What I’m Reading – Male Lust: Pleasure, Power, and Transformation

This book, Male Lust: Pleasure, Power, and Transformation, has been on my shelf since the early 2000s. Back then, it was at the top of my to-read list, but circumstances intervened and so I am only picking it up now. I’ve read the introduction and I think it’s really interesting to juxtapose the two passages below. In the text, the first one actually comes after the second one. I have put them in this order because I think it creates an interesting tension between them.

First:

Because a privileged man’s life is “unremarkable,” he is less likely to know how his social position affects his life. A “white” man knows he is “white,” but he is likely to have little idea how this identity shapes his social world, much less his sexuality. He’s rarely forced to stop and think about it. Any interpersonal or emotional difficulties he might have are thus made to appear as individual worries. This illusion of a fully autonomous self lets privileged men act with less concern about the social impact of their actions—they are more “free” than others. Yet, this freedom makes them less able to identify the links between their concerns and the larger social environment. Because of this hyperindividuality, itself socially constructed, privileged men are vulnerable to intense feelings of self-blame and isolation when something goes wrong. It makes them less able to understand how their lives relate to the lives of those around them, and less able to respond to the social forces that daily shape their lives. (xix)

Second:

Think of a judicial system that not only favors heterosexuality but reserves its favor for specific types of heterosexuality: not S/M—that could cost you your kids; not polyfidelity—that could cost you your kids too; not for pay—that could cost you your kids and put you in jail. Think of the African-American, Latino, and Chinese men who have been lynched for the mere suspicion of looking at a white woman. Whatever biological ground our bodies provide, “male lust” is clearly a highly regulated—and therefore social—affair, shaped through a deployed and nearly ubiquitous series of sticks and carrots. Removing these pressures, or adopting a different set, would radically change the way we think about the social/biological categories “male” and “sexuality.”

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25 Responses to What I’m Reading – Male Lust: Pleasure, Power, and Transformation

  1. 1
    LTL FTC says:

    “A ‘white’ man knows he is ‘white,’ but he is likely to have little idea how this identity shapes his social world, much less his sexuality.”

    So riddle me this: how is this not gaslighting?

    Gaslighting is the essence of the Secret Knowledge, the trope by which your own feelings and experiences can be summarily dismissed… because privilege. You’re a fish that can’t tell it’s wet, whereas everyone else knows the real story through some ill-defined mechanism. Leave talking about your own lived experiences to your intersectional betters, who know you better than you know yourself.

  2. 2
    Ampersand says:

    First of all, I don’t think that’s gaslighting. Gaslighting necessarily involves deceit, I thought. It certainly did in the movie.

    Second of all, by your definition, isn’t any philosophy or sociology course which encourages students to look at themselves, their preconceptions and/or their world in a new way, “gaslighting?”

  3. 3
    Grace Annam says:

    LTL FTC:

    So riddle me this: how is this not gaslighting?

    Because pointing out ignorance does not equal gaslighting.

    Ampersand:

    Gaslighting necessarily involves deceit, I thought.

    Generally, yes. Or, at least, lying, as when Person A tells Person B that their troubles are due to their own relative faults or merits when in fact the playing field isn’t level, and Person A knows that the problem is not with Person B. Some people might not call that deceit, quite, but it’s clearly a form of telling someone that their perception of reality isn’t true when you know that it is. Which is a pretty good working definition of gaslighting.

    Grace

  4. 4
    Mandolin says:

    My impression is that a chunk of the original definition is that they are trying to make the person believe they’re mentally ill in a way they’re not, too.

    I’ve had this happen; it’s not fun.

  5. 5
    desipis says:

    It’s not so much gaslighting as just plain sexism and racism. It’s making a number of negative assumptions, specifically a lack of awareness and understanding, about a group of people based on their gender and race.

  6. 6
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    I don’t see this as problematic.

    This illusion of a fully autonomous self lets privileged men act with less concern about the social impact of their actions—they are more “free” than others.

    Take this as true: with that freedom comes benefits and detriments. (it’s a pretty hard rule that there are always benefits and detriments to any social differences.)

    So when folks say

    this freedom makes [privileged men] less able to identify the links between their concerns and the larger social environment.

    It should not be a problem. It may be true–but there are also true statements which begin “this freedom makes [privileged men] MORE able to ____” because everything has benefits and detriments.

