Tag Archives: men

The Rite Thing to Do

My sister eloped. Okay, not exactly, and it’s old news, really, since this was brought to mind by my recently receiving an invitation to the celebration of her twentieth anniversary. Which is interesting, because I wasn’t invited to her wedding.

See, she and her boyfriend were vacationing in Hawai’i, when they decided, on the spur of the moment, that this romantic tropical setting would be the ideal place to get married. They are far from the only ones who reach that conclusion, of course. Having made their decision, and arrangements, they then informed the families. Well, by families, I mean my parents. I wasn’t informed except by my father, who was, as is understandable, grousing long and loud about having to fly to Hawai’i at the last minute and at enormous expense.

He didn’t have to, of course. My older sister didn’t go, and was fine with that, despite having a very close relationship with my younger sister. “What’s the big deal?” she said. But my father understood, which is why, in fact, he did have to go. His daughter was getting married. For some reason, he felt that was an important thing to attend.

I didn’t go. There was no way I could afford it. And that hurt. She was my sister, and I had looked forward to being at her wedding, even standing up in her wedding party as she stood up in mine. It was important to me that she be there, and I would have thought it might be important to her that I be there for her. It wasn’t. But I think what hurt me even more than that was realizing that it wasn’t important to her that it was important to me.

That’s the thing about weddings. Despite all the “Bridezilla” stories, it’s not really about the bride, nor the couple, or anything like that. It’s about the people in attendance. It’s for the father who has dreamed about walking his little girl down the aisle since she was… well… a little girl. It’s about the family. It’s about the community, bearing witness to a couple passing through one of the last surviving rites of passage our society affords.

I use that term intentionally. A wedding is a moment of transition, one most people experience. It is a common experience. And there are rituals involved, the exchange of rings, the vows, the “march,” all that. That’s why a lot of people get very nervous at any attempt to change that. The pastor who officiated my wedding said he was very reluctant to allow a couple to mess with the ceremony too much, especially when it came to writing their own vows. We didn’t do that, although we did personalize a bit by opening the ceremony with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. Oh yeah, and I sang at my own wedding. I’d sung Leonard Bernstein’s “Simple Song” at all of my friends’ weddings, and I wanted it sung at mine, but by the same person who sang at everyone else’s. So yeah, I sang it at the beginning, and watched my wife come down the aisle toward me during the flute solo.

But we didn’t mess with things too much, and the pastor was right about that. He explained it. He pointed out that the familiarity of the vows binds us all together. Not just the couple, but the whole community. They are sharing something with everyone who has gone before. He pointed out that, when the bride and groom are up there reciting their vows, all the married people watching are silently remembering, and re-reciting, their own vows. Why do you think so many babies are born nine months after a major wedding?

This shared experience is why some conservatives are extremely uncomfortable at anything that would change the “definition” of marriage. And it’s why advocates of gay marriage fight so hard to be able to share the common experience as well. “It’s just a piece of paper,” people might say (my sister likely among them), but it’s so much more. It’s a step further into the adult world. And we have very few left.

Rites of passage tie us together, going through an experience knowing those around you went through it themselves. In earlier times it might involve a test or an ordeal, sometimes dangerous, and it’s okay with me that we have removed most of the danger. But we maintain the vestigial ritual in initiations into social organizations, fraternal orders such as the Freemasons or the Elks or whathaveyou. Those are dying out, but such traditions do live on, somewhat, with fraternity initiations, although the significance is increasingly lost in the face of ever more dangerous hazing. But perhaps that’s an attempt to cling to our true roots. Because part of the purpose of the ordeal is to come out of it stronger, more confident. Ready for the challenges that face you. Ready, in many cases, to truly be an adult.

We no longer have a clear delineation between child and adult. We lost the ritual where you officially cross the threshold between the two worlds. Certainly it still exists in some cultures. The Hispanic Quinceanera is one case, although it could be said that’s a remnant of Patriarchy, where a girl is announced as a now-available commodity. But it’s a very important moment in the girl’s life, where she really gets to feel like she’s a woman.

A better example is the Jewish Bar Mitzvah. This is the moment when a boy literally stands before the community and says, “Today I am a man.” He has studied and prepared, and his parents watch with pride, while everyone else nods and smiles, remembering their own passage. It is a welcoming into the adult world. And what’s important is that it was preceded by serious lessons on what it means to be a man. We used to teach our children how to be adults. Boys learned to take off their hats indoors, or when the flag is passing. They learned how to shake someone’s hand. They learned how to behave like a responsible adult. And, yes, this was true for girls as well, but the fact that this has largely disappeared is a more serious problem for boys.

