You may have heard about a recent Kickstarter campaign for a “seduction guide” that ignited a furious tweetstorm and earned the company some bad press. The manual reads more like a guide to sexual coercion than seduction, though the way our popular culture treats the latter, they may as well be interchangeable.
The author counsels that “personal space is for pussies”, and encourages (at the very least implicitly male) readers to eschew permission and get physical with the women they pursue. “Force her to rebuff your advances,” the author advises, because “Even when a girl rejects your advances, she KNOWS that you desire her. That’s hot. It arouses her physically and psychologically.” Um… okay.
The author has been publishing this material piecemeal on the r/seduction subreddit for years, and thanks to reddit’s boundless enthusiasm for Pick Up Artist (PUA)-flavoured material, his Kickstarter project exponentially overachieved its goal. For its part, Kickstarter responded to the blowback with an apology and a new policy prohibiting any future “seduction guide”-type campaigns from the site. This policy change shows integrity on the company’s part, and was a welcome contribution to the debate. But banning these projects from Kickstarter isn’t going to make much of a dent in the tidal wave of cultural cues that feed PUA culture.
It’s important that we don’t think of “PUA culture” as a fringe subculture, but as a dominant set of cues and practices that socialize young men’s understandings of sex and relationships. PUA culture isn’t just Toronto’s notorious rape advocate Dimitri the Lover or Tom Cruise’s seduction guru character Frank “T.J.” Mackey in Magnolia. PUA culture is also every romantic comedy where a male character relentlessly pursues a love interest (typically a woman, because movies and PUA culture are both preeeeeeetty damned heterosexist), often winning her affections in the end. PUA culture is befriending a person you find attractive with the silent goal of hooking up with them, and getting huffy when your strategy doesn’t go according to plan.
This “playing hard to get” trope is ancient in our culture, and over the years it has had a profound impact on sexual relations writ large. Among other things, it is (at least in part) responsible for the inability or unwillingness of many hetero men and boys to read women’s pretty unambiguous non-verbal cues. This happens at work, on public transportation, in our own homes and the homes of people we consider friends. A totally not-exhaustive list of such cues includes: recoiling from a touch, avoiding eye contact, giving one-word answers or outright ignoring. If you’re making advances on a woman and she is responding in this manner, ABORT THE MISSION.
Better yet, don’t look at it as a mission, because this is not a tactical military operation. It is (one would hope) seeking companionship and/or a mutually gratifying sexual experience. Notice how both of those things involve active participation and enthusiasm on the part of all involved? If participation and enthusiasm from your partner(s) aren’t at the top of your list of desired outcomes, pause and consider why you are making these advances in the first place.
You find this person attractive, yes. Don’t you want them to enjoy their encounter(s) with you, instead of feeling cornered or worn down or talked into it? I don’t think I even need to ask where the fun would be for the person you want to have sex with (spoiler alert: it’s nowhere! no fun! just awfulness!), but what about for you? Is it fun to get it on with someone who doesn’t feel 100% on-board with the idea of getting it on with you? If you answered “yes” to that last question, you may want to reconsider… a lot of things about your life.
I got to thinking about all this because a Very Smart Person on the internet, @mallelis, went on a righteous tweet-rant about non-verbal communication and consent, which you should go read in my Storify. In a nutshell she argues that, while ideally women should verbally and forthrightly communicate their yeses and nos, men should also be taught to pay attention to the many other ways that consent and non-consent are communicated.
For me, it boils down to men and boys absorbing centuries of cultural conditioning to ignore or dismiss women’s sexual and romantic refusals, and only direct interventions to address that conditioning could possibly stem the problem. Research shows that in other circumstances, we typically have pretty sophisticated abilities to communicate and dissect indirect refusals in conversation, and that HMMMM these “misunderstandings” sure do seem to happen a lot in the context of sex and romance! Specifically, “we suggest that male claims not to have ‘understood’ refusals which conform to culturally normative patterns can only be heard as self-interested justifications for coercive behaviour.” Welp.