Male sexual assertiveness and female desire (or lack thereof)

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Post by SomeSamSeaborn on Wed Nov 12, 2014 3:23 pm

Hi.

Some people in the last thread I commented in on the blog suggested I take my concerns to the forum. Well, here we go. Someone - I don't remember who it was - asked to share some of my more personal concerns about gender/masculinity. I've thought about what the most important of those may be, and I think, for me, the one thing that bothers me the most is the issue of male weakness, particularly with respect to performing "classic initiating masculinity" with respect to female sexual attraction. I've chosen the dating adviec forum because this post is based mostly on personal experience.

In my personal experience, women will accept male weakness (particularly to perform scripted masculinity) as a personal trait, but true weakness, particularly in that respect, as opposed to performed weakness, seems to almost inevitably kill sexual attraction. Women may even say they're still attracted, but actual weakness and vulnerability in this respect, it seems to me, is incompatible with most women's desires. It seems like an emotional and sexual deal breaker.

I'll offer a personal example - I'm great at flirting and initiating contact with women, but I'm very bad at initiating sexual activity because of personal psychological issues, which is why I rarely do it. Instead, I tend to wait for women to initiatie something or escalate whatever is happening. Of course, given the current dating scripts about initiation, that's not really ideal, neither for me, nor for women who expect me to do it. And talking about it also doesn't really work: how to admit weakness without admitting it? Tricky. I've made the observation that women will be a lot more proactive at initiating with me when they appear to believe my lack of activity is a consequence of a certain lack of interest in them rather than when they are confronted with the truth - my weakness to perform the masculine script they're expecting. Opening up about this weakness generally turns off women who were actively persuing me before. It's one reason I have so many female friends and not a lot of exes.

And even those women who say they accept it - and initially seem ok with it - appear to be eventually turned off by this weakness. In one case, she had fallen in love with me before I told her, and then said it was totally ok, having her own big bag of baggage, and initially acted as if it was actually ok. At some point when I was visiting her (she lived across the country at the time), we were sleeping in her bed for the whole weekend and I didn't initiate anything. We even read erotic stories to each other and then said good night. Lying there that night, I assumed that, knowing about me, she would initiate something if she wanted to, as she had before, in the same bed. This time she didn't. I was sad about the lack of sex, of course, but also didn't bring it up. I thought we had clarified that aspect of our relationship extensively before. Still, back home, I called her suspecting somehow that she had expected me to initiate, but she *still* said everything was fine. It wasn't until about a month later she told me that me not initiating with her that night was the moment she decided she didn't want to actually pursue a relationship with me, because, well, despite knowing and telling me she was ok with it, she really wasn't, and she wanted to be "taken" by me, just like, it seems to me subjectively, all women do, at some point. Of course, I felt treated completely unfairly here.

I mean, I do understand that women generally want to... succumb to male desire. But at the same time, if there's one thing nearly everyone in the gender realm tells men to do, it is to accept and own their weakness and vulnerability, particularly with respect to performing "assertive masculintiy". And whenever I read that, I'm instantly reminded of all my experiences with women who will not find it attractive, and that story I just told in particular, and how the advice is not working.

Of course, I'm writing this with a disclaimer about generalization. I'm generalizing from my experience and some of other people's experiences as I've read and interpreted it. That's not a scientific standard by any means, it's simply a description of the phenomenon from my point of view.

I think this general dynamic is informing many gender conversations and there generally seems to be a lack of mutual understanding, but that's another thread.

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Post by eselle28 on Wed Nov 12, 2014 3:41 pm

So, I think there are a few different concepts you're introducing in this post - male vulnerability and weakness, a particular set of sexual turn ons, and then something that's almost a work allocation issue. From your narrative, it sounds more like it's the second thing and perhaps a bit of the third (though that might be my personal bias - I have very little interest in being "taken" but would find being requested to both always initiate and keep track of my partner's feelings about how much sex we had to be a fairly big ask in a relationship). I don't know that either the second thing or the third thing have an awful lot to do with male weakness, though, or at least that's not really the set of associations I have with initiating versus not initiating.

Does nearly everyone in the gender realm tell men to accept and own their weakness and vulnerability? I suppose that might be the case. I tend not to see that very much, but I'm also not very alert to that message. I would say that accepting and owning something doesn't necessarily seem like it translates to a specific way of interacting with a partner, though. To me it seems like there might be a variety of things a person can do once they've accepted those traits.
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Post by Guest on Wed Nov 12, 2014 3:46 pm

Hi, Sam!

I wanted to start off by saying thanks for bringing this here, because I think it's A) a better fit for the conversation and B) Really helpful to starting a conversation to have to write the whole thing out like this, rather than in comments. I think I have a much better picture of what you're talking about than I did from the conversation on the main site.

I am... kind of the woman you're talking about here, and I struggle with it from the other side. I do kind of like to just be "taken", as you put it, and I would probably also be... not interested in you. Sad Sorry. However, it's really not a universal issue. I wonder if there's something that you're looking for in a woman that's bringing you a disproportionate number of women in this particular type... have you considered what it is about the women you like that makes you like them, and considered whether any of those things could be contributing to the situation?

I wanted to comment specifically on this:

SomeSamSeaborn wrote:I've made the observation that women will be a lot more proactive at initiating with me when they appear to believe my lack of activity is a consequence of a certain lack of interest in them rather than when they are confronted with the truth - my weakness to perform the masculine script they're expecting. Opening up about this weakness generally turns off women who were actively persuing me before

This may not be about the weakness, but about you identifying a personality trait that they realize isn't something they're going to want to deal with. For my part, I might be willing to initiate and suggest if I thought the guy was just diffident today, assuming the dynamic would someday change. A guy doesn't always have to initiate: I'm capable of it, after all. But if I was told, "Yeah, so... this is just the way I am: I'm not a sex initiator," I might consider that and say, "No... I don't think this is going to work out long-term."

