“Separate the syllables of the word gentleman, and you will see that the first requisite must be gentleness — gentle-man.”
“Few persons are sufficiently aware of the power of gentleness. It is slow in working, but it is infallible in its results.“
— The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness by Cecil B Hartley
There are few things more dangerous than a man whose confusion leads to fear, which ultimately leads to anger. Right now many men are confused. Some are downright scared. Many believe that women wield a new form of power. Some of these same men accuse women of conducting a witch hunt. They claim they must contend with life-altering misinterpretations and career-ruining false allegations. They’re scared of this new power they believe women will leverage against them. Even Superman’s afraid, if you can believe it.
You know things are bad when the Man of Steel quivers.
Recently, actor Henry Cavill misspoke in an interview with GQ Australia intended to promote his new movie Mission Impossible: — Fallout. His words lit a firestorm of controversy related to the #MeToo Movement. Asked about his thoughts on the movement, Cavill said:
There’s something wonderful about a man chasing a woman. There’s a traditional approach to that, which is nice. I think a woman should be wooed and chased, but maybe I’m old-fashioned for thinking that.
That’s not a bad sentiment. If anything, it’s a perfectly harmless throwback expression of masculinity. But then the Superman actor went on to add:
It’s very difficult to do that if there are certain rules in place. Because then it’s like: ‘Well, I don’t want to go up and talk to her, because I’m going to be called a rapist or something’. So you’re like, ‘Forget it, I’m going to call an ex-girlfriend instead, and then just go back to a relationship, which never really worked’. But it’s way safer than casting myself into the fires of hell, because I’m someone in the public eye, and if I go and flirt with someone, then who knows what’s going to happen?
Whoa, Henry, hold your imaginary horses.
Do you see where he went wrong?
“…difficult to do that if there are certain rules in place.”
“Because I’m going to be called a rapist or something.”
“It’s way safer that casting myself into the fire of hell…”
With those three statements, he cast himself into the hell of internet outrage. And rightfully so.
But what is so wrong with Cavill’s statements? After all, many men these days feel exactly the same way.
The better question to ask is this: Why is Superman afraid of being called a rapist? Are false sexual assault allegations the new kryptonite? Not exactly.
This comic book metaphor is a wholly incorrect (and adolescent) way of looking at our modern moment. First, women aren’t wielding any new power. We haven’t eradicated abuse, harassment, and rape. The only change is that the world is finally, rightfully, listening to women, and holding their abusers, harassers, and rapists accountable. That’s huge. That’s good. We want more of that.
Those who claim the #MeToo Movement has gone too far, that it’s morphed into a witch hunt, are focusing on the wrong aspects of sexual abuse. The #MeToo Movement has one simple aim: Make the world safer for women by ensuring women are free from sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape. This goal can’t go “too far.”
Yet some men, and even some women, think it already has, or will. Although the hashtag originally conceived by Tarana Burke came about more than ten years ago, the recent heat and light generated by the #MeToo conversation in our culture is not even a year old, yet they already want to discuss the hypothetical dangers for men. Instead, we need to focus on how #MeToo brings justice to victims of abuse, harassment, assault, and rape. To stop future abuse.
After some reflection, Henry Cavill seems to have realized this truth. Or at least his handlers and PR people urged him to see the error in his statements. He was quick to apologize.
But let’s not pick on Cavill, who genuinely seems like a decent and old-fashioned guy (at least according to his self-assessment). He is by no means alone in fearing and criticizing the #MeToo Movement. Fellow action stars Matt Damon and Liam Neeson have both made clumsy statements that were met with condemnation. Damon, who often expresses himself in ham-fisted ways, blundered into a self-made controversy back in December. In January, Neeson called the #MeToo Movement “something of a witch hunt.”
But it’s not just men who’ve criticized #MeToo as a witch hunt, Damon and Neeson were soon followed by French actress Catherine Deneuve, who said the exact same thing. She also quickly apologized and walked back her remarks after experiencing a backlash.
You know who also labelled the #MeToo Movement a witch hunt?
Bill Cosby’s lawyers. If you’re on the same side of an argument as Bill Cosby’s lawyers, that alone should tell you something.
But here, let’s go one further. Kanye West’s friend and socio-political mentor, Candace Owens, wanted to add her two cents. She tweeted:
Thankfully, to dispel Owens’ nonsensical two-cent notion that definitions have been blurred, we have all-around badass gentleman, Terry Crews. Though he once shared Henry Cavill’s mistaken criticisms and misplaced fears, his wife helped him see what matters most.
Do you see how it became crystal clear to Crews? He stopped focusing on himself, and instead, he started to focus on the countless victims of sex crimes.
Crews reminds us all, men and women alike, to do two things. In the era of #MeToo, we must get in the habit of listening to women. We must believe women. Always. As a matter of habit. Will there be exceptions to the rule? Absolutely. But this is the new rule: listen to women. Essentially, men need to re-dedicate themselves to respecting women as our equals, our partners.
You always want to believe your partner. That’s a vital trust.
