Monday, September 24, 2012

Forty-Five: Inspirational

A girl I once knew, a recent graduate at LSE, an expat trying to make her way in London's East End, posted an image at her Tumblr the other day--- a poster that says in large block letters against a background of the sea "REMEMBER---- YOU are someone's reason to masturbate!I know what the poster is trying to do, trying to say--- it's meant to be inspirational for her. She's a gym rat, and she's had body image issues most of her life. The poster is mean to remind her to spend more time on the treadmill, to be more determined about weights and body sculpting. It's there to remind her to keep working out, to remind her that she can dominate the fantasies of the buff, washboard-abs men she fancies, that she can be the girl that gym rat men sigh over. 

The poster is inspirational for her, but it's not something anyone male could've posted. I can all too easily imagine what the Gender Studies crowd and the Social Justice Mob would make of that poster if it had been posted by anyone male. The propaganda of the gender wars would depict the poster as "creepy" and "entitled" if a male had posted it. I think we can take that as a given. I do wonder if any of that ever crossed my expat friend's mind... And I wonder if she ever thinks that she's doubtless been guys' Reason since her teens? Does she--- or any girl ---ever consider that? And...what is the Correct attitude about that? What do girls think about being strangers' Reason? Any thoughts? In my time, I've asked girls all sorts of questions about their views on sex and desire, but I'm not sure I could ask a girl that, ask her what she thinks of being strangers' Reason, ask her if she realises that she's very likely to have been part of male fantasies since her teens. Asking that--- or even raising the possibility ---isn't ideologically possible in an age of Gender Wars. Suggesting to a girl that she figures in strangers' fantasies (even if it's almost certain to be true) is regarded as tantamount both to sexual assault itself or to wishing a kind of assault on her. The expat gym rat girl can see the poster as inspirational, but no one male would be allowed in the current climate to offer her up the poster phrase, to say that to her as either inspiration or statement of fact.

Male desire and male sexuality are regarded as suspect--- or more ---these days. I've heard Gender Studies types argue that any masturbatory fantasy is a kind of rape. And that's alongside or in addition to the usual point of view in the culture that regards male masturbation as pathetic and laughable at best and as creepy and hostile and disgusting at worst. I looked at the image of the poster there at the expat girl's Tumblr and felt empty and glum. Part of that is being male and recognising that male desire is taken these days as something necessarily morally and politically corrupt. Part of it of course is recognising my own lack of value.

Another expat friend in London, a girl a few years older than the gym rat girl and part of a fairly posh and educated crowd, told me not to worry. Everyone, she wrote, is someone's Reason. I could only think of the end of "The Sun Also Rises": Wouldn't it be pretty to think so? Yes--- it would be pretty to think so, or at least consolatory. Being someone's Reason (and, yes, I always think of that someone as being "someone attractive") is a marker for value. I find it difficult to imagine being someone's Reason, and there's a sense of loss and futility and hopelessness when I look at the expat girl's Tumblr. 

Being someone's Reason would be a marker for social and sexual value. Being a fantasy object for an attractive girl--- especially a stranger ---has a clear rank-hierarchy value. I understand that I'd never be fantasy-worthy for the particular gym rat girl, and I don't want you to think she's the issue. She's certainly right about herself. She's quite fantasy-worthy by anyone's standards. But her own tastes run to males whose looks I could never match and could never have matched in the days of my far-off youth. So it's not about her. 

But it is about being fantasy-worthy. Everyone is someone's Reason, my other expat friend wrote. Tonight I can't imagine being anyone's Reason, or at least not a Reason for anyone for whom being fantasy-worthy would confer value. I'll just note that somehow, being fantasy-worthy seems to be more of a marker for value than just being desirable in the flesh. Maybe it's only that I see imagination and memory as being more important than the flesh. You're free to infer that; you may be precisely correct. The odds are in your favour, anyway. 

