For reference: types of sexuality

This is a concept I find myself using a lot as I think about sexuality, so I’m going to coin terms and then refer back to this post when I use them in the future. From my experience, and according to several things I’ve read, there are two different ways to be interested in sex. You can be proactively interested, hungry for it, feeling some level of discomfort or even misery if you don’t get a sexual outlet. Or you can be responsively interested, content without sex but happy to respond if someone else (someone you like/trust/are into) initiates sexual activity, and ramping up into hot-and-horny mode after some stimulation. I’ve written about this distinction here, and Emily Nagoski writes about it here.

It seems that, while most people experience both kinds of sexual desire, a lot of people find that they typically feel one kind or the other. And it also seems that people who typically feel proactively-interested in sex are more likely to be male, and people who typically feel responsively-interested are more likely to be female. In my last post on the subject, in fact, I referred to them as “male-typical” and “female-typical.” But I want a gender-neutral way of talking about this distinction, because there are plenty of people who cross gender lines on this. So I’m going to start saying P-type and R-type.

P-type: Sexual desire that arises spontaneously, that has some level of urgency, that proactively seeks out a mate (and/or a private release.) Also a person whose sexual desire more often looks like this than like the R-type.

R-type: Sexual desire that is aroused by an external stimulus, that (in the early stages) is fairly easily dismissed, that intensifies in response to sexual stimulus (either by a partner or by oneself.) Also a person whose sexual desire more often looks like this than like the P-type.

As my study and understanding of sexuality increases, I may refine these categories, but that will do to be getting on with.

Also feel free to riddle the comment box with anecdotes: are you more P-type or R-type? What about your partners? Do¬† you feel that your pattern of response is typical or atypical for your gender, and if atypical, has that caused problems for you? I’d love to know.

Invisible men, invisible women

A brief moment in the discussion group last week was incredibly telling to me: we were talking about stereotypes about men and women in the workplace, and one man mentioned an industrial environment he’d worked in, where men and women did the same amount and quality of work, and got the same pay and treatment. He then mentioned as an aside that there were a few jobs women never did, because they involved an extreme amount of heavy lifting, but “a lot of the men didn’t do that work either… those jobs were saved for the” he paused and flexed his arms “men.”

I and everybody else in the group understood what he meant. There are men and women, you see, and then there are men. (And women, but we’ll get to that in a bit.) Men who are men, not by virtue of a simple set of chromosomes and genitalia, but who express their man-ness by specific man behaviors, like feats of physical strength. Who have actually succeeded at being men, instead of just being placed in the category by default. All those concepts resonated through my brain when he talked of the subset of men who did the heavy lifting. And then my rational, observing brain went “Wait… what the fuck?”

That category is bullshit, y’all. There is no such thing as a man who is better at being a man than another man. That’s like, if I met another Ginny in town, assessing which of us is better at being a Ginny. It’s nonsensical. We’re both Ginnys, those were the names our parents gave us and we’re comfortable with them, and we get to live the rest of our lives defining what “being a Ginny” means for us as individuals.

I looked around the table — of the four or five men present, I didn’t imagine any of them would have been capable of the heavy lifting jobs in the factory. I don’t imagine my boyfriend or my brothers would. But none of these people were less men than someone who would.

I thought about it again later, when one of the men present clearly had something to say, but kept getting talked over, and wasn’t assertive enough to speak until the person next to him noticed and said “Go ahead.” It’s an experience I’ve had many times, and it’s a phenomenon I’ve usually thought of as gender-relevant: the woman has something to say but is too soft-spoken or socially deferential to get the words out over men who charge ahead without noticing that she’s waiting to speak. Seeing a man in that position, my mental reflex was to shift him one peg away from “man-like,” but I stopped myself again. He is a man. He’s not less a man for being socially deferential to the louder speakers around him. And then I wondered, “How many men are there, who sit in situations like this, hearing ‘manhood’ described and defined, and thinking ‘That isn’t me at all’?”

We have a tremendous confirmation bias around gender roles. We have a set of things that we consider “man-like” behavior, and every time we see a man doing these, we think “Yep… that’s how men behave.” And when a man does something outside this set of things? We don’t see it. We might literally observe it, but it doesn’t get put into our mental category of “things men do” because, well, it’s not something that men do. So maybe this one person did it, and he’s technically a man, but it still doesn’t count because he wasn’t engaging in man-like behavior at the time, so anything he did doesn’t count as an example of man-like behavior. A man engaging in not-man-like behavior is invisible.

