Gunwitch and the adversarial relationship model: Sondheim knows what’s up

This is a crosspost from the tumblr, and I have no doubt that it’s going to be the first of many posts on this subject. As the name of the blog (inspired by the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus book series) suggests, I have a special interest in relationship advice, good, bad and ugly. The advice I refer to in this post is definitely ugly.

There is a lot of conversation going on right now in relation to the Arizona shooting and the use of violent, inciting rhetoric in politics. There’s been discussion of the need both for a less combative, violent, adversarial language in politics and for resources to help the mentally ill. This dovetails really well with something I have wanted to talk about for a long time.

When people talk about dating and relationships as a battle, as a game of pursuer and pursued, when they talk about the “battle of the sexes” and “getting the upper hand”, of being endlessly persistent in the face of rejection and of women as “targets”, as both the enemy and the spoils won by the victors, I wonder if they realise how seriously some people are taking that ideology.

Basically, this:

One of the pickup artist “gurus” cited in Neil Strauss’ bestselling memoir The Game has just been arrested, allegedly for shooting a woman in the face. (She has, thankfully, survived the incident.)

His nickname, the name by which he marketed his materials online, was Gunwitch, and he advocated a method which could be accurately summarised, and has been summarised by him, as “make the ho say no”, where a man is meant to pursue a woman basically until she tells you in no uncertain terms to fuck off. This was the logo on one of his audiotapes, “The Way of Gun”:

That was his image of aspiration, of success.

Even if it transpires that the shooting was a result of mere poor gun safety and impaired judgment due to drug/alcohol use, I still think this is a good opportunity for reflection.

I began this post with a link to a song by Stephen Sondheim because it provides such a perfect image of what is essentially an adversarial, rather than co-operative, relationship model, in which it is both “terrible” and “glorious” to be a woman, in which there is a constant struggle over control of one’s partner, a constant paranoia over having the upper hand.

Maybe it’s the woman who “plays hard to get”, fearing that admitting genuine attraction will make her look weak, will allow the man to stomp all over her. Maybe it’s the man who pretends aloofness, believing that no woman is attracted to a man who shows genuine affection, that women only want “bad boys” and niceness is the enemy, so he’d better treat her mean.

The worst members of the pickup artist community – and I recognise that there are people who call themselves pickup artists and do not advocate this tripe – know all too well how to “win” this “game”, through vicious emotional manipulation [trigger warnings for more than a passing resemblance to emotional abuse at the link], and they think this is what women secretly crave, what they believe to be right. This is in no way a new attitude, the idea that women only want a man who can control them; it’s been passed down reverently through the generations like some sort of genuine pearl of wisdom.

It’s easy to say that Gunwitch was a “lone crazy”, but he exists on a continuum; he both perpetuated and was influenced by a culture that promotes the model of adversarial relationships, where someone must always dominate, where a partner’s independence is seen as a threat and control is the ideal, where it is better to be a harasser or an emotional manipulator than a decent human being. We need to be presenting an alternate narrative of relationship success, a co-operative model in which mutual respect and desire win the day, in which there is no “upper hand” to be won, in which we recognise that niceness genuinely is a virtue and thuggishness, assholishness and amorality are not desirable traits in a human, that partners are not faceless targets to be hit, games to be won and mastered.

And, in addition to making mental health resources more generally accessible, we need to be looking out for people within our communities who are struggling with interpersonal relationships, and trying to give them help, access to good resources and good advice, so that they don’t sink into the mire of the adversarial relationship model and end up hating or resenting the objects of their affections. We can’t let these things slide. There are lives riding on this.

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