Nice Guys and Behavioural Conditioning

I’m having an ongoing discussion lately about Nice Guys, and the insidious role they play in our society, specifically in the sense of social conditioning. Rape culture is something we talk about a lot, and we also talk about the origins of it, and I feel a bit silly writing yet another post on rape culture, but she brought up a really good point that got my brain spinning.

She was talking about the joke-threat mode of interaction. I think you can probably think of a few examples of the type of interaction I am talking about. It is almost always a cis man in the driver’s seat. The cis man puffs up really large and makes a ‘joke’ that is threatening in nature. It’s all in good fun. It’s just teasing. It’s meant to be silly and affectionate. I’ve always had a hard time with this interaction because I am bad at reading people and consequently I read it as a unilateral threat.

So, here’s the thing. There’s nothing ‘jokey’ about threats. The fact is that we are threatened all the time. We are constantly reminded that our bodies belong to members of the public and that we are presumed available for sex at all times. So, with every threat, there is a very real and very scary undercurrent. Whether that threat is from a friend or a stranger. Whether it is meant as a joke or a real threat.

My general rule of thumb is that I operate with the most basic reading on these things. If someone is saying something that I perceive as a threat, I am going to take steps to protect myself and the people around me. I am not going to assume good faith on the part of the person threatening me, because there is too much history there. There is absolutely no reason to assume that a person threatening me is just teasing.

Woe betide the person who does this to a Nice Guy.

Here’s the thing about Nice Guys. They want to tell you that they are different from everyone else. They are more understanding. They identify as feminist. They are not like those other men. And, apparently, we are supposed to magically be able to discern this, even if we have never met someone before, never interacted with him before, and have no idea who he is. Because he is a Nice Guy, his Nice Guyness shines out from him like a gentle light of goodness, alerting us to the fact that he means us no harm.

Well. I’ve been abused by Nice Guys, so I know better than to assume that a self-proclaimed Nice Guy is better than all the rest. And I know enough to be wary of people who make a point of stressing how nice and good they are. Because, honestly, people, if you have to belabour a point? I’ve got to start wondering how valid it is.

Nice Guys are a key part of rape culture. Their umbrage at being informed that they are not automatically figures of trust, that their flirtations are not welcome, that their joke-threats are read as threats, is a function of rape culture. Because they are part of the social conditioning that demands that we trust people. That demands that we tolerate language and behaviour that we might label as abusive, because, well, the  person wouldn’t really. This directly feeds into the belief that we do not control our bodies and do not have the right to exert autonomy over them.

I don’t trust Nice Guys. I have been given no reason to do so, and insistently demanding that I should trust them just ’cause is simply not going to cut it. There is too much loaded history here, and it’s one of the things that irks me most about some men in feminist spaces. They act like we owe them something because they are identifying as feminist, that we will validate their identity as Nice Guys, that we will instantly embrace them into our feminism, and they become very angry when they are informed that this is not how it works.

Curiously, a lot of those Nice Guys do a fair amount of reinforcing of rape culture themselves, whether they are constructing elaborate narratives on their television shows or insisting that feminists ‘give people the benefit of the doubt.’ And yet, still, they wonder why they are not trusted, not welcomed and embraced. They wonder why women push back against the social conditioning that they are promoting, why women say ‘that’s not funny’ when something isn’t funny, why people become nervous and edgy around them.

One of the first rules of interacting with a group you hold privilege over is to remember that they have no reason to trust you. Not because you, personally, are a bad person, but because there is a history with people like you and the group you are interacting with. In the case of Nice Guys, that’s a complex and long and very sordid history.

A history of profound social and behavioural conditioning, constantly reinforced by the way they interact with cis women, transgender folks, and nongender people. Every time someone is told to ‘lighten up, it’s just a joke,’ every time a joke-threat is uneasily accepted without comment, every time a Nice Guy insists that he means well, it chips away a little bit more at the defenses that we are allowed to build for ourselves. It is a reminder that, when push comes to shove, we belong not to ourselves, but to the world around us, and we have an obligation to please the world around us. To make ourselves available for others.

There’s a reason that the Nice Guy narrative is so widespread: Because it really is integral to sexism and gender inequality. It presupposes that there are certain classes of men who are inherently trustworthy, who do not need to prove their trustworthiness, and that anyone who says otherwise is just uptight and humourless.