An article recently appeared on Thought Catalog entitled “Guys, Here’s What It’s Actually Like to Be a Woman”. This post, dated October 22nd, has been making rounds through Facebook posts and re-blogs lately. Its writer is the illustrious Tucker Max, author of the bestselling I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, its content apparently excerpted from his latest book, MATE: Become the Man Women Want. In his words we have what is presented as a call for men of the desperate variety to stop their incessant objectification and misrepresentation of the opposite sex and instead to “subjectify” women – to understand their own social position as potential mates from the woman’s perspective. This approach will improve a man’s chances with women they meet, thanks to their presenting a sensitivity to the struggles faced in a woman’s daily life. At a glance, or even a first read-through, this seems benevolent enough; calls to empathy are all the rage these days.
I say “at a glance” because if one begins to conduct something of a close reading of said article, so many problematic aspects bubble to the surface that one begins to question the integrity of the entire text. The difficulties begin with the opening line: “Guys, you have no fucking idea what you’re doing.” Note the accusatory tone here, for it will recur again and again (in covert form) in what follows.
Is Max sincere in his consolation when saying “Don’t beat yourself up about it though…” or is he taking advantage of certain male insecurities to cultivate an audience? If the latter is true, is this being undertaken to improve male-to-female relationships, or is the intent rather to insult, provoke or complicate the issue at hand? These questions and several others are central to understanding the potentially sinister notions underlying Max’s article.
The “Mating Market” Strategy
The source book’s title MATE hints (in all-caps) at the central undertone of the text we’re reading. We are reading a work about male sex – about where to get it and how. Fair enough, for what’s really wrong with sex? Unfortunately, even this banal purpose is clouded in a mess of contradictory expectations regarding male and female mating patterns, but we’ll get to that later. First, we’re going to look at the article’s use of economic language and how it exposes a major inconsistency in Max’s theory of mating.
Max writes that he and his co-author are “telling you to simply understand women. And this is for the simple reason that understanding the female perspective helps you do much better with women….” Following this is a section calling for “subjectifying” women. “She Is Tired of Being Objectified, So Subjectify Her Instead”. Yes, turn her into a subject instead of reducing her to nothing more than a physical object; do it instead because you’ll be able to get what you want, those “gorgeous young women in skin-tight, cutoff referee outfits or school jerseys” (yes, his words – romantic, no?).
Admittedly, he is using such suggestive language in the above example to make a point, one which can be summed up with the old marketing adage “sex sells”. However, only a little later, “Ironically, a great way to understand a woman’s point of view is to think of her as a marketing consumer” shopping for “your products (traits) and ads (proofs)”. Men are thus supposed to make her into a consumer; is this really the same thing as recognizing an autonomous subject?
A woman is “your customer”; turn the tables on her consumer power by being aware of her weaknesses and desires and you can get her to buy whatever you want to sell. Max himself notes that “Both sexes are suckers for status-seeking through consumerism.” Does it then follow that we should be encouraging a consumer outlook on each other’s desires?
The bottom line is that, with this mentality, a man does not grant a woman the kind of autonomy typical of the definition of a human “subject”; rather, he aims to absorb her agency into his own by incorporating her perspective into his master plan for success. The consumer “subject” becomes the commodity of the marketer. You can’t honestly claim to promote understanding and identification with others if you simultaneously advocate using said understanding to, say, fortify your own ego.
What does Max mean by “success with women” anyway? Perhaps it is, after all, the very “status-seeking through consumerism” that he disparages as “competition tactics”, “stupid and ridiculous”. Now we have come full-circle; men are to compete on the “mating market” for their women-consumers’ attention as part of a probably endless “male-male competition”. This is the conclusion we are forced to draw as Max is consistently ambiguous about the actual purpose of men seeking women.
As a matter of fact, this marketing strategy hardly places women above the level of mere sex objects at all – at least, it doesn’t seem to have done so in Max’s eyes. Observe how women are described in the passage about body image issues. He does insist that you don’t have to starve yourself to be sexy, that “most men are attracted to women with curves and meat on their bones”. Like the numerous celebrities he lists as desirable examples (from Sofia Vergara, an actress and former model, to Jennifer Lawrence, an actress and currently one of the most widely-circulated cover girls) aren’t “beautiful models and actresses, air-brushed to perfection, staring [insecure women] down from the cover of every women’s magazine and billboard”.
