Content Warnings: abstract discussion of my (and other people’s) sexual desires. Use of crude slang terms for male and female sexual organs and sex. And footnotes. Lots of footnotes.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that women are beautiful and men are gross.
—Well, no, of course it isn't.1 Men think themselves handsome, and other people, men and women alike, sometimes agree. But for a statement so clearly false, it is somewhat more true than you might think.
There is a broad cultural trend in which women are held up as beautiful — for both men and women. There are women on the cover of men's magazines, to entice men to buy them; there are women on the cover of women's magazines, to entice women to buy them. Neither, with any regularity, has men on the cover.2 The only magazines that put men on the cover are ones aimed at gay men.
This will immediately be ascribed to sexism, of course: women are objectified, beauty standards to support the patriarchy are imposed upon women and not men, and so forth. And this is all true, even if other things about these notions are true also. Then there are other people who would say that this reflects some sort of biologically-based psychological reality, but we needn't engage the issue of whether these ideas are hardwired or not. Let us simply admit that these trends are in our culture, and the question of how they got there (biological inclination, pure culture, whatever) is, for our purposes, moot. Those beliefs exist: they helped form the minds of those of us who grew up in our culture.
If girls growing up internalize beauty standards that make them feel like they don't measure up—are unattractive or fat or flat-chested or what have you—then boys growing up internalize those same beauty standards which tell us that we are not attractive, not desirable at all; that creatures who are attractive are not us.
The entire culture looks at women. This, of course, damages women; but it also damages men.3 It convinces us that we are, inherently, ugly. That we are, inherently, undesirable. That we can never be desirable.
Obviously not all men come away from their boyhoods feeling this. There are plenty of men who think that, visually speaking, they are the delight of everyone's eye. There are men who preen in front of mirrors, who are self-conscious of themselves as unusually handsome (whether or not they actually are), men who try to use their looks as the main lure by which they attract women (and some succeed). There are men who think their entire existence is justified because they give pleasure to the world because they have such a beautiful ass. Men in particular like to imagine that women want to see their cocks, and have a rather revolting tendency to send images of them to women unasked.
— Although even this last fact is a double-edged sword in this argument. That men do this is taken as a sign that they think their genitals are good looking. But, of course, the phenomenon, and the common response, is also further evidence that men are in fact repulsive while women are not: women, even straight women, even straight women who are interested in sex with strangers on the internet, tend to be repulsed by dick pics, but most men, even men who are not interested in sex with strangers on the internet, would be delighted to receive pussy pics. One straight, female writer, Kerry Quinn, decided to give men a taste of their own medicine and sent around a pussy pic to men she didn't know.4 Predictably, it backfired magnificently: the men were thrilled and responded eagerly to what they took as a come-on. She ended up concluding:
Overall, I was surprised that I didn't get my, "Gotcha!" moment. I'd initially hoped the guys would see how invasive it is to receive such intimate photos from a stranger. When I'm excited to get to know a guy, his penis isn't the first part of him that I want to know. But given that men like to send dick pics, I suppose their enthusiasm for v-pics makes sense.
One of the interpretations of this incident is that male sexuality (as it exists in our society, whatever forces you think create that) is simply different than female. (There is another possibility that I will get to in a minute.) But again, if that's true, it nevertheless remains that men react differently to women's bodies than women do to men's bodies. And while that is soul-crushing for many women, it has not been as much noticed that it also (to a lesser extent) damages men.
To repeat: yes, not all men internalize this. But at least some do — possibly many. The cultural belief is that what is visually attractive is female, and what isn't is male. That is: women are beautiful and men are gross.
And there is a inextricably linked idea connected to this widely-believed false universal but nevertheless distinguishable from it: men desire, women don't; and, contrawise, women are desired; men are not.
I trust the reader sees the connection, but let us take a moment to understand its independence from the previous generality. It is not simply that only men desire because women are beautiful and men aren't, and men are attracted to women. After all, women also believe that women are beautiful and men aren't — again, witness the covers of Cosmo compared to Playboy.5 No, this is a separate point, however connected.
We must be careful here, because this notion — that male desires are strong, that women's are weak or nonexistent—has historically been a source of sexist denial of women’s desire (because, uh, that’s what it is on its face), and in particularly in recent years it has been a powerful force for extremely destructive, misogynistic right wing politics. Incels—men who claim they are oppressed because they are denied sex by women—say things like this. Evolutionary psychology is sometimes enlisted in the primitive idea that men desire sex, women desire love (or commitment, or meat, or what have you).6 I am not saying that the most destructive forms of these beliefs are widespread (although they are too widespread). Rather, I am saying that there is a general cultural notion that men are hornier than women, which shades into the idea that women are not horny at all, which is what the more specific ideas of the Incels and pop evolutionary psychologists derive from.
