What I Meant By That Thing I Wrote on Slate about Objectification

Featured Image Attribution: @Duncan C Flickr

Prologue

Yesterday was my birthday.

If you must know, I’m now 46 years old.  I’m in my late mid-forties.  That’s okay, I guess.  Anyway, there’s not much I can do about it.

I had a great day.  Really, really great.  The kids were in school and my wife took the day off.  We went to brunch and then pretty much goofed around the rest of the day.

It was truly wonderful to hang out with my wife and no kids during daylight hours, with no projects or chores to do, for pretty much the first time since the kids were born.

We also received the great news that my wife passed the brutal Medical Board exams (!), which she has to take every ten years, so there was a lot to be thankful for.

But I was a little distracted by the damn internet, because a lot of people were talking about me over there.

My first piece on Slate was published in the morning, and by the time I found out about it, there were over a thousand comments on it, most of them aggressively negative.

I mean, it was awesome that I got something published on Slate, which I’ve been enjoying since I first learned about the internet, and that people were reading it.

But, it wasn’t so awesome that everyone seemed to hate what I had written.

So what I’m doing here pains me a bit.  I don’t love the idea that I need to explain something that I already wrote.  I’ve written about a number of controversial issues, but I’ve hardly ever been attacked by the self-styled critics known on the internet as “trolls.”

I like to think that that’s because I try to be thoughtful, avoid generalizations, qualify any bold claims, and preemptively address concerns or counter-arguments readers might have.

This also makes me long-winded; but issues aren’t simple and I try not to oversimplify them.  So I feel like I have screwed up when the tone of something I have written doesn’t get across to the reader.

 

That’s what happened with my piece on Slate, which some editor or another named “Heel.”

 

What I Was Trying to Say

Among the flaming comments on Slate, a ridiculous response to my piece on Jezebel, a virtually incomprehensible satire on NYmag.com and some bashing on twitter, there were a few thoughtful comments and genuine questions by people who were puzzled about what I was up to.

 

Most of the people I know, including my mom and my wife, got it.

They thought it was funny, honest, and thought-provoking.

Some of the commenters on Slate got it.  Most didn’t.

Others weren’t so sure.  A couple writers emailed me and asked if it was satire.  One of them was interested in the evolution of the article–whether something had been compromised in the revising and editing process that made its tone unclear and evoked such outrage and disdain from Slate commenters.

I think that answering his question is the best way I can explain it.

 

I started writing this story months and months ago.  It was inspired by a bit that Louis CK does where he talks about being a “prisoner of perverted sexual thoughts.”  I could relate to it, and I wanted to see if other middle-aged dudes could as well.

I found a clip of the bit on YouTube and posted it to my super-secret Dad Bloggers page on Facebook.

The conversation it inspired went on for nearly 300 comments and was hilarious and raunchy.  Virtually all of the guys copped to being susceptible to sudden sexual fantasies about attractive women on a regular basis.  Most of the guys didn’t see it as a problem.  In fact, they embraced it as a healthy expression of straight male sexuality.

I’m mostly in the same camp as far as thinking an erotic fantasy life is normal.

Why not, right?  Everybody does it.  It’s not hurting anyone if you don’t act on your impulses.

But part of me has always found it troubling, or paradoxical anyway, that the feminist (a word many of my new critics claim I don’t understand) values that I believe in are in conflict with my flights of sexual imagination.

I mean, there have been times when I have been having serious conversations or just casual interactions with women, and suddenly part of my brain is locked in (fleetingly, most of the time) on what they might look like naked, or…you know…typical sex daydreams.

I’m thinking about them in a way completely unattached to who they are as people or what their desires are.  I call this objectification, although many of my new critics also say I’m misusing that term.

 

If I were to say, “By the way, your rack looks awesome and I would love to knock boots with you right here in the line at Costco,” that would be decidedly sexist (a word which, according to many of my new critics, I am using completely wrong), right?  But to think those things is okay, as long as I keep them to myself?

This is what I would call cognitive dissonance, and it seems like something worth talking about.

 

This situation is a pretty small concern of mine, in the grand scheme, but it’s something I’ve thought about, and it–the fantasizing part, if not the concern about fantasizing–is something that seems almost universal among men (although many of my new critics say that I’m an asshole for thinking that men are more preoccupied with sex than women).

Naturally I thought, “Hey–I should write about this.”  I write about gender stuff.

This is a gender thing.  Perfect.

 

So I pitched it to my editor at the Atlantic, and we went back and forth on it for a while.

The last draft I gave her went something like this:
I’m a sensitive feminist guy (tone was meant to be a little self-mocking, but ultimately sincere).

I saw this funny Louis CK bit and related to it.

I confirmed with my buddies that most guys have sexual thoughts about random women, and most of them think that’s not a problem
Part of me feels like these thoughts aren’t completely harmless though, so I wanted to research what literature was out there that offered a reprieve from what Louis CK called a “prison” and a “nightmare.”  And here’s the gimmick: I make like I’m on a quest to tamp down my own erotic imagination.