The very recent concept of adolescence is actually causing difficulty for young people. It takes nearly a decade to transition from child to adult now. I’m not advocating we return to a time when children were put to work as soon as they could pick up a tool. But we take a long period where teens aren’t really sure if they are children or adults, nor which they want to be. It’s a troubled time, full of raging hormones. We treat them like children and they chafe because they are ready to be adults. Then we treat them like adults and they cower because they actually aren’t ready. And at no time do we show them a point of passage, one where yesterday they were children, and today they are adults.

Consider: you can work at age 15; drive at 16; go to an R-rated movie at 17 (not that that means anything anymore); vote, sign contracts and join the military at 18; and drink and gamble at 21. Which is adulthood? We could say 18, but that’s arbitrary, and mostly just corresponds to the end of universal education, another recent invention our society once thought essential for a robust democracy, but which, sadly, conservatives are now trying vigorously to tear down. Education is also, by the way, why legal age of consent laws tend to pin on age 18, a biologically ludicrous delay. We don’t want sexuality to distract “children” from their schooling. Of course, it does, far more than it would if we were tolerant of the reality that teens are sexual beings.

So what happens? Teens, whose bodies are screaming their readiness for adulthood, are cast adrift by a society who sees no value in rituals and transitions, with no one telling them who they are, or what they should do. They take their lessons from any place they can: books and movies and music and games and other media that isn’t there to strengthen society, but to make money by pandering to adults’ darkest instincts. And that’s how boys learn how they are “supposed” to treat girls, and girls learn how they are “expected” to respond. They learn to solve problems with violence. They learn it’s all about “me,” rather than about “us.”

And the teens eat it up. That is, I think, a symptom of a deeper hunger. More than just sex drives and bloodlust. Teen books are full of stories full of tests and ordeals; it’s a central theme, the “child” proving him or herself by overcoming a great challenge. We yearn for these rites of passage, especially children, who, unable to experience it for themselves, seek it out in their fiction. In that respect, I suppose it could be said that teen fiction is serving an important purpose, but maybe it shouldn’t have to carry the entire burden. Rather, we could be mindful that we are a community, a common people.

Social rituals and traditions connect us, and I think it’s no coincidence that, the more we abandon them, the more fragmented and fractious societies become. Rituals are the embodiment of order, and the absence of order is chaos. The authors of teen books offer many anarchic, dystopian societies, where the dignity of life and the spirit of community have lost their meaning. But rarely do they really explore how these societies came to be. That’s a shame, because I suspect that it would look much more familiar than we might like.


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The Subjective Objection

You are probably aware of the recent news story about the woman in Florida who was robbed, beaten, stripped naked and abandoned in a field by the person she was out with on a first date.  You must have heard about this.  Jay Leno made a joke about it three nights in a row.  I know, right?  Hilarious!  I mean what a loser.  And on a first date!  Maybe things will go better on the second date, and—

Hey, why aren’t you laughing with me?  Come on, it’s funny.  Oh, okay, I admit, it’s not true.  It wasn’t a woman.

It was a man.

Other than that, it’s completely true, including the punchline.  He was beaten, robbed, left naked in a field and Leno made a joke about the second date.  And the audience laughed.  I didn’t.  I was furious.  Because where was the concern, the compassion, the outrage?  Apparently, that’s all been used up by the people taking me to task for posting pictures of pretty women on my website.

I’m trying to remain reasonable and objective here, but it’s hard.  And to the women who are jumping down my throat for “harming” women by liking beauty, I say this: what the hell is wrong with you?  Where are your priorities?  Or do you subscribe to the bullshit line that says only women can be victims?  I dare you to take a stand on violence against men.  Go on, let’s hear your sadness about hunky beefcake photos.


That’s what I usually hear.  And it sickens me.  Men are the only class left it’s okay to victimize.  We can make fun of them, engage in the most awful stereotyping, anything.  Make fun of women and you are a sexist.  But make fun of men and it’s okay.  In fact, it’s what they deserve!

Well enough is enough.  If I’m wrong for celebrating beautiful women, then everyone else is wrong for demonizing men.

You know why my photos are predominantly women?  Partly because I like women, true.  But also, to a great extent, because that’s what I can find.  I don’t take the photos myself (I wish!).  I find them on line.  And the internet is full of photos of women in stages of very artistic, attractive nudity.  Men are a different story.  There are far fewer images to be found, and what there is is either really non-nude, or outright pornography, and pretty raunchy at that.  Very little middle ground.

There are reasons for this.  Men are larger consumers of these sorts of images.  That’s why most of it appeals to men.  And that’s also, I suspect, why so many women raise objections.  Because they aren’t attracted to images of that sort.  It’s easy to disparage things you yourself have little interest in, and to demean those who do like it.

But it’s also true that our society is much more comfortable with the female nude than the male.  Topless images scarcely raise an eyebrow any more.  Rear images also are largely seen as tame.  Even full-frontal nudity isn’t automatically going to raise a hue and cry.  But let there be even the least glimpse of a penis and the sky comes crashing down.  Oh the humanity!

It’s a pernicious double standard.  Female nudity is artistic, erotic, or perhaps represents vulnerability.  Male nudity is hilarious!  Or disgusting.  So don’t blame me for being a product of this dichotomy.

People accuse me (and others who produce or appreciate these images) of “objectifying” women.  This is patently false.  As I have addressed elsewhere, photography by definition objectifies the subject.  But these images celebrate the subject, reveling in beauty.  Even, believe it or not, pornography.

People will say pornography is the worst, utterly demeaning the women in it.  Some will call the women who appear in pornography “victims,” because no self-respecting woman would choose to do that.  How arrogant!  This assumption is based on projection: “I have self-respect.  I would never appear in pornography.  Therefore, women with self-respect don’t appear in pornography.  QED.”  Based on this “logic” a woman must have been forced to do it, to subjugate herself for the sick pleasure of men.

Or maybe, just maybe, she enjoys it.  Maybe she likes the feeling of being desired.  Maybe she’s proud of her body and likes letting others see it.  Is that possible?  See, that’s the thing about the supposed objectification.  When you examine straight porn, one thing comes clear: the woman is subject, not object.  The content is entirely about her.  Her body, her reactions.  Sure, it’s usually ludicrously fake, with hyperathletic positions and over the top “acting.”  But it’s still all about the woman.  The man barely appears, often reduced to little more than his penis.  Now that’s objectification.

I know, you’ll say that this is done so that the male viewer can imagine himself in man’s place.  Fair enough.  But still the result is the same: the male performer is dehumanized far more than the female.  This is why most porn is really really bad.

It’s also wrong to say that only men (disgusting pigs!) consume pornography.  Women do too, in growing numbers.  They have somewhat different preferences, however.  Women prefer pornography that’s less anatomical, more sensual.  More about feelings, and connections.  More real.  Where both participants are equal.  Hey, that is a lot better.  In fact it sounds good enough to serve, indirectly, as an influence to me.  My one-and-only sex scene is like that, focused on feelings, the relationship between the two.  It’s about the beating of hearts rather than the thrusting of loins.  And would it surprise you to know that the female character is the one taking the lead?

Don’t be fooled by my correspondents who tell me what I write is “inappropriate” for YA.  I used to believe that, but then I followed the advice they gave me to read more YA and found that, in fact, there’s plenty of sex.  Almost invariably, it’s from the point of view of an inexperienced, even virginal, female, being “seduced” (for lack of a better word) by the male lead.  Always he’s more experienced, she’s timid, reluctant, you know the drill.

Not in mine.  I’ve reversed the roles, made the girl experienced and in charge, and the boy inexperienced and nervous and so very awkward.  And it’s still in the girl’s point of view.  What am I doing with that?  As I see it, I am telling my female readers, “Hey, it’s okay to have these feelings, these desires.  You don’t have to wait for a boy to act upon you, nor to expect him to be a perfect love machine.  You can take charge of your own sexuality.  You are answerable to no one except yourself.  You go girl!”  I consider that an excellent message for young women.  Guess what: the women in my writers’ group agree.  They loved the scene, thought it was real and sensitive and handled very well.  The men were indifferent (I’m not sure what to make of that).  But everyone agreed it would be okay for teens to read.  I was gratified.

Here’s the thing.  I think it wouldn’t just send a good message to girls, it would send one to boys as well.  It would say “You don’t have to be a stud.  She’s an equal and it’s something you do together, rather than something you do to her.”  Most boys don’t want to be studs, don’t want the pressure of the macho stereotype.  They want their partners to be equals, to be as interested and engaged as they are.

But they only have society’s message to go on.  Which is, “Go out and score!”  That’s why it bothers me that we are so concerned about girls’ self-respect, but not boys’.  We tell girls, “Have respect for yourself,” but we tell boys, “Have respect for girls.”  Not only does this attitude objectify girls far more than a sex scene or a naked picture, it tells boys they aren’t worthy of respect.  And people who don’t think they are worthy of respect make bad choices.

But when boys see representations of women who have taken charge of their sexuality, who aren’t afraid or ashamed of their bodies, women who are subjects rather than objects, and above all, women who feel the same as they feel, who like what they like, it makes the women more human, not less, and easier to respect and consider an equal partner.

Some might call my images on this site sexual harassment, with the idea that they have been placed there to somehow intimidate women.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  When men “accidentally” show women these sorts of things, what they actually want is for women to be accepting, to validate their sexual feelings.  They hope beyond hope that a woman will say, “Wow, that’s kind of hot” (which is what one reader said about my scene).  Or perhaps, “Well, I don’t care for that, but this one’s nice.”  Because then he’ll say, “Yeah, I like this one too.”  Then they know that women are okay with sexuality, that they don’t consider it dirty or offensive.

Let’s be honest, the men who do this do a very bad job of it (myself included).  It’s easy to understand why women turn away.  But understand that it’s not because of some hatred or objectification.  It’s not because we want women to look like that or be like that or do that.  It’s because we want women to be okay with sex, the most fundamentally important thing in all of being human.  Living in a culture that teaches girls to hide and repress their sexuality; that teaches boys they are monsters for being attracted to girls; and where we laugh when a man is beaten and humiliated in ways that, if the victim were a woman, would draws cries for the death penalty, it’s pretty hard to find validation for our essential humanity.

But is it really too much to ask?


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Body of Evidence

So a friend (I hope) and fellow YA writer has commented on my previous article, taking me to task for contributing to the damage of (young) women’s body-image in the guise of claiming to champion it.  She makes a significant point, and is far from the only one making it, but I believe it is based on a fundamental misapprehension.

There is no doubt that many women suffer from serious body image issues.  I do not consider that to be caused by our being a clothes-compulsive culture, which is a function of the US being an extremely puritanical society.  But what about the effect on women of things like the images I put in my last article?  What about fashion magazines in general?  As my friend notes, the average woman doesn’t look like that.  Therefore (and here’s the big assumption) that’s what men will prefer, and that’s what they will expect.  The conclusion is that idealizing these images is bad for women’s self-esteem because they think they have to look like that and never will.  There are several problems with this.

I’ll start with the solution: what should we do about it?  Are we saying that, because most women don’t look like fashion models, we shouldn’t have fashion models?  Some women are more conventionally attractive than others, but why should we penalize them, or anyone? Equality is a chimera.  Everybody is better than others in some way: appearance, strength, intelligence.  We don’t complain about that.  Shall we end up like the world in Kurt Vonnegut’s seminal “Harrison Bergeron,” where draconian measures are used to make everyone “average?”  Or can we accept a world where some girls are prettier than others, just as some guys are, say, better ballplayers?

That leads to another problem with the whole argument.  If body-image is a problem for women, it also is for men.  In fact, moreso.  I intend to address at more length the objectification of men that no one seems to worry about.  But on its face, it’s a fact that women get unrealistic expectations of men.  They read romance novels or watch chick flicks and then compare the real men in their lives to that, and we don’t measure up.  I will never look like Brad Pitt or George Clooney.  But the difference between me and a hypothetical woman being victimized by the comparison is that I don’t especially care.  Sure, I’d love to look more conventionally hot.  But I don’t, there’s not all that much I can do about it, and I’m sure as hell not going to ruin my life obsessing about it.  And I’m sorry, but my sympathy for women who do only goes so far.  To be fair, there are men who obsess about their looks as well, but, again, far fewer people seem to consider that a problem.

And that’s because of a difference between men and women, and why I say that it is unfair to blame me, and men in general, for women’s body issues, real as they may be.  I submit that it is women who are to blame themselves, for setting unrealistic expectations for themselves.  I think women are less realistic than men when it comes to appearance.  This relates to the fact that it doesn’t really bother me that I’m not a hot studmuffin.  I know that, and I also know that this is true for women; few of them are as hot as fashion models.  My friend repeats the common accusation that men will expect the women in their lives to look like those models.  To which I say, nonsense! 

In my advanced composition class we frequently address the issue of body image, and over and over it becomes clear that the young men in the class are far less concerned about women’s appearance then the women think they are, or are themselves.  To illustrate, I am reminded of an advertisement that a student showed that had two different women, one classically “hot,” and the other “hot” by contemporary standards.  They asked which one the men in class preferred.  The response that got universal agreement from the men (and the biggest laugh) was, “Whichever one is in my bed.”  Here’s the deal.  For most guys, the most beautiful woman is… the one we are with.  The fact that she is with us makes her extremely attractive.  Everything else is variables barely worth arguing about.  I for one find the idea that a woman wants to be with me to be far more arousing than any physical feature.  I am not alone in this.

It’s also a given that there is no absolute standard of attractiveness.  There are men attracted to heavy women, and ones attracted to super skinny women.  There are men who prefer boobs to be the bigger the better, and men who prefer no boobs at all.  Tan?  Pale?  Long hair?  Short?  There’s somebody attracted to anything you can imagine.  Hell, one of my main female characters is completely bald, and I went on-line looking for images of bald girls (never a good idea).  Let’s just say there is some wild stuff to be found.

But the fact that men have preferences, and may in general prefer a conventionally “hot” woman, means little; in the end, rare is the man who will turn down a woman because she’s a 5 and not a 10.  That’s because we know that turning down the 5 isn’t going to get us a 10.  It’s the 5… or nothing!  And we’re not stupid.

I’m not sure I can say this for women.  For one thing, they hold us up to standards too, as I said.  And they are far more unforgiving of guys who don’t measure up (so to speak).  The women in my class are very forthcoming about this and quite clearly lay out what is—and is not—acceptable.  No baldies!  No shorties!  Good luck finding a woman willing to date, or even be seen with, a guy who isn’t taller than she is.  They absolutely hold us up to an unrealistic standard.  And, just like men, different women have different preferences.  However, they don’t bend from that.  Some women like a six pack, some like a guy more sleek.  But a woman who is Team Edward will not go with a Jacob, and vice versa.  That’s a difference from men.  A man might prefer blondes, but he won’t turn down a brunette.  A woman will.

So, to return to the essential point, it is categorically false that unrealistic expectations of men damages women’s body image.  Women do that to themselves.  And to each other.  My students make it clear that women are the harshest critics of each others’ appearance.  It’s true that when women dress up, they are dressing for each other, not for us guys.  And they are brutal about it.

How did we get here?  We could debate the cause of women’s body-concerns for the rest of time and not resolve it.  But the damage goes beyond their own psyche.  It affects relationships.  I recently read an article that profiled several women, most of whom have been married for years, whose husbands have never seen them naked.  Never.  They say they feel bad about this.  Really?  How bad?  For whom?  Not bad enough, I guess, because can you imagine how this makes the husband feel.  Are you really afraid he will run screaming if he sees you?  That he will focus on all your flaws?  No.  Only you do that.  Let me be clear that the only thing he will be thinking when he sees you naked is “Yes!!!”  The fact that you are naked outweighs anything else.  And when you refuse, he ends up wondering why you find him so undesirable that you don’t want to be naked with him.  Your negative body image is now damaging his.  Did you ever consider that?

The fact that women can be so uncomfortable is made even worse by the fact that they blame men for their own neurosis.  The husband wants his wife to be naked, but she refuses, and says it’s his fault, because he won’t think she’s good enough.  He says, “Yes I will; I married you!”  She doesn’t believe him.  He eventually may well get upset, frustrated.  May, in the worst case scenario, give up, and seek out some other woman who he can see naked.  He wants to see his wife, but what choice has she given him?  So he turns to porn, or has an affair or in some other way finds a woman who is willing to get naked.  And his wife says, “Aha!  Told you so, you bastard!”  Blames him all over again, never realizing that all she needed to do was be naked.  See, that’s another thing that figures into it.  Men are attracted to women who feel good about themselves.  Just as women like confident men, men like confident women, especially body confident.  For most men, the idea that a woman likes to be naked is a tremendous turn on.  He’d rather it be the woman in his life, but he’ll take what he can get.  Nothing will turn him off as efficiently as saying, “Don’t look at me, I’m hideous!”  He doesn’t think you are, but if you say it enough, he might start to believe you.

This is, of course not to say that all you need to do is undress and your man’s eyes will never wander.  We are attracted to beauty.  Again, that doesn’t mean we only accept the most beautiful.  We like filet mignon, but we don’t demand it for every meal.  What we prefer is home cookin’ (if I may run the analogy into the ground).  Sure we look, but that’s all. We look.

And for all the women who still think that men who, for instance, look at the women in Playboy are comparing those women to them, I’ll say only this: it’s true.  He is comparing his wife to the woman in Playboy.  And he is finding the comparison identical.

Because he knows that he’s not going to get to have sex with the Playboy model tonight either.


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