And that general cultural notion is, if nothing else, quite broad. Men sometimes assert, as if it is a universal, that only men want sex.7 An even more common version of the idea is that men desire sex as such, whereas women only do so in the context of a relationship. Again, the precise notions are slippery and not sharply differentiated in the broader culture; one easies into another. Often evidence will be cited: men's higher interest in accepting offers of casual sex from strangers; men's use of pornography; the fact that it is men and not women who have historically employed prostitutes; and so forth.8 All these standard lines have, of course, acumulated their standard comebacks: to the first, it is answered that women have historically had more to worry about in casual encounters (particularly pregnancy but also reputational harms), and have thus been socialized to be more cautious (it is sometimes also pointed out that surveys indicate that while most men reach orgasm on a first date, most women do not; their incentives differ). To the second, that pornography is geared towards men, and to the third, that a sexist society makes women more desperate and thus liable to participate in it from the supply side, or that what men seeing prostitutes really want is power not sex and thus it is only something that the dominant sex class desires. These standard counterarguments have in turn acquired standard counter-counterarguments, which then acquire counter-counter-counterarguments, and little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum. The whole dance is familiar.9 Perhaps the most important counterargument is simply the large number of women who claim (often with laughter or exasperation) that they do, too, have desires; there is no reason to doubt them. Nevertheless, the belief persists, and persists strongly.
Reader, you might ask: Ok, but surely you don't believe any of this? You yourself said a moment ago that there were plenty of men for whom the first notion, that everyone thinks men are gross is not true; you just implied that the evidence on the latter issue is equally strong. Doesn't that convince you that it's false? At least as a universal, and probably in any meaningful sense at all.
Yes, Rational Reader, you are right; it is false. I believe that. I really do. The question is whether that's enough.
Let me introduce a notion here that may clarify matters. "Alief" is a technical philosophical term, coined by Tamar Sazbó Gendler.10 It was, of course, coined the term in opposition to the more common idea (in both technical philosophy and ordinary life) of "belief". In Gendler’s account, beliefs are what we consciously, deliberately hold; what are shaped by argument. In contrast, aliefs are held unconsciously — as it were, against our will. She gives a number of examples in the above-linked essay; here's one:
Subjects [in psychological studies] are... loath to eat soup from a brand-new bedpan. They are disinclined to put their mouths on a piece of newly purchased vomit-shaped rubber... [and are] averse to eating fudge that has been formed into the shape of dog feces.... Surely they believe that the fudge has not changed its chemical composition... just as they believe that that the newly purchased bedpan is sterile and that the fake vomit is actually made of rubber: asked directly, subjects show no hesitation in endorsing such claims. But alongside these beliefs there is something else going on. Although they believe that the items in question are harmless, they also alieve something very different. The alief has roughly the following content: “Filthy object! Contaminated! Stay away!”
This term, which I introduce in no small part because it is too splendid a concept to be left to the philosophers,11 gets at the nub of the matter: I certainly do not believe that men are (objectively, to everyone) unattractive while women are (objectively, to everyone) attractive, nor that men not women desire and women not men are desired; but I do seem to alieve both ideas.
The situation, I should add, is even more absurd than I have so far portrayed it. I have said that my alief persists in the face of a great deal of evidence and rational argument that it is wrong;12 I have good grounds for thinking it wrong; I believe it is wrong. And all this is true. But, in fact, I alieve it to be the case despite the fact that I myself am a counter-example. As I will discuss in a future essay, I went through a brief period of thinking that I might be bi, and then later, while exploring my own autogynephilic fantasies, I have once again had fantasies about men. Which is to say: I myself have both find men desirable and alieve that men are, intrinsically, undesirable. Rationality, has, obviously, left the building.
If I think the matter through—besiege the alief with the forces of rationality, get it on the defensive, force at least a strategic retreat—my alief settles into a slightly weaker form: it is not that men are inherently undesirable to everyone; but that they are inherently undesirable to women. After all, I tell myself, gay men really desire men.13 But this should not be enough to explain my own lived experience, because of course, when I desire men—or, more accurately, fantasize about men: I am never visually attracted to any real man, whether in person or in photographs—I do so while picturing myself as a woman. So even within my own head I know, I feel, I experience the fact that women can desire men: I mentally feel that, imagining myself as, indeed longing to be, a woman-desiring man.
