About 'Alpha+Good'

Alpha+Good (sort of a bad wordplay on Orwell and machismo) is a side project that belongs to 'Onklare taal' ('Unclear language'), the umbrella of several of my literary projects in Dutch. This section is almost exclusively in English and comprises my ongoing thoughts on progress, gender, politics and various other social themes. Are you a little lost? This link will take you right back to my home page.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Porn again

Porn is a controversial topic. As it exists today, it sits at a crossroads between a whole lot of notions: sexual liberty, capitalism, patriarchy and artistic expression. To discuss it, we must first establish what pornography is.

If porn is in the eye of the beholder, anything can be porn, depending on your cultural and personal background. For the sake of argument, I’ll call porn whatever has been made to sexually arouse a person – even if it is yourself.

Sexual liberty

I first want to tackle the notion of sexual liberty. I believe that no sex act in which all participants involved have given their enthusiastic consent (and are mentally capable of doing so) is immoral. This includes making pornography. As such, porn, in itself and of itself, is not immoral.

Pornography that has been produced with reluctant or unwilling participants, however, clearly would not be ethically sound. I’ll get back to that idea in another section.

A male industry through and through

It’s not surprising that the porn industry is controlled mostly by men and that their target audience is also (heterosexual) men. While there is a huge variety in porn – in terms of female body type alone, much more variety than on catwalks and fashion ads – almost all of it follows the idea that men are dominant, somewhat dim aggressors and that women merely exist to satisfy the urges of said men, either passively or faux-passively (by taking precisely the type of initiative in line with dominant male expectations).

It’s not enough to say that porn should be more diverse and cater to a more differentiated audience, especially not because we’re talking about an industry worth billions that is influencing the way a lot of people – and especially young men – see sex. If you’re only exposed to a certain type of fictitious sexuality, it’s a pity for the development of sexual imagination, and might even leave some people feel left out, weird or unwanted.

The early bird catches the worm

As a personal aside, I discovered porn at the ripe age of 9. Because I’d been given good sex ed by my parents and later, at school, I was always able to discern between fact and fiction, and somehow knew that porn was a glorified way of depicting sex, just like action movies were glorifying violence that was in no way glorious in real life.

Pornography probably influenced a number of desires that I developed in later life, but some porn did absolutely nothing for me – even as a teenager, porn where the female actresses looked miserable, fearful or bored turned me off, and so did the stuff that was clearly created by malevolent misogynists such as the infamous Max Hardcore.

No automatic slippery slope

The plural of anecdotes is not data, obviously, but I wanted to break out this personal story to demonstrate that early access to pornographic material is not a slippery slope (pun not intended) to creating a sex addict, rapist or someone who can only get off when someone has been reduced to a piece of meat. Even before I discovered feminism, enthusiastic consent has always been a huge deal to me.

Context is important. I can imagine that if you grow up as a boy without any reliable sex education, in an environment that more aggressively pushes negative images and ideas about women (unsurprisingly, lack of sex ed and misogyny nearly always go hand in hand!), porn could become a nefarious influence. The consequences may be far-reaching.

Do we need gatekeepers?

Especially for vulnerable young people with untreated mental problems, the exabytes of free porn on the Internet are problematic. But, so are the violent movies and video games, the pop culture that equals status to how much money you have, or the authority figures that surround them that are nearly always men.

Age ratings clearly aren’t helping. You click away that warning on a porn site, and off you go. Even if those websites adopted a reliable age identification system (which would be problematic in itself, given the uneasy status of some sexual minorities and proclivities even in the West), there would still be file sharing networks. In addition, restricting access to something makes it more desirable to a segment of the population.

There's no right to porn, but if we're going to have porn, then...

To forbid certain types of extreme pornography because it is consumed by violent and unstable individuals to ‘charge themselves up’ prior to committing atrocities is a seductive idea, but I think it misses a beat. It’s precisely the type of logic that has haunted violent video games. These media (alone) do not create criminals. Besides, there is plenty of mainstream media that is very violent.

While I agree that pornography that simulates rape, for instance, or BDSM pornography, operates in a potential minefield, I also agree that people who are into BDSM and people who like rapeplay should, in principle, be treated no different from people with vanilla tastes and desires when it comes down to porn.

