Thursday 3 September 2015

Nature's Little Double Standards

Met in January 17, 1971. Still together.
The crime of rape is mentioned in this post.

Men and women are different.

I'll just let you sit with that statement for a moment.

Men and women are different when it comes to sexuality, and the sooner girls accept this the better. B.A. was horrified when he discovered that a young female acquaintance was living in a hostel with co-ed dorms. When she beds down at night, it is in a room with a random, changing selection of men. When B.A. asked her if she wasn't worried about being attacked, she looked at him as if this was the most sexist, paternalist thing she had ever heard and said she was just as likely to be attacked by women.

Um. No.

I am sorry to begin a discussion of male sexuality with rape. I apologize to all my male readers. It's not you: it's me. As a child, the first novels I read with sexual content involved rape: Song for a Dark Queen by Rosemary Sutcliffe comes to mind, as of course does the explicit, true-crime, gang rape of a devout Catholic Irish immigrant in The Donnellys Must Die by Orlo Miller. Both of these novels were in my Catholic elementary school library.

Meanwhile, a number of my classmates were sexual bullies. The bullying ranged from mocking girls in general for having to have periods (which the boys learned about from the school library's copy of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret) to leaping on top of a  selected female classmate in the schoolyard while shouting "Gang bang!" Male hands shoved up female shirts and down female trousers, and I was sorry that the boy who finally got caught doing this was one of the least violent offenders. I hope nobody was actually raped.

The threat of rape scares many women silly, especially as the great bulk of world literature tells us it is the worst thing that can ever happen to us--"worse than death." I think it must be the absolute worst for little girls and other virgins because even in a loving marriage, bride fortified with strong drink, defloration can be (can be, not always) indescribably painful. Meanwhile, I believe an encounter with seething male hatred for women-in-the-abstract, or people-of-my-ethnic-group, or me-the-stuck-up-bitch would be so horrible, I take every legal step I can to prevent it happening to me. (Choosing my company carefully is key.)

Ordinary female sexuality is marked by the blood, pain and unfair shame of menstruation, and then (often) the blood, pain and unfair-and-confusing shame of defloration. Oh, and females get pregnant. When a girl or woman gets pregnant, people around assume she has had sex. Their reactions may range from joy that a grandchild is on the way to an honour killing.

Ordinary male sexuality is not marked by blood, pain and shame. If a man runs away with a married woman in rural India, tribal elders may rule that his sisters be gang-raped, though. Sucks to be him, eh?

Men and women are different.

A male reader once wrote that he was tired of trying to talk to girls at Catholic events because too often they would look at him as if he were a serial killer. I am guessing that he was not as good looking as Tiago Gomes de Rocha, who actually is a serial killer. Too many women seem to think that men who are handsome are probably good and those who are not are more likely to be bad. It takes an act of reason to get beyond this. It also takes an act of reason, if haunted by stories of rape, to judge that men almost never sexually assault women at Theology on Tap.

Now we get to my apparently controversial belief that men know a woman is pretty when they first clap eyes on her, and women often need time to develop an attraction to men. Beyond the fact that many women are terrified of stranger-rape, where do I start?

Men carry two sets of look books. The first, shared by women, recognizes the unusual beauty of starlets and models. The second is highly characteristic to each man. Women can have a hard time getting our minds around this because most of us are not sexually attracted to women. We get that men are attracted to the nineteen-year-old supermodel du jour. We don't get that some men are clearly attracted to forty-year-old Mrs Macintosh behind the bar at the Whistling Snail. We blame men for having impossibly narrow standards of female beauty, but a short walk around the mall will reveal all kinds and conditions of women hand in hand with men, or pushing strollers.

Therefore, when I say that men should date only those women they think are pretty,  I am talking about a very large number of women. Whatever they may say to their friends before they grow up, men are really not that fussy. They don't need to be; as young men, they are capable of mating with almost any woman up for it. But at the same time, the inclinations of their hearts have an awful lot to do with their eyeballs.

