Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a Toronto-based writer and author of The Perils of “Privilege”: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage.
This year, the magazine Slate published an advice column that began as follows: “I’m a cis woman in kind of a classic millennial sex pickle: I’m really repelled by heterosexuality politically and personally." And yet, she explained in graphic terms, men turn her on. The letter-writer wondered if it would be okay for her to avail herself of hookup apps for gay men, thereby leaving heteroland behind while still getting to date dudes.
While this particular solution had several flaws, including the pragmatic (why bark up the wrong tree?), this woman wasn’t so far off in describing her woes as generational.
Straight women – at least the self-respecting, politically engaged sort – are meant to be fed up with men. If there’s anything imagined to unite women of all demographics, along with that handful of allies who “get it," it’s that men are trash.
A 2019 NBC News op-ed pronounced that women “are increasingly realizing not only that they don’t need heterosexuality, but that it also is often the bedrock of their global oppression.”
Like so much that presents itself as empowering, what I call Ban Men feminism is quite the opposite. But before I get to why, a word on what Ban Men feminism is not.
It is not a sincere (let alone successful) attempt at ridding men from the public sphere or anyone’s bedrooms. Men still exist, still find girlfriends and still hold most positions of power.
Ban Men feminism is a trend within feminism-broadly-defined, extending from social media to mainstream books and television shows, that encourages women – straight ones especially – to play up any “ugh-men” sentiment we may experience. It’s ironic misandry and bonding over straight male refusal to purchase anything beyond dorm-room decor, but also earnest discussions of toxic masculinity.
In its essentialism, Ban Men feminism converges with benevolent sexism. According to both outlooks, men are garbage, women child-like innocents. In 2013 – four years pre-#MeToo – comedian Louis C.K. was being celebrated for his “feminist comedy.” "How do women still go out with guys,” he’d asked in a stand-up routine, “when you consider that there is no greater threat to women than men?”
The idea that women should quit men is not new, but is undergoing a major revival. Jokey man-hating had a cultural moment around 2014 or so, but remained niche. Something flipped with the 2016 U.S. presidential election (protested internationally by a Women’s March), and the #MeToo movement the following year. Fury at President Donald Trump (still very much in office and perhaps poised for another term) and film producer Harvey Weinstein (recently – against all odds – convicted of sexual assault) sparked a broader reckoning. Straight women’s continued existence began to pose a conundrum: If we hate men, what are we doing with them? Some urged sex strikes. Context-free, a woman declaring “I like men” went from insinuating a high sex drive to a declaration of allegiance with the enemy.
Suddenly, professed man-hatred went mainstream. Popular non-fiction books about male awfulness addressed an audience of mainly straight, cisgender women: What Do We Need Men For?, from former Elle advice columnist E. Jean Carroll, offers a Swiftian “modest proposal” to get rid of all men. Blythe Roberson’s How To Date Men When You Hate Men presents similar ideas, but from a millennial perspective. TV shows poke gentle fun at the Ban Men mood: A Baroness Von Sketch skit depicts a futuristic all-women utopia, where the punch line is that the women have stashed away their own male partners. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has a satirical musical number, Let’s Generalize About Men, that half-mocks, half-embraces the thing where female friends get together to discuss how men are the worst.
The refrain that “there are no good men” has gone from a lament about slim pickings to a condemnation of an entire gender.
A tweet that reads, “EVERY WOMAN IN MY LIFE: juggling 3 jobs, does yoga, cooks, goes to therapy, remembers everyone’s birthday” followed up with, “THEIR BOYFRIENDS: once almost made a dinner reservation but turns out the place was closed” has been favourited more than 100,000 times. Another viral tweet prompts women to “imagine that for 24 hours, there were no men in the world.” A Paris Review essay, titled On Being a Woman in America While Trying to Avoid Being Assaulted, enumerates the day-to-day burden of womanhood, a potentially menacing man around every corner.
Straight women have had it with man-child Tinder dates, while hetero marriage is its own tragedy, pairing overworked women with men who demand emotional labour and assume soap dispensers just refill themselves. (Books in this genre include Gemma Hartley’s Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward and Darcy Lockman’s All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership). Straight women are apparently not clear ourselves about why we’re bothering with men to begin with.
As Indiana Seresin points out in a 2019 New Inquiry essay, titled On Heteropessimism, the “performative disaffiliations with heterosexuality” so popular these days among straight women – social-media posts expressing regret for one’s attraction to men – are a way of avoiding having a more constructive discussion of what heterosexuality could be. Ms. Seresin implies that heterosexual women have chosen their orientation. I do not think choice enters into it.
