So What’s It Like To Eat At A Two-Michelin-Starred Restaurant? A (Long) Review of Sixteen

If you’ll recall, my wife and I got drunk on a heady mixture of MasterChef and the Food Network, and decided to dine at Michelin-starred restaurants this year.  A Michelin Star is like every other award in existence – which is to say that it claims to reward “the best,” while covertly defining “the best” to be a narrow range of tastes.  (If “the best” movies are Oscar winners, then comedies and horror movies apparently suck.)

Michelin defines “the best” to be expensive, hard-to-prepare food with attention to detail and impeccable service.  Which generally implies pretty good food, but it leaves out, you know, that clam shack down at the beach that serves perfectly-steamed mussels taken straight from the ocean.  Yet still, when we dined at Babbo (one star), it was still one of our top ten restaurant experiences ever, and La Terrazza del’Eden in Rome was also very good, so…

…we had to upgrade.  Enough with these paltry one-star restaurants.  Let’s see what two Michelin stars gets us!  And so we booked a meal at Sixteen in Chicago.

Now I will walk you through our meal, which was overwhelming on every level. Thirteen courses of food.

Dinner at Sixteen

Sixteen clearly set out to dazzle from moment one, wherein they laid out a map of Chicago’s waterfront and laid out the menu in little plastic blocks. The menu, which changes seasonally, is a very upscale version of surf and turf, and each course was a melding of seafood and the meat district that Upton Sinclair helped make famous. This was all to hide the reality that when you came to Sixteen, you ate what the chef damn well felt like making from you, but it did lend a festive Lego-style atmosphere to the dining.

Dinner at Sixteen

Now, the surprise appetizer course was utterly adorable, in that they said, “We’re at the beach now, so we’re having a picnic” and laid out all sorts of little picnic foods for us. This was a great start, because every mini-food on here was quite above the cut:

  • The mini-sandwich was tomato, Italian ham, and mozzarella, if I recall, and it was perfect.  Every bite brought out the tomato and the meat and the cheese and the toasted bread in a different combination, a little tooth-inspired dance of flavors and textures interplaying with each other, so this was good right up through the last swallow.
  • The quail legs were dark meat, and I usually don’t like dark meat because it’s monotone and oily… but this was firm, cooked well, and seasoned so that it had a wonderful texture between the crispy skin and the salted meat.
  • The potato chip had a tiny piece of smelt actually woven into the chip, which was a piece of starchy sewing that we could only admire, and what that got us was a slightly soggy potato chip that melded quite nicely with the salty fish taste of the smelt, so what you got was kind of a crunchy fish with a sharp burst of salt around the edges.  Awesome.
  • Finally, there were sangria popsicles.  Which were the disappointment.  They weren’t like sorbet, as we’d expected, but rather creamy, which I suspect was some sort of chemical adhesion so they didn’t melt instantly while we were eating sandwiches.  But the cream in the center completely obliterated any sangria flavor – if you hadn’t told me, “Hey, this is supposed to be sangria,” I would have thought it to be some sort of bland fruit pop.  Still fun, but meh.

This came with a tiny glass of sweet peach tea and whiskey, and boy did that work well.  The only complaint I had about that drink was the glass was very small.

Dinner at Sixteen

Official Course #1 was a lardo and yellowtail ceviche, with tomatoes, basil, and seaweed. It was, like the sandwich, a really good mixture of flavors and textures – every bite mushed around the lardo and the fish and the tomatoes in your mouth, bringing out a different combination, allowing you to savor them in different ways. There was also a fried pork with tuna on the side, which literally melted in your mouth, the delicate cracklings softening into the tuna flavor in a way that really worked well.

It was at this point that Jeremiah said, “I can’t remember what lardo is,” and we discussed it for a bit, and the waiter by the table had that “Oooh! Oooh! Pick me!” look that only a fifth grader in a busy class gets when he’s hoping for the teacher to call upon him. But interrupting our discussion would have been rude, so he just sort of bit his tongue until we asked him.