More extreme needs more safeguards

Obviously, just like a healthy BDSM relationship is navigated by means of open conversations, boundaries and exchange of ideas (and the more extreme, the more important it gets), its porn mirrors should be subject to the same kinds of safeguards.

I would also like to note that not everything of this sort should be lumped together. While the mainstream media thoughtlessly accepted ’50 Shades of Gray’ as a novel about BDSM, the BDSM community hated it because it depicted a lot of practices and situations that were dangerous and abusive.

No kinkshaming

In concluding, my point in this section is: people do not automatically have a right to pornography, but if pornography is legal, anything that can plausibly occur in a sexual relationship where all parties consent, should be able to be made. Anything else is no better than kinkshaming.

You may not like the idea of people enjoying pissing on each other. But if you don’t personally have a problem that people do it in their bedrooms, you would be hypocritical to say that you don’t think that kind of porn should be made.

Porn and exploitation

People sometimes draw parallels between prostitution and porn, or say they’re the same: it’s paying someone to perform sexual or intimate acts. I do feel there is a difference between the two, because by the same token, you could also call mainstream actors in romantic movies prostitutes.

There is of course another similarity that binds both professions. Porn actors are often treated in less than stellar ways, to say the least, and ex-stars regularly speak out about abusive practices in the industry. The picture is more nuanced than a blanket “everyone who participates in porn is exploited” as there are plenty of counter-examples, too, but defenders of porn seem all too eager to bring these up to dismiss legitimate and troublesome stories from within the industry.

Capitalism and patriarchy: still best buddies

Casting porn performers as victims, always, is riding roughshod over a legitimate desire for sexual self-expression. Some may enter the industry because they want to (though may end up wanting to get out because of the reality on the ground). However, that doesn’t take away the legitimate criticism that almost all pornography is an expression of an enduring culture of misogyny. One might also argue that the good aspects, such as the greater variety in types of women that perform, are merely an unintended consequence of pornography’s capitalist setup, i.e. it’s a good thing to cover as many niches as possible.

At the end of the day, the patriarchal overtones still trump the capitalist drive behind pornography. If porn really wanted to serve all possible audiences, it would focus way more on women as consumers and agents. In that respect, the porn world again shares a parallel with the world of gaming, where women have long been a sizable minority among consumers, but rarely among the creators or those who control the levers of power.

Art and freedom of speech

Pornography has existed for as long as people were able to depict sex. There are penises on Greek vases, the walls of Pompeii are littered with dirty talk, and the Canterbury Tales include libidinous adultery and fart fetishes. This in itself is no argument for its continued existence, but it goes to show that involving sex in self-expression might well be one of our enduring instincts as a species. In fact, we owe it to our ancestors’ sex drive that we are alive at all.

Like I said that restricting certain kinds of pornography that doesn’t already violate the informed consent of the performers is unlikely to change the demand for it, censoring it entirely – which is a position only a handful take, but might be a logical conclusion – is doomed to fail as well. Whether we like it or not, porn matters to people. It’s part of who they are. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t change anything about it.

Pornification?

Pornography has increasingly become mainstream. Some lament this. I don’t. I actually think it should become even more mainstream, because it will encourage frank and mature discussion about how we want our porn to be. There’s no shame in consuming porn or performing in it, just like there should be no shame about liking whatever you like doing with your partner(s) in an atmosphere of consent.

Why not include pornography in sex ed? Talk about its history – in production as well as reception – and how it takes its cues from dominant culture, either by reinforcing existing values (such as patriarchy) or existing as a force of taboo by subverting these values (e.g. the huge popularity of gay porn in areas where homosexuality is not accepted), and in turn influencing how we think about sexuality. Analyse it. Discuss it. Let’s not pretend teenagers don’t know what it is or how to find it.

Cast the net wide

That I feel porn should be discussed in sex education classes ties in with a broader discussion on gender that is now largely absent from the classroom. History classes sometimes focus on the plight of women in times past, but often treat feminism as a relic of times where women were ‘truly’ oppressed, as if they face no ‘real’ difficulties right now.