(Of course if the behavior goes too far in the direction of the feminine, the invisibility vanishes, and the man is harshly penalized for transgressing the gender boundary. But that’s a whole other blog post/doctoral dissertation.)

Women are subject to this too: just try being a woman who doesn’t want to get married or have kids, and you’ll see the entire culture sticking their fingers in their ears and going “la-la-la-la.” Women want marriage and babies. You may not want them yet… you may not have wanted them to any significant degree over the course of your life so far… but you will eventually, because you’re a woman. And women want marriage and babies.

And then there are the women who don’t meet conventional standards of attractiveness. As I mentioned in my last post, when sexuality is anywhere on the horizon, “ugly” woman magically cease to exist. Most people will agree that a sexually available woman can get laid any time she wants, without even noticing that their mental category of “woman” only includes attractive women.

The baby Shaun and I are taking care of has two very progressive-minded mamas who want her to be as free of gender restrictions as a city-dwelling American can be. One thing they do is dress her alternately in “boy” clothes and “girl” clothes. (When I was working at the preschool, I made an lengthy and detailed list of differences between boy clothes and girl clothes… very telling.) And it’s amazing how the gender signals encoded in her clothing affect the way I talked to her. The first day we watched her she was in a little pink onesie with flowers, and I naturally cooed at her that she was sweet and cute and adorable. On the second day she was wearing a blue outfit with firetrucks and the words “little hero” on it, and I automatically started to pay attention to the way she was moving her body and flexing her muscles. I encouraged her to do baby exercises and praised her for her strength. I noticed this pretty quickly, and once again marveled at how far behind my rational, educated brain is my instinctive brain.

I don’t know what exactly this thing we call “gender” is made of… how much of it is innate, how much constructed. People spend their lives studying it, and as far as I can tell they’re not sure either. But I do feel quite sure that it would behoove us all to unlock those “male” and “female” categories in our brains. Try to catch yourself assessing people’s behaviors in terms of “man-like” or “woman-like.” Try observing the people in your life and saying to yourself, “That man just cleaned the kitchen, therefore cleaning the kitchen is something that men do.”

Gender roles — a foray into the hetero mainstream

Now that the move is over, I’m back to blogging somewhat more frequently. Probably much more frequently, until I get a job. So that’s why there was a sudden dearth of updates, followed by three in 24 hours. Enjoy it while it lasts!

This week I went to a human sexuality discussion group in my new hometown. It was a nice group, very mixed in both age and gender, and somewhat mixed in class as well. It was a little refreshing to be in a group and see myself as a sexual outlier again — I tend to do my discussing of sexuality among queers, sluts, and kinksters, so it was a nice change to look around and think, “I could probably shock, or at least surprise, someone here.” It’s also good for me to get in touch with slightly more mainstream sensibilities. This post is going to be chock-full of those sensibilities, so I’m not even going to try to avoid heteronormative language… heteronormativity, and other ghastly cultural baggage, is kind of the point.

The topic of the day’s discussion was gender roles in dating. We talked about age, wealth, and attractiveness, and the different balances of power those three factors create. Some interesting and appalling things came up.

We talked for a while about situations where an older, wealthier person develops a relationship with a young hottie, with some manner of financial benefit transferring to the young hottie. Everything from a full-on sugar-daddy relationship to certain vacation spots where evidently it’s common for the local lads to be picked up by wealthy older ladies who shower them with gifts. What’s fascinating to me about these scenarios is the different ways they play out depending on whether the older partner is male or female. A rich older man can have a sugar-baby or trophy wife pretty much openly within our culture. If we see a hot young thing on the arm of a wealthy fifty-year-old, we all know (or presume we know) what’s going on, and both parties are seen in some way to be doing well for themselves.

When the genders are reversed, however, you don’t see this kind of thing publicly in our culture. It’s more likely to be a vacation fling, something done discreetly away from home. If an older woman has an extended relationship with a younger man, he’s more likely to have his own career, and be fairly successful at it. (Like the perenial Demi/Ashton example.) And I don’t know about you, but when I imagine a bejeweled fifty-year-old woman having a friendly sexual/quasi-financial relationship with a young man, the woman I picture is white and the man is olive-skinned with an accent — probably Latino or Mediterranean. Either an island local on some vacation spot, or the pool boy, you know? Which speaks loads about my assumptions about race, gender, and power. A young American-born man, in my mind, is career-oriented and upwardly mobile. If he mows a rich lady’s lawn or cleans her pool, he’s doing it in order to put himself through college, and he’s not interested in a relationship with her… he dates women of his own age and class, women that he’s socially and financially equal to. For me to envision a male sugar-baby, he’s got to be from a different culture.

