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The Alleged Pathologization of Male Sexuality, Part II: Thorn's three points

In the comments to my previous post, Clarisse Thorn asked what I thought of the three key points she made in the conclusion to her "creep" article, since none of them deal with the specific issue of the word "creep." It seems to me to make sense to deal with them in reverse order. (Note that the discussion here is focused on heterosexual relationships -- I don't have the expertise to suggest how these phenomena manifest in transmuted forms for other people.)

3. Let's all discourage sexuality that's actually predatory or non-consensual. This should be an obvious point for anyone affiliated in any way with feminism. And it's vital that this be kept front and center in any discussion of male sexuality, no matter how celebratory that discussion's intent. Since this point has been such a major focus of feminism for so long, I don't think there's much for me to add at this point.

2. Male sexuality should be approached from the concept of pleasure rather than accomplishment. This again sounds like a long-standing feminist concern. Men are taught that sexuality is about achieving conquests rather than sharing pleasure. The usual focus is on how this negatively impacts women, who are used and exploited in ways ranging from inattentive partners to rape. Thorn flips the focus around to examining how men's ability to pursue a satisfying sex life is inhibited by the demand for accomplishment. This is certainly an angle worth looking at, so long as in the larger discussion it doesn't eclipse the usual focus. This is not just because the scale of the harm done to women by sex-as-accomplishment is greater than the harm done to men, but also because emphasizing the benefits to men as the primary reason to refocus on pleasure reinforces the very centering of male desire that's at the root of the problem in the first place.

It's also interesting to consider this point in light of the "pathologization of male desire" thesis that this series of posts is centered around (a thesis which, I should point out, is an amalgam of the views of a variety of people, not a proposal unique to Thorn). The core pathologization thesis holds that we spend so much time focusing on the ways that male heterosexual desire can be bad that people can no longer see ways that it can be good. But criticism of the accomplishment model is just pointing out one specific way that male heterosexuality manifests in a bad way. Addressing this point is not a matter of giving men space to feel like their heterosexual desires are valid, space which has been denied to them because of a discourse that all heterosexual desire is dangerous. This point would be addressed through reforming the way male heterosexual desire is constructed and expressed -- that desire is bad in practice, but can be fixed. So in a way pondering this specific concern about male desire undermines the pathologization thesis. It shows that every criticism of male desire contains within it a pointer to a better way of constructing and expressing that desire. We don't need some separate space in which to celebrate the validity of male desire.

1. Accept male desire, and accept men's word when they talk about it. This is the trickiest point to deal with, because it is extremely broad and directly implicates the pathologization thesis.

A lot depends here on our diagnosis of why men allegedly do not have their desires accepted and don't have their word accepted when they talk. I can think of at least three possibilities:

1) The men in question have legitimately shameful desires, and feel ethically inhibited from talking about them. Here, I think the need for an accepting space occurs only in a therapeutic context. A guy may need to be able to talk to a therapist about his desire to have sex with children without fear of judgment, as part of a process of working through and fixing those desires. But that's not something that the broader society needs to be providing additional space for. Indeed, on this count I'd say we have the opposite problem -- men with inappropriate desires feel much too free to express them and to demand to be taken seriously.

2) Men with desires that run counter to the established narrative of proper masculinity feel inhibited from admitting them. Here we're talking about desires like having sex with fat women or getting pegged, which are morally neutral yet treated by our culture as unacceptably unmanly. This is a serious problem. Narrow and pathological constructions of male sexuality (such as that sex should be about accomplishment rather than pleasure!) are created and maintained by the pressure on men not to admit or act on the ways their desires may deviate from this norm -- to the point that people start imagining that this norm is biologically hard-wired.

