Ian Ironwood Is Here To Take Your Questions!

Need advice? Want to share some intriguing sexual information? Heard about something sexy and obscure and want to know more? Ask an expert Sex Nerd!


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Dueling Sex Nerds: Yes, Emily Doods really ARE this . . .

I’ve been having a fascinating discussion over at the other Sex Nerd, Dr. Emily Nagoski’s site, and while I was actually going to post this as a response, I figgered, y’know? I haven’t done a non-Charlie Sheen related post in a while, so here goes:

The basic question began with Dr. Emily’s curiosity about whether or not a woman taking sex off the table right up front was a good idea, as the big sexual question mark that hangs over every male-female relationship is so incredibly distracting that it gets in the way of actually developing a relationship. A fair point. However, I pointed out that while I did feel it was a good idea, for completely different reasons, I mentioned that in doing so a woman fundamentally changes the nature of her relationship with the man in question, whether she means to or not.

Let's bear in mind that Ian is happily married and this is all hypothetical or, at best, post hoc, so let's not holler at him please.

Thanks for that, Emily. I am, indeed, happily married, but I am not only a student of human nature, the author of a book on how to pick up women, but I’m a Sex Nerd. I do a lot of observation on this subject and talk to a lot of people. I’m not out to score myself -- Mrs. Ironwood has that well in hand. My issue here is not personal, I assure you, it is professional. But if you must yell . . . well, at least make it interesting. Back to Emily:

But. This... would mean... a woman who wants a straight man to get to know her as a person has to create an environment where sex is perceived to be at least a theoretical possibility.

Well said.

I’m not saying that every dude a woman meets is potential boyfriend material, or even a potential bedmate. What I’m saying is that the existence of this theoretical possibility has very little to do with any likelihood sex will occur. It has far more to do with how men deal with rejection, individually and collectively.

This is going to be hard to explain to my XX audience, but if you ladies will bear with me a moment, this might be a valuable clue to masculine behavior you can take home with you. In my opinion, bouyed by my observations, adult straight men, no matter how strong of mind, noble of spirit, etc. etc., tend to put all women into three categories, and subtly alter their behavior accordingly. There’s the Class Of Women Who I’ve Slept With/Continue To Sleep With (feel free to substitute “be intimate with”, if you like), there’s the Class Of Women Who Might Potentially Sleep With Me, Theoretically, and finally there’s the Class Of Women Who Will Not/Can Not Sleep With Me. Pretty simple, huh? Well, we’re dudes. We like things simple.

Now, membership in one class or another has nothing to do with the level of respect that a man pays to the woman in question. Your niece, your grandmother, your maiden aunt, the church ladies, the girl scout troop, all of these women are safely in the class of Women Who Will Not/Can Not, or they had better be unless you want some unpleasant jail time and national notoriety. For all practical purposes, for the adult male these females are Off Limits, and that’s OK. That doesn’t mean they aren’t people, that doesn’t mean they aren’t women, it means they’re in Category 3.

Category One tends to be a wife or girlfriend, or perhaps several girlfriends and maybe a wife or two. Women that you have/can be intimate with. They are in a special place in your heart and mind, even if that place is a little seedy, but they are women who, psychologically, have provided the male in question with affirmation and personal security, not to mention some happy fun time, potentially children, and possibly an STD. Regardless of whether you love them or hate them, these are the women to whom most men treat specially. It’s a subtle difference, from any other category, but it’s there.

Category Two? Everyone else. Theoretical “Fair Game”. In other words, Women Who Have Not Rejected You Yet.

And that’s the heart of the matter. Even if sex is nevery spoken of, and the relationship between said man and said woman is entirely professional on both sides, to the male the “big question mark” is what establishes the mental status of the woman. It’s not even, “could I get into her pants, theoretically?” it’s “am I impressing her enough so that, say we were both stranded on a desert island, she would find me acceptable enough as a human being to want to be with me sexually?”

It sounds silly, I know, but no more silly than the woman I knew who broke up with her fiancee because she didn’t like the way his last name sounded with her first name. And it’s important to point out that this all occurs at a subconscious level for most men -- we are so used to sublimating our sexual drives that we are often unaware of when and how they impel us. But when a man meets a woman in a social situation and the woman is exempt from categories One or Three, well, that means sex is on the table . . . theoretically. Or, at least the innate desire of men to display their sexual assets (not their big dicks, BTW) in terms of demonstrating competency, success, efficiency, control, strength, wisdom, humor, intelligence . . . you get the idea. When we meet a woman for the first time, that desire appears like a magical suit of armor. We’re polite, attentive, respectful, witty, and all those other things that we think will get girls.

BUT . . . the moment that a woman moves categories, that perspective goes away.

