The Struggle is Real, The Effort Worthwhile

It’s summertime up here in the Northern Hemisphere. Despite the countless joys that arrive with the season, for many of my female friends it is a mixed blessing. Their eagerness to bring out those light, cute, and comfortable outfits ready-made for the warm weather, or to sun bathe in a swimsuit at the beach is tempered by the frequency they are subjected to creepy, unwanted advances from sexually aroused males. The worst of these are the drive-by catcalls from men who can’t help but enthusiastically let a woman know she is the apple of their eye, telling her as much by imploring her to sit on their face or shake her tits.   

This sort of male misbehaviour is rooted in the belief that women are always signalling the degree of sexual attention they want from men. By outwardly, enthusiastically showing their arousal, so it goes, these men are fulfilling their role, which is to flatter the woman for a job well-done. In the not-too-distant past, this “taunt and react” dynamic was touted as a normal, functional way of mediating sexual relations. In reality, it led to legions of women being sexually assaulted and raped by men socialized to believe their entitlement to sex was affirmed by the clothes a woman wore. 

In the eighties, when I came of age, there were cultural memes predicated on packs of guys “cruising” in cars with the top down on a Saturday night howling and jeering as they drove past a throng of gals. For their part, the women would bat their lashes in response to the ape-like affections of the men, which were sought after and desired. Thanks to popular culture, which depicted every encounter between men and women as a spar with a sexual sub-text, there are generations of men conditioned to believe the only reason women wear clothes, or do anything for that matter, is to attract the sexual attentions of a man. At the heart of these outmoded ideas is an obsession with what women wear. The old assumption is that women who wear provocative clothing are revealing something meaningful about their sexual inclinations. It is a sad, lingering relic of a bygone era.

I won’t deny it. Because I am a flesh and blood heterosexual man with a functioning set of eyes, when an attractive woman wearing clothing that flatters her impressive features passes my gaze, there is an instant, biologically-predetermined reaction. It hails from a relatively primitive part of our evolutionary brain – the limbic system. There’s an instinctive part of me that instantly craves to ogle, to leer, or to fuck, urges which I am aware conflict with the ardent feminist I aspire to be. 

That insight arises in the blink of an eye, rousing my pre-frontal cortex, which kicks in and subsumes the urge to beat my chest – or beat something else – beneath the thought, “Ahem, your leering and your thoughts are verging on the ungentlemanly. Cut it out.” Most days this tack works. When it doesn’t instantly kick in, and I catch myself leering maybe a little longer than I consider to be civilized, I say a metaphysical “Sorry ladies,” and implore myself to keep my head in the game. 

Thankfully, the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is synthesizing these ethical intentions into a set of guidelines to help me conduct myself in a civilized way. The PFC is the part of our brains that distinguishes humans as the most intelligent beings on the planet, despite certain striking instances to the contrary. In the throes of a carnal response to the physical presence of an attractive woman, the PFC stirs me to behave as if I really believed a woman ought to be treated like a human being, rather than as a living, breathing wank machine. When my limbic system protests against the PFC’s civilizing dictates, the PFC overrules it. 

The important thing to note is the emotional interplay between the two parts of the brain arising from the same sexual impulse. This reality refutes those who posit that men’s sexual behaviour is pre-determined as residing in one part of the brain versus the other. That is false. There is a dynamic between the parts of the brain which males must gain mastery of if they intend to behave in sexually appropriate ways. The lynchpin here is to have the intention to behave appropriately in the first place. 

Assuming the good intention exists, the key to the PFC gaining primacy in this inner conflict is to ensure a conscious effort to impart the lessons about appropriate standards of behaviour towards women routinely occurs. The curriculum to which males appeal to shape their values in these matters is significantly influenced by the culture. Unfortunately, if the culture harbours unhealthy sexual norms, then society teaches, reinforces, and perpetuates sexually unhealthy behaviours among its men. Depending on the culture, the curriculum by which boys are taught to become men may be dreadfully flawed. If a culture lacks the ethical intention to treat women as equals, the motivation to evolve commensurate behaviours is not instilled in individual males.  

We may say we live in an “individualistic” society, but in truth, how men behave towards women is greatly influenced by the culture in which they live. Through sexist media and social structures our culture is constantly modelling for boys and young men a particularly sexist way of relating to girls and women. On the other hand, there is an expectation that men become individuals who behave differently than the culture that reared them in their private sexual interactions with women. It’s a sociological fact that the transmission of feminist cultural ideals must actually be observed in the culture if the aim is to ensure they are adopted and exemplified by a society’s males. A sexist culture creates sexist individuals. It’s an axiom we cannot ignore if we want men to do the right thing in their private encounters with women.  

