The rules of sex are both formal and informal for men and women, in America.
Boys and girls learn about love and sex in the climate of their youth. They learn and practice the rules and taboos of their “tribe.” When I was a boy, men were macho. My dad was strong, facile, and strict. Movies were John Wayne, Micky Spillane, and Gone with the Wind. Just after World War II, society’s standards for men were macho, and aggressive; standards for women were demure, cosmetic, social accessories, fiercely-devout housewives, ardent lovers, and stalwart, protectors of children.
Men pursued sexual contact, despite protests from a woman (e.g. Gone with the Wind). “Wolf Whistles” were some crude men’s idea of how to get women’s attention. Boys had a mandate to “get girls” (e.g. American Graffiti). We had no idea how, but we could not let it be known we were kiss-less virgins. Dates were events with timorous, sexual fumbles. Men “scored” with women. They used baseball as a metaphor. First base was kissing; second base was touching breasts; you can guess third base and home run – and strike out. Virginity was for boys to lose, and girls to keep; that was the battle of the sexes.
Boys’ bathrooms or gym locker rooms were the venues for lame boasts of conquest, and face-saving lies. Every boy had a story to tell that would lift his score on the invisible scoreboard of manliness. The desperate would name local, popular boy-legends; girls with “reputations.”
Anyone who watches the series “Mad Men,” sees the power structure, and vulnerability men and women accepted and took for granted. Everyone tacitly agreed that powerful men can press themselves on women. Today, we call them “predators.”
Women did not want these advances then, either. They just learned to ignore or deal with it, and moved on. It was job survival for a woman in the workplace to tactfully divert the advances of the men she worked with.
Then came the late 60’s,70’s, and 80’s; confusing and defining times for both sexes. Young, unmarried women were “liberated.” We had a mix of traditional and uninhibited values. It was a second “suffrage.” Some men and women connected in “adulterous” liaisons. Others lived dual lives, with a traditional family, and a sexual second. Some had “open” marriages that allowed sex with non-spouses.
This historic, buffet of choices causes conflict today. The recent pillory and massacre of powerful men based on accusations of sexual harassment and unwanted sexual advances is a cultural sea change. The information age is giving women a platform, permission, and encouragement to revolt against the subjugating, sexual power men have held over subordinate women forever.
This is a confusing time for men who like women. Men are on notice to be “appropriate” with all women. Are platonic friendships between men and women possible now? What is “appropriate?”
Men want women to like them, but many are clumsy and clueless; women are different, subjective, fickle, ephemeral “mysteries” men cannot figure out; therefore, attractive curiosities. Who will teach men how to be around women? Where is the manual? What parts of the way they grew up do they discard? Straight men are in peril if they describe, notice, appreciate, comment, or have facial expressions in response to a woman’s appearance or attractiveness. That surely limits the range of single men’s overtures to a potential mate. (e.g. “Hi, I noticed you from across the library, in the non- fiction section, I do not know anything about non-fiction, could you help me? Could I bribe you with a coffee?” Or, “Aren’t you the lady from my bank? I always wondered what being a teller is like. Would you have time to help me understand? I’ll buy the coffee. What do you like?”) Still pretty lame, but completely appropriate.
Women spend hours each day to prepare and present themselves to “others.” Cosmetics, hair style, nail polish, clothes, whitened teeth, shoes, and body-shape are endemic elements of fashion and style in our culture. Women often compliment or disparage other women for their presentation; that is not harassment, but it can be “shaming.” Women take compliments from gay men as, well, compliments, because they figure sex is not their motivation.
When straight men compliment women, without sexual intentions, women might still accuse them of sexual aggression. Absent comments, some women might feel ignored, or unattractive, but what are men to do? Confused and threatened men can retreat into a “man’s world,” which is a safe, sane, and familiar cave.