Politics & Policy

Gender-Neutral Dating

The progressive taste for managing the sex lives of others is of a piece with its war on private life.

Wish Room is a manufacturer of familiar lingerie products: frilly pink brassieres and panties, diaphanous silk nighties, and the like. But the cuts are a little odd — because they are designed for men. The Japanese fashion house sells its products not at sex-fetish shops of the sort that might cater to a Doctor Frank-N-Furter but at traditional shopping malls, and executive director Akiko Okunomiya tells the Daily Mail: “I think more and more men are becoming interested in bras. Since we launched the men’s bra, we’ve been getting feedback from customers saying, ‘Wow, we’d been waiting for this for such a long time.’” I myself approach the subject of other people’s underwear on a strictly need-to-know basis, but I could not help here wondering about the same thing that crossed my mind when I encountered a very rock-’n’-roll red-paisley deconstructed Comme des Garçons dinner jacket: What, exactly, is the appropriate occasion?

I believe I have found the answer.

“It’s not possible to have a completely gender neutral date,” writes therapist Andrew Smiler in a head-clutchingly asinine essay for the Good Men Project, a repository of painfully navel-gazing male-feminist apologetics that describes itself as “not so much a magazine as a social movement.” While acknowledging the impossibility of his daunting task, Mr. Smiler goes on to offer a great many helpful tips in his “Guy’s Guide to the Gender-Minimized First Date.” But not before making a full and frank apology in advance: “I’m trying to write this guide to apply across all genders, masculine, feminine, trans*, etc. If I’ve missed or something is very wrong, I have faith someone will let me know in the comments. I’m also writing based on my own American background and referring primarily to gender roles as they currently exist in the U.S. Depending on where you’re from, you may have grown up with this approach or you may find it completely foreign.” An asterisk on that asterisk: “Trans*” I am reliably informed, is the new, more inclusive way of referring in writing to the phenomenon of transsexualism, or as the ever-helpful FAQ at “Ask a Trans Woman” explains: “Trans, sans asterisk, has a tendency to mean gender-binary folk (trans men and trans women, often by the DSM-IV, GID definition of the words.) Trans* is more inclusive.” It is getting difficult to keep up.

#ad#Mr. Smiler’s advice, almost all of which is catastrophically bad, consists in the main of pre-cooking evasive strategies for such potentially fraught issues as deciding who pays for dinner or whether to split the check in the name of sexual egalitarianism. His guidance: The party proffering the invitation pays for the party accepting it. This is the sole area in which Mr. Smiler, otherwise a celebrant of sexual fluidity, concedes that expectations may be fixed by circumstance. “You can maintain one roll [sic] . . . or you can switch around,” except when the bill comes, which is to say you can pass the rolls but not the check. Not my own style, though fair enough. (But who says you get to make the rules, Mr. Man?)

It should go without saying, here at what one hopes against hope is at long last the nadir of Western sexual dysfunction, that Mr. Smiler’s gender roles have nothing to do with anything so quotidian as the actual sex of the person with which they are associated: “Your genitalia — and your partner’s genitalia — are only relevant if you prefer some types of genitalia over others,” he writes. Possibly relevant maxims here include “De gustibus non disputandum est,” or, perhaps more apropos, Richard Fariña’s “Mea most maxima culpa, baby, ’cause this is my week for chicks.” It is emblematic of our current attitudes toward sex, which are fundamentally consumerist, that this question is approached as though it were a choice between the gluten-free lasagna and the full-on farina di grano tenero.

In truth the majority of people, so overwhelming a majority as to be nearly universal, do in fact prefer some types of genitalia over others. (I trust that this is not news to you.) Which is why Mr. Smiler immediately sets about undermining his own advice on the subject, recommending that his readers get “all gendered up” on the implicit assumption that a gender-neutral first date is in fact the last thing that anybody really wants. That is because people in the main not only prefer some types of genitalia over others, they in most cases also prefer romantic partners who seem like the sort of person who would under normal circumstances sport the sort of genitalia they fancy. If Mr. Smiler really thought that playing down sexual specifics was the way toward a happy and fulfilling romantic life, he’d be hawking those Japanese man-bras to his few good men.

In describing the quest for a gender-neutral first date, Mr. Smiler never gets around to asking why anybody would want one in the first place. The answer is that no one does.

