Reflecting on Better Times
The Launch of a women’s platform to celebrate healthy hook-ups
I met a girl called Bella at a School of Life event in September, something about how to actualize your career potential, be a better person. Bella was gregarious; we had easy, fun conversation. In the context of networking, it was natural to exchange info. We kept in touch and Bella invited me to an event she organized — a reading at a gallery, part of an online platform called Better Times. It would feature stories by women, followed by a discussion. I was excited to attend.
“Better Times is a response to the hashtag activism of #metoo and #timesup, which, while important, perhaps don’t offer us a positive path forward,” Bella says. “We want to encourage women everywhere to approach love and sex with hope and joy, and not just demonize men and the dating scene.”
Bella’s cheerfulness and sex-positivity offer a contagious happiness. It’s amazing to see someone so strong and ambitious and good, putting forward an alternative narrative into a society so angry and misguided. “This platform is meant as a complimentary voice to all that,” she says. Online, most of the stories are anonymous for some reason. But in person, it’s all very personal, easy to connect.
One story was about body hair, and the awkward dance taken by lovers who grappled with their own desires in a society that has such strong opinions on the topic. Advertisements (especially for razors, of course) encourage us to shave, to remove everything — this is what is sexy. Pornography enforces this (though there are certainly alternatives). Hair removal is definitely mainstream. There’s a counterculture idea in reaction: Don’t shave. Don’t let anyone tell you what to do with your body! When everything we do is politicized, it’s difficult to know how to best groom ourselves. And it becomes difficult to manage a relationship under a political lens like this. What happens to personal preferences? The story was fascinating and ambiguous.
Another story was about a kinky threesome, in which two women (can I say plus-sized?) meet a submissive male in a club (he starts by kissing their boots and peeking up their skirts), then invite him to their flat a week later to be their slave, sex- and otherwise. They watch the movie Shortbus while giving him orders, dressing him in fetish gear, then having sex all together. This was an exciting peek into a world beyond me. I felt like a child peering through a keyhole, listening to this erotic tale. Well, it kind of felt like watching the movie Shortbus, actually. To each her own.
There was a story about a hook-up at a party. This one was read by a guy and girl together. At first I was surprised that a guy was (allowed to be) involved. But of course it was fine. It was like a poem, each one of them describing their perspective, how they wanted things to go, how each felt uncertain as things progressed, aware of societal/cultural expectations but not dedicated to them, self-conscious. What if a man doesn’t feel like being in charge? What if he doesn’t want a woman to even go down on him? How does he say this? What does she ask for? How does she take the lead? Perhaps we don’t actually know ourselves until we’re in such positions. Perhaps that’s what makes it all so exciting. Communication is so important in all of this — I think that’s really the major message. There exist typical roles for people to play, a sort of standardized path for the majority. If your aim is to transcend or transgress those normalized procedures, communication is necessary. Lots of communication is nonverbal, I’ll add, but surely smoother when in line with convention.
After the several stories (read from a votive-lit circle, to a pretzel-sat audience), Bella invited a man to the stage. She made it clear that his poem wasn’t appropriate for the website, but asked for him to participate anyway. He read a slam poem called “Dear Men”. This is when the tone of the night shifted. I had been enjoying the readings very much, and felt good and safe in this feminine place. Suddenly words like “patriarchy” and “violence” were being spoken loudly. I looked at this guy, wondering what it was all about, wondering who he was talking to, exactly, and where his passion came from. I dare say it felt somewhat charlatan. I felt the air in the room change.
Generalizations are dangerous. When we define people by their out-group, we become divided. It’s a problematic aspect of the #metoo movement, which Better Times challenges: we’re all in this together, and that can be lovely, it says. But this guy brought that divisive, controversial vibe. He was talking to “men”, but he wasn’t saying “us”. Somehow he put himself outside this group, as if he was part of some other team, “Team Women” (which itself lambasts women who challenge the grand narrative). When the poet recognized his own masculinity, he apologized for it and promised to overcome it, as if all masculinity itself is inherently toxic. He was telling us men that we are the problem, that we are at fault for society’s ills — all of us, responsible for all the problems — the toxic masculinity of an oppressive Patriarchy. But he was the good guy, standing up for women, showing them how cool and honorable he was. There’s a name for this sort of thing. It’s called “virtue signaling”.
There’s nothing wrong with activism, per se. I was an activist while attending UC Berkeley. I remember marching against the IMF and World Bank, holding a candlelight vigil at San Quentin State Prison during a death row execution, rallying against George W. Bush and those wars. It’s nice to champion the dispossessed, to stand up for justice, to feel a part of social progress. All activism of course aims for this, but these days it’s become less focused. Does it even know what evil it stands against? It’s generalized around group identity politics, mobilized by an amorphous boogey-man and directed outward, at everyone, like a dirty bomb. I’m skeptical of this.
Part of what makes #metoo so tricky for me, and I reckon for Bella as well, are its vitriolic witch hunt elements, its flattening of individuals and careful analysis into casualties of collateral damage. Mass hysteria, moral panic, Twitter mobs, leftist in-fighting, the over-scrutinizing of all gendered interactions and the demonizing of like-minded advocates for their nuance and delicate considerations: collectivized outrage isn’t measured toward actual progress, just destruction. A movement needs diverse allies, needs focused goals, and needs to ask strategic questions. How do we constructively fight against rape and sexual harassment? What roots are we targeting? What do we fight the problem with?
