I worked for a few mornings on a post I was calling “How to Think From Yourself”, which I was doing my best to convince myself was not a pedantic piece of self-congratulation, but ultimately I couldn’t keep lying to myself. It was. I wanted, the morning after the election, to teach people the difference in thinking from yourself and thinking for yourself—the latter carrying to me an air of abandonment, like “fend for yourself” does. And I wanted to teach people how to figure out whether they’re really thinking from themselves when they say they’re trusting their gut.
It was a mess of a post. Here’s the only bit of it worth salvaging:
There’s a very American idea out there about trusting your gut. I’m not entirely sure what it means, but I imagine it has to do with feelings, which source themselves in your gut. Butterflies in your stomach, a knot of fear, etc. Maybe you feel your feelings elsewhere in your body, but mine are there.
When a person finds their brain at war with their gut (or their heart, where the warmer feelings seem to get sourced), this American idea says to side with the feelings. Feelings beat out the intellect. Don’t overthink it. Go with your gut.
An idea I like to bandy about, particularly on Twitter, is that most people think they’re thinking when in fact they’re feeling. Most tweets poke us in our gut, and we spit up what feels true to us. Most of us spend more time in gutspaces than headspaces, if only because headspaces take work to navigate and are, it’s true, exhausting. It’s not 8-hour-job-on-your-feet-no-breaks exhausting; it’s less a heavy body ache than it is draining and dizzying. A lot of time in your headspace can feel like too many rides on a tilt-a-whirl.
Why is that? My guess right now is that thinking requires linearity and the mind is anything but linear. Consider the sequence in which memories come to you—it’s never chronological—versus what you know your mind needs when you say, “Give me a second to think.” Thinking requires a steady laying-out of steps or ideas, and it asks us to form the mess of living into a chain of cause-effect relationships—all while the brain is continually spinning and processing the moving world around us, and trying not to get distracted by car alarms, campaign billboards, or sexy people crossing the street.
The gut never asks for linearity, and the gut doesn’t get distracted. But I don’t know why that makes it more trustworthy than the brain. I’m trying in this post to figure out how I think, and what kind of thinking I value, and why I value it. When I talk about thinking not just for yourself, but from yourself, I don’t mean this gut stuff. I don’t mean to trust this inmost part of your self’s body. I mean to stop feeling as thought your body is at war with itself. Stop believing that you have to pick a side of your insides.
One pet peeve of mine is when people online tell others Do Yourself A Favor And Learn This Thing I Learned To Do Long Ago, You’ll Be A Lot Happier, and then they don’t even bother to teach you how. Any moment I tried to get into the how, the post was a mess. So maybe I’ll come back to this, but all I can say for now is that the first step is knowing who you are and what your desires are, and to make sure you’ve arrived at those desires independent of your politics.
Which requires the didactic spelling out of another process, so you see how difficult good teaching is.
Here’s Jill Lepore—easily becoming my favorite New Yorker staffer—on animals in the 7 Sept 2020 issue. When I talk to students about their short paragraphs, or their understanding that a paragraph should cover a single subject, I’ll try to show them this one, which just soars. Or maybe it hops? It’s as moving as a montage:
In the encyclopedia of animal accommodations, the most admirable architect is the beaver. Beavers build lodges out of sticks and mud, complete with ventilation and underground entrances. Domesticated animals live in houses built by people (etymologically, that’s what it means to be domesticated), from cow barns to pigpens. One reason some people don’t eat meat is that on big farms animals are forced to spend so much time crowded together indoors. Factory-farmed chickens, raised in giant sheds stacked with thousands of cages—ten to a cage the size of a file drawer—don’t even have room to spread their wings, and most spend every last, miserable moment of their lives inside. That only started in the nineteen-fifties, and, recently, lots of people have been going back to raising their own chickens. Since the quarantine, there has been a rush on chicks and back-yard coops. (Enthusiasts who have never met a hen are well advised to read Betty MacDonald’s 1945 memoir, “The Egg and I,” in which she recounts, “By the end of the second spring I hated everything about the chicken but the egg.”) A D.I.Y. coop consists of a roof, a roost, and nesting boxes. Translucent roofing is recommended, the idea, apparently, being that if chickens can see the sky they’ll forget that they’re indoors. Chickens like to roost inside at night but among the many reasons for letting them out during the day is that otherwise they might peck one another to death. That’s what it means to be cooped up. The Italians call free range chickens polli ruspanti. A wandering chicken is a happy chicken. People are no longer ruspante. We build lean-tos and huts and shanties and houses and motels and condominiums and apartment buildings. Lately, we’ve been stuck in them, like a prickle in a quiver, chickens in a coop, bears in a den, waiting out our desolate hibernation.
