Commentary: The Problem with “Trolls”
Submission by Kyle Jones-Northam. Kyle Jones-Northam lives in Washington, DC. He turned 50 this past winter. He shares a studio apartment with a cat named Manuel, and has too many books and too many hoodies, but not enough shoes or jeans. He actually craves tofu, and his only real addiction is to coffee.
Author’s Note: Many, many thanks to illustrator Rob Kirby for providing the graphic to accompany this post. Rob’s cartoon Curbside Boys was featured on TNG in the past. Robert Kirby is currently the editor of the queer comics anthology series THREE, and the author of Curbside Boys (Cleis Press, 2002), and co-editor (with David Kelly) of The Book of Boy Trouble and The Book of Boy Trouble 2: Born to Trouble, both from Green Candy Press. Website:Robkirbycomics.com
I’d like to bury the word “troll” as an epithet for older gay men. I’ve come to realize it simply cannot be reclaimed. The word “queer” connotes oddness, or outside the norm, and I don’t have a problem with that, given the sheep-like behavior of the norm in our culture. But the word “troll” connotes a being of otherness, implying that older gay men are not even of the same species as younger gay men – after all we don’t refer to younger gay men as “troll-lets”. Not only that, but it connotes something lurking, evil and predatory. Older gay men deserve better.
“But what about the older gay men who are predatory,” you ask. “We call them “trolls” because they leer at us, and look like they want to pounce on us. Some won’t even keep their gnarly old hands off of us. If older gay men are predatory, why shouldn’t we call them trolls?” Well, let’s look at that, shall we?
The Problem Is Objectification
No one likes receiving unwanted sexual attention, whether the receiver is male, female, or other. We don’t like it because it is unwanted. Usually (but not always) we don’t want the undesired sexual attention because we don’t find the person giving it to us sexually desirable. When the person giving the sexual attention is male, and the person receiving the unwanted sexual attention is female, this can be classified as sexual harassment. Due to the genders involved, and the status of the genders in our culture, this sexual attention involves a power imbalance that is particularly destructive. (I would argue that male sexual harassment of females is in a category unto itself due to the vast power differentials, differentials that do not exist within the gay male community. Unless, of course, we view physical attractiveness as power and “currency”, in which case the older gay men cannot be seen as having much power, and therefore do not have the potential for abuse that a straight male has over a female.)
This regard of one person for another in a sexual manner is an aspect of objectification. I would argue that all human beings reflexively objectify other human beings in many various ways, not all of them sexual. It is simply a cerebral short cut for dealing with people in an efficient, evolutionarily selected manner. We see other people in terms of their utility (so-and-so may help me in my career), obstructiveness (that s.o.b. cut me off in traffic!), or mere disinterest. Sometimes that utility is sexual, at which point hormonal responses may come into play. Not to see another person as an object requires an act of will, a conscious choice. We do this when we consciously decide to get to know another person, and to try to understand that person’s motivations, life histories, viewpoints, etc. We even choose, at times, to try to get to know a person who attracts us sexually. Sometimes we even form long term relationships with such persons.
People objectify us in a thousand different ways over the course of a day. Often it is annoying. When that objectification is sexual, it may even be particularly annoying. At the same time, it is incumbent upon all humans who want to elevate human relationships to be aware of how they objectify others, and especially when that objectification is sexual, how to behave with respect and discretion.
The Problem Isn’t Age
So what is my point in all this? The real problem gay men usually associate with “trolls” isn’t that the men are older; the problem is that the men are sexually objectifying younger men. And therefore, the problem is obvious sexual objectification. And since obvious sexual objectification happens regardless of the age of the objectifier, why do we – by labeling older gay men as “trolls” – pour special and specific opprobrium on older gay men when they objectify younger gay men? If their failure is in objectifying others, let’s call it that without specifically referencing, directly or by implication, the age of the person committing the failure. However, if you feel the failure is attributable to the person being old, then that is ageism on your part, and that is as bad as other forms of objectification.
“But I don’t like it when older men hit on me!” That’s fine. Do you like it when younger men to whom you are not attracted hit on you? No one finds everyone of a certain age group – young, old or in between – attractive. So if you don’t like being hit on by men you are not attracted to, regardless of their ages, why single out older gay men with the epithet “troll”? Why not just label the behavior – i.e., sexual objectification – rather than label the person? How do you handle it when an older gay man hits on you? Well, how would you handle it when a younger gay man to whom you are not attracted hits on you? Politely refuse? Leave? My point is, one shouldn’t adjust his behavior or level of discomfort based solely on the age of the other person involved. To do so is simple ageism.
It is even ageism when, in a discussion of older gay men, someone feels compelled to mention that while some older gay men are nice, others bring the unwanted sexual attention. Surely you are not implying that only older gay men bring the unwanted sexual attention. Are you saying that younger gay men never do it, or that you are willing to accept sexual attention from all younger gay men? I sincerely doubt it, but even so, that’s ageism. I ask you to understand what it means when you feel compelled to mention unwanted sexual attraction only in the context of talking about older gay men.
My point is that when we view the undesired behavior without regard to the age of the person committing the undesired behavior, we avoid the fault of ageism. The age of the person committing the undesired behavior should have no bearing; if the behavior is bad, let’s label it as such. Let’s not resort to labeling the persons involved. Older gay men do not have a monopoly on the fault of objectifying other men. Giving them the label “troll” as if they did have that monopoly is disingenuous. Let’s bury the word “troll.”
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