Yet I still am gripped by my aliefs. I maintain them in the face of all evidence, argument, and personal experience—the alief equivalent of a medieval Jesuit believing the Pope’s hypothetical claim that black is white.14
The point is that our aliefs, like our desires, are not chosen rationally; they fall upon us like Calvinist damnation, upon the whim of outside powers regardless of our efforts or merits or lack of either. It is easy to say that I ought not to alieve these things; I myself would be the very first to say so! After all, I don’t believe them! But even when I go through the logical arguments, and watch the aliefs temporarily retreat, as soon as I lower my guard they return. Nor does it do any good to point out to me the many ways in which these ideas spring from or reinforce a sexist society, since I likewise spring from the same source, and it filled me with the faults it had (adding extra, just for me). The aliefs are deep: they are deep in our culture generally and, more specifically, they are deeply in me: I genuinely and thoroughly alieve these things, as it were axiomatically, all evidence notwithstanding.
So women are beautiful, men gross; women are desired, men desire. You may, as I do, believe those to be ludicrous generalizations; please also believe that I alieve them, and that they influence me despite myself.
(Parenthetically, I did once hear a speculation that might explain all of these matters. I heard it from a friend—call her Abigail. I had told Abigail that I was (or might be) bi, during the time when I was thinking about that. Then she, despite being mostly straight (which is how she’s always identified) herself had an actual encounter with another woman (and an actual encounter is far beyond where I ever went). Later, she told me about it, and we talked it over. Abigail suggested to me that perhaps women are simply desirable, while men can be desired but are simultaneously always somehow disgusting. Some people, she suggested, need that disgust, only feel desire when also motivated by disgust, like sweet and sour food, which would not work only sweet. Those people, whatever their own gender, would then prefer men. Other people, in contrast, don’t like the sour taste, and they, in turn, prefer women (again, whatever their own gender). She herself, Abigail explained, needed the disgust to accompany desire. So she was straight. Perhaps, she suggested, I simply did not like the sour. But I should also add that, years later, I mentioned this to my wife, whose response was to laugh and say that she doubted that Abigail was actually straight because she herself, as a straight woman, did not find men gross at all.15 Make of this idea what you will.)
It is from this alief, this false idea which I know to be false but which nevertheless hold, that a desire of mine arises—a desire which is, perhaps, the deepest (sexual) desire I hold (and which is paradoxical, as are practically all the thoughts I have on this muddled topic): I want to be desired, even as I know (that is, alieve) that I can never be. If men are the gross and the desirers, and women the beautiful and the desired, is it any wonder that men want to be desired? Sure, some of this is nothing more than the wish that a woman might be as up for casual sex as they themselves are (as I would have been, had anyone been willing, prior to my being in a monogamous relationship). But wanting casual sex is, I think, only a minor part of this. There is (at least for me, and I believe others) a deeper desire: the desire to be desired. Specifically, to be desired in the crude, raw, carnal way that (we know from our own heads) men desire women.
To see how this might manifest, let us return to Kerry Quinn and her failed attempt to demonstrate to men the vileness of dick pics by sending around a (false) v-pic of her own. Introduced as an example of male vanity, we found in it an example of excessive male horniness, which we, persuading the mind if not the gut, bargained down into simply a different way that men and women desire. But taking, for a moment, the idea that men desire and women don't (which I have already referred to as debunked, for all the good that will do me), we can offer another explanation for the phenomenon of dick pics — not one that justifies them,16 but one that may help us comprehend them. I think dick picks are an expression of men's wish, men’s desire, that women would react to dick picks the way that men react to v-pics.
Now, I am not claiming, even in this odd deduced-from-known-falsehoods style by which I am claiming anything, that that is the reason that all men send them. A great many men (risible as it is) are proud of their dicks. Other men may simply blithely assume from how they'd react to v-pics that women would react in a parallel manner. (Because while the men-are-gross notion is the most dominant in the culture, there is a substratum of its opposite, with the (false) notion that women go weak-kneed at the sight of cocks played in faint counterpoint to the louder main theme.) And, of course, some men simply send dick picks as harassment or power plays or what have you.
But I would guess — although it is only a guess — that there is a non-trivial set of men who know that it is gross, but who wish it wasn't. They know how they'd react if a woman sent a v-pic, and they know that women will not react that way. But they can't help hoping. They want it to be true; some of them go so far as to desire it to be true. And so some of them respond by acting as if it were true, hoping, perhaps, to find an exception, or hoping in some not-particularly-rational-way, that willing and acting as if it were true will make it so.17
There is, however, another way that one can imagine men reacting to this desire to be desired. (And recall that I am not saying all men have this desire; only that some do. Equally, I am not saying that every man who does have this desire-to-be-desired has it due to the same set of alieved falsehoods, stereotypes, and incoherent thoughts that I am describing in myself. I do, however, I think it is true a subset, and not a subset of only one or two.) And this other way, of course, is to react to this desire-to-be-desired by wishing one was desirable, that is, by wishing that one was a woman.
