Why can’t we all learn to be cooler about sex?

The Press - - Opinion - Ver­ity John­son

Last week, Scott Beierle stormed into a yoga stu­dio in Florida and shot dead two women in re­venge for all the women who had turned him down in life. It’s the lat­est in a string of in­cel at­tacks, in­clud­ing the in­fa­mous Toronto one in April, when Alek Mi­nas­sian drove a van into a group of pedes­tri­ans. That was when the world started googling ‘‘in­cel’’ and dis­cov­ered the on­line com­mu­nity that in­cites in­vol­un­tar­ily celi­bate men to take vi­o­lent re­venge on the women who re­ject them.

But still, when you hear these cases on the news it’s still easy to as­sume that this wouldn’t hap­pen in New Zealand. Mass shoot­ings and acts of ter­ror oc­cur over­seas, right? Well, yes prob­a­bly. But . . .

In­cel at­tack­ers are mis­fit men of­ten with per­son­al­ity and anger prob­lems, who get rad­i­calised by a vi­o­lent, misog­y­nis­tic on­line com­mu­nity. Yes, there are uniquely north Amer­i­can is­sues such as gun con­trol at play here. How­ever, fac­tors like men­tal health, on­line rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion and sex­ist so­ci­etal norms aren’t con­tained to Amer­ica. And after the Toronto at­tack I wrote of how we see men re­act vi­o­lently when they’re re­jected all the time in New Zealand.

What you want to say is that we have a strong counter-nar­ra­tive of general so­ci­etal em­pa­thy, pro­gres­sive­ness and sex­ual equal­ity here. That can serve to pro­tect young men from this on­line nar­ra­tive of bit­ter misog­y­nis­tic rage.

Well yes, New Zealand is a fairly tol­er­ant, re­laxed and pro­gres­sive coun­try. But hon­estly we don’t have a strong enough nar­ra­tive about healthy at­ti­tudes to sex, gen­ders and re­la­tion­ships. Take it from a mil­len­nial, and our as­sault sta­tis­tics, that young men are still grow­ing up with deeply wor­ry­ing ideas around women.

And the best way of re­duc­ing the po­ten­tial risk of some­thing as hor­rific as an in­cel at­tack is to be re­ally, re­ally clear about call­ing out these dan­ger­ous so­ci­etal norms.

Take the Friend Zone. I got in­tro­duced to it in high school, but it’s still widely held among young men in their 20s and 30s. It’s the idea that all women a man meets are sex­ual ‘‘tar­gets’’ that need to be ‘‘con­quered’’ within a cer­tain time­frame (nor­mally about six weeks) or they’ll be for­ever stuck in the ‘‘friend zone’’. And yes, they of­ten use the pseudo-mil­i­taris­tic language that shows they think they’re liv­ing in the Ro­man Em­pire or a big­bud­get ac­tion movie.

It’s a pretty de­press­ing way of look­ing at women. But what’s more scary is that the Friend Zone mind­set sets young men up to ob­sess over win­ning and re­jec­tion in any and ev­ery in­ter­ac­tion they ever have with a woman.

What we need to be em­pha­sis­ing is that it is 100 per cent pos­si­ble/awe­some/just a ba­sic hu­man act to ap­proach women as nor­mal peo­ple you could be friends with. (Which seems like stat­ing the ob­vi­ous, but it’s rarer than we’d all like to think.)

An­other dan­ger­ous idea is our rigidly held and en­forced def­i­ni­tion of mas­culin­ity. I’ve writ­ten be­fore about guys I know who were so ashamed of be­ing a vir­gin, and so sick of be­ing bul­lied for it, that they went to broth­els to lose their vir­gin­ity. Ul­ti­mately it all comes back to ‘‘be­ing a man’’, where your man­li­ness is mea­sured by how many women you have sex with.

And un­til we can start open­ing up our ideas of ‘‘a real man’’ to in­clude things other than just sex, of course there will be young men who are deeply ashamed and angry about not get­ting enough. Add in men­tal health is­sues, and you can see where rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion could take root.

And lastly there’s the fact that, even as a so­ci­ety, we re­ally strug­gle to be cool about sex. We’re still em­bar­rassed, con­ser­va­tive and a bit ir­ra­tional about it. We live in a so­ci­ety where we’ll slut­shame some­one for wear­ing ripped jeans, for God’s sake. We can’t even bring our­selves to teach sex­u­al­ity ed­u­ca­tion prop­erly in schools. It’s not even com­pul­sory – that catch-all blan­ket ‘‘Health’’ is, but sex ed isn’t.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could raise kids to see sex not as scary or sa­cred but just, well, nor­mal? But we don’t. In­stead we treat it with a mix­ture of guilt, shame, idol­i­sa­tion and frus­tra­tion.

And when that’s how you look at sex, it’s much eas­ier to be con­vinced that it re­ally is the be-all and end-all of your ex­is­tence. And po­ten­tially worth killing and dy­ing for.

Now I know we don’t want to talk about this. Many of us don’t even like ad­mit­ting to our­selves that we have is­sues with the way we see re­la­tion­ships and sex. But with­out a strong counter-nar­ra­tive of tol­er­ant, pro­gres­sive at­ti­tudes to sex and gen­der, we’re leav­ing our­selves open to the risks of on­line misog­yny.

And when you look at where that landed Amer­ica, it’s not good enough to keep quiet just be­cause we’re em­bar­rassed.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could raise kids to see sex not as scary or sa­cred but just, well, nor­mal? But we don’t.

We should be em­pha­sis­ing that it is pos­si­ble to ap­proach women as nor­mal peo­ple you could be friends with.

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