Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Posts tagged ‘Men’

What Really is a ‘Pick-Up Artist’?

It’s a term some may never have heard of and others may have an inkling of the meaning, but it wasn’t until I did a little digging that I got some insight into the individuals who identify with this term. You might know that ‘pick up artists’ are guys who go about regularly trying to seduce women, perhaps with cheesy lines or a confident attitude. But it’s a little bit more involved (but not much, and in no good way).

Pick up artists, or PUAs – they really like pretentious acronym useage –  purport to use a range of (morally and technically dubious) techniques to increase their odds of getting given phone numbers, making out in a club, or getting someone to go home with them for sex. Learning these techniques and how to apply them is called ‘game’, and I’ll talk about the insidious misogyny even in just that name in just a minute.

One of the central ideas to many PUA’s ‘game’ is Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or NLP. Tellingly, NLP is actually pretty difficult to define because of how ” those who started it and those involved in it use such vague and ambiguous language that NLP means different things to different people.” Wiki’s simple statement on it is that “Its creators claim a connection between the neurological processes (“neuro”), language (“linguistic”) and behavioral patterns learned through experience (“programming”) and that these can be changed to achieve specific goals in life.” It seems to be a combination of two things. On the one hand, changing yourself and your mental processes through the use of language in a manner similar to self-hypnosis, and on the other hand, affecting other people in a similar sort of way to create a favourable situation for yourself. Which doesn’t in any way sound coercive or morally dubious. Nope.

It’s also quite crucial to note that Neuro-Linguistic Programming is now academically understood to be a pseudoscience. As this quote from the Annual Review of Psychology  highlights: “after several years of conflicting and confusing results, Sharpley (1984, 1987) reviewed the research and concluded that there was little support for the assumptions of NLP.” Being reviews of multiple pieces of research, this obviously isn’t a claim based on one simple piece of debunking literature, even though I only cite this here.

I mean, you can’t literally be this guy. But don’t be a pick-up ‘artist’. Please. If you happen to be the guy in the photo reading, you can be this guy.

The psychology underpinning the ‘seduction community’ ultimately rests upon claims that ‘nice guys finish last’. That to attain your goal of sex with women, you can (and should) take a systematic approach that will enable you to manipulate people and situations so that you can get laid. Doing this reduces women to puzzles or challenges that have to be cracked for the sake of male gratification. This isn’t a method that is sincerely offered as a way for shy men to overcome personal difficulties and establish meaningful connections, or even engage in casual sexual fun in an egalitarian and consensual manner. You have men literally competing to see who can collect more phone numbers, or advocating a ‘technique’ whereby a man is advised to grab a girl by the throat, put a finger to his lips, and go ‘shh’. Yes, this is part of ‘game’, for some at least. By calling these techniques ‘game’, it implies that sex is something that can be won, and that the process is all just fun, not serious, no real consequences.

That last one sounds pretty outrageous right? You may have seen the particular guy who sells this idea, Julien Blanc, in the news recently when he was forced to leave Australia after his Visa was cancelled, and his pick-up seminars cancelled.

That men like Julien Blanc are able to make a living from this also highlights another important aspect – the sad extent to which men are prepared to pay huge amounts of money to people who offer the ‘secrets’ of how to succeed with women, and ‘what women really want’. For a start it rests on flawed and highly simplistic (but also highly prevalent) assumptions that men and women think in intrinsically alien ways, and that all men and all women are two broadly homogeneous groups. Many of the devices used by pick-up artists (and really, I hate this term. There is nothing artistic about what these people do) explicitly buy into such narratives. For example, ‘negging’ – defined as a deliberate self-confidence undermining insult veiled as a compliment or offhand comment, designed to make women seek that man’s approval. Because that’s apparently what women do. The comic from XKCD actually captures the idea in its entirety.