Now it would be ludicrously reductive to say that this is why I am autogynephiliac, and I certainly am not asserting such a thing. For one thing, I don’t think that this carefully forged chain of illogic was in place as early as ten, but my autogynephilia (or at least my crossdreaming) was. For another thing, I don't think this particular reasoning (if I can misuse that word) would be, by itself, enough to create that fantasy. But I do think it has been a central pillar maintaining it. My fantasies of miraculous womanhood have taken various forms, but have been, more than anything else, sexual; and the nature of that desire (for oh yes, it is a sexual desire, this desire to be desired, not an abstract or romantic longing) has rested upon my preposterous certainty that there is no way, short of the miracle I have dreamed of, that it could happen, since only as a woman would I be desirable—since only women fall into the general category of “desirable”.
I ask you, Generous Reader, as we proceed, to remember this structure of the thoughts — the logic, I would call it, were not all logic against it. I lusted after women with a crass, pure intensity; I wanted to be lusted for with that same intensity; I alieved that men were never lusted at in that way; hence, I wished to be a woman.
Try also to understand the reflection which, with each bounce, grew the strength of the want. I wanted, so I wanted to be wanted, so I wanted to be a wantable thing. The irony is, of course, that the original desire, the one that kick starts it all, the desire for sex, for tits and cunts and ass, is actually then subsumed into the desire which is derived from it. It is yet another logical fallacy in a chain that has nothing to do with logic. From my very desire for tits and cunts and ass arose not the desire to squeeze or fondle or fuck them, but to have them, and to have men want to squeeze and fondle and fuck me. And eventually that would turn into a desire to have men do and not simply want those things. (Although that came later; at first was the desire for them to want to.)
I know the manner in which I desire women—not, particularly, women I actually meet, but just women in general, above all in my imagination, but also, of course, in pornography. My desire for them is sexual; it is male; it is crude and physical, nasty and foul, possesive and sometimes derisive. It is strong, often overwhelming.
And I wish, I long, I desire, that I be desired that way. It is a yearning, a longing; an ache, a need; a lust. I want to be wanted.
But I don't believe I am; I don’t believe I even could be—or, rather, I don't alieve I am, don’t alieve I could be. I may have rational reason to believe it (evidence from reading, from my life) but that rationality does not stick, not on anything this primal.
And so I wish, I long, I desire, that I could become a woman. This is not just, or even mainly, a practical wish, a wish of the sort that would maintain itself through therapy and hormone treatment and social presentation. It is a sexual desire. A lust.
(Recurring) Notes on practical matters
This newsletter is a part of Confessions of an Autogynephile, an ongoing memoir in the form of a Stack of Sub essays (with occasional bonus politics thrown in, as there is this week), posting once a week, on Wednesdays. If you are interested in reading more, I would be very grateful for comments, responses, and subscriptions. I would be equally or more grateful if you would share it—publicly, on social media, or with friends—since, at the moment, I am known to no-one, having been just (re)born as poor Yorick: so there is no one to promote this newsletter to. (For what I rather hope are obvious reasons, I will not send a link out to my friends and family!) So please: like, subscribe, comment, share.
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Although careful readers will note that what Austen said was a universal truth wasn't either: her irony is always deeper than people expect, even when they expect her irony.
I am not speaking here of news magazines, which could have anyone, but men's magazines like Playboy and Maxim and women's like Cosmo or Vogue or Glamour.
This is not a contest, and comparisons, as my mother used to say, are odious. But to the extent that it is a contest, I, for one, concede immediately: women are far more damaged by patriarchal standards and a sexist society than men. I have no interest in engaging in a victimhood contest, and I urge my fellow men not to do so either. But it is also true (as most feminists will readily agree) that men are also damaged by sexism. I am a man; this is a memoir; so that is what I am describing.
Of course, she didn't actually want strangers to see her vulva, so she sent around a picture she found online, not a real picture of her; and if she’d thought about this fact harder, she might have teased out in advance the misconceptions underlying the entire enterprise.
I have even seen cited a study which says that, stripped of insignia, people can’t tell Cosmo covers from Playboy covers, although I don’t have the reference and don’t now how good a study it was. I suspect it couldn’t have targeted people who read either magazine faithfully (I, a long-time Playboy reader, feel like I could tell, although of course I might be fooling myself).
