Anti-Polarization Hacks

sandwichI was watching a news feature the other day that was talking about Russian activities on social media designed to increase polarization among the American electorate.

I got to wondering if it would be possible to use the same technique in reverse, to have social media bots amplifying non-polarizing messages and stories, while armies of anti-trolls swamped the comments on news sites with messages designed to steer people towards finding common ground.

What do you suppose the memes would look like?

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Smashing Pluralistic Ignorance

I log onto this blog through a page that displays my stats. There are certain old posts of mine that reliably get hits every day. Others randomly pop up from time to time. Yesterday a post of mine from two years ago called “Pluralistic Ignorance” suddenly got some hits.

I think I know why. Pluralistic ignorance is when a large portion of a community holds a particular view, but the individuals do not realize it because no one (or few) have spoken up about it. In my original post I used this example:

 You may recall that a few years ago, while I was promoting my novel Angel, I came upon a study that showed that Christian ministers, as a group, believed they were more accepting of gay rights than their congregants. Christian church members, on the other hand, thought that they were more accepting of LGBT rights than their pastors. That is to say, each group wanted to come out as pro-gay rights, but was afraid the other party was not ready to make a change. The ministers were afraid they would alienate their congregations, the congregants were afraid of being out of step with the minister.

Then something happens that causes the dam to break. Someone who in a position to influence tells a story, or some world even happens, that causes people to start talking. “You were bothered by the Confederate flag over the capitol all along? So was I. I thought it was just me.”

We’re in one of those moments with #MeToo. The power of the hashtag was that it blew our pluralistic ignorance all to smash. “You had this happen but didn’t speak up? Me too.”

Silence is at the center of this. The driving force is the acknowledgement that a cultural code of silence has prevailed that has obscured something that we always knew was happening, and always knew was wrong. There were as many reasons for the silence as there were victims from fear of losing a job, to shame, to the expectation that they would not be believed, to the fear that speaking up would lead to more restrictions– not of the perpetrators– but of the woman in the name of safety. It is not that we did not know this was happening. We didn’t realize that everyone else knew and couldn’t find a way to talk about it.

The other day, as John Oliver’s confrontation of Dustin Hoffman was trending, (I’ll come back to this) I got to thinking about the 1982 film Tootsie.

It reminded me of some of the scenes from that film. The Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels character deals with casting that is based on narrow standards of physical beauty, a touchy and dismissive boss who calls her “Tootsie” (hence the title) an amorous co-worker who uses an on screen kiss as an excuse to shove his tongue down her throat and who won’t take no for an answer.

What is interesting about this is that all of the writers on this film, as well as the director, were men. Men had their blind spots, but when they tried to imagine themselves navigating a woman’s world, it becomes clear that they knew that this stuff happened, and knew that it was a problem.

Men as well as women are immersed in our culture. Billy Bush laughed with Donald Trump, not because he agreed with him, but because he didn’t know how not to.  Trump was the powerful man in the room, and you got on hi good side by joking like he did.  I think we’re starting to see the pluralistic ignorance starting to break among men. “Wow, I felt really uncomfortable when he made that joke about women. You too? I thought it was just me.”

That is thanks to #MeToo.

MeToo was aways about cultural change. It is about the culture of silence. But we are an individualistic culture, and our method of story telling is to focus on individuals rather than communities. Instead of looking at work places and talking about our intersecting relations and how we influence each other, we’re more inclined to identify individual bad actors and make examples of them.

Yet while the different cases are individual and have their own nuances, they are also part of the larger narrative. When we discuss each fallen star’s apology, we are judging it in the context of the larger movement. Is the accused acknowledging the legitimacy of, not only the specific complaint, but #MeToo as a whole? Do they agree that women have not had their voices heard, and that there are imbalances in power that need to be addressed? The apology becomes central, and we spend a lot of time critiquing apologies. “Do you believe the women?” is not just a question about the particular incident, but about all women. Often people invoke it without having actually read the particulars. It is asking what side are you on.