Dinner at Sixteen

Course #2 was “The Luxury Course,” which was a small dollop of beef tartare surrounded by Osetra caviar – and yes, that’s gold leaf on the salad around it.

This one was fascinating, as I alternately loved and loathed it with each bite. The first bite was a beautiful meld of rich beef flavor and complex caviar fishiness – and then the next was this salty, bottom-feeder muck of Too Much Caviar and mushy beef. Another bite, it was wonderful. Next bite, it was awful. I eventually decided I liked it, but it was a rollercoaster of a dish where I still am undecided on whether beef tartare and caviar is a good idea.

The salad was, well, a salad. It was hard to get onto the fork (look at those long leaves, and imagine trying to balance them all), and it didn’t particularly blend well. Eating it was, “Oh, hey, a leaf! A mussel! A crunchy thing!” And they didn’t gel.

On the plus side, if you eat gold leaf, your crap is greenish the next day. Now that’s something most reviews won’t tell you.

Dinner at Sixteen

I took this moment to snap a view of what the restaurant looked like from here, feeling quite decadent.

Dinner at Sixteen

Course #3: Ahi tuna and foie gras in a broth of sweet corn and honey. The broth was the star here, as it was possessed of the kind of subtle flavors you have to strain to pick out, this ephemeral blend of corn taste suffused with the barley overtones of honey, where we could have drunk just that. The tuna and foie gras were both good, but they didn’t seem notably transformed by the broth – when you ate one, your mouth went, “Hey, it’s tuna!” and it completely overshadowed the delicate broth taste, and of course foie gras (being more intense in general) obliterated it.

The avocado worked well with it. But there was only a little snippet of avocado.

Dinner at Sixteen

Course #4: Sweetbread and razor clam in a charred leek with a sweet sauce. The sweetbread was, hands-down, the best sweetbread I’d ever had – the kind of dish that informs all future dishes. I’ve found that a good example of a food I normally dislike can completely turn my opinion around on it, as I’ll go “Oh, that’s how it’s supposed to taste,” and now that I know what people like about it, I will notice that part so much more in lesser versions of that food that my whole expectations turn around.

Anyway, most sweetbreads I’ve had (even at Lola’s, Michael Symon’s carnetarian restaurant) tend to be pasty-greasy, an unpleasant napalm-like smear of mush held together by a slight metal-and-bile taste. But this was rich, bacony to start, descending into a firm texture that was unique to sweetbreads. A delight.

The leek was… well, less successful. They told you to eat everything but the charred parts, and indeed if you could get the tender bits of the leek you’d find it soaked in a delicious sauce. But the leek was firm, like celery, and resisted being pulled apart with a fork, and they had provided no knife to cut through the rubbery leek surface. We tried our best to separate it out with the edge of a spoon, but really, if you wanted us to eat it then you should have given us the proper implements to do so.

Dinner at Sixteen

Course #5: Pork trotter and octopus, with almond foam and pil pil sauce.

…we were quite disappointed that they didn’t call this “porktopus.”

That said, the mixture of pork and octopus was neither a failure nor a success. It was well-cooked, but it tasted more like chewy pork than some great melding of the two, and the almond foam (while tasty) seemed sort of standing wanly out in left field, yelling “I’M TASTY!” and with all of us going, “Yes, but what do you go with?”

Dinner at Sixteen

Course #6: Chicken oyster and langoustine in a nasturtium sauce. This is where we breathed a sigh of relief, because frankly, this dish was a disappointment. And we wanted a disappointment, really. Well, okay, we didn’t, but the danger of us going, “Hey, we are paying basically a mortgage payment to sit here, so we’re just going to assume that everything we’re given is super-awesome, having our tastebuds overridden by the gigantic wads of cash we’re forking out,” and to say, “This is actually kinda meh” was a relief. It was proof to us that we weren’t just surfing on a tide of snobbery, that indeed we retained our common sense, and this wasn’t terrible but both the chicken oysters and the langoustine were bland meats and the sauce wasn’t enough to make them interesting.