If Ban Men feminism puts me off, it’s because I like men. Not all men (heh), but man-liking has been a consistent feature of my life and the source of much happiness. The tendency has persisted despite encounters with male awfulness, but has not made my life awful. Like all feminists, I’d like to see sexism disappear. Sexism, but not men.
My immediate reaction to why-even-are-there-men rhetoric isn’t to counter with references to courageous firemen, nor to remind that plenty of men are themselves marginalized, but rather the self-serving thought that a world without men would mean, for me, one without sex and romance.
Self-serving, perhaps, but commonplace: My heterosexuality is the least unusual thing about me. Almost everyone is straight, with gay, lesbian, and bisexual self-identification around 3 per cent for Canada, and the LGBTQ population at 4.5 per cent in the United States. Some who are straight-identified would, in a freer world, come out, but there’d still be a whole bunch of us straight ladies remaining.
For most women, wishing away men is not liberation, but erotic self-censorship. It’s taking the thing that’s the source of some of our greatest pleasure and announcing we should feel bad about it. While Ban Men does not much impact (let alone ban) men, it burdens women by insisting our desires for men are negligible.
Female heterosexuality doesn’t need revamping, let alone discarding, just reinterpreting. It should be properly understood as a woman’s desire for men. It is not about wanting to be thought beautiful, or to live a conventional life. In feminist discussions of heterosexuality, the focus needs to shift to female opposite-sex desire, and away from female desirability.
If Ban Men has been the wrong answer, the problems it seeks to address are all too real. #MeToo is best understood as a response not merely to Mr. Trump and Mr. Weinstein – that is, to male toxicity at its most grave – but to a version of sex positivity that dominated just prior. Progressivism had meant celebrating what was once deemed caddish behaviour (older men pursuing much-younger women, negotiated non-monogamy at a man’s instigation, etc.) as consenting adults doing their thing. The conditions under which this consent occurred – a society where men hold most of the power – went largely unexplored. To mention this was sex-negative, puritanical, unfashionable.
Fashions have changed. It no longer seems sophisticated to compartmentalize about male artists’ transgressions; this is now regarded as allowing a bad man to get away with abusive behaviour. French politicians’ dalliances were once meant to symbolize a more evolved culture; today, one hears how problematic France is, what with actor Catherine Deneuve questioning #MeToo. It no longer marks you as a right-winger – hardly – to criticize a powerful man’s personal conduct.
Rather than all sex being okay unless non-consensual, all heterosexual encounters are now fraught. A 31-year-old woman called into Dan Savage’s sex advice podcast to ask whether she’d be a bad feminist if she were to date a man who had been her professor … a decade earlier. Radical feminist Andrea Dworkin – known for her critique of sexual intercourse – has been reissued.
So it’s not, or not exactly, that feminism has gone too far. It’s certainly not that bad men have been punished too harshly; see the regular reports of men “cancelled” by #MeToo but now back on the scene. Rather, I’d argue, the feminism of the moment has inadvertently attacked the wrong culprit. Ban Men feminism of course does not prevent women from forming relationships with men. It does, however, ask straight women to view our sexuality as joyless, rather than to look for ways that even in our flawed society, our lives could be more fun.
Ban Men feminism is made possible by a society that baseline never quite convinced itself that women desire with the intensity or certainty that men do. Straight womanhood, in the culture, isn’t about wanting men. It’s creating a Pinterest about engagement rings, in case your boyfriend takes the hint.
Does the straight woman even exist? The culture is not too sure about this.
In The Invention of Heterosexuality, historian Jonathan Ned Katz writes, “Because of their supposed greater eroticism, men are considered closer to heterosexuality.” Gender studies scholar Jane Ward’s Not Gay expands upon this idea: “The notion that women cannot be full sexual agents, whether heterosexual or lesbian, clearly persists today, expressed through characterizations of women’s sexuality as fundamentally docile, receptive, or motivated by emotions over lust” as well as “innately more sexually fluid.”
These beliefs set the stage for men getting classified as a problematic fave that right-thinking women could readily transcend.
This has major implications where consent is concerned. The corollary of women supposedly not experiencing true lust is the belief that there’s no one we’re sure we wouldn’t sleep with. Acknowledging the certainty of female desire would fundamentally reframe what it means when a woman turns someone down.
Female heterosexuality is an ambiguous sort of privilege. It’s not simply that straightness is advantage, femaleness disadvantage. It’s that for women, liking the opposite sex is both expected and denigrated.
