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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.


Blogger Charlie Talbert said...

Somewhat related to your topic is a thought-provoking article by Natasha Vargas-Cooper in the current edition of The Atlantic, about common misunderstandings among female feminists regarding heterosexual male sexuality.

10:40 AM  
Blogger Clarisse Thorn said...

I'm feeling somewhat frustrated and fatigued by these discussions (for reasons I briefly outlined here), but I appreciate your thoughtful piece here.

Although I stand by what I said in that piece, I regret structuring it the way I did. I wish I hadn't structured it around a word, which opened the field to semantic arguments that seem mostly irrelevant to the ideas I was trying to get across. This was my mistake, as a writer, and I won't make it again.

The "main thrust" wasn't supposed to be the word "creep" -- the word was meant to create a framework to explore certain issues, and the main thrust was supposed to be the three points I made at the end of my article. I would be more interested in your opinion of those three points than I am in "creep" semantics.

I think that saying "feminism has a duty" towards any of this stuff is language that's too strong. I certainly never intended to imply that. I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that it might be a nice thing to do, though, and that it would help some men parse out their feelings and desires about sexuality and gender politics. I see nothing in your piece about when or where men should be encouraged to discuss sexuality openly, and examine their desires. If there's no space for them in sex-positive feminist spaces, then where will there be space? And assuming they find another space ... is it really such an awesome idea for lots of men to have those conversations outside feminist spaces?

So to frame a feminist effort around helping guys like these seems to me to be a misapplication of effort.

"Misapplication of effort" is a tricky concept. Quite frankly, if we're going to talk about maximizing activist effort, then feminism isn't even on my top 10 list of issues currently facing the human race. I'm not convinced that we lose anything at all by enabling some space to talk about male sexuality, particularly not on blogs, where space is almost free.

7:08 PM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

I have two disjoint comments here, both re: BDSM. First, a lot of practitioners think of it the same way as GLBT people think of their sexuality - i.e. as an integral part of their identity. The issue with the man who was told off for talking about it comes off to me as anti-BDSM prejudice in that space rather than either actual creepiness or general opposition to male sexuality.

The second comment is that both within BDSM and in general, there's a theme in romance lit that male sexuality is violent and downright creepy. In BDSM it expresses itself very literally in chastity belt porn, which, unlike any other kind, is overwhelmingly F/m. (And conversely, F/m BDSM porn will frequently involve a chastity belt - and/or feminization.)

9:52 PM  
Blogger Stentor said...

Alon: While anti-BDSM prejudice is real, I think Clarisse is an experienced enough BDSM advocate that she would have recognized whether that guy's problems could be explained as pure BDSM prejudice rather than having anything to do with his gender.

Clarisse: I was unclear about what I meant by "misapplication of effort." I wasn't trying to make a "there are more important issues to worry about" argument. Rather, I was making an argument about choosing the right approach to a goal (however important or trivial that goal may be). Focusing on helping those guys is a misapplication of effort in the same sense that physical therapy for your back is a misapplication of effort if the real source of your pain is a pinched leg nerve.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Clarisse Thorn said...

I see. Well, personally, I guess I just don't see why it's helpful or feminist to dismiss analyzing the factors that affect men's experience. If the point you're trying to make is that we shouldn't be telling feminism it "has a duty", then I've already agreed with that point.

Does this mean that you believe that addressing the other points I brought up in my article, and reiterated in my comment, is a waste of time?

2:23 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Being neither queer nor into BSDM, (nor privy to the details of the exchange under discussion) is seems a little strange to berate the dude into BSDM. "Girl discusses her experiences in being public about socially unacceptable sexuality. Guy responds in kind". What am I missing here?

9:37 PM  

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