Sunday, May 25, 2014

One Zero Four: Duello

Today is a day when the idea of "misogyny" has been all over the web. There was a shooting in Southern California, and as far as I know, seven people are dead, including the young shooter, and another dozen were injured. The shooter was an ex-student at UCSB, and he left one of those long, ranting, ghastly "manifestos" that we've become all-too-familiar with. He blamed women--- blamed them for rejecting him, blamed them for preferring other males--- ones he despised ---, and blamed them for ruining his vision of his university years as a time of sex and fun. He stabbed three of his roommates and then tried to get into the sorority house that he labelled as the center of the evil conspiracy to reject him, but when no one answered the door he shot two girls outside the house and then drove through the university neighbourhood shooting at random people and smashing his car into bicyclists and pedestrians. He shot himself after an exchange of gunfire with local police--- the usual ending.

His manifesto is on the web, and it's given rise to a series of angry articles by the usual gender warriors, but also to a long-running Twitter hashtag where women talk about the abuse and casual hostility they've endured from men. It's a day where the word "misogyny" is in the limelight. I suppose I should consider my own feelings about what it means.

It's easy enough to say that one doesn't hate women, that one isn't literally misogynist. After all, I support all the abstract political things--- equality of pay, equality of legal rights, an end to glass ceilings, reproductive rights. It's harder to deny a certain amount of misogyny in one's social attitudes.

No--- I don't cat-call, I don't fondle women on subways, I do take No for an answer. All simple things. But there is always a certain amount of hostility built into male-female social relationships. The boy who was the shooter in Santa Barbara was involved in various Pick-Up Artist sites, and took part at a forum attacking PUA sites whose techniques didn't work.  It's taken for granted that the PUA types are all misogynists, of course, and that all PUA techniques regard women as no more than targets.

And yet...courtship and mating rituals--- dating rituals, if you'd like ---always have something of the game about them.  They lend themselves to game theory fairly readily.  Each party makes moves, deploys his or her assets, tries to maximize returns. Courtship and dating aren't just about mating,  of course--- whether you regard "mating" as being about sex alone or as being about forming pair-bonds and longer alliances. They're overlain with all sorts of things about social status and social expectations. I suppose I'd argue that the shooter in Santa Barbara (and so many other men who claim to be "involuntary celibates") wasn't seeking sex as a physical act so much as he was seeking social validation, seeking to be regarded as "good enough" for attractive women to date. Isn't part of any social activity with a date the desire to show off and be shown off?  All of that is about games--- or at least can be analyzed as a set of game moves. Doesn't that go back to "The Games People Play" in the mid-1960s?

There's something in seeing the girl you're trying to court as the Player On The Other Side. Though mating games aren't a straightforward zero-sum game. If you're the male player, you're trying to persuade a girl to go out with you and, if you're lucky, join you in bed. But the female player isn't--- or isn't always, or isn't only ---trying to block those intentions. She'll have her own agenda, which may be much more complicated than simply saying No...or holding out for whatever "the best deal" might be. Mating games, courtship games, aren't simply about one party winning and one losing. Both parties stand to gain something, even though each player's preferred outcome may be hidden. The problem I suppose is that the game isn't chess or Go or backgammon. A zero-sum game, one with a winner and a loser, may not create as much hostility as one where the outcome is always ambiguous. Does anyone have any thoughts on that?

So...misogyny. As long as dating and courtship aren't purely formalized, as long as all that's built into them (sex, status, validation, loneliness, longing) depends not on purely external forces (e.g., family and clan arrangements) but on individual needs and hopes and fears, there'll be some degree of hostility, or at least wariness. Is that misogyny?

I hope that I've never been openly hostile to an individual girl, to any young companion in my past and life. I do know, however, that I've felt anger and bitterness in the social world. That goes with the territory. No one enjoys rejection, and romantic or sexual rejection hits much closer to home than, say, not getting a job. Romantic and sexual success are also social markers (let's not waste time denying that), and there's bitterness about what rejection or failure say about you (or can be imagined to say about you) to others. I've felt that kind of bitterness. (Let's make another note here, too, about the irrelevance of the word "entitled".  Bitterness wells up even you know very clearly that you aren't "owed" something.  Anger and bitterness at loss and rejection isn't about anything socially correct or even rational.)

