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The Bad Boys of the Good Men Project

Contemplating your daughter’s sex life, the open source boob project, and other failures of the new improved feminist manhood

I’ve been running alternative candidates through my head for a few weeks now, and there’s truly nothing I’d rather hear my parents say less than, “I hope you have awesome sex.”

I appear to be in the minority, at least if the response to the recent article “Dear Daughter: I Hope You Have Awesome Sex,” found on The Good Men Project, is any indication. Those who spend any time on social media probably saw it. The post garnered 304,000 “likes” and more than a million shares on Facebook. And that’s not counting the cross-post at the Huffington Post.

The open letter described how the author, Ferrett Steinmetz, doesn’t want to be the stereotypical dad who tries to scare away the young teenage boys courting his daughter. Specifically, he wanted to push back against the notion that “boys are threatening louts, sex is awful when other people do it, and my daughter is a plastic doll whose destiny I control.”

“Look, I love sex. It’s fun. And because I love my daughter, I want her to have all of the same delights in life that I do, and hopefully more,” Steinmetz writes. “I don’t want to hear about the fine details because, heck, I don’t want those visuals any more than my daughter wants mine. But in the abstract, darling, go out and play.”

Liberals in my social media network gushed over Steinmetz’s article, using language similar to soda advertisements. “Refreshing,” “bold,” “sweet.”

Others, however, found it kind of squicky. It included such cringe-inducing sentences as, “Now, you’re going to get bruised by life, and sometimes bruised consensually.” Or the kicker: “Now get out there and find all the things you [expletive]ing love, and vice versa.”

Now, a lot of earnest, striving progressives will put themselves out on rhetorical limbs for the sake of posturing, but please understand: Steinmetz really does love sex and over sharing.

Hey, I don’t judge. Whatever floats your sex TARDIS through time and space.

His blog informs readers that he’s leading several workshops at an upcoming Geeky Kink Event, including lessons on polyamory and bondage involving fire. The event also includes—God bless you, geeks—a TARDIS bondage box complete with glory holes. Hey, I don’t judge. Whatever floats your sex TARDIS through time and space.

Open Source Boob Project

Steinmetz also caused an uproar in the geek community—he’s a science-fiction writer—back in 2008 after he and some buddies came up with an idea for something called the “Open Source Boob Project.”

The project came about at a sci-fi convention when a friend lamented to Steinmetz how it was inappropriate to walk up to women and say, “Wow, I’d like to touch your breasts.” Then, fulfilling the sweaty daydreams of nerds everywhere, a real-life girl told them they could touch her breasts.

Steinmetz’s description of what happened next should not be read by those with weak stomachs:

We all reached out in the hallway, hands and fingers extended, to get a handful. And lo, we touched her breasts – taking turns to put our hands on the creamy tops exposed through the sheer top she wore, cupping our palms to touch the clothed swell underneath, exploring thoroughly but briefly lest we cross the line from ‘touching” to “unwanted heavy petting.” They were awesome breasts, worthy of being touched.

The experience gave Steinmetz and crew the bright idea to make buttons women could wear at conventions to identify themselves as grope-friendly.

And lo, Steinmetz posted the inevitable mea culpa on his LiveJournal shortly after the feminist website Jezebel highlighted the project. “Unfortunately, one of the things about life is that what works in a microcosm does not work in a macrocosm,” he wrote. Important lesson learned: What happens at sci-fi conventions stays at sci-fi conventions.

Anywho, that whole kerfuffle is interesting considering Steinmetz’s “Dear Daughter” article went viral after being posted at the The Good Men Project. The website describes itself as “a community of 21st Century thought leaders around the issue of men’s roles in modern life.”

“Guys today are neither the mindless, sex-obsessed buffoons nor the stoic automatons our culture so often makes them out to be,” the project’s mission statement says. “Our community is smart, compassionate, curious, and open-minded; they strive to be good fathers and husbands, citizens and friends, to lead by example at home and in the workplace, and to understand their role in a changing world.”

Men Are in a Bad Way

The project came about at a sci-fi convention when a friend lamented to Steinmetz how it was inappropriate to walk up to women and say, “Wow, I’d like to touch your breasts.”

There’s been a lot of ink spilled about that “role in the changing world” part. There was Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man in 1999, followed by Christina Hoff Sommers’ The War Against Boys in 2000. The Dangerous Book For Boys, intended as a curative of sorts, came out in 2007. The economic collapse in 2008 only led to more pronouncements on the subject. And despite the terminal title of Hanna Rosin’s 2012 book, The End of Men, there still seems to be no end in sight for think-pieces about the decline of the male sex.

Readers have no doubt heard the news: Men are in a bad way. They are unmoored in today’s post-industrial, post-modern, profoundly prefixed society. They are graduating at lower rates than women. They are no longer the chief breadwinner in households. They stay at home and yell at each other via Xbox, living vicariously through pixelated soldiers and quarterbacks. They are opting out of long-term relationships, marriage and fatherhood in favor of permanent bro-hood.

So the Good Men Project arrived on the scene to make more enlightened dudes of us all. The site was created in 2010 by Thomas Matlack, a wealthy venture capitalist who came up with the idea after getting on the wagon following a long, dark night of the soul.

The project started as a poor-selling book of essays on manhood, but a social media expert that Matlack hired, Lisa Hickey, convinced him it could be much more successful as a website.

“I told him I couldn’t sell a million copies of the book,” Hickey told Buzzfeed in a long profile of Matlack. “But I could sell a million people on the idea of a good man.”

