I heard complaints about a video from SexReally/The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy at sex::tech from audience members at one of my own panels, a video I had not seen myself. Then I received an email the following morning with some of those complaints CC’d to me. So, I had a conversation with Larry Swiader that day, in his role there as a representative of the NC, about the reactions the video got (which I did look at before our conversation, and was not a fan of myself).
This was a conversation where I was primarily trying to help support someone new in the field facing an intense swell of reactivity, however valid. I know how challenging working in sex education can be, especially when you’re new to it, and I also know how overwhelming it can be to face en-masse complaints about loaded topics, especially if you get caught off-guard. I like to try and be supportive of others in the field even when we may have ideological conflicts, particularly when I know we also have intersections in what we’re trying to achieve and who we’re trying to best serve. I have had private exchanges with the NC in the past about some of their content when they have asked for my opinion or endorsement, as well.
At the time, I felt like that conversation was all I needed to have, especially since a lot of the conversation was not actually about me or a need to voice my own feelings as it was about my trying to help mediate, inform and finesse the larger conversation. Suffice it to say, this one video is hardly the only place I have recently seen sexism, and there simply aren’t enough hours, enough coffee or enough environment for primal screaming for me to voice every single one of my objections to sexism every time I see it, everywhere I see it.
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However, some of what was said in this blog entry bothered me, especially given some parts of the conversation I had with Larry about it, and I felt the need to say something that wasn’t private.
From that blog entry:
During my presentation I spoke about our work on the SexReally.com website and showed a video that became a hot topic of conversation during and after the conference. The video shows guys hanging out “in their natural environment” talking about sex. Later in the video, we cut to one of their girlfriends who says that it might not be so bad if she got pregnant and that her boyfriend would make a good father. Cut back to him and he’s talking about ogling some unknown woman (not his girlfriend) and we can conclude that he might not be as ready as she thinks. The point? Be careful, have a plan, make sure your partner’s plan is compatible with yours, and use contraception until you are both really ready.
The video was criticized for perpetuating stereotypes of men and women.
…I think that our audience understands that the depictions of men and women in the video are caricatures in which there are fragments of truth in order to be funny and provoke reflection. Do all guys talk like that? Of course not. Do some? I’m sure they do and often it’s meaningless, relatively harmless posturing. The point is to think about the decision of having a child, and your relationship, carefully.
This video is one of many that we’ve created and will create. We are trying to use a wide range of techniques to engage a broad spectrum of people in this messy, personal issue. Some things won’t work, or won’t work for some audiences. We can’t let that deter us.
… I invite our readers, critics, and fans to work with us in this process. Do you have a great feminist comedian to recommend? Do you have an idea about another take on the “guys” video? We are all ears. Work with us.
If you’re saying you can’t let objections deter you in the messages you send or the ways you choose to send them, not even from many smart and experienced colleagues in the field, yet are asking for cooperation from others, you seem to be sending a mixed message.
I also don’t think it’s sound to present objections from the Abstinence Clearinghouse about the NC participating in a general sex education conference as the same as objections from a diverse collective of sex educators — not all who identify as feminist, a sweeping assumption as well as an exclusion — about gender stereotyping. Especially if one is presenting oneself or one’s organization as being about actual sex education, something the Abstinence Clearinghouse is likely to have a problem with no matter what you do, unless the sex education you give is “Just say no.” We’ve got a very broad and long-running consensus in sex education and public health that gender bias is a very serious problem and a very big barrier to effective sex education messaging and public health. That’s not an issue only feminists or feminist sex educators and health workers have, not by a serious long shot. For example, there is a very substantial history of conversation about that issue in HIV/AIDS work among men.
I’m also sure we don’t need a “feminist comedian” to do humor that isn’t misandrist or misogynist.
Over the many years I’ve worked in sexuality and sexual health, I’ve seen humor used often by people of all genders — and used it often myself — which didn’t come from either a feminist viewpoint or a “feminist comedian” but which also wasn’t misandrist, misogynist or enabling or reinforcing gender stereotypes or culturally constructed divides.
