On Being "Tired of Coming Out on the Losin' End"

{I wrote this about a month ago, when the Bruenig piece was current, and then decided not to post it.  After thinking about what I wrote today, I changed my mind.  This is basically unedited from that original draft, except for a few typo fixes.}

Friend-of-the-blog Elizabeth Bruenig, who is now a columnist for the Washington Post (yay!), wrote an excellent and thoughtful piece about the recent Aziz Ansari incident/revelations.  Bruenig's position, if I might summarize it, is that the Sexual Revolution brought with it the notion that sexual interactions should be treated in essentially the same way as any other sort of social interaction.  And, in the context of other, normal social interactions, it is considered to be appropriate and praiseworthy to try to meet the needs and wants of other people.  So, as an example, if I am in a group that wants to go out and eat sushi, but I don't really care for sushi all that much, I might keep my objections to myself, suck it up, and eat sushi.  But, as Bruenig points out, if we apply that sort of logic to sexual situations, we end up in the place where people, and especially women, end up going along with sexual encounters that they don't want to have, such as what was reported in the Ansari case.  There is a basic contradiction, Bruenig asserts, between "sex is just like any other interaction" and "a woman should just leave/vocally resist if she doesn't want to have sex."

Instead of using a normal social standard, Bruenig argues for a higher standard of care with regarding sexual interactions.  "Instead, we ought to appreciate that sex is a domain so intimate and personal that more harm can be done than in most social situations, and that given that heightened capacity for harm, we should expect people to operate with greater conscientiousness, concern and care in that domain than in others," Bruenig writes.  Such a model (which Bruenig has elaborated on here) requires the person seeking sex to affirmatively evaluate the state of the other person in the encounter and evaluate whether or not that person actually wants to go through with the sexual encounter and/or whether the encounter is to the good of the other person.  "In all domains of life, but especially where it comes to sex, we must insist that people consider one another’s interior lives, feelings, personhood, dignity," says Bruenig.

I think this approach, which we can call the "Bruenig Model," is a good and salutary one.  But what I want to write about here is some of the consequences of this approach, and the way in which this approach shines light on some of the dynamics that are at play in the normal course of dating and relationships.  I should note here that my perspective is necessarily formed by the fact that I am a man who has dated or attempted to date women exclusively.  That is a limited perspective, to be sure, but you have to write about what you know and call it as you see it.

Let's imagine that American society were to adopt the Bruenig Model, to the point where failure to follow those guidelines would be seen as abnormal and subject to social consequences or ridicule.  What would happen in such a world?  For one, far fewer people would be having sex, and those that were having sex would have it less often.  The heightened standard that the Bruenig Model proposes requires all parties to resolve all ambiguous or inconsistent statements or signs in favor of no sex, in order to avoid anything even adjacent to the Ansari situation.  If everything is "rounded down to 'no'," then far fewer interactions will result in sex, even if both parties on balance desired to have sex in a particular encounter.  Even in the context of long-term of committed relationships (which Bruenig points to in her Medium piece), it is improper to presume that being willing to commit to a long-term interaction is equivalent to being willing to engage in sex in any particular circumstance.  So, even there, all ambiguities must be rounded down to no, and the parties in the relationship will be engaging in less sex than they would under the non-Bruenig Model.

The corollary to this is that, under the Bruenig Model, if you are someone of either gender who does want to have sex, you must state that intention unambiguously and consistently.  Not for some moral reason, but because anything that seems hesitant or uncertain will cause the other person to doubt your true willingness to engage with sex, and thus cause the other person to shut down the encounter.  As a result, any sort of "playing hard to get" or cat-and-mouse strategies by either party will result in no sexy time.  This would require, from my experience, a rather radical paradigm shift for many women in terms of how they approach potential sexual encounters.  To take a single example, I and most men I have spoken to on this topic have seen or experienced women engage in "performative disavowal" with regard to sex--making a pro forma statement early in the interaction disclaiming any possibility of sex, while holding out space (or even, in some cases, deciding ahead of time) to change her mind at a later point in the same encounter.  Under the Bruenig Model, once the disclaimer goes up, the other person probably can't be certain whether the disclaimer or the later change of heart represents the true desires of the person, and so must check down to "no," at least with regard to this particular interaction.