Dinner at Sixteen

Course #7: Spiced lamb pho-style broth in cuttlefish noodle. The broth on this was insanely tasty – this light complex bubbling of flavor with hints of all sorts of complexities, like a good pho broth should be. But we were glad that they termed this a pho-”style” broth, as both Jeremiah and I admitted we’d had better pho – as pho is supposed to be full of Stuff, and this plate had three dabs of lamb and a palmful of cuttlefish noodles, so what you got mainly was awesome broth. Head to head with pho, this loses, but it cleverly marked out its own space as an “interpretation” and so hey, we were cool.

Also, the lamb was pretty much irrelevant here – it could have been any rare kind of meat, as it was completely overridden by the taste of the broth. But since, as noted, the broth was genius, who cares?

Also to the also, this was by far my favorite plate of the whole meal. Look at how awesome this plate is. It’s like a Hotblack Desiato plate.

Dinner at Sixteen

Course #8: Roast squab and crab and lo, we have hit the nadir of the meal. The crab was just crab, not seasoned or made interesting in any way, and multiple people came to the conclusion that the sauce here was basically like the sweet-and-sour sauce you get in a grocery store’s Chinese food salad tray. The squab was slightly better, but really, this dish wasn’t something I’d have paid $10 for, let alone Sixteen-style rates.

Dinner at Sixteen

Course #9: Wagyu ribeye and broiled eel with smoked eggplant puree. And we rebounded up to one of the highlights of the meal, thankfully, as it’s hard to make Wagyu ribeye bad (especially in small as portions as this). But the eel was the revelation for me, as I usually don’t like fishy-tasting foods, and this eel was very smoky-sweet, almost candied, like a sweet barbecue sauce – it still tasted like fish towards the end, but the combination of fish and a sugary pop made it a really complex and new interplay to me. This was definitely a moment of “Oh, here’s why some people like eel!” and the idea of eel as dessert suddenly made sense.

The pureed eggplant was very good as well, having a little bitterness of the eggplant melding with the smoky flavor, working quite nicely in conjunction with the eel.

Dinner at Sixteen

A word on the sommelier: I haven’t discussed the wines, as I’m not a wine person, but I didn’t think a lot of the choices we got particularly matched well. I think, if I had to sum it up, the sommelier prioritized “interesting” over “flavorful,” as we got fortified wine with one course that did not go, we got a very mineralish white that, when combined with the salt of the meal, turned almost to brine in our mouths, and we got a very nice Sake to go with the pho that pretty much stomped all over the delicate taste of the pho. Some of the choices were good, but mostly it seemed like a serious case of “See how clever I am?” and not a contemplative pairing to our table.

There was, however, a wine pairing that was $750 per person, where each glass would be drawn out of the bottle and the air inside the bottle replaced with nonreactive argon, so they could give you super-rare wines. I was very curious, but not $750 per person curious.

Dinner at Sixteen

The cheese course was optional, but even though we were stuffed of course we were having the cheese course. Because hey, cheese. And we got some very nice and funky cheeses, which weren’t listed on the booklet (more on that later) so I can’t tell you what they were beyond a nice slice of perfect crystallized bleu cheese.

We also may have, uh, eaten one cheese before taking a picture here. Our bad.

Dinner at Sixteen

The Gift Course: in between the two desserts was a “gift” course to cleanse our palate, which was a nice switch-up on the usual dollop of sherbert served at upscale and/or stuffy restaurants to give you a bridge between the savory of the meal and the sweetness of the dessert. This was a particularly neat variant – a clump of cotton candy in a strawberry condensation with black pepper and thai basil that you were expected to stir until it was all one sweet mess.

This was intensely fruity, just three spoonfuls by the time everything was done – sherbet-like, but more satisfying because you had to put the work into it.

