I’m a stay-at-home dad to twin 4-year-old girls who are already smarter than me, and my wife is a brilliant doctor who kicks ass and saves lives every day. I grew up with big sisters and a mom whose authority was unbreachable. I celebrate every inroad that women make into business, technology, science, politics, comedy, you name it, and I get angry about “slut-shaming” or “stereotype threat” or whatever is the affront du jour. And yet, in the caveman recesses of my imagination, I objectify women in ways that make Hooters look like a breakout session at a NOW conference.
In Louis C.K.’s comedy special, Live at the Beacon Theater, the stand-up, who in his own way has been making feminism funny for years, talks about being “sick of the constant perverted sexual thoughts” that intrude on his day-to-day life. Women who claim that they have equally hardcore erotic thoughts, he says, are just “tourists in sexual perversion” whereas men are “prisoners.” “You’re Jane Fonda sitting on the tank,” he says to the hypothetical woman who boasts of being as dirty-minded as men. “I’m John McCain in the hut … it’s a nightmare … I can’t lift my arms.” He then illustrates how his condition plays out when he can’t even ask a librarian about a book on Lincoln without aggressive pornographic daydreams turning him into a slavering idiot. “I just want to have a day [without the perverted thoughts],” he laments, “I just want to be a person, in clothes, walking in a store.”
When I first saw this routine, I was as relieved as I was entertained. Somebody else out there had the same “affliction” as I did! It may not be as pronounced as it was in my teens and 20s, but it’s still there, as if a never-ending porn movie has been playing in my subconscious for the last 30 years, and any lull in cognitive demands, or interaction with a woman who is perfect for a cameo in it—the woman walking her dog past my house, the neighbor’s nanny, the Valkyrie on the elliptical trainer at the gym—rotates the film to the main screen. In 3-D.
I assume that my “condition” is perfectly normal, because many friends I’ve consulted have admitted that they, too, might have graphic daydreams about a woman they saw for five seconds at a traffic light. And indeed, the academic research on the subject corroborates my informal polling. But I couldn’t get over the cognitive dissonance of the whole situation. How could enlightened, feminist guys like myself put up with these unbidden fantasies that violate our dedication to gender equity and basic human decency? There must be like-minded men who have overcome these impulses. I decided that I would seek out their stories, and use them to help me cleanse my filthy mind.
I first asked Joanna Schroeder, senior editor and writer at The Good Men Project, for some advice. She directed me to a recent piece on Everyday Feminism, which suggested that avoiding the visual stimulus could decrease the perverted thoughts. “I can choose to avert my eyes,” wrote James Utt. I can choose to briefly look and move on. I can choose to show the woman the respect she deserves by holding her eye contact while we talk.” We are not, he claims, slaves to our subconscious. Yes! I thought. I can feel the shackles falling away!
I asked the often controversial feminist writer, Hugo Schwyzer, who teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College, if he knew of any research that had been done on how to avoid being “plagued by intrusive sexual thoughts.” His suggestion? ”The "affirm and redirect" strategy.
“Sure, you want to lift this woman up onto the counter and put your hungry mouth on hers while she wraps her legs around you, but in fact, you're just going to order your latté, smile politely and let it all be.
Lust is the background music that occasionally gets turned up. Learning to let it come and go without being ashamed—and without making it anyone else's problem—is part of growing up.”
OK, so I had two potential tools: 1) Try not to ogle; and 2) Don’t freak out if I catch myself ogling or fantasizing.
I decided to kick it up a notch and see what kind of wisdom I could glean from the sexual addiction community. I called the toll-free number for Sexual Addicts Anonymous, and had a chat with what seemed to be the nicest guy in the world. He explained to me, gently, that their program was designed to deal with dangerous and destructive behaviors, and that lessening the annoyance of “normal” fantasies was not in their purview. “But,” I protested, “based on the addiction self-assessment phone survey, it seems like a spectrum, really. I mean, every man I know would have to answer ‘yes’ to some of those questions. Who hasn’t kept secrets about their sexual fantasies? Whose fantasies haven’t conflicted with their morals or spiritual journey? Whose sexual preoccupation hasn’t caused them some kind of problem?”
“Well,” he replied, “maybe you should come to a meeting.”
