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Jo Walton, Among Others
...is fantastic, but what to say about it? It comes the closest of any book not Gaudy Night to being in the same genre as Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, with which, as long-time readers may recall, I am somewhat obsessed. Do you like explorations of wounded people learning unorthodox ways to thrive, or girls who read a lot coming of age and finding community, or people coping with the world after they've saved it? How about subtle and deniable magic? This is a book for people who respond to those things, though I wouldn't rule out others.

I posted about this xkcd on my facebook, but it feels more like a weblog entry so I'm going to reproduce it here. Seeing it again the other day I was struck by what a familiar narrative it is, and I've been thinking about what that says about the kind of sexual advice that's given to men.

This dude has an unrealistically self-centred anxiety that if he expresses any interest in the girl next to him, her response will be to aggressively shame him for hitting on her. The final panel implies that actually, she would be sexually receptive, so he's shooting himself in the foot -- if only he could muster up the courage to risk her disapproval, he'd be rewarded for it. As a heterosexually presenting guy who had never had a girlfriend, I used to get this kind of message a lot. I was told I needed to play the game, to make women aware of my desire, and if I started to do that, then (eventually) it would 'work'.

The thing that strikes me now about this advice is how it keeps the man's focus on himself. The sort of worry depicted in the comic is arguably proto-feminist; train dude is concerned that he will be taking part in a trend of men putting unwanted sexual pressure on the women around him, though because men's privilege includes being socialized to consider themselves as the subject position in any sexual encounter, he's worrying more about how this will be embarrassing for him than about how it will be uncomfortable to her. What he is told, implicitly by the comic and explicitly by people around him, is, “It won't really be all about you in this negative way -- it will be all about you (and your desire) in a positive way instead!” He is encouraged to say, “I like you,” and stop worrying about “Do you like me?”; indeed, this is often couched as a strategy that will make her like you. (Or, at the least, avoid turning her off.)

There are ways of approaching desire that do not partake of the aggressive and insensitive archetype of masculinity that this guy is worried about, though because people are predisposed to read men that way it takes some extra work. (I borrowed my language a few sentences ago from Delany in "The Rhetoric of Sex/The Discourse of Desire", where he argues for saying to those in whom one is sexually interested, “I like you. Do you like me?” with an equal and sincere emphasis on both, and I, like Delany, think that this has powerful potential to allow the speaker to disarm, at least if approached with ethical care.) But it is precisely because it leads you away from that archetype, I think, that people talking to shy guys tend to discourage the worry and downplay its implications. After all, if what you want is to be sexy to straight women, then the problem with these guys (conventional wisdom assures us) is that they're not being masculine enough.
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Andy H.

February 2013

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