Dinner at Sixteen

Dinner at Sixteen

Dessert Course #1: Land and sea. The land portion (the fruitier one) was an apricot-and-almond mixture wrapped in an unreal bit of meringue that looked absolutely like a ceramic sculpture. I’ve never seen meringue that smooth. It was unearthly, and Gini ate it up. My dish, however – a blackberry dish – was less successful, being a clump of miscellaneous flavors with no real center to it. Every bite was different, as in past courses above, but sadly every bite was different in the “Oh, here’s some different ingredients” way, not the “This is bringing out new flavors in old ingredients” way.

Dinner at Sixteen

Dinner at Sixteen

Dessert Course #2: Land and sea, part 2. Gini got a blueberry, corn, anise, and hyssop which looked like a hot mess and again, was a nice bunch of flavors but not particularly cohesive. Mine was slightly better, with smears of goat cheese and chocolate and crumbly cake, but it seemed like “random chocolate stuff” and hence didn’t work for me as a whole.

Dinner at Sixteen

The finale surprise: As the bill came, we got this, which was… baffling. It had four chocolates and some candied fruit on it, but you’d think the bulk of this would be edible. It looked like chocolate. It was, I think, wax. And it came drenched in brown sugar, which was nice, but then had actual shells in the “sand” – and I remembered Gordon Ramsay screaming, “Never put anything on the plate that they’re not supposed to eat!” We even tasted the shells, befuddled. (Or at least I did.) It was nice, but we spent too much time going, “What is that thing?” and not enough time eating.

Dinner at Sixteen

We finished up getting a take-home bag that, in social media-friendly style, listed all the ingredients and preparations for the all the courses, so we could, you know, review them at length in our blog. Smart move, Sixteen. (Also a couple of chocolate pops for later.)

So Was It Worth It?
Look, Sixteen was worth a mortgage payment and then some.  We’ll be paying for this sucker for some time.

The relevant questions are: a) was it the best meal we ever had? and b) was it significantly better than the one Michelin star meal we had?

The answer as to the Michelin star question is unquestionably no.  When you’re paying as much as a used car to get your meal, you want flawless service, and there were a couple of significant bobbles – the wrong foods being given to the wrong people, the forgetting of a drink, and unforgivably, giving us the wrong check.

It is very hard to be moral when someone gives you a check that is worth several hundred less than you actually owe.  It’s even harder when they go “Whoops, our bad” and bring you the full check, with nothing written off on it, no discount for this honesty.  Hey, the cheese tray was $35, you coulda given that to us for free and we would have felt moral and frugal.  As it was, I don’t exactly mind paying full price, but the restaurant really hit home just how much this cost, leaving a tremendously sour taste on the way out the door.

But that aside, I was of two minds: I personally don’t mind a bobbled check, or having to switch plates with my wife when the wrong dessert arrives.  But when I’m paying premium price for what is, literally, world-class service, getting elementary mistakes becomes a weird question: Should I let this slide? I mean, I could buy a large portion of a woodworking workshop for what I paid for this meal, and part of that cost was the promised flawless service.  And what I got was very good in many ways, but world-class?


Now, it could be that Sixteen no longer deserves its two-star rating, and we’ll see them slide down to one star next year.  (Ratings are dynamic things, you see.) It could be that they had a bad night.  Either way, though, I paid about $200 above what I paid for Babbo, and Babbo was not exactly cheap.

As for the food, Gini rates it the best meal she’s ever had.  Me, I’d rank two above it: Victoria and Albert’s in Disneyworld, and Babbo in New York City.  This was a very good experience, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t know if Michelin was correct on this one.  There’s also the fact that, frankly, both Victoria and Albert’s and Babbo tend to be conservative in their meal choices, whereas obviously Sixteen had some playful experiments that were aiming higher and fell harder.  (Agnolotti is hard to do, but you have a clear idea of what the perfected state of it should be; more difficult to find the perfect porktopus.)

So I liked it.  Very much.  But the expense really carved the edge off.  Were this the same price as a Babbo meal, well, I woulda said this kicked the crap out of Babbo.  But value enters into the equation, and with that much on the line, well, I’d probably go with Babbo again.

Still very good.  Memorable.  Awesome.  But spendy. Let’s see how other restaurants compare, once we’ve grown back our meager savings.

