Getting good with women and how I’ve done almost everything in my life wrong: Part III

This is the conclusion to a series; the first part is here. The second is here.

An interview between me and Tucker Max about how I used to suck with women and now I’m okay just went up on his Mating Grounds podcast. You should go listen or read the transcript. This essay grew out of my notes for that podcast.

Context and environment

Surroundings matter enormously in many contexts, and dating is a major one. Enough people who are dating form a dating market, and you should see this podcast and its transcript for details about markets. It can be important to change contexts if the current context is bad. Particularly bad contexts for straight guys include the military, engineering schools, rural areas, and Silicon Valley. My high school context was very bad and my college context very good. The ratio of men to women in a given situation has more short-term impact on success or failure than almost any other variable.

Let me tell another story to illustrate this. My fiancée went to Arizona State University for undergrad and she says that at ASU she didn’t like the pretty one, which is baffling to me. Maybe she felt that way presumably because a lot of the culture there revolves around sorority girls, bleached blond hair, and so forth. Nonetheless that she feels she got little attention seems insane to me.

Still, now we’re in New York City, and other guys hit on her all the time; she might be in the right cultural environment for her temperament. There are lots of attractive people in New York, but there’s a much stronger intellectual, change-the-world vibe than there is in Arizona (or L.A.).

The above paragraphs remind me of another point that’s applicable when you, the guy reading this, starts to get successful: If you’re going to be with a high-status, attractive woman, other guys are going to hit on her. If she responds to that in a really positive way you have a problem. But it’s going to happen. If you’re in a relationship you’ll find other women hitting on you too, albeit usually in a less obvious and less overt way. In high school and college, a lot of the smartest guys have exit options ready to go in the event they leave their relationship or their girlfriend leaves them; girls like guys with options and like guys who other girls have approved.

It’s also possible to check on girls in a relationship in a reasonable way. For example, we were part of a group in Arizona, and one guy was my fiancée’s colleague, and he eventually moved away. A couple years later they were chatting on Facebook, and he was like, “Are you still with Jake?” She said yes, and he replied, “Well, that’s too bad. If you break up, call me.” Which is a way you hit on someone without being a giant asshole about it. She told me about it and I was like, “Well, that’s fair.” People do break up for various reasons.

This illustrates another point: if you’re with a woman who wants to leave, she’s going to leave, either cleanly and reasonably or in a foot-dragging, poisonous way. You can’t force a person to stay. Desirable people are always in short supply. Learning to live with loss is part of learning to live with success.

To return to market issues, I don’t think I would’ve thrived at ASU or the University of Arizona as an undergrad: the bro-ish frat types seem to be optimized for those schools, and I wasn’t either one. I didn’t aspire to go to them. If you’re like I was in high school, you shouldn’t either, regardless of whether your friends are a fratty, party-down types. I did reasonably really well with women in college because I was a) athletic by the standards of my school, b) had learned a lot through painful trial and error in high school, and c) my school was about 60% female and 40% male. That meant there were always single girls around who were looking for guys. Friends who went to engineering schools had the opposite experience, since those schools were 60 – 70% male; some would have been better served romantically by majoring in engineering at big public schools.

If you’re in high school you’ll likely find it difficult or impossible to dramatically change your environment in the short term. There aren’t good solutions for you. Sorry. I don’t believe in telling comforting lies, however, and I do believe that some problems don’t have real or good solutions. I wish I’d admitted so earlier.


* The way a girl who says no will sometimes say yes if you find another girl. If one girl says no, move on. It is at best extremely difficult and more likely impossible to change someone’s initial response. To the extent it can be done, it can be done through rivalry.

* It is very hard, if not impossible, to fix most broken people. Don’t try. If you get with a girl who has very serious mental health problems, or makes very bad choices, let her be someone else’s problems. You don’t need to fix the world, and broken people can be dangerous. If you’re a straight guy you’re presumably not too worried about dating guys who are fundamentally broken, but women with serious mental issues can be really bad.

If you identify someone like this, let her go. If you’re inexperienced you might be bad at identifying this kind of person, but if you do, keep your distance. Move on. Don’t return their emails, texts, and phone calls.

* I’ve gone through very promiscuous phases and very monogamous phases, and this is probably typical of a lot of college / urban young people who aren’t participating in some religious sub-culture and who are paying attention to sex and dating.

