Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Why my gender sometimes embarrasses me

I want to be clear right from the get-go: this post is addressed to men. I have no intention of adding to the internet’s glutted store of earnest male advice to feminists about the delicate intricacies of men’s sexual feelings. They’ve heard it all before, a million times. No, I’m facing the other way. Men need to understand why their sexual feelings don’t impose any obligations on women. I doubt I’ll convince any MRAs or rapists. My target audience is guys who sincerely believe that mostly the genders are treated pretty much equally in our society, give or take a few institutional holdovers from the past. And I’m hoping (or wanting, at least, I’m not terribly optimistic) to reach some of those who draw the conclusion that all this “free and willing consent” stuff was thought up by angry lesbians who just don’t understand men’s Needs. Well, I understand men’s Needs, and I say free and willing consent is a moral necessity.
So there’s a secret group on Facebook, based at my place of work, where male students get signed up to share nude photos of their partners that the partners haven’t consented to have shared. That isn’t consent, if you’re wondering. That is sexual assault. What had me facepalming, though, was that apparently they framed this as a way to show “respect and appreciation” for women. At which, let me tell you, all the women I’ve heard mention it simply boggle. It’s unbelievable. You don’t show respect for someone by displaying their body to strangers without their consent. Well, it would be unbelievable, that is, if I hadn’t met similar attitudes before.
I’m going to start talking about some of the ways in which women tend to differ from men, but before I do I need to explain why I said “tend to differ” just there, because the whole thing where women and men are two different things – like cheese and peanut butter, or clay and chalk – is not real, and that’s one of the things you need to understand. Making a human being (or any other living thing) is a process that’s complex to a degree such that words like “tremendously” or “incredibly” just don’t cut it. It never, ever happens quite the same way twice. There are things that often or usually go together, but neither of these words is the same as always. Once you get above the level of protein molecules and DNA, nothing is black-and-white, either-or. Everything exists in gradients. And one idea I hope you pick up in passing is that having a less common combination of features, such as having been born with a penis and feeling in your heart that you are a woman, is not “wrong” or “weird” or a “mistake”, it’s just, well, a less common combination of features, like having brown hair and a ginger moustache like my high school chemistry teacher. With further-reaching social consequences, obviously.
But I can’t expand on this point as much as I’d like to because I want to keep this short so you guys will make it all the way to the end. I brought it up because I now want to talk about one particular dimension on which people vary quite widely, which happens to correlate pretty closely with gender, and I don’t want you to go simplifying it to “this is the difference between women and men” or any binary bullshit like that, OK? There’s a spectrum, and yes most people fall fairly close to one of two points on that spectrum, but “most” is not “all” and there’s nothing “wrong” with people who don’t, or who fall close to the opposite point from the one their other gender-related features might lead you to expect. I want to be as clear about that as I can possibly be.
Some people’s sexual desires work as follows. You know that little “ooh, yes” thing in your head when you see somebody attractive? You might imagine it as a light lighting up or a little bell going “bing”. Well, for some people that light only comes on gradually. If they encounter someone with a feature of their personality or their body that they find attractive, it doesn’t make them think “I would like this person in my bed should I ever get the chance”; it makes them think “I would like to know more about this person.” And as they get to know more, the light comes on more and more. But if the person turns out to have any particular trait, especially of personality, which isn’t attractive, then the light turns all the way off, instantly. It doesn’t even have to be the person at all; if the situation is wrong somehow, like if they’ve just had bad news or are stressed, the light goes out. Anybody who claims they can teach you how to bypass the getting-to-know-each-other sessions with these people and get straight to the sex, is scamming you.
Other people’s sexual desires work the opposite way. The moment they see that another person has even a single attractive feature, it’s “bing bing bing” and that light is all the way on and stays on. Generally, of course, you see someone’s body (if only their face and general shape) before you know anything about their personality, which probably at least partly accounts for the fact that these people tend to fixate on body parts. And although these people do tend to prefer some body shapes, or indeed personality traits, more than others, one or two or even dozens of unattractive things don’t turn off the “bing bing bing” as long as there’s at least one thing still tripping it. External circumstances make no difference – these people will feel that “bing bing bing” at the funerals of close family members. They tend to savour the physical sensations of sex rather than the interpersonal connections, even though some feel guilty about it.
You’ll probably have guessed which way the gender correlation goes here. The first kind of desire tends to go with having a vagina and identifying as female. The second tends to go with having a penis and identifying as male. I don’t know, in either case, whether the desire correlates more strongly with gender identity or with reproductive gender; it would be fascinating to find out. I gather, by the way, that the association between maleness and the second kind of desire doesn’t vary at all with men’s gender preference, whereas the association between femaleness and the first kind of desire is a bit weaker in women who like more than one gender than in women who only like one.
