No, All Humans
I don’t want this blog to become the sort of space where I have to weigh in on every single development of the 24-hour news cycle. But the recent events in Isla Vista are the first thing I’ve felt compelled to write about since arriving home from Europe, and I’m sick and I can’t sleep, so here goes. I’m going to talk about straight people here, because that’s what I am and know the most about, and because heterosexual sexual dynamics are most germane to the topic at hand.
I went to Isla Vista a few months ago on tour, and I profoundly did not like it. It seems, in retrospect, like the worst possible place for a person like Elliot Rodgers to be; an uncanny valley of idyllic youth and beauty and sex. His choice to seek out this place because of rather than in spite of the college-movie atmosphere was a profound failure of self-awareness. Expecting sex or any other form of acceptance from people he proved fully capable of murdering was another. I’m not interested in talking about his parents, who from my limited information seem to have really tried, or his possible mental illness, about which I know nothing. I’d rather talk about society. Not at all to excuse what this guy did; the worst kind of person is the one who allows his or her insecurities to harm others. Just to try and understand.
Here’s my understanding of how male sexual insecurity functions. Women receive conflicting messages about sex: it’s the most valuable thing you have to offer, but you’re supposed to withhold it so you’re not a slut. It’s your primary source of value that is devalued as soon as you use it; a form of currency you can’t actually spend. Men receive a much more straightforward message: sex is something you take rather than give, and your worth is in large part a function of your ability to obtain it. Some men have an easier time having sex than others, and the ones that don’t are trying to understand why. Importantly, this is not primarily to enjoy the pleasurable experience of having sex, but to be worthy in their own eyes and those of their peers. I remember an old roommate asking me why I never had any girls over. We were, after all, in our 20s with an apartment, so girls should be there. I was depressed, and sex was the furthest thing from my mind, and I was trying to get my shit together. The fact that I was going through a rough patch must have been obvious to someone living with me, but the question wasn’t “why are you depressed?”, it was “why aren’t you having sex?” On the occasions when a female friend I was not sleeping with came over, the question was “did you hit it?” Having a female friend over did not count as “having girls over”. This dynamic is set in motion as soon as one kid on the school bus finds out what sex is and tells all the other boys he did it even though he’s like 9 and that’s ridiculous. The expectation is set. I have extremely cool parents and wonderful friends and a healthy skepticism of all messages transmitted to me by media and other institutions, and I still occasionally find myself worrying about whether I’m having “enough” sex. I am sure I’m not alone here.
So why aren’t women having sex with you? Maybe it’s something wrong with you. Well, you can get a haircut, join a gym, buy some Axe Body Spray with Extra-Masculosity and apply it copiously until some kind soul informs you it’s gross. It’s not a coincidence that these are all things you have to buy, and you’re probably also buying a men’s magazine to advise you in your purchases. Like all forms of oppression, misogyny and capitalism form a tidy feedback loop. I am reminded of Marilyn Manson’s amazing appearance in Bowling For Columbine, in which he says:
…you’re watching television, you’re watching the news, you’re being pumped full of fear, there’s floods, there’s AIDS, there’s murder, cut to commercial, buy the Acura, buy the Colgate, if you have bad breath they’re not going to talk to you, if you have pimples, the girl’s not going to fuck you, and it’s just this campaign of fear, and consumption, and that’s what I think it’s all based on, the whole idea of ‘keep everyone afraid, and they’ll consume.’
I haven’t thought about the music of Marilyn Manson in some time, but I think about that quote a lot. I would like to clarify that I think of his campaign of fear and consumption as an emergent phenomenon rather than some sort of conspiracy. It doesn’t have to be a conspiracy. The various parties benefit from effects produced by the others. The men’s magazine needs your fear, and your fear needs the men’s magazine to direct it. Publications like Maxim were all over the place in middle school and high school. They are a relatively new development, actually targeted at insecure teens and preteens, like Cosmopolitan for boys. Back in the day there was just Playboy, which the guy at the bodega wouldn’t sell you, or Esquire or GQ, which had too many substantive longform articles and not enough boobs to appeal to the demographic. I bet Maxim never had an article whose thesis was that women don’t owe you sex. That would dilute the brand. I’m not “blaming the media” here; media comes from people. We get the Maxim we deserve.
If you don’t think there’s something wrong with you, the other conclusion you might arrive at is that there’s something wrong with women. There’s been a lot of talk about these so-called “men’s rights activists” or MRAs, and how they’re complicit in Rodgers’s actions, but I think it is most productive to see them as a symptom rather than the problem. Misogyny doesn’t come from individuals reaching a critical mass. If enough of these men exist and feel comfortable expressing their views in a public forum, that indicates a widespread moral failure. These men are not getting what they need, and they don’t even know it. They think they need sex, but what they really need is a worldview in which not having sex is okay. Like a house or a car, sex is something you are supposed to have. Notice how this schema conveniently removes the agency of individual women from the equation.
