Saturday, December 30, 2017

Sex with her ex revisited.

I wrote a short post a while ago that said this:
I keep thinking about those women who have sex with one of their best girlfriend's ex. Or, rather, I keep thinking about why this offends us so. I don' think we're wrong to think this. I especially don't think the woman who discovers that one of her friends had an affair with her ex is wrong to feel that way. That said, coming up with good reasons to justify the feeling of being offended is difficult.
Mikolaj gave an interesting response to that in the comments to that earlier post:
That's easy to explain based on the assumption that men are polygamous and women are hypergamous (we are talking about premarital sex, so this is post-Christian, so monogamy is no longer a frame of reference). Obviously, in any relationship, the man's polygamy and woman's hypergamy cannot be both fully realized, so this is a struggle that often leads to the dissolution of the relationship.

Case 1. He, being polygamous, dumped her for variety. The best girlfriend helps him obtain the variety, even if she is not the first women he sleeps with afterwards.

Case 2. She, being hypergamous, dumps him for a guy with a higher status. The girlfriend proves she was wrong assesing his and her relative status (best girlfriend is bound to have a similar status).
I think that is an interesting possibility and I read variations of this argument on a lot of men's sites. I don't think it works. There are a couple of factual issues to start with. The first is the assumption a woman's best girlfriend is bound to have a similar status. In my experience that is almost never the case. The second issue is the point I started with women having sex with their best friend's ex. I didn't ask about men who do this and I didn't for a reason.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Gender performance

"I identify as ..."

There is an inevitable tension between saying that you identify as something and the notion of gender performance. A performance is something that can be evaluated. Gary Oldman is said to be brilliant in his performance as Churchill in a recent movie. I haven't seen it so I cannot say. I can tell you, however, that Brian Cox was awful in his performance as Churchill earlier this year. It would seem that performance requires a standard.

I should add that Cox was hampered by a very bad script. He also looks wrong for the part. Were those factors enough to make it impossible for him to succeed?

And that is where gender performance gets trick, really tricky, in a hurry.

Just this morning I was looking at definitions of gender performance provided by the Quora site. There are three definitions up as of today.

Here is the first:
Gender is part of what you might know as Performance theory. This theory states that we are, all of us, always performing. Gender is part of this theory because the way we present, whether masculine, feminine, or non-binary, is viewed and assessed by other people. As a trans woman I understand gender as a performance because I do not wake up flawless like Beyonce. I only present feminine after putting effort into it.
There is an interesting tension at the heart of this one. Our writer, whose name is Josephine Hoskins, says she is a woman. And yet she can only "present feminine after putting some effort into it". But notice who she chooses as an example of someone who doesn't need to do that. Beyoncé! That's a little odd because if there is anyone on the face of the earth who is a hard-working a skilled gender performer, it's Beyoncé. Beyoncé's fame is a function of her ability at gender performance. She does it so well that millions of women take her as a model (Beyoncé's fans are mostly girls and women). And there is a huge factual mistake here: Beyoncé does not wake up flawless. No one does. Beyoncé wakes up and starts performing her gender just as every single one of us does.

The flawless claim here is hiding another assumption, an assumption that Hoskins, as a trans person, no doubt struggles with. But how to put it. We can't simply take Hoskin's own self description "I am a woman" claims to be ontologically equivalent to "Beyoncé is a woman". From the perspective of gender theory, we cannot say that Beyoncé is "actually", "really" or "truly" a woman. So the only way out is to claim that Beyoncé is flawless, that she doesn't have to put effort into it. And that is factually wrong and insulting. For most of the "yous" in this world, Beyoncé puts a lot more effort into being Beyoncé than you put into being you and that is why she is so successful at it.

Okay, but if we stop circling around, we might want to claim (while pretending that we are "admitting") that Beyoncé actually has "something" that she builds on. What that something is we have not defined but if we're going to stay within the confines of gender theory, and I plan to for this post, that something cannot be anything biological. So what is it?