* Most of the world’s major religions discourage sex for reasons that probably made sense in say the year 1,000 but may or may not make sense anymore. Decide for yourself whether a set of rules and principles for running a society in the year 1,000 make sense in a modern, urbanized, industrialized society.

* I’d emphasize this: “a shockingly large amount of human social life, or like intellectual life, or other life boils down to trying to prove that you’re not a moron and trying to test to see if other people are.” The sooner you learn to do this, the better.

* So much of life consists of defaults. Understanding and in some circumstances getting away from those defaults is vital. The Internet can actually help enormously in this regard by making a lot of information much more available—for those willing to seek it.

* Schools like prestige because it makes the schools look good; parents like prestige for similar reasons, and because they want their children to be economically independent. But prestige isn’t necessarily that good or important for average people. Success in school isn’t essential to success with women. Prestige as conceived by schools and parents isn’t necessary or often  even helpful for success with women, and it may be counterproductive. In the long term we’re all dead and there is no absolute definition for prestige.

* What people say and what people do are often vastly different. What they do counts ten times as much as what they say. Take note of people whose behaviors habitually don’t match their words. With women, if she wants to be with you but does anything else except be with you, she doesn’t want to be with you. In this and many life domains, it should be HELL YES or no.

* When someone says no, take it gracefully and move on. “No” is permission and encouragement to do other things.

* You will very rarely if ever truly know another human being, and another human being will rarely if ever truly know you. Accept it and be ready to be surprised.

* People who don’t read usually don’t know much (or they know a lot about a single, narrow area that’s usually related to their work). A good book distills years or decades of experience, insight, and knowledge into a single volume that can be read over a couple of hours. Consider that when you’re allocating your time.

Not the best

In most domains I’m not the best. You don’t have to be the “best” either. I’m not the best athlete, I’m (probably) not the best intellectual (depending on one’s definition), I don’t make the most money, I don’t have the coolest job, I’m not the most outgoing, I’m not the best conversationalist, I don’t have the best sense of humor. But in all of these domains I’m above average and by now I’ve been above average for a long time, and that’s a huge advantage over guys who don’t even try. Success in any domain starts with trying.

But trying can be scary because it comes with it the possibility of failure. It took me a long time to embrace failure as a part of the process that leads to success. The link in the preceding sentence goes to Megan McArdle’s book The Up Side of Down: Why Failing ell is the Key to Success. In it she writes of the “deep, soul-crushing periods of misery following stupid mistakes that kept me awake until the small hours of the morning in a fog of anxiety and regret.” But while that was obviously horrible:

It was only later—much later—that I saw the wreckage of my previous hopes become the foundation for something bigger and better.

Writers in particular are terrible procrastinators because they were good at English in school. They know on some level that no actual piece of writing is as good as it seems in their heads. The trick in becoming a productive writer is to either have tons of deadlines or to realize that an actualized piece of writing is always better than a perfect piece of writing that only exists in the head. And “Falling short: seven writers reflect on failure” is a great piece in which seven writers reflect on failure. Success also rarely comes from not failing, since not failing implies not trying; success comes from failing, learning, and then trying again. In the real world there are no no-lose propositions.

In most domains, even the ones I’m now “good” at, I’ve failed in some respect, and I’m still not the best. But that’s okay. For most guys, being the absolute best at a thing is overrated compared to being above average in a range of domains. During my initial interview with Tucker I related the story of Scott Adams, who has said he’s not the best artist and he’s not the funniest guy but he combines both effectively in Dilbert (he also discusses the role of failure in his own life). Combining disparate skills is still underrated. Steven Berlin Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From is good on this subject.

Most guys don’t have to be the best athlete or musician. They should, however, be better than other guys, and the amount of effort it takes to be “better” is often much smaller than anticipated (and also depends on the comparison group). I’m not and never have been the best athlete, but by now I’m probably better than 80% of other guys simply because I care enough to run and lift. This is a huge, key advantage, because women do evaluate men based on physicality, especially in short-term situations; arguably women can afford to be choosier than men in short-term situations because women are warier of those situations.

Anyway, as I said earlier, this essay was supposed to be a couple notes but it turned into more, in part because I suffer from logorrhea and in part because most of the content in this essay is already drifting around in my head.