I'm quite certain that I'm regarded as an evil misogynist in some quarters, and I know that I have felt anger at some social/sexual outcomes. I'm a gentleman of a certain age, though, and I see it as absolutely key to use politeness and courtesy to rein in any bitterness or anger. Whatever you may feel, we've had centuries to create social forms and formulae to get around those feelings.

"Misogyny" is a broad word, and it's broad enough to encompass lots of things. In the end, I've no idea where I fall on any kind of spectrum for misogyny. I'm note even sure where the boundaries are. If you are reading this, I'd appreciate any thoughts and comments.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

One Zero Three: Psychopomps

A lovely friend of mine used to tell me that she was given to wearing cropped baby-tees that she'd had silk-screened to say "Proud To Be A Manic Pixie Dream Girl".  That was her skill, she'd say: introducing shy boys to new and quirky and fun things, drawing the reclusive out of their rooms and onto dance floors and out into the world. She was good at it, she always said. She'd laugh on the phone and tell me that I had a male version of the same skill. I could tempt bookish undergraduate girls into the wickedness they'd been hoping for, provide an avenue for adventures.

She was irritated and annoyed at the gender warriors' efforts to turn Manic Pixie Dream Girl into something that oppressed or exploited women. This was her skill, after all--- giving shy and awkward boys the prompting they needed. The returns, she'd say, were the same as ones I'd get from young companions who needed an excuse to step into what their reading told them would be a new world. We provided adventures, she'd say. We knew how to offer up temptation and seduction as a gift. We exchanged new worlds for sex, which was a very straightforward exchange. I always agreed with her on that.

I remain disdainful of the way Manic Pixie Dream Girl as a concept has been treated by the gender warriors. I'm as contemptuous of the way the gender warriors have ranted about the MPDG concept as I am of the way they regard roué-hood and the idea of seduction. I still don't understand where their anger comes from.  Some of it seems to be based on the idea that a MPDG is "one-dimensional" in films or novels, but some of it seems to be based on the idea that looking to a romantic partner to be in any way mentoring is exploitative or reductive. Needless to say, though, I'm all-too-aware of where their anger at the idea of the roué, the Older Admirer, comes from. But there is an underlying assumption here--- the MPDG is being reduced to a character in someone else's Bildungsroman; the Older Admirer is obviously manipulating and degrading his young companion. Male evil is simply assumed.

We're all characters in someone's Bildungsroman--- if we're lucky. I want to be very clear about that. It's no small thing to be someone who can offer up new worlds and adventures to someone else. I've spent half my life trying to be someone who can provide the kind of literary experiences that a certain kind of bookish girl longs for.  Yes, my bookshelves lead inevitably to my bedroom, but the exchange has always been straightforward. My friend saw her own exchanges as being very much the same: she'd lead shy or inexperienced boys out into the social world, and they'd be terribly grateful in bed. She played a role in their inner films, the novels-in-the-head that her boys were living out, but they were playing a role in hers as well. That holds true for me as well, and I've always been deeply honoured whenever a young companion has told me in later years that I'd been a story she still enjoys telling.

I suppose that this evening I'm thinking of writers like the so-called "Dr. NerdLove", who has a column at Good Men Project.  He disdains anyone male who would hope that a lovely girl would provide the excuse and the occasion to go out into the social world, and of course he deeply dislikes any male of a certain age who prefers young companions and seduction games.  I read his Good Men Project columns or his own website and just smile a thin, cold smile. Well, the back of my hand to him. Dr. NerdLove is not, as I always remind myself, a doctor of anything. I at least have the right to put Dr. in front of my name--- the academic if not the medical title. Beyond that, though, I look at his columns and think how deceptive he is. He promises to help "nerds" find true love or at least sex and romance, but I've yet to see any of his columns that actually urge the solitary to have sex. He seems mostly to offer up reasons why males shouldn't approach girls at bars or parties and to devote himself to telling his male readers why they aren't sufficiently advanced or valuable enough to have sex. I expect that he'd say that he's providing "tough love", but there's always a point where "tough love" shows itself as contempt and hostility and derision. He has, needless to say, nothing good to say about the idea of sex (or youth and beauty) exchanged for knowledge and a passion for knowledge, and he has nothing good to say about the idea of any kind of mentoring as a dynamic in affairs.

I've played the guide for lovely, bookish undergraduate girls. I've sat in bed and handed them books and told them about ideas and places and events and novels. I have shown them how to pick a good single-malt or a good wine.  I've played the other role, too. I have been the one pulled up from his armchair or from his office desk and taken out to events and places I'd never had gone to without urging--- without a lovely young companion. I am proud to have been the occasion for adventures and wickedness, and I'm no less thrilled to have had someone be willing to take me out as part of her own adventures.