I guess I should credit the researchers who found this out, only while this particular part of their research was well-supported they then went on to jump to all kinds of conclusions from it that really weren’t warranted by the evidence. Also, they discussed it entirely in gender-binary language. Also, they used an annoying cutesy analogy to describe it, comparing the first kind of desire with Miss Marple (a detective created by Agatha Christie) and the second kind with Elmer Fudd (because he shoots at anything that looks even vaguely like what he’s after). Their names are Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam. I have discussed their findings before, and back then I referred to the two styles of desire as “female-typical” and “male-typical”. But that (a) is still binary rather than a continuum and (b) doesn’t remind you what the two styles are actually about. So for the rest of this post, I’m going to refer to them as “deep” and “shallow” instead.
Yes, that’s a slightly disparaging choice of words. I’m a Shallow myself. While I’m happy with pretty much all my other male characteristics I think, on the whole, I would rather be a Deep; it sits more comfortably with my moral outlook. It’s unlikely a Deep could be attracted to someone yet feel no respect for them, for one thing. And some Deeps who happen to have chosen monogamous partnerships seem to be able to put “this person isn’t my partner” on their list of turn-offs, and thereby easily ignore everyone else. That doesn’t work for Shallows. I’ve tried to train myself into Deep attraction – starting back when I was a Christian teenager agonizing over Matthew 5:28 – and it seems I’m stuck the way I am. There’s a difference between attraction and satisfaction, of course. I’m Shallow but I can’t imagine a satisfying sexual encounter with someone who isn’t feeling hot for it.
So I get it, OK? I get how it is. I get that often there’s nothing you can do to turn off that “bing bing bing”. And I’m still telling you, that is no excuse for disrespecting anyone. You need to understand that there is nothing she can do to turn off the “bing bing bing” either. It is not her fault or her responsibility. She is not going around being female at you on purpose. Yes, I’m presuming that guys who need to be told this are checking out women. Isn’t that slightly contrary to the way I’ve been carefully avoiding the gender binary up to now? Why am I making this presumption? I’ll tell you why.
Approximately 5% of men are attracted to men exclusively. As Ogas and Gaddam discovered to their surprise (not having been especially self-critical of their sexual stereotyping before), these men are virtually the same as other men otherwise. They’re just as likely to be Shallow as you. Where you’re checking women out, they’re checking you out. But where you’re catcalling women on the street, they’re leaving you alone. I can count on one hand the number of men who’ve made me feel sexually uncomfortable in my entire life. That’s a lot less than 5% of the men I’ve met. Even reducing that 5% by the proportion of men who catcall and otherwise harass women they find attractive, which has to be more than 5–7% because that’s the approximate proportion of men who have committed rape, still doesn’t bring it down to the actual number. What all this proves is that attraction, even Shallow attraction, does not cause men to lose control of their actions or to forget how respect works. You don’t have that excuse.
And just to tighten the case even further, there’s a flipside. Some men who are attracted to men nevertheless go ahead and appropriate women’s bodies. They, just like the heterosexual catcallers and nightclub gropers, assume that women are (a) defined by appearance and (b) theirs to command. So there you go. This behaviour is not a hard-wired, built-in, instinctive animal response to a sexual stimulus. It’s an expression of a false, harmful, patriarchal cultural misconception of women as objects for men to admire and possess. That’s what we mean when we say that sexual harassment and assault are “about power and control”. When a woman reacts badly to your “compliments” it’s not because she’s vain and thinks herself too good for you; it’s because she’s a human being, not a walking ornament.
That woman-as-ornament myth is of course the basis of that Facebook group, particularly the idea that it was an expression of “respect”. The idea is that since women are ornaments, “respect” must mean you think they are very good ornaments, and the way you express that is you show them off for other people to appreciate, like on Antiques Roadshow. No, my putting it that way isn’t what makes it sound ludicrous and horrible. It is ludicrous and horrible. I’m just showing you what kind of attitude is required for it to make sense.
Women are not ornaments. Women are people. A woman’s body is hers and hers alone, to do with as she chooses; and nothing she might choose to do with it makes it OK for you to use it in any way without her consent. If you’re one of those guys who’s confused when women who wear bikinis to the beach are embarrassed at being caught in their underwear, or when feminists decry sexualized depictions of women in the media and then march topless on protests, the critical question is who’s in control of that woman’s body and how she’s being represented. The only good answer to that question is “herself”. If it’s anyone else, oppression is happening. You owe women the respect and basic decency due to human beings regardless of what they’re wearing or what they look like. Yes, I would take that right to the extreme. A woman should be able to walk down the main street of town completely naked and be treated the same as a man in smart-casual attire. Until we live in that world, feminism is still needed.
Why yes, that would mean you’d have to monitor your behaviour carefully, and be careful of what you say and where you look and how you comport yourself, and often suppress the promptings of your sexual feelings when in public. Welcome to the way everybody who’s not a cis hetero male already lives.