In some cultures, awareness of the intense inner struggle between primal urges and moral conduct acts as a cautionary tale. A society’s males, seeking to conduct themselves with moral rectitude, become wary of the mere existence of these internal battles, which they sense can go either way. That fear fuels notions about how the struggle itself is the fault of women; it feeds the idea women must take ownership of the sexual animus they trigger in men. These ideas sustain cultural practices – usually in the form of religious codes – that dictate women dress and behave modestly. It’s a cultural sleight-of-hand that shifts the burden away from a society’s men so that women ultimately become responsible for moderating the degree of male sexual arousal in a society. 

This is a puerile resolution to the inner struggle of a society’s males, because it discourages each individual man from learning at an early age how to process and regulate their sexually-charged emotions. Our culture’s mixed signals about what constitutes sexually appropriate behaviour is a serious psycho-social issue that needs to be acknowledged and properly addressed. This will ensure there are fewer victims of sexual crimes by inculcating a culture of men with emotional intelligence, who are capable of exerting a degree self-control that discourages their sexual misconduct. 

In this respect, what does it say to young men that, despite the fact Americans were well aware that candidate Trump grabbed women’s pussies, he was elected US President? For all the young men grappling to control their sexual urges, are they learning from this that it’s as important to behave in sexually appropriate ways as it is to be rich and ambitious? To what ends are young men motivated to channel their cognitive energies: to that of learning how to respect women, or to that of amassing the wealth and power required to treat women however their carnal urges desire?  If we want to see appropriate sexual behaviours in men, we have to exemplify, reward, and teach the lessons consistent with that aim. 

As a man desperately trying to get beneath years of cultural conditioning where women were touted as objects of male gratification, I am aware the struggle to overcome sexual urges is very, very real. I engage in a lot of self reflection about this, certainly not because the predominant norms in my culture have compelled me to do so, but because I am aware that my responsibility to foster healthy sexual behaviours comes in the face of intense, biologically-determined cravings. Men have to acknowledge the presence of these primitive cravings, which exist in the same measure as they would have among our evolutionary forebears, despite how intellectually advanced our societies have otherwise become. It’s a strange paradox, and it requires we expend greater conscious efforts to the task of moderating these impulses so our behaviour is consistent with evolving norms about what it means to be civilized sexual beings. 

As men, we must decide which part of our brain we want to heed: the advanced part that sets us apart as human beings, or the a-moral, pre-evolutionary part we share with reptiles and other less intelligent animals. I choose to be a civilized human being. I have to make a conscious effort to establish in my PFC a benchmark of what it means to be respectful to a woman and act accordingly, despite the primitive urges that arise in her presence; despite the culture which continues to normalize a decidedly misogynist benchmark. The responsibility for regulating these urges when it matters is mine alone, and I wouldn’t put that on a woman. 

It would help if our culture didn’t keep telling young boys and men that women are sex objects and reinforcing unhealthy ideas about women that impede their learning of functional sexual behaviours. We are subjected to an unceasing barrage of images and ideas from mainstream culture that piques and reinforces our consumerist desires by sexualizing and objectifying women. This conflicts with, and undermines, efforts to instil norms of self-control in men. Regulating sexually-charged emotions is a cognitive process that must be learned like any other higher-order human function, because the desired behaviours hail from the pre-frontal cortex. When we expect these behaviours to kick in they are fending off the strong, anti-social impulses of the limbic system. Unfortunately, this part of our brain is constantly being titillated by a sexualized, stimulus-addicted culture, which makes it a formidable force to reckon with. 

That isn’t to make excuses for men, it is to say that it takes effort on our part to do what is right in respect of women. It is also to say that culture has a role to play in normalizing healthy attitudes and behaviours about how men relate to women at the office, at home, and in our bedrooms. The biggest first step however, is for men to recognize the struggle to control impulses within ourselves is real, it is natural, and women are not to blame for its existence. The responsibility for doing what it takes to resolve conflicting feelings and emotions is on us as individuals. 

It means that we cannot sit and wait for the mainstream culture to reflect modern values about gender, because we are ourselves arbiters and transmitters of those values. Young men look to how I and my peers conduct ourselves for their signals about what is and isn’t acceptable. I take that role very seriously and I urge my mid-life male peers to do the same. Our role as cultural agents compels us to pro-actively stir a cognitive shift when we recognize some of our attitudes and behaviours are rooted in sexist dogmas of our upbringing. We are key influencers in the culture to which the next generations of men will appeal for norms about how to behave with respect to women. I will cringe if, in thirty years’ time, a figure like Donald Trump is emblematic of my generation of men and is still winning society’s greatest rewards despite his retrograde, morally decrepit views about women. 

A concerted effort to avoid the ill-effects of misogyny from poisoning the behaviour of men will always be necessary. Nature has seen to that. The reasons to expend those energies – to secure a future where women are treated as equals instead of as objects or as victims – have never been more compelling, and makes the effort absolutely worthwhile. 