One tempting answer is to flesh out Hoskins answer and say that through genetic fluke Beyoncé is blessed with a face and body that corresponds to existing notions of femininity. This is an attempt to say that it is not the biological facts that are determinative but that these biological facts just happen to correspond with a cultural fact, a "social construct" in the jargon of gender theory (and gender theory is laden with jargon). That has two kinds of problems. The first is that it's circular: we're effectively saying that she succeeds at something because she genetically matches that something when the task was to define what that something is in the first place. The second, and bigger problem, is that it makes light of Beyoncé's considerable achievement that she is one of a small group of strong and determined women who have created a new notion of feminine beauty that challenges dominant notion of blonde and white. That took courage and a lot more hard work than most of us are capable of. Sorry, but in the self-presentation sweepstakes, Beyoncé is queen of the world. If there was a gender performance category in the Olympics Beyoncé would have taken home the gold medal in at least 4 of the last 5 games.

And that provides another reminder of why we cannot attribute Beyoncé's success to whatever it is that she was born with. At the Olympic level you are necessarily competing with people who have also been extraordinary gifted. In the rarefied atmosphere where Beyoncé lives you either perform at a very high level or you crash to the ground. Natural gifts mean nothing there.

 Back at the beginning we had two seemingly different statements. "I identify as ..." and then Hoskins' "I am a woman". If, however, we refuse to accept any definition of woman, then both claims—either to "identify as" or "I am"—are meaningless.

But Beyoncé proves otherwise. Just by being Beyoncé and being very, very good at being Beyoncé she proves something about femininity and that is that performance matters. We are, as Hoskins puts it, "viewed and assessed by other people" and some people are assessed as being better at being a woman than other people are.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

"One of the dangers of the internet is that people can have entirely different realities. They can be cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases."

That's Barack Obama talking to Prince Harry (that's a NYT link). 

One of my favourite memories is of a friend of mine responding to the condemnation of a girl's ex-boyfriend by her father. After listening to this man run down all the faults—the instability, the lack of purpose, the general untrustworthiness—of this man, my friend turned to me, held her thumb and index finger about a quarter-inch apart and said, "He came this close to getting that one right." What she meant was that every fault this father saw in this man was actually true of his daughter.

I have the same reaction to Obama's comments on the internet. Up until now, people like Obama have had the privilege of living in world where only their reality got represented, where he and people like him got to live cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases. The media, academics and the entertainment industry were all on the same channel. Suddenly, he's been forced to face the fact that other people see things very differently and he doesn't like it one bit. He wishes these people and their contrary views could be made to go away or that they could at least be hidden away where he doesn't have to think about them.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

A clarifying moment

I had a very revealing conversation recently. In the midst of it one of the two people I was talking with apologized for being shallow. I rushed in to assure her that she was not shallow. Turned out her apology was ironic. This was clear to her and the the other woman in the conversation but not to me. The conversation, I should add, took place on line and there were no emojis attached to her statement. She just said what she said and felt that it should have been obvious that she was being ironic and the fact that her friend also grasped this is proof that she's not crazy. She said something that she and another person took as a sane, rational thing to say.

What she said was that she had watched a particular video at the surface level. She acknowledged that the surface meaning was incoherent but she liked that surface meaning and wanted to stay at that level. This followed by "I guess I'm a shallow person." I was supposed to understand that this was not an actual apology.

I know what your thinking: isn't staying on the surface another way of saying "shallow"?

That doesn't make her shallow. Well, not immediately anyway. 

It's a funny way of thinking though. I don't think it's her fault. It's just the way two generations have been brought up now. I remember noticing it first in the 1980s when I was working with teenagers. There was a funny transition where kids stopped being able to take criticism because they personalized. To admit they had done a bad thing was the same thing as being a bad person. As a consequence, you couldn't criticize their actions without wounding them deeply. I think you see the same dynamic at work here—it is impossible to recognize shallow behaviour for what it is because that reasonable judgment is taken as condemnation of the entire person which would not be reasonable.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Our feelings can and do lie to us

There is a perverse strategy that some men and all the women in my life have exercised at some point. It comes to mind now because of Christmas is coming and the strategy is often used with giving Christmas presents.