Oh, as an extra bonus, here’s how I looked in The Suit that day:

The suit.

If You’re In Chicago Tomorrow, And Want To Hang Out…

….as a reminder, tomorrow at 1:00 I shall be at:

3258 N Sheffield Ave
Chicago, IL 60657

In case anyone local wants to say hi.  I believe we have one confirmed attendee, as all the others have fallen sick or turned out to be unavailable.  But you are welcome to show up and say hello to me anyway; I’ll be the guy in the hat and the fine Italian suit.


Three Months On

Gini was sick last night, so we holed up and watched comfort movies. Lilo and Stitch! That’s a fun Disney film.

Except there’s that scene the night before Lilo is about to be taken from her sister and placed with a foster family, where Stitch sneaks away.  And she sees him.  She sees him leaving and utters words that still shatter me:

“‘Ohana” means “family.” “Family” means “no one gets left behind.” But if you want to leave, you can. I’ll remember you, though. I remember everyone that leaves.

Rebecca didn’t choose to leave, of course.  Brain cancer took her.  That spitfire of a kid stayed for her last birthday party and her last frosting and her last meal at her favorite restaurant, and hung around long enough to be six, twelve hours’ worth of six…

Oh, Rebecca, we tried so hard not to leave you behind.

And I remember everyone that leaves.

I also remember the grief counselor, a nice lady with a sympathetic face, and she told me all the things I needed to hear: you’re not some grief tourist, she was dear to you.  This is only three months on.  Your actions are completely normal.

Yet it’s three months and the wrong movie can still send me into a crying jag that lasts all night and really only gets truncated when I swallow an Ativan at the end of it and lay, senseless, in bed like a doll.  And I think of Eric and Kat, and how they’re at the epicenter of this, and they keep moving, and so should I, and that’s why I got out of bed and wrote a small scene – one thousand words – but that scene and this book is so much harder because the character at the center of the book I’m writing was inspired directly by Rebecca.

She lives, a little, when I write.  And now I hate writing this book.  But I need to.  She lived every minute of her life, never stopping, and for me to lie down in despair would be to betray her.

But I miss her.  I miss her so hard sometimes.  And when she walked away she took some lingering sense of fairness of the world with her, and I can no longer trust the future, if this could happen then anyone could die, and of course they always could but illusions are like fires, sometimes it’s good to warm your hands at them and pretend the world is well-lit.

The world is much colder, now.  The world is fundamentally empty.  The world is missing a Rebecca, and I remember everyone that leaves.

(If you remember: Gini is doing her walk this year to raise funds to fight brain cancer, the fucking thing that took Rebecca from us.  It’s going to be very hard for her: I’m committed to a convention, and when they release the balloons to honored the dead children, it will be Rebecca rising into the sky.  She will be alone, and I assure you, every dollar will be a support to her.

(I did not write this post to shill for Gini.  I wrote it because I’m trembling and crying the morning after, and don’t know how I’ll get through the work day.  But I figured if I was going to write this, I might as well do some good somewhere in it.

(Three months on.  It is only three months on.)

Ferguson and the Surveillance State

So we’re already seeing the first fallout from Ferguson – the Denver Police have requested 800 body cameras.  (Which reminds me, I should email the local cops to ask about their stance on this.)  I suspect more cities will follow suit, to avoid lawsuits, and I wouldn’t be surprised if within five years cameras would be a common thing among police officers.

Which won’t solve the problem entirely, of course.  Abusive police will find ways for the cameras to mysteriously break at the oddest moments.  And the police department owns the footage, which they are not required to release, so if the local constabulary wants to hole up and admit nothing, well, it can.

But what I find fascinating is that Ferguson-inspired liberals may have inadvertently given a push to something liberals hate: the surveillance state.  We don’t want to be like Britain, with cameras everywhere filming us!  We don’t want the government watching over us!

