About 'Alpha+Good'

Alpha+Good (a bad wordplay on Orwell's "double plus good" and old machismo - I'm the realest after all) is a side project that belongs to 'Onklare taal' ('Unclear' or 'Unripe language'), the umbrella of several 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. Why is this in English why everything else in Dutch? Because I want to gun for a much wider audience here. Also, my literary English isn't good enough, otherwise I would always write in English.

Are you a little lost? This link will take you right back to my home page.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Rhetorics of progress (I): Some offences are bigger than others

'Offensive' is a weird word. Many people find many different things offensive. Some pride themselves on being offensive. For some, taking offence is almost a sport, and for others, being cynical and remaining unoffended is a source of smug self-satisfaction. It is also an annoying container term that I wish could be ditched.


Vacant claims

The reason why I want to distance myself from "being offended", is precisely because anyone can claim it, and often does so for the wrong reasons. It also implies that the "offender" should change something, apologise, recant, regardless of whether the offended party was right to be offended.

Now, this is a sensitive (!) subject, because we live in a world where advocates of inclusion, whether their focus is on social matters, gender or culture, get constantly told not to be offended, that "they didn't mean it that way", or have to deal with lame fauxpologies.


Power differential

Context is everything, but let's take a hypothetical example. I believe that there is no God. Some theists will find this offensive, and a vocal minority will be outraged at someone openly stating their atheism in their presence. However, my not believing in God has no bearing on how they live their life. They can still go to church, rest comfortably in the fact that most people around them share their beliefs, and I don't tell these people they cannot believe whatever it is that they believe.

A different example is that when a woman causes a traffic accidents, some people will be at hand to - all in good jest, surely - blame the accident on the fact that she is a woman. That is really offensive, because it adds some more spice to the steaming dish of sexism and misogyny that our societies constantly have at the ready, effectively barring women from a not so insignificant number of domains, equal rights be damned.

There's another nuance that needs to be made. If someone was to say to me: "I hate straight, white people and I wish they would be executed" that is of course hate speech, but unless that person is directly threatening me or is in a social position to hurt me, it's nothing more than an empty - stupid as it may be - gesture. I would be right to take offence at the statement, but the outrage would be comparatively shallow.


Threat and power

Maybe it's more productive, then, to speak about threat and power factors in statements? An analysis of those will always be subjective, and possibly open to abuse from people who thrive on paranoia, but it at least forces participants in a discussion to look at a number of underlying facts instead of yelling "I'm offended!" and/or "don't be so easily offended!".

Another reason for writing this is because language that is fundamental to the cause of progress or the advancement of minorities is continually being re-appropriated by groups in power to portray themselves as the oppressed. This is clear from my example of the atheist statement - and I'll get back to things like this more coherently later when discussing rhetorics. Many American Christians do, in fact, falsely believe they are being oppressed.


What we should be asking

If someone says "I take offence at X", it's always a good idea never to summarily dismiss it, but I do believe it should be dismissed if it rests on nothing but false claims. Is there a question list we can tick off? Never completely, because each case is different, but a few questions might help:

1. What is the specific context?
2. Is there an implied threat?
3. Is there a significant power differential?
4. Is someone's freedom being restricted?
5. Does the statement inflict actual harm?

Come back later for more on rhetorics of progress!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Progress and cultural imperialism

Let's get the irony here straight out of the way: my mother language is Dutch, yet I choose to write about socio-political and some philosophical issues in English in hopes of broadening my audience, at the risk of potentially alienating some members of my home audience. So it's kind of rich that I'm going to be complaining about Anglo-Saxon cultural imperialism. But I am. And I must. What's more: as someone who has been deeply immersed in Anglo-Saxon culture, maybe my position makes my criticism more legitimate beyond the average talking point.

For two years in a row, I've participated in discussions about Zwarte Piet, a Belgo-Dutch folklore figure, and its problematic ties to colonialism and racism. In each instance, I've met stubborn resistance from Americans who, like me, also believed that Zwarte Piet was racist, but refused to accept any other type of racism than the one they knew. These were all self-avowed progressives, yet their desire to brand a foreign racist tradition with their own kind of racism made them blind to the cultural realities of the European countries they were criticising.

That's just an example. But, whether left- or right-wing, there is no denying that not only does Anglo-Saxon culture (and predominantly American culture) export itself thoughtlessly as a byproduct of its leading economic role in the world, it also influences media and perceptions in other countries. This is not new. For instance, the often derided hostility to homosexuality in the Middle East and Africa may be an indirect influence of puritan European attitudes in the era of colonization.

By taking so much cues from American culture, we risk setting back a number of debates at home. Obviously, it's a terrible thing that abortion is still an issue in the US, but I don't want to discuss it. It is legal in my own country and there's no point for me to discuss foreign domestic policy that has no impact on me or people around me. The same is true for gay marriage, frat boys' rape guides or access to contraception: these are not really issues in my culture, and having them forced upon me is a waste of time and energy. Yet it's very hard to avoid them because international feminism is so utterly dominated by its Anglo-Saxon variety.

There is a less obvious consequence of this, too. It lulls  Europeans to sleep, smugly comfortable with how progressive they are for not denying women the pill or having something that is at least an attempt at sex education, whereas the Irish and Americans are still stuck in their God-fearing ways. Smugness like this obfuscates that sexism in continental Europe can be just as vile, aggressive and backwards as in other countries, but is so in different ways.

