Much ado about headphones
Unless you've spent the last week at an Internet-free retreat (lucky you!), you've probably heard of the controversy over men talking to women who wear headphones.
(I'm coming a bit late to this, but I've had a busy week, and I do think this is worth a comment.)
There's an Australia dating guru named Dan Bacon who runs a website called The Modern Man, which promises men spectacular success with women. (The price tag is just under $300 for one of Dan's e-books and videos, though there's a lot of free advice as well.)
Back in 2013, Dan posted a piece titled "How to Talk to a Woman Who Is Wearing Headphones." The current version is a revisionist one in response to the backlash, with painstaking disclaimers about respecting the woman's choice not to talk to you, but the original is preserved here.
Recently, this three-year-old blogpost was dug up and pilloried by a Twitter activist named Brandon Evers, whose Twitter bio states, "I support intersectional feminism, but only women can decide if I'm a feminist" and helpfully clarifies that his personal pronouns are "he/him" and whose Twitter feed is mostly one long exercise in "look how progressive and pro-feminist I am" moral posturing.
Brandon's tweet quickly went viral with 18,000 retweets, and the outrage machine kicked in, with Bustle, Slate, and numerous other sites denouncing the post as a creepy and misogynistic call to sexual harassment and boundary violation. (None of these articles noted that the blogpost had been around for three years.)
Revelist, a publication for millennial women, not-at-all-hyperbolically compared Dan Bacon to mass murderer Elliott Rodger, who killed six people (four of them men) in 2014 because he was mad about being rejected by women.
In reality, the "headphones" piece is pretty silly. I suppose Bacon's dating advice must work for some men, but I find it hard to imagine any woman being won over by a guy standing three or four feet away from her, waving at her when he's in her line of vision and making a "take off your headphones" gesture. And Bacon's suggested dialogue for after the headphones come off as hilariously lame:
You: [Smile in a friendly, confident manner] :)
Hey – I know it's not normal for people to talk to someone with headphones in, but I was walking along and saw you and thought – wow, she's a cutie, I have to say hi. I'm Dan, what's your name?
Woman: [Usually flattered by the compliment and impressed by your confidence to approach her like that] Jessica.
You: [Add in some humor] Cool…nice to meet you Jessica. I don't normally talk to girls with headphones, but your big green headphones were just calling out to me.
Woman: [Most likely laughing, smiling and enjoying the interaction].
Dan, I think you spelled "most likely cringing, inwardly rolling her eyes and hoping you'll go away" wrong. Oh, and "I don't normally talk to girls with headphones" is a sure way to signal "I hit on any girl who looks like she might possibly be available."
But "dangerous"? How? Yes, yes, I know, we're supposed to believe that a man who tries to pick up a woman in a public place and gets rejected is one wrong look away from violently attacking or even murdering her. Yes, such things have happened. People have attacked and sometimes killed other people for all sorts of bizarre reasons. A couple of years ago a woman in Chicago repeatedly assaulted and then killed her boyfriend for not buying her a gift on a trip to the mall. Obviously, tips on gift-giving in romantic relationships are a public menace.
I don't mean to make light of tragedies, but to project extremely rare occurrences in which a woman is physically attacked after turning down an attempted pick-up on all potentially romantic male-female interactions in public places is ridiculous and insulting. We would never stand for this kind of paranoia about blacks, or Muslims, or homeless people.
Bacon's advice, if taken seriously, would no doubt encourage some men to be obnoxious jerks (especially since he tells men not to give up right away if a woman is ignoring their attempts to get her attention -- she might be testing you to see if you're man enough to persist! ... uh, yeah, right). But the biggest "danger" is probably to the man's ego when he gets shot down in no uncertain terms.
Is Bacon's dating advice "misogynistic"? Well, it's based on traditionalist assumptions about men and women that I find much too rigid and simplistic (this is where I differ from many of my fellow critics of modern feminism). Women, in Bacon's world, always want men to take the lead in relationships and to be stronger and more confident than they are. (To be fair, he also stresses that "Controlling an interaction with a woman is not about bossing her around, being arrogant or being too assertive"). Some women, like The Federalist's Joy Pullman, agree. Personally, I think any statement starting with "Women want..." or "No woman wants..." is going to be false. (This study found that one in four women prefer "submissive" men, though it's not clear from the reports how many of the rest preferred male dominance vs. equality.) For instance, Bacon's advice is based on the premise that a woman is always going to be impressed by a confident approach over a shy and nervous one. Try googling the phrase "He was adorably shy," and you will see that for many women this is not true.