This ends the piece’s opening section, what the New Yorker generally does with most of its pieces. I think it’s called a nutgraf. “A prickle in a quiver” refers to the porcupines Lepore opens the piece with, and how “[a] gang of porcupines is called, magnificently, a prickle.” She humbly suggests “quiver” as the name of their den, the floor littered, as it is, with fallen-out quills.
I. Once a month maybe I come across a line like this in my reading:
And my first question is always: Wait, am I a man? I ask it sincerely, because it’s never clear. Notice the tone: “of course, sex and love.” It goes (almost!) without saying to some people that what men want from women is sex and love. So, not desiring either of these things from women, that must oust me from the category. So thanks, New Yorker, for the homophobia.
Perhaps I should calm down and start reading “men” always as shorthand for “straight men”, the way “man” used to be shorthand for “men and women”—that is, as a relic of unenlightened heteros who still[*] think the words “men” and “women” connect to stable, known entities.
But (a) it sucks that I have to accept such erasure, and (b) doing so lets me off the hook as another man.
Because I am a man. I have benefited—not without exceptions—as a member of the patriarchy, and just because my relationships with women don’t involve the pursuit of their affections, that doesn’t mean I don’t have relationships with women. And how I, as a gay man—how all we gay men—interrelate to women deserves smart and close scrutiny if we’re committed to upending the patriarchy.
So there’s a big logical problem in that above passage: misogyny can’t be understood as the mindset that enforces the goals of winning admiration, love, and sex from women. If you root misogyny in straight men’s desires for/from women, you will fail to understand misogyny the same way that, if your anti-porn arguments don’t apply to gay-male porn, you’ve failed to understand porn.
II. I know there’s plenty out there about gay male misogyny. It doesn’t take a Judith Butler to notice drag’s sometime myopia about what a woman is. And diva worship maps plainly enough onto the patriarchy’s virgin-whore complex that I probably don’t need to get into it. But I suppose I should try, as ill-equipped as I feel this morning. It’s been a long time since I’ve read through these ideas.
If straight misogyny stems, as above, from women not meeting straight men’s unmet sexual expectations, gay misogyny might stem from women’s being able to win the attentions of (straight) men more readily than gays can. Which is to say that both forms of misogyny see women, if you’ll forgive the term, as cock-blockers. More complexly, misogyny understands that for male sexual desire to find its (always deserving) target or full expression, women have to be engaged or negotiated, and misogyny finds that step tedious or even unjust.
“Mommy is in charge of whether I can play with that toy, and that’s so unfair,” says every misogynist.
One difference I can see: for gay men looking for sexual satisfaction, only sometimes do women need to enter the picture. If you chase after trade, Brother Gay, you are going to find yourself competing with unwitting women, and when trade prefers sex with women over sex with men, when trade deigns to have sex with gay men only when no women are available, then you, Brother Gay, are going to feel like second fiddle, no matter how better you might think you are at giving head.
And misogyny, if you fall victim to it, will make you blame women for your feeling of demotion, not the very men who have done the demoting. That is, your attraction to those in power will confuse your understanding of power. (This is an idea I’ll come back to.)
III. But as nice as that idea seems, it also seems to imply that once gays can get welcomed into gay spaces (bars, bathhouses, certain just-for-us apps), the misogyny should go away, and that eradicating misogyny simply requires Brother Gay to come out and start chasing after requited sex objects. And yet behold:
Here’s an alphafag who I’d bed good money has rarely left a gay space in 20 years, who never feels in competition with women for the other alphafags he chases after, and yet if we count those asterisks we all know what word they stand in for.