Well, as it turns out, we kinda might.  Only if a cop is watching you, of course.  But you’d be surprised how many of the times you least want to be filmed involve a cop’s potential presence. And I think in the wake of Ferguson’s astonishingly lawless policeman-instigated killing, maybe the safety of having an objective record of who shot who and what happened isn’t a bad thing.

Yet it’s interesting how different pressures can make traditionally-scorned approaches seem more palatable.  If you’d said ten years ago, “The cops will be filming your every movement,” there’d have been a huge outcry.  But when a cop might shoot your ass or beat you, “The cops will be filming your every movement” becomes a positive outcome.

Life is weird.

How Do You Feel About Being Asked To Be Kissed?

One of the things I am super-grateful for these days is that the women I’m attracted to these days tend to be fairly kinky.  And the kink community has its own massive dysfunctions, of course, but in general they’re also usually pretty good about the communication of desires.

So if, on a date that seems to be going well, I ask, “Would you mind if I kiss you?” the answer is usually an enthusiastic “Sure, go ahead!” or a declined “No, I don’t want that.”

But I’ve always been a verbal consenter, mainly because my social anxiety usually doesn’t let me assume, Oh, you’re reading the signs right.  And when I was in my teens and twenties and dating, a lot of the times “Would you mind if I kiss you?” was met with that awkward hesitation of What the fuck are you doing? followed by a suspicious stinkeye that indicated All right, we’ll do it your way, whatever.

Discussing this with women at the time led to me discovering that for a significant number of people, the act of asking spoils the mood.  As Bart Calendar put it:

The number of women who do not want to be asked is really, really high. I have about five or six female friends who reguarly complain to me about how guys they go on first dates with ask to kiss them – when to their minds, they’ve been clearly sending off signals that they want to be kissed so they find it a turn off/consider the guy not “confident enough” for them to make out with.

I don’t know if that number is really, really high – but I do know that the circles I travel in these days have self-selected down significantly.  Gansje asked, quite legitimately, whether I couldn’t do some good by teaching consent education on college campuses, the way that I occasionally give talks on forming healthy relationships at conventions.  And I don’t think I’d be all that helpful at college, because the experience I have dealing with adults who’ve made the decision to try to form long-term bonds with each other is often not at all relevant to, say, your average frat kid looking to hook up with some (willing) sorority sister.  I haven’t been in college life for years, when I was in college life I wasn’t the partying kind, and when college life existed for me it didn’t have the issues of, say, Facebook or texting or the myriads of new and changed social pressures that college kids face.

I’m smart enough to know that the folks I talk to on a daily basis aren’t the same as, say, your average set of people at a nightclub.  For one thing, I think a significant subset of people at your average nightclub would never have heard of polyamory, let alone be cool with it.  I’m not mainstream, and I feel acting as though the mainstream opinion was just this minor issue to be handwaved off when giving advice leads to horrifically bad advice.

Yet as self-selected a crowd as you folks are, I’m curious as to what your reaction is to someone you like asking you for a kiss in the middle of a decent date.  There’s no right or wrong answer here, and so anyone who gets all judgy in the comments will get shut down – but if consent culture involves getting enthusiastic “yes”s, how do you actually feel when someone verbally tries to get one from you for that first smooch?  Or, in the middle of kissing, asks for something more?  Do/did most of your dates ask overtly, and do you wish that new dates would?

Let’s ask, and see how y’all feel.

A Little Compassion For The Dudebros, Please

“Is this an Onion piece?” a Twitter friend of mine asked.  “Are we expected to feel sorry for men, that they’re scared of perpetrating sexual assault?”

And indeed, the article on Salon was about the terror of college-aged dudebros who were terrified of looking like a predator while trying to hook up.  (Alas, the Bloomberg article it’s referencing seems to have been taken down, so I can’t comment on that.  I suspect it was significantly more insipid.)  But basically, after years of being educated that women’s enthusiastic consent is a necessary component of hooking up, some subset of guys are not sure how to approach that line, and as a result wind up walking away.  As chronicled in such anecdata as:

Malik Gill, the former social chair of the Sigma Chi fraternity at Harvard University, told Bloomberg he has witnessed something similar happening among his friends. He recounted an anecdote in which he gave one of his guy friends a woman’s number after she had expressed interest. Gill’s friend never called her. “Even though she was interested, he didn’t want to pressure her,” he explained. “He was worried about making her feel uncomfortable.”