I also want to make a general point about this cultural influence. Engaging more deeply with the 'Anglosphere' is mainly a thing with younger and highly-educated people in the Netherlands and Belgium. Most of these distrust homegrown nationalism, some of these look down on local culture (or did you think it was a coincidence so many Dutch and Flemish bands sing in English?), and a still smaller segment has opted out of Dutch or Flemish culture almost entirely.
This is not without danger: it may result in a self-fulfilling prophecy (the more people who turn their back on local culture, the poorer it will become). It may also lead to confusing cultural notions, where you end up not truly belonging to either culture. Instead of forming a synthesis between cultures, you become trapped in a cultural uncanny valley where you are neither a full member of the Anglosphere - and never can be - yet find yourself too distant from your local culture to fully participate in it.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Student life and sexism, revisited

A frat bro in the United States sends an e-mail to his bros how to 'lure rapebait' and apologises after the outcry. The @EverydaySexism channel was littered with demeaning and predatory remarks from British male uni students as freshers' week started. In Belgium and the Netherlands, a lot of student associations have long carried a reputation for boorish sexism in the name of 'tradition', with associated hazing rituals that some consider pointless and humiliating.

Last year, I already wrote a piece on sexism in student life, but I feel the topic is worth revisiting because of my personal experiences. I'm going to be focusing on Belgium here, but I suspect that a lot of what I'm saying will be true for the Anglo-Saxo and German-speaking world as well.


First notions

When I was 18 and started my first year at the university, my mind was filled with preconceptions about student life and student clubs. I thought the people involved with the club that was officially affiliated with my study program seemed nice enough, but never went to any of the events with a harder edge. Like most people, I only signed up because they offered a discount on our required reading list.

If you'd have asked me to make a semantic field around 'student club', it would have contained the following words: alcohol, hazing, humiliation, abuse of authority, sexual degradation, bullying, sexual predation, stupidity, pointless rituals and partying.


Formative years

Due to circumstances, I became close friends with one of the club's board members in the next academy year, and he slowly introduced me to everybody else. To my astonishment, I was proven wrong about most of my preconceptions (the alcohol and partying thing was totally true, though, and I have zero regrets about either).

In the following years and as I further matured as a person, I got involved in student life more deeply, and eventually spent four years on the board of my student club, one of which as president, overseeing the day-to-day affairs and planning of a club that counted some 800 members and a hard core of about 50 very active members.

As for many people, my university years were formative for the rest of my life. I developed some - hopefully - life-long friendships, gained more perspective on things, and developed skills that would prove to be essential for my professional life. My study program gave me insight and knowledge, but it was my time at the student club that taught me the most about human relationships, power, empathy and responsibility.


Rose-tinted view?

You might say here that I'm seeing things through rose-tinted glasses here. I mean, what about the stupid traditions and humiliations of freshmen? For one thing, our club didn't really do hazing - our study program tended to attract people who were revolted by or scared of the practice, and as a club, you're supposed to be there for your potential members.

Of course, during the 'cantus', arguably the most traditionalist aspect of Flemish student life, people who went out of bounds were invariably punished for it. But here's the thing: nobody was ever singled out for disproportionate punishment, and the nature of power dynamics during a drunken sing-along fest is always a subtle play between leader and audience, not a one-man show where a tin pot dictator rules the day.

Our mutual familiarity also ensured that we often knew where invisible boundaries were, how we could rile each other up or prank each other in good nature. To some, it may sound horrible that forced a fellow student to douse themselves in a cascade of beer, but we knew each other. He knew what punishment he was setting himself up for, the audience knew, and we'd shared drinks, food and stories many times before.


Youth organisations

At the end of the day, a student club is not that different from any other youth organisation. Practices and traditions between chapters vary wildly, but they all provide a context for people to gain a sense of belonging, have fun and develop skills that are important later in life.

So why are student clubs saddled with this highly negative image? Is nothing true of all those wild, lurid tales of excess and abuse? Let me get to that in a moment. As I pointed out at the beginning of this post, before I entered student life, my perception of student life was negative, too. I considered this in my years within the club, as well, and here are my hypotheses for this negative image:

- Sensationalism and alarmism. If it's got to do with young people and sex, you can bet the media love turning it into an overblown story about 'kids these days', a tradition that stretches back to the Sumerian civilisation. A good deal of slut-shaming may be involved as well.

- Fetishisation of students. As much as high school is sexually objectified in the US, so is university in Flanders. For many men, female students are either a fantasy throwback to their own university years, or a fantasy of something they could never have.

- Ignorance of higher education. The majority of people never went to university and has no clue how student clubs are run or work, or are even openly hostile towards the display of intellectualism and freedom they provide.

- Exclusion. Some clubs are exclusive in nature, or conversely, some people are afraid of signing up because of prejudices like I had, resulting in a weird form of mockingly jealous resentment.

- Visibility. The most extreme student clubs are also the ones that are most visible in the street. They don't even need to be extreme to be visible: during the 'cantus', a lot of people wear the typical worn lab coat, ribbon or cap in the street, and a cantus happens to be one of the most rowdy activities, so the association is quickly cemented to outsiders' eyes.


So what about the horror stories then?

As I've noted before, student associations are highly heterogenous in nature. Some have hazing rituals, some don't, some cling to sexist traditions that other clubs frown upon, some have a reputation for producing power-mad little tyrants, some are very accepting and horizontal.

There is no point denying that student life has a sad history of sexism. One need only to read some song lyrics from the official 'codex' used at the sing-drink festivities to understand this. There's also no point in denying that indeed, bad or indifferent leadership can give budding sexual predators the chance - if they aren't already in power themselves - to manipulate and humiliate young people.