A musician, T.I., recently claimed he has his 18-year-old daughter’s virginity checked at medical appointments, but he also said he was fine with a 14-year-old son being sexually active. Meanwhile – and I do not say this to equate the two – in progressive households, girls may learn that boys are a distraction from ambition. Among adult women, it’s rewarded to have a male partner (sort of; just don’t wear that engagement ring to a job interview), but still shameful to need a man. It sounds so … needy. It does not – like “needs a woman” – imply a robust sexual appetite.
Things are complicated for straight women, whose assumed social role is one of acquiescence. In her new book, Females, Andrea Long Chu “define[s] as female any psychic operation in which the self is sacrificed to make room for the desired of another,” explaining, “These desires may be real or imagined, concentrated or diffuse – a boyfriend’s sexual needs, a set of cultural expectations, a literal pregnancy – but in all cases, the self is hollowed out, made into an incubator for an alien force.” What Ms. Chu describes as the “female” experience is questionable, but makes for a spot-on definition of how female heterosexuality is understood in the culture. The straight woman loses herself in a man.
The notion of female heterosexuality as a desire to be desirable has become a truism. Popular scientific articles insist that “women are most turned on by their partners’ desire for them.” A passage from Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker short story Cat Person – famed for its depiction of hetero bleakness – conveys that sort of internal monologue:
“As they kissed, she found herself carried away by a fantasy of such pure ego that she could hardly admit even to herself that she was having it. Look at this beautiful girl, she imagined him thinking. She’s so perfect, her body is perfect, everything about her is perfect, she’s only twenty years old, her skin is flawless, I want her so badly, I want her more than I’ve ever wanted anyone else, I want her so bad I might die.”
The notion that a woman’s most primal desire is to be thought beautiful is a curious one. It makes perfect rational sense for a woman to want this. In our society, beauty and youth are, for a woman, relevance. Even women who aren’t interested in men benefit (and suffer) from being interesting to men. But the Cat Person scene is only one of infinite possible thought processes a woman might have regarding a man. Sometimes, I have heard, women are more interested in looking at the man they’re with than in what they themselves look like.
The moment it’s male sexuality up for discussion, one lands in a whole different discourse: Men like what they like. Evolutionary psychology gets invoked to explain why straight men of all ages prefer 20-year-olds with hourglass physiques, as though if you question why leading ladies are decades younger than male leads, your quarrel is not with Hollywood but with science. If Louis C.K.’s reputation as a progressive did not survive #MeToo, his interpretation of gender relations in that joke virtually defines it. Think of Stephen Marche writing interchangeably about “the brutality of male libido” and “human desire,” or Mr. Savage referring to men as “testosterone-soaked dick monsters.”
I get that such assessments are meant to affirm women’s experiences, but it’s impossible to offer men-are-like-so assessments without similarly pigeonholing women. These interpretations remind me of a lifetime of hearing that my own desires surely can’t exist, because I am, after all, a woman. (I think of the claim that Sex and the City was surely using straight women characters as a proxy for gay men, as if women couldn’t possibly be that raunchy. As if my late grandmother did not – why do I know this – especially appreciate Samantha.)
As philosopher Andy Lamey points out, the testosterone theory of sexual harassment attributes to hormones what would be more appropriately ascribed to power relations. B.D. McClay is correct when she writes, “Women, much like their male counterparts, feel desire, even unwise desires or desires that seem to overthrow reason.”
Explanations of male aggression that land on the “fact” that men get horny will always, however well-intended, define women as something other than the body-inhabiting human beings we are.
Is it that straight women don’t gaze or pursue because we’re just not so inclined? Or is it that we’re told, for so many different reasons, that pursuing men is dangerous as well as an embarrassing thing to need to do? There would be no need to warn women off chasing men if there were not the will, among so many of us, to do just that. What if “men are visual creatures” is about what men but not women are allowed?
Straight women should not go off men (as if we could), nor should we waste time trying to articulate what it is we like about men, as though something as intrinsic as sexual orientation could be chalked up to enumerable qualities of an entire gender. We should free ourselves from the cultural script that insists female heterosexuality is about seeking male approval. A straight woman on a date should prioritize the question of whether he does it for her, or at the very least, should not think there’s something inherently male about focusing more on a partner’s allure than one’s own.
The time has come to bring woman-as-desirer back into view. Not instead of denouncing predatory men, but as part of the same feminist effort. Yes, it’s possible to exact revenge on the patriarchy by objectifying men, and if that’s your motivation, have at it. But it’s also fine to just do so because some men are hot.