See also “The appeal of ‘pickup’ or ‘game’ or ‘The Redpill’ is a failure of education and socialization” (note: “Feminism didn’t come from nowhere. Neither has pickup.”) and “The inequality that matters II: Why does dating in Seattle get left out?

Getting good with women and how I’ve done almost everything in my life wrong: Part II

This is the second part in a series; The first part is here.

An interview between me and Tucker Max about how I used to suck with women and now I’m okay just went up on his Mating Grounds podcast. You should go listen or read the transcript. This essay grew out of my notes for that podcast.


I did some online dating years ago, primarily in Seattle and a little bit in Tucson, and some of the girls I got to know showed me their message streams. Some messages were disgusting or outright idiotic, but most they were boring and poorly thought out: “Hey.” “How are you?” “Your profile is interesting.” Pretty girls get dozens of them every week. Hell, even average girls do. I was thinking, “If I were a girl, I’d get turned off by all this crap too.”

Most of the girls I talked to—even the ones who just wanted to get laid—were in fact tired of all that crap. They got so many low-quality messages, or messages from guys who’d copied and pasted an initially clever come-on but couldn’t follow-up. Those women wanted something a little different. They were bored, which is a point I’ll come back to later. Dating for women is different in important ways than dating for men, and I wish I’d understood that sooner.

Reading those messages also explained why I was doing fairly well, since I was deliberately trying to say something non-obvious and ideally slightly lascivious without being gross. That class of message stood out. Being tall and in shape obviously helped too. My photos were pretty good. I didn’t spend much time playing games, and if women didn’t want to meet quickly I would stop messaging them (which would often lead those who were reluctant to meet for whatever reason to want to meet).

The girls from the Internet taught me something else useful too: some said they liked online dating because it let them meet guys without their bitchy, judgmental, hypocritical friends around (they didn’t use those words, but that’s what they meant). Without the chorus of shame squawking in their ears, real desires emerge. The real upholders of the sexual double standard are actually women, not men.

Somewhere along the way I realized that lots of women are lonely and looking for connection, and that loosened me up as far as approaching women and asking them out. I’ve asked out women on the street, in buses (if you’re a guy on the prowl you should love public transportation), in grocery lines, on running trails. Usually the conversation starts with something observational, then moves to whatever is going on that day or week. If you have nothing going on, get something going on and get talking about it. Energetic people are on average more attractive than sluggards.

I’m still not inured to rejection—is anyone?—but if a girl on the street says no, it doesn’t matter. Move on. She’ll forget, and perhaps I’ll make some other girl’s day, and she’ll go home and tell her friends that a cute stranger was hitting on her.

This isn’t something I experienced directly, but a friend’s recent adventures helped teach me too. She’s posted to a well-known amateur porn site (without her face in the shots). On this site she gets a lot of responses from viewers, and she’s shown them to my fiancée and me. They’re voluminous, amazingly bad, and unintentionally hilarious. Hundreds of guys write to her, almost all of them saying some variation on “You’re so hot” or “I want to fuck you.” And these guys have no idea where she lives.

The messages were pathetic, and when we were reading them my fiancée said something like, “This is what all women have to deal with.” In that moment so much became clear to me. I knew that, intellectually, but seeing the really low-value, unsuccessful messages from guys on the Internet reinforced that point. It’s such a waste of time to send those messages. They’re more a fantasy projection that a real attempt to meet women, but every minute or second they spend sending “Ur so hot show me ur butthole” is a minute or second they’re not doing something useful. If I were a woman I couldn’t imagine looking for quality men on amateur porn sites. Yet these are doing so, and the way they’re doing it is all wrong, and yet they persist in doing it the wrong way.

And our friend is not the primary motivator for them. She’s reasonably attractive but not incredibly spectacular—most guys and girls who have a taste for other girls would be happy to date her. But you won’t see her on a Victoria’s Secret runway. she’s getting this kind of response, which is a distillation and intensification of what many women experience otherwise. In real life most guys won’t go up to women and say “show me ur butthole” for good reason; online, with the cloak of pseudonymity, they’re willing to. In real life, guys would probably like to say that, but they can’t or don’t.

On a separate subject, reading Norah Vincent’s book Self-Made Man taught me about the lack of empathy women have for men. So did stories told by women about gross and very insistent guys, or nasty comments from parents and other girls. Reading “The Daughter-Guarding Hypothesis,” since it showed how fear and loathing around sexual behaviors get inculcated in women from an early age.