But if this is the problem, I'm not sure Thorn has identified the correct solution -- "Just as more and more space is being made for forthright discussion of female sexuality, more and more space should be made for forthright discussion of male sexuality." We had to make more space for forthright discussion of female sexuality because prior to feminism there was no space at all to discuss female sexuality -- the idea that women had sexual desires at all was denied. But our culture has no problem with the idea that men have sexual desires, and with creating tons of space to discuss those desires. The problem is that those discussions are narrow and serve to discipline male desire rather than being open and serving to explore desire. So we don't need new spaces so much as we need men who are in the old spaces in which male desire is discussed -- the locker rooms and the lad mags and so on -- to push back against the prevailing norms of acceptable desire and make more diversity of experience acceptable (all the while being willing to call out those desires and ways of expressing them that we have determined are genuinely unacceptable).

It's worth noting as well that this form of inhibiting the expression of male desire is in a way the opposite of the pathologization thesis or the issues raised by concerns about the word "creep." It's not about desires being held back because they're allegedly dangerous to women. It's in many cases about desires being held back because they're not dangerous enough. The enforcers of narrow discourse about male sexuality are working to make men creepier, not to make men over-cautious about creepiness.

3) Finally, men may feel inhibited about talking about their desires at all because they think heterosexual male desire, or its open expression, is inherently dangerous or unacceptable. This is the straight up pathologization thesis. Since this post is already very long and this point is something I'm addressing in the whole of this series, I'll just say that I'm skeptical of the evidence that this is a widespread or serious problem.


The Alleged Pathologization of Male Sexuality, Part I: "Creep"

There's been a conversation circulating in certain corners of the feminist and feminist-affiliated blogosphere over the last few months about the alleged pathologization of heterosexual male desire, and whether feminism has a duty to address this supposed social problem. From my use of the words "alleged" and "supposed" you can surely guess where I stand on this. But I think it's worth digging in a little to see where the defenders of the pathologization thesis go wrong.

In this post I'll deal with the seminal article of the conversation, which has been published by Clarisse Thorn in various venues under various titles. The fact that Thorn is an established female feminist gave a lot of legitimacy to the claims she raised, but as a member of the class of people she's trying to analyze (heterosexual men in Western societies) I don't think her analysis ultimately holds up.

The main thrust of Thorn's article is to question the label "creep." She argues that our ease at applying this insult to men who express sexual desire works to pathologize and stifle that desire, inhibiting men from being open about their sexual needs and experiences.

Insults do two basic things -- they attribute a set of behaviors or traits to a person, and they frame those behaviors or traits as bad. To call an insult into question requires questioning one or both of those steps. Let's look at the term "slut" -- often cited as a female counterpart to "creep" that feminists have done a good job of condemning -- to see how this works. Calling someone a slut attributes to her the behaviors of having sex too often with too many different people. What's wrong with that? First, the term "slut" is pervasively misapplied. People don't wait to find out how many sex partners a woman has had to decide whether she's a slut -- they base the judgment on her style of clothing, her way of talking, and other irrelevant criteria. In many cases it's applied without even vaguely circumstantial evidence of "actual" sluttiness, because if you can get the label to stick to someone it's devastating to her and thus a good way of tearing down someone you don't like. So that's one big strike against "slut." But even when it's "correctly" applied (i.e. to a woman who really has had lots of sex with lots of people), we can ask whether being a slut is really such a bad thing. And the answer to that from most feminists is no. Women can choose promiscuity, and find it fulfilling, and it doesn't hurt anyone else. The notion that being a slut is bad is based on patriarchal ideas about chastity as a gift to a woman's male keeper and the virgin-whore dichotomy.

So now let's analyze "creep" in the same way. I think it's quite clear that it is genuinely bad to be an actual creep, meaning this word passes the second of the two tests that "slut" failed. A creep is someone who imposes sexual attention on someone when they know, or ought to know, that it is unwanted. Creepiness stems from self-centeredness and a sense of entitlement (as well as in some cases conscious misogyny), and thus is a perfectly valid insult. Thorn seems to agree here, as she makes efforts at several points in her article to insist that she's not defending these sorts of behaviors, and that indeed combating this kind of real creepiness goes hand in hand with her goal of liberating the sexuality of the non-creeps.

