Melissa McEwan over at Shakesville wrote a piece today about why she thinks that straight men shouldn’t write articles or blogs telling other men how to not be creepy. She makes some good points, though I think she also misses some key points.
Her first argument is that when men talk about creepiness, they tend to frame it as something that other men do:
I would wager that virtually all of the men who have behaved toward me in ways described as “creepy” don’t consider themselves creepy. “Creepy” is something other dudes are. If you want to have a serious talk with men about their interactions with women, you can’t use language that very few of the men who need to take this lesson believe applies to them.
There’s certainly some truth to this. A lot of men have no idea that they’re being creepy, and plenty of other men don’t care if they are or not. But I think she’s wrong about how “virtually all of the men” think about themselves.
See, here’s the thing- almost all of the messages that boys and men receive about how to approach someone for sex, how to ask for what you want, how to perform masculinity, and how to deal with rejection teach us to push someone’s boundaries. They teach us to not take no for an answer. They teach us that sexual success is measured by how often you have sex, rather than the pleasure and joy of the participants. All of these messages teach men to be creepy.
As a man who is both deeply committed to being an ally to women, and as a man who is deeply committed to crafting an honest, authentic, passionate life, I’ve struggled with these messages. I had to learn through trial and error (and unfortunately, far more error than I wish) because I didn’t have a single role model to point the way. And I find it troubling that anyone who wants to create a world of gender equality would advocate for men not stepping up and taking that on.
Many of the men who come to my workshops are really worried about being creepy. They genuinely want to learn how to flirt with women, and to be romantic and sexual with women. And they want to do it without being creepy. So unless someone offers them useful tools for how to do that and helps them see how we need to resist the patterns of sexism, sexual intrusion, and gender roles, how does Ms McEwan think that will happen?
Personally, I’m not a big fan of othering the creeps. I know that I’ve done things that were creepy, simply because I didn’t know how to not do them. I agree with Ms McEwan that nothing good comes from pretending that it’s those “other guys.” But I disagree with her that men talking about creepiness has to use that false dichotomy. The fact that it often has doesn’t mean that it must. Rather than shutting down men’s voices, I’d rather create a call to action for the guys who get it, so they can stand up and be heard.
In her second point, Ms McEwan argues that many of the writings on the topic focus on the well-intentioned and clueless men, while ignoring the existence of predators. I totally agree with that. I also agree that there are predators who will take the lessons meant for non-predatory men and use them to camouflage their intentions, just as they often pretend to be “hapless dude[s] who just didn’t know any better” when they get caught.
But I’m still not convinced that the way to deal with that is by not making room for men to teach each other how to navigate consent, communication, boundaries, expectations, and relationships. She says that “If those [well-intentioned but clueless] guys want to not harm women, they’ll learn even if you target your allyship in a way that centers accountability for any harm, irrespective of intent.” How, precisely, are men supposed to learn these things if we don’t ever talk about how to do it? After all, it’s not as if guys are discussing their relationships at the corner bar. And it’s not like most people get to watch other folks talk about their sexual desires in healthy, respectful ways. So unless there are books, workshops, or websites to learn from, how can that possibly happen?
At the same time, I 100% agree that men also need to learn that we are accountable for any harm we do, whatever the reason. As important as they are, intentions don’t matter when it’s time to make amends. And you don’t get to pull the “Golly! I had no idea that wasn’t ok.” card more than once. Men who use that excuse over and over, without taking steps to change how they act, place themselves firmly on the douchebag-rapist spectrum. But we can hold onto that AND the fact that boys and men need to teach each other how to act honorably.
Ms McEwan’s third point is that men need to make room for women to talk about these issues:
Instead, invite a woman to write a piece about consent from her perspective, then leverage your male privilege to endorse and champion it. Host it in your space. Invite other men to listen to what your female guest writer has to say. The thing about “creeps” is that they don’t respect women; they don’t listen to us; they don’t empathize with us.
If you really want men to not harm women, then find ways of encouraging them to respect, listen to, and empathize women. To see what “creepiness” looks like from our perspective.
Yes. This. A lot. But it’s also not enough. It’s not enough because cisgender women have no idea what it’s like to live as a cisgender man, to grow up being shamed into masculinity. You don’t have that lived experience, any more than I have the lived experience of being shamed into femininity. This doesn’t have to be an either/or. We can serve as allies and support women, and we can also show men what it means to “respect, listen to, and empathize [with] women.” We need to model it to each other, we need to teach each other how to do it, and we need to hold ourselves and each other accountable. One way we can do that is by writing about it. (And yes, the fact that I’m not straight makes a difference in how I approach this issue.)
Do I think that straight men teaching other straight men how to not be creepy is necessarily a good thing? Not at all. I think McEwan drops a lot of truthbombs in her post. And I’m troubled by the fact that a lot of the marketing behind the “how to not be creepy” books and articles rests on a foundation of “this is how to get laid.” Acting like an ethical, honorable person because it’ll make it easier to have sex is creepy. Fighting the cultural programming and learning to be an ethical, honorable person is not. Unfortunately, most of the writing I’ve seen on the topic is the former. I think we need to see more of the latter.
That’s why Sabrina Morgan and I started teaching “How to Not Be ‘That Guy’”, our workshop on this topic. We’ll be in San Diego on February 5 and in Oakland, CA on February 26. While these presentations are focused on the tantra/sacred sex communities, you don’t have to be part of them to attend. We also have a more general version that focuses on heterosexual men, and we teach this workshop for many different communities, including queer men, transgender men, the BDSM community, the polyamory/open relationship world, and other sex-positive circles.
We also both offer our services as sex coaches. I work with individuals and couples over Skype, and we both do in-person sessions. So when you’re ready to figure all this out, or when you need some support to improve any part of your sexual and romantic life, get in touch!