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.

11 Comments

  1. Mishell Baker
    Aug 27, 2014

    To me it’s pretty simple (you’re shocked, I’m sure): put the people least physically intimidating and least physically equipped for assault in charge of instigating sex. (Usually women, but in the case where a big beefy CEO wants sex from her tiny assistant, put the assistant in charge of whether that’s going to happen.) What’s the down side to this?

    I’ve never had any issue letting someone know I was attracted. Like you say, “men have to instigate things” is leftover patriarchist bullshit from when women weren’t supposed to want sex and men were SUPPOSED to sort of force it on them.

    And before you respond with “but your arrangement forces women who maybe aren’t comfortable with unambiguous expressions of desire to do things that make them uncomfortable!”, remember that the current situation does the same thing, only insert “dudes” instead of “women.” Either way, shy people are going to end up uncomfortable, as they do in business, school, and basically everywhere else. Shy people of either gender either learn to overcome their shyness, find people to be their champions, or learn to live without a lot of things they need assertiveness to obtain. (And believe it or not, sex IS a thing that can be lived without completely, and to imply otherwise is actually massively insulting to a vast swath of humanity.)

    The trouble isn’t that women are too shy to instigate. The trouble is patriarchal conditioning that tells them it isn’t proper. And the trouble is that many men want to give up the “scary predator bad guy” thing and yet still get to be 100% in control of the hunt & chase. Which is in and of itself sort of creepy. Any guy that isn’t comfortable waiting for a woman to hunt HIM down should really ask himself why. No seriously. Really sit down and formulate an answer to that question. Why does the guy have to be the seducer? If sex is so urgent for a guy that it can’t wait for a woman to get horny enough to ask for it, it may be too urgent to that guy for women to be completely safe around him.

    • Mishell Baker
      Aug 27, 2014

      TL:DR – Not a lot of compassion for dudebros here. Men don’t get to have their cake and eat it too. If they want to continue being in control of the seduction process, they need to accept that many people are going to (rightfully in my mind) assume they haven’t shaken off the patriarchy enough to be dismissed as a potential threat.

      • TheFerrett
        Aug 27, 2014

        See, and you had me right until then. Previous comment? Gold. Wonderful thing.

        This? Bullshit.

        The point I was making is that a lot of guys don’t want to be in control of the seduction process, and furthermore, that a lot of women – even women who should analyze this and know better – still quietly expect them to do this. In other words, this isn’t something many men want, it is something that is forced upon them, and then women don’t think about how they benefit from not having the anxiety of instigating.

        So no. Dudes don’t choose this. Or, rather, they often choose between this and loneliness, and this is a marginally better option. To phrase it as an enthusiastic choice is exactly the same kind of wrongness that MRA douches do to say that women “want” to wear makeup and good dresses to manipulate men. Some do, but those who don’t actively manipulate the system get punished hard. And that’s what we’re trying to get rid of.

  2. Lisa Nohealani Morton
    Aug 27, 2014

    I think what makes me feel less compassionate and more eye-rolly toward most of the guys quoted in the article is that they’re worried about “looking like” a predator; they’re worried about getting hauled up before their school’s disciplinary board and ruining their shot at law school.

    In other words, they’re not worried about hurting someone else, or making them uncomfortable (which is what I think you’re describing with your own reactions). They’re worried some woman is going to “cry rape” on them. Which is a big part of the problem in the first place – that people assume that things can be “going fine” and then some woman is just going to up and decide to accuse them of rape for no good reason whatsoever.

    So while I agree that sex, dating, and relationships are really complicated and scary, and it’s worthwhile to have some sympathy over that, I don’t think it’s misplaced to point out that if someone’s concern is “someone might (falsely) accuse me of assault” rather than “I might hurt someone”, their fears are overblown *and* their priorities are out of whack.

    • TheFerrett
      Aug 27, 2014

      And I understand that reaction, but even so I think those guys deserve some help. Because let’s be honest: I have those fears myself. Not that my main concern is that, of course, but frankly, as a guy, I do have a fear of miscommunicating horribly and being accused of assault. Is it likely? No. Is it as likely as rape? Hell no. Is it damaging as rape? Again, hell no.

      But is it something that, if it came up, could still ruin large parts of my life?

      Absolutely.

      I can have two concerns here: about the woman’s safety, and my own. And again, consent is a fluid issue: sometimes people are okay with what’s happening in the moment and then afterwards it turns out that whoah, they are deeply opposed to that, and then what was okay at the time becomes rather horrid in retrospect. And while there are many who would say “Well, that’s clearly the fault of the person who didn’t speak up,” that negates the very real reality on the ground that there are still some who’d say that it was the guy’s fault (not to mention that attitude fostering the erasure of how heavy pressure can distort someone’s consent).

      Consent is complicated. Some people are ashamed to give a “yes.” Others give “yes” when they didn’t want to let people down. Still others have even more complex communication patterns. And again, this is where people go, “Well, consent is simple if we all do X!” and conveniently forget that not everyone does X, ever, and then do you prioritize your fantasy world where everyone acts identically, or act in the real world where things get messy?

      And for that reason, I do fear getting into a situation where I accidentally pressure someone, or stumble upon a situation where they will have been hurt in retrospect even if they said yes in the moment. I fear it for both reasons – I don’t want to hurt my partners, and I do not not want to be hurt. And going, “Well, Ferrett’s afraid of societal punishment, what an overblown fear!”, I feel, is to brush aside the fact that yeah, mistakes happen in consent and some of those mistakes can be damning.

      (On either side. I know of men who’ve had their consent profoundly violated, so please let’s not make this a men vs. women issue.)

      So I think to dismiss the concern of that happening as “Well, it won’t” is, again, to erase valid concerns. It might not happen every time, but it only takes once to ruin your life. having fears over that may be overblown, but I draw a distinction between that and invalid. If that makes any sense.

      And on a pragmatic level, if fear’s what it takes to get dudebros concerned, then that’s better than nothing. But Ferguson operates off of fear. It’d be far better to have people move beyond fear and get involved in it positively.

      • beguine
        Aug 27, 2014

        I know alcohol is the traditional social lubricant to get shy people together, but I honestly think the fear around handing a girl you’re interested in a beer may be something that has to happen for exactly the reasons you outline. Sometimes it IS hard to read signals and sometimes people DO end up going along with things that later deeply hurt them without their partner realizing there’s a problem. Both of those problems are exacerbated when your inhibitions and perceptive abilities are clouded. Perhaps the new social rule needs to be “you hand them a beer if you’re going for flirting only, you hand them a coffee if you’re hoping for something physical.”

        • Yet Another Laura H
          Aug 28, 2014

          “But Ferguson operates off of fear. It’d be far better to have people move beyond fear and get involved in it positively.”

          “Perhaps the new social rule needs to be “you hand them a beer if you’re going for flirting only, you hand them a coffee if you’re hoping for something physical.”

          I love both of these statements without abashment.

  3. cass
    Aug 27, 2014

    How different is this from
    White Person: I dont’ talk about race and don’t approach non-whites anymore because frankly I don’t want to be accused of being racist.

    How many things are wrong with that attitude?

    How is that different from
    Man: I don’t approach women anymore becuase Frankly I don’t want to be accused of being a predator.

    1) Don’t act like a predator and no one will accuse you of being one.
    2) if someone seems unhappy with what yu just did, pull back and ask them what’s going on
    3) when women talk about consent culture, SHUT UP AND LISTEN

    I think the incidents of the Skeptical community and the con-going community and the gamer community make it pretty fucking clear that women have been TRYING to teach men about consent and how it works and body language and comfort zones and for every effort we are rewarded with mockery, threats and dismissal. So don’t whine about “poor guys don’t know how to navigate consent culture!” – FUCKING ASK WOMEN AND STOP NEGATING THEM WHEN THEY TRY TO TEACH YOU.

  4. cass
    Aug 27, 2014

    Because so far as sympathy goes, actually lots of women have loads of sympathy: risking rejection, mockery and humiliation is scary. We know because we feel the same way about dating. Although we have a few additional worries that men generally don’t have, we do still get anxious about letting someone know we like them without seeming “clingy” or “needy” or “desperate” or “that crazy bitch” or even just “slutty”

    So yes, we have sympathy. If that’s all you wanted, you got it. But i have a feeling that wasn’t the only point of your essay.

    • Ben
      Nov 19, 2014

      “Although we have a few additional worries that men generally don’t have, we do still get anxious about letting someone know we like them without seeming “clingy” or “needy” or “desperate” or “that crazy bitch” or even just “slutty”

      Lots of men are accused of being clingy or needy or crazy for being a little overbearing and just wanting to hang out a lot because they’re in love and spending time with that person is the most enjoyable thing to them. It is not an issue that women specifically have to worry about, although I can’t really speak for other men. Maybe it’s more common for men to find women too overbearing than the other way around. I really have to reign it in and force myself not to want to do stuff all the time or text too much. I don’t really like sex all that much and generally I’ll do it if my partner really wants to but mostly I just like spending time with the person. Sharing activities, particularly if they’re creative because I’m an artist.

      Luckily for me that’s not really that relevant because being a passive, socially awkward person, women aren’t generally interested in me. I think it’s partly because I was raised by a single mum who is a feminist so I was brought up basically to not make gender based assumptions, to expect a woman to come along and sweep me off my feet (like lots of women expect), and to just not really make any effort because it will just happen. In reality that does happen if you’re a woman. My mum taught me that because it worked for her her entire life multiple times, but talking to my dad and my step dad, the actually reality is she thinks that happened but they were very pro active and worked incredibly hard to end up in a relationship with her, but from her perspective she just bumbled around and long term loving relationships happened.

      So now I have to redefine my approach and learn to be at least a little bit of a predator, despite it not being in my nature whatsoever. Learn to make the first move, say the right things, lie to impress, fake confidence… etc. All the things my male friends have been telling me for years and I’ve avoided because I felt like it was a sexist approach and things should be equal. I’m learning that things are not equal, and men do have to make an explicit effort in a sort of wooing process.

  5. Yet Another Laura H
    Aug 28, 2014

    Look, hypothetical dudebro, chances are, you’re not going to get “mistaken” for a predator. The chances are, as a rapist at college, you know exactly what you’re hoping for; you know what you’re going to do; and you’re a repeat offender. When you read accounts of date rape, it’s not the parts that depict the act that get you hard, it’s earlier, where the woman’s resistance is destroyed. I hate to bring the C-magazine into it, but:

    http://www.cosmopolitan.com/college/news/a30507/sexual-assault-misconceptions/

    If these things are true of you, and you are resisting predatory actions, good for you! It’s hard to be a good person when your instincts/ upbringing are telling you to do differently. Everyone deserves a chance for redemption.

    But if you’re not, you’re maybe like the kid who cringes and feels like an awful person every time she sees a “shoplifters will be prosecuted” sign, when that’s the last thing she’d ever do. Don’t make it part of your narrative that that you’re constantly under suspicion. You’re not. Use respect, and take “she may not want to,” as an answer.

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