This really is a point that student associations have to address. Be as it may that I've always tried to curb excesses - and so did many of my friends and fellow members! - there have been moments between individual members or members with some social clout that were clearly not okay. Stupid and sexist comments. People too drunk to resist advances (both male and female). They were the exceptions rather than the rule, but I still regret not having the clarity of mind then that I do now.


What to do?

Student clubs have made progress in the past decades. For example, most cities have a system of charters, procedures and controls for hazing rituals, and the steady influx of women and minorities has taken off a lot of hard edges. Within and between clubs, there are big debates about what aspects are worth retaining, and under what form, and what aren't.

More progress could and should be made. Tradition was and is never a good excuse for behaviour that is little more than power abuse and discrimination. Senior leaders in the student community should definitely be more vigilant, and not hand-wave away criticism as the bile of a few bitter people.

Many young people love to experiment and push boundaries, in all possible ways. A healthy, vibrant student club can provide a safe context, with like-minded people, where that is possible, whether an inexperienced student wants to start dabbling in politics, is curious about trying out new types of beer, or really looking for romance. It's all possible.


Take note

It would serve critics not to discount the lived experiences of many people like me. For us, our student time and our involvement with a student club was a formative experience in a good way, turning us into the resilient adults that we are today. Obviously, many student communities have glaring issues to address, but let's stop this confirmation bias that so many people have about student life.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Treating everyone like shit

There's this thing in comedy, especially brutal, cynical comedy, where no one is safe from harm. As I said before, everything and everyone can be the subject of a joke, satire or parody. It's also the first line of defense that people bring up against critics of South Park, Team America: World Police, the Grand Theft Auto games and similar cultural products that leave no political side, no gender and no ethnic group unmocked. The basic attitude is: nobody should be exempt from criticism and comedy.

Basically, I agree with this. It is certainly miles better than comedy that, out of ignorance or malevolence, singles out groups of people that are relatively powerless. A good and often-used example is making a joke about rape that rapists will think is funny but that degrades victims.

Some would argue that comedy that singles out white people, the rich, or heterosexuals also falls into that category. It might, depending on the circumstance, but the fact of the matter is that these groups are 'the norm' and hold a lot more sway in society than other groups. As a group, they tend to be fairly well insulated against prejudice and discrimination.

That's what makes the 'everybody is shit' comedy a little disingenious sometimes. Mocking everyone and everything is all well and good, but it doesn't level any playfield. It keeps the status quo as it is. Everyone is stereotyped, yes, but some stereotypes are more harmful than others.

'Everybody is shit' is another way of saying that the truth is somewhere in the middle, which is certainly not always true. There is no middle ground between the Ku Klux Klan and the Civil Rights Movement, for instance. There's no truth to be gleaned from taking a position in the middle between climate change deniers and environmentalists.

There was a case in France, recently, where an advertisement for students was pulled because it was 'sexist', while it clearly stereotyped everyone involved. Did censors go overboard on that one? That's a debate in itself. But it's also a fact that debasing everyone isn't going to take care of a lot of social progress. An increasing objectification of men, for example, has led to a greater number of boys developing eating disorders in the past two decades.

The above is why I maintain that social progress is not about taking away privileges from everyone that has them: it's about bestowing them on everyone, and that's not the same. So, treating everyone like shit may sound like the ultimate in democracy, but at best, it only serves the status quo, and at worst, it ends up with everyone in a worse position than before.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Atheist? Good, just don't be an asshole about it

As far as religion is concerned, I'm lucky to live in Belgium, a nominally Catholic country where being agnostic or atheist is nothing out of the ordinary. In a broader sense, Europe - with some notable exceptions - is spectacularly different from the rest of the world, where not believing that there is any god can still get you in serious trouble, and religion is a dominant force in politics and socio-cultural life.

So, I can sympathise with American atheists and their frustration at the constant poisoning of public debates by religiosuly inspired anti-gay, anti-abortion or anti-science advocates. I also agree with some radical atheist positions that we still give to much deference to organised religion where none is warranted.


I severely dislike the way that atheists on the Internet want to rally around the idea of being atheist, as if this is a morally superior road. Atheism is a very simple thing: not believing in any god. Internet Atheists' weird reverence for scientists such as Richard Dawkins or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the way in which logic is celebrated by them and they celebrate ideologically bankrupt philosophies such as libertarianism or pseudosciences such as evopsych, is just a straight-up replacement for worship. It's nothing more than another justification for a worldview without the necessary self-criticism.

I don't like the contempt and condescension of Internet Atheists. Yes, I suppose that if I was to live in an area surrounded by people who actually believed dinosaurs and humans co-existed and the world is only 6,000 years old, it would inspire me to ridicule as well. But the pervasive sense of smugness of Internet Atheists has already succeeded to turn potential allies against them. I happen to believe in treating people well and not mock what they choose to believe in if it isn't forced upon me. Most people who are religious to an extent can be pretty tolerant, and most people believe things that are logically at odds with one another.

It speaks volumes for the movement that Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens are held in such high regard. While the former is a brilliant scientist and an eloquent speaker, he is also overly dismissive of the plight of any sort of people who are not white and male, and Hitchens was an all-round boorish individual who was needlessly antagonising. Lastly, a YouTube troll like the self-styled 'Amazing' Atheist still has droves of followers, despite being violently misogynist and clearly out of his depth with any subject that pertains to anything else than 'not believing in God'.