Here is how it works. I state a desire. I'd really like to do X or receive X. For some reason, X is deemed undesirable. It's a big part of this strategy to never give reasons; the rule is silent refusal. No woman ever tells you why she doesn't want to give you X or do X. She just doesn't do it. And if you ask after the fact you run into a great wall of deflection and aggression.  It may well be that there is no reason. I quoted Proust about this a few posts ago: The unconscious spirit of devilry which urges us to offer a thing only to those who do not want it."

My guess is it's really about power. A few years ago researchers took advantage of the security cameras in parking lots at shopping malls to establish that people really do to take longer getting out of a parking space when they know someone is waiting. It suits us to give people what they want when it enhances our feeling of power—thus someone with a new baby or a new lover falls over themselves pleasing them. Once a relationship is firmly established, the power trip shifts around the other way. Now it becomes a matter of my not being driven by your wants.

The depth of perversity that now begins to play is amazing. The giver doesn't suggest something else she'd prefer. Instead, she picks some third option that neither she nor you wants. The consequence is that everyone gets the worst possible option. You get something you don't want and the giver gets to give something she doesn't really want to give, a fact that is painfully obvious in the hesitant and unenthusiastic way the giving is done.

The end result is that an easy opportunity to make one person happy gets turned into an opportunity to make everyone unhappy.

My mother was past master at this sort of thing. One of my sisters, for her sixteenth birthday, wanted to go to a then-trendy restaurant with her friends. My mother refused and instead took the whole family to what was the most expensive restaurant in town—a stuffy place where no one had a good time and where my sister broke down in tears. The meal at the trendy restaurant would have cost them $250 in today's dollars. The meal they actually purchased was $1200 adjusted for inflation. This by the way, in the middle of a recession.

One fascinating aspect of this is that our feelings lie to us. Think of what it feels like to get into your car when you know that someone else is waiting for your parking spot. I always feel rushed and somewhat put upon. My feelings tell me I'm being put upon. Rock-solid research says that I'm actually sticking to the other person.

I suspect that our feelings lie to us in a similar way when we have an opportunity to satisfy a loved one's desires. We know what they want but we feel like that's not special enough. We might think, I can give them that anytime but this is a special occasion so I want to give them something really special. And conjuring trick is complete: The fact that something would be special for the loved one becomes the reason the giver doesn't want to do it. We are more aware of the fact that it won't be special for us.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Cat Person 2

Here's some telling language:
Roupenian’s story is the fiction version of “It Happened to Me: I Had Bad Sex Because It Felt Awkward to Say No.” 
Your having bad sex because of your failure to say "No" is not something that happens to you. It's something you do to yourself. This is not a trivial matter; it isn't a matter of someone being a bit sloppy with language. This shows a disease in thought that plagues our times.
In fact, “Cat Person” specifically tapped into a need that those xoJane personal essays also fulfilled: honest, vulnerable narration of women’s real-life experience. So much about women’s lives and bodies is framed as shameful, embarrassing. We’re taught to hide our periods, fake orgasms and say yes to a date so as not to hurt a guy’s feelings. 
As I said would happen in my previous post on the subject, the justification for reading this story turns out to be honesty. Except that it's not honest. You were taught to fake orgasms and to say yes to sex so as not to hurt men's feelings? By whom? Shouldn't these people be getting the Harvey Weinstein treatment for doing that? Except that no one taught anyone anything.

What has happened is that you made choices. You made choices in a complicated world where choices play out in complicated ways. You made choices in a world where doing the right thing or making the best possible choice is often difficult and might cost you something. That makes you just like every other human being who ever lived.

A man's take on Cat Person

Have you read it? Everyone seems to have done. I'm going to spoil it below if you haven't read it yet.

It's one of those stories that gets praised for being disturbing rather than entertaining. I think people read stuff like this because they convince themselves that no matter how uncomfortable and dirty reading it made them feel, they've at least read something "honest" or "true".

