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Laurie Penn on sexism and misogyny in online dating

A note on the Nice Guys of OkCupid.

"I always think about why women are superficial and disgusting."

As pick-up lines go, it could use some work. This, however, is OkCupid, the vast, weird pink-and-blue toned jungle of the id masquerading as a dating site, where rare birds of modern romance flutter amongst the night-terrors of human loneliness and despair and the suspicious skin irritants of late-night hook-uppery.

The man who has written this on his profile appears to be in his early thirties. He has an unflattering haircut and what looks like a miniature kettle in one corner of his dating profile photo. He describes himself as a "pretty decent guy" who doesn't want to play "your stupid friend zone game".

Miniature-Kettle Man is one of many unfortunates who has had his insecurities and latent sexism exposed to a world of giggling women on the website "Nice Guys of OK Cupid". This is a Tumblr set up to collect images of all the many, many self-professed "nice guys" out there whose publicly listed beliefs about women appear to prove them anything but. “Stupid women, satanic women enticing men to fall into perilous friendzone,” says one prince charming, who appears to be speedballing in his photo.

It's a dispiriting catalogue of desperation and misogynist entitlement. Wherever he is, Miniature-Kettle Man probably thinks his worst nightmares have come true: all over the world, ladies who don't even know him are laughing at him. The Hive Vagina has passed judgement on Miniature-Kettle Man. One can only hope he is making a tiny cup of tea to cheer himself up with.

Because yes, it's hard not to laugh. It's hard to suppress a horrified snigger at the unexamined hypocrisy, at the sheer number of men out there who seem to believe, for example, that stating publicly that "a no is just a yes that needs a little convincing" is morally or logically consistent with being "a nice guy" who women would be clamouring to date if we weren’t such shallow sluts. Anticipation of that laughter is probably what prompted so many men to screech abuse at the Tumblr's author over the internet - “enjoy life as an abject, hated feminazi bitch,” writes one ‘nice guy.’ “You don’t realise that by being who you are, you are disgracing the entire human race, ha, it’s no wonder genocide happens.” What a charmer. I wonder if he’s still single?

The site is compelling, in a gross sort of way. Reading it fills you with a righteous rage that quickly starts feeling icky when you realise a few of the chaps on there haven't actually said anything overtly sexist - they're just a bit overweight and ungroomed and feeling sorry for themselves and wondering why 'women' (by which they mean 'women they fancy') won't consider having sex with 'nice guys' (by which they mean 'men very much like me', by which they mean ‘me’).

For a lot of these ‘nice guys’ who can’t get dates, it looks like nothing a shave and a bit of positive self-talk couldn't cure. Unfortunately for those of us who believe in the basic decency of the species, many of these chaps seem instead to have translated their fear of rejection, their loneliness and humiliation, into active misogyny, a savage self-pitying resentment which must make perfect sense at 4am on a lonely weeknight whilst flicking between OkCupid and RedTube.com but which makes rather less when exposed to the cold pixel glare of internet disapprobation.

The most chilling theme is the frequency with which these 'nice guys' have answered some of the dating site's more suspicious stock questions - 'do you feel there are any circumstances in which a person is obligated to have sex with you?' 'is abortion an option in the case of unwanted pregnancy?’ - in ways that are at best terrible attempts at humour and at worst howling klaxons of unexamined sexism.

The truly frightening thing is that you can see where the internal logic comes from. A lot of these guys must occasionally feel like at least one woman, somewhere, must be obliged to have sex with them, and I’m prepared to bet that those occasions coincide quite neatly with ‘times when one is most likely to be writing an online dating profile’. And that’s how you end up with your best love-me face on a public-humiliation site telling the whole world you think no doesn’t always mean no, feeling like an utter prick and rightly so.

Reading 'Nice Guys of OK Cupid' reminded me that for men, as well as for women, the political is personal. Deeply, often painfully personal. Observing the ugly logic whereby these so-called 'nice guys' have twisted their private fear of rejection into gender-loaded loathing and self-justfication of rape culture did not improve my day one little bit, but it did make me think again about how personal sexism like this really gets, and why.