Listen, it's cool that you discovered, through reasoning, intuition, a flash of insight or whatever, that there are no gods (or, that it's almost certain there are no gods). That does not make you a superior person, it doesn't validate any other opinions you might hold, and it certainly doesn't make your positions exempt from criticism. Be a little nicer. If you truly want to stop religious fundamentalism, lead by example.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Why I am a feminist ally

This is a response to a tumblr entry on how male allies to feminism can be a burden, too, but you can also read it as a stand-alone post.

Ah, that Question

Most male allies to feminism will get the Question once in a while: why? Feminism is for women, isn't it? It's a weird question, really. Do you ask someone who supports socialist policies whether they are working class enough? Do you ask an environmentalist whether they are a tree?

Most of the time, it doesn't come packaged as the Question, but an offhand remark on how peculiar it is to dedicate time and resources to support feminism as a man. Some think it's a devious plot to get into women's pants (which betrays more about their own thinking than about mine), others think it's some sort of misled cry for attention, and for MRAs, it's nothing less than cutting off my own nuts. That's all rubbish, of course.

Outsourcing emotion

Now, the tumblr post to which I'm responding touches upon the fact that some well-intentioned men will try to 'outsource' their emotional confusion about patriarchy and sexism and turn to women to make sense of it all for them. I agree that can be taxing.

Some men really do this, and some women do it too: dropping a bomb of personal history tangentially related to the discussion and leave it to the others to make sense of it. I am also not anyone's therapist, so I agree with the sentiment that allies and feminists alike are better allies and feminists if they can start to figure out their own emotional issues, too.

At the core

The tumblr entry further states that male allies should find something in feminism for themselves to fight for. Something that they, themselves experience as shitty situations in the context of patriarchy that affect them, and use that as an emotional core to get inspired. In other words, men needn't squire for feminist knights, trying to get a grasp on situations that don't directly affect them.

I don't agree with that. I also don't see how that would be linked to some who try to lean on feminism as an emotional support group. The ill effects of patriarchy on my life are minor because I - externally - fit the template of the white, straight, able-bodied male in the prime of his life (privilege with a tasty side-dish of privilege!). I'll get the occasional stupid remark about appreciating art and poetry or talking frankly about experiencing emotion, but that's it.

A strange animal called empathy

The reason why I support any emancipatory movement is really simple: it's because I'm deeply convinced everyone is deserving of a fair chance in life. Empathy with people who suffer under oppression is not an emotion that confuses me or that I need personal guidance for. Of course, I'm only speaking for myself here, but I truly don't see why having empathy would confound someone.

In addition, if it's genuine empathy, it's not that hard to deduce the right course of action from it in who and what you choose to support. The reason why I focus more on feminism than, say, socialism is because I feel my contributions can be stronger in the former field. I don't need to fight for a personal victory against patriarchy, or something that will benefit me as an individual - turning my privilege into a useful tool to convince other men of the necessity of feminism is more than good enough. And yes, that often means taking a backseat to women's voices. I don't mind that at all.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The double-edged blade of beauty

Beautiful people are sometimes beset by problems that are unique to their class, such as not being taken seriously, or that their genuine accomplishments are called into doubt because others suspect them to be a product of their physical attractiveness rather than their competences. As usual, women suffer from this issue far more than men do.

On the other hand, attractive people are also very privileged; or rather, it's better to say that beautiful people cannot truly appreciate what it means to be unattractive. People who don't conform to whatever beauty standards that rule the day are definitely aware of their own status, women moreso than men, because sadly, women are judged by their appearances much more often and more critically than men.

However, I've also noted a peculiar form of resentment from some feminists - or should I say, self-proclaimed feminists - towards people who do conform to those standards, either by choice or by lucky accident. I know that it's a favourite pastime of anti-feminists to gloat about how feminists are supposedly ugly and jealous, so I want to be very careful here.

Popular internet statements like "real women have curves", or the distant sort of pity that some commenters feel with girls and women who participate in beauty pageants always have a condescending note to them. It doesn't feel all that different from slut-shaming to me.

If it gets brought up that people actually choose to participate in things like beauty pageants, that argument is dismissed as a defense of patriarchy, but it's the same as dismissing statements from muslim women that they chose to wear a headscarf as an uncritical acceptance of a harmful value system. The same subject rears its head about sexuality. Some argue, for instance, that BDSM often replicates harmful patriarchal power structures in a sexual relationship.

Here we get to an interesting point in the discussion, because at what point do we start separating external pressure from internal motivations, or internalized cultural tropes from genuine desire? We can't. No matter how much we try to understand ourselves as well as others, this is a distinction that's not as clear-cut or straightforward as some appear to think.

So what do we do? If someone says that it's their choice to do X and they are not harming anyone in the process, then I give them the benefit of doubt. Always. To me, it only becomes problematic if there are genuine reasons to doubt their free will. The choice itself becomes an issue if an alternative would be met with ridicule or violence.

Here I reconnect again with the original theme of my post. The vast majority of women has felt this ridicule: laughed at for - supposedly - being overweight, made to feel inferior for having a small bosom or simply feeling totally burnt out by putting effort into looking good and still failing to meet an impossible physical standard.

It is easy to see people who do meet those demands as standard-bearers of it. Sometimes they are. I have no doubt that there are cover models who feel less-fortunate women are beneath them, in a way that male athletes look down on boys with a skinny frame or that some devout headscarf-wearers believe that those who don't wear it are not pious.

