Posted by ItAintThat , Tue May 01, 2012 11:29 PM
Our most recent round of public male sex scandals resulted in renewed interest in describing and dissecting male sexuality, which in turn has produced a variety of psychoanalytical thinkpieces on the topic ranging from the insightful to the truly reprehensible.
What always strikes me when this happens is the same arguments are trotted out about the evolutionary characteristics of mate-seeking males vs. mate-choosing females; there’s even a brief rash of “new” evolutionary psychology pop-sci articles on the matter. And yet, although these pseudoscientific versions of “boys will be boys” seem obviously lacking (for starters, as with Dan Rottenberg’s screed on Lara Logan, they contain justifications for sexual violence), dialogue against them rarely seems to make much progress. For whatever reason, explaining the clearly-abhorrent syllogisms contained in Scott Adams’ or Dan Rottenberg’s analysis on recent events seems insufficient to me. That is to say, of course they’re wrong, but aren’t they doubly wrong?
Because while their arguments are clearly disgusting on the grounds of what they implicitly—and often explicitly—suggest about how women should be treated (committing the naturalistic fallacy in first degree), it is also worth pointing out that the premised assumptions about sexuality, particularly male, that they start from are also just plain wrong and simplistic.
In 2006, Yale became the subject of a minor media dustup and less-minor campus outrage (something my college seems to have a knack for) over a satirically-intended piece published in the school’s tabloid, The Rumpus. “Me Love You Long-Time: Yale’s Case of Yellow Fever” was an aptly-titled riff on the perceived campus trend of white male obsession of Asian women. As Rumpus so often does, the piece made light of a poignant issue, one that the roiling aftermath firmly labeled a race relations problem, but may have just as easily (and perhaps more insightfully) been discussed as a sexual culture issue. Especially given that this all took place at Yale, both the first ever and the most recent university to be the subject of a major sexual harassment suit.
I arrived at Yale a year-and-a-half later. The Rumpus furor over that particular article had died down, well past the point where people felt any residual discomfort making “yellow fever” jokes. And yet when I off-handedly asked an Asian friend of mine if she would date a guy who professed to a bad “case,” she seemed unsure. At the very least, she said, it grossed her out a bit, to think that someone might view her as a fetish object. How could she know how much of his attraction was genuinely about her, when some of it was based on her ethnicity?
A perfectly reasonable response, of course, and probably the one I would give as well. There is something somehow dirty about being associated with someone else’s fetish, like finding out someone has dirty pictures of you (or something weirder—cue Aaron Samuel’s face immediately post-”she saves your tissues”). I didn’t think about “yellow fever” again.
Except I did, when I read a story on ThoughtCatalog about the author’s adventure with a dominatrix in which the author confessed to enjoying drinking her boyfriend’s nosebleeds. And then again when I read Molly Lambert’s wonderful essay in ThisRecording about “the John Hamm fantasy” and how masculinity and femininity are performances.
Perhaps, despite the fact that I still find “yellow fever” a little creepy, it is unfair to judge other people’s fetishes. After all, reflecting back on my friend’s concern that a man’s attraction for her might be split between her ethnicity and—and what? Some post-ethnic “essence?”—is that distinction even meaningful? After all, that characteristic is a part of you, and is being partially attracted to someone because they’re Asian really that much weirder than being attracted to someone because you like their smile, or the color of their eyes, or the way they dress? Is it any less weird than liking to drink your boyfriend’s nosebleeds?
Perhaps this is the real nature of all physical attraction—some characteristic(s) about someone that, for whatever crazy set of reasons and non-reasons, you are obsessed with. And this is why discussion about testosterone-faces and estrogen-features and all the associated science and pseudo-science that goes along with it bothers me on some level—I think it only really goes so far. We are really complex beings and sexual attraction is a really complex thing. No one is an adult baby, or a snot freak, or a bear-chaser because of simplistic sexual-selection ontology, but that doesn’t make their attractions categorically different from someone who finds John Hamm really attractive in his Mad Men suit but not-so-much when he’s slouching around LA looking like a disheveled bro. Both are responding to triggers, and more importantly to fetishes, to drag. Masculinity and femininity are performances, as Molly Lambert did such a wonderful job illustrating. But, more generally, so are a lot of things that we are attracted to.