Still Smells Like Teen Spirit – Part 1

Spirituality and religion weren’t a big part of my upbringing. Emotionally, the adults in my family didn’t wear their hearts on their sleeves or do a lot of group hugging. On the whole we were mostly a content family who were close, but distant. The stiff British upper lip and Protestant work ethic were prominent paradigms in my family’s psychological makeup. We tended to deal with deep, emotional issues by avoiding them with playful distractions or repressing them under pails of gin. We didn’t brood about the world’s ills, and weren’t prone to incurable bouts of melancholy – at least none that a good party and a trip to Florida couldn’t cure – so religion wasn’t much use to us. We may have been as emotionally deep as a wading pool, but we had a zest for life and knew how to be happy. The Bible was a downer.

Passion was most apparent when it came to discussions of business or politics. Cursing union nut-jobs, deploring socialism, and grousing about business seemed to evoke the greatest amount of fervour in my conservative, mercantilist family. Metaphysics were for lazy, floundering intellectuals who were putting off life and had too much time on their hands. In the eyes of my grandfather, a WWII vet, the king of drifters was Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, a Westmount lothario born with a silver spoon up his arse who never worked an honest day in his life. The closest thing to religious dogma in my household was the belief that Trudeau was the Devil in a cravat.

My ancestors did have deep religious traditions. My grandfather’s family were among the founding families of New England who fled Britain to pursue their faith free from persecution. Letters written by my great-great grandfathers to their children are loaded with scripture and religious offerings of comfort and solace. There was obviously a time when religion and spirituality were a formative presence in Saunders family life, but their importance fizzled out some time around my grandfather’s generation. The Depression, two World Wars, the Holocaust and family breakdown seem to have provoked the 20th Century loss of faith in the Saunders family.

When I was a kid, golfing, cocktails, and brunching with our fellow indifel WASPs at the country club were done with conviction. We were bon vivants, and didn’t think Jesus was interested in joining the party. On Sundays we took a pass on the body of Christ, noshing instead on belgian waffles, goose liver pate, quiche, crepes Suzette, and breakfast links at the country club buffet. The bar opened at 11 am, prompting tongue in cheek quips like “It’s noon in Toronto, ha ha”. ‘Gin martini, pronto!’ my grandfather would exhort.

It was a surprise when the idea of attending St Luke’s Catholic school for boys was proposed to me. I assumed religion was absent from our lives because the institution was disdained. The desire to see one of the Saunders family’s own immersed in Catholic school seemed a bit unusual, maybe even a little hypocritical. I didn’t put much stake in the term, but I was well aware that, in the eyes of even a nominal Catholic, we were unmitigated heathens headed straight for the fiery gates of hell. I feared repeated dousings in holy water by classmates shielding themselves from biblical plagues and lightning strikes wrought by a vengeful God smiting me for my apostasy.

Through my Italian and Irish friends I acquired a mish-mash of distortions about the infantile nature of Catholic superstition. Their idea of religious allegory was totally fucking ridiculous. I had serious reservations about a religion that went to such terrorizing lengths to get little kids to believe. It shouldn’t have been so difficult. Most kids believe in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus, so the resort to scare tactics was a sure sign that something was a bit dodgy with the doctrine. The Pope reminded me of Yoda, or an eccentric character from The Dark Crystal, a Jim Henson puppet movie. He seemed to embody a number of existing clichés about mysterious, old, oddly-dressed magical wizards with mystical powers of mind-control over large swaths of people. He also dressed in a costume that made him look like a flashy Klansman from Alabama.

My strongest objection to the idea of St Luke’s was pragmatic. The curriculum was academically enriched, and I feared I might have to put in an honest effort to maintain my exceptional grades. I hadn’t had much practice with studying and academic discipline and I wasn’t anxious to pick up the habit. Why would I choose to leave a school where I could party, smoke a lot of weed, engage in the eternal quest for sexual gratification, and get good grades? The argument wasn’t as persuasive as I hoped it would be.

It was 1985. The world was under the cloud of Star Wars, a pissing contest waged by two old, white men – one Soviet, the other American – swinging their thermonuclear, intercontinental ballistic dicks at each other. One of these, US President Reagan, was a slowly dementing, former Hollywood actor who starred in films like Bedtime for Bonzo and The Voice of The Turtle. In my country a big-chinned, chain-smoking, baritoned Irish-Canadian from Baie-Comeau named Brian Mulroney had just delivered Canada to salvation from the Devil’s socialist grasp. He liked nothing better than getting pissed and karaokeing to Irish folk songs with Reagan. It was cringeworthy to see two stodgy conservatives with less soul than a pair of Hush Puppies getting all “folksy” for their peeps. Every time I see these two in their Sonny and Cher love-fest, the surge of projectile vomit is so intense I barely make it to the bathroom in time.