It’s good to teach kids about the danger of STDs or how sex works in a biological sense, but there ought to be more discussions about consent, too. One may argue that discussion about things like these start at home, but many homes don’t provide that sort of atmosphere. After all, if the task of education is to prepare young people to be an educated and responsible citizen, then gender and sex are definitely a part of that responsibility to themselves and others around them.

Change from within

Education probably isn’t enough. There’s a basket of measures that could be considered for the porn industry as well: quality assurance labels, audits and quota to diversify the type of porn that is being made as well as who makes it. Mandatory warning messages that contextualize the more extreme porn to the viewer are also a good idea – such things already exist, kind of, but they could be made mandatory.

The point is here not to censor pornography, but to diversify it and assure that it is safe. This can be regulated just like any other business. This, and not treating it as if it is somehow a shameful pastime to consume it or to make it, would already go a long way on setting its course straight.

At the core

I’ve seen few issues that are more divisive than pornography in socially progressive circles, feminist discussion groups and among allies. The problem is this: the rhetoric of those who argue against porn or want to restrict it dangerously sounds like the language of reactionaries who, for one reason or another, can’t bear the idea of sexual expressions that are alien to them. Conversely, the argumentation of the pro-porn camp is all too familiar to those against it; insisting on the positive side of the narrative sounds like people who used to argue that women were perfectly happy as homemakers. Some undoubtedly were and still are, but many more had no choice.

A last word of warning: sexual liberation should not be flown as a flag for those who merely wish to continue the status quo of the patriarchy and appropriate ‘freedom as expression’ to perpetuate an aggressively misogynist culture of rape. Neither, however, should feminism be abused by closeted cultural conservatives who want to constrain expressions of human sexuality and introduce a new form of hypocrisy that we are still fighting to subdue.

Summary

Do you think there are sexual acts that do not violate the principle of informed and/or enthusiastic consent that are nonetheless immoral? Do you think pornography – media created to sexually arouse its consumers – should be forbidden?

If you answered no to both, that means you accept that – at least in an ideal world – there is room for pornography that caters to all tastes that abide by the consent principle, providing the material itself also abided by these rules. That still leaves us with a whole hot mess to disentangle if we truly want to move towards a culture where we can enjoy pornography without shame and the people who make it are neither so aggressively focused on one particular side of sexuality, nor vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Therefore, I’d propose the following action points, though I suppose more might be included:

  • Stricter business accountability, auditing and controls
  • Unionization along the lines of the Hollywood Screen Actors’ Guild
  • Compulsory signatures on script to prevent ‘sudden changes’ during filming
  • Discuss pornography during sex education
  • Gender discussion as an integral part of sex education
  • Boards of industry networks need to contain at least 50% actors, chosen by actors
  • Subsidies for pornographers who want to deviate from the male-centric pornography
  • Discuss consent and kink during sex ed and how it differs from abuse and exploitation
  • Introduce a license for pornographers that they may lose if they violate certain principles
  • Extreme porn needs both warning and quality labels, and additional licenses to make

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

What's wrong with 'Nice Guys'?

Over the past few years, 'Nice Guy' has picked up steam as an epithet of ridicule on the Internet. The type of person that is meant by 'Nice Guy' has existed for a much longer time, however, and the term itself still generates confusion. After all, what's wrong with being a nice guy*? Why the ridicule?

As my first coherent pro-feminist thing was about 'Nice Guys', and apparently it's still being read (I'm not going to link to it because I kind of like my online identities to remain vague), I thought it would be a good time to revisit the topic.

Let's break it down.

1. What's a 'Nice Guy'?

Straight from the bowels of bash.org:

A woman has a close male friend. This means that he is probably interested in her, which is why he hangs around so much. She sees him strictly as a friend. This always starts out with, you're a great guy, but I don't like you in that way. This is roughly the equivalent for the guy of going to a job interview and the company saying, You have a great resume, you have all the qualifications we are looking for, but we're not going to hire you. We will, however, use your resume as the basis for comparison for all other applicants. But, we're going to hire somebody who is far less qualified and is probably an alcoholic. And if he doesn't work out, we'll hire somebody else, but still not you. In fact, we will never hire you. But we will call you from time to time to complain about the person that we hired.

This is more or less an assumption most 'Nice Guys' share: that they are perfect relationship material, but somehow never get a relationship (or sex). In other words, "I'm a nice guy, why can't women see that?"

