Letter from the Front
For the last thirty years, men have been blessed with an ever-increasing supply of advice from women on how we should adapt to the new world of gender equity. All the media and every institution have been at the service of the re-education of men. That this re-education has been necessary I do not question. No sane person would argue against the proposition that much change was past due and that much has been for the better. On the other hand, most women would not argue with my assertion that much current advice from women to men is contradictory or just plain silly. The solving of any great problem requires many theories, only a few of which will ultimately be tenable, and it is no great surprise that we have had to wade through some fairly turbid waters.
What I question here is the problem of the re-education of women. The dialogue has been almost completely one-sided up to now, men being allowed to add only silent embarrassment and a dull acquiescence (that or ostracism from "good" society). Men have been left an opinion page on sexual matters only in Playboy, and this is easily dismissed. Disbelievers in current ideology, whatever it may be, are banished to the far right, whether they belong there or not, and their sexual privileges are revoked. Men cannot even defend themselves without inciting further unrest, and without the mouth of Camille Paglia, one assumes we would be toothless.
Women are left to re-educate themselves, with no input from men. This isolationism has encouraged a kind of reverse sexism, and many women now allow themselves a prejudice against men, an overt attitude of superiority that would never be accepted from the new man. A major societal problem, one concerning both sexes, is being left to one sex only; and this situation is yet regarded as an advance in fairness. As if there are no good men, and nothing good to be expected from men. But if this is the case, as some women apparently believe, then there is no solution, and all argument is pointless. The case will ultimately be decided by arm-wrestling or pistols at dawn, and all is lost even for the winner.
I grew up in the seventies in a household that was thoroughly feminist. When I was fourteen I gave up my room to a visiting Frances (Sissy) Farenthold, the first woman to be nominated for Vice-President. Five years later my mother ran for US Congress. So I found it both logical and desirable that women should be equal. Not only politically equal, but equal to me. I have always been attracted to intelligent women. I have had several long-term relationships that were good and sometimes very good. I have yet to experience a backlash against my upbringing, although I sometimes consider that my experiences in the last five years would excuse one. I mention my past, my childhood experiences and expectations, because I expect most women will not want to hear what I am about to say, and I want to make it a little harder for them not to listen. Most, I predict, will invent a history or a personality for me to explain my stubbornness. That they do not know me at all or that they have no evidence but my opinion on this one subject to support such a blanket dismissal will not hinder them, I know. They will not care that I have supported Dave Foreman and Earth First, that I consider Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader and Faye Wattleton and Wendell Berry heroes, that I am not for GATT or NAFTA or any other economic growth, that I help frogs to cross the street. I will nonetheless be considered as one with Jesse Helms and Dinesh D'souza. I am either friend or foe, and no friend would dare to argue with them about the sins of patriarchy or the future of sexual relations.
This, in short, is my call: for anyone with any expectations at all, the dating scene (for lack of a better word) is a shambles. I can hear the reaction now: "We try to change the world, and all you can talk about is the 'dating scene.'" True, I talk of dreams, which are the children of an idle brain. You dream of equal pay for equal work, I dream of an evening with an agreeable woman (knowing I will not be allowed that word "agreeable," I use it anyway). But surely a large part of this revolution, for you, is the desire for a more agreeable man: a man with whom you may have a better life than you were allowed before. If not, if all this is truly only a material or political issue, I'm not sure I want your "changed" world. It sounds all too familiar.
I claim that for all men and women with blood in their veins, the new sexual politics has chilled the air. I claim that this is important, for men and women. And not just for those over thirty—for whom it has always been more difficult—but equally for those in their twenties or teens. Young women have been traumatized, most not by men but by the milieu. And the more intelligent, the more sensitive they are, the more they have suffered. Despite all the talk of equality, young women have not been given much help in defining a positive equal role with a man. And I don't mean in a business relationship, or in the public arena, but privately, where it effects us all the most. We have been taught how to fight, but not how to get along. The self-respecting young woman who will not be submissive thinks she must be dominant, and so she cannot get along with any but the most sheepish men—men who do not interest her for long.
