In Which I Write Something Constructive

A good friend wrote me recently:

‘The domination and entitlement is a male problem; men can help solve it.’ Sounds like a follow-up post? There seems to be frustratingly little to do on a personal-to-person level, besides not being part of the problem…”

So, follow up post it is.

The good news: most men are not creeps or bullies. They don’t like dominating, browbeating, or coercing women, and would be horrified if you told them they had done so.

Here’s the bad news: a lot of the time, these men can become a silent majority. They don’t harass women themselves, but by their silence and participation in certain social patterns, they enable the men who do.

I am privileged to have a bunch of stellar, fantastic, is-legally-adopting-brothers-a-thing male friends–men who actively try to make their social circles good places for women to be. So, for them and all men like them, but mainly men who want to be like them (or even better, like these guys), some basics in no particular order.

1. The most basic. Be someone who is friends with women, who they feel comfortable talking to honestly. Like women. Note, this does not mean “occasionally wax sentimental on the beauties of true femininity and make a big deal about opening doors.” This is generally a sign that you are stuck in an adolescent obsession with the otherness of these strange, mysterious creatures, and probably have a raging Madonna/whore complex. Take an axe to your pedestals–ask yourself whether your world is populated mainly by men-people and women-people (mine includes some mermaids and such), or by people (who are men) and the charmingly unpredictable fairies who flit through their lives bestowing benison or wreaking havoc as the mood strikes. If the latter, work on disabusing yourself.

2. Once you have real female friends, listen to them. Listen carefully and attentively when they trust you enough to confide in you that when they feel unsafe, or when something lousy happens to them. Do not listen while rehearsing what you’re going to say next; do not go on the defensive or assume that when she is talking about sexism she is talking about you. If she were talking about you, she probably wouldn’t be talking to you. Do not immediately start explaining what the man probably meant to say, or “from a man’s point of view…” Listen to her point of view. If you’re not really getting it, if you find yourself thinking “I would never find this upsetting or a big deal,” remind yourself  that you probably do not live with the daily, nagging awareness of your vulnerability to sexual assault; that you have not been gently reminded every day of your life that you belong to the less serious, less intelligent, less important half of humanity; that it’s ok if you don’t understand her distress–there are good reasons for that–but that doesn’t mean it’s not valid.

3. Recognize the specific blind spots of your subculture that allow nasty or sexist behavior to fly under the radar. In conservative or religious right circles it’s often something like this. “Manly, beer-quaffing, Chesterton-quoting men with pipes are the last bastion of Western Civilization, and so it’s vital that they get to stretch their virile wings and fly free on the sweet winds of politically incorrect socially dominant manliness.  If you find my words or behavior  demeaning, sexist, or just plain dickish, it’s because you are a BABY EATING FEMINIST HARPY. Who probably castrates the male babies before eating them. Because LOGIC.”

In progressive/social justice circles it’s something like “But I’m such a progressive, enlightened feminist ally! I tweeted about equal pay yesterday. I’m seriously considering going vegetarian. I’m a community organizer. I have sensitive glasses. I live in Brooklyn. There’s no way I or any of my equally intellectual and enlightened and nice-guy friends would ever do what you say we’re doing, so if that’s a veiled call-out of my male entitlement, I won’t hear it and I won’t respond to it.”

If you are an investment banker, it might be, “I can do whatever I want. Besides, I own you.”

With hipsters, it’s usually “Dude, I was gaslighting her ironically.”

4. Speaking of gaslighting, making a woman doubt the legitimacy of her own perceptions and judgement is one of the best ways for a creep to secure power over her. So please, stop calling women crazy, emotional, psycho, hysterical, irrational, hormonal, pre-menstrual, and all the other words that get tossed around to remind everyone that a woman’s grip on reality is tenuous at best. Don’t let other men pull out out these tropes, and don’t let them make jokes about their nutso ex-girlfriends. Because for every genuinely unhinged old-flame, there are two or three girls who got labelled shrieking crazies the minute they stood up for themselves.

