Sunday, March 28, 2010

What Do Women Want... in a Man?

Ever since Freud threw up his arms in despair because he could not decipher the enigma of women's desire, serious intellectuals have assumed that he touched on some basic truth. They have quoted his line-- What do women want?-- as though it explained everything you will ever need to know about women.

Women are mysterious; they dissimulate; they are neither straightforward nor direct; they hide their true desires from even the most penetrating gaze. If this is true the best that a man can do is worship and adore women, in hopes that perhaps his fervor will one day be reciprocated.

By quoting Freud men are affirming that they are so manly that they do not have a clue about women. But they might also be saying that they are happy to keep their distance from such strange and inscrutable creatures.

Unfortunately, Freud was also disrespecting women. He was not merely assuming that men could never fathom the feminine mind. He was also saying that women themselves did not really know what they wanted.

This feels perfectly innocent. In practice, it is not. That woman you just met, the one you have been lusting after, the one who has not shown the least modicum of interest in your earnest entreaties, what if she does not really know what she wants?

What if she does not know that she wants you? Since she is a woman, and does not know what she wants, you need not take her at her word when she says that she does not care to see you. Your task is to show her that she really wants you. Now, with Freud's approval you can continue pursuing her, relentlessly, doggedly, no matter what she says. If she explicitly says that she does not want you, isn't she in denial? Doesn't Freudian theory say that the strength of the denial affirms the opposite?

Once you take Freud's clever little apothegm and put it in context, it feels a lot less wise.

Most people do not understand Freudian theory as a rationalization for stalking. They believe that Freud was referring to a situation where a woman tells you what she wants, and, when you dutifully give it to her, and she says that, No, it was not really what she wanted.

Is this really that much of a mystery? Apparently, it never crossed Freud's mind that women might dissimulate their desires because they do not want to be ordering men, or anyone else, around. Perhaps they do not want to be making excessive demands on men or anyone else. If a man does exactly what a woman tells him, she is going to be dissatisfied, not because she does not know what she wants, but because she knows that she does not want a subservient man.

If you really cannot figure out what a woman wants for her birthday, your anniversary, or Valentine's day, you don't know women very well. I will give you three hints. First, she wants you to remember. Second, she wants you to remember with an action. Third, she does not want a new air conditioner.

Ultimately, if you want to know, in a more general sense, what women want, a good way to find out is to ask one. In the best circumstances she will probably tell you. All you have to do is take her at her word.

Admittedly, if you have done too much therapy you have probably developed the bad habit of looking for hidden meanings, of assuming that people are devious, and of not taking people at their word. I hope you are hard at work overcoming those tendencies.

More prosaically, a week or so ago a young man named Steve wrote to Susan Walsh of the Hooking Up Smart blog, and asked her what women find sexy in men. Link here.

Steve's question may not have attained the elegance of Freud's, but it was on point.

Not surprisingly, Walsh offered an answer that was direct, intelligible, and entirely correct.

Admittedly, Walsh is talking about the normal desires of a normal woman. And we will stipulate that not all women have normal desires; not all men do either. But norms exist, because without them there would be no anomalies. And that would not be a lot of fun.

Walsh answered that women are attracted to men who show social dominance. I think it fair to say that, in her view, women are attracted to men who are great at what they are good at.

You might think this is painfully self-evident. If it is so well-known then why are so many men are not spending their spare time become great at what they are good at, but are taking lessons in how to pick up girls at bars?

Walsh is saying that men are attractive when they are acting as men, not when they are serving or even sucking up to women. Women are attracted to alpha maleness, not to the kind of imitation alpha male behavior exhibited by pick up artists and other assorted lotharios.

A man who can walk into a room and take over, who can take charge of a situation, who can exhibit a very high level of skill, even excellence, at a task or in a field of endeavor is going to attract women. Moreover, he is going to attract the best women.

Walsh offers the example of chef Bobby Flay of the Food Network. Here is a man who knows his stuff, who is completely involved in what he is doing, and who does it very, very well.

He is also a man at peace with himself, who is not suffering emotional turmoil, who displays the kind of serenity and confidence and focus that comes with excellence.

Men who attract women, who attract them for something other than a hook up, possess what I have called superskills. To develop them you need first to identify what you are good at and then to work very, very hard at improving them. Link here.

I want to underscore what Walsh is not saying. She has avoided the notion that men should become well-rounded, or that they should learn to express their feelings, or that they should share domestic chores, or that they should become more self-aware, more guilt-ridden, and more willing to do a woman's bidding.

The sensitive man, the man who has deep feelings, who is on the side of women in the culture wars, such a man will turn women off. All of the effort he has put into developing his feminine side is effort that he has not invested in developing his superskills.


Susan Walsh said...

Stuart, thanks for the link, as always. Your Superskills post is uncannily complementary to this idea!

I could not agree more that men do not benefit from extended sensitivity training, etc. I observed my own son go through a thoroughly feminized public education, where the only acceptable form of communication, conflict resolution and learning mimicked female norms. I believe this is one of the primary reasons for today's delayed maturation in young men (though I have no hard evidence to support this).

Men and women need to learn how to communicate with each other, not become like one another. It's the differences between the sexes that create sexual attraction, in my view.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Of course, I have been aware of the fact that boys are falling behind academically and have been for some time now. Christina Hoff Sommers wrote about it, and today,Nicholas Kristof has written about it in the Times.

I was not really aware of your point, namely, that schools are inculcating values that inhibit the emotional and moral development of boys. I am surprised to hear that schools are teaching conflict resolution skills-- it seems to be outside of the realm of the three Rs.

By forcing boys to conform to female norms the schools are doing them a very grave injustice. It makes good sense to me that this would effect their maturation, and also that this delayed maturation would have an effect on how they relate to girls and what their dating and relationship experiences are like.

Johan Amadeus Metesky said...

Men who attract women, who attract them for something other than a hook up, possess what I have called superskills.

What about men that repel women? I've been told by some folks that I give off a vibe that women find repellent. The anti-Bill Clinton. I say what I think, which is not usually appreciated and I've had conflicts with women since grade school.