But the denunciations of Bacon's blogpost as the epitome of "male entitlement" are absurdly overwrought. The Revelist author, Rae Paoletta, has this to say about Bacon's view of relationships:
It assumes women can't have agency in choosing a partner; that a man deserves a woman's time, attention, and body, simply because he exists - or else.
Actually, no, it doesn't. It assumes that a man has to work hard to earn a woman's time and attention. The woman's ability to choose is assumed throughout the post: the male reader is warned that if he screws up his approach -- for instance, by coming across as too nervous or anxious -- "he will usually lose his opportunity there and then":
If for example, he asks her to take off her headphones and the first words out of his mouth are, "Hi, ummm… I was, ummm… wondering, ummm… sorry to interrupt…how, ummm… are you?" you can guess what will happen next. Headphones back in and she'll probably turn up the volume to block him out.
Bacon's whole approach is based on the premise that if you're not successful with women, it's your fault and it's up to you to change. (Of course it is! He's trying to get men to pay him money to teach them how to change!) That's the opposite of the Elliot Rodger premise, which is "Women reject me because they're dumb evil bitches who only want to have sex with jerks and ignore wonderful guys like me."
Also, while (again) I'm not a fan of Bacon's specific advice, I don't necessarily buy the notion that headphones clearly signal the wearer's desire not to interact with anyone. And even if they do, people -- women and men -- can and do change their minds. Check out, for instance, this rather touching account from a "How did you know your partner was 'the one'" collection of personal stories on the lifestyle blog A Cup of Jo:
I met my husband on the Chinatown bus. I am normally SO shy about talking to strangers, so I had my earbuds in and my face turned to the window and my work in my lap - a wall around me. But he sat next to me, and somehow we ended up chatting without a pause from New York City all the way to D.C. I wouldn't quite call it love at first sight, but rather this strong feeling of "but of course," or inevitability, but in a good way. I just had this instinct from that very first conversation that this person was going to be important in my life; that he was, well, the one.
To be sure, that woman's husband did not wave a hand in her face and make "take off your headphones" gestures, and he probably didn't read tips on how to pick up girls who wear headphones. But "DON'T APPROACH WOMEN IN HEADPHONES" scoldings are likely to have a chilling effect on interactions that are neither boorish nor "creepy."
I'll be honest: after reading a lot of the reactions to Bacon's blogpost, I found them a lot more annoying than the blogpost itself.
For instance, four of the 12 tweets spotlighted in the Bustle piece on the "best reactions" to the headphones post had a disturbingly violent tone:
And there was also this, showcased in the Twitter "moment" for the headphones brouhaha:
I totally understand that guys trying to hit on women in public places can be pests. Once, on the New Jersey Transit train to New York, I actually pretended to get off at a stop and moved to a different car because the guy sitting next to me kept trying to engage me in conversation despite abundant "I'm busy" signals -- and in fact, I was busy reading something in preparation for my meeting in New York. He even kept telling me to smile -- it was like an Amanda Marcotte column suddenly came to life and put on a three-piece suit! (And yes, I've had annoying and intrusive female seatmates, but persistent unwelcome advances do have that extra layer of obnoxiousness.) On the other hand, I also dated a guy who chatted me up while standing in line at the bank and spent most of my college years in a relationship with a guy who chatted me up while standing in line at the student center cafe. So the idea that women don't want men to chat them up in public places is simply untrue.
In fact, women talk about it. Check out, for instance, this relationship-site article on "how to get a guy's attention," which suggests making contact by dropping something he can pick up or asking for a pen (female entitlement?), and which is based on the assumption that it's up to the guy to ask.
Laugh all you want at Dan Bacon's women-in-headphones advice, but it would also be good to show a bit of appreciation for the fact that relationships are a difficult terrain for both sexes and that the traditional male role of making the first move and risking rejection can be a real burden, especially for shy men. Personally, I'm all for encouraging women to take more of the initiative, and if feminists were doing that I'd gladly join them. Instead, they're trying to make that terrain even rockier for men and, sometimes, outright demonize male sexual interest in women.
By the way, if you really want to see sexism and entitlement, check out this rant on the millennial website EliteDaily:
To sum up:
* Yes, the post was ridiculous, and some men who follow Bacon's advice would probably end up being annoying pests (and making fools of themselves).
* The reaction was ridiculously over the top, and with some troubling nastiness toward men who may be guilty of little more than a clumsy romantic approach.
* Male-bashing aside, telling women they're "in danger" from a guy trying to chat them up in a public place is the opposite of "empowering."