Let’s look at this from a different angle. Something that happens when the word ‘feminist’ is attached to your work and life in any manner is that men want to talk to you about sex. This initially came as a surprise to me, but it’s true: for every chap who suddenly remembers a vital appointment across town when you mention that you’ve written a book about sexism and anti-capitalism, there’s another who just wants to know, in confidence, if this particular little fetish he has, whatever it is, makes him a bad person*. Or who wants to know if it’s alright to watch porn (it’s complicated, but yes), or if he still has to pay the whole of a bill when taking a lady out to dinner (it’s complicated, but no). Or who wants to know whether sadomasochism is sexist**. For straight men who are starting to think about gender and sexism and considering the notion that, contrary to what they may have grown up learning, women might well be full human beings with dreams and desires just like them, the personal is political.

Yes, it’s about who and how you fuck. Yes, it affects your sense of self, your conception of your own masculinity - particularly if you’ve previously built your gender identity on the idea of ‘winning’ women, and particularly if that gender identity is knotted up with feeling lonely, rejected and hurt when life doesn’t reward you with a hot girlfriend. It’s not surprising at all that it’s here, on a dating site, that these men’s deepest prejudices are written in clear, fist-gnawing Verdana typescript.

And - here’s the thing - there has to be an answer to these guys that isn’t just pointing and laughing. Calling out rapists and online predators is a more than legitimate strategy for dealing with abuse. But how are we supposed to handle common-or-garden sexist dickwaddery when it puts photos on the internet and asks to be loved, or at least to enter what one heavily-photoshopped smiler refers to hopefully as “the bone zone”?

Are we obligated to be understanding when men write spurious bullshit about sluts over their ‘looking for’ lists? Are we ever going to be able to have a conversation about consent, about respect, about fucking, and maybe even about love, that doesn’t descend into bullying and invective? Oh, internet. I ask so little of you, and you always shoot me down. Maybe I should stop being such a Nice Girl.

****

*There was also the one bloke who told me that successfully dating a feminist author would be “like defeating a third-level boss”, but we won’t go into that right now.

**This is one of the questions I get most often. For a partial answer, this piece might be helpful.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post
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Can the media focus on transgender politics reveal anything larger about identity?

Four new books offer insight into what it means to be a man or woman in a world increasingly accepting of moving between the two.

The world of transgender politics is full of big claims and bold declarations, but here is an understatement to start with: “The media is having a trans moment,” writes C N Lester in Trans Like Me. They are not wrong (“they” because Lester identifies as non-binary, and so asks to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns). Besides the books addressed here, recent additions to the discussion include the novel This Is How It Always Is (based on the transition of the author Laurie Frankel’s own child), The Gender Games by the Glamour columnist Juno Dawson (modestly subtitled The Problem With Men and Women . . . from Someone Who Has Been Both), The New Girl by the Elle columnist Rhyannon Styles, True Colours by Caroline Paige (the first openly trans person in the British military) and Surpassing Certainty by the trans activist Janet Mock – a second volume of autobiography to follow 2014’s Redefining Realness.

These books cover memoir, popular science and manifesto. Inevitably, they are wildly variable, both in quality and in ideology. I suspect that Lester might prefer a little less ideological range. Trans Like Me opens by asking, “What does the word ‘trans’ mean to you?” which, Lester then explains, is how they begin the corporate diversity training sessions they lead. Few books have so accurately captured the experience of being detained in a conference room and forced to reckon with a whiteboard.

Lester insists that there is no right or wrong way to be trans. They are equally adamant that there is a right way to talk about trans issues, and that any deviation from this is a vicious wrong: “Use the right names, use the right pronouns, and don’t fall for the line that we’re too difficult for our own good.” It sounds simple enough but, in practice, trans people come from many backgrounds and have many different narratives of self-understanding.

Consequently there are trans people who fall short of Lester’s own standards. Chief among these disappointments is Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympic champion decathlete and reality-TV star. To Lester, Jenner is guilty of sensationalising transition for a voyeuristic public, and has taken on the mantle of representing all trans people while holding the privileges of wealth and whiteness. “Despite not knowing Caitlyn Jenner, I can feel let down by her actions,” Lester grumbles, like a head teacher speaking of a frequent truant.

Lester’s argument displays a reluctance to engage with criticism. For instance, they wave away concerns that desegregating public spaces in the interests of trans inclusion will intrude on women’s access to services with the statement: “As far as I am aware – and at the time of writing this – there has not been a single reported case of a trans person attacking a cis person in a public bathroom. Ever.” (“Cis” denotes a person whose gender corresponds to their sex at birth; the gloss Lester offers for it is “the antonym of trans”.) There are, however, several cases of male sex offenders who have claimed to be trans; more banally, when the Barbican recently redesignated its male and female toilets as “gender-neutral”, women were forced to queue longer for a cubicle and men retained de facto sole use of the urinals. It would be good if Lester at least acknowledged such conflicts of interest, even if they do not have the solutions.