To be clear, and as I explained in the conversation Larry and I had, this video is being presented by some as misogynist primarily because a) it presents the woman in the video as clueless and stupid, b) it suggests she’s effectively responsible for contraception because “guys are assholes” and it makes something that is about men somehow about women’s responsibilties (are we their mommies?), and c) it also left, in the lone text of the video, a seemingly clear message that while one wouldn’t want to reproduce with “assholes” there’s no reason to stop having sex with them, which does tend to come off sounding like the NC thinks men are entitled to sex from women, even the men the NC thinks are horrifying.
That text, for the record, is “Guys are a@#$%^&. Be Safe. Every time.” I did double-check and ask if that message was intended for men who sleep with men, to be sure no one was leaping to any wild conclusions. I was assured that was not to whom the text was directed.
I haven’t heard as much conversation about it being misandrist (though the Sexademic did talk about it here very well), but that’s my own larger concern. That concern is part and parcel of my views as a feminist because what I want from feminism is gender equity: that means people of all genders being treated with care and respect, not just women or not-men.
Misandry is the male-directed version of misogyny: it’s contempt of men and boys, like misogyny is contempt of women and girls. And like misogyny, one doesn’t have to be of a different or opposite gender or sex to be misandrist. There are and can be misandrist men just like there are and can be misogynist women. Often misandrist men and misogynist women frame themselves as “better than” all other people of their gender, or try and suggest most of their gender, but not them, suck in some way so as to position themselves as superior, often for personal gain or as a way to hide their own crummy behavior.
“Men are assholes” is a strongly misandrist statement, much like statements like “men are pigs” or “men are dogs” are; just like statements like “Women are bitches” or “Women are golddiggers” are misogynist. (Of course, if you think men are such idiots, why is the message you’re giving to women to use contraception rather than not to get in bed with them at all? I digress.)
Presenting the way the guys in this video were behaving as something unilateral to all men — which is what you do when you follow it with a statement that says “men are…” rather than “these men are…” — is misandrist. I’d go a step further and say that presenting the challenges many men have in their relationships with other men as somehow being about women or something women need to manage for or around them is misandrist. Suggesting that men saying immature or silly things about sex to each other tells us something about their character is potentially misandrist, especially if you’re suggesting there aren’t groups of women who do the exact same thing (and there are). Suggesting that an over-the-top script written expressly for an organization to make their own point from their own agenda was “men in their natural environment” isn’t misandrist, but it seems disingenuous (as is suggesting the National Campaign is somehow without an ideology of any kind: all organizations have ideologies, it’s inescapable, even if they aren’t clearly stated).
I didn’t keep from laughing while watching this because I was offended by the men, I didn’t laugh because it just wasn’t funny, in the way a totally non-offensive but flat joke isn’t funny. “Why did the chicken cross the road?” isn’t a knee-slapper, but not because it is offensive to chickens or roads. It’s not funny because it’s punch line just doesn’t deliver. Same goes here.
I was offended, just not (for the most part) by the conversation the men in the video were having. I was offended by the makers of the video. Offended by assumptions I ought to BE offended by the men in the first place, and assumptions I needed them to tell me about how some men talk to each other about sex sometimes because I’m a moron. I was offended by the message that I needed a video like this to tell me about men, that the makers of the message thought showing us this conversation was doing us some kind of public service, and/or felt that a woman could glean less from her own sexual and interpersonal relationship with a man than she could from how he talked trash with his friends while drinking. I was offended by the way it presented men and women, as well as relationship and family planning choices, as a whole.
I also have got to ask: why should we as outsiders, including those of us who are women who may or do partner with men, be so offended if and when men say silly or juvenile stuff about sex when they’re hanging out alone together, anyway?
I’ve had to watch this video so many more times than I wanted to to be sure of this, but having done that, I must ask why these men ARE assholes. I didn’t walk away thinking they were. I walked away thinking whoever came up with, made and distributed the video was.
In listening to their statements, I heard the men in the video say things like that they like holding breasts, they like putting testicles on a sex partner’s face, that they are wondering what qualifies as a threesome (particularly since they have but one penis), that tight jeans make them think of yeast infections (me too!), and that they might consider giving another man head. I could only find one statement in the whole conversation that WAS, itself, misogynist and seriously creepy, which was the rape-enabling statement “Phil” made that if “she’s going to dress like that, who isn’t going to lift that up.” One statement. So, I guess I’ll give you that that one guy may well be an asshole.