So misogynists don’t necessarily desire women, nor do they necessarily feel in competition with them. What, then, is going on?
One possibility is phalluslessness. Possibly, it goes back to Freud. When gay men who get all the sex they want continue to hate women, what is it about Woman that disgusts them so much? My guess with the alphafag above is that women are “dumb” if (I’d assume he thinks it’s when) they’re attracted to him despite his homosexuality, which is to say that women fail in sexual competition, and this makes them lesser.
Why they can’t compete is that they don’t have a dick. Or that they have tits. So either it’s the absence of the phallus that makes a woman disgusting, or its the presence of the breast—and now we’re solidly in Freudian Mommy-Issues Territory. Many find it to be a nice place. Soothing and straightforward, but I’m never satisfied there, if only because the one thing, other than articles which presume all men want women, that makes me question whether I count as “male” is the Oedipus Complex.
IV. I’m going to try to step into Object Relations Theory territory, despite my shaky grasp of it, and in doing so, I’m going to try to capture the misogyny I have seen in myself, because I think it might help me get toward this “universal” theory that may or may not exist.
First, the theory, after Winnicott. Every infant is born pure Subject—the ‘I’ that we all imagine as the protagonist of the world—to the point that even other people and other objects are assumed to be part of the Subject (the Breast being perhaps unfairly considered an object here, in that it is a thing offered to be manipulated for personal reward). The infant cries, the Breast appears, the Subject understands that it controls the object. Then, in time, the Subject learns that objects are external to the self. Here’s how Winnicott puts it:
[A]fter “subject relates to object” comes “subject destroys object” (as it becomes external); and then may come “object survives destruction by the subject.” But there may or may not be survival. A new feature thus arrives in the theory of object-relating. The subject says to the object: “I destroyed you” and the object is there to receive the communication. From now on the subject says: “Hullo object!” “I destroyed you.” “I love you.” “You have value for me because of your survival of my destruction of you.” “While I am loving you I am all the time destroying you in (unconscious) fantasy.” Here fantasy begins for the individual. The subject can now use the object that has survived.
One of the things that can make sex scary and confusing (and that has me thinking so much about it lately) is how good sex requires an upending of this central theory of subjecthood, in that, in sex, we become simultaneously subject and object. We, a sexual subject, objectify our partner so as to get pleasure from them, while simultaneously letting our partner, another sexual subject, objectify us for the same aims.
Outside of the bedroom (or the bathhouse, or the back alley), who gets granted subjecthood and how, who deserves subjecthood and why—these are questions at the heart of sexism and racism. Sexism is the belief that women are not equal to men, and are not deserving of the same things men have given themselves. Misogyny might be the belief that women aren’t even subjects. It seems to involve a blindness to any woman’s point of view.
Now, my misogyny. Something I’ve noticed in myself, in my least proud moments, is that I tend to have my male students’ names memorized before my female students’, and I can tell two brown-haired male students apart more easily than I can two brown-haired female students, and I remember the male friends my friends introduce me to more than I do their female friends. This may be something more innocuous than misogyny we might call legibility: I have spent my life gazing into the eyes and faces of men out of both horniness and a desire for recognition. I’m, thus, “better read” at men. But while we might get somewhere with the notion that there are “male faces” and “female faces”, that’s an idea that doesn’t sit right with me. That is: I can’t see it leading us somewhere more informed about gender and biology.
Instead, I want to sit with this lifetime of gazing at men. My lifetime. I’m speaking here about some way my brain might be wired, not how the Gay Brain (if such a thing exists) is wired. When I see a man I see a possible (sex) object. Is it this simple? Is it that I don’t see women as sex objects, and therefore cannot reaffirm my subjecthood through unconscious destruction of that object? A misogyny of neglect or disregard—you can do nothing for me, so I will not invest in you.
Perhaps that’s all this is, though mine feels more pointed in terms of the solipsism of the subject. A sex object’s perhaps secondary task is to reflect the subject’s subjectivity back to them. One example: I have A Type, when it comes to men, to the point that most of my friends and my partner know The Type and are able to immediately pick out of a lineup the man I’m attracted to. Having A Type is both a problem (one for another blog post) and a pleasure. It feels good to be a subject with a point of view regarding objects. The exercising of sexual desire, even in fantasy, keeps a subject in touch with their subjecthood.
So for straight men, a lifetime of gazing at women and not finding that gaze returned seems to lie at the root of str8 misogyny. For gays, or for me, perhaps it’s that a lifetime of not gazing at women ousts women from what I’ve understood through habit as the interpersonal.
V. I once had it, this idea, but I’ve lost it and can’t find my way back to it. Writing the above both feels bad and also forms the battlefield on which I might combat my misogyny. Because two things misogyny has a very hard time accepting are (a) women are subjects and (b) the task of objects isn’t to affirm your subjecthood. Adulthood means finding affirmation of your own subjecthood within.
Misogyny fails to see that women have their own sexual desires, and their own means of going after them, which because of biology bring a different set of priorities than men’s means do. This, finally, may be true of both str8 and gay misogyny—both see that difference in priorities and investments as a difference in power and ability, and it roots that power differential in biology instead of where all power comes from: those in power.
So let me try a rewrite of the above New Yorker passage, to see if it helps bring this very long and ultimately fruitless post to a close:
Men have blinded themselves from seeing certain things about women—agency, equality, subjecthood, interiority, and, of course, autonomous sexual desire. Misogyny is the mind-set that calls that blindness “wisdom”; it’s the collective delusion that sustains the patriarchy.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
Well, in 2017. I’m a bit behind on my New Yorkers.↵
The New Yorker has suspended reporter Jeffrey Toobin for masturbating on a Zoom video chat between members of the New Yorker and WNYC radio last week. Toobin says he did not realize his video was on.
“I made an embarrassingly stupid mistake, believing I was off-camera. I apologize to my wife, family, friends and co-workers,” Toobin told Motherboard.
“I believed I was not visible on Zoom. I thought no one on the Zoom call could see me. I thought I had muted the Zoom video,” he added.
One way to react to this news is with distrust. Oh yeah bullshit he didn’t know his camera was on. Another way to react is with indignation. Grown-ass men shouldn’t have to be told not to jerk off during a work meeting! But I’ve been Jeffrey Toobin, I probably still am Jeffrey Toobin, and I’m here to react with sympathy, if only because somebody has to.
And why does somebody have to? Because there are millions of Jeffrey Toobins out there—female and male, queer and str8—who’ve read all The Takes, and feel sick with fear and self-loathing right now, and I’m here to say: You don’t have to hate yourself.
Let me start with the distrust. The Zoom chat “was an election simulation featuring many of the New Yorker’s biggest stars,” according to Vice. (Masha Gessen got to play the president.) There’s a chance that Toobin was jerking off to this content, that he was aroused by the idea of the election simulation, or his New Yorker coworkers. Or, perhaps more likely, that he was aroused by the idea of jerking off to his coworkers’ unwittingness, the way sex in public is hotter than sex in your own bedroom.
We can’t really know any of this, because we’ve set up a society with a relationship to sex that makes having a conversation with Toobin about his desires flat-out impossible, and we’ve called that progress. Instead, Toobin’s career is over, and probably it should be, given the discussion I’ll have below about restorative justice.
But if you ask me, Toobin wasn’t jerking off to that content, he was jerking off during that content, and he thought he could get away with it. He thought, Okay yeah this meeting is in a different desktop window and now there’s a breakout room thing going on so I’m going to just look at this other open browser window I have and play with my dick.
There is a problem with that thinking, but it’s not the problem The Takes think it is, which brings me to the indignation.
Here are some screengrabs representative of The Takes—many, but not all, from Twitter, a medium that proves again and again to be incompatible with understanding. (And this is my blog, so indulge me while I get snarky in my replies to these takes. I’ll return to compassionate argument soon.)
The weird thing about sex, the thing that’s making me write a book on it that nobody in The Takes is going to want to read, is that we so commonly decide to respond to it with righteous ignorance, rather than look to experts—which is to say sex workers. We hate and fear sex so much we don’t even teach it in schools, and here, above, is yet another call against understanding. And people online love this ignorance. It feels very good to hear and agree with.
I (literally) love this one, its implication that “those people” list jerking-off-at-work on their resumes, and the problem is how dupes keep hiring these workplace masturbators!
This one’s a twofer. The quote-tweeter’s indignation involves the common idea that compulsive sex is something most of us have matured from, but that some of us have not. Some of us remain little boys touching our penises inappropriately. The reality of mature sexuality is that it has little to do with age—but I’ll get to that in a bit.
And then Travis…. I thought this was a joke tweet until I found other Tech Takes, all of whom sincerely think the solution here is machine learning. (And if you wonder what kind of imagination Big Tech has regarding human sexuality, remember this, how it can’t even imagine that shutting down Zoom whenever a dick appears on screen might put millions of sex workers out of work, to say nothing of ruining the sex lives of long-distance couples.)
These next two I’m calling The Knowing Knowers.
Note the retweet numbers. I know I’m grabbing the low-hanging fruit here. I know I’m shitting on people who think solid argument involves posing a Why-question and then writing, “I’ll tell you why—I have never once felt compelled to masturbate while I was supposed to be doing my job, but I will tell you everything you need to know about those who do.”
But also, if Toobin has had “defenders” they aren’t helping our understanding either:
This is from a NY Daily News op-ed, so again: low-hanging fruit. But that this guy thinks the issue is about masturbation’s relative shamefulness compared to partnered sex means that some of The Takers are only able to think about this from an old, tired, hetero-male value system, and so rightly people are pissed.
I’m pissed, but for different reasons. Here’s why I’m pissed. Here’s The Take that brought me to the NY Daily News piece:
Fuck this person. I don’t care what you think should happen to Toobin, I’ll never want him punished as much as I want this person punished. Anyone who thinks there isn’t enough shame in the world around our sexual desires is a public health menace. They remind me of the fish in the old joke, asked How’s the water? by an older fish.
“What’s water?” asks the fish, drowning in it.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years of reading and writing and thinking about sex it’s that heterosexuals can rarely talk about sex without letting power and gender control the conversation. Indeed, to many heterosexuals (and some righteous queers, which the angriest above poster identifies as), this isn’t about sex at all. It’s about what men think they can get away with, and it’s about intimidation, abuse, and harassment of women in the workplace.
Harassment of women in the workplace is real, and it’s a crime (or I hope everywhere it is, Jesus, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn some states don’t feel the need to protect women from this). But if jerking off of any kind during a work meeting—particularly somebody jerking off at home while allegedly believing nobody could see him—becomes sexual harassment, regardless of the motivations and desires of the masturbator, then what does that make harassment?
It makes harassment less a criminal action somebody chooses to do and more an interpretation (or even an assumption) of a bad feeling somebody receives. It spotlights female passivity in ways that make me very unhappy to see in 2020.
Which leads me to restorative justice. This read on harassment might actually be necessary. For so long men have hid behind ignorance, or have been protected by frattish Boys Will Be Boys justifications. “Oops, sorry ladies!” After decades of men in the workplace denying their intentions to harass women, and then being excused for their behavior by the other men in power, restorative justice might demand that we start doubting the men. We might need to assume that any dick out at work is an intentional form of harassment. If you think this is unfair, if this makes you mad, get mad at the lying men who have ruined it for everyone. Don’t get mad at the women trying, at last, to be heard.
So I get it. But I don’t think any of this is going to stop dicks from coming out at work.
Here’s where the sympathy comes in, and the potentially shameful admissions. But I’ve worked through my shame on all this. I understand who I’ve been and who I am, and I no longer have use for shame, even though it still falls on me like a weighted blanket I can’t get out from underneath.
I’ve never jerked off on a Zoom call, and I’ve never pulled my dick out during a meeting or a class. It’s never even occurred to me to do this, even though I have jerked off to studio porn clips of guys getting secretly sucked off under a conference table surrounded by coworkers. I’m sure there’ve been any number of sex-at-work clips I’ve jerked off too, and countless more I haven’t even seen. And my belief is that if there’s a porn of it, it’s because there’s a sizeable enough fantasy about it among the population.
So: secretly getting your rocks off while everyone around you is hard at work (forgive the pun) is something people of all stripes find hot enough to jerk off to. Now, I will agree with one of the above posters that the ability to discern between fantasy and reality, and to accept the place of fantasy within your reality, is something people learn as they mature.