Credit: http://xkcd.com/1027/

But people actually do this! Though whilst it looks like a joke, relatively harmless sleaze that no woman would fall for, many of the devices are less detectable. Like professional con-artists, devices don’t work so well if people can tell that you’re trying to be manipulative. You might not want to give this guy the YouTube hit, but this video discusses how to, in quite predatory terms, manipulate situations to allow men to touch and kiss women without worrying about that annoying little fundamental issue of consent. He also explicitly talks about how ‘it’s easier to work the situation around to touching and kissing her when you’re the one talking, but some women just won’t shut up. When they’re talking you [men] are thinking about how to get them to have sex with you’.

Whilst NLP has been debunked, whether or not any of the techniques used actually succeed in getting numbers, or sex, is really besides the point. The point is that thinking about women in this way is inherently sexist. Manipulating women in this way is inherently sexist. This is made all the more obvious by members of forums, or local groups (somewhat fittingly and creepily called ‘lairs’) actually discussing ways to shrug off the guilt. Some of these men convince themselves that it doesn’t matter because “The average woman is 10X, no 100X more conniving than the most underhanded, slimiest pickup sleazeball on the planet.” Others don’t even care, through either a complete lack of respect or empathy, being so engrossed in succeeding at their ‘game’ that they don’t actually stop to think, or some kind of Randian philosophy that rewards unapologetic self-interest.

I’ve framed this discussion entirely around men picking up women – because of social power relations between men and women, and the way in which power and sexuality are socially constructed, this overwhelmingly makes up the majority of ‘seduction communities’. However, at least one female pick-up artist exists, and has talked about her experiences and reasoning. Whilst unpacking this would take a lot more time and thought, I feel that the bottom line is that any kind of pick-up philosophy ultimately rests upon manipulation, and the idea of people being there as a resource for you to get what you want. Which is gross. I’m certainly not saying that people can’t enjoy casual flings, or making out in clubs and bars rather than simply looking to settle down in a traditional manner. But one shouldn’t – and doesn’t have to – craft a method around murky, underhanded, or abusive ‘tactics’ in order to connect with people sexually.


Can a man be a feminist?

I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a door mat or a prostitute” – Rebecca West

I have never really been able to find out precisely what feminism is either. I’m inclined to think this is because it isn’t ‘one thing’, any more than being a woman is. Personally, I like to think of feminism in its most simple terms – that people defining as women should experience the same rights as people defining as men. Thus I can sometimes find it difficult to understand why anyone would not define as a feminist. Yet, it would be at the very least inflammatory for many to suggest that the antonym of ‘feminism’ is ‘sexism’. Of course it’s pretty obvious why the majority of feminists are women, but it’s interesting to consider why many men do not identify as feminists (other than simple lack of awareness, or sad, persistent misogyny) and indeed, whether they can.

Bill Bailey

Photograph credit: Fawcett society

It has been argued that being a feminist is more than an intellectual agreement with a set of principles that then influence a person’s behaviour. It has been argued that having not lived a woman’s experiences, and/or the fact that men possess an inescapable degree of social privilege makes it impossible for men to truly identify with female struggles. Some also consider that for a man to take the label of feminist allows for the co-opting of a feminist identity, potentially resulting in less power for women themselves and the silencing of female voices. This has led to some men taking on the moniker of ‘profeminist’- agreement with feminist goals and politics, without claiming inclusion within the group of ‘feminist’ themselves.

Problems with this arise in several ways. Firstly, this understanding rests entirely on a binary model of gender with no obvious way to resolve the inclusion or exclusion of those who exist outside of this framework, or have moved transitioned from one group to another. Trans men have often lacked male privilege and have experienced a ‘female’ narrative based on how they have been treated before transition, yet do not identify as female. Likewise trans women will be experiencing a female narrative after transition, but have also arguably been privy to male privilege at some point in their lives. This reduces acceptability into the group of ‘feminist’ based on both bodies and on how gender is expressed (that is, whether one appears adequately ‘male’ or ‘female’ to ‘pass’) which is clearly problematic as infertile women, ‘masculine’ women, and indeed any other variation one cares to mention does not in any way invalidate their membership of the identity category.