As for what gender actually is – or what Lester’s experience of gender is – they collapse into ellipses when they attempt to define this: “. . . the knowledge of how my mind knows my body to be is so . . . I don’t even know how to put it. How do you describe the mind and body describing the mind and body?” I don’t know, either, but I suspect that more clarity might be in order before readers embrace Lester’s pursuit of a “less binary world”.

In any case, isn’t the cis/trans terminology that Lester pushes a binary opposition in its own right? Lester defines as trans anyone “who has had to challenge or change the sexed and gendered labels placed upon them at birth to honour their true selves”, which implies that, conversely, the “true selves” of non-trans people do fit the labels given them. By this reasoning, any woman who challenges the restraints of gender (say, Mary Wollstonecraft arguing in 1792 for female education, or suffragettes pushing for the vote in 1905) is arguably not a woman at all. Her demands tell us only that she has been mislabelled, rather than reflecting the dues of women as a class. There is a heavy imposition packaged in the word “cis” that Lester does not explore.

Amy Ellis Nutt is the only writer here to approach the subject as an outsider. Though not trans, she spent several years reporting on the Maines family, which adopted twin boys at birth in 1997 and subsequently supported one of them through the process – as the title of her book has it – of becoming Nicole. Nutt is a science writer for the Washington Post and describes her beat as being “the brain”. Nicole’s self-assertion is recounted with detail and compassion, but for Nutt the real interest is in such light as may be shone on the nature/nurture dispute. Was Nicole born a girl despite her male body, or did something in her upbringing propel her towards cross-sex identification?

Nutt is confident that it is the former. In the opening chapters of Becoming Nicole, she emphasises that the Maineses are a couple who could never be said to have encouraged femininity in a son. Two plain people from hardscrabble backgrounds, they share a conservative politics and the husband, Wayne, looks forward to teaching his boys to hunt. (His dismay is palpable when faced with a son who wants to be the Little Mermaid.) Nutt even titles one chapter “The Transgender Brain”; in it, she marshals neuroscience to support her position.

But the evidence she supplies is a couple of small-scale studies (one of which involved just six subjects). Even if they conclusively proved a relationship between brain structure and gender identity (and they don’t), they would not prove that the brain structure causes the gender identity. At one point she explains that animal studies are a poor proxy for gender identity in human beings (animals have a physical sex but not the human cultural understanding of gender), yet later on she recruits an experiment on rats to validate her hypothesis of innate gender.

More interesting is the story that emerges between the lines of the Maineses’ narrative. “That’s how the conversations – if you could call them that – went,” Nutt writes, as she describes Wayne’s confrontations with Nicole the toddler (she was then called Wyatt). “Wyatt wearing a dress; Wayne wanting Wyatt to act more like a boy.” On the one hand, it is true that Nicole received nothing but encouragement to behave like a stereotypical boy. On the other, it reads as if her parents presented her with an ultimatum from the earliest age: if you wear a dress and if you like mermaids, you cannot be a boy. Most children might change their behaviour to “match” their sex, but surely some would make the opposite deduction and claim the other sex, rather than change their interests and personality.

Nutt’s casual sexism suggests that she has little interest in deconstructing stereotypes. She tells us that Wyatt “wasn’t gay, he wasn’t a boy attracted to other boys. He was a girl. He was a girl who wanted to be pretty and feel loved and one day marry a boy – just like other girls did.” As a teenager, Nicole “looked like a girl, she felt like a girl, and she yearned to be kissed like the girl she really was”. Is this what being a girl consists of? Can lesbians even be considered female, in Nutt’s understanding? When Wyatt wants to wear a skirt to a school concert, Nutt tells it as though the injustice is for one child to be denied access to their preferred sex stereotype, ignoring the greater injustice of all children being forced to “do gender” as part of their uniform.

Perhaps it would be better if trans people were left to tell their own stories. Then again, what if they have as little interest in the rules of activism as Caitlyn Jenner does? Contemporary etiquette holds that “deadnaming” (using a person’s pre-transition name) and “misgendering” (referring to them by the pronoun of their sex at birth rather than their chosen gender) are acts of grave rhetorical violence. Jenner is having none of it, as she makes clear in her introductory note to The Secrets of My Life: “I will refer to the name Bruce when I think it appropriate, and the name Caitlyn when I think it appropriate. Bruce existed for 65 years, and Caitlyn is just going on her second birthday. That’s the reality.”

Jenner has teamed up with an excellent ghostwriter for this book – the Friday Night Lights author “Buzz” Bissinger, who, like Nutt, is a Pulitzer Prizewinner. There is also the advantage of a good story. Jenner starts off as an awkward, accordion-playing child, becoming a national hero after his triumph at the 1976 Olympics salvaged the Cold War pride of an underperforming US team. Knowing this makes it easier to understand what Jenner and her transition signified in her home country. It does not necessarily make Jenner more likeable. Separating from one’s wife, getting a second woman pregnant, and then getting your wife pregnant to boot is not appealing behaviour.

Nevertheless, her refusal of bullshit is ­refreshing and sometimes eye-popping. C N Lester would probably not approve of Jenner musing that “a trans woman who looks like a man in a dress makes people ­uncomfortable”, nor the avowal that “I am not a woman. Nor will I ever be. I am a trans woman. There is a difference.” Jenner also alludes frankly to the possible sexual motives for transition, including autogynaephilia: the theory, proposed by some sexologists, that certain trans women are aroused by the idea of themselves as women. In Trans Like Me, Lester dismisses the idea as “discredited”. Yet as Jenner writes: “Sometimes I wonder if dressing up like this is the equivalent of having sex with myself, male and female at the same time.” Lester might well feel let down.

Lester believes that trans politics and feminism progress hand in hand but Jenner shows how awkward the fit can be in practice. As an athletic man, Jenner writes, “my legs are made to go, not show”; but ­after transition, “my legs are there to show, not go”. These descriptions equate femaleness with passive, objectified femininity; maleness with active, high-achieving masculinity. There is no reason to believe that accepting the doctrine of gender identity should automatically lead to female liberation. Indeed, both Ireland and Malta have exceptionally liberal laws on gender recognition and yet outlaw abortion.

Thomas Page McBee, a trans man, is the only author here to approach seriously the question of how gender hurts female bodies. His memoir Man Alive is, in its own way, as resistant to pat conclusions and sloganeering as Jenner’s. It is also literate and witty, a kind of informal companion to The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, published in 2015. Where Nelson watched her partner Harry Dodge’s transition through testosterone therapy and “top surgery” (elective mastectomy), McBee describes it from the inside. He is willing to leave uncomfortable truths out for scrutiny.

McBee is sexually abused as a young girl. The violence causes depersonalisation, a feeling of being removed from one’s own skin: McBee’s experience is the story of “how I lost a body, or how I conflated the two ways that my body was lost to me”. Perhaps the abuse contributes to McBee’s masculine identification – or perhaps, he muses, “my manhood was always there, blueprinted in my torn-knee jeans, my ­He-Man castle, my short hair”. McBee’s openness to negative capability, his refusal to fix on an answer for everything, make his book more valuable and more engaging than much of its cohort.

Yet McBee’s account of gender still feels lacking. His girlfriend Parker tells him (and the author seems to agree) that gender is “not something that’s done to you, it’s who you are”. But if gender is who you are and not how you’re treated, how come McBee’s book was originally co-published by Sister Spit, the feminist imprint of the San Francisco-based City Lights? Why, if C N Lester is not a woman, has their book appeared under the banner of Virago, a women’s press? And why do natal females occupy such a small part of trans culture overall, while natal males dominate?

Regardless of how McBee and Lester identify, the publishing industry and the world at large appear to have little difficulty treating them as female. Later this year, new books by the journalist Will Storr and the historian Rachel Hewitt will appear, asking questions about what we mean by a “self” and whether it makes sense to think of ourselves as individual essences, rather than products of complex social relationships. Identity has been fertile ground for publishers lately; but when it comes to understanding who we are, perhaps it is a dead end. l

Trans Like Me: a Journey for All of Us 
C N Lester
Virago, 240pp, £13.99

Becoming Nicole: the Extraordinary Transformation of an Ordinary Family 
Amy Ellis Nutt
Atlantic Books, 304pp, £12.99

The Secrets of My Life 
Caitlyn Jenner
Trapeze, 336pp, £18.99

Man Alive: a True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man 
Thomas Page McBee
Canongate, 172pp, £8.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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