But as long as we don't get an impression from people who want to live up to that standard or happen to align with it that they actually want to enforce it, let's give them the benefit of doubt instead of turning potential allies into enemies.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Flair, we need to talk

English version below for my anglophone audience.

Beste redacteurs (m/v) van de Flair,

Jullie magazine torst al lang een dubieuze reputatie als het aankomt op welk beeld jullie de wereld in sturen van vrouwen en mannen. Jullie laatste wapenfeit in die droeve geschiedenis van clichés is '10 dingen die mannen moeten weten over ons', gepubliceerd op 11 juli 2013.

Ik snap dat verkoopcijfers belangrijk zijn en dat een ideologische lijn verwachten van een entertainmentblad misschien veel gevraagd is, maar als je wekelijks een lezerspubliek bereikt van 700.000, bestaat er ook zoiets als een journalistieke verantwoordelijkheid. Jullie denkbeelden beïnvloeden mensen.

Uit de '10 dingen' maak ik vooral op dat de persoon (opnieuw, m/v, want er staat geen naam onder) die dit artikel geschreven heeft, niet alleen alle vrouwen over dezelfde kam scheert als overgevoelige, jaloerse en onzekere kasplantjes, maar er ook van uit lijkt te gaan dat mannen een soort emotionele neanderthalers zijn.

Indien de auteur van '10 dingen' de puberteit nog moet bereiken, kan ik hem of haar veel vergeven. Indien dit een volwassen persoon is, vraag ik me af van wat voor planeet die afkomstig is (zeg niet Venus of Mars alsjeblieft, da's nog zo'n pijnlijk cliché).

In de Angelsaksische wereld bestaat er zoiets als 'cosmocking', waar de soms ronduit psychotische sekstips van de Cosmo gehekeld worden, die nog net niet het territorium betreden van "steek een bunsenbrander onder zijn anus, daar krijgt hij het lekker warm van!". Jullie zijn niet veel beter.

Het is niet alleen de eenzijdigheid van het man-vrouwbeeld dat storend is, het is ook dat het voorbijgaat aan duizenden mannen en vrouwen die elke dag wel eerlijk proberen communiceren, over de muren van onnozele clichés klauteren en liever hun eigen invulling wensen te geven aan romantiek.

Breder bekeken: er zit nooit echt een lijn in jullie visie op vrouwenzaken. Vijf artikels over ontharing, gezichtscrème, spectaculaire make-overs en hoe dames toch dat beetje vet kunnen wegwerken, volgen naadloos op het vieren van eten van ijs uit de doos. Als toemaatje kan er nog een artikel bij over hoe spannend overspel is, en dan nog met een Echte Man. In de volgende editie getuigt een lezeres over "die feeks die m'n man afpakte", en moet een man vooral een schotelvod zijn.

Ik heb vele fantastische vrienden en vriendinnen, en ik benader hen als individuen, niet als curieuze leden van andere diersoorten die zich allemaal op dezelfde manier gedragen. Ik vind het belangrijk dat mensen zelfzeker en sterk zijn, niet dat ze zich terugtrekken in bunkers van man- of vrouwclichés om hun onzekerheden te rechtvaardigen.

Als man denk ik dat ik mag zeggen dat ik een andere man die alle tien jullie tips zou opvolgen tot op de letter, een enorme griezel zou zijn. Niet alleen zullen dit soort tips mannen die nog altijd denken dat vrouwen mythische, onverstaanbare wezens zijn, inspireren tot ongelooflijk gênante daden, het zal een ander segment van het mandom ertoe aanzetten precies het omgekeerde te doen, en lekker hatelijk en grof te zijn tegen vrouwen, zodat ze kunnen claimen dat dat rebels is. Ik heb van beiden al voorbeelden legio gezien.

O, ik zal zeker niet beweren dat mannenbladen vrijuit gaan in het promoten van ongezonde ideeën en clichés over de geslachten. Alleen koesteren die minder pretenties: het zijn seksistische bladen die grossieren in macho-onderwerpen.

Het probleem is jammer genoeg dat Flair aan een cultuur blijft meewerken die vrouwen nog steeds obsessief wil laten bezig zijn met hun uiterlijk, het behagen van mannen en, uiteindelijk, het in stand houden van de status quo tussen de seksen. Die status quo valt de dag van vandaag nog steeds negatief uit voor vrouwen. Daar ligt het echte pijnpunt.

Zeg alsjeblieft niet "we beschrijven de dingen zoals ze zijn". Jullie werken er aan mee. Jullie houden ze in stand. Jullie maken mensen - en voornamelijk jullie eigen publiek - onzeker met luie journalistiek en verkoopzucht.

Met vriendelijke groeten,


Note for English-speaking readers: Flair magazine is a little like Cosmopolitan (although we have that one here as well), but mainly for the Belgian and Dutch markets.

Dear Flair editors

Your magazine has long had a questionable reputation in terms of the image you're broadcasting about women and men. Your latest addition to that sad history of clichés is '10 things men ought to know about us', publish on July 11, 2013.

I understand sales figures are important and that expecting ideological consistency from an entertainment magazine is a tall order, but if you reach an audience of 700,000 readers every week, you've got to take some deontological responsibility. Your ideas and articles really influence people.

The lesson I'm learning from '10 things' is that its author draws all women as hypersensitive, jealous, insecure and frail with one broad stroke, and at the same time, seems to assume men are some sort of emotional neanderthals.