I didn’t go to a meeting, but I did scour the SAA website for coping resources that might translate into good practices for the person who is pretty sure he’s not a sex addict. I found one good tip there: The Three Second Rule is described as “a tool we use for dealing with visual stimulation or addictive fantasy.” “As we go through life,” the text explains, “we are not in control of what thoughts pop into our minds. However, we make a distinction between that experience and the practice of indulging in addictive fantasy.” So, if a “triggering image or thought” lingers for more than three seconds, practitioners of this rule must “turn the behavior over to our Higher Power and ask for help as quickly as we can.” It sounded legit. But I felt like I needed a face for my Higher Power, which for me is the nebulous ideal of gender equity. So I chose the image of my intro to women’s studies professor from college. Next I decided to consult Christian literature, which proved especially abundant if I added “lust” as a search term. I asked one of my evangelical cousins for some guidance, and she sent me to an e-book on the website theresurgance.com, called Porn Again Christian. It was a fascinating read for many reasons, but when it came to dealing with the fundamental problems (“sin” and “lust”) the answer was always “Jesus” which was not very helpful to me. But there was one excellent piece of advice I found hiding among the prayers: When you catch yourself objectifying women, think about your daughters, sisters, and mothers. Try not to ogle. Don’t overanalyze sexual thoughts. Follow the Three Second Rule. Think about my daughters, mom, and sisters. Having developed a list of defenses against my own imagination, I set out to pursue Louis C.K.’s dream of having a day without perverted thoughts. To just be a person, in clothes, walking in a store.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, my kids go to preschool on the campus of a huge university in Southern California. Since the construction of an outdoor pool complex a few years ago, there are often women walking around campus in actual bikinis. Almost all of the staff at the kids’ school are women, and many of them are undergrads studying child development. They dress like—well—like you might imagine undergrads in Southern California would dress. Because I have scheduled a parent-teacher conference at lunchtime, I have to run this gauntlet three times today.
I’m quickly realizing that avoiding ogling is a very effective strategy for reining in the imagination, and that the Three Second Rule keeps me honest. It’s also striking how the drive through campus is a “trigger” (to borrow SAA terminology) for what could be considered compulsive behavior on my part. As I approach certain intersections, I get a feeling of anticipation that’s not exactly sexual, but more like the buzz I get when I feel like there’s a Facebook notification on my iPhone burning a hole in my pocket: Okay … [scan, scan, scan] … let me just check her out really quick … Oh! There’s another one! Light’s green … I’ll just linger on her a little bit in the side-view mirror as I pass. But I’m not doing that today. I’m watching traffic, staring at the stoplight, making faces at my kids in the rear-view mirror.
I consider this a big victory so far. After all, it’s much easier to succumb to the impulse within the automotive bubble of unaccountability than when we’re face-to-face with someone. But giving up the little charge of satisfaction I get from acting out makes the driving more peaceful. Like road rage, ogling, while momentarily satisfying, actually consumes energy and attention, and ultimately makes the task of driving more difficult. When I interact with the staff at the kids’ school, and later the female cashiers and shoppers at the grocery store, again it’s a bit of a relief to make myself focus on their faces. Instead of undressing them with my eyes, I’m cloaking them in imaginary burqas. It seems like I shouldn’t have to do this, and that it’s not the “right” solution, but it’s working, and it’s less draining than catching myself furtively checking out the parts that are—forgive me—on display, and then creep-shaming myself.
The gym is tricky. I joke around with the front desk staff, a trio of attractive, fit, young women, keeping my gaze within the prescribed latitudes, and I feel much more comfortable around them than usual. In fact, I’m starting to have the distantly familiar sensation of righteousness that I did when I quit smoking 20-some years ago, or during the few periods when I was conscientious about my eating habits.
And then there’s the yoga class. I’ve been meaning to get back into yoga, but I haven’t done it in a long time and my form is rusty, so I need to watch my classmates to remind me of what the poses are supposed to look like. My classmates are mostly women, mostly in yoga pants and tank tops; and naturally the ones with the best form are also the most fit and attractive. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to honestly say that I can look at a woman in a downward facing dog pose and be struck only by her strength and flexibility. Today is not that day. The Three Second Rule is helpful here, as is the concentration and discomfort involved in doing yoga after a hiatus of several years. They are distractions from the distractions. I don’t trip about my two and a half second transgressions: In true yogi fashion, I just let that energy drift away.
I feel good about myself at the end of the day, in the way that only fulfilling the bare minimum requirements of being a decent human being can make me. It’s a little strange and sad to me that, when I try to think of the women I’ve interacted with over the past 12 hours, I can’t really pull up any distinct images, as I would normally do with ease. For someone with an eye for detail, it’s unsettling to not remember what a person I saw so recently was wearing. This technique of essentially ignoring women’s physical presence may not be sustainable, and it may not be desirable. But it also seems like as good an alternative as any to giving women unwanted (or even wanted) sexual attention, and maybe spending some time with this perspective will at least give me a taste of freedom from “perverted thoughts.” One clear victory: At least I did not need to get my mom involved in this.
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