Two other gems in Mr. Smiler’s offering: “Although it can be awkward, I recommend having at least a little conversation about gender roles — especially as they apply to dating and sex — during the first date.” And: “Decide if and how much sexual contact you want to have with this person at this time.” I will predict that if you take his advice on the former, the latter will be moot. It is almost enough to make one pine for the simpler time when first dates were mainly characterized by Wild Turkey and bad decisions. (“Depending on where you’re from, you may have grown up with this approach or you may find it completely foreign.”)

#page#As Mr. Smiler was sharing his wisdom, International Herald Tribune fashion critic Suzy Menkes was reporting from London’s Fashion Week, discussing, under the headline “Crossing Gender Boundaries Again,” designs for men that “rekindled the masculine-feminine debate in 21st-century fashion.” There were plenty of skirts, which is nothing new in men’s haute couture, single-shoulder and backless tops, and the like. A number of women of my acquaintance reacted with unmitigated disgust, which is not surprising, though the clothes in question fell well short of the frilly-pink-man-bra mark. I myself am not nearly so bothered by dainty underthings for men as I am by the notion that functioning human beings of the age of sexual consent require advice — from a group of gentlemen constituting “not so much a magazine as a social movement” — to the effect that they need to think about whether they wish to have sex with somebody before having sex with the party in question. I have seen a couple trip and fall into San Antonio’s Riverwalk, but I have never seen anybody trip and fall into that.

#ad#To the feminists and their allies we owe the coining of the phrase “heteronormative,” which describes the moral terror that all good people are expected to feel for walking around with their bigoted heads full of the notion that, however tolerant or even indulgent we may be of our more exotically inclined friends and neighbors, there exists such a thing as sexual normalcy, and that our norms are related to that which is — what’s the word? — normal. Conservatives are of course inclined to account for the great variety of human life as a matter of fact if not as a matter of moral endorsement: William F. Buckley Jr., upon being told that at most 2 percent of the population is gay, replied that if that were really the case then he must know all of them personally. The heteronormative is right up there with “rape culture” and various distillations of “privilege” — white, male, etc. — that together form the rogues’ gallery populating progressives’ worldview, which is at heart a species of conspiracy in which such traditional malefactors as the Illuminati and the Bilderbergers have been replaced with disembodied malice that can be located anywhere and at any time it is convenient to do so.

Like the old-fashioned conspiracy theorists they so closely resemble, progressives regard any resistance to their risible claims regarding the all-pervasive power of patriarchy/heteronormalcy/white privilege/etc. as nothing more than evidence of the reach and strength of the conspiracy’s tentacles. A regular at a coffee shop I used to frequent was known to one and all as “Conspiracy Theory Larry,” and had an explanation for everything — everything — that was wrong with the world, and my derision was enough to convince him I was a junior-league Illuminatus. (I can only imagine that he was confirmed in his suspicion when I joined National Review, which after all was founded by this guy: “William F. Buckley Jr., the American publisher who heads the elite Janus mind-control project at NATO headquarters, was the most awful of all of them. [Ed: “Them” being reptilian shape-shifters.] Quite honestly he used his teeth a lot. He used to bite a lot. He got pleasure out of hurting people by biting them after he shape-shifted. To this very day I have an aversion to that kind of thing.” I suppose one would.) If forays into gender-role adventurism are met with so much as a raised eyebrow, it is, in the progressive mind, evidence of a monstrous evil. As in a good conspiracy theory, every evil must be in unity with every other evil, which is why progressives can see no difference between a social norm that assumes boys do not normally wear dresses and one that assumes homosexuals will be put into concentration camps.

The ironically puritanical progressive taste for managing the sex lives of others is of a piece with its all-out war on private life, putting into action the old feminist slogan: “The personal is political.” More than a few of my more enthusiastic social-conservative friends have what I regard as an unhealthy and distasteful interest in the private lives of others, but when it comes to the volume and detail of contemplated sexual guidelines, they cannot hold a sacred eco-feminist candle to our progressive friends. The Book of Leviticus is the soul of brevity compared with the volumes of sexual moralizing produced by the Good Men Project and the like. Together, the overzealous elements of the Right and Left are like the symbiotic police and anarchists in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent: They form a kind of mutual-outrage society in which the ever-finer parsing of sexual proclivity gives both sides something to complain about. Some people get married and have children, some invest sobering sums in man-panties, and most of them manage to grope along in the dark with no particular need of a highly developed politics of dating. Sometimes, the personal is personal.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.

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