Bella asked for feedback in response to the night. I was hesitant. I love discussing big issues, but suddenly the space didn’t feel safe to me. A safe space, in my estimation, should connote a place where all ideas and feelings are welcome and productive. Instead, in contemporary circles it now means that certain people mustn’t have hurt feelings. Victims of trauma are prioritized, their emotions privileged over “privileged” perspectives. Psychological studies show that this is fragility narrative is actually counterproductive to true healing — the best way to overcome trauma is to slowly confront it, not to permanently deny it.) That aside, the current idea of safe spaces (and all the words associated with it) is counterproductive to healthy discourse. I felt Bella was a genuine person I could speak openly with, but I wasn’t sure about everyone else, particularly after the slam poem against men. If I dared say anything, would I be accused of mansplaining?
Well, I did say something, somehow by accident. My friend interjected about a talk we were having, and I had to add on to it. “The stories were so wonderfully personal and engaging! It would be great to focus on each of those, because stories are essential to understanding… I think we risk dividing ourselves and becoming combative when we politicize these stories, or choose instead chants of generalizations… There’s room for honest personal exploration in the face of social norms and cultural expectations, which indeed we can challenge. Guys are also up against those things, and have their own tricky role to play in dating, also dealing with sociopolitical systems and judgments. We’re all in the same boat, trying to dissect and dismantle the socio-political systems in which we live. So yeah, I didn’t appreciate the poem, but I loved the stories.”
“You just said ‘not all men’. You just said that,” scolded the next speaker, in response to my comment. She was the one who told the sex slave story. She explained that she only felt safe to read because she thought it was a female- (and *female-identifying*) space, and that men would render the project unhelpful; my comments undermined her existence. She accused me of being an enemy, basically — not the listening ally I wanted to be. The more radical feminists in the room disavowed me in that moment. I was made a pariah through this dog whistle — not all men — because I pointed out that individuals are generally struggling together for a greater good, even me, a man.
“Not all men” is a phrase used by supposed rape apologists who try to remind others that not all men are sexist, dangerous threats. It’s a response to arguments that a general patriarchal structure favors maleness, so of course all men are indeed implicit, and even if they weren’t, it’s a dodge, excusing behavior that’s even a little bad. I didn’t realize how ideological #MeToo feminism was, how poisonous this phrase is under that lens, similar to “all lives matter”, an apparently vicious counter-attack to “black lives matter”. When the enemy is group maleness or whiteness, there is no room for individuality, no room for nuance, even within femaleness or blackness. Your personal identity is made monolithic, your voice either in harmony with the chorus, or against it. The superstructural narrative equally squelches all uniqueness. This is why contemporary activist rhetoric is itself so toxic. Ideology is dangerous.
The irony here is that Better Times as a platform has the same essential thrust to it: not all sexual encounters are tinged with misogyny. Some are actually great! Indeed, the majority are acts of intimate bonding; a majority of women actually feel a sense of admiration for the men they have sex with. This sentiment is embedded directly into this platform, and it’s great because it’s fundamentally true, and it offers hope and positivity moving forward, as sexual individuals and as a society. Most people are good. Most of us just want to find mutual happiness, work together, sleep together, not hurt anyone’s feelings. It might be awkward, and we do make mistakes. Maybe we send a weird text, fumble through sex or lurch for it too desperately. We break hearts by mistake, hate each other in the process. But this is what it is to be human. It’s a bleak existence. We struggle together to improve it.
Bella read her own story. It was about a Tinder date she had when first arriving in Berlin. She met up with a guy really late in the night, and also invited another friend, who played chaperone. They all drank from 3am until sunrise, at which point the friend left. The date asked her to breakfast. After they ate, he invited her to his place. Her flat was far, so she agreed, somewhat out of convenience. They started fooling around, unsure where it was leading. “How far do you want this to go?” asked the date. “Um, not too far I guess,” she said. So they stayed within limits. Until eventually she decided to, and they had sex.
Bella’s story is sweet and touching — an encounter full of adventure and exploration. She applauded her date for asking her what her boundaries were, for keeping things light and breezy. She realized how easy-going it could be, and was appreciative of this man for being so gentlemanly. Is it a radical thing? Maybe it is… To me it seems obvious, but of course the world is full of less upstanding stories. Plenty of men boorishly stumble through the courtship process. As a bourgeoning adolescent, surely I didn’t have the proper blend of chivalry and temerity that I hope to have now. It’s a hard thing to figure out, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s the general aim of men to do so.
There’s a way to read Bella’s story negatively, from a radical standpoint: Why is it up to the guy to take the lead? Why can’t the woman define things straight away? Isn’t the Patriarchy keeping her quiet, timid? Why does she need his permission to define her boundaries?? Why is the date the hero here, and not the woman? Can’t females be protagonists? Disney princesses, after all, are accused of being too passive in their own stories, and so to women as a whole. This is such a cynical view, and I don’t support it.
I am excited to read more stories on Better Times — stories authored by female writers, for all audiences, with sympathetic characters and happy ends. Better hook-ups, better sex, better times in our dating lives: it’s a message for all of us, in cooperation. I don’t feel excluded from this conversation. Let’s celebrate the good times we have together, because in the end, the world is ours to share, to make the best of. Let’s support grander narratives that are friendly, hopeful and inclusive.