Yet Max also knocks “apple shapes” and “chopstick shapes”, borderline slurs, for being “low-fertility” and “no-fertility” respectively. Here, Max uses simple evolutionary reductionism to exchange one beauty mythic-ideal for another. Women, you had better appear “physically healthy and capable, with strong muscles, bones, connective tissues, and immune systems” if you really want to appeal to men’s instincts. Ladies, I hope you aren’t afflicted with any chronic illnesses! “Unfortunately, most women think the male conception of beauty is binary: ‘fat’ (bad) or ‘thin’ (good)”, but they’ll be pleased to hear that the male conception of beauty is actually just binary: “fertile” (good) or “infertile” (bad).
Furthermore, Max’s conception of “subjectification” is naive at best. I’ll draw here on the “perspective-taking” exercise questions he has supplied in his benevolence near the close of his article; this may be one of my best points, but I’m not going to save the best for last, because he didn’t either – it’s one of the silliest aspects of his article, yet it’s what he reserved for that privileged spot. See, Max suggests that, in order to really understand a woman’s perspective, men should pick a woman out in public at random and fantasize about what her life may actually be like – this, despite the fact that two of the questions focus on her appearance (such as parts of her body and choice of the day’s attire).
The problem is that all the questions center on things that one could simply never know by looking at a person, regardless of the extent to which that looking involves a sigh of longing or a long, creeping scan up her body. “You won’t necessarily guess the right answers, and you should never go up and ask her if your guesses are correct.” You will never know how accurate your “perspective-taking” (read: perspective-making) really was. Thus, all things considered, you’re probably going to give all these suggested questions answers that fit quite nicely into what you want or expect to be true. Just as “objectifying” is making an object out of someone, Max’s “subjectifying” is simply making a perspective out of them – never mind if it is a projection of your pre-established expectations and has absolutely nothing to do with what their perspective is actually like.
A last point about the questions: asking yourself if it’s possible that you’re “among the most attractive guys here” is bound to foster insecurity, which Max doesn’t seem to mind, as we’ll soon see.
Max’s Social Theory: A Comedy of Errors
Let us begin looking at Max’s various characterizations of social experience where it begins – the hopefully-to-become-infamous gay bar analogy. “Picture this example: You are a young, inexperienced gay man.” Here is the problem – a straight guy can’t imagine what he would feel like if he was gay any more than a gay guy could imagine he was straight. Max then goes on to discuss the implications of being attracted to big, strong men despite how threatening they may appear. If it’s difficult for women to navigate the complex of attraction/repulsion that they feel toward intimidating men, then it’s likely downright impossible for men devoid of the “attraction” side of that spectrum to “picture” experiencing this themselves.
Going on to posit a “sublime masculine energy” is bizarre, elevating the presence of these big, strong men to the point of being a metaphysical source of wonder; and concluding that “Women have evolved this ambivalent arousal/fear, love/hate response to male size, strength and power” undermines the earlier point that in spite of their imposing presence, “some of” the men in the gay bar display likeable tendencies, such as flattery and interest. So does the assertion that “Some of the same male traits that frighten you the most also seem to be the most attractive to you.” Posing a “physical threat” is different than evoking feelings of being protected; seeming “egotistical” is different than making you laugh. It is not necessarily the case that the very same traits in these men simultaneously evoke good and bad feelings; these supposedly identical pairs of traits are very distinct and manifest differently in different contexts.
The purported paradox of feelings is justified by a reduction to evolved desires; but this does not explain the distinctions between these feelings and amounts to a very broad theory of attraction that is of virtually no use at all in increasing men’s awareness of the ways they might be making women feel. It merely justifies men’s rejection when it occurs, absolving them of whatever responsibility they may have had for coming off as threatening instead of protective, arrogant rather than funny. This much is of course assuming that they have been able to effectively suspend their heterosexuality for the enjoyment of Max’s thought experiment.
Concerning sexuality, we encounter a significant problem regarding women’s manifestations of power. Women “do fantasize about being sexually dominated and controlled by handsome, caring, and capable men who operate secretly on the fringes of acceptable society.” The addition at the end, barring the Fifty Shades reference that follows, is a very bizarre generalization.
Somehow, I doubt they consistently dream of such particular character types. We’ve all heard that women’s sexual fantasies, statistically speaking, are less image-based and more focused on internal feeling (which it may have been helpful for our author to point out). Despite throwing in “caring”, the ideal type posited by Max is mostly image-based, just like his characterizations of attractiveness, just like his portrayal of the mating market. Furthermore, regarding domination, are sexually dominant women really such a small minority that they can be fairly overlooked? I’ll leave that to the reader’s experience to decide.
