Confusion is not the word you’re looking for
For those who haven’t seen it, it’s well worth it to read this response by Will Wilkinson to Kay Hymowitz’s suggestion that women’s human rights should be repealed so men don’t have to ask if they’re going dutch on dates. It’s interesting and compassionate towards male complaints without giving one iota on the idea that men should suck it up and, gasp!, start treating women like people. In fact, Wilkinson really fleshes out the “treat women like people” idea, which is often a response to men who trot out the Nice Guy® complaint about how they don’t have the secret code to push to get women—a single, undifferentiated group—to give them sex and affection. I’m forced to quote at length.
When women are free to be individuals, free to want different things than other women, men can’t be sure what any particular women might want from him. To open the door for her or not!? To pick up the check or not!? To be a nice guy like she says she wants or a bad boy like she really wants?! These unresolved and unresolvable questions have led inevitably to the contemporary condition in which men are either unlovable whining sad sacks or misogynist assholes who cite a cartoon version of Darwinism to justify treating a woman as little more than an upgrade from Jergens and a sock……
Look, the phenomenon Hymowitz describes is real enough. Rapid social change inevitably makes it harder to coordinate expectations. If it is a change worth having, then the pains of adjustment are worth it. Period. That doesn’t mean those pains are unimportant. Guys do suffer uncertainty about whether or not to open doors or pick up checks. It really can be frustrating for the sensitive guy to find out he’d be more generally attractive if he learned to be a bit more of a dick.
At this point, the feminist blogging community usually says, “Assume women are human beings.” But of course, Will is actually doing this, by defining one of the major goals of women’s liberation as allowing women the space to be different from each other, to want different things, to have different personality traits, to not be a series of buttons you push to get a predictable response. To be, in other words, human beings. And men who object to women’s diversity are prioritizing their comfort over women’s right to be human beings. They are also not taking into consideration the fact that women don’t have the luxury of expecting all men to be the same. Oh sure, there’s jokes about how all men want is sex and food, but the reality is that women largely expect to assume men are individuals with tastes and opinions to respect (and sadly, in the past, we were expected to mold ourselves to them). Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t think, for instance, of a universal gift that’s supposed to woo all men into submission. But women are expected to respond in an automated fashion to roses and diamonds. This is expensive, but it’s also comforting, as Will notes, because it’s just easier to push buttons and get responses than to do the hard work of getting to know someone as an equal. But getting to know someone also has more dividends.
All this vexation is a very, very small price to pay for equality. For men, it is a very, very small price to pay for the opportunity to share a life with a peer, a full partner, rather than with a woman limited by convention and straitened opportunity to a more circumscribed and subordinate role in life. Sexual equality has created the possibility of greater exactness and complementarity in matching women to men. That is, in my book, a huge gain to men. But equality does raise expectations for love and marriage. The prospect of finding a true partner, rather than someone to satisfactorily perform the generic role of husband or wife, leaves many of us single and searching for a good long time. But this isn’t about delaying adulthood, it’s about meeting higher standards for what marriage and family should be.
Or, I would even argue, going the next step and redefining what you even want from life and romance altogether. Not that Will would disagree, I’m sure—he suggests that he’s learned a lot from gay men about how to have a broader definition of masculinity. (I’m sure that won’t do a thing to convince Kay Hymowitz of his point of view, of course. Suggesting that straight men look to gay men as friends instead of objects to fear? That’s heresy to conservatives.)
But what really won me over to this post was that Will doesn’t play soft, or try to paint the male temper tantrum that Hymowitz applauds as anything but what it is—ugly and sexist. He argues that far from being merely angry over the “confusion” over stupid shit like who pays the tab at dinner, men who are lashing out at the broadening gender roles are angry that they’ve lost patriarchal power over women. Will doesn’t spell out what it is that the angry men think they deserve, but I will: servitude, mainly. They imagine that it’s about having someone who must support you and never disagree, who subsumes her will to yours. Someone who does the housework and has sex on your schedule according to your desires. Someone who sees pregnancy as having your baby, and does all the boring day to day work while deferring to your authority on the big stuff. Someone who will manage the family finances without demanding authority over what is done with the money. On paper, it sounds great having such a servant. In reality, the amount of resentment and coldness that can build up in those relationships doesn’t sound so great, but hey, they just ignore the inconvenient facts that clash with their ego trips.
And it must be all these things, and not cutesy shit like who pays for dinner. What always bugs me about arguments like Hymowitz’s—besides the fact that she thinks a couple of minor social niceties that don’t even come up that much in the grand scheme of things are more important than the basic rights of half the human race—is how they’re absolute bullshit on their surface. Everything in her article that is “confusing” is actually easy to clear up if you understand a very simple principle: women can speak, often in a language that is shared by men. For instance, my primary language is English. Actually, being American, it’s my only language. This has been true of every man I’ve ever dated, though to be fair, some have spoken Spanish as well. Nonetheless, we communicated in English. Men will open their mouths (or tap their keyboards) and speak, and I will listen and then do the same and they will listen. We have all these devices, too! Phones, email, chat—I have used all these things to speak with men that I was dating in any capacity. Hell, even notes passed in class! Language, and the various forms it takes, can clear up so much of the confusion that Hymowitz worries about. For instance, who pays for dinner? So confusing if you are forbidden to speak! But if you do speak, odds are you were doing so for at least an hour before the check even came, establishing a repertoire that allows you to talk about it and come to a decision. Many scientists in fact think this need for consensus in decision-making is why language evolved, because we are social creatures.
Language is even useful when it comes to the more complicated stuff Hymowitz details:
But then, when an SYM walks into a bar and sees an attractive woman, it turns out to be nothing like that. The woman may be hoping for a hookup, but she may also be looking for a husband, a co-parent, a sperm donor, a relationship, a threesome, or a temporary place to live. She may want one thing in November and another by Christmas. “I’ve gone through phases in my life where I bounce between serial monogamy, Very Serious Relationships and extremely casual sex,” writes Megan Carpentier on Jezebel, a popular website for young women. “I’ve slept next to guys on the first date, had sex on the first date, allowed no more than a cheek kiss, dispensed with the date-concept altogether after kissing the guy on the way to his car, fucked a couple of close friends and, more rarely, slept with a guy I didn’t care if I ever saw again.” Okay, wonders the ordinary guy with only middling psychic powers, which is it tonight?
If a man cannot read a woman’s mind, how can he know what she’s thinking? If only women came equipped with language! Oh wait, they fucking do.
Of course, when these men cite “confusion”, you know exactly what’s going on. They don’t want to ask. They don’t want to listen. They want to press buttons and have the fembots perform the assigned tasks. For those of us who find talking with people we’re attracted to exciting and even intoxicating, the things that supposedly “confuse” don’t. We might find we might different things. We might find conflict. It might, as Will notes, take a long time to find someone on the same page. But it’s rarely confusing.