Additionally, thanks to his powerful confession of being sexually assaulted, Terry Crews widened the whole cultural discussion by pointing out that not all victims of sexual abuse are women. So, the larger message he offers is: Believe victims. Always.
Here’s the thing, guys. You have nothing to worry about…if you don’t commit any sex crimes. Pretty simple, right? You may be thinking: But the boundaries are shifting. How do I know what I can do anymore, like, when can I touch a woman in public? What if I take a picture with her and suddenly my hand–
I’ll stop you right there. Don’t be that guy. Don’t come up with wild-ass hypotheticals. Last week, video game developer Mark Kern attracted an online backlash after he tweeted something intending to highlight the difficult position modern men are in when it comes to approaching women:
Kern then added another kinky robotic condition that would arise from men surrendering control as partners:
To conclude his thread, Kern admits that hyperbole is not a real solution. Rather, it’s intended as satire. (He’s sure asking the word satire to do a lot of work in this instance.)
Satire or not, Kern overlooks a huge loophole in his knee-jerk logic. If men who are sexually interested in women are “not mind readers,” then how did we get along before? Did Kern and, by extension, all straight men, just sort of blunder forward and hope for the best? What happened if they were wrong? If it turned out that their “first move” was uninvited sexual contact, are we supposed to blame the woman for not giving clear signals? Was it her fault that a man tried to kiss her?
See my point? There are two fatal fallacies of the inherent logic of Kern’s (satirical) argument: Blaming victims, and his notion of “mind reading” as a measure of whether a man should initiate a sexual contact makes it clear that in that past:
- Guys wrote off a lot of unwanted sexual contact as mixed signals: “It’s her fault for leading me on,” or, “she should know what I’d want to do if we’re alone.” Once again, this blames the person who gets assaulted or kissed.
- Men are expected to be sexual aggressors, the ones who must “make it happen.” Women are expected to be mysterious creatures, whose sexual resistance must be overcome, and whose minds are impossible to read.
In order to protect men from the possible sting of rejection (or the mistake of not being a “mind reader”), Kern urges us to focus on how we can protect men’s feelings — how to mitigate the potential risk to their careers, reputations, and legacies. But as long as men are excused for their confusion, sex crimes are likely to continue.
So let’s clear up any confusion. Look, guys. I promise you can make the first move without any worry of being a sexual abuser or having to go pillar-to-post and say “it’s all up to women” now so that you feel safe. That’s far too simplistic. We’re better than that.
No, you don’t have to be a mind reader. You don’t even always need to stop and ask, “Can I kiss you?” But if you feel unsure, perhaps you should. A question removes all confusion. It’s far better than pressing on into dangerous uncertainty. Asking “Can I kiss you?” protects both parties in that fraught moment.
A sexual interaction is never just about the initiator. Like, obviously, right? We all get that. It’s about everyone involved. Never lose sight of this. You and your proposed sexual partner are equals. So you must respect women as people, not bed them as conquests whose objections or trepidations must be overcome.
This ain’t the mythical Fifties. Women don’t need to maintain their virtue. In case you missed it, women are definitely lusty sexual creatures. They want to get their freak on, too. Trust. But they only want to do it with men they feel comfortable with, men they’re attracted to, men they invite into their physical space.
When it comes to sexual interactions with a woman, comfort is key. And it should always be part of your sexual protocol. If she’s not comfortable alone with you, then she definitely doesn’t want you on or in her body. A woman’s comfort is the first step of seduction. You cannot skip past that.
Here. Just flip it for a second.
Imagine if some woman you weren’t interested in latched herself onto your lips like an Aliens face-hugger and started tongue-punching you without your permission. Or she groped your crotch in some fumbling attempt to feel your junk through your jeans. You would feel violated, right? You would feel assaulted, correct? Now flip it back it around. Do you want to be the Aliens face-hugger? Nah, son. You do not. So don’t be.
Also, you should never try to cajole or beg or coax or coerce or guilt or leverage with power or contractual obligations, whether explicit or implied, a woman into giving you sexual attention or repaying your kindness or loyalty with sexual favors. Don’t ever be that guy. He’s a punk-ass. He’s an abuser. Even if “it’s all legal.”
If you’re looking for guaranteed sexual interaction, hire a sex worker. That’s their job.
Otherwise, you are always dealing with an adult woman, one who has her own sexual agenda, and you need her agenda to align with yours. As equals. Simple.
But let’s move past any vague set of Musts and Don’ts. For any man reading this who feels confused about how to approach a woman, how to converse with a woman in a sexual manner, or how to initiate sexual contact, there are ways to do this right, to do it well, and to do it effectively.
In that same GQ Australia interview, actor Henry Cavill shares his personal guide to being a gentleman, one who lives at the top of his game. Cavill keeps in his cell phone a list of 100 bullet points on how to be the best man you can be. Many of his rules are well-articulated and highly useful. Some of Cavill’s bullet points recommend:
19. Be the most positive and enthusiastic person you know.
20. Loosen up; relax. Except for rare life-or-death matters, nothing is as important as it first seems.
26. Be modest. A lot was accomplished before you were born.
And perhaps most important:
41. Show respect for everyone who works for a living, regardless of how trivial their job.
Show respect for everyone. This includes your potential sexual partners. But how can you show respect for women in the era of #MeToo and still act in a sexualized manner without being labelled an abuser, a harasser, or a rapist?