Looks count

Looks and style matter, and like many nerds (and especially nerds growing up in nerd-infested places like Seattle) I wanted to believe they didn’t. But people make snap judgments for reasons that I now realize are quite good: we communicate a huge amount of information based on what we wear, how we hold ourselves, and so forth. For both men and women wearing clothes that fit matters. Women learn this almost immediately; it took me until I was 25 to figure it out.

Still, when I was 14 or 15 I started lifting and running consistently relatively early, and that was a definitive advantage that continues to be an advantage—not only in dating but in long-term relationships. If you’re old enough to know people who’ve been in long-term relationships, you’ll have seen the pattern in which one or both parties in a long-term relationship let themselves go, which usually coincides taking their partner for granted. That’s probably a mistake at any time or place, but it’s really a mistake in contemporary American society, since in this society and culture the rigors of the dating market never really end. That may be a bad thing but it is a thing. You can’t let yourself go, both for your partner’s sake and because you never know when you’re going to be involuntarily dumped back into the market.

Younger people probably shouldn’t be focused on very long-term relationships because they change so much. I didn’t have a somewhat stable, developed personality until I was 24 or so. People evolve through their lives but that evolution is particularly rapid and pronounced from puberty well into the 20s. If you’re 20, chances are you won’t be dating the same person for five years. Understand that you’re going to be on the market a lot, and it’s difficult or impossible to hide from market tests.

Guys who pay attention to their posture, to what they wear, and to their workouts are in the game. Guys who don’t probably aren’t. That doesn’t mean guys have to become obsessed with these issues—I never have been—but it does mean being aware of them and taking care to do them right.

The last part is here.

Links: What does arousal feel like for women?, campus politics, decision fatigue, geography, and more!

* Mostly SFW: “girls of Reddit what is it like to be horny from a girls perspective?

* “Why One Male College Student Abandoned Affirmative Consent;” I am endlessly struck by the gap between the commentariat and what I observe at Saturday night parties and bars.

* Relatedly, “Neo-Victorianism on Campus: Is this the end of the collegiate bacchanal?”, which is an underreported perspective and yet one Katie Roiphe discussed 20 years ago. The more I know, the more apt I am to be the annoying guy complaining about historical context.

textual-2047* On decision fatigue, which I definitely suffer from.

* Perhaps related to the above, “Doctors Tell All—and It’s Bad,” which can be profitably read in conjunction with “Why you should become a nurse or physicians assistant instead of a doctor: the underrated perils of medical school.”

* “Why Kids Sext,” a 100,000-word article that could be summarized as “For the same reasons adults do” or “cause it’s fun, the same reason why kid these days listen to that infernal devil music: Jazz.”

* “‘The Bell Curve’ 20 years later: A Q&A with Charles Murray;” the section about genetic alteration of genes that affect intelligence is of the most interest. I’m still not convinced our tests for measuring intelligence are great. Then again see “Super-Intelligent Humans Are Coming.”

* Where young college graduates want to live; Portland and Austin are both on my radar.

Women like to watch other women

Although I would classify this as speculative, Noah Berlatsky writes that “Women Appreciate Good Booty-Shaking, Too” and that “Women can look at sexualized images of women all day every day.” Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, they do: look at the covers of magazines targeting women and you’ll mostly find… pictures of other women. Look at magazines devoted to men and you’ll also tend to find… women. Men like looking at women and apparently women like looking at other women.

This link may be NSFW, though it is primarily text, but the blog Pornhub Insights (which probably got started after the success of OkTrend’s data-driven blog about online dating) has a post called “What Women Want” that observes how “Pornhub’s Lesbian category is the leading favorite among the ladies, with Gay (male) following close at second place.” That’s a revealed preference not dissimilar to what magazines targeting women have also found.

IMG_0382A couple people have observed that my Flickr photos tend to feature more women than men, and likewise the photos on this blog. That may be true, but that may be because I’m giving audiences what they want.

I don’t have any good theories or research on the politics, cultural, or biology of why we might be seeing this phenomenon, but I do have a rationale for why I choose what I choose. Not every photographer will care about this, of course, but those who are contemplating what subjects people want to see should at least be cognizant of popularity.