One can call into question whether this argument of needing to have direct experience of ‘a woman’s narrative’ is indeed valid, as what is a woman’s narrative? As the feminist writer bell hooks (deliberately not capitalised) points out that “the insistence on a “women only” feminist movement and a virulent anti-male stance reflected the race and class background of participants”, that whilst bourgeoisie white women experience sexism, they still retain more social privilege and particularly in historical contexts would be less likely to be exploited than poor, uneducated non-white men. To attempt to simplify narratives such that the intersectionality of race, class, and sexuality aren’t considered to shape the idiosyncrasies of identity experience may only serve to alienate various (poor, non-white, etc.) women from such a feminist movement. A blanket-exclusion of men also implies that experience of male privilege by men is a homogeneous thing, as is enforcement of patriarchal systems, both of which are (hopefully) patently untrue. Men (and sometimes, women) can repress and marginalise men, too. Power is sourced in more than sex.

An interesting historical perspective can be considered when examining the quest for women’s rights and recognition before feminism was established as a term or identity. The philosopher John Stuart Mill co-published the paper ‘The Subjection of Women’ with his wife in 1869. His empathy, intentions, and actions were not invalidated by his gendered position. Likewise the acts of the male abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Lenox Remond, Nathanial P. Rogers, and Henry Stanton to sit silently with the women (who were forbidden to speak) at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1849 was a clear refusal to accept this element of male privilege, challenging the patriarchy in a way that is not dependent on gendered identities or bodies of the social actors.

Parker Pillsbury, 1809-1898. Pillsbury was another important early male feminist, who co-edited the women’s rights newsletter ‘The Revolution’, founded in 1868 with Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

There also exists the problem that the exclusion of men from the group ‘feminist’ places the tasks of this movement as an exclusively feminine task, arguably a hypocritically sexist circumstance. This argument clearly cannot be extended to the occupation of women-only spaces by men, as marginalised and oppressed groups have a requirement of, and a right to safe spaces. However, men certainly have at least as much responsibility in battling sexism and patriarchal structures as women, and to attempt to do this in a political environment with an extremely dubious (as race relations have taught us) ‘separate but equal’ policy, does not best serve either group.

The distinction then, between profeminism (or pro-feminism) and feminism is a construct that arguably echoes an inflexibility regarding the nebulous nature of gendered identities, as well as the interplay that exists between different facets of an individual’s personal, social identity. The complexities that exist in then grappling with the differences in stance that various interpretations of feminism can hold are another question entirely. However, I am proud to call myself a feminist, and accept with the use of that label the social reactions and judgements that follow.

Is there a clear way to define a ‘biological’ sex?

One of the most fundamentally obvious things people might think when they’re asked what ‘Gender Studies’ actually is, is that it may look at differences between men and women… in some way. An interesting question to ask might be what actually is it that makes a man ‘a man’ and a woman ‘a woman’? It’s not as obvious as one may think.

When this question was first asked in a legal context (roughly 50 years ago), three factors were used to define ‘biological sex’: the chromosomes of an individual, what gonads (ovaries or testes) they possess, and their genitals. This is overly simplistic as it turns out that many different combinations of these three factors exist than the two categories everyone was assumed (or expected?) to fall into.

The rest of this post will contain science. For anyone apprehensive, I dare you to read on. I double dare you.

We are all told in school that with regards to chromosomes, men = XY and women = XX. For many people this is true. On the Y chromosome, which is a small, stumpy little thing, lies a gene called SRY, which stands for ‘Sex Determining Region Y’. It is responsible for unspecified gonads in a foetus to develop into testes. Seems pretty straightforward. However this area of the Y chromosome can in rare cases cross over to an X chromosome. If this X chromosome is then inherited, an individual who is XX but in all other ways ‘male’ (gonadally, genitally, and in appearance when older) will result. If the SRY-less Y chromosome is inherited, then the foetus will be XY, but otherwise ‘female’. Because sex on a birth certificate is decided just from someone taking a cursory glance, these conditions may be undiagnosed until the age of puberty, or sometimes not at all.

Individuals who possess a SRY gene will develop testes. Testes then produce testosterone, which is responsible for the development of typically male external genital structures (penis and scrotum) and internal genital structures (the bits needed for reproduction inside that aren’t the testicles themselves – mainly specific tubes).