Another point to note – the entire article is centered around monogamy, which is a problem, not only because it denies (in evolutionary terms) the validity of alternative lifestyles and relationship structures, but because it subtly falls into the same old trap of “men want lots of sex and women want a life partner”. This incompatibility is a key point in Max’s view of the woman’s perspective and how men are meant to navigate it.
“She’s going to be looking for a guy who can help her manage these heartbreaking trade-offs [where material, social and domestic goals conflict]” – and be sure to note the return of economic language. This signifies that we are again thinking of the mating market. We are soon reminded that women are “emotionally vulnerable,” and how long you just might hurt her if she falls for you and you disappear.
The reason Max is bringing in this feminine apologetic is only to explain to us “why women aren’t bending over backward to satisfy your unquenchable sexual thirst.” Max, how do you know what my libido is like? I’m uncomfortable. But rest assured, if you realize that women’s desires can only be fulfilled through monogamy – one man to rule them all – you’ll be well equipped to play your game.
Women are so elusive because the “dating scene” has let them down time and again. This is because they are always looking – in the dating scene – for men who will allow them to pursue their economic interests for a couple decades and then will settle down and start a family with them. If this is the same scene that we men are in, then somebody’s looking for the wrong thing. Considering all the male apology that happens in the article, one might be led to think that women just need to get a grip. After all, we’re merely “understanding” them here, not trying to help or to get involved in all that.
Along with the normative centering of the often self-contradictory expectations of monogamy, we get another problematic presentation of social reality by way of appeals to classic views of deviance. I am speaking, of course, about the depiction of mental illness, which isn’t even held to current scientific standards; it is, however, given with a statistical disclaimer, which is a repetitive problem in the article, which we’ll get to in the next section here.
Beware the “male-dominated disorders of alcoholism, drug addiction, autism, schizophrenia, narcissism, white-collar sociopathy, and criminal psychopathy.” “Psychopaths are sexually predatory, uninhibited, and confident…” so all the creepy guys out there are just psychopaths, only behaving as they do because they’re unbalanced. Apologetics. Furthermore, “Guys with Asperger’s” might be “bad at reading nonverbal cues”, so they appear threatening when they approach women. All those afflicted with addictions, social disorders and pathologies are targeted directly as “the worst guys”. So the worst are only so because they have disorders, and all those with disorders are bad. Maybe we could use a little empathy with some of these men along with all women.
At one point, Max remarks that “if you’re younger than twenty and/or have had sex with fewer than four women, you’ll probably overlook or misinterpret all of those female choice cues. Pay more attention next time.” We’ve already seen how useless the idea of “subjectification” and that kind of “paying attention” really is in practice. So what’s the other problem here? The problem is Max seems to know that shaming the sexually inexperienced is the right way to get men’s attention. Here we are reminded of the author’s real aims: to show you how to pretend to respect women so you can fuck more of them.
As if having more sexual experience increases your ability to understand women as individuals. Often it seems only to add to misconceptions – consider the large number of sexual encounters that are mere consequences of social situations like parties and bars rather than men’s good behavior. Many of what he would call successful sex encounters happen quite organically, not really the result of how well anybody understands anybody else. But going back to the language Max uses here, it’s clear that he is not truly concerned with resolving male insecurity; and no wonder, for it’s probably just what his sales are depending on. Perhaps that’s why most of his practical prescriptions are ineffective.
Finally, I’m compelled to ask a somewhat incisive question – does this guy really know that much about the workings of women’s inner circles of friends? Please don’t say “of course he does; his intimate understanding has, after all, led him to have sex with over four women!” Saying she’s searching for a “potential Mr. Right” reinforces the “look, I’m a nice guy” attitude that betrays desperation and failure. And should men really aim to “charm her friends”? It isn’t difficult to think of many situations that this might be counter-productive or confusing at best; and do you really owe a woman’s friends anything at all?
In the above examples, whenever Max is considering the matter of behavioral influence, he usually ignores the presence of social superstructures of domination in favor of attention to the narrowest groups possible. Indeed, the lenses borrowed in his analysis are very scatter-shot, their incompatibilities as he applies them veiled in pathetic (as in pathos and as in grovelling) appeals to reader sensibilities. When social justification fails him, however, scientific language come into the picture, and everything gets far more convoluted.
Exhausting Evolutionary Psychology
Now we may turn to the ways Max uses scientific and statistical terms to lend support to his suggestions. First, we should generally note that in the article, he makes broad claims of scientific support with little to no actual citation. But that’s not all. Assuming, for example, that “psychological research… shows that from a woman’s point of view, most guys she meets will be less kind, less agreeable, less empathic, less conscientious, less reliable, less clean… than she and her friends are”, we still have no idea how any of those factors might present themselves and aren’t any closer to knowing how to fix them. If “sex is usually more in the background of her consciousness than the foreground”, why is she as constantly afraid of sexually intimidating men as Max insists?