The problem begins early and is pervasive. It sources are varied, but some are easier to isolate and gloss. Sex education is either non-existent, clinical, or designed primarily to discourage pregnancy and disease: information is skewed heavily toward the negative, and is more akin to propaganda than to proper preparation for being a sexual member of society. Sexuality is equated to drug abuse, and surely nobody has missed the parallels between the two "just say no" campaigns. The AIDS scare has been used to full effect in our high schools. Young men, with their daily doses of testosterone which repeat "just say yes," are often able to overcome such puritanism. But young women tend to stay confused much longer from the mixed and spurious information they receive. Their first few relationships may be ruined by their fears and coldness, they build walls to protect themselves from more such pain and loss, the situation snowballs, and many never recover. We are, in effect, raising a generation of sexual neurotics, and we are not nearly so far away as we think from the Victorian attitudes of a century ago.
To battle teen pregnancy and disease, we preach the same sermon to all, sacrificing the good with the bad. To prevent a certain percentage of sexual mistakes, we stigmatize all sexual action. But we do not explain how something that is wrong when you are 17 can be right when you are 18 (or 25, or married, or what have you). And if teens are often irresponsible (which they are), what of those in their 20's or 30's? How many truly responsible people do you know, of any age? Isn't all sex dangerous, rife with consequences? The same arguments for abolishing teen sex can be made for sex among 20-somethings, for all sex. And these arguments, though usually more subtle, are being made. It is felt by many that sex is just too risky, at any age, physically and emotionally. It is better to pass. A just say no attitude is hard to break. We inherited the belief that it is better to do nothing than to risk an error from Judeo-Christianity, and it inhibits us still.
Of course sex between teens still happens among the most adventuresome, but "good girls" are less likely to become sexual in high school, even with steady boyfriends, than they were ten years ago, or twenty years ago, and they are more likely to consider themselves better for it. The societal pressure that determines this situation effects everyone, both those having sex and those not having sex. Those who refrain from sex until college, or worse, marriage, often become sexual anorexics: having suppressed a natural appetite for 5-10 years, they find desire may be permanently stunted. Or they may find that redirected or misdirected sexual energy has created neuroses that are not easily dislodged. Those who do have sex as teenagers are rarely allowed to feel good about it. For these there is the danger that sex will become attractive not because it is good but because it is "wicked." There is a large contingency of the sexually active who now prefer to snarl at eachother rather than smile, who find great pleasure in many kinds of pain. A childhood where natural desire is defined as sinful develops into an adulthood where only perversity is pleasant; and we are destroying the sexual innocence of our children—not by allowing them to become sexual too early (which is absurd) but by forbidding them a sexuality that is innate and artless.
Since the 70's, sexuality has been attacked from all sides. First the backlash against the "hedonism" of the 60's, with the campaigns of the "moral majority" and the Reagan conservatives. Then the HIV scare, the AIDS scare, and the new prevalence of HPV. And, all along, the ever-increasing power of feminism. Feminism, in my short lifetime, has moved from the mostly sensible claims of someone like Betty Friedan, to the breastbeating of Gloria Steinem, to the icy vituperation of Cathleen McKinnon. The most visible, and some could argue the most powerful, current of contemporary feminism is created by women with a grudge. A top-volume, them-against-us, take-no-prisoners feminism that, despite being mostly non-sensical, non-factual, and hysterical (and far from the mainstream) yet somehow manages to garner extensive media coverage and influence policy. Sexual politics, like all other politics now, is a spectacle, a Machiavellian made-for-TV brawl that no longer even pretends to transcend agitprop. In the latest ideology, Adam has replaced Eve as the scapegoat of history. Once Woman was evil, the tempter of Man's spiritual purity. Now Man is Azazel, the source of all evil.