Women, on the other hand, are a lot more imaginative than men. We are the primary consumers of romantic fiction and erotic fiction, whereas the primary consumers of internet pr*n are men. In general, I would say that men's sexuality is more visual and women's is more symbolic. What first got me interested in B.A. was not his photo (au contraire) but his college pal telling me that women throw themselves at him.*

Symbolic-minded women have a bad habit up making up stories about men we barely know. The classically handsome man at the front of the class seems clever. Tom probably is clever, therefore, and good to boot. He has a Polish/Croatian/Italian/Czech/Slovak/Slovene surname, so he is probably a devout Catholic, too. He is, therefore, committed to chastity and just wants to find a nice girl to get married to and have five children. It can take a dreamy college girl a long time to allow the reality of Tom (superficial, selfish, agnostic, unchaste, immature) to supplant her fond imaginings. Of course, the rapid A-Z-Q-Z thought process that follows an ordinary, somewhat awkward guy saying, "Hi, I'm Scooter" at a social event can be even more life-blighting.  "Let's go for coffee" does not mean "You'll have to give your body to me if we do."

That is why I advise women to have coffee with any man in her social circle who asks, unless she believes that he is mad, bad and dangerous to know. Not only is it just a coffee, it's an opportunity to get to know the reality of that man, to find out who he really is. (A subsequent date is another story. See here.)

When women accept the chance to get to know a man, we can look beyond our first impressions, which 99.999% of the time include  the thought that he does not look like Ryan Gosling, or whoever is our current symbol of male caring and sharing. When I first clapped eyes on B.A. and his unspeakable checked tweed jacket (of which I am now rather fond), I resolved that we were just going to be friends. Previously I had sternly told myself I was not going to make any decision about that funny reader Benedict Ambrose based on the photo someone sent; photos are not a good guide to potential female happiness.

If I were Queen of the World, I would disallow men's photographs on internet dating sites. You would all have to decide whether or not to respond to them based on their religion/profession/philosophy/hobbies/enthusiasm for you. ("Hi, Sharona. I'm Pete. I hope you don't mind me stating bluntly that I'm a huge Grace Kelly fan, and you look a lot like her. Plus, you're a Catholic schoolteacher, just like me. I teach junior maths, and I'm quite fond of the little monsters. Well, some are not so little; there are a couple of six-footers and I'm 5'8. If you don't mind being seen in public with a chap an inch shorter than you, I'd be delighted to take you out for a cup of coffee.")

As Pete's inventor, I will tell you right now that he does not look like Ryan Gosling but has a heart of pure, romantic, gooey gold. He really digs Grace Kelly. Sharona is seriously disappointed when she claps eyes on him, but by the end of coffee is seriously impressed by his personality, primarily his intelligence and sense of humour. She says yes to dinner. Strangely, he seems cuter at dinner.

Thus, NAture has yet another sad little double standard. A man can court a woman he finds pretty and often convince her that she should keep seeing him because he is inwardly incredibly attractive. A woman can't court a man she finds handsome and convince him that he should court her in return because she is outwardly very beautiful. Women can certainly flirt with men, and even (incredibly subtly) pursue men, but we can't court like men without looking, well, more like men.

My mother said that women don't get to go out and choose a handsome man; we have to choose from the men who are interested in us. She said that when I was 14, and I was furious. I thought she was completely out of date.  However, almost thirty more years have elapsed and I admit that she was right. Saint Edith Stein wrote about "Call" and "Response." In her discussion, men call us for companionship and/or help, and we respond. We can try to work against this, of course. We can declare this sexist and court men like men court women. Best of British luck!

The one comfort I hold out is that although men know at once who is pretty to them and who is not, they do not all fall in love at first sight. They ask out (or bob around) a pretty girl and either become more attracted to her because of her personality or they cease to feel attracted because of her personality (or, if they are immature/stupid/base, it becomes clear she isn't going to have sex with them any time soon). But "pretty" begins the process. If a man asks you out, he thinks you're pretty. And that's a good thing.

*Now, of course, accidentally seeing B.A. somewhere I don't expect him carries a rush of emotion only comparable to that caused by catching sight of my beloved parents ambling along somewhere.

Update: I cannot resist. This is the funniest comment I have seen so far on the "Catholic Answers" thread about my dating manifesto: Honestly her idea seems so foreign to me. I don't know anyone who would be okay with what she is saying. Over here people are "dating" months before they have a "first" date with each other. The blog is called Edinburgh Housewife, is she not American or not familiar with American dating standards?

The shocked tone makes me howl. No, darling, I am not American. Sometimes people aren't, and I daresay that is very sad for us. But having lived (and dated) in the USA for two years, I am familiar with a variety of American dating standards. Sometimes American dating standards are quite unlike those that rule your homeroom/dorm. Sometimes Americans graduate from college without being engaged. Sometimes Americans don't go to college at all, or even to high school with the opposite sex. (Eeek!)