I also want to add that you are absolutely right that a large percentage of women probably will be turned off by perceived weakness: a lot of people uncritically accept assigned gender roles, and are wary of anyone stepping outside of them. A lot of men are really turned off by women with more education or more income than they have, and a lot of women want a strong provider-type. It's our cultural narrative: it's what we're told to expect.

It doesn't mean that it's an innate trait of women, though, and it doesn't mean it's something we should buy into and reinforce. There are absolutely women out there who will be okay with it, and you owe it to yourself to seek them out and find someone who can make you happy.


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Post by kleenestar on Wed Nov 12, 2014 3:55 pm

I don't really understand the connection to "weakness and vulnerability," so I'm going to confine myself to addressing the initiation issue.

I do think that women get told that guys should be the initiators of sexual activity. Even for women who don't prefer it, if you think it's supposed to happen, then it can make you uncomfortable and unhappy when it doesn't. This is doubly true if the woman in question has gotten messages about how women aren't supposed to initiate or else they're "slutty" or "asking for it." That said, I wonder if there's a communication issue going on here. For most of the women I know, reading erotic stories together would be a very clear initiation signal. Is it possible that you are sending counter-signals that are erasing the impact of the initiation moves you feel most comfortable with?

I'm also curious whether what happened with this woman is a pattern for you. You say "that's why I have a lot of female friends and exes," but I'm not sure which parts of the experience are the common ones. Is that something you'd be willing to share?

I can really only speak to the experience of initiating in a long-term relationship, since, well, eighteen years. But in my experience, who initiates within a relationship is something that shifts. When I first met my husband, I was the one who initiated almost all sexual activity; five years in, that pattern was nearly the opposite; we've also spent lots of time at places in between. If your potential partners feel that there's no possible "movement" within the initiation role (e.g. they are committing to always and forever be the initiator) that might also be causing some of the issue. I would certainly be pretty freaked out at the idea of having to initiate forever, and so would my husband.

(By the way, Sam, I'm responding to you in this context because you have done a really nice job of talking about yourself honestly and openly, and not making this about some kind of grand theoretical construct. It makes me hope that we can have a meaningful conversation. We'll see how it goes.)
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Post by Mel on Wed Nov 12, 2014 4:54 pm

I would agree with the commenters above that this doesn't sound like an issue with male weakness in general to me, but with this specific weakness being a difficult thing for anyone to adapt to. With sexual initiation, I think the main problem is that people of both genders tend to see initiation and/or escalation as a sign of attraction, and to have trouble feeling attractive and wanted enough if their partner never does either.  There may be some guys who are fine with a female partner who never initiates or escalates any sexual activity, but from what I've seen and heard, most of them would find this a blow to the ego.

To some extent it does depend on how severe this is.  What do you mean by initiating?  Will you even initiate a kiss?  Are you ever able to escalate, or does she have to move things along at every single stage in the process?  Are you able to initiate/escalate physically if she first initiates/escalates verbally (e.g., saying, "I'd like to have sex" or "Take off my shirt" or whatever)?  Are you able to initiate/escalate verbally (see above) as long as she initiates/escalates physically afterward?

If the answer to all of the above is no, then you're leaving your partner in a position where she always has to be the one risking rejection. The only person who ever hears "no" to sexual activity of any sort will be her.  And that's a pretty heavy burden--that's asking her to be vulnerable a lot in a way you're not reciprocating.  I can see how someone who thinks they'll be okay with it in theory may find it harder than they can deal with in practice.  I can also see that someone might assume you'll become more comfortable initiating with them specifically as the two of you are dating longer, and feel as if you don't trust them or aren't opening up to them the way they feel they're opening up to you if things stay as they were.  So I wouldn't assume people are necessarily being dishonest, just not realizing just how big an impact this issue will make.

I can definitely see how it can appear to be a gendered thing because sexual initiation tends to be seen as the man's job, and I'm sure because of that you'll run into a little more pushback than if you were a woman with the same issue dating men, but I think it is mostly of a reciprocity issue. To illustrate, consider how the problem would work in a non-sexual context.  e.g., How would you feel about being friends with a man or woman who told you they were never going to initiate or escalate get-togethers--that if you wanted to hang out with them, you would need to invite them and suggest all the details of when and what you'd do, and all they were willing to do was accept or reject those invitations and suggestions?  Wouldn't you find that a big responsibility after a while?  And that would have nothing to do with gender issues or the fact that they admitted a weakness, only with that specific weakness being something it's difficult for other people to cater to.

Edit: I would also add that "accepting and owning" your weaknesses doesn't actually mean "say how you're weak and expect your partner to do all the working around it."  If you can recognize that expecting your partner to do all the sexual initiating and escalating is not really fair, then accepting and owning that weakness should include efforts to mitigate the impact of that weakness on your partner.  E.g., Working on the issues that make this difficult for you (in therapy or similar), practicing small steps toward doing it yourself, coming up with strategies that might make it easier for you, etc. I have plenty of weaknesses, but I don't expect that I can just tell my husband about them and he will adapt his life around them. I tell him so he can be more patient will me as I work through them, and give me a little extra help as I need it--but they are still my weaknesses to tackle, and if they affect him negatively it's my responsibility to do whatever I can to diminish that negative effect.  So you may be finding that your romantic partners are being turned off not by the weakness itself, but by the fact that (it sounds like) you're not actually taking steps to reduce the burden on them, you expect them to just accept it as it is, as something immutable.
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Post by SomeSamSeaborn on Wed Nov 12, 2014 5:27 pm

Hey Esselle28,

"I think there are a few different concepts you're introducing in this post..."