There are some others issues of course, which fall a bit outside the misandry/misogyny issues, such as the suggestion that people can’t find others sexually attractive or of interest who are not their sexual partners and still be good partners or parents, something we know just isn’t true, especially since most people will always tend to be sexually attracted to more than one person n the world. Of course, this is an issue I think we can agree is more often made as a criticism of men than women, even though a large part of why has to do with unfounded cultural presumptions about women being inherently less sexual than men.
As I said to Larry in the conversation we had about it at sex::tech, I actually think there was a potentially good take on the primary content of this video that was missed or overlooked by the NC.
The video presented itself as being centrally about the relationship between one of the men and his girlfriend, even though that’s not the relationship we saw in it. It also suggested the male behavior was authentic between the men, but that the girlfriend was the one being snowed, when in reality, it’s more likely the men being dishonest with each other. Anyone at all who works in gender studies focused on men, or who does sexuality work with male groups is acutely aware of this issue and these kinds of dynamics. Why make something so clearly about men about women and what you think women need to do regarding contraception at all? How does what was presented in that video have anything to do with contraception? Why send the only message of responsibility in the video to women?
Why not use what you filmed/wrote with the men as an opportunity, for instance, to talk about why some men find it so hard to communicate honestly and without posturing about sex together? Why not open conversation on what all of us can do collectively and culturally to help men feel more able to be honest with each other and to posture less? Why not talk about what individuals and culture can do that they may not even realize is highly unsupportive of men talking about sex candidly and with more maturity?
Why not use a video like that — sans the girlfriend and the text pointed to women — to address that if men could learn how to communicate better with each other about sex and sexuality, it’d probably improve everyone’s sexual relationships, individual sexualities and their same-gender friendships? Why not use a video like that to elicit conversation about the ideas any of us may have about ways we feel are and are not acceptable or respectable to talk about sex, including any double-standards we may have or hold about if it’s acceptable for one gender but not the other? If that kind of conversation between men makes people uncomfortable, why not talk about why?
For that matter, if any organization or group — especially once where it is or may be men making these messages in the first place — thinks men as a whole are assholes strongly enough to make a PSA stating such, why not talk about where that feeling comes from, how to deal with it, and engage the men you think are being assholes? If it’s self-hating or self-loathing, why not unpack that, especially given how many men could probably benefit from unpacking that?
Just like the awful flaw of rape-prevention messaging only given to actual or potential victims, saying nothing to the rapists doing the raping, if someone thinks women need to protect ourselves because men really are assholes, wouldn’t all of us, of all genders, benefit most — and wouldn’t it also be a lot less patronizing — by at least attempting to address those men, not the people someone feels they might harm?
In case it isn’t obvious, I don’t think men are assholes. I also don’t think it’s sound to make my reproductive choices, alone or with someone else, based on something as trite as a round of silly talk with friends about sex, or on if a potential co-parent thinks someone else is hot. Too, we should all try not to malign the poor, defenseless anus quite so much. I grew up in Chicago with an Italian father, so letting go of “asshole” is no mean feat for me, either: “I love you, you big asshole,” is a common, albeit somewhat deranged, longtime term of endearment between myself and my Dad. I’m getting off-point, my apologies.
I think everyone can be an asshole. But I don’t think that’s about gender: my personal experience is that it’s very equal opportunity.
At the same time, I recognize that people, on the whole, often have a lot of growing to do, and that growth around and in sexuality and sex is an area where our collective, group or individual deficits can tend to show themselves often. I’m ell aware that there are some shared issues many men have, some shared issues many women have, and some shared issues many people of all genders have around sexuality that could stand some working out.
I haven’t met a single one of these issues that is universal to every member of those groups, mind, but I don’t think we have to avoid talking about some of the issues we may have found or find among those groups. I think it’s important we do talk about them, just that we talk about them with some measure of fairness, sensitivity and compassion, and that who we’re talking about them to is the appropriate party to address. If we don’t do all of that, I don’t see how we can earnestly improve anything, especially when some of what we’re criticizing is an inability to talk about sex with maturity and care. While we may all excel at that effort but fail at execution sometimes, if we don’t at least try to do all of that as best we can, I think we know who the asshole is.
P.S. I’ve used the term “asshole” here more than I’d have liked, more often than I even use it when giving prostate education, which is seriously saying something. It’s tough to respond to ugly sentiments without both restating them and also trying to turn them on their head a bit.