But how, exactly? We don’t do a very good job of teaching this, or even talking about it. We just sort of throw up our hands and say, “Well, just learn it! I did!” We abandon each other to the righteousness about sex we’ve each been handed by our puritanical country. We fail in our imaginations of others’ sexualities. And that’s the kind of mutual abandonment I’m writing a book to try to stop.
If Toobin were jerking off because his coworkers were “in the room”, then he’s got a lot of learning to do about consent and the fantasy-reality divide. But it’s just as possible that he was jerking off despite his coworkers being in the room. I’m not worrying the difference to let him off the hook of potentially creating a hostile work environment, I’m worrying the difference to better understand the problems our sexualities can cause for us.
Because I too have jerked off and had sex in settings I know I shouldn’t have, settings where if I got caught I could lose my job and a lot worse. I’m talking about a time of my life that I like to think is over. I’m talking about old jobs, past choices I’ve only recently been learning to understand. And when I made those choices, it was never about the nearby presence of other people. It was about me, it was all about me, and what I felt were my needs, and what I felt I deserved.
There was a time in my life that I went to Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings. It was a short-lived time. SAA was not for me. (I don’t think it’s for anyone, but that’s a topic for another time. Or buy the book when it’s done.) But one concept from SAA that I still find useful was called “The Bubble”—which is an image of both (a) separation from others and (b) protective isolation that surrounds the “sex addict” when they’re “acting out”, i.e. doing whatever it was they were doing sexually that made them ashamed and risk their lives/careers/relationships.
The Bubble isn’t real, but that feeling? God, I’ve felt it just zillions of times. I have done things with the full assumption that nobody could see me, that nobody even knew I existed. I was bored, or lonely, or feeling insecure, and I had time to kill, I had nowhere to be or nothing to do, nothing I wanted to focus on, and amid all those uneasy feelings I had sex and porn to turn to, again.
Don’t get me wrong: sex and porn are great. It’s just that my relationship to them was not.
The reality that I had a partner at home who had no idea where I was or what I was up to—in the thick of pursuing a certain kind of sex, this never occurred to me. Being in The Bubble feels great, really. And when The Bubble bursts, especially when it’s burst for you and not by you, it feels like sickness. The word nausea doesn’t begin to touch on what that feels like. I’m still trying to figure out how to capture it.
I have felt so sick by being caught with my pants down, so afraid and so confused by who I was and what I was doing.
You can choose to have sympathy for people who are caught in this feeling, or you can choose to say Serves you right.
I know there are others out there who feel this sickness. Or worse, who fear this feeling, who know it’s coming someday but can’t figure out what to do to prevent it from happening.
I’m writing today for them. Or for you, if you’re finding this.
I know it’s easy, and probably useful in terms of justice, to see Toobin’s jerking off through a lens of power and violence, but I also know—or, that is, I’m assuming with the same level of insight into his sexuality as anyone else has—that he was thinking absolutely of nobody else at the time. Until suddenly he realized The Bubble had burst. He wasn’t as careful as he knew he was being. And then life as he knew it was over.
What happens to us when our sex practices consume us so much that we completely ignore the fact of others? Their needs and desires? Their sexual autonomy? What does that do to our relationship to our bodies? These are hard questions that many people don’t even believe are worth asking. To me, given who I am and what I’ve gone through, they’re vital questions. I’ll even go so far as to say they’re life-and-death questions, given some options I considered when all of this was such a mess.
Stop thinking you know anything about Jeffrey Toobin. Stop thinking you know anything about sex. Few of us in this country do. Other than sex workers and a handful of sex therapists (many of whom still believe sex addiction is real), nobody knows a thing about sex, and we all need to stop talking as though we do.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
I might mean reparative justice. I haven’t yet read enough about these new-to-me concepts to know whether one encapsulates the other. Please comment if you’re smarter on this than I’m being.↵
Which is why it’s been fascinating to watch and read about the rise of step-sibling porn. What’s that about America?↵
If you’re wanting more specific details right now, I’m curious about why you want this, and what you think you need to follow, or even buy, what I’m trying to say.↵