I don’t know anyone of any political stripe in the United States who doesn’t believe that for exactly the same job, a woman should be paid the same as a man, or that a woman should have the same standing as a man in law; that she should have the same political representation and equal social influence. If these more-or-less ubiquitous truisms are the fruits of feminism, then we all – men and women alike – have much to thank it for.
But I am sensing a tectonic shift away from feminism as an assertive philosophy.
Generalizing from anecdotes is always dangerous but there’s little alternative to drawing on personal experience and conversations in observing the relationship between men and women and the meaning of gender in our culture.
I remember distinctly as a young teenager having no idea what to do with girls except to be nice to them – just as I was supposed to be nice to everyone. I recall thinking that any kind of physical advance on a girl was by definition aggressive, and therefore I was a better person for not making them. I realize now, of course, that that may well have been a convenient rationalization of my own cowardice, but all the same, it was the rationalization that most naturally made itself available as I was growing up.
In my 14-year old mind, there was a compelling logic to “if men and women are equal, then I should treat men and women in exactly the same way”. By the other end of my teenage years, I had no more idea about what to do with girls – except to continue being nice to them.
By my last year of university, I had been with only one girl – my first girlfriend, whom I’d actually met before I arrived at university. That relationship had finished a few years before, and by my last year, I’d had none of that sexual fun that students were supposed to be having – and that window was about to close with my upcoming graduation. Nevertheless, many of the most attractive women at my college would often take advantage of my open door policy and come around for tea and conversation.
So when a fellow student, who lived in the same building as I and was known as something of a womanizer, asked me how it was all the college’s most attractive females were visiting me on a regular basis, I answered, “Because I am not doing with them what you would want to do with them”.
I heard myself say those words. When I started saying them, I thought I was making a statement of my own moral rectitude. By the end of the sentence, I realized I was making a statement about my own emasculation.
And more or less in that moment, I resolved to try something different. The next time one of those attractive girls came up for tea, I broadened my conversation to include flirting. I didn’t call it that. I didn’t call it anything, but I think if I’d been asked, I’d have called it, “being less pathetic”.
And lo and behold, these women – good friends, all of them – started responding in kind. Where there was only tea, there was now tea and chemistry. I didn’t go “all the way” with any of them – I only had a few months of university left and wasn’t that much of a quick study – but I discovered the fun of actually playing with gender and sexuality.
Ten years later, I find myself sitting in a bar in Manhattan with a friend, discussing how, based on more experiences in the intervening decade than I can begin to list here, women actually like men to be men. I was speaking in a sexual context and, obviously, drawing on conversations and experiences with women with whom I’d actually been close enough to be able to discuss or even directly test the hypothesis. Presenting my findings to my friend as some kind of exciting discovery, I ventured that women seemed to like those traditionally male qualities of self-assuredness, assertiveness, and in the right context, even dominance, and especially when they were harnessed in the expression of desire. Women, I’d found, wanted men to make the first move with confidence, rather than to ask whether this, that or the other was ok. They wanted men to take risks.
The fact that I was about 30 years old and any of that was surprising, and the fact that behaving in such ways that are attractive to so many women felt so “risky” to me as a man, told me something about the culture I was brought up in: they pointed to an over-reach of the politics of feminism into cultural and personal experience in a way that wasn’t serving anyone very well. Put simply, some of the moves that most women who are attracted to a man want him to make might prompt another woman to claim sexual harassment. Context is everything, for sure, but no one taught the young men of my generation about that: rather, since the imbalance of power is always in favor of the man, we as men are dangerous by default. When I was a young adult, the rules of thumb for how good men behaved said nothing of context.
Moreover, a man of my generation, unlike my Dad’s, is taught no codified language to signal attraction to a woman in a non-threatening way. My father’s generation engaged in such a thing as courting. There were safe ways to signal one’s desire for a woman, and for her to respond. There was an etiquette of attraction, if you will. But male Generation-Xers, who reached manhood as feminism reached its political peak, had no such codes. So I, wanting to treat everyone in my world well, was careful to do nothing that could possibly be interpreted as being predatory. And I set a high bar for myself, as approaching anyone with the goal of getting from them a gratifying experience for myself was predatory by definition – wasn’t it?
Back to the bar in Manhattan. There I was with my friend, chatting about all these things, and a woman comes up to us, telling us that she’d been listening in; that we were so right; that she wished more men knew this, and that we really should be teaching seminars on this stuff to other men. Since then, I have had dozens of conversations with women who’ve said the same thing. In a strange recurrence, the most recent, a month ago, was with a lady who owns a dating and match-making company, and was so excited to hear a man venture this hypothesis that she invited me to come and speak to her clients.
What would be the thesis of such a speech?
It would be that to be human is to be gendered; that some of the most intense, sublime and human experiences available to us are sexual; that our experience of our sexuality is an experience of polarity – the gap between the masculine and feminine. Femininity, masculinity and sex are delicious to the extent that the polarity exists, is directly experienced and is even amplified.
Men and women are indeed equal in humanity and moral agency, but the most intense experience of being a man, or of being a woman, is in the difference between them – not their sameness. This is not to make either superior. Rather, it makes them more equal than any political account of gender ever can, since it asserts their utter dependence on each other. If you cut a magnet, with a north pole and a south pole, in half, you end up with two small magnets, each with north and south. There is no north except with a south, and vice versa. There is no magnet without both. It is impossible even to define each pole except by defining the other.