This sort of hatchet feminism, added to AIDS and just say no, has all but obliterated an American sexuality that was never strong. Young men are (mostly) still willing, of course. But young women are vastly different than they were 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, to no ones benefit. I am not happy, obviously. But neither are they. Anyone can see it. Apparently, though, their mothers and grandmothers don't care. Young women are suffering for the cause; the entire generation is a martyr. But perhaps it requires the viewpoint of someone with entirely different motives—that is, a male—to see that the ends do not justify the means. The ends do not even require the means. Feminism was proceeding just fine under its own steam before the New Neuroticism began to emerge in the late 80's. I can understand the impatience of intellectual women: I have seen it in my mother. I admit that it is way past time for men to start acting like civilized creatures, and that many remain class-A bastards. But I don't understand how institutionalizing, or attempting to institutionalize, a new Puritanism—based not on resisting Satan, but on thwarting everything male--could be seen as a logical "next weapon" in the latest Cold War. Women have always attempted to use sex as a weapon, and it has never worked for them. It didn't work when they were supposedly weaker, and it can't work now that they are supposedly stronger. It can't work because it is based on the male-created myth that women don't need sex, or that their desire is much less. Men invented this myth to allow themselves to do whatever they wanted with women. As desireless creatures, women needed to make no decisions about sex. They were expected to use sex as a tool, just as men were expected to use their physical strength as a tool. It was the nature of things.
Of course, only for someone for whom sex meant nothing could it be used as a tool. Men can never use sex as a tool because it is too important in and of itself. Everything else is used as a tool for sex. Sex is the end (Freud said the only end). Female historicists now argue that women have advanced beyond the sexual liberation of the 60's, where they were allowed to feel good about sex. They are now liberated not only from false societal standards, standards created by men. They are liberated from men. If the 60's was about feeling good about having sex, the 90's was about feeling good about not having sex. Women don't need sex. Some women need babies, but these can be got anyhow. Men can go to the devil. Hah, hah.
This is just so much boasting, though, and the quicker we get past it the better. If we have learned anything about eachother in the 20th century, it should be that men do need sex and love, and that women do need love and sex. Good men demand both, because sex is not enough. Good women demand both because love is given form by sex: without sex, love becomes a cold abstraction that cannot retain its power, either for men or women.
Intellectual women are impatient for the future, and so am I. I am impatient for intellectual women to become de-Grinched. I pity my own situation, here in Whoville, but, as fairness demands, I pity theirs equally. It doesn't take a psychologist to see that 9/10's of the problems of young women arise from repressed needs, and that if they could take a man into their confidence, if they could benefit from a good relationship, much of their anger and fear would evaporate. Make no mistake, I am not saying a woman needs a man to solve her problems for her. But I am saying that a woman needs a man, and that simply having him will resolve many internal conflicts that seem overriding, but that are mostly peripheral (and many times illusory). The same applies to men, and men who try to convince themselves that women are evil or unnecessary also redirect much emotion into self-generating problems.
But our sexual enlightenment hasn't kept up with our progress in the public arena. We get along better at the office at the cost of getting along worse in the bedroom. Is this a necessary connection, or only a temporal one? Temporal, I think, and one that has roots that are very deep. The licentiousness of the 60's was, for the most part, only a physical looseness over a spiritual emptiness. That's why it didn't last. Even most of the hippies couldn't find a way to feel good about sex, even when it felt good, in a society still under the umbra of St. Paul and Augustine and Arthur Dimmesdale, where all flesh is corrupt. That is why so many "boomers" returned to conservatism in the 80's and 90's. Modern social critics and art critics are always quoting Nietzsche and pronouncing our century to be Dionysian—passionate and uncontrolled rather than rational and serene. Hence our art—think of Jackson Pollock; or our politics—the uncontrolled fury of Hiroshima or the chaos of Vietnam. But this is sheer Newspeak: spin control to press one agenda or the other. Such talk in the age of the machine is lunacy. There is nothing Greek, neither Dionysian nor Apollonian, about culture in late 20th century America, and it is my belief that Nietzsche would consider it blasphemous for his "last men" (which is what we are) to even make the comparison. The Greeks adored the body, deified the body. Their gods were immortal, not just in spirit but in flesh. The body itself, its coloration, its curve, its every detail, defined beauty for the Greek artist. Likewise, sexuality was a good, in and of itself. Corruptible, yes; but also organic, necessary, and, like any action, potentially virtuous.