The links we click tell us who we are—

The most-clicked link in “Men are where women were 30 years ago?” comes from this sentence: “In addition, a lot of early socialization about sex and dating is so bad that men and probably women too need to learn how to overcome it.” Usually readers follow more links from the beginning of posts than the ends of post, and the fact that relatively many found this link compelling may tell us something important about what people in general or at least readers of this blog want to know.

I think there’s a level of systematic dishonesty or at least eliding the truth about gender relations and sexuality when many people are growing up, and as a consequence a lot of people hunger for real knowledge. But even as adults that knowledge is still often hidden behind ideology or signaling or wish fulfillment fantasy.

Links: News is bad for you, the UnSlut project, the crab basket effect, self-publishing, space, extinction, flus, and more

* “News is bad for you [. . .] The real news consists of dull but informative reports circulated by consultancies giving in-depth insight into what’s going on. The sort of stuff you find digested in the inside pages of The Economist. All else is comics.”

* Women and the crab-basket effect.

* “New Publisher Authors Trust: Themselves.” File this under “Calling Captain Obvious.”

IMG_2219* The future of U.S. space policy, a topic that is under-discussed.

* Human extinction is an underrated threat.

* Is China covering up another flu pandemic?

* Russell Blake: Why authors annoy me, which is really about how any “rules” about art also meant to be broken.

* “One look at why income inequality is growing,” hat tip and headline tip Tyler Cowen.

* The UnSlut Project: the “It Gets Better” of slut-shaming.

Summary Judgement: Hard to Get — Leslie C. Bell

Hard to Get: Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom sounds promising but makes the classic mistake of reporting opinions expressed in a cold state, which is ver different from the hot or aroused state in which many people make their actual sexual decisions. Unless I missed it, Bell did not cite Alexander and Fisher, “Truth and Consequences: Using the Bogus Pipeline to Examine Sex Differences in Self-Reported Sexuality,” which she should have. She doesn’t consider what Clarisse Thorn does, about the micro-interactions and decisions people make.

An exercise: imagine that the genders in Hard to Get are reversed, and that male writers are talking about their relationships with women. Most commentators, both male and female, would probably make fun of them, whether overtly or through condescension, just as they would a virgin dispensing sex advice.

There is much discussion about “having it all” that I do not think troubles men, or male discourse, nearly as much. For most people, I suspect “having it all” is incoherent and/or paradoxical: it is difficult if not impossible to have copious free time and a time-intensive career; there is an inherent trade-off between the security of a relationship and the thrill of the new. In many domains choosing one path precludes others. But so what? That’s life.

The author never asks what may to be men the most important question of all: how women choose which men they want to sleep with, although one, “Phoebe,” described as a tall, attractive redhead, knows it’s just not that hard, as long as you’re height-weight proportionate (and maybe even if you’re not), to get guys: “Basically, you talk to them” (108). Is this hard to understand? It was hard for me to talk to girls when I was in middle school but like most people I got over it.

The writing is weak or boring on a sentence-by-sentence level; there is a strongly “academic” feel.

I wanted to like the book.

For Men Only by Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn is missing evolutionary biology, behavioral economics, and psychology

For Men Only promises “A Straightforward Guide to the Inner Lives of Women,” but it’s missing any acknowledgment of the vast amount of research that shows:

  • We don’t know what we really want.
  • What we say or think we want often doesn’t match how we behave.
  • We behave different ways at different times and places.

For_men_onlyThe book would benefit from close study of work by Dan Ariely and Daniel Kahneman. For most guys, it’s worth reading, but reading skeptically. I say it’s worth reading because much of the book, especially regarding emotional engagement, matches my mistakes.

The writers, for example, say that “Women tend to process things by talking them through. [. . . while ] Men, however, tend to process things by thinking them through, and not saying anything until they full understand what they are thinking.” That is, on average, true in my experience, and it took a lot of trial and error—and more error—to realize that talking without knowing why one is talking isn’t necessarily a sign of intellectual fatuousness or weakness. It’s a sign that a lot of women are simply “processing,” to use the Feldhahns’s language.

Elsewhere, the Feldhahns say that “When our wife or girlfriend is upset, we do what we would do with other guys: We give her space to work things out. But with very few exceptions, when women are upset they don’t want space. They want a hug.” Space increases feelings of loneliness, not feelings of competence and control. They also say that women often don’t necessarily want solutions to emotional problems—they want empathy, and a listener:

She just wants you to listen = she does want and need you to understand how she’s feeling about the problem. ‘It‘ = an emotional problem. This listening rule does not apply to technical conundrums.