It was at this time I was delivered into the Jesuits at St Luke’s. In public school, the presence of girls to excite erratic hard-ons and engage in heavy petting between periods was like cocaine for my pleasure-seeking brain. The first weeks of St Luke’s I felt discombobulated ; as though I’d been kicked repeatedly in my withering testicles. My world seemed fucking grim. Even the thrill of showboating had lost its lustre – no girls to impress. What was the point of living?

The lack of a perpetually throbbing pecker did have the effect of not robbing my cranium of vital blood supplies needed for higher intellectual functioning. My grades improved, in spite of the far more rigourous curriculum. The extra mental capacity cultivated a well-spring of ideas and plans for serious mischief. It wasn’t as fulfilling as a grope-fest with a female classmate, but it would have to do.

That year I had a computer science teacher named Mr Jones. He had long shoulder length hair parted in the middle, a handlebar moustache, and wore tight-fitting polyester suits in every shade of the pastel colour palette. He was an elfin-like pot bellied man who stood slightly under five feet tall. It should have been next to impossible for a man as short as he to have pantlegs that hovered so far ABOVE his ankles. Jones made it possible. He looked as though he’d been stuffing himself into suits he first bought when he was thirteen. He was being obstinate, like a forty seven year old woman squeezing into her prom dress for the high-school reunion, clinging to the delusion that it looked ‘okay.’ A travesty on the senses.

One of Jones’ most distinguishing characteristics were his ties, which were ridiculously short. On any given day, if his tie hung more than an inch below his breast-bone it would have been considered, for him, a bit long. I imagined he was the victim of a prankster older brother who preyed on his naivete. At Sunday dinner, as Jones cried in his meatloaf over the sorry state of his love life, big brother would transmit odious bits of advice about small ties being an optical illusion that would make him appear taller. Or he’d mention seeing some article in Esquire that suggested tight-fitting pastel dress pants and rumpled shirts were the counter-culture sex appeal craze in the over-sized 80s. A more sensitive brother would have gently suggested the suite in mother’s basement, the game-show-host/porn-star fashion motif, and child molester vibe were off-putting to women.

With his sorry attire he was courting ridicule and scorn. I’d be happy to oblige. Didn’t he realize he was in a private school full of rich, preppy, judgemental kids wearing Polo and Lacoste? I was no fashion maven, but I had the wherewithal to avoid Zellers when choosing my wardrobe. Such incompetence struck me as highly suspect. This boob was going to teach me anything useful? As it would do repeatedly throughout my life, history would, in this case, make a total mockery of such a shallow assessment. Jones’ sorry ensemble was the standard dress code of every dot-com billionaire to later emerge. I should have been trying to bottle that dufus energy, and run with it. I’m convinced the reason I’m about a billion dollars short of being a billionaire is because I wasn’t dweeb enough.

The first time I spied Jones I quipped ‘what’s with this guy’s get-up, does he not own a fucking mirror’? Other kids implored me to leave it alone. Apparently Bilbo Baggins had a temper that was inversely proportional to his stature. Hell hath no fury like a nerd with short-man syndrome. But it wasn’t physical torment the kids dreaded. He was one of those jerk teachers who would punish the entire class if one student was out of line. Everybody wanted to avoid a ‘pop’ quiz, which ended up happening every day because of the statistical impossibility of twenty-three teenaged boys being well-behaved.

Early on in the year, I was singled out by Jones for one of many demonstrations of incompetence at programming. ‘What a total moron Saunders is, hey class! Everybody, look at the loser who can’t even do simple programming! Nyuck nyuck nyuck!’ It was my first experience of the way small, goofy men go about mocking the alleged stupidity of brawny mesomorphs. I didn’t like it. It was bad enough I was the only black kid in the school, but now I was a nerd being lampooned by another nerd. I didn’t need Mickey Rooney adding to my feelings of alienation. The nerd-war was on. It was a battle between an emerging breed of nerd – the computer geek – and the traditional aesthete-nerd, made up of band geeks, theatre divas, and artsy-fartsies like me. Bring it, Amiga-man.

The next day, I shortened my tie and pulled up my pants above my ankles. I made mocking jokes when my schoolmates were ignorant as I quizzed them on a litany of arcane facts, which were locked into my photographic memory after trolling through encyclopedias as a kid. I wondered if anyone would catch on to the parody. They did.

I wasn’t the only idiot who couldn’t program a “welcome” message in BASIC and had been publicly shamed by Jones. It was a small act of subversion but it was sufficient to ignite the wrath of a bunch of pissed off pituitary cases. I was the chunk of coal that stoked the fire of the white boy rebellion. By the end of the day, it seemed half the school suddenly had a case of shrunken ties. Even the senior students took a day off from shit-kicking their underlings in the lower grades to take part in the gag. I had set off a broad new trend.

To be continued …