It was not exactly an original idea. Socrates had a few think-pieces—think-dialogues, you could say—on living a virtuous life. But the timing was perfect. Stories about gender issues are evergreen sources of web traffic.

In practice, however, the site has become clearinghouse for finger-wagging, awkward “real talk” about man-feelings, and a lot of “good talk, Russ” moments.

For example, here’s Anne Theriault explaining how to talk to one’s son without giving him body issues:

Don’t comment on other men’s bodies – neither positively nor negatively. Don’t communicate an idealized version of masculine beauty, and don’t run other men down. And for the love of God don’t make jokes about hair loss, or say that you don’t find bald men attractive. Don’t make jokes about short men. Don’t make jokes about body hair. Don’t make jokes about penis size. Seriously. Those things aren’t funny.

The Good Men Project finds a great many things unfunny, which often leads to it being unintentionally hilarious.

“Think about the phrase ‘man candy’ for a minute,” Sally McGraw writes. “It’s fantastically demeaning. Demotes a human being to something sweet, temporary, and devoid even of nutritional value.”

While it co-opts the language tropes and general progressive attitude of feminism, The Good Men Project has never hitched itself to feminist orthodoxy.

“Think about the phrase ‘man candy’ for a minute. It’s fantastically demeaning.”

The site got flack for publishing a special package on the so-called “Men’s Rights Movement.” Men’s rights activists, or MRA’s, are a virulent little group of sad sacks who, as is wont to happen, found each other through the Internet. They believe women and society at large are systematically oppressing them. The solution, MRA’s have concluded, is to retreat to their man caves.

In his review of Helen Smith’s book on the subject, Men On Strike, The Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson summed up the state of affairs among the brave John Galts of the men’s rights movement:

Her men are an unhappy lot, nursing their gripes and resentments. “I’m on strike and have been for years now,” writes “Bob.” “Women are so full of hatred and disdain for me.” Some who have managed to secure a relationship with a woman have come away angry. “Personally,” says one, “I hate the idea that a woman can stop anything and everything I care about doing, just by making my life a living hell until I concede to her demands”​—​especially, he adds, his girlfriend’s demand that he “be the man.”

The feminist blogosphere did not appreciate the site publishing the opinions of MRA goobers. Its relationship with feminists, who greeted the Good Men Project with enthusiasm when it launched, further deteriorated after it ran several questionable pieces on sexual assault. Let’s just say if your publication’s Wikipedia article has a “Rape Controversy” section, you’re doing it wrong.

The repeated flare-ups led to the public departures of several of the Good Men Project’s resident feminists in good standing, such as Slate’s Amanda Marcotte.

The Most Notorious Bad Boy Male Feminist Out There

This also brings us to Hugo Schwyzer, a former member of the Good Men Project. Schwyzer was a lightning-rod feminist and gender studies professor at Pasadena City College. Or, as his website describes him, “author, speaker, professor, shattering gender myths.”

He publicly split from The Good Men Project in 2011 over a long, complicated argument revolving around rape, men, and feminism.

He was sleeping with a 23-year-old at the same time he argued men should date women their own age.

In August, Schwyzer went on medical leave from his job and had a breakdown on Twitter. Among his other admissions: He was not qualified to teach women’s and gender studies classes, having only taken a couple undergrad courses in the subject himself. He was sleeping with a 23-year-old at the same time he published an Atlantic op-ed arguing men should date women their own age. On his blog, he wrote that he had continued to sleep with his students long after he said he stopped. There were many eyebrow-raising incidents and accusations made against Schwyzer in the past, but he had a coterie of feminists who defended him because he fought for The Cause and said all the right things.

“I loved being the most notorious bad boy male feminist out there,” Schwyzer tweeted.

“When I quit the Good Men Project, I timed the announcement for maximum effect,” he said in another tweet. “I was such a manipulative jerk.”

Schwyzer obviously has much deeper issues than being a mendacious womanizer. Still, when it comes to an instructive example of men being louts, it’s hard to beat a rock star male feminist who used his position to sleep with coeds. Not exactly myth-shattering.

If the Good Men Project’s goal is to redefine modern manhood and stereotypes surrounding men, it must be viewed as something less than a success. Between bad boy male feminists, dudes named Ferrett, and men’s rights slacktivists, the Good Men Project has been hoisted by its own phallic petard.

Matlack found himself defending his site—in increasingly bitter Twitter warfare—from attacks by MRA trolls on one side, who called him a “mangina,” and feminists on the other side who had tired of the Good Men Project’s shtick.

For every smart piece, there seemed to be inflammatory chin-scratching in search of page-views and stories that should be filed under “when keeping it real goes wrong.” It is doubtful the Good Men Project op-ed on how guys feel about women in yoga pants will be counted among the must-reads of early 21-century gender studies.

Even Matlack’s most earnest efforts to portray the Good Man only stiffened feminist resistance to him. His old colleague Marcotte panned his opinion in a New York Times debate that women should feel free to wear makeup or not, whatever they prefer, and that he thought his wife was beautiful without makeup.

According to Buzzfeed, Matlack recently severed all ties with the Good Men Project (except for his financial stake). He’s focusing on his family and his investments, practicing meditation, and developing a book proposal that he described as “Eat, Pray, Love without going anywhere.”

That Matlack would invoke Eat, Pray Love—every cloying feminist’s favorite paean to new age narcissism—is fitting in many ways. But if it seems odd he’s modeling his own book after a mega-bestselling travel memoir and doesn’t plan on doing any travel, consider this: Matlack’s last endeavor was pretty successful at getting attention for himself, even though the cause behind the Good Men Project has gone nowhere.

Follow C.J. Ciaramella on Twitter.

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