Much of the discussion is about who to blame or who to blame most. Some are offended that people are doing that. I can sort of see that but why else would you read a story like this? For pleasure?

Forget making judgments for a moment and consider point of view. The entire story is told from the woman's point of view.  There is free indirect speech giving us access to only one character's thoughts. There is only one character we can really judge and that is Margot. We can reasonably conclude that the guy, Robert is socially inept guy who comes across as creep but it's not a story about him and we only have access to him through the eyes of a deeply flawed person so we can't trust what we're told.

Here is the key moment in the story. It describes the thoughts of a woman about to have sex she doesn't want to have. Remind yourself before you read it that "having sex you don't want to have" is one way of defining rape. But this is not rape.
Margot recoiled. But the thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming; it would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon. It wasn’t that she was scared he would try to force her to do something against her will but that insisting that they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious, as if she’d ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back.
That is, in a sense, pretty damning. Margot has set this in motion and she fails to stop it because she is unable to summon the "tact and gentleness" it would take to stop it. Why not? The implicit accusation is that men have fragile little egos but step back and you'll see that the most obviously fragile ego here is Margot's. Why did she let things get this far in the first place?

We should know the answer to that last question. Margot is responsible for what happened to her. Her neediness, her pathetic pursuit of affirmation from a guy whom she should have realized was incapable of giving her what she wanted is what drives the events. She walks into it step by step but she is in control every step of the way.That so many people have read this and yet hesitate to hold her fully responsible says a lot about how messed up our attitudes about women are. (If only there was some movement that promoted treating women equally, as adults responsible for themselves.)

The story ends with the guy being really creepy—stalking her and then calling her nasty things. She, on the other hand, ends up surrounded by supportive friends on campus, all of whom seem to have been told all about her sordid experience. I don't find that part credible. I don't believe someone who is as socially inept and who understands herself as poorly as Margot does could share the details she does. I think she'd veer between two extremes: 1. hiding everything and 2. making false accusations against the guy; she'd do both to try to protect herself from feelings of shame because people who need affirmation as desperately as Margot does can't handle shame.

Is there anything at all in this for men? Not in the story itself but there is something in the reaction. There are men who've responded by seeing themselves in the story. Here's the lesson; DON'T DO THAT! You are not seeing yourself. What you are doing is reporting that Margot is real: there are women like her in this world. There are a lot of them.

Okay, I'll stop shouting. But it's a story about Margot not Robert. Men need to stop thinking that we need a woman's perspective to understand ourselves. Women are not pure, truth-telling children who can see that the emperor has not clothes. Women are just like you and just as likely to act in manipulative ways to try and hide their vulnerability. Know thyself so you aren't at their mercy.

Second lesson: don't have sex with women like Margot. Not ever. You want sex but you don't need sex and sex with someone like Margot is never worth it.

Sex is a social skill. The mistake is to treat it as if the mystery, as if the magic is something incredibly private, intimate. All the meaning you need to understand sex is on the surface. The point is to get good enough at understanding what you can see and stop foolishly pursuing some imagined mystical truth about women and sex. You can figure out everything you need to know about what a woman is going to be like in bed by attentively observing her outside of bed. If you can't relate to her well outside of sex you won't be able to relate well through sex. Sorry, but that's the way it is and it's not going to change.

(You could have sex with someone not so much as a human being but as a human-sex-toy and that could be satisfactory I suppose, so long as you don't think about what that says about you.)

Final question, knowing what you know about Margot, how do you think the story would have worked out if she'd interacted with a normal, well-adjusted guy her own age instead of a creepy loser like Robert? Imagine further that this well-adjusted guy somehow misses the warning signs and actually has sex with her. Would it be good sex? You're probably holding back because you don't want to be harsh but having sex isn't a human right. It's not enough that you want it and a woman is available. Margot's problems aren't going to be fixed by having sex and it's not your job to fix her. It's her job to fix herself and the things that need fixing can only be fixed outside of bed.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Discuss among yourselves.