Max remarks that “Women naturally fall for guys they’ve had several orgasms with”, speaking of oxytocin release and states of the brain. However, he soon points out the frequently-discussed fact that most women do not “get there” from sex, and that good sex for women isn’t about orgasms. Why point this out and risk falling into contradiction? It amounts to another knock against men’s sexual prowess, elevating its importance to provoke male insecurity and then once again justifying their failure. Continually saying “you’re doing everything wrong” and following it up with “but it’s not your fault” is indeed a focal point of Max’s article.
When discussing rejection, for that matter, Max insists that they’re being nice to you, but it isn’t because they really want to be nice to you. It’s because they’re “instinctively trying to reduce the risk of provoking harassment or stalking or violent retaliation”. But with all the guilt that women apparently face due to social conditioning (which we’ll see about in a moment), mightn’t it be possible that women are being genuinely kind when they passively reject potential “mates”?
There is no research even mentioned to back up his hypothesis – and we should be wary about all these evolutionary claims, for they say little about the ways in which these ancient attitudes actually manifest through our emotional lives. Additionally, it is by no means always the case that rejection follows a pattern from passivity to acting in ways viewed commonly as “’stuck up’ or ‘bitchy’”. Mightn’t it be their mood, rather than evolutionary process, which determines their behavior?
Max uses his evolutionary framework to justify men’s experiences of rejection and failure with women, and at the same time throws in all the above social theory to maintain this very inconsistency, providing the reader just enough distance to get them what they want to hear and to retain their existing beliefs and egos while obscuring the paradoxes themselves. He discusses the fear of getting pregnant as a large deterrent for feminine sexuality, and explains that STDs are worse for women because they might affect their babies and their fertility. If all women do want babies someday, and only want to wait while they’re young because of the negative social implications of unplanned pregnancy, this undermines the evolutionary behaviorist framework, because here we see social influence overshadowing instinct. Women are this way because they’ve evolved to be so, but they are also the opposite of this way due to their social environment.
The most obnoxious deployment of evolutionary logic is in the passage about slut-shaming, which is claimed to be “as prevalent as it is because a promiscuous rival is a woman’s biggest threat to keeping a good boyfriend.” Max then analyzes the uses of slut-shaming woman-to-woman in social circles. This conveniently overlooks the fact that slut-shaming is also frequently committed by men, and as a linguistic device is an expression of a pervasive patriarchal attitude – but careful Max, don’t bring up feminism or the dolts you’re supposedly trying to educate might lose their erections.
This is not Feminism Lite; this is capitalizing on the male perspective that Max purports to enrich with his insights. Then, “Even the euphemisms that women use for sex (‘hanging out,’ ‘hooking up,’ ‘partying,’ ‘dating,’ ‘going out together’) help obscure the key issue of whether intercourse really happened”. Yet none of these except “hooking up” are often used equivalently to “sex”. Often, when someone says sincerely they were “hanging out”, “partying”, “dating”, or “going out”, they literally mean just that; it’s only rude individuals, men and women alike, who assume this means they were screwing and didn’t want to say it. Every interaction’s meaning is reduced to sex, sex, sex. Note that here it’s just the interactions of slut-shaming women cast in this light – Max is sexualizing the social world of women, a common thread with typical misogynistic discourse (which, for example, searches for and encourages lesbian behavior for the sole reason that it’s sexy to watch).
A related point – the author does not highlight that male peer pressure about sexual behavior is also prominent and socially damaging for them. Pointing this out would help his case because male desperation is implicated as one of their greatest obstacles. I suspect this is not discussed because Max is relying on male insecurity to show off his sexual prowess and depth of understanding of women he appears to have obtained from it, all disguised as helpful tips. It’s no wonder – for Max, men may only persist in what amounts to a big fucking game (and the preceding sentence rings true regardless of the emphasis with which the last three words are read).
Don’t get me wrong here; I am quite aware of the egoistic character of human experience. I mean egoism in the most basic sense: every individual’s motivations are entirely their own motivations. Unfortunately, Max takes his biological reductionism so far that all motives underlying interactions between the sexes (assuming heterosexuality) are inescapably sexual. Gathering together my above contentions, this implicit theme rises to the fore as fundamental to Max’s entire perspective. However, for honest “perspective-taking” to occur, it would seem that we need another basis for interaction, since, as Max believes he has shown, the sexual experiences of males and females are in fact so radically different as to be basically opposed. Perhaps we might instead look to simple humanity?