Earlier in the piece, Gill said he no longer offered female classmates beer at parties because he doesn’t want to “look like a predator … it’s a little bit of a blurred line.”

So what you have are scared dudes who don’t want to violate a woman’s boundaries walking away from potentially fulfilling sexual encounters because they don’t know how to navigate some ambiguous waters.  And please do not do the sexist thing of going, “Well, good!  Those guys were pushing sex on women who didn’t want it!” and assuming that none of the women involved wanted to have fulfilling sex back because, you know, men are the only humans with a sex drive.

If what we’re told is true – and I’ve seen some evidence of this new-found hesitation in polyamory and kink communities as well – then you have a situation where guys are scared of looking like assholes and freezing in situations where they may have had willing partners.

And yeah.  I do think you should have sympathy for them.

Now, to be clear: yes, being raped is way worse than any social awkwardness on any front, and my goal is that no person gets raped or touched against their consent.  This is why I am glad this awkwardness is here.  Given the tradeoff, I would by far rather have a bunch of timid college kids refraining from handing a consenting woman a beer rather than having some overconfident oaf deciding without evidence that a girl he liked needed to be kissed.  What this is is a necessary redistribution of anxiety, in that for a long time women have been afraid of being harassed in public spaces by dudebros, and now the culture is swinging around to put the weight on men.  Where a lot of that weight, properly, belongs.

So on many levels, this newfound terror as guys acclimate to a new environment is a wonderful fucking change.  Do not take me to be saying otherwise.

But in real life, I prefer not to play the “The bigger terror supercedes the lesser terror” game.  Yes, there are people who have PTSD from combat runs in Afghanistan; that doesn’t mean that I need have no sympathy for those with social anxiety.  Likewise, yes, women’s fear of being violated is the greater terror, one that we should prioritize…

…but that does not mean that we should leave these dudebros to hang.

The Salon article gets it right in that yes, we need to educate men on how to operate in a consent culture, because as a sex-positive person I believe that men should be able to find fulfilling, consensual sex.  Particularly since these guys are your potential allies in this particular struggle, albeit potentially unwilling ones – but they are at least responsive to social pressure, and some subset of them actually probably care about the women involved, too.

And I think too much of feminist thought handwaves the difficulty of men’s struggles in dating.  People of all stripes sneer, “Oh, dating and consent, that’s easy!  Just do it!”  And they forget that actually, when you’re the one actively trying to seek pleasure with strangers – and most relationships start out with someone who was, at some point, a stranger – determining all those tetchy elements of attraction and consent and how to negotiate what you want is actually one of the most complicated things we do in this society.

A lot of women forget that one of the things the patriarchy quietly does is to put most of the instigation of relationships upon the dudes.  As a guy, you’re expected to make the first move – and you’re seen as a wimp if you can’t.  (Another way in which men are subconsciously trained to be alike; even if you’re more a passive type of guy, you’re unlikely to get dates if you’re waiting for women to come to you, and if you can’t step up to actively seeking, well, society thinks you deserve a lifetime of loneliness.)

That act of breaking the ice can be terrifying, especially for people who have no experience, and especially for people who want to keep the people they’re trying to connect with comfortable.  Hell, I’m forty-five years old, and I’ve dated well over a hundred women, and I still have those moments of spine-chilling terror where after a merry half-an-hour conversation with someone I like I touch her on her arm and then go, Shit, should I have done that?  Did I just cross a line?  Check her reaction, did you fuck up, did you fuck up? 

That reading of reactions is necessary.  I’ll never say it’s not.  But even for the experienced, trying to ascertain what each person’s level of flirt-acceptability is can occupy a lot of brainpower.