That's true, I trimmed it down a lot, there was a lot more about what I think is the fundamental misunderstanding between the genders in the gender discourse, but I decided to keep it smaller and more personal. Some of the general concepts may thus not explain themselves sufficiently in this smaller context.

"Does nearly everyone in the gender realm tell men to accept and own their weakness and vulnerability? I suppose that might be the case. I tend not to see that very much, but I'm also not very alert to that message. I would say that accepting and owning something doesn't necessarily seem like it translates to a specific way of interacting with a partner, though. To me it seems like there might be a variety of things a person can do once they've accepted those traits."

I understand that always being the one who has to initiate is a burden, I mean, that's kind of what I'm writing about here. And it's not even that I don't want to, it's that I can't do it from a certain point on. Usually kissing or petting. I agree that the narrative is not something that *has* to translate into a specific way of interacting, but I would claim that a lot of it is not merely perceived as empowering ("hey, it's ok to be weak at times") but coupled with a narrative about toxic masculinity that makes being careful about assertiveness both a social and moral prescription. And since it's not working it creates this double bind in my (and I know a lot of other guys) heads: asserting your sexuality is potentially dangerous but not asserting it will not work either. In my case that narrative has taken on a particular importance due to my psychological issues, but it's there independent of my part in it.

And I would say that a lot of male resentment towards and misunderstandings in the gender discourse in general are a consequence of hearing women/feminists say (and perceive it in a specific way) one thing about the desired male performance and then having a lot of individual experiences that don't seem to fit at all into that narrative. I used to resent it, too, but now I consider it mostly a sad case of talking past each other all the time.

I recently had a great personal chat with a female friend who's also a feminist activist and works in rape prevention and I said this in a similar context - "Something that really annoys me is how women and feminists - you just as well as others - are constantly talking about predatory male sexuality and alternative masculinities, and *still* expect men to both accept that narrative, be aware of their privileges, and then still expect them to shake off the problematic ideas about themselves they get from that discourse and be the enlightened (new masculinity) but still sexually assertive (practically old masculinity) hero in whose strong arms you succumb. And for everyone who's not able to completely ignore one message or the other, that's really confusing and behaviorally disabling." She agreed wiht me at this point (probably also because she knows me personally and the stuff I already explained above), but she also doesn't know how to deal with it...

No one does, apparently.

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Post by SomeSamSeaborn on Wed Nov 12, 2014 5:44 pm

Hi ElizaJane,

I wonder if there's something that you're looking for in a woman that's bringing you a disproportionate number of women in this particular type... have you considered what it is about the women you like that makes you like them, and considered whether any of those things could be contributing to the situation?

Actually, I think I'm going out with a lot of women whom I'd consider particularly sexually assertive (compared to other women I know, because if they aren't we probabyl wouldn't go out). I mean, they're usually the ones initiating at least the kissing. Sadly, that doesn't seem to change that specific dynamic I'm talking about.

[qote]This may not be about the weakness, but about you identifying a personality trait that they realize isn't something they're going to want to deal with.[/quote]

True. It may not be about the weakness, but there comes a point when correlation makes it hard to not believe in causation, you know what I mean?

It doesn't mean that it's an innate trait of women, though, and it doesn't mean it's something we should buy into and reinforce. There are absolutely women out there who will be okay with it, and you owe it to yourself to seek them out and find someone who can make you happy.

I know you're trying to be supportive and I really appreciate that, but this is also kind of demonstrating what I'm talking about with respect to the (perceived) prescriptions of the gender narative: assuming that my behavior is also socialized to a significant degree (by internalising it into my lack of assertiveness from a certain point on), this, to me, is basically saying: don't try to change (back) to help yourself and learn how to better conform with women's (including your) expectations, because there's supposedly a lid for every pot.

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Post by The Wisp on Wed Nov 12, 2014 5:52 pm

eselle28 wrote:Does nearly everyone in the gender realm tell men to accept and own their weakness and vulnerability? I suppose that might be the case. I tend not to see that very much, but I'm also not very alert to that message. I would say that accepting and owning something doesn't necessarily seem like it translates to a specific way of interacting with a partner, though. To me it seems like there might be a variety of things a person can do once they've accepted those traits.

The vibe I got back when I frequently read more in gender spaces was that, while feminist (of all genders) talked a good game about male vulnerability and weakness, in practice they seemed to not be very open to it except in certain narrow circumstances, even in their personal lives. Caveat: I was an insecure teenager at the time, so maybe there was some confirmation bias going on back then.

Which is weird, because before I started reading feminist blogs, I thought feminists were big on men getting in touch with their feminine sides.
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Post by SomeSamSeaborn on Wed Nov 12, 2014 5:58 pm

Hi kleenestar,

For most of the women I know, reading erotic stories together would be a very clear initiation signal. Is it possible that you are sending counter-signals that are erasing the impact of the initiation moves you feel most comfortable with?

I suppose you're right that was her idea of initiating that night. But it was still, I think, unfairly testing me by changing from verbal and tactile initiation. I mean, in that case, a simple "kiss me" would have been fine, or her taking my hand and putting it on her breast or between her legs, as before. I mean, I was spooning her that night, it's not like this was happening from the other end of the room.

I'm also curious whether what happened with this woman is a pattern for you. You say "that's why I have a lot of female friends and exes," but I'm not sure which parts of the experience are the common ones. Is that something you'd be willing to share?

I said I have a lot of female friens *and not a lot* of exes. This kind of thing is definitely a pattern - certainly for me, but as I said, I don't think it's *just* me. There's also something else going on.

I would certainly be pretty freaked out at the idea of having to initiate forever, and so would my husband.

I totally understand that, again, that is kind of why I've written this post.

I also hope for a good conversation =)


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Post by Conreezy on Wed Nov 12, 2014 6:01 pm

Man, this all sounds very familiar.

First, I understand totally the difficulty in turning friendly conversation into possible sexual conversation.  I was waiting for the ridiculously concrete signals to move ahead that only happen in late-night Cinemax movies.  Looking back, there were probably hundreds of missed opportunities because I wasn't attuned to the signals and didn't have the nerve to give flirting a shot.  No matter how good or bad I might have been at it, I missed 100% of the shots I didn't take.  (I still have hang-ups with this regarding my self-assessment of my sexual presence and presentation, to be perfectly honest.)  

I also get being nervous about it, and nervous about not being able to fill any or all the other stereotypical roles of a man.  To me, if feels like you're instantly targeted as weak and ripe for ridicule/persecution for something as simple as not being up to date on baseball statistics.  

What I've found to be disarming is being totally upfront about my feelings: I tell people "I'm nervous" or "I'm embarassed" outright.  If it's in a sexual context, I would say, calmly as possible, "I'm a bit nervous to say this, but I'd like to kiss you" or "Yes, I'm nervous, because I'm very attracted to you and don't want to mess anything up."  Of course, I would do it while trying my hardest not to appear nerve-racked.  A calm description of feeling, I find, helps release the feeling while showing confidence that admitting you're having an emotion doesn't make you a weakling.  It normalizes it, I think, and it's what I think "owning" an emotion is, as opposed to squashing my feelings down until they turn into anger or breaking down into tears every time I see a sunset.  

But there are some people who will not tolerate "weakness" at all, for sure.  (Weakness as they define it.  The rest of us just call it humanity.)  To hell with those people.  There's no pleasing them anyway.  

I mean, I do understand that women generally want to... succumb to male desire.

Doesn't everyone want to be desired and just "taken," but only by those people we approve of, and at just the right time?  I'm a man, and it would certainly be easier if the objects of my attraction just knew to make a move on me.  That's not a reasonable expectation, though, and not just for gendered reasons.


Which is weird, because before I started reading feminist blogs, I thought feminists were big on men getting in touch with their feminine sides.

To be fair, too many men, usually the more liberally minded, take the "get in touch with your feelings" line as an excuse to thrown every negative emotion at their partners without ever evaluating the problematic thought processes behind that negative emotion.

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Post by Guest on Wed Nov 12, 2014 6:07 pm

SomeSamSeaborn wrote:
I know you're trying to be supportive and I really appreciate that, but this is also kind of demonstrating what I'm talking about with respect to the (perceived) prescriptions of the gender narative: assuming that my behavior is also socialized to a significant degree (by internalising it into my lack of assertiveness from a certain point on), this, to me, is basically saying: don't try to change (back) to help yourself and learn how to better conform with women's (including your) expectations, because there's supposedly a lid for every pot.

Oh, wow, that is not at all what I meant by that. What I meant was that you said your issues were because of "because of personal psychological issues," and in my experience, changing those is not always as simple as socialization. I have strong reactions when I talk about my personal psychological issues and people say, "Well, stop being that." If you want to try to change, that's great! More power to you. I'd suggest getting help with it, because self-transformation can be a BITCH, but if it's something that will make you happier, I think that's awesome. I just don't think it's necessary. I think their are women out there who would be fine with what you're describing, and that looking for them is not a doomed exercise you should just give up on because of some (or even a lot of) bad experiences.

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Post by Gentleman Johnny on Wed Nov 12, 2014 6:13 pm

SomeSamSeaborn wrote:
No one does, apparently.

My issue here is I could tell you how I deal with it but it wouldn't help your specific situation because its explicitly not for you. If learning to escelate and de-escalate gracefully when it doesn't work is off the table for you, that leaves finding someone who is willing to do that themselves. Yes, they're going to be less common but that's not the same as nonexistent.

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Post by kleenestar on Wed Nov 12, 2014 6:15 pm

SomeSamSeaborn wrote:I suppose you're right that was her idea of initiating that night. But it was still, I think, unfairly testing me by changing from verbal and tactile initiation. I mean, in that case, a simple "kiss me" would have been fine, or her taking my hand and putting it on her breast or between her legs, as before. I mean, I was spooning her that night, it's not like this was happening from the other end of the room.

Okay, now this is very useful detail. So she was the one who initiated by suggesting you read erotic stories? Somehow I thought you were doing that as a way of inviting her to take the next step.

What makes you think she was "testing you?" Is it her later email, or is it something she did at the time? And what makes you feel that it was unfair, as opposed to her trying to figure out empirically what she could and could not live with?

I think it would be very useful to try to figure out what you are and aren't comfortable with. For example, you don't want to be the one to initiate a kiss, but would you be okay initiating an erotic story-reading session? You say you wanted her to put your hand on her breast - would you be comfortable moving onward from there?

SomeSamSeaborn wrote:I said I have a lot of female friens *and not a lot* of exes. This kind of thing is definitely a pattern - certainly for me, but as I said, I don't think it's *just* me. There's also something else going on.

Whoops, sorry, misread. So can I hear more about how this pattern plays into you having friends rather than exes? For example, are you able to express interest in women verbally, but that just doesn't seem to work?

SomeSamSeaborn wrote:
I would certainly be pretty freaked out at the idea of having to initiate forever, and so would my husband.

I totally understand that, again, that is kind of why I've written this post.

So, is part of your goal to find ways to address this issue in practice? Because I definitely have thoughts both about how to start working through the initiating issue and how to develop workarounds that make it less important in a relationship. (Though I'm going to hold off on offering either until I feel that I understand the situation better.)


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Post by kleenestar on Wed Nov 12, 2014 6:17 pm

Conreezy wrote:
What I've found to be disarming is being totally upfront about my feelings: I tell people "I'm nervous" or "I'm embarassed" outright.  If it's in a sexual context, I would say, calmly as possible, "I'm a bit nervous to say this, but I'd like to kiss you" or "Yes, I'm nervous, because I'm very attracted to you and don't want to mess anything up."  Of course, I would do it while trying my hardest not to appear nerve-racked.  A calm description of feeling, I find, helps release the feeling while showing confidence that admitting you're having an emotion doesn't make you a weakling.  It normalizes it, I think, and it's what I think "owning" an emotion is, as opposed to squashing my feelings down until they turn into anger or breaking down into tears every time I see a sunset.  

As a lady-type person, I would just like to say that this is a) highly effective both for me and for women that I know and b) a critical skill to practice for long-term relationships.

(highly effective = there may be swooning)
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Post by Guest on Wed Nov 12, 2014 6:22 pm

kleenestar wrote:
Conreezy wrote:
What I've found to be disarming is being totally upfront about my feelings: I tell people "I'm nervous" or "I'm embarassed" outright.  If it's in a sexual context, I would say, calmly as possible, "I'm a bit nervous to say this, but I'd like to kiss you" or "Yes, I'm nervous, because I'm very attracted to you and don't want to mess anything up."  Of course, I would do it while trying my hardest not to appear nerve-racked.  A calm description of feeling, I find, helps release the feeling while showing confidence that admitting you're having an emotion doesn't make you a weakling.  It normalizes it, I think, and it's what I think "owning" an emotion is, as opposed to squashing my feelings down until they turn into anger or breaking down into tears every time I see a sunset.  

As a lady-type person, I would just like to say that this is a) highly effective both for me and for women that I know and b) a critical skill to practice for long-term relationships.

(highly effective = there may be swooning)

Seconded! A guy who just says, "Yeah, liking you, but don't want to push," or "Man, I really want to kiss you, but I don't know how you'll respond"? Turn-on.

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Post by eselle28 on Wed Nov 12, 2014 6:26 pm

The Wisp wrote:
eselle28 wrote:Does nearly everyone in the gender realm tell men to accept and own their weakness and vulnerability? I suppose that might be the case. I tend not to see that very much, but I'm also not very alert to that message. I would say that accepting and owning something doesn't necessarily seem like it translates to a specific way of interacting with a partner, though. To me it seems like there might be a variety of things a person can do once they've accepted those traits.

The vibe I got back when I frequently read more in gender spaces was that, while feminist (of all genders) talked a good game about male vulnerability and weakness, in practice they seemed to not be very open to it except in certain narrow circumstances, even in their personal lives. Caveat: I was an insecure teenager at the time, so maybe there was some confirmation bias going on back then.

Which is weird, because before I started reading feminist blogs, I thought feminists were big on men getting in touch with their feminine sides.

This is just my personal take on vulnerability and weakness, but I'd say that while being self-aware and able to communicate about weakness are positive traits, weakness in itself isn't very appealing. I mean, we all are weak in certain ways, but someone who approaches a relationship with lots of weakness and vulnerability and little strength isn't very appealing to anyone who's not looking for an easy victim. Even the ways of relating to weakness I mentioned are in themselves strengths.

I also don't think that vulnerability and weakness are make up a feminine side or are even all that feminine. Women are given more room to fail in some areas of character than men are, and vice versa, and I think women are given more social space to discuss their feelings about just about everything. However, even the most stereotypically traditional woman is expected to be strong in some ways - she's expected to be chaste and able to regulate her own desires and guard the men around her against theirs, she's supposed to be a good mother who can be patient and enduring through boredom and emotional stress, and while she can be weak in some ways where her husband is expected to be strong, she's also expected to be strong for him when he exhibits socially-acceptable male weaknesses like anger or irresponsibility. If we're talking about a woman who takes on more modern roles, there's a more variable mix of strengths. I'd say that these strengths may still look different from what men are expected to exhibit, but it worries me when people correlate weakness with a feminine side.
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Post by eselle28 on Wed Nov 12, 2014 6:33 pm

SomeSamSeaborn wrote:
I understand that always being the one who has to initiate is a burden, I mean, that's kind of what I'm writing about here. And it's not even that I don't want to, it's that I can't do it from a certain point on. Usually kissing or petting. I agree that the narrative is not something that *has* to translate into a specific way of interacting, but I would claim that a lot of it is not merely perceived as empowering ("hey, it's ok to be weak at times") but coupled with a narrative about toxic masculinity that makes being careful about assertiveness both a social and moral prescription. And since it's not working it creates this double bind in my (and I know a lot of other guys) heads: asserting your sexuality is potentially dangerous but not asserting it will not work either. In my case that narrative has taken on a particular importance due to my psychological issues, but it's there independent of my part in it.

And I would say that a lot of male resentment towards and misunderstandings in the gender discourse in general are a consequence of hearing women/feminists say (and perceive it in a specific way) one thing about the desired male performance and then having a lot of individual experiences that don't seem to fit at all into that narrative. I used to resent it, too, but now I consider it mostly a sad case of talking past each other all the time.

I recently had a great personal chat with a female friend who's also a feminist activist and works in rape prevention and I said this in a similar context - "Something that really annoys me is how women and feminists - you just as well as others - are constantly talking about predatory male sexuality and alternative masculinities, and *still* expect men to both accept that narrative, be aware of their privileges, and then still expect them to shake off the problematic ideas about themselves they get from that discourse and be the enlightened (new masculinity) but still sexually assertive (practically old masculinity) hero in whose strong arms you succumb. And for everyone who's not able to completely ignore one message or the other, that's really confusing and behaviorally disabling." She agreed wiht me at this point (probably also because she knows me personally and the stuff I already explained above), but she also doesn't know how to deal with it...

No one does, apparently.

So, I'd agree that this is an issue that goes beyond your personal involvement in it, though it sounds like your particular troubles here will amplify the effects of the issue on your relationships in a way most people won't experience. As a society, we do still expect men to initiate. We also tell men to be concerned with consent. And there is this fantasy of being taken, which men often have as well, but which women are given more freedom to request from their partners.

What do we do about it? On a broader social level, more portrayals of women initiating would be helpful, particularly if those portrayals included examples other than a vile woman throwing herself at a horrified man or a comic or villainous one approaching a hapless man who's assumed to be eager for any kind of sex. Something that I think might also be helpful is to broaden our social understanding of what initiating is, so that fewer of us have the model of "being taken" as being the norm. On an individual level, I'd say that can be helpful to particular couples as well.
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Post by SomeSamSeaborn on Wed Nov 12, 2014 6:46 pm

Hi Mel,

To some extent it does depend on how severe this is. What do you mean by initiating? Will you even initiate a kiss? Are you ever able to escalate, or does she have to move things along at every single stage in the process? Are you able to initiate/escalate physically if she first initiates/escalates verbally (e.g., saying, "I'd like to have sex" or "Take off my shirt" or whatever)? Are you able to initiate/escalate verbally (see above) as long as she initiates/escalates physically afterward?

It really depends. I'm *really good* at flirting (was different before, but I am now, which certainly adds to the confusion about my difficulties to initiate, I just don't come across as someone who may possibly have that problem), I'm happy to do sexual innuendo role playing verbally in a club, dancing very physically, but *anything* that goes beyond that - like kissing, is difficult. I've initiated kssing 3 times with women (except brief relationships). That's about 5% of my "total kissing experience" - other than that, the women initiated. As for later, there was a time when I questioned if she *really* wanted it after she said "f**k me now", when she (not always the same she) would have to explicitly put my hands on her breasts to make me understand that it's ok, but I've become a bit more relaxed with respect to allowing myself to the sexual flow.

Basically, I'd personally totally love it if women were actually as much into the Antioch model as proponents of the affirmative consent legislation claim they are... but they aren't.

"The only person who ever hears "no" to sexual activity of any sort will be her. And that's a pretty heavy burden--that's asking her to be vulnerable a lot in a way you're not reciprocating.


Absolutely. It's also playing into gender stereotypes because I assume she will not have that problem, because I'm always going to be game when she's initiating. A close female friend once suggested that my biggest problem with women is that I make them horny and then let them stand there. It's not that I do it out of spite. I do it because I - usually, in this situation - can't do what they want me to do.

"I can see how someone who thinks they'll be okay with it in theory may find it harder than they can deal with in practice. I can also see that someone might assume you'll become more comfortable initiating with them specifically as the two of you are dating longer, and feel as if you don't trust them or aren't opening up to them the way they feel they're opening up to you if things stay as they were. So I wouldn't assume people are necessarily being dishonest, just not realizing just how big an impact this issue will make.

Yeah, but it would be nice if that's something they'd talk to me about, and not run their tests in silence and then decide based on their secret tests.

...but I think it is mostly of a reciprocity issue. To illustrate, consider how the problem would work in a non-sexual context. e.g., How would you feel about being friends with a man or woman who told you they were never going to initiate or escalate get-togethers

Well, I think that can certainly be a problem, but I suppose it is the reality in most relationships that one does the running. Usually that will "multilaterally clear" given that the roles are different in different relationships. It's not my experience that *most* relationships are fundamentally balanced. But I would still say that's a different thing that what I' trying to say with respect to initiation/escalation.

If you can recognize that expecting your partner to do all the sexual initiating and escalating is not really fair, then accepting and owning that weakness should include efforts to mitigate the impact of that weakness on your partner. E.g., Working on the issues that make this difficult for you (in therapy or similar), practicing small steps toward doing it yourself, coming up with strategies that might make it easier for you, etc.

Oh, sure. I'm totally willing to do that to the extent that I can. And I don't usually blame the women - except in the one case, but that's mostly because that silent testing was against everything we ever talked about, and we're still good friends (without benefits). But as I said, there's also a problematic narrative going on that I am not able to change on my own. All I can do there is create a little bit of awareness.

"So you may be finding that your romantic partners are being turned off not by the weakness itself, but by the fact that (it sounds like) you're not actually taking steps to reduce the burden on them, you expect them to just accept it as it is, as something immutable."

No, I think they're turned off by the weakness. I don't think it's immutable, but it's hard to get decades of socialisation out of my system, it's hard to work against one's double binds, particuarly when most interactions with women are reinforcing the perceived problem and the perceived narrative still works against you.

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Post by Dan_Brodribb on Wed Nov 12, 2014 7:01 pm

SomeSamSeaborn and the Wisp,

At heart, what you're describing doesn't seem to have a lot to do with feminism or sexual aggression/assertiveness.

It has to do with expectations.

From what you're describing, it sounds like what is going on is this:

A) Somebody or some group of people say/write or tell you something.
B) Based on what they've said, you form an expectation of how they should behave--either them personally or a class of people they belong to.
C) They don't meet that expectation
D) You feel angry/betrayed/confused about them not meeting that expectation

From there, you have three possible conclusions.

1) The problem is them. Why won't they change? Or even acknowledge that they didn't do things the way they were supposed to based on what they said? They're being unfair, inconsisten, irrational, and arbitrary and they won't even cop to it.

2) I'm bad for being confused/resentful, etc. The problem is me. I don't know what it is or why, but I suck in some nameless, unknown, primal, core way.

3) Both of the above. They're awful. I'm awful. Everybody's awful. Time to shut myself into my room and start blogging some poetry.

Except the conclusions are based on a false chain. The problem isn't you. The problem isn't them. The problem is you inadvertently built a false expectation.

The better you are at finding those false expectations you hold and letting them go, the easier things become.

One thing that makes it harder is arguing, demanding/seeking explanations, trying to find out who is 'right' or distracting ourselves with theoretical side issues. When we do that, it's a lot harder to see those expectations because they get buried so deeply under our own bullshit.


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Post by SomeSamSeaborn on Wed Nov 12, 2014 7:05 pm

Kleenestar,

Okay, now this is very useful detail. So she was the one who initiated by suggesting you read erotic stories? Somehow I thought you were doing that as a way of inviting her to take the next step. What makes you think she was "testing you?" Is it her later email, or is it something she did at the time? And what makes you feel that it was unfair, as opposed to her trying to figure out empirically what she could and could not live with?

Well, she told me a month later that she "tested" that weekend. And I think it was unfair because she didn't tell me that that was something that suddenly bothered her. We were in a proto distance relationship for about 5 months at that point and talked about gender stuff about every other day, because she is an academic feminist, her baggage, my baggage. I was *particularly* careful because of *her baggage* as well (just don't want to give too many details about her). And then she told me that she basically, silently, wanted me to ignore my issues, and her issues, and what we talked about, and just "be a man."

I think it would be very useful to try to figure out what you are and aren't comfortable with. For example, you don't want to be the one to initiate a kiss, but would you be okay initiating an erotic story-reading session? You say you wanted her to put your hand on her breast - would you be comfortable moving onward from there?

Absolutely. I'm totally open to talking about all kinds of sexual stuff. Moving onward also depends. I've gotten a little more relaxed about this, but it's still not easy.

So can I hear more about how this pattern plays into you having friends rather than exes? For example, are you able to express interest in women verbally, but that just doesn't seem to work?

Yes, it doesn't. Although, to be fair, it rarely gets to the point where completely explicit personal sexual innuendos would be appropriate. For kissing, talking about it is, in my experience, not the way to go.

So, is part of your goal to find ways to address this issue in practice? Because I definitely have thoughts both about how to start working through the initiating issue and how to develop workarounds that make it less important in a relationship. (Though I'm going to hold off on offering either until I feel that I understand the situation better.)

Oh, sure. Every woman I like is a new challenge in that respect.

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Post by SomeSamSeaborn on Wed Nov 12, 2014 7:12 pm

Gentleman Johnny,

If learning to escelate and de-escalate gracefully when it doesn't work is off the table for you,

if I were to reconnect my mental wires in a way that would allow me to not think of myself as a horrible person if I attempted to escalate and it wouldn't work, I'd probbaly be much more willing to take that risk. And yes, it's something I'm really working on, it's just not that easy given the way the discourse is structured.

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Post by SomeSamSeaborn on Wed Nov 12, 2014 7:15 pm

ElizaJane,


Seconded! A guy who just says, "Yeah, liking you, but don't want to push," or "Man, I really want to kiss you, but I don't know how you'll respond"? Turn-on.

Not my experience. In my experience, it seems more like this - "if you cannot clearly read if I want to kiss you, does that tell me something about your inability to read women? Probably".

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Post by Mel on Wed Nov 12, 2014 7:17 pm

eselle28 wrote:This is just my personal take on vulnerability and weakness, but I'd say that while being self-aware and able to communicate about weakness are positive traits, weakness in itself isn't very appealing. I mean, we all are weak in certain ways, but someone who approaches a relationship with lots of weakness and vulnerability and little strength isn't very appealing to anyone who's not looking for an easy victim. Even the ways of relating to weakness I mentioned are in themselves strengths.

I also don't think that vulnerability and weakness are make up a feminine side or are even all that feminine. Women are given more room to fail in some areas of character than men are, and vice versa, and I think women are given more social space to discuss their feelings about just about everything. However, even the most stereotypically traditional woman is expected to be strong in some ways - she's expected to be chaste and able to regulate her own desires and guard the men around her against theirs, she's supposed to be a good mother who can be patient and enduring through boredom and emotional stress, and while she can be weak in some ways where her husband is expected to be strong, she's also expected to be strong for him when he exhibits socially-acceptable male weaknesses like anger or irresponsibility. If we're talking about a woman who takes on more modern roles, there's a more variable mix of strengths. I'd say that these strengths may still look different from what men are expected to exhibit, but it worries me when people correlate weakness with a feminine side.

So much this.

I often find discussions about how women don't react well enough to male weakness/vulnerability frustrating because, frankly, I've generally found that men don't react well to female weakness/vulnerability either.  I've had guys get weirded out or annoyed by me crying at something.  I've had guys get angry with me when I tell them I can't do something they expected me to. I've had a guy outright tell me he wanted me to discuss a specific problem with him so he could help me work through it, and then act repulsed when I actually did that. So it seems to me that people just have trouble dealing with weakness/vulnerability in other people to a large extent.

I also find it a little odd how general this discussion is.  "Feminists say they want men to show vulnerabilities and then don't like it when we do."  Okay, well, "vulnerability" is a pretty broad term.  Assuming that should encompass any and all weaknesses and expressions of those, and that feminists are being contrary if they don't accept any and all weaknesses and expressions of those, isn't really fair.  I mean, lots of men say they'd like women to be more assertive, but I wouldn't assume that means it's reasonable for me to expect many men to be okay with me saying to them, "Look, I want to do all the initiating and escalating in our sexual relationship, I can't deal with you trying to make any moves on me that I haven't started first." (which is the equivalent of the "I'm never going to initiate/escalate" problem)  Just because men are encouraged to be more open about their feelings, doesn't mean that you don't still have to learn how to be appropriate about how you share your feelings, or that certain feelings are not going to get a great response... same as it goes for women.

Similarly, if we take this back to toxic masculinity, I think you need to look at the specifics.  Guys are being asked to avoid specific forms of aggression like badgering a woman who's said no and hollering crude comments at women on the street.  I'm not sure why it is confusing to think that women might not want that, but still want a guy who will be assertive at least some of the time in healthy ways... To me these are pretty separate types of behaviors, and talking as if, if women don't like guys being overly aggressive, they should therefore be okay with a guy who will never initiate, as if those are the only possible options rather than extreme ends of a broad scale, comes across as disingenuous to me.