Tonight I'm looking out at the lights of the city where I live and thinking about the expat girl's poster. I feel empty and useless. She's certainly a Reason for handsome strangers. My other expat friend is a Reason for a great many people--- a different set of categories, but still a Reason. I'm not anyone's Reason. I don't have that kind of value, and I'm not likely to have it again. And I'm very, very depressed over the gnawing fear that I may never have had that value. Flesh has its charms, but being fantasy-worthy outweighs flesh. I'm no one's Reason, and I won't be a Reason in the future. All I can do is feel the dull, dead emptiness of coming to believe that I was never anyone's Reason. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Forty-Four: Explanations

There's  word I've just run across out there in the bloglands: "mansplaining". I found the original essay that used the word, and I do understand what it means. It still sounds like a word Ricky Ricardo would've used, but I do understand where it comes from and what it's intended to mean. I do have a few problems with the word, since I'm not convinced that it needs to be a gendered thing, and I'd certainly argue that the basic idea needn't necessarily be gendered. But I suppose it is something I'd apologize for.

I rarely if ever apologize for things in the gender wars. I try to reserve apologies for one-to-one encounters, for moments when I've failed in courtesy with individuals. I was brought up to believe that politeness and courtesy matter, and I'll always believe that. I don't apologize for political or social failings, and I don't apologize for being most of the things on the current "social justice" list of all things evil---- male, older, white, straight, cis, nominally middle class. I will always apologize for inadvertent failures of individual politeness; I will not apologize for "privilege".

"Mansplaining", now... Well, I am guilty of over-explaining. I over-think, and I over-explain. I'm aware of that.  I spent far too many years standing in front of classes explaining things. I can so easily be triggered into lecture mode--- explain, offer up examples, repeat key points, point out linkages between ideas. Tell the story, look at it from different angles, then quickly review. That's built into me, I fear. And before ever I stepped up in front of my first class, I spent years managing a bookstore, explaining to people why they needed this book, what that book could offer them.

I over-explain. And I love telling stories.  I don't think that's ever been a gendered thing. I'll tell stories to anyone. I probably do offer up explanations to people who may already know them, but if they tell me that and offer up their own stories--- well and good. I suppose there's competition there, but I like that. Trading stories, seeing who knows the most arcane things and the most intriguing stories--- how can that not be fun? I have to wonder what matters more--- the value of the explanation as such, or just being able to tell stories. I have no clear answer to that.

I've never assumed that the girls I talk to or flirt with need to have things explained, or that as a male, and an older male at that, that my explanations are always and ever more correct than girls' views. But I will launch out into explanations and stories. I was trained to do that--- to explain, to tell stories. I ask questions, too. I was trained to do that as well.

So I do feel the need to apologize sometimes. Not for "mansplaining", not for assuming that I must know better than any "mere" female. I'll apologize if ever I took up someone's time when they were busy, or if my stories and explanations turned out to be wrong.

Telling stories, though--- I won't apologize for that as such. Or for enjoying the game of exchanging stories. But it's the stories that matter, not gender competition. I want to be very clear about that.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Forty-Three: Enquiries

This morning at the coffee shop by the university, a lovely co-ed at an adjoining table looked over and asked me about the book I was reading. I looked up over my reading glasses, pushed aside my caffè macchiato for a moment, and chatted with her about the book. The book itself was the kind of thing I am likely to have with me on a weekend morning--- something academic, something historical. In this case, an English Marxist look at radical groups during the English Revolution: Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down. The girl was a History major, and she'd heard the title before and had always, she said, meant to read the book. A pleasant enough conversation on a Sunday morning. She asked me if I was faculty somewhere, then asked about what I'd taught in my past. We talked about her grad school plans and about what I liked about the book. She told me about her interests and I recommended a couple of other books. I wished her luck on her last couple of semesters and on grad school. She thanked me and we each went back to what we'd been doing--- reading, working at a laptop. Five minutes' worth of conversation, ten at the outside. I mention this only because the exchange--- this kind of exchange ---seems now to be regarded as evil.

I'll be more precise. This kind of exchange is now evil, but only if I'd been the one to initiate it. There's been a new front opened in the gender wars, and I missed the reports of the landings.

Oh, I did find the reports, or at least accounts from the front. I found three or four accounts on line--- each with its flurry of angry supporters ---about the evils of conversation. The accounts from the front were all remarkably similar. In each case, a woman was somewhere in public--- on a subway, on a bus ---and reading. A man attempted to strike up a conversation, or at least ask her about the book. Unpleasantness then ensued. It took me a minute to get at the rage each of the women felt. None of the accounts suggested that the man had propositioned the woman reading. None of the accounts suggested that the woman reading was specifically annoyed at having her reading interrupted. None of the accounts suggested that the man was unpleasant or even unattractive. The anger was at something else altogether.