  1. Refreshing to have read someone state that men and women are not chalk and cheese,or Mars and Venus. I can't help but believe that John Gray has done few favours for the world, but that's just me. The group of photo sharers you mention, sound totally abhorrent, but are probably just sadly misguided.

    Sadly, it seems women are becoming as large a part of the phallogocentric behaviour pattern as men these days, through choice. Never before has the goal of *perfection*, been so unachievable, thanks to the joys of Photoshop et al. And yet women (ok, and men), continue to allow their bodies to be deformed by the media with barely a whimper. Do they really not know the effect this is having on young impressionable females, and males? I feel that we are all in a similar meting pot, one that is stirred by the Media.

    1. If you think that women are 'barely wimpering' about this issue then you really aren't listening very hard. Unfortunately the media gives no more f*cks than it did when I was a 'young impressionable'. At least there's selfies now though, where real women can celebrate how they actually look in real life. A portrayal of the variety of female (using that term very losely) appearances that reflect reality to counter those sold to us by the media.

  2. OK. I just read as far as that secret Facebook group and I'm appalled. PLEASE get this shut down. That's bloody disgusting and if I found out anyone was sharing photos of me or any of my friends without our consent I would press charges. Immediately. And yes, I would get the bastard slung in jail. And if I couldn't do that, I'd happily cut the bastard's balls off with a VERY blunt knife, and happily go to jail for the "crime" myself.

    This sort of thing must STOP.

  3. I agree with pretty much everything, but I'm confused by this sentence: "Even reducing that 5% by the proportion of men who catcall and otherwise harass women they find attractive, which has to be more than 5–7% because that’s the approximate proportion of men who have committed rape, still doesn’t bring it down to the actual number." Are you saying that 57% of men in the world have committed rape? If you are, I'm very surprised...

    1. Huh. Oh, wow. I read your post in my Feedly feed and it TOOK OUT THE HYPHEN between the 5 and the 7, and I didn't see it until I posted the comment above. I take my comment back. :)

    2. Maybe because it was an en dash, not a hyphen. Some platforms can be funny about Unicode characters.

  4. Mr. Copeland,

    I just discovered your blog this evening, and though I've only read a fraction, I will be coming back for more, as I deeply enjoy the care you take to be rational and observe the data, only making those inferences that are supported by the evidence.

    I'm also heartened by your sensitivity to both women and transfolk. As a transwoman, who transitioned as a teen, I rarely see a *rational* discussion of the matter (even from those who are someone on one of the two "transgender spectrums"

    You make some exploratory questions regaring 'female-typical' and 'male-typical' sexual arousal patterns, noting that gay and straight men are more alike than different (at least in comparison to women). This would be in agreement with another issue found with both populations, that both are also very "catagory specific" in their arousal patterns where women (except masculine lesbians) are not. (We need to come back to this, as it would seem that the study you reference is NOT in agreement with the catagory specificity data on women... as by definition, "bisexual" arousal is what is not catagory specific... Anyways, back to my point, it seemed that you wondered if that same aroual pattern dimorphism would follow gender identity (using transgender people as the probe) or would it follow natal sex. Well, interesting question! But if you did the experiment naively, you would run into a very nasty surprise confound in that there are not ONE type of "transgender", but TWO. Please visit my blog for more details, both on the descriptions of these two taxa, but also on the studies that confirm this observation of two taxa (separate etiologies and symptomologies).

    I don't have a strong opinion on one of the types, the "gender atypical" / "homosexual"... but I can just about guarentee that the "autogynephilic" will fit the male-typical response pattern, having observed them (far too closely that I would have liked) for nearly forty years, they are defininately going to show the male-typical response pattern!

    Finally, as a social comment, while many men do "squig" the moment they find out that a transwomen still has her penis, most actually only squig AFTER they have (ahem) been satiated. It is in that moment when she might be in very grave danger, emotionally, physcially, and even for her life:

    BTW, I would love to correspond with you a bit:

    ==Kay Brown

    1. Thank you for your comment, Kay. I'm afraid my reading on the subject has been limited to works aimed at lay audiences, and I'm not familiar with some of the terminology you use: I can make a guess at what "autogynephilic" means, but I would not be confident in it.
      Thank you especially for your kind remarks about me "taking care to be rational". It does require considerable care -- I can go off on great flights of fancy if I don't watch myself. Much the same goes for "sensitivity to women"; my involvement in feminism is strongly motivated by feelings of guilt and shame about the many times when I have, through thoughtlessness, been part of the problem.