My first two posts on despair in terms of gender attracted a few very kindly answers, and particularly from kindly women who are, I think, primarily concerned to assure me that they don't dislike me because I happen to be a man. I firmly believe them and am grateful to them though I think their approval is founded in exceptionalism, their arguments hinging on their opinion that there are nice men who have a bad time because of the assumptions about maleness that I had been writing about. And I like and respect them for their views. It's just that their understanding of male niceness is conditional on men being funny, or useful or a bit crazy or a bit dim (no introspection) in other words on not quite being men with traits that might once have been recognised as virtues, either because they never were virtues, or, in so far as they were virtues, men didn't actually possess them. I mean in the way that the men who went down with the Titanic were really worthless because they only did so because the captain was pointing a single pistol at them all. They possessed no virtues: the captain was the exception. I am individually comforted by the kindness. I promise not to go out and self-harm right away.
Looby then writes an interesting comment regarding his gender upbringing in the seventies:
Specifically, its most unwelcome effect was to vilify any expression of sexual or physical attraction on the part of the man. It froze attraction in guilt and political opprobrium. Glances at an attractive woman in a sexy skirt were surreptitious and reprehensible--a sort of asceticism, the gains of which eventually became unclear as it very slowly dawned on us that almost all women appreciate compliments on her appearance or dress done with aplomb, wit, or delicacy.
I wouldn't bet on it, Looby. The safest thing may be simply to say that they look 'well'. The rest can be considered intrusive. You can't really say anything about appearance unless invited to do so and then you have to know what to say and must do so with aplomb, wit and delicacy, all of which you undoubtedly possess. Other than that the only proof of attraction is Mae West's gun-in-the-pocket homage, which is, you must remember only homage, and that such homages must be handled with even greater aplomb, wit and delicacy. Quite who wields the power in that relationship - Mae West or the gun - is never easy to establish, but power it is.
The story of attraction between the sexes will never be fully told, partly because the stakes are too high in terms of vulnerability, hypocrisy and self-esteem, and partly because, I suspect, it would require the greatest tact and precision in language and the world is not set up that way. The aplomb, wit and delicacy Looby talks about are not natural to war zones and despite forty years of war I don't think it is quite safe to emerge from the bomb shelters even in hard hats, brandishing white flags, when every week I can read articles or hear views about how dreadful we are as a gender. Individual virtues we may be allowed: collective ones, never.
Looby ends on a more positive note:
I'm hopeful a more honest and sympathetic view of male-female relations will emerge. I see my 13-y-o daughters interacting with boys on an entirely different and more confident way than I remember. They expect more from men but that's no bad thing.
My suspicion is that Looby's daughters may be interacting with boys in freer and easier ways but I wonder about the boys they are interacting with. The girls may be expecting more of them, but how are the boys to understand what that more is and whether they are capable of giving it when they have no idea what to do with their virtue-free boyishness in conditions where such boyishness as might once have been regarded as a virtue is now recalibrated as vice? The boys won't tell us what they feel because they instinctively understand - I don't accept that it is entirely learned behaviour - that the kind of confidence they will need to get through life cannot begin with tears. 'If only you were more like a girl' is not advice that can be taken because, as many have pointed out, you will never quite be a girl: you can only be a failed girl. Boys will brazen things out, nor do I think that is a bad thing. All energy is convertible and self-discipline can be life-saving.
I don't think people recognise the need in males for female approval, starting with their mothers. That gender approval is only incidentally forthcoming, and only in terms of exceptionalism. The need for female approval is deep. In sexual terms the best praise for a man is the female climax: failure to produce it is not a female failure but a male one. I don't think you will find alternative opinions to the fore today. The virility test is key in a man's self-respect. Virility requires self-confidence. The rest is guilt and an unfocused violence, or a retreat into non-contact. Self-confidence requires self-respect but there's only so much you can do for yourself. Boys in gangs work on the principle of mutual respect - respect is the favourite word - and the need to gain it by whatever means. Those are dangerous waters, and often, after an an initial splashing about, people go under.
My hunch is that now they start underwater and cannot rise to the surface. That, at least, is my concern, having occasionally felt in danger of drowning myself at various points.
It is a tempting to try to write the story of attraction and desire as best I can, though it would be extremely difficult, maybe impossible. The reason for the despair was only last week after all. The sand on which one is trying to draw fancy diagrams is in fact land-mined. Naturally it will be assumed that your design in starting is because you want to speak against women, and however I deny it, the IED charge of misogyny will be just a foot away in any direction.
That's hard because I like my kind women - I always have, and individual women are generally, if not always, wonderfully kind - and am mindful of, if not entirely bound by, their approval. I like individual women very much indeed and am happy to recognise that that is part of the package of being a woman.