When was the last time you got two messages that contradicted each other, and you weren’t sure which one was right? I’m talking seriously at-odds messages, like “don’t run out into the middle of a four lane road, you’ll get hit by a car!” on one hand, and “the E line stops right in the middle of a four lane road and I need to get on it!” level confused. Both messages seem pretty reasonable - it’s generally a bad idea to run into the street where you can, in one glorious moment, be hit by a train, car, and bike all at once. On the other hand, an entire public transportation line was set up to stop in the middle of a four lane road, and clearly people get on and off of it all the time. What do you do? How do you act? How do you decide which message you’re going to listen to?
My tradition is usually to watch other people and try to figure out what “most” folks do. After a while I learned that, especially on the E line, you pretty much had to fling yourself out into the middle of Huntington Avenue around Mission Hill and just hope that the drivers didn’t crush you to death. After getting some experience with this, I learned that because ‘‘m tall, I can throw my hands in front of traffic and drivers will usually stop. I adapted the message to my particular life circumstances, and ignored the parts that I learned through experience and observation weren’t important.
This strategy only works, though, if we have some sort of consistent behavior to observe. What happens when we get two conflicting messages, and we can’t reconcile or evaluate them, because everyone else is just as confused as we are? What if someone like me looks out into the world and is trying to figure out what to do about the content of these messages, and sees no clear model or sensible behavior? What model does that person create for themselves?
We put women in double-binds like this all the time. It’s one of the most devastatingly effective ways to keep an entire class of people confused and disorganized. But I want to look at a double-bind for straight men today, since that’s what I consider myself to be, and because I think it’s a pivotal point in sexual violence.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a straight dude. Now, because of gender branding, in contemporary America saying that I’m a “straight dude” means a relatively specific set of things socially, mentally, and culturally. Regular readers have probably recognized that I come down solidly on the ‘nurture’ side of the nature vs. nurture debate, and that’s why I think so many straight men seem to have so much in common - because we’ve been trained to be a certain way. I’m not so in the tank for nurture, though, that I can completely ignore biology. The impetus to reproduce is a damn strong one, and sex is a powerful motivating force in my life. I can recognize that at least a component of that motivation is biological, and would exist even if I weren’t being socially trained.
Social messages love to emphasize this biological motivation. I’m digging around some fraught issues here, especially when it comes to things like objectification and beauty standards, but I think I’m on pretty safe ground when I say that a primary component of what the advertisement below is saying is that straight men want women’s bodies - that sex is awesome, sex with women is awesome, and that it is natural and fair to desire women. The second, third, etc. parts of this message are helping to create a narrow cultural view of what women are, but that isn’t the scope of this particular post. The basic message: women’s bodies are so beautiful, so enjoyable to look at and exert so powerful a hold on the straight male mind because even god had the same desires we did. To be fair: these same ideas are also targeted to anyone who is attracted to women’s bodies, not just people who identify as men, but I’d argue that the majority of advertising especially is geared towards the male gaze, and that outlets that cater specifically to lesbians or the queer community use different strategies.
This particular ad is a stand-in for my biological desires. It’s well recognized in this culture that I, as a straight man who is biologically male, am both allowed and expected to want the female body. I don’t generally have a problem with social messages that allow people to have the feelings they do; as long as those message don’t go beyond encouraging people to own their emotions. I am allowed to lust the crap out of anyone I want, as long as that social freedom stops the moment it goes beyond my brain. What I think and feel internally are all mine, and I don’t have to tell a damn person about it. Once it moves from beyond my brain into the world of physical reality, though - that’s when it’s not my social right anymore to do with as I please.
It’s good to own my lust. I like it, because I identify as a sexual person. I like looking at women, and I enjoy as a part of my identity that this enjoyment is a part of me. I also know it’s my job to make sure that doesn’t affect anyone else who doesn’t expressly tell me that want to be affected by it. So far, so good - I get social messages that tell me, as a straight man, that my biological urges are generally OK; that wanting women’s bodies is not only something I’m allowed to do, but that a lot of other people feel the same way I do. I learn from comedies like The Hangover that it’s not particularly unusual for straight men to spend a lot of time thinking about or engineering ways to be with women sexually, or to experience women’s sexuality, and insofar as all of that activity is consensual and non-coerced, I’m ok with that. I learn through this category of messages that it’s reasonable to expect that this lust for women’s bodies is going to, at times in my life, be exceptionally powerful.
If that were the main message that straight men got about our sexuality…wow, this would be a much better world, with probably a lot more good sex, too. We’d still have a lot of problems - teaching young straight boys that women are people, and not just boobs, would still be necessary. At least this message on its own isn’t so damn toxic, though.
The problem is that this is not the only message I’m given about my sexuality and specifically, about my relationship to women. Alongside the acceptance for my desire for women is another message.
What is this ad telling me, as a man who is attracted to women? There’s probably a thousand different general ideas we could get out of this, but I think a pretty basic one is: don’t do anything that women do. If you are a man, if you do anything that is associated with women (like wearing heels), then you will need karate lessons either to fight off the other dudes who will kick the crap out of you, or you need karate lessons to make you a man again. Doing things that women do, or like, or participate in, will corrupt you. It will steal your man-ness! Stay away from them!
Girls and women are weak. They are contagious. They can infect me, the noble straight man, and rob me of my vitality and my masculinity and my power. Strangely enough, we can use The Hangover to look at both messages: yes, it’‘s normal for guys to lust after women’s bodies and experience desire, but the moment you form a bond with a woman, you are an emasculated, pussy-whipped bitch with no backbone. That fact that even the terms we use to describe a lack of strength are gendered is a pretty good indication of what culture thinks of women’s strength. The site Sociological Images is a great place to check out a (depressingly) large number of other major media products that help emphasize these ideas; from t-shirts to print ads to movie trailers, the idea that men should hate women for being weak and contagious is not limited to a small niche of current American culture.
Here’s what I’m facing then, as a young straight man in the world: I am biologically driven to be sexually interested in women, and there’s a lot of social messages that support that this desire is legitimate, shared, and experienced broadly, but I’m not supposed to like or even really tolerate women. Their bodies have power, but they themselves do not. Also, I’m not supposed to want to do anything that women like, so how does that whole ‘consent-and-sex’ thing work? If I like having sex with women, and they are vocal about also wanting to have sex with me, does that mean I’m losing my power? Sadly, a lot of men, a very very sizable portion of men, who absolutely do not know how to reconcile these two competing ideas and never learn that they are allowed to reject the second message.
A few weeks ago, Thomas posted some disturbing, but unfortunately not uncommon rants of some Men’s Rights Activists (for serious trigger warning). You can see the thought pattern, just beneath the words (or sometimes, directly in them). It goes something like this:
“I HATE women. They are so much…LESS than me. How do they have this sexual power over me? I am told every morning pretty much upon waking up and looking at those stupid-ass Stella Artois commercials that women are literally not my equals as SENTIENT BEINGS, but they have these BODIES that I want SO BADLY. And you’re telling me that somehow these weak, confused THINGS have the ability to deny their bodies to me? Seriously? If women are weak and I hate them, why do I want them so much? THAT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE.”
It doesn’t make any sense. It’s completely senseless, completely confusing, and totally alienating. These messages also run deep. It takes a long, long time to get away from them, if that’s even possible. But it’s work we’ve got to do. We have got to find ways to start chopping away at that second message, or make it a lot clearer in real life that no one follows it or care about it. If men are the majority of perpetrators of sexual violence, the only way to substantially affect sexual violence in this country is to get men to a place where they realize that they don’t hate women, and that it’s possible for them to reject messages them tell them that they should.