As a take on the actual comparison drawn above, any person with a normal amount of self-esteem would kindly ask said company never to call them again unless they're calling with a job offer. It immediately reveals how weird and masochistic this 'Nice Guy' line of thinking is.

To get back on track, the core sentence that already shows the fatal flaw in the way they think about relationships and sex. It's that being a nice person entitles you to date or be in a relationship. Their parents probably brought them up with the idea that they should respect women and whatnot, but might not have told them why. Hollywood and popular media have fed their idea that by merely being nice, some woman is bound to fall for him. Obviously, the world doesn't work that way.

A term that goes hand in hand with the ‘Nice Guy’ Syndrome is the concept of the Friendzone or the Ladder Theory, both of which are quite misogynist. The Friendzone is basically a way to blame an insincere friendship on the person who feels no romantic interest in the complainer, yet the complainer somehow feels entitled to that relationship, or sex.

A major difference between a 'Nice Guy' and a plain old asshole - more about assholes in a moment, I promise - is that assholes are at least somewhat aware of what they are. 'Nice Guys' genuinely think they are nice people. Here's the thing, though: being nice is not a great human accomplishment, and describing yourself as a 'Nice Guy' is just another way of saying you wish to be as inoffensive as possible. It really is a red flag. It’s kind of like saying “I don’t beat women” unsollicited, or saying how much you “hate drama”.

Before I go any further, I want to note that I realise most 'Nice Guys' are probably young men with a low self-image. That makes it all the more tragic, but it doesn't really excuse their behaviour.

2. Typical hallmarks of 'Nice Guy' behaviour

2.1. Manipulation

‘Nice Guy’ behaviour is manipulative. ‘Nice Guys’ basically do everything they can to 'make' someone fall for them or sleep with them, all under the guise of friendship. It makes every 'nice' thing a part of the effort to get to that point. They do it so automatically that it becomes a second nature and they're not even conscious of it. It goes beyond the mere point of remembering what your love interest likes.

2.2. Objectification

A ‘Nice Guy’ ultimately reduces women to objects, not in an aggressive 'all women are whores' way, but more like 'this is my perfect princess and I will put her on a pedestal'. While they would vehemently deny it, ‘Nice Guys’ project all their romantic fantasies on one (or sometimes multiple, or successive) girls, which blinds them to the fact that these women are independent people and do not exist to fulfill his romantic or sexual fantasies.

2.3. Insincerity

‘Nice Guys’ are not nice for the sake of being nice. They're nice because they think they'll get something in return. Granted, many people do this, but for the ‘Nice Guy’, it's a way of life. Sometimes, this behaviour even veers straight into a type of co-dependency or creates a massive entitlement complex.

2.4. Ineffectiveness

Most women and many men can sense that you're a 'Nice Guy', and they think it's creepy. To make matters worse, as a method of getting sex or a relationship, its success rate is appalling. That leads many 'Nice Guys' to seek out different methods and turn to PUA workshops for advice, which is merely the other side of the coin, but operates on the same basic assumption that women can be, or should be, manipulated into sex.

2.5. Anger at other men

This quote speaks for itself: "Women always end up dating douches." Nobody likes assholes. A women who says she prefers bad boys past age 25 is probably sort of broken herself. However, most women who end up with guys that have glaring flaws don't date them because of their flaws. They end up dating them/sleeping with them because they are self-confident, have interesting stuff to say, are attractive or act like actual people instead of a scripted doormat. In addition, the 'asshole' in question may not be an asshole. He may simply be on as to what the 'Nice Guy' is trying to pull off.

2.6. Passiveness

'Nice Guys' will typically not go in against the opinions or tastes of the woman they are trying to woo, unless they somehow feel threatened. For women who are vulnerable or have questionable decision-making skills, this is sometimes enabling behaviour. At worst, it's self-serving and sycophantic. A second aspect of this passiveness is that they usually do not ever make an actual move or declare their love because they are deathly afraid of rejection. This only gets worse over time because of the emotional investment they’ve made. When the woman in question realises all of this, it’s also hard for her to say no – after all, no question has been asked, no move has been made, so it’s awkward to bring it up.