Update 2: Okay, I erased my remarks about the gazillions of people who are not Americans yet speak English and blog. One assumes from her/his remark that the poster is still a child, and it is not nice to poke fun at children. I think a good solid term abroad would be helpful to her/his horizons, however. Like in Forrest Gump, you know.


  1. I don't know...I'd say the inclinations of many women's hearts has a lot to do with their eyeballs too. Although for the record, I have never understood what the deal with Ryan Gosling is. Don't find him attractive. All throughout the film 'The Notebook', I was willing the female lead to choose the army guy/stockbroker (or whatever he was) instead.

    I have at least one male friend who is trying to find me a husband (oh dear...) He asked me who I'm interested in. I told him that that is irrelevant, and that the real point is who is interested in me.

    As for developing attraction...well, there are men who I find attractive at once, there are men who I find neither attractive nor unattractive, and there are men who I find unattractive. And honestly, if I find a man unattractive straight away, that's really not going to change (women ARE still visual to some extent, and we do still have some preferences.)The guys in the indifferent category could go either way.

    I think my father is more judgemental about men's looks than I am, for sure. I'd almost be afraid to show him a picture of a man I was dating, because he'd probably say "Nope, not good-looking enough/too skinny/too short."

  2. If the commenter (dating for months before a first date) is a kid, I did know a lot of other 12-14 year old kids (and younger) who would pick a boyfriend/girlfriend to "date." Dating meant hanging out with exclusive romantic rights. Sometimes -- where I grew up -- it also meant having a baby. It usually didn't involve purchases of beverages or food, because they didn't have money or cars yet. I suppose kids from a chaster local culture would not have been making new kids and would have done very wholesome "dating while not going on dates." I think the "coffee, date, date" model is better than even the chastest version of "hang out for months as exclusive romantic partners." If you are too young to go buy coffee, try not having romantic partners at all.

    I married a guy I always used to hang out with. He was not my romantic partner during the time of platonic hanging out. When we decided to try romance, he took me out for dinner (we got to skip the coffee stage because we'd already known each other 6 years). I have nothing against hanging out with potential dates -- I think "dating" without actually dating is an avoidance of decision making and more about the prestige/fun of having a romantic partner.

  3. One important thing for women to keep in mind, although for observant Catholic women it should not be an issue: men are quite capable of having sexual relations with women whom they find socially unacceptable because they are not pretty enough, not slim enough, or otherwise not socially presentable. Women should always take note of whether a man is willing to appear in public with them, especially in a place where he might run into his friends.


  4. I agree with you both heartily. Clio, this is quite a theme in Georgette Heyer, isn't it? All those "bits of muslin"-- they were presumably "pretty enough" but one would never marry one!

  5. The making up stories thing is completely accurate. Fortunately as I've gotten older I've gotten it more in hand (including the part of the storytelling where I anticipate it not working out for various reasons, probably to protect myself from feeling upset when Scooter is cute, interesting, and Catholic but not interested in me).

    I think you're quite right about the rest of it. It's frustrating because I find it hard to articulate a position for recognizing differences between us while rejecting stereotypes. I think this is essential, and probably wiser women (and men) than I have done it. But I find it hard and yet so necessary, for both the world and that subset of Christian men who think being a good woman is synonymous with having no ambitions or dreams outside of homemaking. (Two notes on this: 1) I have no objections to homemaking, only objections to it being idealized/required, rather than decided as a family with consideration for all; 2) Women who complain their are no good men are also being unfair.)


  6. Who are in this subset of Christian men? Are they prospective millionaires who turn up their noses at the thought of a second income? Are they men who would be happier hiring housekeepers? I can understand an old-fashioned sole-breadwinner man expecting that his wife's hobbies/jobs not get in the way of his dinner on the table at 6 (one of my grandfathers was like that; I think he was born in 1912). But as for having no other dreams but that when so many things are possible to women now, I don't really get it. I especially don't get it if these men have been reading St. John Paul II (and St. Edith Stein) on the complementary roles of men and women. Maybe they haven't. But on the other hand, if a man wants to marry (and support) only a happy homemaker, then that's his bliss. He's lucky if he finds one, and she may be lucky to find him.


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