And it is, I should add, “each person.”  A lot of discussions of dating and consent make it seem like everyone is the same – but god damn, when you’re out there dating, one person wants to be approached this way, and another person wants this entirely other way, and you’re constantly reading very subtle (and in some cases intentionally buried) signs to try to determine what’s actually going on here…

…and adding another layer of complexity to that already riotously overcomplex thing is a lot to ask.

And of course we should ask it!  Getting men to seek active and enthusiastic consent should be our goddamned goal, especially if we’re going to keep subconsciously perpetuating the idea that guys should be the ones making the first move!

But let us also have sympathy for their struggle.

Because if you don’t have sympathy – if you go, “Awww, poor widdle men, who the fuck cares about your terror when I could be assaulted?” – then what you say to men is, effectively, “Fuck your concerns so long as I get what I want.”  And when you tell guys that, it puts us right back into that idea that dating is a war between men and women, a zero-sum game where only one gender can truly win.

What I want is a middle ground where women deserve the right to not be assaulted but men also deserve the right to be appreciated for navigating a tricky minefield in order to try to enforce safe spaces.  I think all people should work to provide a sex-positive space where both sexes can meet, decide they’re interested, and hook up on every level they damn well desire without having those desires short-circuited by missed signals.

In short:

  • Don’t think dating isn’t complicated.  It is.
  • Anything that makes dating more complicated may be necessary, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t have some sympathy (and, more importantly, education) for the people who are trying to get it right for whatever reasons.
  • Nobody should be assaulted, ever.

And that’s pretty much it for today.

A Word Of Wisdom On Crushes, And The Revealing Therein

I am, if you will recall, a fan of the no-obligation crush.  Which is to say that in the unlikely scenario that I have a crush upon your totes adorbs self, you are in no way obliged to return it.

My crush is my own.  It’s nice if we share a mutual attraction, but even if you show no interest in my pudding-like physical form, I will still hang out with you.  This isn’t a contract where I will only do nice things for you unless you promise to smooch the hell out of me; no, we are friends, and while my friendship may be laced with a bit of intoxication over the idea of smooching you, I value your actual presence over my daydreams.

Tl;dr: I’d rather have you in my life as a buddy than reject you for the crime of not crushing back.

And I often do reveal crushes, just to get that out of the way.  “Hey, I crush on you, this is a factor to be considered in our relationship, like the weather or traffic jams.”  I do it not because I intend to arm-wrestle love out of them, but because they should probably know that if they choose to, say, complain to me extensively that there aren’t any good men out there who like them, I may get a bit huffy for reasons that might seem mysterious in the absence of this crush-visibility zone.

Yet if I do crush on someone, there are five words that are fatal to any good crush-revelation:

“So…. do you like me?”

Trust me on this one: if you tell someone you’re crushing on them, and they like you back, they’re gonna tell you.

And if they don’t, pressuring them into a revelation of mutual crushitude transforms this from the “no-obligation crush” and into the “you’re gonna hurt my feelings if you don’t reciprocate” territory.  And that’s a pretty terrible place to be, on both ends.

Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with revealing a crush in the hopes of unearthing a mutual attraction.  But there is something wrong with pretending to be all “Oh, this crush doesn’t matter, I’ll like you either way” and then immediately follow that up with a subtle pressure of “LIKE ME BACK, DAMN YOUR EYES, I WANT TO KNOW WHERE THIS IS GOING.”

If you truly have the obligation-free crush, this isn’t going anywhere.  Even the revelation of a mutual attraction may not necessarily lead to hot bedside smoochenatings, as all mature adults understand that “Attraction does not equal automatic coupling.”  I’m attracted to any number of people who, in a vacuum, would probably warm my nethers… but they’re not in a good place to fulfill those needs and neither am I, so we just keep a good friendship and occasionally flirt with a sharper edge than normal.

You can like like someone and have it not turn into anything deeper.  They can like like you back and have it not change much.  Not every makeout session must be brought to fullness, and I think your life gets a lot better once you realize that.

Especially when you’re a flighty crusher like me.

(Originally written on FetLife, cross-posted here.)