Let’s talk about porn for a minute. Most men these days see porn before they see a real live naked adult woman. I know I did, though with my 56k modem I was mostly limited to still images rather than videos as a teenager, which probably makes my early consumption more similar to that of previous generations with magazines. I am not opposed to porn on principle. As a feminist, I think sex work is work, and the people involved have moral agency, and if they do not someone needs to go to jail. As a dude trying to get off, I think it is sometimes fun to see what attractive women with whom I will not have sex look like when they are having sex. I’m not making an anti-porn argument here, but I am trying to elucidate what it might do to the mind when paired with the peer dynamic noted above.
In the cold light of day, the thing I find most striking about porn in video form is the narrative inevitability. There’s a lot of talk about how porn sex is different from real sex, and certainly that is a point worth making, but I don’t know if anyone’s talking about the narrative aspect; about how porn sets an expectation that what is desired can be attained. If you see a woman at the beginning of the video, she is going to be fucked in some manner by the end of the video. Maybe there’s some cursory narrative setup in which somebody orders a pizza, or maybe they just start right out with a shot of her gyrating body in the sort of ridiculous garment only porn actors wear. Either way, in the overwhelming majority of porn, the woman or women you see are there to have sex, and they are having sex because they are there. You, the viewer, desire her, and you will see your desire fulfilled. Maybe there’s a man in there having sex too, but he’s clearly not the focus, and you might not even see his face. The viewer is not watching the male actor, the viewer is identifying with him. He is doing what he is supposed to be doing. In the language of MRAs is that the category of “hot girl” is distinct from the category of women generally. Girls who are not hot have no purpose to these men who so bravely defend their rights against the matriarchy. A girl is “hot” because you desire her, and you watch hot girls having sex all the time, and maybe don’t interact with terribly many in a nonsexual way. So when you see a hot girl, and you desire them, it should follow the narrative, right? You approach her, express your interest, and then sex occurs, just like that 9-year-old and his imaginary girlfriend. This, as far as I can tell, is what MRAs are saying. They are aggrieved that life does not imitate porn, and are angered and baffled when women fail to play the expected role.
But let’s be real: sex is important. It’s kind of one of the best things ever. When you want to have sex with someone and you don’t, you are disappointed. So how might men acknowledge that feeling without wallowing in homosocial self-pity on the internet? As always, Prince offers a way forward. Read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s take. Listen to “I Wanna Be Your Lover“. Aside from the general impression that it is a perfect song and kind of makes me want to fuck Prince a little bit, the line that jumps out at me is “I wanna be your brother/ I wanna be your mother and your sister too”. He’s not talking about incest, although he certainly talks about that elsewhere. This is a similar theme to “If I Was Your Girlfriend“. There are a thousand songs about a dude wanting to be someone’s boyfriend, but this is not what Prince is after. He wants an entirely new sort of relationship. One that includes sex, sure, but also includes different forms of intimacy, like families have. Men are taught to expect intimacy from women in terms of sex. But sex and every other form of intimacy are so closely intertwined, and I think Prince is unique in pop music in illustrating that dynamic. Listen to “It’s Gonna Be Lonely“. The way he demands: “who do you think you are?” He is not entitled. He is wounded, and not because he is being deprived of sex. He is being deprived of the whole fact of the woman he desires, which includes sex, and by expressing his longing in such a nuanced way he acknowledges the humanity of himself and the woman.
I was going to close by saying that if Elliot Rodgers had been taught to conceive of women as humans instead of vaginas with combination locks he would never have developed the resentment that drove him to violence, but that’s simplistic. The harsh reality is that not everyone gets what they want, and not getting what you want is terrible, and it doesn’t matter how misguided what you want is because you want it. Insofar as there is a solution, I think education is a big part of it. We can and should expand and improve sex education to talk more holistically about relationships and start as soon as kids become verbal, and I do believe that would make both men and women happier and safer. But there is no corrective to the basic fact of existence, which is that sometimes you want things and don’t get them. Forget about what Elliot Rodger wanted. Sometimes you are just trying to walk to class and some fuck shoots you because you’re wearing a halter top and it makes his boner angry. No, all humans don’t get what they want. I got nothing. I hope I am treating the women in my life with respect. I am heartily terrified to have children. Listen to Prince, about everything except the afterlife and the gays. That’s all.