For us, we are born into the sin of flesh and sex, which must be redeemed. For them, a child was born into the natural virtue of sex, which he retained until he made improper use of it. And art and sex were closely related for the Greek artist (as for all pre-Modern artists). The Greeks could have understood the dichotomy of the passionate high coloration and linear energy of Delacroix (as Dionysian) and the serene highly controlled color and line of Ingres (as Apollonian). But they could never understand an art, or any other social construct, that proceeded from sexual pathology. Our art is not Dionysian; it is manic. It is not the expression of an exuberant Id at the expense of Ego or Superego. It is the neurotic cry of a depressed Id, of a repressed sexuality. The confused and incoherent yawp of smothered desire. Pollock never created his giant canvases in bacchanalian fits (as might be argued for some of those of Picasso—who was not and could not have been American). Pollock paintings were vast therapy sessions that, at least for a while, took for him the place of alcohol.
As it has gone for American 20th century art so it goes for American 20th century sexuality. Just as postmodern or postcolonial art has deconstructed, so has the sexuality that grounds it. Sexuality is mostly undefined now; so is art. Art and sex are both "pluralistic." They are both also highly inflammatory—decidedly not passionate, but psychotically aggressive, both from the point of the male and the female. Healthy sex and art are both unfashionable, and therefore nearly unknown. This is no tenuous academic connection, but a connection that affects even those who know nothing of art or social criticism. The highly educated and the socially aware may be the most confused, but in America, where even the dullest are raised by the media, there is no residue of innocence. One expects even the Amish will soon create their own website and chatroom, so that they too may discuss sex in titillating detail without ever having it. The pathology of current sexuality is everywhere apparent, from the arthouse film Elizabeth, where the Virgin Queen herself becomes the latest role model for young women (lopping off her gorgeous locks and renouncing the traitorous Male, Elizabeth apotheosizes herself, and saves England in the process) to Ally MacBeal, an even more influential, and transparent, icon. Ally, who is sex-obsessed, never gets any sex: not because she is lacking or unlucky but because she is so charmingly neurotic. And the actress who plays her is her: no steady boyfriend to report and then, surprise, she's anorexic. She's popular because she's symptomatic. She's now standard-issue bright beautiful girl. A young woman would probably feel left out of all the wacky glitzy fun if she weren't a sexual mess. This week's number one movie: Crazy/Beautiful.
In the 90's, young women graduated from false AIDS statistics in high school to false date rape statistics in college, so it is not surprising that their attitudes toward men and sex are self-defeating. Once men have been demonized, a ritual cleansing becomes very difficult, and cannot be achieved by men themselves. But the demonization of men damns all heterosexual women, too. Some are beginning to realize this. They are beginning to recognize that the claims of self-gratification are vastly overrated. They are noticing that men's self-esteem does not seem to be effected by admitting that they need women: why should a woman's confidence be any less secure? And they have noticed that the demand that they be judged fairly implies that they judge men fairly.
It is common knowledge that men have failed utterly to live up to women's modern expectations. But for the reconstructed man, women are not very impressive either. They want to be treated as equals while still expecting special treatment. In courtship, they do not make an equal effort. They do not risk as much, especially in the opening stages. They demand to be impressed while retaining the right to be unimpressive, and not to be called on it. They are incredibly judgmental, early and vocally, on the most personal things imaginable; but they may not be judged. Basically, they now demand the right to be indulged in all things. To be equal when it suits them. To be helpless when it is convenient. To be dominant one moment and submissive the next. To be provocatively sexy and untouchably aloof at the same time. To complain of aggression and yet wear chains and dog collars and painful tattoos. To bemoan the rapine of nature and yet to purposefully mar themselves. In the end, what is often asked is the right to act foolish and yet be respected for it. It is therefore no surprise that most of them who have boyfriends have boyfriends far beneath them. Men equally attractive and equally intelligent will not put up with their games, and so they end up with lesser men who only confirm their low opinions.
Men are not infinitely patient, and I do not think we should be expected to become so, but we do, in general, give a woman the benefit of the doubt. If a man is attracted to a woman, he wants to believe that she is also good and intelligent (or he wants to believe that she has the qualities he desires in a woman, whatever they are). He therefore invests her with those qualities in his mind: she has them until she proves beyond a doubt that she doesn't. She is on a pedestal until she pushes herself from it. This approach is logically flawed, of course, but at least it errs on the side of generosity. A woman is just the opposite. The man is in a hole until he can dig himself out. He must prove he is not a bastard like all the rest. Anything can be a source of concern. If he is attractive, he is probably vain, cold, unfaithful, rakish—at any rate, a risk. If he is intelligent, he is probably a know-it-all, cold, unexciting, bookish—at any rate, high maintenance. Talent, likewise. Money, likewise. If he has any positive traits and yet seems nice, he is probably snowing you. If he seems too good to be true, he probably is. This is not just a cliché from the most ridiculous books on the best seller list, it is standard practice, and I have encountered it from women across the board, no matter their backgrounds, politics, SAT scores, or ages.