I don't want to speak for Elizabeth Bruenig, but I suspect her reaction to these observations would be "fine by me."  But I am not sure how representative she is of women in general on this front, including women who would otherwise say that the current "hook up culture" if you want to call it that is problematic and needs to be changed.  Those that would resist seem to fall into two basic categories.  One, perhaps articulated most cogently by actress and comedienne Aisha Tyler in a series of tweets (which can be found here), is that the Bruenig Model has the effect of infantilizing women (and men, too, though Tyler's focus is on women).  Tyler, by my read, is basically saying "let your 'yes' mean 'yes' and your 'no' mean 'no'"--if someone says "yes", absent some physical or work-place coercion, then the person on the other side has the right (and, perhaps, the obligation) to treat that as a "yes."  Likewise, if you mean "no," you need to say "no."  To do otherwise, including the Bruenig Model which requires a person to treat a "yes" as a "no" if they believe on some deeper level they really mean (or maybe even should mean) "no," is to remove decision-making ability and autonomy from the other person.  Here, I just think there is a philosophical disagreement between Bruenig and Tyler.

But there is another category of objections that I think would surface, though perhaps not out loud.  Candidly, the standard operating procedure I have observed from women in the main is to very intentionally locate sexual interactions in the space of ambiguity through strategies like performative disavowal.  Now, there is an argument to be made here that this is necessary because of other facets of the sexual culture, i.e. "slut shaming" and the like, leading to a Catch-22--if I express my desires, I am punished, if I don't express my desires, I am also punished.  There clearly is truth to that, and I want to say more about these sorts of conundrums in a bit, but I think the desire to avoid unambiguous declarations of desire is also because existing in that space of ambiguity maximizes one's freedom of action.  If you never have to "put yourself out there" and express clearly what you want, then you can hedge against or reinterpret away rejection.  I'm not sure all or most women really want to take away those options.

This leads into my second point, and that has to do with the "dating market."  I think there are many, many good arguments for why it is destructive to view dating and relationships in market terms.  Bruenig, in particular, would likely be at the forefront of such a position--after all, it is fair to say she is a skeptic of markets in general.  But, while it would be interesting to think of how it would be possible to "seize the means of production" so to speak in a dating context, it is nevertheless the case that people experience dating and relationships in market terms, whether they are aware of it or not.

Most men (and women, too, but more on that in a bit), in my experience, approach dating with a sense of scarcity--there are a limited number of possible people to date, and a very real chance that there is or will be no one for them when the proverbial music stops.  This presupposition leads, in normal market fashion, to a sense that men are in competition with other men in the dating world.  In a competitive environment, market players are going to observe what other market players, particularly market players who are "successful" however that is defined, do and try to copy those strategies and behaviors.

Everyone should read one of those pick-up artist books--not so that you can then execute on those strategies, but so that you can see what sorts of dating strategies actually work in "real world conditions."  Conceptually, the pick-up artist genre is basically the same genre as all of those "Ten Strategies to Crush the Competition in Business" books you see in airport bookstores.  Like those business texts, the pick up artist books frame what they say in a kind of pseudo-mystical facade ("neuro-linguistic programming" and what have you for the pick-up artist books).  But if you cut through the woo-woo B.S., both types of books are basically just a distillation of observations of what other people have done, or perhaps what the author has done, that have proven to be successful.

And what are those strategies?  Distilled to their essence, the strategies are (1) be aggressive in pushing for what you want; and (2) cultivate in the woman you are speaking to her own sense of the basic scarcity in the dating world from her own perspective.  All of this "negging" business is about creating fear in the mind of the target that she will be a loser in the dating market, making her receptive to the "offer" that is available.  Wearing a stupid hat and "peacocking" generally is about generating a sense that the person talking is a "high status item" that is desirable.  It's like any other sales pitch--you first create the need in the mind of the potential consumer (i.e. if you don't go with me, you will be left alone when the music stops) and then sell hard the solution to the need and its wonderful properties (i.e. you).  It is affirmatively and unambiguously manipulative, but it is manipulative in the same way that all advertising is manipulative.  And, like advertising, it works.