To me, this makes no sense: why share a problem unless you want it resolved? But I’ve learned the the hard way that their reading is correct in many situations, and I’ve tended to discount emotions in favor of trying to solve problems. When this strategy failed, or elicited tears from girls, I would wonder what the fuck is the matter. I mean, when I have problems, I want them fixed, right? But, as the Feldhahns point out, I’m missing that the problem isn’t the problem—it’s a placeholder, in many situations, for something else. I failed to read the situation metaphorically.

The Feldhahns also point out that men overestimate the need to be seen as a “provider” and earn money, while underestimating the need for emotional and sexual closeness (for a literary example of this, pay close attention to the portrayal of Matt French in Megan Abbott’s novel Dare Me; he spends his life working, or worrying about work, in order to buy a big, crappy house, and neglects his wife to the point that she starts sleeping with another guy who probably makes less money but is sexy and available). Notice the words “overestimate” and “underestimate:” money and ambition matter, but not as much as many men think. The Feldhahns say, “For her, ’emotional security’ matters most: feeling emotionally connected and close to you, and knowing that you are there for her no matter what. Sure, providing financially is appreciated, but for most women it’s nowhere near the top of the list.” Clearly Jeff Feldhahn hasn’t dated some of the cold fish I have, but we’ll leave those stories aside.

From what I can discern, those insights are correct, even if the process that led to those insights is bogus, or at least not optimal. The authors say, “Besides conducting hundreds of in-person interviews, we gathered huge amounts of anecdotal information at dozens of women’s events where Feldhahn was presenting materials from For Women Only.” What people say they want and what they actually do often differ severely, as anyone who has ever listened to girls complain about the “assholes” they sleep with, compared with the “nice guys” they don’t, can attest. But my favorite study on the topic of the discrepancy between what people state in various situations is Alexander and Fisher’s “Truth and consequences: Using the bogus pipeline to examine sex differences in self‐reported sexuality:”

Men report more permissive sexual attitudes and behavior than do women. This experiment tested whether these differences might result from false accommodation to gender norms (distorted reporting consistent with gender stereotypes). Participants completed questionnaires under three conditions. Sex differences in self-reported sexual behavior were negligible in a bogus pipeline condition in which participants believed lying could be detected [meaning that “participants are attached to a non-functioning polygraph and are led to believe that dishonest answers given during an interview or on a survey can be detected by the machine” (28)], moderate in an anonymous condition [where participants don’t believe their answers will be revealed at all], and greatest in an exposure threat condition in which the experimenter could potentially view participants’ responses. This pattern was clearest for behaviors considered less acceptable for women than men (e.g., masturbation, exposure to hardcore & softcore erotica). Results suggest that some sex differences in self-reported sexual behavior reflect responses influenced by normative expectations for men and women

In other words, what people say about their sexual habits and beliefs depend in part on who is listening and how the speaker believes what they say will be interpreted. Given that fact, “in-person interviews” and “anecdotal information at women’s events” are arguably the worst way one could gather data on what women “really” want. Every time the Feldhahns say things like, “70 percent of the women said they’d rather their husband take a lower-paying job that would require financial sacrifices if it allowed more family time” (emphasis added) I wanted to say, “they only say that.”

Beyond the issue of what people say in different contexts, there’s an issue about what people do in different states of mind. In Dan Ariely and George Loewenstein’s paper “The heat of the moment: the effect of sexual arousal on sexual decision making,” the authors show that college-aged guys in a “cold” state systematically underestimate their likely sexual preferences and acts when they are in a “hot” state (which the experimenters elicit through showing each individual man porn, encouraging him to masturbate, and then asking the same set of questions). In Predictably Irrational, Ariely describes the difficult of conducting that experiment in the first place because of his university’s human-subjects board, and he speculates that getting permission to operate the same experiment with female subjects would be more difficult still.

The women the Feldhahns speak to are, presumably, in a cold state. What they say they want at that moment, speaking to somewhat high-status writers, may or may not bear any relation to what they want in hot states, or what they want in the private sphere that still exists between their ears. We are all hypocrites, but some of us are better at acknowledging it, and incorporating that knowledge into our thinking, than others.