So that leaves us with an argument that "creep" is pervasively misapplied to innocent men, with the effect of stifling their legitimate expressions of sexuality. Unfortunately, I've yet to see much evidence that this occurs (though I have seen plenty of guys who are either clueless about their own creepiness or narcissistically wallowing in their own lack of self-confidence, both of which are quite happy to claim to be the unfair victims of the "creep" label -- I'll deal with them in a later post).

Thorn's article gives us several examples of guys who she thinks were unfairly labeled creeps. The first is someone who sent her an unsolicited, explicit message on a BDSM website detailing what kind of sex he'd like to have with her. Thorn says she initially labeled him a creep, but on further reflection has decided that was unfair. I'll accept her judgment that this guy didn't deserve the label. But I don't think this incident proves that there is some systemic pattern of mislabeling innocent guys as creeps. Any insult is going to be occasionally misapplied through user error, insufficient information, or accident. There are guys out there who have been wrongly called douchebags or Nice Guys, but I don't hear anyone claiming that feminism should give up those insults. This guy's behavior was something that would be creepy in at least 97% of social situations. And moreover, it's behavior that is distressingly common in that 97% of social situations. Women deal with creepy unsolicited expressions of sexual interest so often that it's quite justified to err on the side of over-applying the label "creep." And given what women have to put up with (and the consequences they could suffer if they fail to handle it gracefully), it doesn't seem like too much to ask men to be more cautious in situations like this if they're worried about triggering a creep reaction (for example, this guy could have written a few more non-explicit messages to establish a rapport before detailing his fantasies).

The second guy Thorn discusses was a man who was volunteering at an event with a woman who started talking about her experiences coming out as a lesbian. He responded by telling her about his experiences coming out as a straight man who was into BDSM. He was later reprimanded by the event's organizers (it's not clear if the word "creep" was used, but the sentiment is definitely there). In this case I think it's clear that, while much depends on the exact tenor of the conversation, the guy's behavior really was inappropriate. Here again we have a case of a man who thinks his own sexual self-expression trumps concern for the larger misogynist cultural system he's living within. One of the specific forms that homophobia against lesbians takes is anger that they're removing themselves from the pool of potential sex partners for men, and an insistence that heterosexual sex with the right man can "fix" them. So we have a woman speaking from the heart about her struggle to liberate herself from the expectation that she'll participate in heterosexual sex ... and his reaction is to demand that she listen to and sympathize with his desire to have heterosexual sex. The guy later told Thorn "The thought [that she would interpret this as pressure to participate in heterosexual sex] never crossed my mind — she was, after all, telling me that she didn’t want to have sex with men." So he was taking for granted the very thing that lesbians can't take for granted (and doing so while she was telling him about how she can't take it for granted!).

In an ideal world, creepy unsolicited sexual propositions would be rare and lesbians' lack of interest in sex with men would be respected. In that world a guy could get away with a polite unsolicited sexual proposition or sharing his BDSM coming-out experience as a friendly counterpoint to a lesbian coming-out experience. But the important thing to notice here is that there's no substantive misandry facing guys like these. There's only misandry-like side effects of fundamentally misogynist cultural structures. So to frame a feminist effort around helping guys like these seems to me to be a misapplication of effort.


In defense of Reps. Harris and Grimm

Liberals have had a lot of fun mocking new Republican US Representatives Andy Harris and Michael Grimm, outspoken opponents of government health insurance who complained that their new Congressional health insurance didn't kick in fast enough. Ho ho ho! These guys want government health insurance for themselves, but don't want to give it to anyone else!

But this is actually a pretty easy issue to understand. What Reps. Harris and Grimm want is employer-provided health insurance. It just happens that their employer is a government entity. Employer-provided health insurance is the status quo that health care reform opponents want to preserve. I've yet to hear Tea Partiers proposing that postal workers and park rangers and police officers should be banned from getting health benefits because they work for the government.

What Reps. Harris and Grimm are objecting to when they object to government health insurance is the idea that the government should provide health insurance to everyone just by virtue of being a citizen of the US. If Harris or Grimm loses his seat at a future election and then starts insisting he should still get government-provided health insurance, we can nail him for hypocrisy. But as long as they're working for an employer that offers health insurance as a part of the standard pay and benefits package, there's no contradiction in wanting to take advantage of that just because the employer in question is the government.

(Note that while I'm defending Harris and Grimm against the charge of hypocrisy, that doesn't mean I agree with their principles about who should get health insurance.)


Dubcan Hunter makes the case for birthright citizenship

Rep. Duncan Hunter is an opponent of the US's policy of birthright citizenship, which allows anyone born on US soil to become a citizen. But his explanation for his position sounds to me like an argument for birthright citizenship, and even for DREAM Act-type grants of citizenship to people who came to the US as very young children. Hunter said:

And we're not being mean. We're just saying it takes more than walking across the border to become an American citizen. It's what's in our souls.

So what is it that makes up someone's soul? I would propose that it's a person's attitude toward life, their loves and loyalties, the way of being in the world that they have absorbed and cultivated. All of these are a product, to a significant degree, of the environment in which one is raised. So if that environment is the US, a person would have the US in their soul -- regardless of the citizenship status of their parents.

So clearly Hunter must mean something different by "in our souls," if he thinks a soul-based criterion creates an argument against birthright citizenship. The full context of Hunter's remarks doesn't give much more clue to the soul theory, since most of his argument against birthright citizenship focuses on the costs to government of providing for additional people. But he seems to be implying a quasi-biological notion of soul content. If your parents are, say, Mexicans, and they did not go through the soul-conversion process of becoming citizens, then you inherit from them a Mexican soul, and therefore aren't truly a member of the US unless you too go through the same adult conversion process as someone born and raised in Mexico would.


Idealizing microcredit makes it stop working

Here's an interesting article on the predatory turn taken by microcredit in India. Lending small sums of money to the very poor has become big business, and many of India's poor are finding themselves saddled with big debts they can't repay and harassed by lenders, even to the point of suicide.

The article is full of quotes from microcredit pioneer Muhammad Yunus lamenting the corporatization of the industry, and calling for a focus on helping people rather than making a profit. I think it would be interesting to explore, however, the role that the idea of microcredit as something that focuses on "people, not profit" played in creating the very problems Yunus is lamenting.

Microcredit is widely viewed as a sort of silver bullet against poverty. Microcredit quickly drew global attention because it offered a way to help the poor help themselves, and to fix poverty without requiring major structural change in society. If we simply get over the prejudice against including poor women in the circle of potential borrowers, we can solve social problems and make a profit at the same time! I suspect this way of thinking, this idealization of microcredit, has likely had two effects:

1) It has given cover to predatory lenders. The cachet of microcredit as a form of anti-poverty activism makes it easier for lenders to convince others, and themselves, that what they're doing is not preying on the poor but helping to fix social problems. People feel good about what they're doing, and are reluctant to ask tough questions, because it has become conventional wisdom that microcredit is the solution to poverty.

2) It has encouraged borrowers to get in deeper than they otherwise would have. Poor people are hearing the same rhetoric about the magic of microcredit, albeit through different channels. The idea that microcredit is empowering to women and raises people out of poverty may cloud people's ability to think pragmatically about the risks they are taking on by borrowing. Grameen Bank success stories color borrowers' judgments of any microcredit offer.

Microcredit certainly has some role to play in addressing the problems of poverty. But the idealization it has received seems likely to enable a pernicious, predatory manifestation that undercuts the very goals we're told microcredit can achieve.