The world is full of unopened rooms and shadowed galleries. Take that as a given, and as something that should provide hope for the future. And take it as a given that guides are needed, and should be valuable and valued. Despite Dr. NerdLove and his kind, there's nothing wrong with finding a guide and a mentor to take you into the dreamlands, and the skills needed to be a guide--- a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, an older seducer, an Occasion of Sin ---are valuable and admirable. Remember that.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

One Zero Two: Transactions

There's a particular writer out there in the gender wars who calls himself "Dr. NerdLove", and whose columns always leave me irritated, dejected, and angry. His tagline at his website is "Helping Nerds Get The Girl", but of course his columns do exactly the opposite. They discourage anyone male from approaching a girl, they discourage romance and flirtation and seduction, and they discourage anyone male from having particular sexual interests or needs. "Dr. NerdLove" (who isn't a PhD or an MD, by the way) claims to be "sex-positive", but of course so many of his columns are devoted to telling his readers not to have sex. His vision of a proper relationship is exactly that of some very stodgy 1950s advice columnist--- the only proper affair is one that begins with the clear intent of becoming a "committed", lifelong relationship and proceeds without involving any sort of passionate sexual interest or sexual engagement. He very much dislikes the idea that anyone--- anyone male ---might be interested in a partner in any way that involves physical desire and any kind of social play. His especial ire is reserved for the idea that sex is "transactional" in any way, or that affairs or dates are tainted with being transactions of any sort.

I've never understood the disdain for the idea that sex is "transactional". I suppose some of that must be based on the idea that sex can only be a good thing if it's based on the pure joining of souls and spirits, and some of it is based on a fear that saying something is "transactional" is yielding ground to the patriarchy and to MRA/PUA types who declare that all women are "whores".  I've never seen anything wrong with the idea that sex and romance have a transactional element; I thought those things were built in from the start.

I've always thought that any kind of social life was about transactions and strategies. Yes, I read Marcel Mauss and his followers when I was at university--- about symbolic exchanges and the role of gifting in tribal and archaic societies. But even before that, I knew that there was something called "transactional analysis" that had its moment in the sun back in the early and mid-1960s. I knew that it involved looking at human interactions in terms of games, of strategies and transactions. I hadn't read any of the works, but I knew from book reviews and review articles that it existed, and basically what it was about. And of course I'd read things like Austen and Henry James. I always thought social life--- personal interactions, romances, marriages, friendships ---were about strategies and transactions. I took that for granted.

The idea of sex and romance as transactional seems quite natural to me--- after all, I grew up in a culture that valorizes the market and the idea of exchange.  I can't see it as degrading to either party, and it seems to me that it's an efficient way to move forward in any kind of developing affair. After all, I've always preferred rituals and procedures. They have the advantage of reducing friction, of reducing the need to agonize over decisions and choices. In terms of a particular social structure, if you do A, then B will follow.  X does this, and Y knows that in terms of the structure, one responds with that.

When I was younger, the point of a date--- of an affair ---was to engage with someone attractive and bright and move towards bed: through hanging out to making out. I always expected that the girl across the table or in the passenger seat of the car knew that and was there for the same thing. We'd each go through the symbolic exchanges that underlay a seduction, and, yes, that did involve taking her to dinner or for drinks and paying. I was signaling that I valued her enough to expend resources; she responded by presenting me with her time and attention.  That seemed, and still seems, straightforward enough.  And both parties knew that we were going through ritual moves to reach a goal both of us understood.

We're social animals. We build structures and systems, and we create rituals and procedures to move through them. We deploy strategies to seek social advantage, and we participate in exchanges--- some symbolic, some concrete, often both ---as part of those strategies. I've never seen a problem with that. At the very least, looking at sex and romance as transactional forces both parties to be very clear about what they want and about what they're prepared to give up for that.  It forces us to acknowledge that there's a goal--- a physical goal ---in any affair. The soi-disant "Dr. NerdLove" is very good at chastising and browbeating his readers and anyone seeking his advice, but he's no good at all at admitting what an affair is about or that any relationship occurs within a web of social maneuvers. He doesn't really try to "help the nerd get the girl"--- he really seems to be doing quite the opposite. And he refuses to admit that sex and romance, like pretty much everything else in a social structure, proceeds by strategy and exchange.