(I’m kind of embarrassed to admit all that. I think of myself as pretty enlightened and progressive-minded, but I have a lot of troubling cultural baggage in my head. You probably do too, and I think it’s better to acknowledge it, and acknowledge how twisted it is, than sweep it away in embarrassment.)

So in these sugar-daddy/momma relationships, my mind has to do some mental gymnastics to make it work when the young, hot, economically disadvantaged partner is male. Either he’s not economically disadvantaged after all, like Ashton Kutcher, or he’s from a different culture, and not subject to the same rules I apply to American-born men. I have a hard time, you see, constructing a hetero relationship where the male is not financially successful. Imagine, say, Barbara Walters in a Hugh Hefner-like position, surrounded by blond boy-toys. It’s just a very weird idea, socially (and my mind immediately does a lateral slide and makes them Danish or Norwegian or something… different cultures still, you see. And they still have accents.) A male of my culture has to be financially successful, or aiming for financial success, in order to be credible in a sexual context.

The flip side, of course, is that the female in the arrangement, whether she’s younger or older, has to be attractive. The wealthy American trolling for island boys is slim, fit, manicured, and coiffed. She may be older but she’s still sexy. An ugly woman, no matter how wealthy, is not a credible player in a sexual context any more than a broke and unambitious man.

There are people who will claim that this disparity is evolutionarily based per se: men are “hard-wired” to look for fertility signals, which somehow correspond to the contemporary beauty standard, and women are “hard-wired” to look for success as an indicator of his ability to provide for her offspring. I think that’s largely BS; I think mostly what we’re “hard-wired” to do is absorb cultural dictates, and our culture has been saying for millenia that a woman’s appeal is in her body while a man’s is in his pocketbook.

Near the end of the discussion, after many digressions, we hit on one problematic consequence of this split: if a man’s appeal is based on his financial success, what happens when women, on average, are as financially successful as men? Being close to that point now, we are seeing what happens, and based on the personal experiences of this discussion group, what happens is that men are increasingly insecure and confused about their role. Between us we had anecdotes of four relationships that broke up because the woman was more successful than the man (some initiated by the man’s discomfort with the situation, some by the woman’s). Half the men in the group expressed anxiety and uncertainty about what they had to offer in a relationship, if the woman was making as much or more money. And someone dropped the question on the table: if a woman can support herself, and even a potential child or two, why does she need a man?

This question was taken seriously by more than half the group. I caught eyes with one member who seemed as baffled as I was by it: judging from appearances and a few comments, he, like me, was a young hippie-alternative type. But for most of the rest of the group, it was a problematic question. No one needed to ask why a man needs a woman: for sex, of course, and also for emotional support and maybe to do his laundry. Women, you see, are the attractive sex, and also the emotionally mature/nurturing sex, and also the domestically skilled sex. Men are the money-makers; if women can do that, too, then why do we need men?

We have a huge problem, y’all. Our mainstream archetypes right now are Caveman and Superwoman: fat, slobbish, insensitive sitcom dads and beautiful, mature, professional women who work 9-5 and then come home and take care of the housework and children. Of course we’re asking why a woman needs a man… in this universe, men are useless, and likely to be an additional burden on the already overworked (but still beautiful!) women. Especially if they have the gall to ask for sex after she’s worked a 15-hour day.

That’s the imaginary archetypal world, of course. In the real world, men have more to offer than occasionally being funny and burping on the couch. Men are sexy, men are caring, men are known to cook and clean (in our household, my man does the majority of both), men are capable of feeding and entertaining their children. A woman doesn’t need a man, of course, but she has a lot of good reasons to want one. Provided he’s a good one. And why someone would ever bind her life to one of the not-good ones… just so she can say she’s married?… is a mystery to me.

We need to reshape our culture, away from the assumption that men’s worth is in their wallets and women’s is in their bodies. In my queer-as-fuck world, those assumptions don’t really touch me, but a lot of people in the mainstream world still labor under them, and that creates nasty social currents that cause problems for us all.

Two kinds of respect

The word “respect” gets tossed around a lot in discussions of how people with differing belief systems should interact. One of the problems that arises, especially in the Tone Wars, is that the different factions have very different ideas of what the word means.

There are two very different kinds of respect. One is contained in the idea of a respectful distance… you have your space, I have mine, and we refrain from infringing on each other’s until we’ve exchanged signals that such infringement is welcome. The second is more like respect for a worthy adversary… we acknowledge the other person’s strength and competence, and test our capabilities against theirs, hoping that one or both of us will become stronger from the exchange.

