Thursday, 8 January 2015

Why we need to stop playing “the game”

By E. A.

Why are some men the aggressor when it comes to relationships? 

If we focus on the traditional male/female paradigm (this analysis is not meant to normalize or privilege heterosexual relations at the expense of homosexual relations, but merely to examine some of the dynamics in the former) we will see a common conception: the man must actively seek the woman. When it comes to dating, the illusion typically exists that there is a “game” that must be played. This illusion is one that both sexes play a part in, and no matter how “progressive” or “alternative” the individuals may be, both parties will almost always play along – even in the most minute ways – with this socially-entrenched model of behaviour. 

This can be seen in the example of a standard night at a popular nightclub. On such a night, men will approach the event intending to meet women and earn their favor. The game is what must be “played” to distinguish the characteristics of one individual from another; it is the stage set for competing individuals to successfully “win” the object of their desire, a prize, so to speak. 

It is in this realm that we see the man as active; he must seduce the women, pursue her, attempt to win her over, and further, do so in a way that renders the attempts of other men inferior. Now, this is done by engaging her senses; a man must perform a multitude of personalities to stand out from the competition. He must possess (or, as is most often the case, display that he possesses without any genuine substance) desirable traits that the woman looks for. He must be confident and charming, humourous and witty, physically and aesthetically pleasing, etc. Thus, in this realm, the man must play according to a predefined role. Not to say that there isn’t any room for creativity and innovation, but there is certainly a structure that must be adhered to if he aims for objective success. 

Women too play into this construct. When a woman goes for a “night out” she typically prepares herself by dressing in a way that is appealing (whether this be defined by terms like “sexy” or “flirty” is case specific, however, it is almost always in a way that renders preference to her male counterpart). This is done to improve her chances of being seen, to look more attractive than other women. This construct has permeated deep into popular culture, with women going to painful lengths just to achieve a specific look. The woman then presents herself through both her clothing and body language. Often, women will dance suggestively, embrace their friends provocatively, and exhibit coquettish body language. Although these are all active and completely conscious actions, the role of the woman within the structure of the game is still inherently passive. This is all done in an attempt to get a man to engage with her. Although it is acceptable for her to start the conversation, she must possess some degree of desirability, in the hopes of catching the attention of the man and stopping him from pursuing other women.    

Now, as you read this you may think that this model is based on tired stereotypes and a simplistic outlook on the dating scene. This is partly true. Nightclubs and “the game” represent a microcosm of human activity, but there is no doubt that it is a very real and very popular activity among young people. It is one that has become deeply entrenched in popular culture. We can look no further than popular music, most of which variously references “the club,” the activity of pursing and interacting with the opposite sex, and sexual activities. Further, television and other popular media regularly play into the conception of “the game;” advertisements that present male hygienic products as “rugged, “manly” or “smooth” (look no further than an old spice ad for deodorant) make shameless allusions to masculine characteristics that the stereotypical woman is supposed to like. Sitcoms often lampoon the dating scene and the popularity of Friends and How I Met You’re Mother, are a testament to the insidious acceptance of these codes. Both contain stock characters who embody the attributes of the dating scene; the former has Phoebe, absent-minded girl who lives for a good time, and the latter, Barney, a serial womanizer with little respect for women who inspires hope for legions of men. The point being made is that there is a real and well-understood social construct that dictates the relationships between men and women. It is widely accepted, albeit subconsciously, by the masses due to its insidious nature and ability to homogenize itself with almost every facet of modern culture. This is true so much so that non-hegemonic groups still pander to its structure; the LGBT community has the “butch” and “femme” and the “top” and “bottom”.  Some progressive cultures, such as polyamory, see sexuality as open, yet make no attempt to deconstruct the gender roles (although they do seem more open to varying viewpoints). Even feminists themselves have open debates regarding the role of masculinity in their own sexuality, with some fully embracing it and seeing it’s exploitation as a form of empowerment, and others fully rejecting it (yet this often plays into a masculine role, the “butch”).   

So let us return to the original question: why are some men the aggressors when it comes to relationships? Those who actively enjoy and embrace the structure of “the game” are quite susceptible to overt enthusiasm. It’s not a big leap to jump from confidence to power, and this can become quite domineering. As a man, I’ve heard numerous references to women as “kills,” “wins”, “scores,” and even “prey,” reducing them to the very object that “the game” holds them as. This creates contempt for women that some men find “easy,” as they do not correctly fulfill to their given role, or do so poorly, or haphazardly. It is not uncommon for men to diminish the personality of a promiscuous woman. Perhaps this can in part explain the actions of violence towards sex workers (something far more common than in domestic relationships, although that violence is a real issue in its own respect) and explains why there is a very real and socially-accepted culture of domination when it comes to the seduction of women. The Pick Up Artist, or PUA, culture is an extremely concerning community that seems to feed off this dynamic and they have, rightly, come under the criticism of feminists and intellectuals. Although not all men see women as inferior, there is a very real consciousness that sees them as playing a passive role, a role that is easily exploited and dominated by those who seek power through violence. 

But the issue of gender-based violence is obviously not that simplistic. Psychoanalytic and social scientific research shows us that the psyche of humans is extremely complex. Among the multitude of reasons that may drive a man to physically assault a woman, there are men who do so because they themselves have been dominated. Whether the culprits were other men, authority, or institutions, these individuals feel victimized and hurt. They may then seek violent power as a form of unconscious retribution. Further; they may see the passive role of women as something that can be easily subjugated.  These men, dealing with a variety of issues, may find the construction of dating and socializing as something they can easily comprehend. From here they may exploit this knowledge in an attempt to realize their own aggression. The man earns the trust of a woman but only to lower her defenses, thus attacking a vulnerable and easy target. 

These examples illustrate both the complex causes of gender-based violence and allow us to elucidate the effects it has on female survivors. The latter example emphasizes what a woman means when she says she feels victimized. For simply playing into an assigned role, she is degraded and violated. 

An awareness of these gender roles helps to understand not only the causes but also some of the responses to gender-based violence. Women who “dress like sluts” are not “asking for it,” they may simply be doing it to attract the attention of a particular person. Not all men are perverted, domineering predators, some may just be shy or introverted, or simply have been told to act in a certain way. The barriers of miscommunication and social constructs are what lead to a majority of the issues, and there must be much more open dialogue when it comes to addressing the void between genders (and their assigned social roles) in an attempt to secure empathy for one another. With consent becoming something of a buzz word in the media, let’s not forget what it really means: to give permission, to have the other see you as an equal, respect your wishes, and to share something with you. 

Consent, in short, creates the conditions for play between sexual partners; “the game is simply an exercise in violence and power. It’s time to start reimagining the games we play.

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