I found this on a hipster girl blog from the early 2000s:
"generosity and selflessness are not the same"
I think that's a rather profound point. And which would you prefer? In yourself or in others? I don't anyone should actually have to think about that.The right answer should be obvious.

"You're only saying that because it's what you want!"

The quote in the header was something a woman I know said to her then boyfriend. She said it with vehement anger in her voice. What had inspired the remark was a model in a leather jacket taking part in a televised fashion show.
I don't think she was completely wrong. If she'd showed up wearing that jacket, her boyfriend would have been pleased to see it. On the other hand, I doubt the guy consciously chose to say what he did in order to encourage his girlfriend to buy a leather jacket. He wasn't putting any pressure on her. He most likely didn't think about it at all. He said it with no conscious motive; he said it because he believed she would look good in the jacket and for no other reason. And she knew that. That's why she was so angry about it. The jacket reflected an image he had of her and she didn't want to have to live up to that image. For him that is. She had no trouble living up to it for the rest of the world. There was nothing random about his associating that style with her nor was it some personal fantasy he was imposing on her. It was a style of dress she was fond of. It was exactly the sort of clothing she bought for herself when she wanted to feel good about herself. One of the reasons they had become a couple in the first place was because he took her self-image as a glamorous woman who could wear a leather jacket seriously and she liked that about him.

The event in question happened a long time ago in a house that I and five other students rented. It stands out in my memory not because there was anything unusual about the intensity of the woman's anger but because it was the first time I'd seen a woman of my generation do that. I'd seen similar responses hundreds of times growing up. My mother did it to my father all the time. That's what made it weird. I had thought that sort of thing was supposed to be over. The women of generation were going to be different; they weren't going to be full of hypocrisy and mixed messages like my mother's' generation had been.

At a committee meeting a few years ago we were sitting around chatting waiting for everyone to show up. A woman remarked that she had seen my wife looking very glamorous a few days before. I joked that she was on her way to work in a female-dominated office and that it was the lot of a husband that our wives put more effort into dressing up for work than they did for us. I said this in a joking tone meant to imply irony. I needn't have bothered, the women on the committee went off on a long riff about how they do that to their husbands. It's not surprising that they said it. It's true. They all said they should do something about it but they said it in the same tone they'd use to say they should exercise more.

My experience is that women don't just put on nicer outer-clothes, they will even put on nicer underwear for occasions the man in their life won't be a part of. And it's not hard to figure out why. It makes them feel more confident. The need becomes intense when they're out to meet their girlfriends from college or, as mentioned above, going to a female-dominated office. These are intensely competitive situations and it's important for a girl to feel good about herself in a situation like that. Any man who would begrudge her dressing up in these situations is a boor who deserves to be alone.

The point worth noting is that she dresses up on these occasions because it is what she wants. If she wants a boost to her self-confidence when meeting with the girls or because she wants a little attention from men she's willing to make the effort. But why is it some sort of injustice that her man should want her to do it for him?

The answer to that is because she has been trained to think that way. She is taught from an early age that men's desires are illegitimate. Both hard-core traditionalists and feminists line up on this.

It's important to acknowledge that this is a logically consistent position. Women aren't being irrational when they stop making an effort a man who has committed himself to her. If it is true that men's desires are illegitimate, then it is perfectly reasonable for women to use those desires to achieve what they want and to get angry or passive-aggressive if he hints he'd like some just because he likes it. There is no purely logical reason for her to ever change.
"The unconscious spirit of devilry which urges is to offer a thing only to those who do not want it." Proust
I quote Proust because this is the sort of issue he loved to comment on. A man falls in love with a woman in a large part because of her own image of herself. She shows him that she likes to look and feel glamorous. She isn't a liar about it and he isn't stupid about it—they both she isn't like this all the time and she doesn't want to to be like this all the time. Just sometimes.  But there is a promise being made in these transactions. We spend a lot of time denying this. We say that men ask for too much and sometimes we do. They say that men have unrealistic expectations about what happens to women as they age and sometimes we do. But we aren't always wrong. A lot of the time we are right.