Accomodationists, and the liberal Western world in general, favor the former kind of respect. To respect someone else, say they, is to give them plenty of space, to avoid doing anything that might unsettle their equilibrium. Along with this is the idea of not challenging someone else’s beliefs or lifestyle choices; when they express a value that differs from yours, at most you lightly state that your views are quite different, which is a cue to both of you to avoid the subject from now on. To respond with a challenge or disagreement is seen as an act of aggression, an infringement on someone else’s space, crossing a boundary of personal engagement that they didn’t want to see crossed.

Gnu atheists, on the other hand, favor the latter kind of respect. To respect someone else in their eyes means to question them when you think their ideas are questionable, to give them your best shot and invite them to give you theirs. It means presenting your ideas openly and expecting the other person to be robust enough to deal with them. Holding back your true opinions and values is seen as disrespect, as treating the other person like they’re too weak to defend their beliefs.

When the two different notions of respect meet, we end up with something like the Earth-Minbari war, where one side displays their weapons openly as a mark of respect, and the other reads this as a hostile action and fires on them. We all know what happens after that. (For the insufficiently geeky, here’s a hint: the scenario started the Earth-Minbari war.)

As I said, liberal Western culture mostly seems to favor the “respectful distance” idea, which is why so many people, even atheists, attack the Gnus for being disrespectful. I do think the “respectful distance” idea is important, especially as our society becomes increasingly diverse. In our daily lives, we encounter people with so many differing lifestyles and opinions that we would never have a moment’s peace if we were all trying to challenge each other whenever there was a conflict. But it should be noted that that kind of respect by definition includes the idea of distance. If we refuse to engage other people when our ideas conflict, then our potential for intimacy with them is limited by how much or how little we have in common. Openness to conflict, on the other hand, allows us to be intimately connected even with people whose ideas on important subjects differ dramatically. A world where all points of disagreement were treated with kid gloves and respectful silence would be a world devoid of true intimacy.

The other thing that can’t happen without challenge and conflict is growth and change. I’m not saying all growth requires conflict: far from it. Indeed, very few people change their ideology as a direct result of someone else’s arguments. But as we are exposed to other people’s ideas and values, as we see our own through their eyes, we reassess and sometimes adjust our own. It’s a continual process, a very healthy process, and it can’t happen without that exposure. And sometimes we have a particularly entrenched idea, and need a particularly hard jostle to shake us into re-evaluating it.

I think it’s good for the health of society that most people operate under the “respectful distance” model most of the time. But it is essential for the health of society that conflict be allowed and sometimes encouraged, and that different voices be heard, even ones that make the hearers uncomfortable. We all need a jostle from time to time, and even the jostles that are useless for refining our ideas help us be battle-ready for future conflicts.

Tragedy and human responses

Occasionally I have dreams about a giant wall of water surging toward me. There’s a special kind of terror, so profound it almost feels like delight, that I feel in those dreams, or when watching a scene in a movie where a giant wave dwarfs buildings or ships. I don’t know if it’s just me or if it’s a common psychological symbol, but my subconscious has used it on more than one occasion to express that mingling of fear and awe, and complete helplessness in the face of a blind, impersonal force. In the dreams, I am out of my mind with fear, but at the same time it’s so awesomely beautiful that I can’t look away.

Watching footage of the water sweeping through the Japanese city of Sendai felt nothing like that. There was no beauty, only destruction on a stupefyingly large scale. I imagine something like that hitting Atlanta, which according to a quick Wikipedia search has about half as many people within the city limits. I imagine watching as a surge of water, carrying with it cars, trees, and remains of homes, engulfs streets and buildings I know intimately. I imagine the utter helplessness of humans and animals caught in the wave’s path. It is a staggering thought.

As humans we seem to have three basic, instinctive responses to this kind of disaster. One is to help, in any way we can. For those of us on the other side of the globe, all we can really do is send money, and many people are doing just that. Whether we can spare $10 or $500, we send money, because we want to do something. People of various religious and spiritual persuasions also pray, or chant, or send positive vibes. It’s at times like these I most miss religion, because there is a tremendous emotional burden, a powerful drive to lighten the disaster in any way I can, and praying used to relieve that burden and let me feel like I was helping.

