Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Dangers of Gender Essentialism: Crappy PR Campaigns for Marriage and Men

[TW: Discussion of male rape fantasies]

Tying into last week's conversation about that undercurrent of essentialist fear lying within many conservative arguments against same-sex marriage, is this post on the alleged "dangers of [gender] neutrality" at the Family Scholars Blog (FSB). (FSB is a project of the Institute for American Values, which opposes same-sex marriage).

It begins:

"Gender neutrality and the notion that women and men are essentially the same is harmful to boys and girls and may degrade our health and well-being in real terms."

The author then begins discussing Dr. Leonard Sax's book Why Gender Matters, and the alleged "basic differences" between male and female sexuality. In short, because the hormone underlying female sex drive is oxytocin, while the hormone underlying male sex drive is testosterone:

"For men apparently, sexual satisfaction is like a physical urge, often times tied to aggression. 'Highly intelligent men are no less likely to fantasize about raping a woman than are men of below-average intelligence. The most common sexual fantasy in sex magazines is rape and/or bondage of a young woman."

To begin my discussion, I want to explicitly note that the purpose of my post isn't to dispute these allegations. Instead, I'm going to assume that these statements about hormonal differences in sex drive between males and females are true, as the author of the FSB post does, and consider a question she poses to us.

If it is true that male and female sexuality is so vastly different, with the male sex drive being hormonally based in aggression, she asks:

"Should we really bother with men who use our bodies for sexual urges and leave us feeling disconnected and ashamed? Especially when we can just use sperm donors and experience a comparable level of satisfaction by breast-feeding our newborns?"

(Okay, I'm also going to ignore the suggestion that women can derive the same sort of satisfaction from breast-feeding a baby as they can from having sex.)

The author goes on to argue that the solution isn't to reject men, but to stop teaching women that they can have "aggressive" and "promiscuous" sexualities like how men do. That women are apparently socially conditioned to reject cuddly, oxytocin-bonded womanly sex in favor of promiscuous, unattached male sex, the author calls a "danger" of "gender neutrality."

The author's error here is that she calls a female appropriation of male sexuality an adoption of a "gender neutral" sexuality instead of the more apt adoption of "male sexuality." After all, male is not the neutral, un-gendered default. The "danger" the author refers to isn't a danger of gender neutrality but, rather, the conflation of male standards as universal standards.

My second issue with the author's solution is that, well, what happens once women start acting more like how women are "inherently" supposed to act sexually? Specifically, how will changing women's behavior change male sexual aggression? Do men have to do anything? Do they still get to watch rape porn then, because that's just how the boys are?

The author's second solution isn't really a solution, but rather, a lament:

"We are breeding a generation of women who want family without husbands. And because of our gender neutrality stance we say that father’s contributions don’t matter for kids, just a parent or two that love them. And these women express great pleasure in raising a family and experiencing the intimacy of motherhood.

Meanwhile where are the men? They’re not getting the chance to participate in the families they’ve created…"

An entire "generation" of women want families without husbands? Really? This claim, notice, is just as unsupported as the previous claim that most the "most common" portrayed male sexual fantasy involves the rape/bondage of women.

Yet, even if that fact were true, nowhere in this argument does the author discuss what exactly men bring to the parenting table other than sexually aggressive urges and rape fantasies, effectively begging a very important question. Why should men get the "chance to participate in the families they've created?" Wouldn't forcing sexually aggressive and promiscuous men into a monogamous institution they are supposedly inherently unsuited for be dangerous to both women and children?

Here's her answer:

"And as Sax explained hetero-sexual male happiness and longevity are intimately tied with having a girlfriend or wife."


But what about female happiness and longevity?

I jest. But only somewhat.

For, what I often find troubling about such conservative arguments in support of the so-called and much-touted Traditional Intact Biological Family is that men are first framed as sexually aggressive wildebeasts and then it is put forth that it is women's sacrificial duty to live with these men, to tame them, and to expose themselves and children to men all because, natch, that's what is key to male happiness and is most fair to men.

Heterosexual marriage becomes an institution specifically centered around male violence, male urges, male happiness, and trying to tame sexually aggressive men.

It's basically the shittiest advertisement for heterosexual marriage and the worst PR campaign for men ever. Which is why I always find it ironic that it's feminists who are constantly accused of vilifying men and traditional marriage.

To end, although I accepted Sax's essentialist propositions as true for purposes of this post, I do want to clarify that I find it extremely troubling (as do others) when folks make sweeping generalizations about men and women from data that actually demonstrates that there is more variability among men and women than between them.

There are always exceptions to the rule that "men are inherently x" and "women are inherently y." As a feminist, my position is not a gender neutral "men and women are exactly the same," but rather that men and women are similar on most psychological variables (which is supported by research). It is unfortunate that studies showing that, say, 53% of women like writing better than math and 52% of men like math better than writing always seem to get interpreted as "Women as an entire group like writing, while men are the opposite and, as a group, like math better."

The observable psychological overlap between men and women means that strict gender policing that this sort of gender essentialism supports harms men and women by denying the variation that exists in the real world. It sets men and women up as opposites and as very different "species" from one another which ultimately only serve ideologies of gender dominance.

Gender neutrality isn't the "danger." The danger is in insisting that there's only one right way to be a woman (or a man), that being a woman (or a man) is the better way to be, and that these are just facts of nature.

No comments: