This morning my wife told me a story about a woman who discovered the profile of a guy she was flirting with on an online dating site was a sham, designed for the goal of exploiting women like her. Basically, the guy pretended he was someone else in the hope of soliciting nude pics and/or sexual hookups. My wife asked me why guys do that. It's a tough question to answer. See, I abhor guys who do that. And if I'm able to explain it, doesn't that mean I sympathize with guys like him, people who are basically sexual con artists?
Well...I think I do know where some of this comes from. But please, please understand and believe me when I say I'm in no way endorsing this behavior. If you're a guy who sends unsolicited crotch pics to women, you're on your own, dude. Not only do I find such behavior boorish, I'd be shocked if it even achieves senders' goals. I can't imagine a blushing bride recalling, "I was sitting at home minding my own business, when Joey here sent me a photo of his penis. I mean, I barely knew him! He was just some guy who worked on the other side of my office! But the moment I saw that photo, I called my mom and said, 'Well, Mom, start planing a wedding, 'cause this is the one.'" More to the point, can the reciprocation rate possibly be worth the risk and trouble? This is the kind of thing that should get more guys fired.
What I do know is this. Growing up, I somehow absorbed the notion that a man's true value was measured largely by his ability to get laid. I didn't act on that, mind you; I was still one of Jehovah's Witnesses back then, and I took their anti-premarital-sex policy seriously. But I did assume all my high-school friends were shagging each other all the time when I wasn't around, and I understood all too well it made them cooler than me.
In college, I was no longer a Witness. Instead, I was a serial monogamist. When I made a relationship agreement, I stuck to it. But as my "number" increased, however slowly that happened, I felt better about myself. I was never the handsomest guy on the block, or even in my own house, though, so I had to learn "game" to land those first and second dates. I developed a comedian's patter and a knack for the unexpected but memorable romantic gesture. Yeah, I did okay on that front. I'm not bragging. I'm sure most of the other guys in my circle posted higher numbers. I'm just saying I did well enough I could feel relatively okay about myself.
Now. Let's go darker. Imagine there's a guy with my looks, or lack thereof, and no game. Imagine a guy who possesses no special wit, no creativity, no career to keep his wallet full of spending cash. Imagine that guy's social life. Imagine a guy--I don't know, maybe this is tough for some people to envision. Imagine a guy who has very little prospect of having sex with another person in any given week. Or month. Maybe even the next year. Understand that this guy's sense of self-worth, his own self-perceived value as a human being, comes largely from his ability--or lack thereof--to have sex with another person. I'm not saying he should use that metric to judge himself. I'm saying he does, because his culture's spent decades making sure he felt that way. If you were that guy, how would you feel? I'm not trying to get anyone to empathize with a sexual predator. I'm just saying I believe I might understand. I don't approve. I don't condone. I have no interest in further normalizing any of this. I'm just saying I think it's what's at the root.
See, a lack of self-worth is an intolerable situation. It can't be borne. We'll go to vast lengths to make that go away. We'll do stupid things, crazy things, to feel any kind of better about ourselves. If you don't think that's true, consider all the crazy things we do to lose weight...gain hair...lose hair...lift our breasts...hasten our erections...minimize wrinkles...maximize dental whiteness. We spend significant fractions of our few days on earth making ourselves look better. And we can say, "I'm not doing it for you, I'm doing it for me"--which is true. Sure. It is. But when I do it, I'm doing it at least partly so you'll help me feel better about me, by complimenting me, looking at me favorably, perhaps even sleeping with me. If it weren't for you, I wouldn't care how much hair I've lost. I'd lose only enough weight to keep myself out of immediate heart-attack danger, and that'd be fine with me.
The problem, I think, is how we treat sex in western culture. By creating and insisting on a complex code of rules and taboos and thou-musts and shalt-nots about it, we all but ensure it'll be central to our feelings of value. I can understand that set of rules in a world where sex runs a high probability of inciting pregnancy. In that world, yes, one needs a system of cultural rules to ensure guys stick around and help care for little humans. But in a world with effective, affordable contraception and meaningful sex education and yes, safe first-trimester abortion as a kind of last resort, that approach makes less sense. In that world, sex doesn't have to be as dangerous as it is in our world. It also doesn't have to be as venerated.
I know this sounds crazy, but maybe what we need is a world that doesn't find sex all that special. We need a world where women feel valued for their brains, absolutely, but we also need a world where the amount of sex a guy is able to have or the number of sexual partners he acquires (whether through seduction or something uglier) has no bearing on how we feel about him, nor on how he feels about himself. Gandhi wasn't amazing because he was a stud muffin. Hedy Lamarr's sexual attractiveness wasn't the most interesting thing about her. We don't need to live like this. We just do.
I hope I've made it clear I'm sex-positive. I think sex is natural and fun and good exercise and often hilarious, even for two people who may not be each other's true loves for life. I'm in favor of people dressing or undressing however much they want, whenever they want, and I don't consider exposed skin a sexual invitation. I don't think a culture of puritanical clothing ends sexual desire. I'm not even convinced it's any safer for women. The problem isn't how we enforce rules against sex. It's not that we don't have enough sexuality in our culture. The problem is we act like it's the brass ring of male existence, so of course our male culture demands women present themselves as sexually attractive--and available, for me but not for him (because even if you sleep with both of us, that wouldn't raise my value relative to his). It's appalling. It creates so much risk and mistrust and ugliness. But I have to let you know, this doesn't happen because men are generally happy or fond of themselves. In fact, I think the opposite must very often be true. And while that isn't as sad as rape or sexual harassment--not by a long shot, of course--it's still no sunny afternoon at the beach.