Perhaps the second-best romantic advice I’ve ever heard is simple: “Don’t pay any attention to what she says—just look at what she does.” (The first-best is “The worst thing she can say is ‘no.'” Alter the gender pronouns to fit your preferences, as needed.) The Feldhahns are paying a lot of attention to what she says.

Jeff also plays himself off as stupid, like many men: “I doubted that a woman could ever be understood. Compared to other complex matters—like the tides, say, or how to figure a baseball player’s ERA—women seemed unknowable. Random even.” That’s because he’s either a) an idiot or b) has bought into large-scale cultural nonsense. Women can be understood. Evolutionary biology is a good place to start: take a look at Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature, then the new introduction to Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s The Woman That Never Evolved, then Thornhill and Gangestad’s The Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality. All of them explain a lot about the pressures women feel, and, by extension, the pressures men feel in response (the pressures men and women feel are, of course, a feedback loop, with one side “responding” to the other).

Individual preferences can’t be understood based on group identification, because individual preferences can vary substantially, but understanding the basic evolutionary and cultural pressures operating on each sex will show why many people behave the way they do. Those “cultural pressures” I mentioned in the previous sentence are also important, and books like Neil Strauss’s The Game discuss them.

Let me return to Hrdy for a moment. In describing her path to the book, she says:

Competition between females is documented for every well-studied species of primate save one: our own. Once we leave the scientific realm, of course, and consider history, literature, and, for many of us, personal experience, examples of highly competitive, manipulative, and even murderous females flock to mind.

Competition between human females also exists—as “history, literature, and [. . .] personal experience” show us (we should get out of the lab and into culture if we’re going to study humans)—but it tends to exist along different dimensions than male competition. That’s why men tend not to notice it. In addition, male scientists suffer a failure of imagination, as Hrdy elegantly puts it: “The history of our knowledge about primate infanticide is in many ways a parable for the biases and fallibility that plague observational sciences: we discount the unimaginable and fail to see what we do not expect.”

Jeff doesn’t understand women because he doesn’t understand that women are also under competitive pressure, though he probably doesn’t realize what he doesn’t understand. Instead of thinking that women are “Random even,” he should be asking: What incentives operate on women that don’t on men? What’s it like to be female in our society? How can I learn more? He’s showing an empathy deficit and a research deficit.

Why are the authors ignorant about the vast literature on deception? They’re not researchers, and they don’t evince any interest in research, which is a major weakness. They’re may be inclined to massage their readers’ prejudice instead of challenging those views. They may also not want to know better, which I say because they say that “This book holds to a biblical world view. [. . . ] because Feldhahn and I view life through our Christian faith, we have seen that these findings are consistent with biblical principles.” In modern America, ensuring that “findings are consistent with biblical principles” is a code-phrase for militant, pointless ignorance. This is where I should point out that intellectual rigor and sophistication can (and should) co-exist with religious belief, but I don’t have the energy for culture-war crap.

The authors also sometimes evade important issues altogether, as their strategic use of passive voice shows here: “In this culture, women are not being protected emotionally. They are being humiliated.” Women are not being “protected emotionally” by who or what? “They are being humiliated” by who or what? As I tell students, cultures don’t just emerge from some amorphous cloud: they’re the result of aggregated individual decisions. Who should be doing the protecting? What does humiliation mean here? It’s hard to emotionally humiliate someone without their consent. This idea is simply asserted, and it’s asserted in a way that removes important information.

Life: The Name of the Rose edition

“Here the artist had dwelled at greater length on the woman’s form. I compared her face, her bosom, her curving thighs with the statue of the Virgin I had seen with Ubertino. The line was different, but this mulier also seemed very beautiful to me. I thought I should not dwell on these notions, and I turned several more pages. I found another woman, but this time it was the whore of Babylon. I was not so much struck by her form as by the thought that she, too, was a woman like the other, and yet this one was the vessel of every vice, whereas the other was the receptacle of every virtue. But the forms were womanly in both cases, and at a certain point I could no longer understand what distinguished them.”
—Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose.

And, why not have a bonus:

“Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means [. . .]”