Now--- it may be that the particular scenario--- asking about a book ---is particularly baffling to me. I was brought up to think that readers are a kind of freemasonry, that they're likely to share information, likely to regard sharing information about books as a kind of social ritual...and perhaps a responsibility. In my younger days, I did work at a bookstore. I'm used to talking about books, and books have always been a key social passport for me. So I'm predisposed to ask about books, to ask about authors or topics I'm interested in. Of course it's better if there's an attractive girl with whom I can discuss a book. I certainly won't deny that. If you're going to strike up a conversation, a girl who's a reader, who's reading something you find interesting, is always a good choice. But beyond that, books and enquiries about books always have defined a freemasonry for me. Talking about books is something that even supersedes even Manhattan subway rules about eye contact and sullen silence.

The anger, it seems, isn't so much about being interrupted. It's about the idea that someone male would open a conversation. It's taken for granted that asking about a book is always and ever a poorly-disguised cold proposition for sex, or at least that any effort at asking anything, initiating any conversation, is somehow the same as unwanted sexual attention.

I was brought up to believe in courtesy, in being just a bit tentative and semi-apologetic when asking anyone anything. I was brought up to be polite always, whether in making an enquiry or responding to one. I have never assumed, though, that there was a line of evil in asking someone about a book.

The women recounting these tales were all bitterly angry that someone asked them a question, that someone tried to make conversation. They weren't angered at the particular approach, or at the looks or status of the male. It wasn't that the man said anything untoward, or that he wasn't good enough to speak to her---- the anger wasn't about that at all. The anger was at males in general for thinking they could just open a conversation, that they would ask something that might require a response. Each of the women regarded that--- the need for a response at all ---as a kind of violation.

So here we are. Striking up a conversation is a new front in the war against...what? Flirtation? Social interaction? Well, it is regarded now as on a par with knifepoint or chloroformed rags to ask someone what she's reading. The response--- whether that's a brief discussion about the merits of the book or a curt acknowledgment that you're reading a certain author and title ---is regarded as something taken from the woman with the book. The social need for a response is equated with...well, equated with some kind of sexual aggression.

I have to sigh. This is what it's come to. Yet another front in the gender wars, yet another group of bloggers arguing that any approach, any interaction, probably has some kind of sexual component or intent and is tantamount to sexual aggression, to violation and harassment. I know that I'm all the wrong things (older, male, straight, cisgendered, white, nominally middle class) to be allowed to have opinions on these things, but I am nonetheless left perplexed and saddened and irritated by all this. There's a war here against flirtation, or any social interaction that might have a hint of flirtation to it. There's a demand for a world of atomised and armoured individuals--- a world of windowless monads ---where anything "social" is kept to a strict minimum and anything sexual is excluded altogether.

The girl at the coffee shop this morning asked me about the book I was reading. I was happy to take a few moments to respond, and to make polite conversation. She was attractive, young, intelligent: all the more reason to be happy about talking for a few minutes. The new "social justice" rules may allow her, as the female, to initiate a conversation. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the rules say that by making people like me think that girls are willing to have conversations with male strangers, she's "objectively" a gender traitor. One never knows about these things.

I miss the eighteenth-century arts of conversation and flirtation. I miss the idea that such things are an art, and one worth learning. A world where an enquiry about a book--- even if that's a way of opening a conversation with someone attractive ---is a red flag for evil isn't a world for me. A world where conversation and introductions are thought of as evil is a world where something valuable has been lost. It angers me that the loss is either never thought of or disregarded as simply part of purging evil.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Forty-Two: Procedures

The latest round of gender wars began, I'm told, in an elevator in Dublin some months ago--- perhaps even a year ago. The story is simple enough. A woman with something of a reputation as a blogger was speaking at a conference. One night very, very late, she was returning from a party, and there in the hotel elevator, a man, presumably another attendee, told her he was quite taken with her work and asked her for coffee in his room. She declined and went on alone to her own room. End of encounter. We know nothing about the man; there's some doubt that he existed at all. In any case, no one has ever named him, and he's never come forward. But the invitation in the elevator has unleashed a whole scorched-earth campaign in the gender wars on line.