That is why we cheer John Oliver when he shakes his head at Dustin Hoffman asking why his accuser did not speak up forty years.  Indeed, Oliver is right. The whole point is that victims of sexual harassment are too intimidated to speak up. The point is to break the silence. We know why the accuser did not speak up. But to Hoffman, it is specific, and not an archetype.

Hoffman allegedly made vulgar jokes to a 17-year-old intern and asked her go give him foot massages. I absolutely believe the accuser, that these events happened, and that they made her uncomfortable. From her account, it seems as though she mentioned her discomfort and that at least some people on the set were aware of it.  Even so, it seems as though most of the people on the set interpreted Hoffman’s behavior as normal joking around.  Or if they did not, they believed the others on the set did, and therefore said nothing. The director, Volker Schlondorff, wrote an article defending Hoffman. The defense is uncomfortable reading at places in itself.

It’s plain silly. Just watch Christian Blackwood’s wonderful documentary PRIVATE CONVERSATIONS on the making of DOAS to check what a kidder Dustin was on the set, at all time, with everybody. Standard Monday morning question was indeed. “Did you have good sex over the weekend?” A joke, a running gag, everybody laughed at.

Foot massage? Yes indeed, he was 16 hours standing on the set (as me he never sat down), so he was tired and besides there is a line in the play about it: “These arch supports are killing me.” Dustin Hoffman, ever method acting, made it his own. Everybody gave him a foot massage now and then, on the set, amidst the chaos, nothing ambiguous about it.

As to the joke who was going to get Warren Beatty, only a teenager in her unlimited fantasy could take it seriously. Slapping her butt on the way to the car, with driver, stage manager and PAs around, may have happened, but again in a funny way, nothing lecherous about it. He was a clown, it was part of the way we portrayed Willy Loman as well — but he never played the power play. He was teasing the young, nervous interns, mostly to make them feel included on the set, treating them as equals to all the senior technicians. She may have got it wrong, confiding it to her diary then…

This is where the individual vs. community nature of the problem comes into focus. I believe that Hoffman made this intern uncomfortable. I don’t believe she “got it wrong” in her diary. This is absolutely the kind of dismissal that #MeToo is about.

Yet I am also prepared to believe that Hoffman did not intend to make the intern uncomfortable. He was part of a culture that said slapping a girl on the butt was a way to be funny “nothing lecherous about it.” He was part of a culture that assumed a woman would not “take it seriously.” Others in his sphere signaled to him that making a joke about having sex over the weekend was within bounds. The fact that “everybody laughed” was part of the problem. Some probably enjoyed it and thought it funny. Some were like Billy Bush on the bus, laughing to build rapport with the stars, even though they were uncomfortable inside. But here’s the thing, he wouldn’t know the difference.

So when John Oliver shakes his head and says “Oh, Dustin” when he asks why his accuser didn’t say anything for 40 years, he is right. We understand what that would have been asking of her.

But Hoffman is also naturally wondering why he didn’t know about this before. If a man is immersed in an environment in which everyone around him is part of a culture of pluralistic ignorance, where everyone is treating this behavior as normal, even fun, how is he supposed to learn and grow and change? Confrontation is not aggression, it is information. The silence didn’t do Hoffman any favors either.

Is it fair to assume the worst about the intentions of the accused– not just that the accuser felt degraded but that he meant to degrade her? Or can we give him the benefit of the doubt, that even though she did feel that way, it was not his intent. Is it fair to assume that he would not have changed his behavior if they had been in a world where the intern felt more empowered to voice her discomfort more firmly, and if her rebuke been backed up by others?

If the account of his director is anything to go by, Hoffman had reason to think, based on the signals of those around him, that his behavior was appropriate. It was just friendly, slightly bawdy, humor. He must have viewed it as his apologist Schlondorff did, “He was teasing the young, nervous interns, mostly to make them feel included on the set…”

As much as I cringe at Schlondorff’s victim-blaming comment that “She had a self-assured playful way herself,” and as much as I think the director’s defense does more harm than good,  I do believe his conclusion, “If [Hoffman] knew that she would be upset when he was teasing her, he wouldn’t have done it.” At least, I believe it is worth assuming that unless enough new information comes out to change the calculus.