How is this fundamental truth of our sexuality, intensely experienced by most people repeatedly in a lifetime, nevertheless hidden to us? Consider the reaction, especially among women, to “Fifty Shades of Grey“, a book about a relationship based on male sexual dominance and female sexual submission, which sold 100 million copies. The only thing surprising about its massive success is that anyone is surprised about it. What is the cultural context that can make so many of us so unable to observe our own sexual responses and motivations that we are actually surprised by them when we see them out in the open?
I’m not a reader of “gender theory” or “feminist theory”. My “polarity theory” is simply one that I have evolved to explain both my personal experiences and those of almost everyone to whom I’ve ever spoken about this topic. I recently ran it by a relationship therapist. I was fascinated by his response. He said that not only was I right but that this theory explains why he has so many more lesbian couples come to him with sexual problems in their relationship than gay male couples. He expounded that gay couples tend more often to begin a relationship with sex, and so that polarity of energies – the masculine vs. feminine – is established from the beginning – and if it can’t be, then no relationship gets off the ground. Lesbian couples, on the other hand, he explained, are much more likely to come to him for help with sexual difficulties in their relationship, because those relationships usually do not begin sexually and so that polarity is not established: rather, the sexual aspect of their relationship grows out of everything else that brought them together, often leaving them to discover that without that polarity, the sex simply doesn’t work.
It was around the time of that conversation with the therapist that a rather attention-grabbing article about just this issue came out in the mainstream-as-it-gets New York Times Sunday supplement. Although many have taken issue with some of its findings since publication, there was one line that summed it up and is consistent with my own experiences and those of the people with whom I’m close enough to discuss such things.
the values that make for good social relationships are not necessarily the same ones that drive lust….
That should be so obvious as to be a banality, but my generation has been trained not to see it. Many women, for example, want to be pursued. But a decent man brought up in the feminist era is immediately faced with a problem: if we are pursuing, then, by definition, the woman is running away – so we must be doing something that the woman doesn’t want. The right thing to do – the thing that respects her “equality” – is to stop the pursuit. After all, if she wanted what we wanted to give her, she’d already have told us, or, at the very least, let herself be “caught” as quickly and easily as possible.
I remember back in my teenage years, the “No means No” marches in London. And in the context that that slogan was meant to be applied to, the point is clearly both correct and morally essential. But in some contexts, “No” can mean “Not yet, but I’m open to your continued, respectful or playful attempts”. And just as a young man must be taught to respect a woman’s “no”, he needs also to be taught how to read women, to read context, and to do both without feeling guilty or anxious about the desires that naturally drive him. If we fail as a culture to give men even that, then the good men – as all too many women seem now to be finding – will continue to default to a safe, scared, hands-off mode, and we all end up losing much of the pleasure of being sexual beings.
The experience from which that woman in the bar in Manhattan was speaking – as confirmed by many others to whom I’ve spoken since – is that, indeed, many men don’t know how to make a woman feel like a woman. And both men and women are suffering from that. A woman wants her man to help her feel like a woman – to establish that polarity. If he can’t do that, because he can’t feel himself as a man, then we are on a vicious cycle of destroying the polarity – that experience of the very difference that makes gender and sex so … well … sexy.
Feminism should surely be celebrated for the political, and indeed, cultural successes it has had. They are too many and too obvious to miss.
But it seems now, perhaps, that whereas the political and institutional benefits of feminism have been almost entirely to its credit, women, themselves, are now experiencing in their personal lives – in the actual experience of being a woman – the damage that has been done by a culture that has removed the permission, even ability, of men to revel in the pole of the sexual magnet that they represent.
And I don’t mean that faux, superficial masculinity of sports teams and large trucks that American advertisers like to push at us. I mean that which each man defines for himself – whatever it is that makes him feel powerful, able and attractive – and confident enough to know that he can go to that place of assertiveness with his sexual partner in the bedroom, without that saying anything about his treatment of women anywhere else.
By the right man, a woman likely wants to be pursued. By the right man, a woman likely wants to be taken. Some want to be dominated, and others, at the very least, want to be in the presence of dominance. And nearly all women want to feel like women – and would like their men to play their part in that.
Since I started making notes for this article, some weeks ago, as if as confirmation of its main theme, I discovered the existence of the Men’s Rights Movement – and the many women who populate it – and the springing up on social media of anti-feminists.
The fact that such sentiments are now moving mainstream speaks to a cultural hypothesis I am currently testing out – that feminism, like the modern Progressivism that has its roots in the ’60s, is at the end of its two-generation lifespan – and that the pendulum is beginning – just beginning – to swing back.
And no one should be surprised. Approximately two generations after the beginning of feminism, young adults, especially young women, get to assess its outcomes while taking for granted its successes. To generalize, many of the political successes that feminism fought for may well be responsible for giving some of those anti-feminists some of the security, education, representation and, indirectly then, power to declare that they don’t like feminism for the bits that don’t suit. They don’t like feminism because they blame it for taking the man out of their men, the woman out of themselves, and if you’ll allow me to be a little more literal, the man out of the women, too.
My favorite teacher at high school was the Head of Mathematics. His students liked him because of his dry sense of humor and his provocative way of educating – at least 10% of the time about life, rather than math. I can’t recall the context… but one of the most memorable lessons he ever gave concerned the meaning of “equal”.
To say a woman is equal to a man is like saying a giraffe is equal to an elephant. Equal has a particular meaning. It means “is the same as”. Giraffes are not equal to elephants because they are different.
In the ’90s, that tongue-in-cheek comment was sufficiently provocative that it has stayed with me for two decades. Now, though, it will do as a concise explanation of why, culturally, if not politically, Feminism, like all -isms, is, at best, incomplete.
Feminism is about enabling women to have what they choose. But women choose to feel like women – to experience the delectable polarity of the female and the male, and that requires a culture that empowers, and celebrates, both.