A funny premise under which to explore the existing research.  (Also, it wouldn’t kill me to try not to think about sex so much.  Maybe I could get more stuff done.)

Here’s what the sex research and evolutionary psychology says about how men’s and women’s sexual fantasies differ and why.  It’s interesting, fairly predictable, and none of this research talks about trying to control sexual ideation as long as it’s not harmful to the person experiencing it or the people around him.

The only place I found people talking about reducing or controlling sexual thoughts that fall into the “normal” range were religious websites, which promoted the practice of self-shaming, which I’m not really into.

Here’s what a couple experts on male sexuality told me:

Don’t worry about it.  Be a grownup.  Don’t ogle women, but feel free to daydream about them.

Conclusion: mumble mumble I don’t know I guess I can just try to grow up blah blah mumble maybe evolution will catch up to our sex drives and make them less urgent and more selective than they were when we had to try and impregnate every fertile-looking female in the valley.

The conclusion was not very strong.

The editor didn’t love the whole piece, and, honestly, I think she was kind of creeped out by it.  I moved on.

Months later, I happened to be in contact with an editor from Slate (a long story in itself), and mentioned my “pervert” article.  She looked at it and saw some potential there.

She had an idea: get rid of the boring science parts because everyone already knows how men are, and make it more about my quest to control my sexual thoughts.

Make it funny and light-hearted.  Oh!  Oh!  Oh!  I could look into recommendations about how to stop objectifying women, and then spend a day trying to implement them, and write about the experience!

Yes!  Of course!  Bring the funny more.  It’ll be kind of a fool’s errand:  a snipe hunt for the “cure” to my sexual preoccupation, which is mostly a silly simplification of a complicated issue, but during which I actually make legitimate points!

We went back and forth on it for over a month, at the rate of maybe a couple exchanges per week, and then finally got to the point where it was ready to go.

It had shrunk from about 4000 words at its most sprawling to whatever it is now:  1400 or so, I guess.

We ditched a long intro in which I more thoroughly established my feminist bona fides.

We chopped the part where all the dad bloggers embraced their own sexual daydreams.  We scrapped all the sex research about men’s fantasy life.

We stripped down the quotes from the sex experts and the articles by other men who had examined their own sexual thoughts and ogling.

My editor told me it was “totally delightful and hilarious”

She is a highly respected writer and editor.  Who was I to doubt her?

Then it went live.

Commenters on Slate are crazy.  That’s just the way it is.

Any article that’s slightly controversial brings out all kinds of rage, often of the right-wing and “Men’s Rights” variety; but really, all agendas are represented.

So I didn’t take it personally when commenters called me a creepy perv, an emasculated eunich, a closet homosexual, a cuckold, a sexist, a religious zealot, a Puritan, and so forth.

That happens all day every day on Slate.

What did bug me though, was that so many people took the piece so seriously.  My tone didn’t come across.  It’s tempting to say, oh, the idiot commenters were just too dense to get it; but that’s not really fair.

Something didn’t work.

I’ll take some of the blame for not fully committing to the humor piece, although I thought phrases like “cloaking them in imaginary burqas” and the idea that I would use the image of my Intro to Women’s Studies professor as my “higher power” would be a pretty good indicator that I was not taking myself, or my “quest” completely seriously.

It wasn’t satire, exactly, although it had some satirical elements.

It was meant to come across as self-deprecating, hyperbolic, and quixotic.  But I also wanted to have a conversation about this vexing, complicated, contradictory thing that happens in the monkey-minds of men who would never consider hollering or wolf-whistling at an attractive stranger.  It didn’t seem impossible to do and still have jokes.

I’ll put some of the blame on my editor, for telling me I was funny.

I’ll put some of the blame on context.

As one of the more reasonable commenters on Slate pointed out, it was hard to tell if I was trying to be funny when she first read it, because the article appeared in the “Double X” section, which is generally devoted to “women’s issues” and almost always comes from a strong feminist slant.

So it seemed feasible to that reader, at first anyway, that I was being 100% sincere about trying to purge dirty thoughts from my mind and that I was relentlessly beating myself up about having sexual urges.

I assure you, as much as I am sometimes a little conflicted, I am not beating myself up.

I’ll put some of the blame on internet pundits whose default setting is snarky outrage.

I’ll put some of the blame on the topic for not being simpler and less uncomfortable to talk about.

And next time, I’ll make sure to be less subtle.

*Update: I usually don’t do comment moderation because I want to encourage everyone to engage if they feel like it; but I had to this time because of some disturbing comments.

I’ll try to stay on top of the moderation as possible.  Sorry about inconvenience.

In other news, I have an article up on the NY Times Motherlode blog.  I also wrote that one a long time ago.

The editor warned me that it might be controversial and people might leave mean comments.  So far, everyone has been perfectly lovely about it.