Hoffman, in his apology, wrote  “I have the utmost respect for women and feel terrible that anything I might have done could have put her in an uncomfortable situation. I am sorry. It is not reflective of who I am.”

John Oliver took umbrage with the phrase “It is not reflective of who I am.” He wanted him to say “It is not reflective of who I am now.”  He wanted him to own it more. He wanted him to go beyond saying “I feel bad about my actions” and accept the identity of “harasser.” I don’t know if that is “who he is” or not. I don’t know him. I assume John Oliver doesn’t either.  It could be that this is an isolated incident, or it could be the tip of the iceberg. (An article in Vanity Fair about the making of Kramer vs. Kramer makes him sound… difficult.) In either case, we should broaden our focus to the entire culture that kept the intern from speaking up for so long.

 

 

 

Yucky Framing, “Seriousness” and The Clinton Conundrum

I have a regular feature here that I call “Yucky Framing.”  I use that expression to describe a particular kind of argument, where the human side of life is defended in market terms and anything without a dollar value is dismissed as a sentimental abstraction. The New Republic recently ran an article on yucky framing, although Adam Gaffney didn’t actually call it that. The article is a review of a book called The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life by Eli Cook. It traces the history of conceptualizing human life as income producing capital.

It’s a type of argument that many of us—myself included—often make in the policy world to this day, and that we are all very used to hearing: It just makes economic sense. In September in the New Yorker, Sheelah Kolhatkar argued in a piece titled “The Cost of the Opioid Crisis” that President Trump should tackle the opioid crisis not merely because of lives lost, but because of its economic cost to the nation—citing the $78.5 billion figure with which I began this essay. “If Trump were running the U.S. government like a business,” she writes, “as he often claims to be doing, then he would have made tackling an inefficiency of such scale a priority.”
We are accustomed to thinking… that this is how change is wrought in the real world—by convincing policy elites that this or that policy is economically rational. But as the many examples in Cook’s book demonstrate, arguments from economic rationality can obscure as much as they reveal. For if capitalism meant the transformation of land and lives into units of wealth-producing human capital, it also meant the transformation of sickness and death into a currency of wealth-reducing decapitalization. And this poses a question: wealth for whom?

Indeed, wealth for whom is the big question. Can we be expected to ever tackle the problem of poverty if we view debtors as valuable engines of wealth production for banks, and assume that what is good for the bank is by definition a social good?

One of the historical examples in Cook’s book is arguments over slavery.

A central thesis of Cook’s book is that over the nineteenth century, progress was increasingly judged not through “moral statistics” but through “capitalizing ones.” While “moral statistics” take the measure of individual welfare—through figures on, for instance, mental suffering, impoverishment or imprisonment, and disability or death—“capitalizing” statistics measure economic costs, such as the price in dollars of “lost productivity.” Reformers increasingly relied, Cook argues, on the latter to advocate for social change.

Or in my terminology: It was during the 19th Century that people started to use “yucky framing” when they wanted to be taken seriously. They started trying to convince people who had already done the emotional gymnastics to justify the morality of owning other people. Seemingly unmoved by appeals to a sense of right and wrong, abolitionists tried to argue that even if owning humans was not morally horrendous, it didn’t make economic sense anyway.

Capitalizing discourse has gotten stronger as the years have passed. In the extreme, you get episodes like the White House Budget Director unable to come up with any argument in favor of feeding homebound seniors and low-income children because he can’t see how it improves worker productivity, spurs growth or creates jobs.

Similarly, Senator Orrin Hatch finds it difficult to justify continued funding of the CHIP children’s health program, seeing sick children and their families as “people who won’t help themselves.”

We’ve become so accustomed to making the case that arts matter because they spur tourism and economic growth, that philanthropy is good PR, and that not having sick employees increases productivity that the idea of “moral statistics” takes a moment to process.

We tend to think of the pre-19th Century expression from the preamble to the Constitution “promote the general welfare” in economic terms. The word “welfare” itself has come to mean money given to people for to stabilize their financial situation. Of course, the word itself is a synonym for well-being. What would our country look like if moral arguments predominated and if our model of “welfare” was based on maximizing human health and dignity?

Today I was doing research for a speech I am writing for a client, and the theme reminded me of the 2004 DNC speech that launched Barack Obama’s national political career. When I listened to it again, it struck me that Obama used moral rather than “capitalizing” language.

This year, in this election, we are called to reaffirm our values and commitments, to hold them against a hard reality and see how we are measuring up, to the legacy of our forbearers, and the promise of future generations…

For alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga. A belief that we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief – I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper – that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many,one.

This is who we are, as a nation. This is what we believe. We have a moral responsibility that is larger than our self-interest, and we demonstrate who we are by acting in accordance with those values.

Obama’s success shows that America–at least a large part of the electorate–hungered for a discourse based on a moral, not just a capitalizing foundation.

These are moral claims:

Your factory closed and you are out of work, and you have value.

You’ve been diagnosed with a serious illness, and you have value.

You have been harassed by your boss, and you have value.

You work for wages, not capital, and you have value.

You have dark skin, and you have value.

You can’t afford a lobbyist, and you have value.

Your grandmother and children do nothing to create jobs, and they have value.

Hillary Clinton could not generate Obama levels of enthusiasm. That is, admittedly, an unfairly high bar. Obama had a rare rhetorical gift. Yet, I would argue that as a female candidate she had some additional obstacles. Women are always suspected of being emotional, sentimental and un-serious. A female candidate has to work extra hard to show that she is the one who can be trusted with the 3 AM phone call of a famous Clinton ad. She has to demonstrate her seriousness.

In our culture serious arguments feature capital rather than moral discourse. But it is moral rhetoric that excites the imagination and provides a stirring aspirational message. So Hillary talked about her detailed plan for jobs, where Bill had famously told someone in his audience “I feel your pain.”

These empathetic, moral claims carry a lot of weight with voters. There were elements of the Bernie Sanders and Trump campaigns that spoke to American’s desire for a politics of human dignity rather than humans as units of capital. Trump fans liked that he claimed to be so rich he could not be bought by lobbyists and would “drain the swamp.” Sanders liked the idea that he might reset government to put their interests above those of the “millionaires and billionaires” who viewed them as units of capital.  Both Sanders and Trump were effective in associating Clinton with Wall Street and therefore a mindset of capitalization.

How all of this led to the politics we currently have is too complex and multi-faceted for my sociological ability to explain. But perhaps it is time we unlinked the association of capital with seriousness. The things that are difficult to quantify (market externalities the economists call them) are deadly serious to human beings living in this world.

 

 

Pronoun Trouble: Women…They

I have been experimenting with a different style of writing about women. Some time ago it struck me that when women speak about women we almost always use the word “they” to describe the group.

The reason we do this, I believe, is to take on the voice of an impartial observer. To say “women…they” is to say that I, for the purposes of this discussion, am not part of that group. I’m impartial. Now, I admit, men may also use a “men…they” construction to indicate that they are speaking about men in a collective abstract that doesn’t necessarily include the speaker as an individual. Yet, somehow, it feels different to me when women say “women… they.”

In doing so women make women “other” and reinforce the idea of maleness (or non-femaleness) as the default. People in the abstract are not women. Women are “they.” When I noticed this, I made a conscious choice to start writing “women…we” in these instances to see how it feels.

So far I am not sure that either construction is ideal. “Women…we” has a nice feel of solidarity, which can be powerful when speaking on women’s issues, but feels less empowering when you don’t want to individually be assumed to share the traits of all people of your gender. There is a risk of seeming to speak on behalf of women as a whole. On the other hand, not assuming that people are male unless they are differentiated as women…them… feels very good to me.

What do you think? Discuss.

 

On This Day in 1900: Oscar Wilde Died in Paris

On November 30, 1900, Oscar Wilde drew his last breath in Paris. His friends Robert Ross and Reginald Turner were at his side.  Robert Ross had sent Lord Alfred Douglas, in Scotland, word that Wilde was dying just the day before.  As he made his plans to return to France, Douglas wrote a letter to Wilde through Ross that said, “Give him my undying love.” This message, and word that Wilde had died, crossed in the mail.

The end of Oscar Wilde’s life is only the beginning of the story I tell in Oscar’s Ghost. Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross would spend most of their lives wrestling with the roles they played in Wilde’s downfall, and fighting over the mansucript Wilde wrote in prison, a long essay in the form of a letter to Douglas, which Ross named De Profundis.

Would you like to know more?

Read some reviews and interviews here.

Or order an autographed copy.

 

Crackpot Literary Theories

p30200_d_v8_aaLast night I watched the film The Luzhin Defence, an older title, which I got from the library. The film is based on the novel by Nabokov, which I have not read.

After watching the film, I developed an entire literary theory, which I subsequently discovered is utter nonsense, but it is so satisfying I feel I must share it anyway.

The ending of the film reminded me of something my Russian partner once told me.

We were talking about the “American story.” The hero wins against overwhelming odds and there is a happy ending. Good triumphs over evil and we can feel safe and secure knowing Truth, Justice and the American Way are safe. Americans are comfortable with the happy ending even if it’s an illusion. We agree to this conceit the way a ballet audience agrees that it is normal for women to wear tutus and walk on tip toe. It is a narrative convention.

So I asked my partner what the Russian Story was. His answer blew my mind. In the classic Russian tale, he said, boy meets girl. Boy dies. Boy comes back as a ghost. They live (or is it die?) happily ever after and there is a lesson- a moral.

The hero of the Russian story DIES before it has even gotten interesting! The American story is about winning. The Russian story is about what you learn from losing. American heroes continue in the face of all obstacles. They do not waver, and eventually win through sheer force of character and will.

Russian heroes, according to my are destroyed before they even have a chance to begin. Then the hero is reborn to the circumstances, he is victorious in failure and he brings his lesson back to the world. The American story does not teach us what to do with failure. It simply does not give us the option. Villains fail. Heroes succeed.

Now, my partner is a ballet dancer, not a writer. He has not made a study of Russian literature, and I don’t know if his off-the-cuff description of the “Russian story” is accurate or not. It was, in any case, thought-provoking.

When I saw The Luzhin Defence I felt I had confirmation. Spoiler alert: I will now talk about the end of the film.  The Luzhin Defence is the story of a man being driven mad by his obsession with chess. He only knows how to view the world as a chess game. The film focuses on Luzhin’s relationship with a woman named Natalya, who becomes his fiancee. In the film, Luzhin (brilliantly played by John Tuturro) has been sabotaged, and suffers a nervous break-down during a pause in the final game of the world championship. Told that chess is driving him mad, he must choose between a “normal” life with his fiancee but without chess, or chess and madness. He jumps to his death. In the final scene, the grieving Natalya finds Luzhin’s written plans to complete the chess game. Luzhin’s opponent agrees to let her play the game out using his strategy, and it wins.

Remembering what my partner once said, I concluded that Russian drama is not about what one achieves in his lifetime, but about his legacy. It is not the happy end, the tragic end, or the noble end. It is about the after-effects of a life.

Here’s the problem: The epilogue was not in the novel. From a review in The Guardian:

What was a beautifully structured narrative of mental drama becomes a rather over-familiar costume romance, pillowed by a swooningly sentimental epilogue that has nothing to do with Nabokov’s novel.

So it turns out it is just another example of a film maker adding a happy end (of sorts) to a novel that is felt to be too unsatisfying for the screen.

Steven Poole, in his review sheds some light on the problem film makers often face when translating a novel to film.

A clue is to be found in Nabokov’s 1943 short story, The Assistant Producer, in which the narrator draws a lugubrious parallel between cinema and life, both of which mock the unwary with fatal coincidence. “Indeterminism is banned from the studio,” he writes. That is precisely it: the cinema simply cannot maintain creative ambiguity. How do you preserve the master’s playful indeterminism when a movie must show one thing or the other?

So there is a perfectly good literary theory all shot to hell. This all made me think of Oscar Wilde’s story The Portrait of W.H. in which he has his character put forward a theory that the W.H. of Shakespeare’s sonnets was a boy actor in his company. After the character explains all the clues that point to his conclusion (and gets someone else excited about it) he abandons his theory because it pre-supposes the very thing he is trying to prove– the existence of the boy actor W.H.

You can imagine Wilde himself becoming excited about the idea of W.H., building a grand narrative about it, only to make the realization that his reasoning is circular. So he shifts his focus and makes his story not simply about W.H., but about the beauty of believing a beautiful story, rather than the factual underpinnings of the story itself. (Lord Alfred Douglas, always a black and white thinker, in his later years set out to prove W.H. did exist using church records.)

In the spirit of Wilde, I’m not going to abandon my beautiful theory just because it happens not to be true. Clearly the end of the film has nothing to do with Russian story-telling. But for a moment, when I believed it did, I glimpsed something– another option for viewing narrative.

What if our stories were more concerned with legacy than with success in the here and now? Would we live our lives differently?

Beyond Saying “Yes” or “No”: Power, Sex, Empathy and Agency

I found myself the other day listening to a podcast by Marc Maron talking about the allegations against his friend Louis CK.

It was fascinating to me to listen to this man trying to empathize and understand what it was like for a woman to be faced with an unwanted and unexpected sexual advance. The only comparable experience he had involved a male teacher who he admired trying to kiss him.

As a woman, until recently, it had never occurred to me just how rarely straight men have the experience of an unwanted sexual advance. “Of course not,” you may say, “because they always want it.” I do not believe this is true, and I think that view is part of the problem.

I remember a while back listening to an interview with Trevor Noah where he was talking about the value of diversity in the writing room of the Daily Show. They were doing a segment on catcalls on the streets of New York. Noah said he thought it would not be a big deal for women. If women on the street whistled at him and called him hot, he imagined it would be kind of nice. But the women on the staff let him know that it is terrible to be walking down the street, minding your own business, and to be catcalled.

Why don’t men get it? I think it comes down that an antiquated notion– one we would do well to be done with– that women are the givers of sex and men the recipients of it.

Let’s get this straight, because I’ve heard a lot of commentary lately that men are just awful by nature and women are virtuous. Poppycock! There are two main reasons why you’re not hearing loads of stories of powerful women groping their underlings. 1. There aren’t enough powerful women with underlings. 2. And this is the focus of this article–We are actively socialized not to initiate. (See my previous article on “making a pass” vs. “throwing oneself.”)

Because we do not usually make the passes, for fear of being seen as sluts, we are much less likely to find ourselves saying, “I thought he was over 18,” or “I thought he gave me signals…” And men, socialized to believe female sexual attention is a gift they should always want, are not nearly as likely to come forward and report to HR “she kissed me and put her hand on my knee…”

It wasn’t always this way. Consider this from The Good Man Project:

Of course, assumptions about male libido, as godawful as they are, pale in comparison to the incredibly creepy cultural ideas about female libido. One of the earliest known postclassical joke books is the 15th-century Facetiae of Poggio, in which we find the following anecdote, presented in the painfully stiff English translation:
A woman who was once asked by a man, why, if the pleasure of cohabitation was equal for both sexes, it was generally the men who pursued and importuned the women rather than vice-versa, replied:
“It is a very wise custom that compels the men to take the initiative. For it is certain that we women are always ready for sex; not so you men, however. And we should therefore be soliciting the men in vain, if they happened to be not in the proper condition for it.”
Somewhat later, in the first season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, we find this bit, described thus in the DVD package for those who don’t want to watch the video:
Larry is drifting off when Cheryl asks him, “Why am I the one that always has to initiate sex?” Larry explains that he’s always available, and all Cheryl has to do is tap him on the shoulder. Otherwise, he tells her, “I’ll just be mauling you all the time.”
In other words, it is the exact same joke, but the genders have been reversed.

A researcher who studied sexual habits in other cultures reports, “the Biwat of Papua New Guinea think women are the sexual aggressors and men are the receivers. They have this saying: ‘Of course the female is the aggressor and aggressive. Has she not a vulva?'”

And, as it turns out, women are the aggressors more often than you might think even in our culture. The BPS Digest calls it one of the 10 most widely believed myths in psychology that men are much more likely to be abusers than women.

A British survey published in 2014 found that over 65 per cent believed it was probably or definitely true that domestic violence is overwhelmingly committed by men. It’s easy to understand why – men are responsible for more violent crime overall, and being bigger and stronger, on average, men are seen as a more obvious threat. Yet official statistics (cited by Scarduzio et al, this year) show that partner violence against men by women is also a major problem. For example, The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey in the US found that one in four men had experienced physical violence, rape, and/or stalking from a partner (compared with one in three women) and that 83 per cent of the violence inflicted on men by partners was done so by women. This is not to diminish the seriousness or scale of the problem of partner abuse by men toward women, but to recognise that there is also a significant, lesser known, issue of women being violent toward men.

But that is not what our culture tells us, not what it reinforces and rewards. I was struck by this sign at a recent protest march to end workplace sexual harassment.

hollywoodmarch
This sign expresses a woman’s right to say “no” and her right to say “yes.” In either case, she is viewed as the recipient of the man’s advance. There is no sign that I can see about her right to make the first move.

Samantha Bee, in her funny PSA on how not to masturbate in front of employees assures men that their dicks are ugly and that no woman actually wants to see one in any context.

And this is totally true, right ladies?

We hear it all the time. Women’s bodies are beautiful. Men’s are disgusting. Then there are the Viagra jokes. They operate on the idea that a man’s desire to have dependable erections in late middle age can only be selfish. It’s selfish because sex is something men get and women give. The jokes don’t work if you envision male sexual function as something that is mutually beneficial to both partners.

Samantha Bee is right, it is easy not to masturbate in front of your employees, and a lot of the behavior we’ve heard lately is reported because it is so disgusting and outrageous. No one wants to be confronted with sex when they’re trying to make a serious business presentation.

DO-vy_CWkAAdU1jBut when it’s in the right context, when it is welcome, it feels good to be appreciated for your sexual attractiveness. It is nice to hear that expressed, and to have someone take a risk and go out on a limb to make an overture.  In the right context it feels good to be viewed with lust. We all want to be desired.

Put another way: To be sometimes considered as a sexual being is a natural human need. To be always considered as an object of desire is a burden.

Men don’t get enough of that. Women get too much. I think we should correct that. We need to go beyond the right to say yes or no, waiting for advances, and calling out the ones that are inappropriate–we need to start claiming our own desire and making more of the moves ourselves.

Maybe that sense of being undesirable is one of the drivers that leads some men to aggressively over-compensate.

I appreciate it when I hear someone like Maron or Noah trying to understand the female point of view. I think a lot more men are trying to empathize these days. I am optimistic that maybe the moment has come when we will stop putting the burden on women to protect ourselves, and start asking men to be responsible in their behavior.

But if some men have trouble imagining what it is like to be in our position, some women also have trouble imagining the real confusion of some of their male friends who would never dream of doing what Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose or Roy Moore are alleged to have done but who are still a bit nervous that some episode from their past might come back to haunt them. The difference between an “unwanted advance” and a “wanted advance” is whether or not it is wanted. There are some cases when it is clear. (She’s 14, she’s your employee and you have to threaten her, you’re considering masturbating in front of someone at work) There are others where it is not so clear. If you’re going on hair twirls and head tilts as a guide, there is some room to make the wrong judgment. This is why I am concerned about the conflation of different types of stories.

Right now there is only one question being asked: “Do you believe the accuser or not?”

In some cases–not all, but some– you can absolutely believe that an accuser is telling the truth, and also ask if there is some possibility of misunderstanding.

Tara Isabella Burton, writing in Vox, used Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure to talk about the long history of the misuse of sexual power. In Measure for Measure, a man named Claudio is arrested for getting his fiance pregnant before they are married. Sex outside of marriage is illegal in Vienna, and while it is widespread, Claudio has been sentenced to death as a scapegoat– to show that the duke is tough on crime. His sister, Isabella, goes to an official called Angelo who tells her that he will spare her brother if she will sleep with him. In her outrage, she goes to her brother.

Isabella is sick and tired of men avoiding responsibility for their actions, and in this scene she lets herself go, telling her brother it’s better someone so shameful will die quickly. “I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death,” she cries, “No word to save thee.”…

It’s easy, especially in the post-#MeToo world, to sympathize with Isabella’s plight — plenty of women I know, myself included, respond to each new public accusation of sexual misconduct with joking-but-not-really-joking misandry, or comments about “banning all men.” But what Shakespeare does so well is present us with an Isabella who’s totally right (a lot of the men in Vienna are terrible!) and who also, through her rage, is perpetuating the same uncompromising black-and-white worldview that got Claudio arrested in the first place…

This play serves as an important reminder that, despite some people’s idealized narrative of the “pre-women’s lib” past, people were still grappling with the injustice of sexual misconduct. Shakespeare knew that sexual harassment is made possible by sexual hypocrisy: that harassed women are rarely believed, that women are only allowed to be wives, widows, or virgins, and this is what makes it so easy to make them victims.

Overt sexual harassment is only part of the story. And sexism is not only a problem of men. We all buy into it in big and small ways.  Studies show that both men and women–including feminists– have implicit biases that men are associated with leadership and women aren’t. (You can check yourself with this implicit bias test. I came out with a “slight bias” associating men with leadership and women with supporting roles.)

We need to change our cultural dynamic so women have more agency in all areas of life.  If you look back at some of my past articles you will see all sorts of examples where women are encouraged to think of ourselves as “being” while men are encouraged to think of themselves as “doing.” It begins in childhood, where boys are praised for their efforts and girls are praised for our inherent traits. We read children’s literature where boys go off on adventures, and girls try to get home. We’re even sometimes taught that math is important because it makes us more attractive to boys. We try to “empower” girls by teaching self-esteem while we send boys off to build fires and earn medals for achievement. We’re given entirely different messages about risk- boys are encouraged to take them, and girls are warned we’re inherently vulnerable. Into adulthood, stories for men are about saving the world. Stories for women are about being OK with yourself just as you are. Publishers and agents bring their assumptions about those stories to the fore when judging work by male and female authors. We seem to picture female writers as doing it for self-gratification and men for work. Therefore men’s writing is viewed as serious and worthy of academic study, while the very existence of famous female writers of the past is erased. (A reviewer in a prestigious literary review publication recently expressed surprise that my “Oscar’s Ghost” was “not sentimental.”)

I have to admit that my own two novels reflect these biases. I found it much easier to write about male beauty from the point of view of a male character in my first novel Angel. In my second novel, Identity Theft, I made fun of how the (female) director of the film The Holiday felt it was important that Jude Law’s character be wearing a tie before Cameron Diaz’s character invites him to her bed– if he were of a lower social class it would make her a slut. Nevertheless I gave in to gender expectations in my own writing. The main female character, Candi, fantasizes about a sexual encounter with a rock star. In my initial conception, she had an uninspiring life and lots of stress and she wanted a fun adventure. I came to realize that she was coming across as not “likeable” or “relateable” enough.  So I gave her body image issues which provided a socially-sanctioned sympathetic motivation for her sexual desire. She wanted the affair to boost her self-esteem, not to pro-actively go out in search of pleasure.

We do not just need to change how men think about us, we need to change how we think about ourselves.