2.7. Lack of other defining personality traits

‘Nice Guys’ often describe themselves as being 'nice' – hence the term. So do many people around them. The problem is that if the first thing that comes up in your mind, if you need to be described, is 'nice', then you're probably selling yourself short. If other people see you as a 'Nice Guy', you definitely have a problem - you're seen as someone who has no particular personality.

3. Typical excuses of the 'Nice Guy'

3.1. "But I am genuinely a friend."

If you are, then why are you moping how girls only "want you as a friend"? Another variety are 'Nice Guys' who go out of their way to not do anything or act on their feelings as long as their object of desire is in a relationship, but prefer pining in the shadows. That just isn't healthy.

3.2. "But in that movie..."

Popular culture tends to feed the idea that the ‘Nice Guy’ thing is somehow cute, worth sympathising with or even truly romantic. Like so many clich├ęs about love and relationships in pop culture, it couldn't be further from the truth. Pop culture loves exploiting ‘Nice Guys’ because it tugs on a few heart strings and is good for drama. It doesn't make this sort of behaviour mentally healthy or advisable.

3.3. "If she doesn't like it, why doesn't she say anything about it?"

I’ll use a quote from one of the people who responded to my initial post:

‘Nice Guys’ make an advance that cannot be rejected in a socially acceptable way. If a guy says, "Hey, how about a date?", then it's perfectly socially acceptable to say, "Nah, I'm not interested." But instead he might say, "Oh, you're moving? I'd love to help. When? Hmm, I'm working that day, but I can call out sick. It's really no problem! I don't own a truck, but I could rent one of those ones from the Home Depot." Is this guy really helpful just generally, or is there some subtext there of him trying to impress you? Should you say, "That would be really helpful, but since I am not attracted to you, I am honor-bound not to accept your offer of assistance"? Of course not. So you don't say it, and then there's this weird THING sort of hanging in the air in your dealings with that person in the future. You're like 85% sure that he's into you, but every time he has an opportunity to actually say it, he passes it up. Eventually, you relax a little, and then one day one of your dumber girlfriends lets on in front of this guy that you have car trouble. You try to hiss at her or step on her foot or something, but you're too slow or she's too clueless, and his eyes brighten. "Can I look at it? I'd be happy to help!" Ugh.

3.4. "Welp, guess I should become an asshole then!"

Apart from being a non-argument/false dichotomy (it's not one or the other), in fact, ‘Nice Guys’ are already assholes, but with a mask of niceness. You can certainly be a nice person without the deeper layers of manipulation, self-pity and self-entitlement. By the way, I’d like to note that PUAs also display all these negative characteristics, but are more overt about it, which why quite a number of ‘Nice Guys’ end up becoming PUAs: it’s the externalised conclusion of their internalised frustration, and operates along the same lines of reasoning.

4. How to stop being a ‘Nice Guy’

  • Realise that the world doesn't owe you anything, and by extension, women don't owe you anything merely because you're ‘nice’ for all the wrong reasons.
  • Stop being a passive-aggressive doormat and be more candid about your desires. This will mean having to take rejection, too.
  • Don't pine. Realise that there are many, many potentially compatible partners that you could have while wasting time on projecting your romantic fantasies onto someone who will never reciprocate.
  • Realise that there is no "manual" to women, no guaranteed rules, etc. If you're autistic or have a bad case of the 'sperg, seek therapy.

5. So are ‘Nice Guys’ the scum of the Earth then?

Of course not. One thing I want to make clear is that ‘Nice Guys’ aren't necessarily cold-hearted manipulators. The overwhelming majority of ‘Nice Guys’ probably isn’t even aware that their reasoning and what they're doing is flawed and disrespectful. Again, a quote:

It starts with men simply being intimidated by women. Many of these guys don't know how to effectively approach women and they aren't assertive or interesting, so they fall back on the fairy tale script that "as long as I'm an amazing and great friend who is always there for her, she'll eventually see how wonderful I am and we'll live happily ever after, etc. etc." It's pathetic and undesirable, but not necessarily malicious.

It's when this plan fails again and again, that frustration and resentment builds up and the guy begins to think that he's entitled to a woman's love as a transaction for being the target of his affection and care. He isn't aware of the sick flaw in his reasoning because in his mind it's innocuous: "I'm a nice guy, why don't women like me?" and "It's so true, nice guys do finish last." But he really does behave as though a woman's rejection is a breach of contract. The Nice Guy is delusional and wrong, just not consciously so.