And once you start looking for aspects of human attraction that aren’t explained by the impetus of sexual selection, the evidence is everywhere. Marilyn Monroe, perhaps the most singular sex symbol in our culture’s history, is also a famous example (although, it turns out, a bad one) of the ideal female form (and weight) being a moving target, even over just a few decades. In the 1980′s big “beefcake” figures were in for men, following on the heels of a now-returning high-point for thick male chest hair; these stand in sharp contrast to the smooth-chested metrosexual preferred in the late ’90s and the lean, ripped figures that represent today’s idealized male form. I am of course speaking vaguely here, and debates over female body image in our culture (or, hell, over manscaping for that matter) are by no means closed, but it’s fairly obvious that, like almost all human behaviors, sexual preferences are, to some extent, social and cultural as well as evolutionary in origin. In other words, there are nuances there that showing four thousand women a bunch of pictures of dudes you photoshopped to emphasize or deemphasize their cheekbones really doesn’t deal with at all.
Rather than the more linear, arithmetic exaggerations of features (like a peacock’s tail or a booby’s brightly-colored feet) that one might expect of normal sexual selection, human mating preferences are often far more fluid, even cyclical. Breast augmentation may be pointed to as a more classic example of sexual selection’s march, but it’s not as if breasts are getting bigger and bigger ad infinitum; in fact, there is pretty clearly a bridge too far. And hey, there are hordes of guys that like small breasts. It’s even its own sub-genre of pornography.
And this comes full-circle to what originally struck me while thinking about fetishes. The very fact that men’s (and, for that matter, women’s) sexual preferences are individual, i.e., that different men have different “types” (something that seems to be pretty damn well understood by every pornographer who produces both “teen” and “mature” videos for the exact same demo), is itself a powerful and obvious refutation of the sweepingly arrogant preludes to every run-of-the-mill mysoginist screed about how men are hardwired to have these urges and women are asking for it. Those authors aren’t just wrong because “women are asking for it” is an awful thing to say; they’re already wrong by the time they get to that point because the idea that men are hardwired to sexually act-out, or sexually do anything in nearly as homogenous a way as the authors so casually assume, is a highly dubious assertion at best.
So we should maybe de-stigmatize the idea of fetishes, but also start thinking about physical attraction in its appropriate context and with appropriate scientific humility (how do you explain Vajazzling? CHECKMATE, ATHEISTS!), appreciating that it is a complex and shifting and immaterial thing. You can be attracted to a person and then, when the light shifts, it can go away. Or be totally oblivious of them but then they say something, or smile the right way, and then you can’t get them out of your head. A lot of people find themselves increasingly physically attracted to someone as they grow more emotionally intimate.
And, without getting too far out of my depth, I would suggest to Scott Adams and anyone else who presents sneeringly arrogant “explanations” of why men do bad things that sexual violence is at least as complex. While ogling and fantasizing can perhaps be written off as hormonal impulses, when men cross the line into harassing or assaulting women, it’s often driven by something else entirely. After all, sexual violence is a punishment in some cultures; in our own it often manifests as a hate crime, an expression of dominance and gendered supremacy—either way, these behaviors are rooted in social structure and seem to have more to do with the ways large groups of people interact than with testosterone. What Scott Adams spectacularly fails to grasp is that src=' follows from male hormonal impulses the way cross-burning is a result of people feeling cold. Attempting to explain the whirling vortex of social norms, sexual scripts, patriarchal oppression, and personal rage that produces an act of sexual violence using the same scientific and rhetorical tools one would use to explain why two pandas in an enclosure are or are not satisfactorily mating is like trying to explain the international War on Terror using pictures of stags fighting in a lek.
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