Because it works, there are market pressures that push other men to employ the same or similar strategies, to avoid being one of the "competition" that gets "crushed."  This creates a feedback loop--the existence of these aggressive and manipulative strategies make women feel insecure, which leads them, as a result of that insecurity, to go for the people employing those strategies, which causes other guys watching the overall market to think that they have to use similar strategies to compete, which causes more women to feel insecure, causing more women to "reward" in a market sense these bad behaviors, causing more market pressure on the other guys, etc.

Now, I do I think the true predatory behavior that has been exposed recently is a result of this feedback loop?  No.  Some people like to exploit others, to see them suffer, or simply don't care about the emotional and physical well-being of other people.  Do I think the Ansari situation can be explained in some (perhaps large) measure through this feedback loop?  Yes.  Many men, and I don't exclude myself from this category, have at least thought on occasion that the cold facts of the dating world are similar to that stanza from the Springsteen song Atlantic City:

Now I been lookin' for a job but it's hard to find
Down here it's just winners and losers and don't get caught on the wrong side of that line
Well I'm tired of comin' out on the losin' end
So honey last night I met this guy and I'm gonna do a little favor for him.

The "favor for him" in this context is being a pushy manipulative asshole toward women.  They don't particularly want to be this way, but they're "tired of comin' out on the losin' end," and feel that they have to do this to keep up.  That doesn't make it OK, but it does explain what is going on.

Which leads to my third point.  Before when talking about the Bruenig Model, I plugged in the assumption that everyone would just adopt the Model.  But that's not remotely realistic.  Presumably, Bruenig is calling on men and women to unilaterally adopt the Bruenig Model.  Doing so, however, runs the real risk of "get[ting] caught on the wrong side of that line" in terms of dating.  For many of the people who might be reading Bruenig's piece, both men and women, adopting the Model means accepting that it might be mean you are going it alone.  In principle, if enough people were to go along with Bruenig's suggestion a tipping point would be reached and a new equilibrium would be established that would make the Bruenig Model no longer maladaptive in the dating market.  But, to the extent that ever occurred, it would happen in the long run--and as we know, in the long run we are all dead.

The solutions for how to get out of the basic trap of modern relationship dynamics can be presented in a simple way--men need to stop being manipulative exploitative assholes, women need to stop providing any sort of positive reinforcement to such manipulative exploitative assholes, everyone needs to state their desires clearly and unambiguously, and everyone needs to act with concern and empathy for the other.  But getting to those places is harder than it would seem from these simple presentations, when doing those things risks being left out on a island, and--both literally and metaphorically--alone.  It is very hard to get people to take a position knowing that it might mean they will take the "L."  That's the whole point of a Prisoner's Dilemma--the desire to avoid taking a loss condemns every participant in the game to a worse outcome than if they were all OK with running the risk of loss.  People are wired to be "tired of coming out on the losin' end."

Being hard and scary and risky doesn't make it the wrong answer, though.  More and more, I'm learning that often the only way out of negative feedback loops and Catch-22s is to accept failure, drop out of the system, and hope for the best.  If no one is willing to bite the bullet and take the risk of losing, then nothing will change.  Not for nothing, but I think that's what a certain wandering Palestinian Jewish rabbi was getting at (at least in part) when He said "those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it."

So, I'm not saying Bruenig is wrong--I think she is right.  My point is only to say, if I might repurpose a different quote from the Gospels, that with regard to the Bruenig Model "this teaching is difficult; who can accept it?"  People avoid the kind of empathy that Bruenig prescribes not so much out of wickedness or cruelty (or, at least, not all people and/or not entirely), but out of fear of being left alone, fear of missing out on having someone to be with.  That's a big hurdle to climb, and I am not surprised people aren't climbing it.

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