  7. 7
    Jeffrey Gandee says:

    That first excerpt seems way off the mark to me. Are there some good studies that support the thesis that privileged white men are less aware of the social impact of their actions? Is there a fair metric for measuring “social” and “anti-social” behavior, and has anyone actually looked to see how privileged white people compare to everyone else?

    I grew up in a lily white neighborhood in a white privileged suburb. Now I live in a diverse neighborhood in DC where white privileged people are a minority. The communities here seem downright anti-social in comparison to where I grew up. I see individuals act in ways that are harmful to the social fabric on a daily basis. I see violence in public. I never saw a woman get assaulted until I moved here, and now I see it frequently. People are unkind on the roads and sidewalks. When your car breaks down here, no one stops to offer help. The school down the street hosts the most vicious bullying I’ve ever scene. People here don’t look after one another’s children the way they do back home. Rudeness is rampant. Slurs of all kind are common. Crime shapes everyone’s life here. Vandalism is common. I could go on forever. Do the privileged people where I’m from have their own unique ways of acting anti-socially? Definitely. Are they more harmful to society than the actions I witness here in DC? I doubt it.

    My experience isn’t good evidence, but it makes me doubtful of the claims made. I’m curious to hear whether or not this book provides a rigorous analysis of the behaviors of privileged white people compared to everyone else, because the claims seem pretty extraordinary.

  8. 8
    LTL FTC says:

    My impression is that a chunk of the original definition is that they are trying to make the person believe they’re mentally ill in a way they’re not, too.

    Not quite. Gaslighting isn’t defined as making someone believe that they’re depressed, for example. It specifically regards making someone not trust their senses or perceptions, just like the lights being on or off in the movie that gave it a name. Imagine being told that a genetic test proves because of your parents’ heritage, you’re colorblind and there are many other colors in the rainbow that everyone but you can see. It’s like that.

    Gaslighting necessarily involves deceit, I thought. It certainly did in the movie.

    Is it deceitful to undermine the arguments of many of your critics by claiming their whiteness precludes them from seeing what’s in front of their face? They see an “illusion” and they are “less able to understand” the world. No, they’re not wrong in the sense that they have reached the wrong conclusion through faulty logic or incomplete information; they’re wrong because they’re incapable of perceiving otherwise. How do you disprove that? Probably only by agreeing with the authors of this book.

    I’m not sure what conclusion the author reaches in this book, but I see nothing here that says these problems of perception can be cured any more than one can be magically made non-white.

    The real problem, however, is that there is no evidence provided for the proposition that a) white men are likely to see their actions through an individualistic lens to the point at which it blinds them to the social consequences of their actions; b) the extent to which white men do this is significantly different from how most other people think; and c) The individualistic lens is incorrect for most people to use in most situations about most things.

    Yes, the author wrote a book and not just two paragraphs. I’d be open to reading more relevant excerpts. But with what I have, in front of me the gaslighting does most of the heavy lifting.

  9. 9
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    LTL FTC says:
    July 11, 2017 at 7:39 am
    …with what I have, in front of me the gaslighting does most of the heavy lifting.

    Huh. While there is a ton of privilege-whiteness-SJ stuff which seems pretty essentialist or reliant on Special Knowledge, this particular excerpt is not at all in that category because it seems to imply a tradeoff.

    For example

    “He’s rarely forced to stop and think about it.”

    The rest of it is based on that assumption. And it’s quite possibly (probably, IMO) true: some folks don’t think about certain social issues as much. Makes perfect sense to me.

    But it isn’t negative. If you’re not spending your thoughts on Issue A, then you have more time to think about other stuff, whether it’s a ‘social issue’ or something else–there are pros/cons to everything. Just like you can major in bio or major in poetry, but whatever you choose, you won’t have as much time to study one if you’re focusing on the other.

    Moreover, if you feel too disconnected, you can always prioritize the other modes of thought. You may not be forced to switch modes; that does not prevent you from switching modes.

  10. 10
    Ortvin Sarapuu says:

    If gaslighting involves -intentional- deceit, it’s quite rare.

    By this standard, the straight white man who tells his wife that she shouldn’t be scared of him isn’t gaslighting if he genuinely believes his actions aren’t abusive – which, as we know, is a pretty common scenario.

  11. I confess I don’t understand the problem people are having with that first paragraph. This is the first sentence:

    Because a privileged man’s life is “unremarkable,” he is less likely to know how his social position affects his life.

