Romance, Rape Culture, and Renaissance Poets

bitches love sonnets

Shakespeare is sad that his sonnets are not as hilarious as Sidney’s.

There’s been a recent dustup in the feminist blogosphere (and in its evil twin, the “pickup artists” (PUA) community) over a Kickstarter-funded “seduction manual” that appears to advocate sexual assault. You can read a bit about that here, if you haven’t followed the story. Kickstarter, to its great credit, issued an honest to god apology, with plans for future action and a substantial donation to RAINN — a miracle in the epidemic of non-apologies from corporations and celebrities.

The backlash and the backlash-to-the-backlash have spawned another instance of the perpetual debate between feminists (like me) who think PUA rhetoric is awfully rapey and the people defending PUA as the lone beacon of hope for painfully shy, Nice Guys (TM) who just can’t get the ladies to talk to them. To those of us in the former camp, the rape-tastic quality of PUA is in how it instructs men to view resistance (up to and including a verbal “no”) as the first step in a game, the final victory of which is getting to put your nice guy dick inside the formerly resisting woman. Mallory Ortberg (@mallelis) brilliantly summarized this dynamic on Twitter, capturing just how the erosion of refusal can lead to the illusion of consent.

So much of this recent conversation reminds me of this classic Onion article: Romantic-Comedy Behavior Gets Real-Life Man Arrested. A taste:

Marzano, who broke his leg last week falling off a ladder leaning against Hamilton’s second-story bedroom window, said he was “extremely surprised” that his plan to woo Hamilton had failed.

“She was supposed to hate me at first but gradually be won over by my incredible persistence, telling me that no one has ever gone to such wild lengths to win her love,” Marzano said. “But for some reason, her irritation never turned to affection.”

LOVE THAT ARTICLE. Man. (Insert long digression about how great the Onion was in my day / the weather was colder then / we all had to walk 10 miles uphill both ways / etc.)

This approach to “romance” — wear down the willpower of the inaccessible beauty until she’s, you know, accessible — goes back way, way longer than Mystery and his stupid hat, of course. In fact, it’s the key goal of one of my favorite literary Nice Guys (TM): Astrophil, of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella. Now, don’t get me wrong: I love me some Astrophil. In fact, he’s a thousand times more interesting than Stella. But this is in part because he’s simultaneously so witty and so knowingly pathetic, especially when it comes to dealing with the constant “No” dealt by Stella.

She, lightning Love, displaying Venus’s skies,
Lest once should not be heard, twice said, “No, no.”
Sing then, my Muse, now Io Paean sing,
Heavens, envy not at my high triumphing,
But Grammar’s force with sweet success confirm,
For Grammar says (O this dear Stella weigh),
For Grammar says (to Grammar, who says nay)
That in one speech two negatives affirm.

— Sonnet 63

In other words, Stella had to say “no” twice, and that makes a double negative, and that makes a positive! WIN FOR ASTROPHIL

cat high five

But ah, Desire still cries, Give me some skin

Obviously this is one of the most hilariously lame romantic victories in the history of literature, and if Astrophil doesn’t know that, Sidney surely does. Here’s the thing, though: Astrophil really does hear every “no” from Stella as a prelude to the Real Answer, which will be yes. We see this most clearly when he “steals” a kiss from Stella while she’s asleep, where he is frank both about his sketchy method and about how, well, rapey he’s feeling:

Her tongue waking still refuseth,
Giving frankly niggard “no.”
Now will I attempt to know
What “no” her tongue sleeping useth.

See the hand which waking guardeth,
Sleeping grants a free resort.
Now will I invade the fort;
Cowards love with loss rewardeth.

— Song 2

At the end of the poem, Stella wakes up and, finding Astrophil “invading” her “fort,” freaks out, prompting Astrophil to kick himself for not, uh, firing his cannons: “Fool, more fool, for no more taking.”

Astrophil! Not cool, dude! But you can see the logic here and how he’s twisting it: Stella, like all women, has two tongues, one that says no and one that says yes. If you wait around long enough, you’ll eventually encounter the yes tongue. If you force a woman to rebuff your advances, eventually she’ll get tired and stop rebuffing. And then, Nice Guys (TM) of the world will get what they really want: a way around that pesky wall built of “no.”


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