In a lot of ways, the conversation reminds me of the conversations I've seen around race among authors.  There's a big push right now against stereotypical and racist depictions of characters of color in fiction, and also a big push for more diversity of characters.  I see white authors responding to criticism that their characters are poorly drawn by getting offended because "well, people said we should be writing more diversely, and I was trying to do that!" or responding, "Well fine then, I'll just write all white characters if you're going to get mad at me for writing people of color."  Which really isn't fair, because it's totally reasonable for people to ask to see more nonwhite people portrayed in books, and to see those nonwhite people depicted in nonoffensive ways.

I think it's totally reasonable for feminists to encourage men to accept and own their vulnerabilities, and to expect men to handle those vulnerabilities in the context of a relationship in respectful and not overly demanding ways.  I think it's totally reasonable for women to ask men to continue being at least somewhat assertive, and to be assertive in nonharmful ways.  I think men expect those things from women too. I don't think we can judge whether women/feminists in general respond fairly to vulnerability in men based on an extreme behavior like never initiating.

I do agree, Sam, that this one woman you're talking about was unfair in the way she "tested" you without discussing it with you. I just don't think it's reasonable to use that, especially when you've noted she's the only one you had this particular issue with, to draw conclusions about women in general either.
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Post by kleenestar on Wed Nov 12, 2014 7:29 pm

Yeah, I too am pretty uncomfortable with the generalizations. Sam, I think I have useful questions to ask and useful perspectives to offer, but I'm not really okay continuing to participate if I'm going to have to either let pass or engage with the kinds of problematic generalizations Mel has pointed out. It's up to you whether you think I can contribute more than you'll lose by keeping things closer to your experiences.
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Post by UristMcBunny on Wed Nov 12, 2014 7:33 pm

Cosigning what Dan said.  The issue isn't that women aren't into enthusiastic consent (which is  completely different thing to being sexually aggressive/dominant/assertive anyway).  The issue isn't that "women issue tests" (and I'm side-eying that comment in your recent post - the fact that you interpreted ONE woman as issuing a test is proof neither that WOMEN s a group do those things or even that THAT WOMAN did so - please have a gentle modly reminder that we do not Do "women do X, men do Y" on this forum).  And the issue isn't either that you or the women you've known have been bad in some way.

The issue, primarily, seems to be one of expectations and communication.  On the one hand, your expectation is that the women you meet will act in specific, overt and constantly consistent ways based on things they have said.  Now, no one is ever perfectly consistent.  Even with the best will in the world, people can simply underestimate how they will react to certain things.  Which is why communication is so important - in the example you gave earlier, neither you nor the woman you were with communicated your needs/desires verbally or sought much communication from each other.  I'm going to give you an example from my own life - this example is about libido differences, but it still works for your situation, I think.

The mister and I have very different libidos.  I don't get aggressively horny, but would happily have sex a couple of times a day and ideally several times a week - I also like to use sex to de-stress.  In contrast, he wants sex around once or twice a week and isn't interested in it much beyond that - his libido is also very influenced by the season, and he reacts to stress by losing interest in sex.  As you can imagine, this means we both have some rather large differences we've had to work through to be together happily.  

There have been times in our relationship where we struggled - I would pursue affection from him, he would feel like I was pressuring him to have sex when he wasn't in the mood and would feel disinclined towards affection, I would feel like he was losing interest in me and would become more desperate for affection, and it became a vicious cycle.  What changed was when we actually talked about it.  What we realised was that we were both making assumptions about the other that were hurting us.  When I reached out to him for a kiss, or a cuddle, or to grab his butt, he assumed that meant I wanted full-on sex at that time, and made him feel under pressure to perform.  When he rejected my attempts to seek affection, I thought he was disinterested in being affectionate with me at all and felt unloved.  Once I explained to him that I was usually just seeking affection and not sex, and once he explained to me that he wasn't rejecting me, just what he assumed was sexual intent, we found workarounds.  We engage in a LOT of physical affection and touch now - from holding hands while we play games on our computers next to each other, to a kiss on the cheek when bringing each other tea, to randomly stopping to hug as we pass in the corridor.  In addition, when I want affection I ask for the specific thing I want, instead of just trying to touch him.  I might ask "Can I have a cuddle under a blanket?" or "I'd really like it if you played with my hair right now".  And when I genuinely am horny and he's not, I excuse myself for some private time.  And we also made it explicit between us that if he is feeling sort-of sexy but not quite, he can literally take things as far as he wants and then stop and I won't ask him to go further - so if that means he growls, grabs my butt from behind and grinds into it as I'm cooking dinner, and then pecks me on the cheek and goes back to tidying the bathroom, that's cool.  Neither of us feels unsatisfied, neither of us feels pressured, and we can both enjoy affection as much as we want.

I wonder if more explicit communication might help for your situation.  "Initiating sex" can take many different forms and your partners might not always understand that you specifically want them to be putting your hands on their body, which is a very sexually aggressive thing to do.  Would you be able to incorporate more use of words into things?  Would you be able to do things like outright state "You know, I'm feeling rather horny right now." or "Just so you know, if you were in the mood for it, I would love to mess around with you." in moments when you would like to be sexual?  Or, if that feels too much like initiating to you, would you feel comfortable - or be able to try to work with - your partners "initiating" by saying similar things to you?  Maybe "SamSeaborn, I'd love to be kissing you right now." or maybe even a whole conversation like:

"I'd love for you to touch my breasts right now."
"I think I'd enjoy that a lot, too."
"Please touch my breasts, then."
*guides your hand to her breasts*
"I'm really enjoying this."
"Do you want to touch more of me?"
"Yes please."
"You can touch me *here* if you like."
*more touching happens*

Is that something that sounds workable for you?

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