    To me, all this says is that when someone, in this case a man, takes the circumstances of his life for granted—when they are “unremarkable” to him—he is less likely to see them for what they are, a set of circumstances that have been constructed for him and those like him. The paragraph doesn’t go on, in the example the author gives, to say that white men are therefore, by definition, unable to see those circumstances—just that, to the degree that whiteness remains unremarkable to him, he is “less likely” to see them and that, to the degree the doesn’t see them, that limited vision of himself will have an impact on his life.

    That kind of thing happens in personal relationships all the time: One person—and I am thinking specifically of marriage, but marriage is not the only example—takes their perspective/understanding for granted and is unaware of even doing that, or of how it has shaped the marriage and impacted the other spouse, until someone points it out.

    I get that people might be uncomfortable with having this dynamic pointed out in terms that highlight whiteness as a perspective that (not only) white people take for granted as the “unremarkable” norm; and I also get that people might disagree with the author’s understanding of what the consequences might be of remaining immersed—with what I called above a limited vision—in the “unremarkable” norm. That, however, seems to me a very different thing from characterizing what the author says in the paragraph as gaslighting.

  12. 12
    LTL FTC says:

    It’s the “illusion” language that gets to me. It’s assuming a hallucination, used to summarily dismiss defensible observations that a man may or may not have.

    That assumption serves two purposes. The first is to devalue the lived experience of the target and undermine an individual’s first person observations by questioning their perceptive ability due to racial/gender handicap (gaslighting). The second is to handwave away similar behaviors in other groups by linking those behaviors specifically to melanin and genealogy without supporting evidence besides assuming the hallucination.

  13. 13
    Jeffrey Gandee says:

    @Richard Jeffrey Newman.

    I think I agree completely with all you said. I really like your marriage analogy. I don’t mind my own whiteness being pointed out. I think it’s often helpful so long as my whiteness isn’t weaponized by those who would discredit me, and that doesn’t seem to be what’s going on here.

    The trouble is, the paragraph goes on to say that this dynamic which you describe “…lets privileged men act with less concern about the social impact of their actions”

    Compared to who and measured how? I see how this could be the case in theory, but I’m not seeing it in practice. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to discover that the reverse is true.

  14. 14
    LTL FTC says:

    @Jeffrey Gandee:

    “…lets privileged men act with less concern about the social impact of their actions”

    really means:

    “…lets privileged men think they can get away with disagreeing with me about the social impact of their actions.”

    FTFY.

  15. LTL FTC:

    It’s the “illusion” language that gets to me. It’s assuming a hallucination, used to summarily dismiss defensible observations that a man may or may not have.

    While I can understand quibbling with the word illusion from an editorial standpoint—I think it’s imprecise in this context—I don’t buy your reading. The paragraph talks about This illusion of a fully autonomous self. Well, the idea of a fully autonomous self—the ideal of the self-made man, for example—is an illusion, if by illusion we mean not hallucination (a perception of objects with no reality usually arising from disorder of the nervous system or in response to drugs, Merriam-Webster), but rather “the state or fact of being intellectually deceived or misled.” What do I mean by that: No one exists as a fully autonomous self and the cultural notion that we are or should be is deceiving, in that it delegitimizes and prevents us from seeing many of the ways that we are connected to others.

    We might argue whether or not this cultural notion is indeed part of whiteness per se, but, again, that is not the same thing as arguing that the author is trying to depict whiteness and what, in his estimation follows from it, is an hallucination.

    Jeffrey Gandee:

    The trouble is, the paragraph goes on to say that this dynamic which you describe “…lets privileged men act with less concern about the social impact of their actions”

    But isn’t that what happens in a marriage when this dynamic is at work? One spouse’s “limited vision” enables action “with less concern about the…impact of [those] actions” on the other spouse. No?

  16. 16
    Jeffrey Gandee says:

    “But isn’t that what happens in a marriage when this dynamic is at work? One spouse’s “limited vision” enables action “with less concern about the…impact of [those] actions” on the other spouse. No?”

    Yeah most of the time. But this author didn’t write that privileged white men are less likely to understand the impact of their actions on people who aren’t privileged white men, they argue that privileged white men don’t consider the impact of their actions on society. What matters here is whether each group’s prescriptions for a better society actually lead to a better society.

  17. 17
    desipis says:

    To me, all this says is that when someone, in this case a man, takes the circumstances of his life for granted—when they are “unremarkable” to him—he is less likely to see them for what they are, a set of circumstances that have been constructed for him and those like him.