Here’s an example: I used to work in an all-female office, surrounded by women all day long (I was a secretary). I got along with everyone, about six women in all, ages ranging from my mother’s age to just-out-of-college. One of my co-workers, let’s call her Jill, was particularly funny and intelligent, and I flirted as outrageously as 1990s era sexual harassment in the South would let you get away with. I was already engaged to my wife, so there was no serious issue -- just me being my usual charming self, and Jill being her charming self.

Then came the day that one of my other co-workers let slip that Jill was, in fact, completely gay. That wasn’t a problem for me, understand, as I had not only been raised in the Lesbian Capital Of The South, my spiritual leader was a dyke and I had plenty of lesbian friends. I’m completely comfortable around lesbians, so Jill being gay didn’t bother me at all. But the fact that her status had changed in my mind wasn’t completely apparent until a few weeks later, when Jill tracked me down and demanded to know why I was mad at her.

I was surprised -- I wasn’t mad at her at all. But she pointed out several little things that I used to do that I didn’t do anymore -- flirting, jokes, some of the camaraderie -- Jill thought I was mad at her, and even wondered if being gay was part of it (although that was the first time she, personally, had mentioned it to me). And she was right. My behavior had changed, and being gay was part of it, but not because I’m homophobic. My behavior changed because Jill’s status had changed, from “A Woman Who Hasn’t Rejected Me Yet” to “A Woman Firmly In Category 3 (non-sex protocols ONLY)”. I gave it some serious consideration -- I don’t take such things lightly -- and I finally had to go back to her with this:

“Jill, I like you a lot, and you’re a good friend and a wonderful person. But the fact is, men in general have a hard time with rejection, and when I’m faced with your lesbianism, it’s not that I begrudge you anything at all -- it’s just that you’ve essentially rejected my entire gender, and due to that my behavior toward you changed, because my feelings toward you have changed.”

She thought that was joking, at first, and then when she realized I was serious, she got upset. How dare I use her sexual identification to single her out, was I so petty and stupid as to let her relative fuckability determine the course of our friendship, how could I be that mean, etc. etc. It took about two weeks to get her calmed down to discuss the issue rationally again. But I was persistent -- I liked Jill. I considered her a friend and a valuable co-worker. But I couldn’t flirt with her anymore, or give her anymore personal intimacy than I would extend to a male friend. While my level of courtesy never lapsed, my willingness to pay attention to the details of her life and share my own with her diminished. It was as if my White Knight, Impress The Girls armor was invisible to her.

Did I cheat myself out of a good friendship by doing this? Perhaps. I certainly didn’t help me get laid one way or another. But the more I thought about it, the more I recognized the truth of my feelings. When a woman rejects you, or (more rarely) is rejected by you, her status changes. When Jill’s status changed, on the one hand I no longer felt the subtle pressure to impress her with who I was, for one thing. On the other hand, lunch was always a little more tense after that. Eventually Jill got used to this change in my status, but no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t get me to flirt anymore. There was just . . . no point.

I struggled with this a long time, and the issue re-occurred a few years later when my wife’s best friend came out as definitely-not-straight. She was more irate than Jill over my sudden disinterest, and I felt even worse about that. But once again, it came down to a matter of rejection. Personal or wholesale, rejection strikes to the heart of men’s souls, and we will do just about anything to avoid it -- even avoid women in favor of porn, sometimes. As Warren Farrel points out, when faced with rejection, men turn to objectification to lessen the sting. Enough sting, and you get a dude who seriously ready to objectify. And that means removing your vulnerable self from the area of potential injury, among other things. When your girlfriend breaks up with you, you don’t move in next door (unless you have bigger issues). When the nice girl in the office turns you down for a date, you can relax a little because you know where you stand with her, and you don’t have to worry about impressing her any more.

And when the intelligent, witty, highly-educated and charming woman you just met at a book signing lets you know that while she finds you interesting, intriguing, funny and charming . . . that there is absolutely no possibility of sex on the table . . . you have her make it out to “Charlie, all the best” and you move on.

It’s not a character flaw in men, nor is it, I believe, entirely a cultural artifact. If it was, then we would see its absence in some human cultures. Indeed, I’m entirely open to the idea that there exists somewhere a naturally occurring culture where men and women can leave sex off the table and still proceed with friendship and even intimacy apace . . . but I haven’t found it yet. You can blame it on men if you have to, but I contend that that’s who we are, part of the character of masculinity, and not a character flaw.

Emily continues:

(1) Nearly all of my closest friends have been men, and it never occurred to me that this might be true.

Ask ‘em. You might be surprised by their opinions. If they’re truthful.

(2) This is exactly the sort of thing I tell my students is a cultural myth but isn't actually true - men, I want to tell my students, are not actually dick-driven simpletons incapable of recognizing a woman's personhood in the absence of sexual access to that woman.