It’s way easier than you think.
Be a gentleman.
In 1860, Cecil B. Hartley wrote The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness. His advice for gentlemen is as timely today as it was just before the start of the Civil War — but to help you out, I added a modern update in italics. This way, you can see that while things change, sexual etiquette remains the same. Consider these the new-old rules of sexual engagement.
1. “Never join a lady whom you may meet, without first asking her permission to do so.”
A gentleman should always ask a woman if his presence is welcome.
Example: “Is anyone sitting here? Would you mind if I joined you?”
2. “In meeting a lady do not offer to shake hands with her, but accept her hand when she offers it for you to take.”
Definitely never initiate physical contact with a woman first. Always allow her to be the first to do so.
Example: When at a bar (or other social space where flirtation is expected), do not touch a woman until she’s first touched you. Sounds kinda Victorian, right? It’s not. Touch is intimate. It’s a means of flirting. If she likes you, she will let you know, likely with a playful touch. Let her initiate that game.
3. “When inviting a lady to dance, if she replies very politely, asking to be excused, as she does not wish to dance (‘with you,’ being probably her mental reservation), a man ought to be satisfied. At all events, he should never press her to dance after one refusal.”
Learn to gracefully take “No” as answer, without acting like a colossal ass. And never insult her for saying “No.” It’s always her right to do so.
Example: If you approach a woman in a public space and she blows you off, just wish her a good day and walk on…like a gentleman.
4. “The lady who was so very amiable to you last night, has a right to ignore your existence to-day. In fact, a ballroom acquaintance rarely goes any further, until you have met at more balls than one. A prudent man will never presume on a girl’s liveliness or banter.”
Just because she was chill with you yesterday doesn’t mean you should expect anything today. A woman always reserves the right to change her mind. In other words, women don’t owe you shit.
5. “Perhaps the true definition of a gentleman is this: ‘Whoever is open, loyal, and true; whoever is of humane and affable demeanor; whoever is honorable in himself, and in his judgment of others, and requires no law but his word to make him fulfill an engagement; such a man is a gentleman, be he in the highest or lowest rank of life, a man of elegant refinement and intellect, or the most unpolished tiller of the ground.’”
To be a gentleman requires that you be respectful, graceful, and most of all, gentle. Imagine what cinematic gentleman Cary Grant might do. Then, do that.
6. “True courtship consists in a number of quiet, gentlemanly attentions, not so pointed as to alarm, not so vague as to be misunderstood.”
Be clear in your approach and intent, and always keep your words and actions gentleman-ly smooth.
Example: Before you initiate any sexual contact, check to see that she’s comfortable in your presence. If she’s never physically touched you in a playful way, then, my man, she ain’t into you. You need that clearance, that tacit permission, before you ever think of pressing your lips or hands onto her body. Call it a consent check.
Let’s conclude with a quote from my homie, Cecil B. Hartley. He speaks to the undeniable power of gentleness:
The progressive dawn of day, the flow of the tide, the lapse of time, the changes of the seasons — these are carried on by slow and imperceptible degrees, yet their progress and issue none can mistake or resist. Equally certain and surprising are the triumphs of gentleness.
You see how that plays out, right? With the flow of respect and the touch of grace, the correct order of events and the right sequence of actions, man, you need not worry you’ll be misinterpreted as a harasser, or labeled an abuser, or called a rapist. Besides, gentleness is way more effective than conquest. It gets more done. Trust me on that. A confident gentleman is, and always will be, sexy AF. Ain’t nothing changed about that.
But if you still don’t feel like you know how to approach a woman in the #MeToo era, visualize yourself doing this easy step-by-step:
Start by saying “Hi.” Then, follow that with a joke, or a compliment not based on her body. If she responds favorably, enjoy a flirtatious conversation. But if she doesn’t have time for you, if she rebuffs your initial greeting, wish her a good day, and get on with your life.
Trust that women are sexual beings, too. They don’t need you to overcome their objections. They don’t want you to convince them to have sex. They’re not looking for a surprise, some out-of-the-blue kiss, an unsolicited dick pic, or a nasty comment. There’s no need for a modern man to be an aggressor. Be her partner. You know, like a dance partner. You wouldn’t yank your dance partner around the floor and call it fun. Instead, you want to be graceful, smooth, and moving in time.
Before you press your body onto anyone else in a sexual way, the invitation from them should always be as clear to you as the sun in the sky. Just like there’s no mistaking the presence of the sun, there should be no mistaking a woman’s sexual interest in you.
It’s really just that simple. Whether you’re a regular man or Superman.
writer at MEL magazine, essay & short stories at Medium, and always in the mood for donuts
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