    It’s not the unremarkable -> unaware step that’s a problem. It’s the man -> privilege and the privilege -> unremarkable steps that are the problem. That last step is a particular problem, as it is generally the wealthy educated privileged elite that have the most time to contemplate the bigger picture, and their place within it. It’s the university students, not the Walmart workers, who spend the most time discussing and advocating for social change.

  18. 18
    Michael says:

    Regarding gaslighting, I think that everyone (including myself) is overusing the term. It was intended to describe a very specific form of abuse:
    https://alfredmacdonald.com/2012/11/07/gaslighting-what-it-isnt/
    The point was that it was intended to describe making the victim doubt their view of reality, not merely disagreeing with them or making a dumb argument. If you killed someone’s pet and tried to convince the owner that they did it accidentally, that would be gaslighting- that is clearly unforgivable behavior, unless you sleep with Scott Summers. :)
    The point is that gaslighting was meant to describe someone denying objective reality, not merely subjective matters. If Alice told Bob that he lost his job because he’s lazy, and Bob, who is black, argues that he lost his job because of racism, that would not be gaslighting. If Alice lied to Bob’s boss and he told Bob’s boss that Bob slept with his wife, and Bob’s boss decided to fire him then and there, and then Alice told Bob that he lost his job because he’s lazy, that would be gaslighting- Alice knows full well that her lies cost Bob his job. It’s supposed to be a very specific, relatively rare, type of abuse, not something that someone does unintentionally. Using it to mean disagreements trivializes real abuse.

  19. 19
    Mandolin says:

    If you killed someone’s pet and tried to convince the owner that they did it accidentally, that would be gaslighting- that is clearly unforgivable behavior, unless you sleep with Scott Summers. :)

    The point is that gaslighting was meant to describe someone denying objective reality, not merely subjective matters.

    This.

    (And often meant to convince the subject that they are having psychotic breaks or otherwise unstable.)

  20. 20
    Mandolin says:

    So, I don’t think this is gaslighting even by the expanded not-really-gaslighting deinition.

    I think it’s more related to consciousness raising which is about learning about one’s role in society, and how things are part of systems instead of just being personal. This is what feminists did in the second wave, very overtly. I see MRAs talking about something similar now. People aren’t born with sociological knowledge, and the amount you can gain from personal experience is deep but generally not very wide.

  21. 21
    Ampersand says:

    @Jeffrey Gandee:

    “…lets privileged men act with less concern about the social impact of their actions”

    really means:

    “…lets privileged men think they can get away with disagreeing with me about the social impact of their actions.”

    FTFY.

    This really seems to add nothing to the discussion, and to make things needlessly more obnoxious.

  22. 22
    LTL FTC says:

    I know, which is why I thought better of it and requested deletion about 5 minutes after posting it. I thought I still had 10 minutes on the clock.

    (but if it’s not going anywhere, I stand by it. In the text we have, the author doesn’t define or defend what he thinks constitutes ‘social impact’).

  23. 23
    Ampersand says:

    Oh, okay. I didn’t get the deletion notice, sorry (or I got it and missed it).

    As for standing by it, that’s silly. “He didn’t define a term” is not legitimate cause for “I’m going to interpret this in the most hostile and unkind manner I can imagine.”

    ETA: That was hyperbole, I’m sure all of us here can imagine worse. :-p

  24. 24
    LTL FTC says:

    “He didn’t define a term” is not legitimate cause for “I’m going to interpret this is to interpret this in the most hostile and unkind manner I can imagine.”

    You haven’t been online nearly as long as I thought you have … :)

    Anyway, I’d be interested in seeing how the author ties this all together. It’s easy to fill in the blanks based on the other Secret Knowledge-weilders and aspersion-casters I read every day. I’m always wary when some stranger with an agenda tells me they know me better than I know myself. That said, it’s easy to forget that the book is eons old in Internet time may not be informed by the Derailing for Dummies/Invisible Knapsack touchstones that color my view of statements like those in the excerpts.

  25. 25
    Jeffrey Gandee says:

    LTL FTC,

    Like you, I also don’t like it when people assign ulterior motives to the ideas I express, but in a sense isn’t that what you’re doing here?

    It’s possible that this author has no intention of weaponizing the concept of privilege in an attempt to shut down debate, but instead, he(?) just disagrees with you about the affects of privilege on behavior in the aggregate of white men. Without reading the book or talking to this person it’s hard to say.

    I’ve encountered this weaponized version of privilege many times in the wild, so I know it’s frustrating to read an argument that comes close to doing that, but I don’t think these excerpts cross that line. I’m all for pointing out silencing tactics, but not here.

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