Friday, December 8, 2017

"Can we be honest about men?"

David French asks that question on his way to making a horrible, terrible argument over at National Review. He begins by asking, "When will it stop?" and quickly, way too quickly, concludes,
The obvious answer is never. At least not until we stare human nature in the face, confront it squarely, and call men to live according to a higher and better purpose.
Okay, sure, but are we really supposed to believe that having a compulsion to masturbate in front of women is human nature? That's French's claim: that this is what happens to human nature when it's not controlled. You, know, I'm a tad bit skeptical. I think people having sex is what happens when human nature tends to lead to and it's a damn good thing or else humanity would cease to exist. I agree that we need moral and social constraints on our sexual impulses but I doubt very much that human nature has all that much to do with what these men have done.

Human nature tends to be shaped by what leads to procreation. Masturbating in front of women, as Louis CK and Harvey Weinstein did, is a remarkably inefficient way to procreate. Let human nature run wild, and such men will be eliminated from the gene pool. What's stunning here is not that men have a strong sex drive or that they are acting in incredibly boorish ways about it. What's stunning is that we have a bunch of grown-up and powerful men acting like badly adjusted adolescents.

I direct you here to Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women. This is a universally acknowledged masterpiece coming of age story written by a strong feminist. In the penultimate story, the title story, in the book, the heroine fantasizes about sex. The sex she fantasizes begins when her clothes mysteriously fall off. She'll be standing near some guy and whoosh, off they come. That, I put it to you, is a normal adolescent sex fantasy. Sex fascinates you but you don't have the slightest clue how to make it happen and you're not entirely sure you want to happen. In fact, you most likely don't want it to happen for a few years yet. But it's very exciting to think about so you devise fantasies wherein it happens but it isn't actually your responsibility because your clothes just fall off, if you're a girl having the fantasy, or her clothes just fall off, if you're a heterosexual boy having the fantasy.

And you might actually do it. When I was a teenager, I was over at my friend Bruce's house and his 17-year-old sister Barb came into the room wearing a dressing gown that fell open and she was naked underneath. And then she left the room quickly. It's a cherished memory. That said, it was several years before I figured out that there was nothing accidental about it. Again, though, this is pretty normal. Responsible parents will pretend not to notice. It's only if it keeps happening that they will say something.

Charlie Rose, an incredibly successful and very intelligent man, was apparently doing this sort of thing when he was over the age of 40! Think about that for a while. It's not hard for celebrities to get sex. You know, normal sex where you socialize, flirt, slowly build up to a kiss and then more. There would have been a constant stream of women offering them that. No, these men are freaks. Weird, maladjusted freaks in positions of great power and influence. That didn't happen because people aren't raising boys to have "to live with a "virtuous purpose, to use his God-given characteristics to advance that purpose, and to understand that he will always be held accountable to that purpose" as French argues. That happened because powerful men were not held accountable.

Is God is telling you to man up?

A friend of mine shared this on Facebook this morning.

I know why he posted it. It's a joke and we're supposed to laugh and that laughter is supposed to give us some relief. But maybe life is tough because you're supposed to be a man, because you can, in fact, handle it if only you;d make a serious commitment to be the bad-ass man he means you to be.

Saturday, December 2, 2017


In the past, philosophers usually assumed thinking to be a superior cognitive skill capable of penetrating the essence of reality. So thinking was associated with truth, while individual experience was dubbed subjective and downgraded to mere appearance. In fact, the opposite is the case. It is our direct individual experience that is unerringly true; being one with the external world, it cannot be wrong.
I think that's right. More here.

Sex with her ex

I keep thinking about those women who have sex with one of their best girlfriend's ex. Or, rather, I keep thinking about why this offends us so. I don' think we're wrong to think this. I especially don't think the woman who discovers that one of her friends had an affair with her ex is wrong to feel that way. That said, coming up with good reasons to justify the feeling of being offended is difficult.