Caitlin Flanagan and narrative fallacies in Girl Land

In “The King of Human Error,” Michael Lewis describes Daniel Kahneman’s brilliant work, which I’ve learned about slowly over the last few years, as I see him cited more and more but only recently have come to understand just how pervasive and deserved his influence has been; Kahneman’s latest book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is the kind of brilliant summa that makes even writing a review difficult because it’s so good and contains so much material all in one place. In his essay, Lewis says that “The human mind is so wedded to stereotypes and so distracted by vivid descriptions that it will seize upon them, even when they defy logic, rather than upon truly relevant facts. Kahneman and Tversky called this logical error the ‘conjunction fallacy.'”

Caitlin Flanagan’s Girl Land is superficially interesting but can be accurately summarized as simply the conjunction fallacy in book form.

Then we need to be doubly dubious of narrative and narrative fallacies; when we hear things embedded in stories, we ought to be thinking about how those things might not be true, how we’re affected by anecdotes, and how our reasoning holds up under statistical and other kinds of analysis. I like stories, and almost all of us like stories, but too many of us appear to be unwilling to acknowledge that stories we tell may be inaccurate or misleading. Think of Tyler Cowen’s TED talk on this subject too.

In the Lewis article, Kahneman also says: “People say your childhood has a big influence on who you become [. . .] I’m not at all sure that’s true.” I’m not sure either. Flanagan and Freud think so; Bryan Caplan is more skeptical. I am leaning steadily more towards the Caplan / Kahneman uncertain worldview. I wish Flanagan would move in that direction too. She starts Girl Land by saying, “Every woman I’ve known describes her adolescence as the most psychologically intense period of her life.” Which is pretty damn depressing: most people spend their adolescence under their parents’ yoke, stuck in frequently pointless high school classes, and finishing it without accomplishing anything of note. That this state could be “the most psychologically intense” of not just a single person’s life, but of every woman’s life, is to demean the accomplishments and real achievements of adult women. It might be that having a schlong disqualifies me from entering this discussion, but see too the links at the end of this post—which go to female critics equally unimpressed with Girl Land.

I’m not even convinced Flanagan has a strong grasp of what women are really like—maybe “girl land” looks different on the inside, because from the outside I saw as a teenager very little of the subtlety and sensitivity and weakness Flanagan suggests girls have. Perhaps it’s there, but if so, it’s well-hidden; to me a lot of the book reads like female solipsism and navel-gazing, and very disconnected from how women and teenage girls actually behave. Flanagan decries “the sexually explicit music, the endless hard-core and even fetish pornography available twenty-four hours a day on the Internet [. . .]” while ignoring that most girls and women appear to like sexually explicit music; if they didn’t, they’d listen to something else and shun guys who like such music. But they don’t.

Since Flanagan’s chief method of research is anecdote, let me do the same: I’ve known plenty of women who like fetish pornography. She also says puzzling stuff like, “For generations, a girl alone in her room was understood to be doing important work.” What? Understood by whom? And what constitutes “important work” here? In Flanagan’s view, it isn’t developing a detailed knowledge of microbiology in the hopes of furthering human understanding; it’s writing a diary.

There are other howlers: Flanagan says that “they [girls] are forced—perhaps more now than at any other time—to experience sexuality on boys’ terms.” This ignores the power of the female “no”—in our society women are the ones who decide to say yes or no to sex. She misses how many girls and women are drawn to bad-boy alpha males; any time they want “to experience sexuality on [girls’] terms,” whatever that might mean, they’re welcome to. Flanagan doesn’t have a sense of agency or how individuals create society. She says that “the mass media in which so many girls are immersed today does not mean them well; it is driven by a set of priorities largely created by men and largely devoted to the exploitation of girls and young women.” But this only works if girls choose to participate in the forms of mass media Flanagan is describing. That they do, especially in an age of infinite cultural possibilities, indicates that girls like whatever this “mass media” is that “does not mean them well.”

I’m not the only one to have noticed this stuff. See also “What Caitlin Flanagan’s new book Girl Land gets wrong about girls.” And “Facts and the real world hardly exist in Caitlin Flanagan’s ‘Girl Land,’ where gauzy, phony nostalgia reigns:” “Flanagan works as a critic, was once a teacher and counselor at an elite private school, and is the mother of two boys, but somehow nothing has matched the intensity of that girlhood; it forms the only authentically compelling material here.” Which is pretty damn depressing, to have the most intense moments of one’s life happen, at, say, 15.

%d bloggers like this: