Confessions of a Former Sensitive New Age Guy

I have a confession to make. Once upon a time, I was a Sensitive New Age Guy.

I suppose I should explain what I mean. As I’ve written in other posts, I’ve always been rather dainty. And in my struggles with the Act Like a Man Box, there were several years where, rather than rejecting the either/or dynamic of the Box, I tried to reject everything in the Box. This started when I was in college and many of the folks I was spending my time with were some flavor of feminist/dyke/lesbian. I got a lot of encouragement to reject masculinity, rather than the construct of the Box.

Looking back at it, I can see that this was partly because of the enthusiasms of youth (my own and my friends), and the rather either/or mentality that people tend to hold in their late teens and early 20’s, if not longer. It was also affected by the fact that lots of the women I knew were beginning to heal the many different wounds that girls and young women often experience. Sexual assault, parental neglect and abuse, harassment, date rape- these were all among the stories that some of my friends shared with me. And while many boys and men have also been targets of sexual and physical violence, there isn’t the same widespread cultural reinforcement and justification of these patterns.

I remember the day that a friend of mine finally got me to understand that part of why I didn’t see the harassment she faced every day is that men would change their behavior when another guy was around. To prove it, she had me walk about 20 feet behind her down the sidewalk. My job was to watch the reactions of the men she passed. I saw more catcalls, comments, and eyes glued to her butt than I would have imagined, and it literally opened my eyes with surprise. If you don’t believe me, ask a woman if she’ll do this experiment and see for yourself.

So I decided that if men were causing so much pain to so many people, the ethical response would be for me to become the opposite of that. I didn’t have any idea that I could do anything else. I didn’t have any role models for holding on to the aspects of masculinity that served me. None of the people I knew or whose work I read suggested it, and the only man I had ever seen discuss this was John Stoltenberg. He spoke at my university when we was on tour for his book Refusing To Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice, and while I wasn’t satisfied with what he had to say, I never heard anyone offering any alternatives.

So I became a SNAG. I started looking like a hippie, with forays into faerie once I came out as queer. I rejected everything that felt masculine to me. And something interesting happened. I started getting a lot of praise from women. I lost track of how many times someone told me that if it hadn’t been for me, she’d have lost faith in the possibility that men could be different. I’ll admit that it was a huge ego boost to hear that. After all, what could be more validating for a SNAG than to hear that he was the first example that someone had ever seen that gave her reason to hope. And, quite frankly, it got me a lot of sex. I sometimes joke that what I really majored in was getting laid.

After I graduated from college and grew up a bit more, I realized that I needed to shed being a SNAG and eventually, I learned how to honor the aspects of masculinity that serve me instead of rejecting them wholesale. But my experiences back then give me a different perspective on Meghan Murphy’s recent post, Chill out, dear”: An open letter to the New Age Dude.

I should make it clear that I’m 100% with her that New Age Dudes who talk about respecting women in order to get into their pants are manipulative and sexist. If you’re parroting gender equality in order to get someone’s clothes off, you’re making life harder for everyone who wants to make the world a better place for people of all genders. So I’m not arguing with Meghan’s central premise. But I do think there’s an element that I’d like to add to her analysis: it takes so very little for a man to look like he’s more respectful towards women that it’s easy for NADs to front.

I know this from personal experience. While my motivations as a SNAG were different from those of the NADs that Meghan talks about, I can most assuredly say that all it takes is acting with a little kindness and willingness to listen to a woman to stand out from the rest of the pack. Actually, all a man needs to do is not be emotionally, physically, sexually, or verbally abusive and he’s already ahead of the curve. How sad is that?

So it’s not a surprise to me that there are guys who talk a good game about honoring femininity, or valuing women, or seeing the beauty in all women, just so they can get some action. They’ve discovered that a lot of women experience a deep hunger for this kind of validation and support, and they take advantage of that. Unfortunately, it can be hard to tell whether someone is genuinely committed as an ally and supporter of women or if he’s simply pretending. As Meghan points out, his behavior when you call him on his shit can make it pretty clear. If he’s able to shut up and listen, that’s a sign that he’s more likely to be a real ally. If he tells you to chill out or that you’re being too sensitive, then the odds are either that he’s faking it or he’s got some work to do to let go of the Act Like a Man Box.

Without suggesting that it’s ever a woman’s job to support a man as he struggles with the Box, I do want to acknowledge that a guy can start off with a defensive reaction and then come around. I know because I’ve done it more times than I can count and I’ve seen my friends do it, too. I don’t want to reinforce the common idea that there’s a sharp line between ally and douchebag. The fact is, most people have douchebag moments and men who are learning to navigate this stuff have them pretty often. A key difference, though, is whether we can apologize and make amends when we finally get our heads out of our asses.

But the fact that it takes so little for a guy to be able to appear as if he cares for women in general or the woman he’s with in particular, coupled with the deep hunger that many women have for a connection with a man who’s not going to treat her badly, means that it’s easy for NADs to keep on doing their thing. It makes it easy for them to talk about honoring women, at least until the next morning. And each time it this happens, it adds insult to the many injuries of sexism.

Looking back at my time as a SNAG, I can see how it might have been easy to go down that path. Every time my ego got a thrill for the praise I received for not being like “those guys,” it nudged me towards that rather slippery slope and I’ll admit that there were times that I talked a better game than I was actually playing. I regret that and I know that despite my generally good intentions, I didn’t always act honorably. I’m deeply grateful that I eventually got over myself, and I try to hold on to the lessons of my past in order to avoid repeating them. I’m also still pretty woo, even though I’m atheist these days. After living in the San Francisco Bay Area for 20 years, it’s sort of soaked in and I find that a lot of the woo language works as useful metaphors. But that’s a topic for another day.

So for my brothers out there who are finding their own paths through all of this, I have a few things to say.

  • Don’t let it go to your head. As soon as you think you’re better than anyone else because of your hip, groovy, ally ways, you’ve lost it.
  • Be clear in your motivations. If you want to have sex, figure out how to ask for it without pretending, manipulating the person you’re with, or fronting.
  • Learn how to apologize and make amends. You’ll make mistakes and the time to learn first aid is before someone is hurt.

And for the guys who are pretending to care about women in order to convince them to have sex- stop it. It’s emotional abuse, it’s making the world a worse place, and it’s really bad karma.

’nuff said.