If the writer of '10 things' hasn't reached puberty yet, I'm prepared to forgive them a lot. If it's an adult person, I'm wondering what kind of planet they're coming from (please don't say Venus or Mars, that's another one of those painful clichés).

The Anglo-Saxon world has a thing called 'cosmocking', which skewers the at times genuinely psychotic sex tips found in the Cosmo. Some of those are barely an inch away from "light a Bunsen burner under his arse to make him all hot and bothered". You're not doing a much better job.

Broadly speaking, there's no real coherence in your vision on women's issues. One edition can have five articles about depilation, facial cream, spectacular make-overs and how women can lose their last ounces of fat, followed by an article describing the joys of eating ice cream straight from the box. As an afterthought, one edition celebrates how exciting adultery is with a Real Man, while next edition features a teary testimonial about "the witch that stole my husband", and somebody else saying men should be damp rags.

It's not just the one-sided image of men and women that bothers me, it's also denying that thousands of men and women try to communicate honestly with each other every day, attempt to scale the steep walls of stereotypes, and would rather decide for themselves what it means to be romantic.

I have a lot of fantastic male and female friends, and I approach them like individual people, not like curious members of other species. For me, it's important people are self-confident and strong, not that they lock themselves up in a fortress of gender clichés to justify their insecurities.

As a man, I also think I'm allowed to say that I think a guy who'd actually follow through on all ten tips would be a giant creeplord. Not only will these tips inspire men who still believe women are mythical, uninintelligible creatures to acts of supreme embarrassment, they will also inspire another segment of men to do the exact reverse. You know, the type who thinks it's edgy and rebellious to be hateful and rude to women. I've seen plenty of examples of both.

Oh, I certainly won't say that men's mags are exempt from criticism when it comes down to promoting unhealthy stereotypes about the sexes. The difference is that they're less pretentious about it. They're sexist magazines with macho subjects.

The trouble is that Flair keeps contributing to a culture that wants women to be obsessively preoccupied with the way they look, how they can best please men, and keeps contributing to a culture that wants to maintain the status quo between genders. That status quo is still a net loss for women today. There is the real issue.

Please don't say "we're just saying how it is". You're helping in creating it. You're maintaining it. You're making people - especially your own audience - insecure with lazy journalism and commerce.

Best regards,

Monday, July 08, 2013

MRA deconstructed (conclusion)

Harmful consequences to feminism

The tenets of MRA and their underpinnings - whether legitimate claims with false explanations or entirely false assumptions to begin with - have consequences in the real world. These consequences are not innocent. People who dismiss MRAs as petty or misled may understimate how being constantly bombarded with misogynist ideas on top of an already sexist culture can really turn some men from low-level sexists into full-blown misogynists.

Detraction from the cause of feminism

As if it wasn't enough that a lot of discussions on gender inequality are derailed by displays of ignorance (from both genders), MRAs poison the well a bit further. They force feminism even more on the defensive than it already is, and distract it from discussing the underlying issues that matter.

Gender as a horse race

MRAs play into the mainstream media narrative that the battle of the sexes is somehow a horse race where both sides have strengths, weaknesses, advantages and disadvantages. It's basically another form of the 'truth must be in the middle!' rhetorical fallacy. A more objective look will, time and again, reveal that gender-based problems are the result of one thing (patriarchy) and that this system hurts women much more severely than it hurts men.

Hostility and rape threats

Because MRAs (and unfortunately, quite a number of other people) think feminism is passé, has achieved its goals or is even 'on top' now, they feel it's okay to open the gates of hell and unleash all sorts of degrading and threatening comments. They breathe new life into decades of feminism-bashing that have branded the movement as extreme, humourless or shrill.

Fear of speaking out

Ultimately, the existence of MRAs might make women more afraid of speaking out. I cannot emphasise how crucial this is. A lot of women are afraid of rocking the boat when it comes down to sexism, close their eyes to it or resign themselves to the fact that it's just the way things are. The hateful messages of MRA movements only add a new layer of pressure to that. To men who are concerned with gender equality and who want to address issues with masculinity, MRAs have poisoned the debate.


The tragedy of it all

There's an interesting quote I recently heard that I'll paraphrase (I forgot the source). MRA shares some aspects with the Pick Up Artist community and Internet Libertarians - most members appear to be white men in their 20s and 30s, often college-educated. They have big havens on Reddit.

In a way, all three of these groups realise that the ways our societies are structured are not okay. It doesn't work for them. These young men are bombarded with the idea that they should be successful sexual conquerors, but women don't flock to them. They're tantalised with the idea of the American Dream, but they fail at it. They keep hearing about the plight of women, but they are confused about the relative silence on the issues they face.

Unfortunately, all three take conclusions from that that are devastatingly inaccurate. Internet Libertarians want the system to become even more deregulated and unstable because Conservative media has them believe the system failed due to an excess of socialism. Pick Up Artists try to con women into sleeping with them because they sadly assume it's the only way they'll ever get laid. MRAs lay the blame for men's problems at women's feet, and forget or deny that their true enemy is the patriarchy.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

MRA deconstructed (IV)

This is part IV of my series about MRAs. I'll be discussing a point that pops up frequently in their discussion groups.


"Women are out to get and use men"

Some men are bitter about previous relationships or come out of toxic environments with bad women - women can be every bit as shitty as men. Somehow, some men project this image onto all women, and confirmation bias leads them to seek out only stories that confirm their worldview.

    False rape accusations

This one is bound to come up in any discussion of rape. In fact, false accusations are rare and accusations seldom lead to convictions. Among the reasons why they feature so disproportionally in the rape debate is that they are disproportionally featured in the media, and here's why: false stories often end up being very spectacular and attract attention. The false accusation angle also has the nefarious consequence of hindering the actual debate about rape, its causes (rapists) and what can be done to prevent it (destroying rape culture).
What MRAs think it is: Plots to destroy innocent men's lives
Actual issue: Sensationalist media reports
Actual solution: Stop being an obstructionist little shit

    Gold diggers

Nobody in their right mind thinks that all of Hugh Hefner's peroxide brides married or lived with the man out of genuine love. The problem is that MRAs seem to be convinced women exist to syphon off a man's fortune and ignore the actual cause why 'gold diggers' are even a thing in the first place. Beyond bullshit evopsych justifications, women are simply not as rich as men and possess less power. Their road to both faces roadblocks that the road of men to these goals does not. Yes, partnering up someone for their wealth is ethically questionable, but maybe we should also question the fact that men of great wealth and power leverage these two aspects as well to attract, bind or even outright buy off women. Yet that rarely goes questioned.
What MRAs think it is: Women want a free ride
Actual issue: Powerful and wealthy men 'buy off' women
Actual solution: Empower women

    Women aren't thankful for male assistance in their cause

Some men who consider themselves feminists become very angry when women are not grateful for their assistance to the cause of equality. Here's the thing: they shouldn't be thankful. All you did is prove that you are not a shitty person. If anyone thinks that "not being a giant douche" is an accomplishment worthy of accolades, they probably are a giant douche.
What MRAs think it is: Women are unthankful
Actual issue: Holding some cool opinions doesn't merit you a medal
Actual solution: Support a cause because it's right, not because you want the kudos

    Women can be picky about their sex partners

In a culture that encourages or at least condones men racking up their number of sex partners and does the reverse for women, it is not surprising that men are - in general - less picky than women are when it comes down to sexual partners. However, that is not 'female privilege' or whatever MRAs would like to call it. Men are often at liberty to consider only a few factors in whether they wish to sleep with someone. For women, there are far more background factors, such as slut-shaming, fear of rape, bodily harm and a cultural context that tells her wanting no-strings-attachad sex is demeaning by nature. Also, the MRA whine chorus about 'picky women' is uncomfortable to me for a final reason: it comes off as nice-guyish entitlement, as if they mean to say "why won't these women sleep with me?".
What MRAs think it is: Female privilege.
Actual issue: Slut shaming, rape culture, male entitlement.
Actual solution: End slut shaming and rape culture.

    Women trap men with babies

In sexist jokes as old as the Methuselah's beard, marriage is depicted as a cage that robs men of their freedom. Claims that women deliberately get pregnant and then expect unsuspecting men to provide for the child play into this. It does happen. But more often that not, marriages are cages for women: even in societies where they are not expected (anymore) to be homemakers, household chores and raising kids is still primarily their responsibility. By the way, instances of men deliberately controlling women by getting them pregnant or removing their access to birth control are way more rampant.
What MRAs think it is: Trapping poor sods in life of financial slavery
Actual issue: Sexist views on marriage
Actual solution: Engage in healthy relationships
 On to the final part!

Saturday, July 06, 2013

MRA deconstructed (III)

This part III of the series about Men's Rights Activists or MRAs. This part focuses on what a lot of them accuse feminists of to have caused in perceptions of men. The accusations can be briefly summed up by the title.


"It is not okay to be a man anymore"

What is a man? What does it mean to be a man? MRAs love to complain that traditionally 'male' character traits are now suspect thanks to feminism. This statement is stupid for two reasons, because most serious feminists don't believe in gender essentialism (so no trait is inherently male or female), and it's men who will bring up 'male' traits when they try to defend unacceptable behaviour, such as the "boys will be boys" thing after stories of sexual harrassment.

    Men are (deliberately) misunderstood

The myth of the misunderstood man ties into the previous paragraph. Again, if the problem with things like sexual harrassment is truly that women misunderstand men (it isn't), then maybe men should try to communicate more clearly. For instance, the thing with catcalling is that women understand all too clearly that men do it to impress their buddies - but men don't understand how it makes women feel degraded and unsafe. Falling back on being "misunderstood" is lazy as shit.
What MRAs think it is: Harmless intentions are twisted into malign ones
Actual issue: Male entitlement and privilege
Actual solution: Respecting boundaries

    Misandry is real and nobody ever talks about it

An individual woman can certainly hate men as a group, so in a literal sense, 'misandry' does exist. However, it doesn't exist in an institutionalised, systematic way like misogyny does. All signs that would indicate men being oppressed in certain areas of life are a consequence of a social order created and maintained by empowered men. The biggest and most empowered perpetrators of 'misandry' are other men. 'Misandry' is problematic because it gives the impression that it is an equal counterweight to misogyny, which is far from the truth.
What MRAs think it is: An unseen (female) conspiracy that keeps men down
Actual issue: Patriarchy hurts men, too (in different ways)
Actual solution: Destroy patriarchy

    Gender quota hurt men

Gender equality is not a zero-sum game. Of course, in a Board of Directors has eight positions and gender quota suddenly require two members to be female, some men on the previously all-male Board will be dropped from it. That creates a dent in male privilege, but it doesn't exactly hurt men across the (no pun intended) board. If we want to have women as our equals, it requires that we are prepared to share power.
What MRAs think it is: Political correctness gone mad
Actual issue: Men are still firmly entrenched at the top of all power structures
Actual solution: Correct sexist assumptions and attitudes that maintain these structures

On to part IV.

Friday, July 05, 2013

MRA deconstructed (II)

This is part II on the topic of Men's Rights Activists or MRAs. Let's deal with their first big core tenet.

"Feminism ignores the challenges that men face"

One of the basic tenets of MRAs is that feminists ignore or downplay the challenges that men face as a gender. Not only is that not true, but feminists also have a right to do so. Do we ask a black power movement to please think of the white people, too? There's something dishonest about that, especially because men often only bring up issues that affect men when they discuss women's issues. But let's take a look at some of these issues.

    Glass cellar

As a corollary to the glass ceiling, men deal with the 'glass cellar'. Overwhelmingly, the world's most dangerous, unsanitary and menial jobs are done by men. One reason for this is very similar to why not many women get selected for jobs in the upper echelons of business and politics: the people who select them are men. In other words, it's men who saddle other men with these dangerous jobs, out of the sexist assumption that it's 'men's work'. Secondly, male-dominated environments such as the military tend to be hostile to women, making it less likely for women to choose them as a career path.
What MRAs think it is: Women getting off scot-free from dangerous professions
Actual issue: Employers (mostly men) are sexist to other men, too
Actual solution: Unionisation, reduce hostility to women in male-dominated professions

    Men are more likely to die violently

Male life expectancy is generally lower than female life expectancy. The causes are complex and manifold, but a significant number of these causes relate to violence. The biggest perpretators of lethal violence are men. Violence perpetrated by men is a problem that men must solve.
What MRAs think it is: Men are valiant knights who die protecting women
Actual issue: Men are raised to believe violence (against other men) is acceptable
Actual solution: Raise boys to be less violent

    Men are stereotyped as (potential) rapists

The famous term 'Schrödinger's Rapist' describes the uncertainty women feel when they are spoken to by men they do not know. Some men take offence at this description, but instead of being offended, they'd better realise that some 20% of women in the US alone get raped in their lifetime. As is the case with general physical violence, rape is an important issue that men must address among themselves: the onus is not on potential victims to protect themselves, the onus is on stopping potential rapists. Nothing will subside women's fears more than there simply being less rapists around.
What MRAs think it is: A slanderous attack on the vast majority of men
Actual issue: Rape culture leaves rapists largely unchecked
Actual solution: Stop rape

    Men get the short stick in a divorce case

As a result of the fact that men generally earn more money (which is in itself a result of systematic sexism), they often end up paying alimony. The evidence that the justice system is rigged to favour women in divorce cases is scant. We can assume that men will stop being required to pay child support if pay equality becomes a reality.
What MRAs think it is: Women manipulate courts to advantage them
Actual issue: Income and power disparity, society sees women as mothers
Actual solution: Pay equality, degendering of marriage roles
On to part III.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

MRA deconstructed (I)

Let's go back in time about a decade. Back then, I was right in the middle of my university years. As I said before, my thoughts on social progress and politics weren't as organised and coherent as they are now. Our alma mater offered a course on gender, for instance, but I wondered why it focused almost exclusively on women, as if men didn't matter. The answer is the same as the answer to questions why there are things like a Black History Month: because all the other stuff already (implicitly) focuses on men. It's the default.

If you grow up as a boy, you don't really see that. It's a thing that sits there in the background. What you do notice, is the steady portrayal of men as dumb savages or bumbling dads. You notice that men can be negatively portrayed in ways that women cannot be portrayed without drawing ire from various groups. You don't really know why that is, but you start assuming it's because of feminism. After all, you think, women have gotten the right to vote, have access to contraception and there are whole segments of the media and retail world devoted almost exclusively to them. Female-on-male violence, for instance, is also often played for laughs. You feel that that just isn't okay.

Fortunately, as I grew older and started burrowing deeper into the world of gender and social justice, not only did I discover the true reason behind forces like this, but I also gained perspective. While the 'savage caveman' caricature may be offensive, it was not created by women. Some women may believe it, but it was there long before they gained a voice in the media. Commercial industries that focus on women tend to do so in ways that reinforce gender stereotypes, and almost all of those focus on beauty or romance, not self-actualisation or intellectual development. Guess who leads those industries? I don't think I need to tell you that. Oh and when a woman slaps a man on television, it's because men by and large think men should be strong enough to take it, lest they be thought of as... a woman.

Now, this trip down the memory lane brings me to the topic I'd like to discuss: Men's Rights Activists or MRAs for short. They are mainly an American phenomenon, but I have no doubt that European men will be sensitive to some of the movement's messages as well. I certainly think that when I was around 20 years old, I might have found myself agreeing with a lot of what they were saying. This is the reason I'm devoting attention to MRA right now, in hopes of dissuading other men to go down their dark path.

Make no mistake: MRA is a hateful ideology through and through, akin to White Power and religious fundamentalism. While it couches itself in the language of the oppressed and may occasionally make an interesting point about masculinity, it is all about maintaining privilege. I will try to deconstruct some of MRA's basic assumptions and more seductive aspects here and prove why their movement makes no sense. In the next section, I will try to explain how their ideological foundation leads to other ideas and actions that makes it hard to ignore them as a factor in the debate about gender and equality, not matter how much I'd love to see them as little more than an absurd self-parody with no influence beyond a group of men that was already bitterly misogynist.

On to section II.

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.


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.


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 clichés 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