing for the fact that she does not have experience in the matter, can be disastrous and disrespectful.  Clarisse Thorn, linked above, sums this up pretty well, while quoting a male friend of hers:
My “not into gender studies” friend once told me that although he frequently deconstructs problems of masculinity in the privacy of his own mind, he doesn’t like to publicly have those conversations because he doesn’t want to sound like an MRA. He said, “A lot of the time, men who want to think seriously about masculinity won’t talk about it aloud because we really don’t want to be that,” emphasizing “that” with loathing. He later added, “It’s very tricky to discuss masculinity yet avoid simply devolving into male entitlement. That’s the crux of the problem with the ‘Men’s Movement’ assholes — none of them are addressing the underlying problems of masculinity.  They’re just whining about not receiving the privileges their cultural conditioning tells them to expect.”
Hugo is also someone who's written extensively on the topic of the problems men face with their sexuality, and what social constructs have to do with their relationship to their masculinity, sexuality, and women.  One such piece was published today at The Frisky:
[G]rowing up with the right to be dirty goes hand-in-hand with the realization that many people find the male body repulsive. In sixth grade, the same year that puberty hit me with irrevocable force, I had an art teacher, Mr. Blake. (This dates me: few public middle schools have art teachers anymore.) I’ll never forget his solemn declaration that great artists all acknowledged that the female form was more beautiful than the male. He made a passing crack that “no one wants to see naked men, anyway”—and the whole class laughed. “Ewwww,” a girl sitting next to me said, evidently disgusted at the thought of a naked boy.
Emphasis mine.  Hugo goes on later to discuss the damaging consequences of this early socialization: 
Though our culture often teaches women that their bodies are also dirty (particularly because of menstruation), we also make it clear that men “naturally” crave and desire them. That creates a huge problem for women who have to navigate their way through a world that teaches them that their bodies have great power over men. By teaching women to focus on managing male desire, women are taught to ignore or suppress their own desires. That’s a loss for women, and it’s a loss for men. 

So many straight men have no experience of being wanted. So many straight men have no experience of sensing a gaze of outright longing. Even many men who are wise in the world and in relationships, who know that their wives or girlfriends love them, do not know what it is to be admired for their bodies and their looks. They may know what it is to be relied upon, they may know what it is to bring another to ecstasy with their touch, but they don’t know what it is to be found not only aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but worthy of longing.
Hugo, a feminist, doesn't try to demonize men's sexuality, and more importantly when discussing this from a feminist perspective, he doesn't blame women, or feminists, for this cultural trend.  
The very real hurt and rage that men often feel as a result of having no sense of their own attractiveness has very real and destructive consequences. It’s not women’s problem to solve; it’s not as if it’s women’s job to start stroking yet another aspect of the male ego.
The answer lies in creating a new vocabulary for desire, in empowering women as well as men to gaze, and in expanding our own sense of what is good and beautiful, aesthetically and erotically pleasing. That’s hard stuff, but it’s worth the effort. I know what it is to believe myself repulsive, and what it was to hear that not only was I wanted, but that I was desirable for how I appeared as well as how I acted. That was precious indeed, and far too few men have known it.
So, how do we discuss men's sexuality as it's constructed in our culture?  By ensuring that [a] women-- especially feminist women-- listen to men about their experiences with an open mind; and [b] men don't turn a negative experience that hurt them into a misogynist rant about how terrible women are, or how "evil" feminism is.

Ultimately, I think Miguel's critics are being a bit hard on him.  While he may have come off like a typical Nice Guy (as opposed to the un-capitalized nice guy) to some people, the reasoning behind his main point, addressing the disconnect between how feminists view Nice Guys and how Miguel describes some experiences of nice guys is solid:
Not only does it freeze out and sexually isolate a lot of shy young men, but it causes men who are otherwise sympathetic to feminism to conclude that, in the sexual realm, feminism isn’t telling the whole story.
Emphasis mine.  And feminism won't always tell the whole story, when it about men's experiences, because feminism is a movement which is largely, and understandably, focused on women.  But if we want to better understand what men go through (and, shouldn't we?), and what can aide in their potential journeys from "nice guy" to "Nice Guy" to "bitter misogynists," we are going to need more men to help us understand.  Because feminism doesn't spend a whole lot of time addressing these things in the mainstream, and if we want a truly egalitarian future, it is important that we start listening to more men when it comes to men's experiences... at least, it's important that we start listening to the genuine, non-misogynist men.  For all the rest, David's got them covered.