We might say here that “meaningless sex” is not especially beneficial in “man’s search for meaning” – and I retain the gendered subject of the phrase for a reason. This is not to say that the pursuit of sexual pleasure as an end in itself is always a bad thing. However, if it is a pervasive pattern in a man’s life (or anyone’s for that matter) we might be a tad suspicious of their mental development. Wise individuals from all walks of life (right down to many self-helpers and office production motivators) will often tell us that one of the keys to a fulfilling life is surrounding oneself with meaningful interpersonal relationships.
It may often be that the best thing we can do for ourselves is simply to find ways to relate to and appreciate people as people; that is, to truly recognize them as subjects. This involves more than turning women into shoppers and men into marketers, more than insisting that we’re all animals operating on nothing more than pure instincts, denying us autonomy. And it may be a psychological hurdle for Max, but some of the most rewarding relationships that would populate our lives could very well come through humans with slightly different physical forms than our own. If we are interested in cultivating our own well-being, we would be reasonable to be open to this possibility with any potential encounter. Approaching all women with a generalized view of how women think and feel is only going to get in the way of personal growth, and it hardly amounts to something like “respect”.
I hope you are as convinced as I am. Max’s article is essentially a slightly more sophisticated take on the classic “How to Be a Master Seducer” pseudo-psychology self-help book, and carries with it all the sexism, disregard for feminine personhood and capitalization on male insecurities that those kinds of writings tend to display. It’s merely obscured by a thin veneer of forced empathy, shifting the apparent subject of the writing from “how to make her do what you want” to a cliche modern woman’s perspective in the domination olympics. “Guys, Here’s What It’s Actually Like to Be a Woman” reinforces the very problems it claims to solve. Now, we might ask, where should we go from here? If Max and his profound empathy for the female experience can’t help us out of our chauvinistic slump, what can?
By talk, I mean really communicate, which thankfully Max appears to support despite his tendency to superimpose his perspective over others’ rather than actually trying to comprehend them. There is no checklist of specific points of conversation, I’m sorry to say, that will guarantee you some action; there is only the possibility of desire fulfillment developing naturally out of open-context human dialogue. Yes, you may be “rejected”, but keep in mind that this may be the result of the context of the conversation, neither your fault nor hers. All you can do then is continue behaving like a functional human being and gradually learn to adapt to situations and carry on meaningful conversations with other beings – you bounce back.
Even if a woman’s hopes, dreams, fears and insecurities do in fact stem from her social or biological position as a woman (and I assure you, there will be deviations from the norm – few individuals are wholly representative of the tangled web of stereotypes cast over their demographic categories) they are nevertheless experienced as individual thoughts and feelings. As such, women deserve opportunities to express such experiences and hopefully to be *gasp* understood in their own terms. If you allow people to define themselves, you will certainly be more successful than ever before in all your endeavors, social, sexual and otherwise.
Why are we men looking to Max to understand women anyway? Are we so uncomfortable with this mysterious other that women have come to represent that we can only bear to hear about it through a male point of view? It’s so much more reasonable to simply allow a woman to forward her perspective naturally. No need to impose abstractions and statistics onto an otherwise organic encounter.
This is not to discredit the importance and practicality of analyzing gender politics and evolutionary logic, two lenses which are dramatically misapplied and misunderstood by Max, in order to understand the world we live in. I only propose that, in seeking out meaningful interpersonal relationships – whatever their basis – and the experiences they might bring to our lives, projecting social abstractions onto those we meet before they ever come up in conversation may very well lead us astray. And if it is true that “70 percent of [men’s] questions [to Max and his cohorts] reveal a total failure to understand the woman’s point of view”, maybe the problem is not a real lack of understanding as much as it is Max’s reduction of the root of all social interactions to the man’s and the woman’s supposed points of view.
Note that this has by no means been an exhaustive critique of the problems with Max’s article. I did not delve into, for example, the conflations of conventional notions of sex and gender embedded in his methods. I did not supply specific references to challenge his arguments; he didn’t do so to support them, so why would I bother? My concern has only been to highlight the generalizations and inconsistencies of the arguments in his article as it appears on Thought Catalog. But maybe, instead of continuing this critique, we would do well to put Max’s work aside and try from scratch to develop a way to “understand women”. If that’s the main problem Max is attempting to address, he has not gotten us much closer to solving it.