I'd have thought the moment in the elevator was simply a small and rather polite social moment. The assumption is that the man was propositioning the blogger, though, given the conference setting, it's quite possible that he was just a fanboy offering coffee and gushing conversation to someone famous in the conference world. Nonetheless, so far as I can tell from the original story, the entire encounter was brief, calm, and courteous. The man asked her for coffee--- whatever that may have meant ---and when she declined, bade her goodnight politely. Somehow the account of the elevator moment immediately became a tale implicit with danger and overtones of violation. One can hardly blame the man for never coming forward. He's been portrayed all over the web as "Elevator Guy", a presumed harasser and attempted rapist. The blogger and her allies have certainly not hesitated to make the story one about an escape from danger. Needless to say, I didn't think he'd done anything wrong.

Would I have asked a girl for coffee in an elevator? Yes. Certainly. If I'd found myself in an elevator with someone I fancied, or with someone I simply hoped to have a conversation with over coffee, I'd have no problem with a polite invitation. And if she happened to be someone I'd wanted to ask out all night, the elevator would be a place with a lot to recommend it. There's always a clear chance of rejection, and the elevator at least isn't public. Being turned down in public is humiliating enough, and all the more so since the rejection would affect any chances one might have of flirting with other girls. What girl would choose to go out with someone who'd already been humiliated in public and rejected by other girls? The elevator is safer ground.

I'm told that part of the gender wars rants growing out of the elevator incident ("ElevatorGate") is a cold assertion that any male who'd try to get a girl away from a crowd or her friends to flirt is obviously one step away from being a serial killer/rapist. Once again, what should be ordinary social interaction and courtship ritual gets turned into open hostilities. I can't imagine trying to flirt with a girl in the midst of her friends. There's competition for attention, there are distractions, and what group of girls anywhere ever has told one of its members to go off and have fun and make out with a new male? Call that an attitude based on either envy or social solidarity, but it's there. The group won't tolerate a solitary outsider. An equal-sized group of other males, quite possibly. But not a single male, not someone interested in one of the group members. I've been reading blog posts and articles about how any male who'd try to ask a girl to leave her group is dangerous and evil. The word "creepy"--- implying dangerous ---gets used with increasing frequency. And not just for the lone male seeking to separate a girl from the group, but for almost any male engaged in open flirting.

The incident in the elevator has led to a long and bitter series of attacks on the idea of flirtation and on the idea of sexual interest itself. The idea of the courtship dance itself has been attacked and determined to be an affront to any ideals of "social justice".  To be in favor of seductions, flirtations, or offers is to be deemed an enemy of womankind and social justice. Lines are being drawn, and of course the argument is no longer about a polite offer and a polite rejection in a Dublin hotel. It's all about violence and oppression and a disdain for anything like sexual interest and sex as ritual and play.

I believe in courtship and mating rituals, and I always believe in courtesy. I believe that sex and flirtations shouldn't be battlefields, and that there should be a sense of play and delight between men and women in social situations. Any social setting, any interaction, always has the potential for flirtation and exchanges. I do like that--- the rituals of flirtation, the recognition that any moment can become the first moment of a flirtation or seduction. Courtesy, yes, always. And politeness. Take those things as givens. What I don't like and don't understand is the hostility out there, the idea that social rituals are really a kind of battlefield, a place where any sexual interest is some kind of hostile and oppressive act.

The current age claims to be sexually open, or at least sexually knowledgeable. I have my doubts. Desire (and especially male desire) is regarded as suspect. Any social interaction must be purged of anything that might be sexual, any social interaction at all is...suspect. I'm assuming that any conversations and introductions are now regarded as hostile acts. I suppose that striking up a conversation now is an act regarded as oppressive and tantamount to violence.

I will not give up a sense of ritual, a sense that the social world has the promise of romance and flirtations and even physical passion threaded all through it. I will not give up introductions and the eighteenth-century kinds of conversation and flirtation that I admire. Strange thing, mind you. I'm a social-democrat by belief, and I've always thought of social justice as something political worth supporting. The term has been stolen, really, by people who want to turn any possible interaction between men and women into a skirmish, into part of a no-quarter-given war. I won't give in to that. I won't give up a world where desire and play are valued, where a polite offer or introduction may or may not be accepted, but is nonetheless not regarded as an attack.