And so, for a man, the opening ceremonies have become a time of abuse. An attractive woman always has lots of men interested in her, so who are you? You are expendable. You may be insulted with impunity. There will be three more calling next week. The woman feels that she is in control, and so is not required to be thoughtful. But she is not in control. Almost without exception, the modern woman does not pursue men. She does not approach men, she does not call men. She often does not call them back, even if she likes them. They should be persistent, she thinks (like her grandmother's grandmother), or they are not worth knowing. And so it goes. Next week she quickly insults or annoys the only decent men she may come across, and only the most pathetic continue to call her. But this sort of control is hardly worth having a revolution for. Nor does it seem exactly equal or fair.
Many of you are now shaking your heads, saying I'm not like that. But you are like that. I have met many of you, the PhD candidates and the artists and novelists and poets and businesswomen and scientists and musicians—beautiful, talented, highly intelligent, and completely thoughtless.
And mostly oblivious. From what we read, very few of you are in good relationships. The shortage of good men and all that. The more exceptional you are the more unhappy you are. But you make it very difficult for me (let us be specific, and personal, for a change). Either you do not go out, or, if you do go out, you go out in a large unapproachable group. You go to a loud place where no one can talk to you. Or, if you go out by yourself or with one girlfriend, you do not ever look up. You do not notice anything around you. If you see me, you pretend not to. You, as the woman, obviously cannot be expected to just walk up to some attractive guy and say hi (although this is precisely what you expect me to do). But you have forgotten how to flirt. You will not catch my eye, and if you do, you will not smile. You will give me no indication that my luck may finally change. But remember, we are equals: it is just as hard for me to approach you as it is for you to approach me. I have had my feelings hurt just like you have, and, because I am expected to take the risk of the first approach, I have been rejected much more than you have.
Not only do you not flirt or give any positive indications, once I have approached you, you set up obstacles. Even the most progressive of you still play this old male/female game. Maybe you think I like jumping over hurdles. Maybe it is something you do unconsciously, so deeply engrained that it cannot be suppressed. But it meshes damned poorly with your other, more modern, demands on me. Being independent and being contrary are not the same thing. The only time you will look wistfully at me, staring and smiling, is when you are with another guy. Then you are safe. Safe from taking a risk, from making a judgment. It is these times that I think you deserve the problems you have.
You may counter that men are dangerous: you are not paranoid, you are careful. I say that this in no way excuses your attitude. Most men are jerks, granted. Conversely, most women are a mass of symptoms. Still, we must find eachother. Your defenses have become so impenetrable, so non-selective, that the knight in shining armor is being sacrificed with all the miscreants. The man on the white horse riding up to the castle wall will not appreciate being treated as a peasant; and the loss, fair one, is yours.
Besides, many of the women who have the lowest opinion of men are the same women who frequent the most dangerous places in town, who are seen with the biggest losers, whose short list of boyfriends always seems to include a heroin addict or a recent parolee. They are in reaction, of course, throwing themselves away to spite me and mine. But can they possibly have had such a vast experience of men by the time they are 20 or 25 to justify writing off the entire male sex? This, mes egals, is called prejudice, no matter how bad it has been for you. And it is no more a virtue for you than it is for men.
My advice, from someone who needs you, who
needs you to be equal, is to quit shirking your duty in the name of easy
politics and self-indulgent psychology.
Stop pretending you like being alone, that you "need time to find
yourself." Stop pretending to be a
lesbian because it is easier (you know who I am talking to, and who I am not
talking to). I am just as important to
you as you are to me, and it is time to act accordingly. It is time to begin the ritual cleansing of
the primary category I find myself in.
It is time to take responsibility, to take a risk. It is time to look for me. It is time to be nice.
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