6. But wait!

Just like the intimidation tactics of PUAs of overly aggressive men, ‘Nice Guys’ can, in fact, be quite intimidating in their own right.

One of the keys to understanding the Nice Guy vs. the clueless innocent is that the Nice Guy's definition of himself as such is usually the result of repeated romantic failure and a resulting, crippling bitterness. The clueless innocents eventually bumble their way out of that stage. That's the difference.

I don't want to make this into more than it is, but I think many men fail to grasp exactly how uncomfortable and, potentially, vulnerable a woman can feel in the face of persistent attention, flattery, and the like.

It flies in the face of years and years of social conditioning to tell an outwardly "nice" man - one who has in no way technically threatened, harassed, or intimidated you - to "get the fuck away, I'm not interested." It's one thing to tell off the drunk who's trying to cop a feel on the subway (and even that isn't always easy). But rejecting the friend who just won't stop hanging around looking for more? It's not a simple situation.

So, many women just don't do it. Especially confident and assertive women can do it easily, but even a woman without self-esteem problems could understandably find it difficult to be ruthlessly direct in that situation. All too often, we opt for subtlety instead.

And that's where the real problem with Nice Guys comes in. A regular guy would get the hint, see it as a matter of compatibility and not take it personally, then move on to someone more likely to return his interest. A Nice Guy, on the other hand, will stick around and attempt to wear you down. Often Nice Guys will pursue "'hard luck' cases" - women who are perhaps not the best-prepared to stand up for themselves.

And in the end, if the Nice Guy doesn't get what he wants? He invents a scenario that makes his wasted effort a noble quest to overcome (what he tells himself) is his target's shitty taste in men. Because admitting that he wasted his time pushing for something that was clearly never going to happen is just plain cognitively uncomfortable.

To sum up, the "perfect storm" that goes into creating a self-described Nice Guy is a mix of a sense of entitlement, a mark who is too kind and/or passive to outright reject the NG, and the NG's persistence in the face of what many other individuals would recognize as subtle signals of mark's disinclination to mate.

* or girl, though I’ve yet to hear the first story about a girl who mirrors ‘Nice Guy’ behaviour in every way

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The dreaded tone argument

A privilege that I have in the ongoing struggle for a more egalitarian society is that I already belong to a group that is steeped in invisible privilege (the only thing I lack to be entirely part of that group is more money). While I am angry about the injustice that women and minorities often put up with on a day to day basis, I do not experience this injustice directly, which affords me the luxury of approaching many debates about progress and equality dispassionately.

Conversely, opponents of any sort of progressive movement have used the dreaded 'tone argument' to dismiss legitimate criticism of society. Feminists and progressives are all too aware of this. The word 'hysteria' was invented to dismiss female anger, just like Barack Obama avowedly avoided the 'angry black man' stereotype not to lose votes among white Americans.

It sucks. Black Americans have every right to be angry. I'm surprised that women are not angrier often about the swirl of media that exists to justify violence against them, or pigeonholes them into categories straight out of the 1950s. Indeed, I do believe that we do not ought to protest on the tone or in the way that the establishment deems acceptable.

However.

While it's perfectly all right to be outraged, I have a problem with unproductive outrage. I've seen anger destroy debates where initially all participants appeared willing to listen and learn. I also grow tired of facing that anger - including my own - time and again when there's another news story in the sad and long line of gender stereotyping, objectification and destructive male privilege. For some, it seems to up the ante to appear more and more outraged and disgusted, drowning out productive or reasoned opinions and simultaneously attracting people who are legitimately mentally ill and use progressive movements as a cover to garner attention or spew bile.

Anger definitely has a place as a catalyst for action, but if it eclipses all the rest, it might achieve the exact opposite of the injustice it wants to fight. I realise that this veers closely to the tone argument (which is why I brought it up in the beginning, all my privilege included!), but there is a subtle difference. Screaming in all caps that something is terrible or disgusting is not protest, and frankly, not much better than what the hatemongers do who populate online comment sections - no matter how much I might agree with the sentiment.