The second response is to distance ourselves in any way we can. “I’m glad I live in the Midwest” is the most benign way of distancing ourselves — listing practical, physical reasons why this will never happen to me (and ignoring the particular disasters that I are vulnerable to). On the other end of the scale is victim-blaming and hostility. Don’t bother to look it up, it will just make you angry, but some charming folks on facebook (and elsewhere, probably) have been chattering a lot about Pearl Harbor in the wake of this earthquake. With the implication — or outright statement — that the Japs had it coming. Because the sins of the fathers are visited on the children, I guess? It’s almost laughably absurd to me that people can even think of being hostile to someone because their grandfathers attacked our grandfathers (never mind the fact that our grandfathers attacked them back, so I think we’re quits now)… but that’s not really what this is about. This is a panicked response, a way to say “this will not happen to me or anybody I love.” Blaming and othering the victim helps people feel safer. The assholes who are going all, “yarr, this is for Pearl Harbor!” are doing it because they’re scared.

The third response, almost the opposite, is to connect ourselves in any way we can. We think, “Who do I know in Japan, in all the other Pacific areas where the tsunamis hit?” Part of it is so we can find out whether people we care about are safe, but part of it is a weird human desire to be part of the tragedy. I have no doubt that in the next few days I will hear everybody talking about whatever their closest connection to the Japanese earthquake is — whether a friend of theirs is living in Japan, or they’ve visited there and been inside one of the buildings that was destroyed, or their best friend is from Japan and all her cousins live there. At the same time as we want to reassure ourselves that this can’t and won’t happen to us, we want to tell ourselves that this did happen to us. That somehow, one way or another, we are also affected.

Humanity is a strange, beautiful, and terrible thing. Not individual humanity (though that is too) but collective humanity, our awareness and connection to people on the other side of the globe, people we will go our entire lives without ever meeting or talking to. People whose impact on our lives is so removed as to be negligible. If any one of the hundreds (probably thousands, when the full count is in) of people who died because of this earthquake had died of a heart attack, I would never have known. But in a far distant sense, I am connected to them and they to me. We are bound together, by flesh and blood, by wires and signals. We are part of one another, and the tragedy that has overtaken their lives shakes mine as well.

Teaching children morals

My work as a teacher, my imminent role as a caregiver, and this article have me thinking about the nuances of teaching religion and morality to children. Where does an adult’s right to freedom of speech and freedom of belief meet a child’s right to make up their own minds about the world? Should wacko fundamentalist cultists be able to raise children on compounds, isolated from the rest of the world? Should neo-Nazis be able to foster or adopt children? Should atheist or Muslim teachers be able to express their beliefs in the classroom without fear of losing their jobs?

The legal implications of nearly any position on this subject frankly have my head spinning. I am not close to having an opinion about how much the government should intervene to protect children from indoctrination. But I do have a pretty settled opinion about how adults should behave toward children in their care, so I’m going to start with that.

I think adults have a strong responsibility to make it clear, when talking to children about moral or religious beliefs, that they are talking about their beliefs, and that other decent, intelligent people have different views. This is essential because children take their understanding of “how the world is” from adults close to them. They have a certain amount of implicit trust — highest for their parents, but also quite high for other adults close to them or in authority over them. When I say to an adult, “God is a myth,” they are able to understand that as my belief, not necessarily true, but a child might not have that same ability. So we need to be very clear, when talking to children, about whether we’re saying something we know or something we believe.

But, one might ask, how then do you teach a child right from wrong? In my work as a teacher, I basically use two principles behind all the “shoulds” and “nos” I direct at the children: “don’t hurt people” and “don’t hurt yourself.” When I’m scolding a child or forbidding an action, it’s because what they’re doing is not safe, or because it hurt somebody else.

Children have a certain native degree of empathy — babies will often cry if another baby nearby starts crying — and I think it’s good to encourage that. So if Adam hits Alex, I take Adam by the arm and say, “Look at her face! Do you see how she’s crying? That really hurt her! How do you think you would feel if someone did that to you?” (Well, I try to do that.) The goal is not to teach them some moral absolute, but to train them to recognize how their actions affect others, and to care about each others’ pain.

Similarly, children have a native degree of self-preservation. If a child is doing something that might get them hurt, I try to remind them of another time when they or someone else did the same thing, and got hurt. “Do you remember when Abby pinched her finger in the door? It really hurt, didn’t it? Do you think that might happen to you if you play with the door?” Children are very responsive to this kind of talk, and it’s much more effective than “Don’t do that!” (NB: I work with four-year-olds. Obviously the exact tone and style of the questioning should be adapted for age.)

I really think these are the only behavioral principles a child needs to be taught, and neither of them rely on authority or a set of moral absolutes derived from a belief about the world. For everything else, we should be encouraging children’s natural curiosity and developing critical thought. Expressing our own beliefs is not excluded from this, but transmitting them as if they are fact is.