5. Help women be full and equal participants in your social circle.  The more a woman knows that she is a first class citizen in her social set, the more confident she will be about enforcing zero-tolerance policies regarding creepy behavior from its members. Don’t let other guys mansplain. Don’t split off into into a tight clump of hunched broad shoulders to talk politics. Because if a woman wants to join a group of men discussing a “manly” topic, she has to invade a male space, and make her voice heard over those with both deeper voices and a social mandate to use them that she lacks. If you’re discussing something cool like etymology or philosophy or architecture or economics in a social setting, try not to use technical jargon where you don’t have to. Not necessarily because women won’t know what it means, but because by using jargon you are signalling mastery of a topic. You, as a man, are socially rewarded for signalling mastery. Women are not, and if a woman wants to participate in the conversation on your terms, she has to send a message to the other men and women in the room, whether or not she wants to. Pay attention to patterns of conversational and social dominance by which men work out their hierarchies, and which usually benefit only the loudest and most confident man in the room; try to defuse them.

When conversations becoming dickswinging contests, unsurprisingly, women lose–but so do a lot of other people.

6. Police yourselves. Men reserve their real attention for other men, because men are people and women are fairies, but also because one’s own gender is critical in determining how one behaves in gendered interactions. Don’t let men say sexist things when it’s just guys; don’t let them catcall; don’t let them creep on waitresses. Enforce respect for women (note again the difference between “respect for women” and “respect for the idea of Woman”). Try to notice who shows signs of creepiness–an easy indicator is how they treat their socioeconomic inferiors, or women they will never see again.

7. Take action. When a woman tells you that a man has treated her badly, call him out on it. If someone is behaving creepily or predatorily towards your female friends, stop inviting him to things. Do not make a woman choose between you and her safety.

8. Just, generally, be the good, thoughtful, supportive friends you already are.

My Male Friends Who Read This Blog Should Maybe Go Away For This Post?

On a date recently, someone had the temerity to inquire whether or not I was a virgin. I replied that it was none of his damn business, and what kind of a creepy question was that, anyway?  He was interested, he said, because he had a hypothesis he wanted to test. He was quite sure I could not be a virgin, because the way I talked and acted was not the way a virgin talks and acts. Which meant, as far as I could tell, that I looked him in the eye and said what I thought without blush, apology, or nervous titter.

You can guess how he fared and how the date ended.

At times like these I like to think of my favorite statue in the Philadelphia Art Museum.

Female virginity has become entangled with a sickly, sentimental construction of passive femininity; a kind of chivalric purity that smells of heavy imitation rose perfume and requires a china doll untainted by passion, experience, or thought.

But the most famous of all the virgin goddesses, Artemis, was  a huntress, and she was merciless. Athena, the protector of Odysseus, tormentor of Ajax, refused marriage.  Virginity was not a retreat into sweet fragility–it was savage freedom. Innocence was ferocious, and not something to be casually appropriated or messed with.  It refused to be domesticated, and provided no safe playground for male sexual jockeying.

And while we’re at it, the actual virgin mother of God–you know, the one who crushed the head of Satan, whose radical yes brought redemption to the world, the woman clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet? She doesn’t sound like much of a shrinking violet to me.


Virginity is so easy to fetishize–but the fact is, for most of us, it’s not the chosen consecration of a nun. It’s something temporary, a function of our state in life and the way said life has turned out thus far. It’s not the key to mind-blowing orgasms and mystical union on the oft-romanticized wedding night, nor the reason one practices chastity, nor the dividing line between the Nice Girls and the whores (well, maybe for some people it is, but who wants to be a Nice Girl, anyway?).

Despite all this, some people seem to think that one’s virginity or lack thereof is a matter for public discussion, or that they have the right to know and shame you for your sexual history, whatever it might be.

Your virginity is nobody’s business but your own.

Your virginity is nobody’s business but your own.

Your vagina is not public property.

Your hymen is not public property.

It does not belong to your father, or your boyfriend, or your future husband. It belongs to you, and you belong to God.

So remember that the next time someone tries to sexualize your boldness, your free and frank enjoyment of life–or the next time someone uses your sexual inexperience to put you in an infantile and sentimental box.

And the next time some man dares to intrude on your privacy with a question by which he hopes either to slut-shame or dismiss you–smile sweetly, and ask if he’s ever heard the story of Acteon.

“Read it, you’ll love it. You remind me of him so much.”