Have to stop you there, Emily. I find your characterisation of men in this context to be unfairly biased. How about “constantly sexually aware and socially astute mature adults who are informed and guided by their ability to distinguish between viable and non-viable partners and tailor their behavior and decisions accordingly”. I mean, no one would try to deny your personhood if you took sex off the table right up front. On the other hand, I will testify that most men, in that situation, are unlikely to extend any further interest towards you not dictated by manners or an ulterior motive. Once sex is off the table, your status changes, and once your status changes in a man’s mind, unless he REALLY enjoys a challenge and is seriously grooving on you despite your protests, he’s going to find someone with whom he can not only enjoy a pleasant evening with, but also engage in sweaty monkey sex. That’s not denying personhood, that’s moving on to greener pastures.


(3) Well, if this is true, it goes some distance in explaining why I've been single since 2005. When I used to the "let's have sex to get the question out of the way" strategy, I had relationships - relationships that ENDED, let's be clear, but relationships. Since adopting the "we're not going to be having sex anytime soon because I really do need to get to know you first, no matter how attractive you are" strategy, I have not had one relationship.

My professional sex-nerd opinion? You hit the nail on the head. “We aren’t going to ever have sex” is great news for both parties, but it essentially closes off huge swaths of possibilities, pre-limiting the nature and intensity of the relationship. When you say that, you are essentially “pre-rejecting” a man. He might still respect you as a human being, a professional, and a woman . . . but what incentive does he have to spend time with you and cultivate an intimate relationship when you’ve already put the most important aspect of intimacy out of reach? No matter how engaging the prospect of a platonic relationship, it’s never going to have the draw of a potentially sexual relationship to a man.

Now, I have no trouble creating an environment where sex is viewed as a possibility - all I have to do is NOT say "sex is not going to happen in the foreseeable future," and my job takes care of the rest. So perhaps my best potential strategy is to say, "We're not going to have sex in the foreseeable future UNLESS you successfully seduce me, and I am a challenge to seduce because I know so much about the game that I am the fucking Magister Ludi of seduction; in order to play with me you have to play a META-game, you have to improvise a new game with me, in the moment. Go."

Personally? I think that’s your best bet. A man will respond to a challenge better than being given a dead-end. If he thinks he’s up to the task, me might surprise you. More than likely, he’ll reveal himself to be an unimaginative and unlearned lover. But if he does surprise you by meeting your very high bar, then consider the potential magic in that union. And you probably do come across as a little intimidating to dudes, Emily, thanks to your job. Not many men would have the confidence or self-reliance to even attempt that level of seduction, much less the talent and the intelligence.

[quote]will a straight man be less likely to want to get to know her? If not, why is this a cultural narrative? If so, does the same hold for gay men getting to know men? And if it is true, what's a girl to do?

All fair questions, Emily, which is why I wrote the post. Whether or not it’s a cultural narrative would demand examining disparate human sexual cultures and comparing and contrasting -- no easy task. But from my crude observations and conversations with men in other cultures, my gut feeling is that this is not a Western Culture thing. I’m more than willing to alter my opinion if there are some convincing arguments, but at this point I’m sticking to the “That’s how men are . . . sorry, better get used to it” line. Because I do think that men possess a more active set of sexual impulses than women, as a rule, and I think that it’s what makes us get up in the morning, talk to pretty girls, beat up saber-toothed tigers, make lunch for the kids, and be kind to old ladies. Without that impulse then we turn inwards, climb into the inner recesses of our mother’s basement, and stay there until they turn the internet off.

Is it different for gay guys? I’m not the one to ask, but it’s a very intriguing question.

And what’s a girl to do? Smile and have good posture. And hope the next dude who chats you up in a bar is more interested in what you have to say than what his penis has to say. I mean, there’s always a chance . . .

Thanks for letting me play, Emily! I truly do love your blog and respect your professional opinion. But on this one, I’m going to hold my position.


  1. This seems to be part of the Mars/Venus conundrum. The male and female though process are so inherently different and, I think, regarding sex the difference is the greatest. So much so that each one has difficulty comprehending the other's way of thinking/reacting.

    Emily says: ...men, I want to tell my students, are not actually dick-driven simpletons incapable of recognizing a woman's personhood in the absence of sexual access to that woman.

    I have a bit of a problem with this sentence. You say this unfairly biased. I would like to say that this is unfair. Period. I think Emily evaluating men's behavior through a femal perspective, when she might have been better off trying to view things from the male perspective before making such statements. Men are sexually driven, moreso than women. We all know that. Portraying that as a negative trait seems both unfair and incorrect. Also unfair is the conclusion that their being that way equates them incapable of recognizing a woman's personhood.

    This is very well written and a pleasure to read. I enjoyed the insight to the male mind, and the examples you gave really make it clear. Thank you for your honesty. I got here from Emily's blog, but I'm going to have to dig a little deeper. You presented an interesting and intelligent opinion.