Before sexual differentiation, all foetuses possess two structures where their internal sex organs will be, called the Müllerian and Wolffian structure. Testes produce a substance called ‘Anti-Müllerian Hormone’ (AMH), which causes the Müllerian structure to regress. The testosterone produced by the testes causes the Wolffian structure to develop into male internal structures. Lack of testosterone prevents the Wolffian structure from developing and causes it to regress, and lack of  AMH allows the Müllerian structure to develop into ‘female’ parts.

The ‘triggering amount’ of testosterone needed to cause penis and scrotum development is lower than the amount needed to make Wolffian structures develop – so if a foetus has a condition that results in lower levels of testosterone (and there are quite a few that can), the result will be someone without the corresponding male internal organs to match the external ones.

Whilst there are many, many different genetic conditions that can make fitting clearly into a ‘social sex box’† problematic, there are a couple that illustrate the potential ambiguity in defining sex very well.

The first of these is called CAH, or Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia. This is a mutation in a gene which causes a particular enzyme the body normally produces, to not work. This enzyme is essential for the production of the substance cortisol, and so people with CAH cannot produce cortisol. The result of this is that the hypothalamus (the region of the brain which monitors certain hormone levels among other things) says:

“There is no cortisol! Release precursors!”

Various human brains (paraphrased)

In normal circumstances such precursors would get made into cortisol – but because the enzyme responsible doesn’t work, the precursors end up getting made into testosterone and other ‘masculising’ hormones – giving XX foetuses male genitalia. Due to not actually having testicles, no AMH gets produced, so female internal structures still form. Sometimes the genitals of such individuals are judged to be ‘ambiguous’, and tests are done at birth that reveal the condition. Some however look like entirely unremarkable boys, and may go completely undetected.

Another interesting condition is Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, AIS. This is a mutation that occurs on the X chromosome, and happens in a gene that encodes a receptor (protein that senses when a particular thing is present) for testosterone. This means that in XY foetuses, even though testes are produced normally, and testosterone is then produced normally – none of the rest of the body can detect that the testosterone is there…so female genitalia develop. AMH is produced which prevents Müllerian structural development, but the Wolffian structures can’t develop either as the testosterone can’t be detected. AIS babies show no signs of being anything but female, though are XY and have testes. There’s no clearly agreed reason or way to decide whether possession of one trait or another is what indicates a foetus or babie’s ‘true’ sex, if such a truth can actually be said to exist.

AIS can be ‘complete’ or ‘partial’, with the ‘partial’ condition resulting in ambiguous genitalia. To quote from the book ‘Brain Gender’ by Melissa Hines:

The direction of sex assignment of individuals with PAIS depends to some extent on the appearance of the external genitalia; those judged to have a penis too small for success in the male role may be surgically feminized and raised as girls, whereas others are reared as boys and treated with andogens to try to stimulate penile enlargement and development of other male secondary sexual characteristics. In this syndrome and others involving undervirilization in XY individuals, however, additional considerations, such as the desire of the parents for a son versus a daughter can also influence the direction of sex assignment.

It’s fair to say that the result of accident or injury resulting in penile loss wouldn’t result in an individual who would be unable to have ‘success in the male role’, regardless of the fact that they have already been raised and socialised as male. This discussion hasn’t even touched on the importance of how personal understanding and identity of one’s gender can reflect on how one is defined. If an individual ‘feels’ strongly that they are a given sex, how is this necessarily any less biological? Whatsmore, is there even reason why choice of identity (particularly beyond the strongly binary male-female that is enforced by much of society) is ‘less valid’ as a way by which sex can be defined? It’s easy to get into some very tricky philosophical areas related to this, and certainly the arenas of biology and socialisation are virtually impossible to disentangle from each other.

When it comes down to it, none of these factors are how people judge the sex of people they see day-to-day. We look at what clothes people wear, their size, build, and where they have hair. We listen to what they sound like, and what their name might be. Most people rarely question what they’re presented with assuming they can easily put a person into one box or another. The questions asking why people feel the need to do this, and why people react the way they do when they can’t, are further huge areas to consider!

†If you’re into that sort of thing.

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