On evolutionary psychology, let me simply align myself with a point made in Philip Kirschner's Vaulting Ambition: Sociobiology and the Quest for Human Nature (MIT Press, 1985), that while popularizations of evolutionary psychology may be bad, the idea that brains evolved and that that effects them is inarguable, even if the current models are poor examinations of this fact. (He spends most of the book on the bad stuff, but the concession of the basic truth of psychology’s having evolved is made clear.)
And will all-but-inevitably be met with mockery of the "self-own!"/"no one wants you" variety; see, e.g., here.
More careful versions of this argument will acknowledge that all these exist for gay man in about the proportions you'd expect if the distinguishing feature was not women but the nature of male desire. The argue, in other words, that men are horndogs, whether straight or gay, and that women (straight or lesbian) are not.
One of the more tiresome aspects of contemporary culture is precisely how many of these utterly familiar chains of argument, counterargment, etc, there are in every domain; we have to keep cleaning them off to think through anything, as if we had to clean the kitchen every time we wanted to cook.
Yes, Faithful Reader, we have already met her in a different context in a different essay. I think this will be the last invocation (save to refer back to the two ideas of hers already introduced), but then, I didn’t expect when I began to have to cite two different ideas of her in such short succession. I certainly hope that this entire project does not end up being nothing more than some deranged piece of Gendler fanfic.
I am, in other words, kidnapping it, just as I have kidnapped Blanchard’s term “autogynephilia” (or, more precisely, joined a long-term, in-process kidnapping, one which may yet be stopped by cops—cops in this case aligned, oddly enough, with a man they hate and whose theories they dismiss). In the course of kidnapping “aleif”, I may be roughing it up a bit—kidnapping is a nasty business—and may in fact be damaging it even more than Mr. James did Mr. Pierce’s “pragmatism”. (See footnote 5 in this post.) I apologize to Dean Gendler, and suggest that if she is looking for a suitably ugly replacement she might try "aliecif".
In a ludicrously Freudian slip — I don't believe Freud's theories at all, and so he gets revenge on me from beyond the grave by making sure I fall into them from time to time — I first, rather automatically, typed not "that it is wrong" but "that I am wrong": something in the alief makes me think (alieve?) that it is the real me, and that the rational is supervened upon it.
I was once — once — hit on in a store. By a man behind the counter. The irony was that I was with not only my then-girlfriend-now-wife, but another friend of ours, who is both gay and (speaking with the part of my brain that can find men attractive, or at least understand that people do) objectively and unquestionably far, far better looking than I. (Even to say this is to damn him with faint praise: most men are better looking than I; I am well within the bottom 20% of attractiveness of the unattractive sex, and I often think that I am the least attractive person I have ever seen, whether in real life or pictures, save for people who are in some obvious and unusual way deformed. And yes, Careful Reader, this feeling—even if actually true—reinforces all the psychological effects that my more general alief has on me.) Obviously I said no to the man who tried to pick me up—I was dating; I was not attracted to men. But I was flattered. I sometimes think, or at least alieve, that that was the only moment in my entire life that I really felt, all the way down, that someone wanted me the way I have always been tormented with so much overflowing desire.
This is, of course, a reference to a famous statement by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, that " If we wish to proceed securely in all things, we must hold fast to the following principle: What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical Church so defines." As far as I know Gendler has not dealt with this question, but it seems to me that it would be hard for the Church to ask people to alieve this rather than simply believe this. On the other hand, for a Protestant, it seems like the true, saving belief in Christ, which one may think they have even while really not having it—that saving belief which can in fact only be granted by God—might really be an alief: perhaps Protestants require people to not simply believe, but alieve, in Jesus. I leave this question to the theologians and philosophers. Meanwhile, the sentence this footnote is appended to is, of course, utter nonsense, since Ignatius — and hence the Jesuits — is a figure not of the Middle Ages, but of the Early Modern period.
And no, reader: having been in a happy, loving, faithful and ongoing marriage with a woman no more dissuaded me from my alief than any of the other evidence (external or internal, statistical or personal) did.
Seriously, fellas, those are gross: knock it off. I mean, really, who wants to see dicks? Dicks are gross! We know for a fact that this is true because it follows from a previously established falsehood.
No, Suspicious Reader, I never have and never would send anyone a dick pic. This is for multiple, overlapping reasons: it’s vile and sexist behavior; I know women hate them and experience them as harassment (when they don’t simply find them risible); I have an overwhelming feeling that they (dick picks specifically as well as dicks in general) are simply repulsive; I am in a successful, monogamous marriage. Any one of those reasons would be, on its own, enough not to do it.