Privilege conceals itself from those who possess it: of feminist epistemology, marriage, and “standpoint theory.”

The discussion below this post has grown heated, with the topic of debate being less the original post itself and more feminist epistemology and what is sometimes called “standpoint theory.” SamSeaborn quotes Elizabeth Andersen, who writes:

Feminist standpoint theory claims an epistemic privilege over the character of gender relations, and of social and psychological phenomena in which gender is implicated, on behalf of the standpoint of women.

Sam wants to know how that impacts my marriage (which I labeled as “feminist”), but he also seems to be asking how this “standpoint theory” affects the role of male allies in feminist settings. Though he kindly takes me at my word when I note that I don’t go through my married life with an apology for being male always on my lips, he wonders how a male feminist cannot help but defer to what, according to Andersen, is the “epistemic privilege” of a woman’s perspective. Sam gets a vigorous, and to my mind, very effective response, from commenters Oldfeminist and Mythago, and I recommend folks check out the whole thread.

I may be the son of two philosophers, and I may have done a graduate field in medieval scholasticism many moons ago, but I am no theorist. Phrases like “epistemic privilege” make my head hurt, and I must bite back the urge to plead, “But I am a bear of very little brain.” I’ve labored through Cixous and Irigaray and Butler because they’re important and necessary, but feminist theory ain’t my bag. I defer to the many wonderful folks in the blogosphere whose intellectual capacities exceed my own, and whose talent for explicating in plain English the difficult philosophical nuances of feminist theory is infinitely greater than mine.

That said, I do have some thoughts on standpoint theory and its practical application.

Epistemology is the study of how we know things. In a relationship between two people who are of different sexes, classes, or ethnic backgrounds, it’s reasonable to assume that each person’s knowledge of the world will have been shaped in no small part by their status. Class and sex and race and faith are some of — but surely not the only — prisms through which we see and interpret the world. Patriarchy, the complex system through which male identity is privileged in an extraordinary number of ways, impacts everyone. Yes, as the famous phrase notes, it “hurts men too.” But one particular thing that patriarchy does is warp our understanding of everything around us, particularly things like power dynamics, sexuality, and how we communicate with one another. Feminists point out the deeply obvious: the class of persons most likely to be discriminated against by the system are also those most likely to be aware of the system itself. This “greater awareness” is the epistemic privilege to which Andersen refers.

Epistemic privilege means that in a heterosexual relationship, it is generally — though not universally — the case that the woman will see gender-based power imbalances more clearly than will her boyfriend or her husband. This isn’t because of “feminine intuition”, it’s because folks in an historically oppressed class are always required to be more aware of power dynamics than those who belong to the dominant group. The same epistemic privilege can occur in race and class relations, regardless of the sex of the people involved.

Obvious example: rape and parking lots. Both men and women are cognizant of the reality of rape, and most understand that it is men who generally do the raping and women who are generally the ones attacked. But because of his privilege, a man can walk into a parking lot by himself at night and forget about rape, because his maleness affords him the luxury of remaining unobservant of the possibility of sexual danger. A woman walking alone in a parking lot at night will have a different experience, rooted in her vulnerability as a member of a class targeted for sexual violence. Not only is she more vulnerable, but her very understanding of the issue is superior to that of a man walking in the parking lot. He has the privileged luxury of ignorance; she’s forced to reflect, constantly, on rape and its threat to her. That means that when the discussion of women’s vulnerability to assault comes up, women ought to enjoy “epistemic privilege” in the conversation. Continue reading

Princesses, princes, daughters and dads: against emotional incest

Our daughter Heloise Cerys Raquel (often abbreviated as HCRS) is almost nine months old, and continues to amaze and delight her parents. She’s standing and crawling now, and making ever more comprehensible noises. She’s a happy baby, prone to shrieks of delight and an enthusiastic wind-milling of arms when she sees a returning parent or other beloved care-giver. We have a nanny to help out some of the time, but most of the care is done in carefully orchestrated shifts shared among my wife, her mother, and me. (My mother-in-law moved in with us after we moved from Pasadena to West Los Angeles at the beginning of summer, and that has been a special blessing for all.)

In August, I posted “She’s got you wrapped around her finger”: fathers, daughters, and a variation on the myth of male weakness in which I noted the extraordinary number of folks who expressed to me their certainty that I would treat Heloise as a princess whose whims I could not help but indulge. I’d like to touch on another aspect of the father-daughter relationship I’ve noted.

Becoming a parent for the first time in one’s forties has myriad advantages, not least that one has had the opportunity to watch a great many of one’s peers “do it all first.” (I have two high school friends of mine who are already grandparents, mirabile dictu.) And I’ve seen, a time or nine, an unhealthy triangulation occur with dads, moms, and their daughters. While the dangers of physical incest and abuse are real, there’s a kind of emotionally incestuous dynamic I’ve witnessed between fathers and daughters, one in which dads seek from their daughters the validation and affirmation that they feel they are entitled to, but are not receiving from their wives.

Little children adore their parents. Really, it’s a lovely thing to come home each day and be welcomed, as I invariably am, with gales of excited laughter and delight. (I’m the primary care giver for much of the weekend and most late afternoons and evenings; my wife handles the mornings, my mother-in-law and the nanny work splendidly in the gaps.) My daughter’s love is an impressive thing to feel, especially as she’s gotten better recently at wrapping herself around my neck and squeezing me tight. No matter what has transpired during the day, no matter what I’ve said or done (or failed to say or do), Heloise seems to adore me. It’s a wonderful thing, and I eat it up with wonder and gratitude and delight. I’m told that her devotion will only grow more intense; many little girls begin to bond more intensely with their fathers in their second and third years of life, presuming that a dad is around. One looks forward to this.

Of course, spouses aren’t the same as children. My wife loves me, a fact of which I blessedly have no doubt. But she most certainly doesn’t have me a on pedestal, doesn’t think I’m flawless, and doesn’t greet me with shrieks of joy everytime I walk into the house. Eira engages with me as a partner, and she challenges me and pushes me and asks me for things; I do the same for her. In a good marriage, iron sharpens iron, and the more friction in the sharpening process, the greater and more enduring the heat. Anyone who’s met my wife knows that she’s a tall, strong force of nature. (This is a woman who can dress down Israeli soldiers on patrol and make them blush apologetically. If you know the men and women of the IDF, you’ll know how astounding that is.) She loves me and she encourages me as I do her, but she doesn’t conceal her displeasure when she’s unhappy, and she doesn’t come rushing to me like something out of a Marabel Morgan book when I enter the house. Continue reading

How does a feminist ally fight fair? A follow-up on men and women’s anger

We’ve had more than 90 comments below this post examining the degree to which women’s wariness of men is justified. It’s a fairly good discussion, for which I am grateful.

I wrote a few years ago a post called Words are not fists: some thoughts on how men work to defuse feminist anger. An excerpt:

Part of being a pro-feminist man, I’ve come to realize in recent years, is being willing to face the real anger of real women. Far too many men spend a great deal of time trying to talk women out of their anger, or by creating social pressures that remind women of the consequences of expressing that anger. Many men, frankly, are profoundly frightened by women who will directly challenge them. In a classroom, they don’t really fear being struck or hit. But by comparing a verbal attack on their own sexist attitudes towards physical violence, they hope to defuse the verbal expression of very real female pain and frustration. I know that it’s hard to be a young man in a feminist setting for the first time, and I know, (oh, how I know) how difficult it is to sit and listen to someone challenge you on your most basic beliefs about your identity, your sexuality, your behavior, and your beliefs about gender. It’s difficult to take the risk to speak up and push back a bit, and it’s scary to realize just how infuriating your views really are to other people, especially women.

The first task of the pro-feminist male in this situation is to accept the reality and the legitimacy of the frustration and disappointment and anger that so many women have with men, and to accept it without making light of it or trying to defuse it or trying to soothe it. Pro-feminist men must work to confront their own fears about being the target of those feelings.

I’d like to say a bit more about how men can do this last bit, as it’s not something I addressed in the original piece. I don’t want to imply that I think that a feminist man simply “stands there and takes it”. One of the ideals of traditional American masculinity is of the man as “sturdy oak”, able to withstand any tempest, even that of a woman’s righteous anger. That comes dangerously close to reinforcing the notion that women are “naturally” more volatile (at least emotionally), perhaps even hysterical (a dangerous word, given its origins) — and that is a “real man’s” job to hold his ground, silently, in the face of what will be a formidable, but (it is to be hoped) brief feminine storm. Though I’d like to believe my readers of the original post didn’t infer that I was reifying this myth, it’s important to clarify how I think we ought to help men respond to women’s anger. Continue reading

Guys, men and the straitjacket of false dichotomies

The “Modern Love” column in the New York Times is rarely dull, sometimes heartbreakingly beautiful, and frequently the source of eye-rolling and general exasperation. In the latter category falls this Cathleen Calbert piece that ran almost a fortnight ago: Forget the Men. Pick a Guy. It begins:

I’ve never liked men. I like guys. Guys are often in between things like jobs and houses, which means they’re more likely to stay up with you all night, drinking wine and playing gin rummy. They’ll rub your belly. They’ll lick chocolate off it. They’ll like your cute little dog. A guy is never going to shoot Old Yeller in the woods.

Then again, guys don’t remember to tell you the doctor’s office called. They don’t check your tires before your big trip. They don’t say, “Call me when you get there.” They say, “Love you, have fun,” because they can’t imagine anything bad happening to you. Which is good, and somehow bad. Guys don’t tell you what to do. This also is both good and, oddly, bad.

Calbert, a professor at Rhode Island College, contrasts her late father — a model of remote, uncommunicative, protective masculinity, the template of “man” in her consciousness — with the more accessible, egalitarian, articulate and yet invariably unreliable “guys” to whom she proclaims her enduring attraction. The piece alternates between the mildly witty and the genuinely painful, as when Calbert relates her father’s reaction to her own molestation by two teenagers (boys? guys? men?) when she was 10.

There’s much to pick apart in Calbert’s offering. True, the dichotomy she offers bears passing similarity to the far crueler and rigid separation we create with different types of women, dividing them into madonnas or whores, into mother figures or temporary diversions, “girls you marry” and “girls you have fun with.” Any man who reacts with justifiable indignation to Calbert’s bifurcated view of American males would do well to reflect on the ways in which he has been acculturated to do something similar to women. But there’s nothing particularly progressive or redemptive about doing to men what has traditionally been done to women, particularly when the dichotomy she employs reflects such a straitjacketed view of human potential.

Calbert writes: I want the E.M.T.’s who show up when I’ve collapsed to be men, not guys. I don’t want someone responsible for saving my life to be torn up about the death of his dog or how some chick hurt his feelings. She reflects a common view, I suppose, but a disastrously mistaken one. She imagines that competence and decisiveness, the qualitites she values so highly in “men”, are radically incompatible with the sensitivity and sensuality that she finds so attractive in her “guys.” Put another way, what Calbert is saying is that he who feels too deeply can’t take action in a crisis; certainty and empathy are, at least in her taxonomy of American males, like oil and water. Continue reading

Love, Again: second marriages and the triumph of hope and grace

My wife and I were married on the Sunday of a Labor Day weekend in 2005. On that same day this year, my cousin Scott married his girlfriend Sheila in a charming afternoon ceremony on the croquet lawn at our family ranch in Northern California. Eira and I were among the 120 friends and family in attendance to witness their vows and join in the celebrations which followed.

This was a second wedding for both Scott and Sheila; Scott’s four sons from his first marriage served as his attendants, while Sheila’s three children stood by her side in the ceremony. Scott and Sheila had married young, raised seven children between them, and then, with their youngest children barely into adolescence, gone through that terrible and wonderful crucible of divorce. After a few years of singleness — and single-minded devotion to caring for their children during the aftermath of the separation from their former spouses — Scott and Sheila were set up on a blind date by mutual friends who felt all but certain that a spark would flare. The flame kindled fast, and in due course we all found ourselves together on that lawn we love so much.

Scott’s first wedding, more than a quarter century ago, was the first church wedding I ever attended. I was sixteen when he, just eight years my senior, married the woman with whom he would have my four wonderful cousins. I was awed that day in 1983 by the pomp of the ceremony and the romance that seemed to undergird it; whatever cynicism about love I affected as a spotty-faced adolescent virgin was overwhelmed by the sentimentality of the service and the lavish garden party that followed. I cried at their wedding, and was teased for it.

I’ve never forgotten that day in the summer of ’83. Since then, I’ve been to perhaps fifty weddings, maybe more, including a few same-sex unions. I’ve been married four times myself, and been the first husband to four different women. I’ve performed four wedding services, using one of those mail-order minister’s licenses. I’ve been a best man only once, but an attendant several times; I’ve read poetry and Scripture. I’ve offered to do interpretative dance, but been turned down repeatedly. Bottom line: I like weddings.

But on Sunday, I was reminded that I am particularly sentimental about weddings between two folks who’ve done the whole thing before. I like witnessing the union of two people who’ve long since let go of their illusions about marriage; the romantic aspirations of the young are touching, but the willingness of those who’ve been to the show and had their hearts broken to commit again is a far more compelling spectacle to witness. Remarriage after divorce may still be a sin to those whose rigid adherence to a narrow reading of Scripture trumps their sense of grace and hope, but to the rest of us, it is an even greater testament to the power of love than the wedding of two comparative innocents. Continue reading

“She’s got you wrapped around her finger”: fathers, daughters, and a variation on the myth of male weakness

Little Heloise Cerys Raquel is indeed an enchanting baby, at least in the eyes of her doting parents. Now seven months old, her delightful personality emerges more and more each day — or so it seems. One of my favorite things about being on vacation this summer was the chance to be with her virtually every second; as I type this in my office, I note the hours (about five) until I will be home to her.

When we’re in public and Heloise is in my arms, we invariably get the same remarks: “She’s got you wrapped around her finger already, doesn’t she?” Or, “Watch out, when she gets older, you’ll have to watch the boys like a hawk!” My wife frequently gets told how much our daughter takes after her, but never receives anything like these comments. (When we were in Britain over the past few weeks, we got almost the same comments as we do here in the States.) And as a male feminist and father to a daughter, I find the subtext of remarks like these troubling, even as I honor the innocuousness of the intent behind them.

The bit about a daughter having her daddy “wrapped around her finger” repeats the old myth of male weakness. The myth of male weakness suggests that men are inherently vulnerable to temptation and manipulation. Men, the myth insists, have a much harder time practicing fidelity than do women, as men are biologically less capable of resisting sexual temptation. Heterosexual men are easily seduced by women, or so the trope goes, and thus women can use this weakness to flirt their way out of, say, traffic tickets or into jobs and marriages. The parental corollary, I’ve been realizing, is that daddies are far easier for daughters to manipulate than mommies. Fathers, the myth suggests, are powerless to say no to the pleas of their infant (or adolescent, or grown) female children.

Fathers, like other men, are supposed to be at least somewhat aware that they are being manipulated. I’ve gathered already that if I say “Yes, she’s already got me right where she wants me”, I’ll get indulgent smiles and teasing warnings about what she’s going to be like as a teen. And if I say — as I have said in one way or another several times — “I adore my girl, but she’s not going to get away with murder on my watch”, folks tend to shake their heads in real or mock pity at my stubborn refusal to acknowledge my own obvious frailty in the face of my daughter’s feminine wiles. A great deal of homosocial cameraderie is built and sustained on the theme of genuine or feigned exasperation at the supposed male inability to resist the charms of “hot chicks and pleading little girls.” Continue reading

“First, Last, Security Deposit”: Women’s savings, feminism, and the steps to getting a room of one’s own

This summer session in my women’s history course, I’ve been more conscientious than usual about suggesting proactive solutions for young feminists to use as they navigate their way through a difficult and misogynistic world. I’ve got a compendium of tips, all of which ought to be collected into a single blog post at some point. But one suggestion I’ve made repeatedly, and which I’ve seen proven useful again and again, is that young people of both sexes (but especially young women) set aside money for themselves.

It comes from something I heard years ago from a feminist colleague of mine. She remarked, apropos of nothing that I can remember, “You know what freedom is? Freedom is having first, last, and a security deposit.” (Most landlords require a first month’s payment and a last month’s payment in advance before renting an apartment; most require a security deposit, often equal to another month’s rent.) For young people living in unhappy home situations with repressive parents, or for women in abusive relationships, the ability to leave and begin a different life is tied to access to money. Feminists rightly celebrate the importance of “choice” and “autonomy”, but we must always acknowledge that it is far easier to exercise these two fundamental goods when one has resources over which one has direct control.

This is not a new point, of course; Virginia Woolf said as much in her indispensable “A Room of One’s Own.” Some years, I’ve given my students excerpts from Woolf to read; many identify all too well with the famous point about Shakespeare’s sister. But whether they read it in Woolf or hear it from a professor or pick it up from their friends, it’s vital — particularly for those from families with few resources — that women start putting aside money that will be theirs and theirs alone. Perhaps, yes, money with which to rent a room of one’s own; perhaps money with which to buy a car. Perhaps money with which to take a life-changing trip abroad. The freedom to become who one was called to be is considerably easier with money of one’s own.

This all sounds obvious, of course. But for many of my students, setting aside even small bits of money is very difficult. The “pleasing woman discourse” is pervasive, and it makes it all too easy for whatever amounts of spare cash are accumulated to be offered to the invariably needy and demanding multitudes that surround far too many young women. In some families, young women are expected to contribute to their parents’ rent and to the grocery money; for many of my working-class students, particularly in the current Great Recession, living at home is as much about helping their family survive as it is about remaining under the control of overly-watchful parents. Continue reading

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die”: of a doctor, an usher, and the answerer of a call

It’s been years since I’ve been as shocked by an assassination as I was by today’s cold-blooded murder of Dr. George Tiller. I’d followed Dr. Tiller’s career since his town of Wichita, Kansas, became “ground zero” for the anti-abortion movement in the early 1990s; I knew he had been shot before, faced harassment and death threats. I knew he had also persevered with quiet dignity to provide late-term abortions and other reproductive services to women in his community and from across the country, often at little or no cost. I knew he was tops on the “target list” for those who were willing to kill abortion providers. And yet I was still stunned and heartsick when I saw the news this morning.

But here’s one thing I didn’t know. Dr. Tiller was a Christian, active in his local Lutheran church. It was at that church where he died this morning, ushering just as he had done on countless Sundays before. I had no reason to suspect he wasn’t a church-goer, of course. As a Christian who has wrestled mightily with my own views on abortion before coming to what is today a staunchly pro-choice position, I know full well that it is possible to believe in a loving sovereign God (as the Calvinists always put it) and to believe in a woman’s sovereignty over her own flesh. (I belong to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and have heard that good Dr. Tiller did as well.) Dr. Tiller gave hope and comfort to women who were often in desperate, medically dangerous situations; far from being a craven Dr. Death, he was a gentle, dignified man who did what he did out of a profound commitment.

That commitment was to his patients, but it was also clearly to his faith. He had faced death so many times, faced trials and lawsuits and threat after threat. Where did he find the strength and the courage to continue to do what he did? Did he find it in a sense of an ethical obligation to women who had nowhere else to turn? Certainly. Did he also find it in his belief in a loving God who had called him to do something hard, something that many would not understand, something that would cause him to risk his very life? I suspect he did. Lutherans are famous for their sense of “calling”; it was Luther himself who first began to emphasize the idea that each of us has a “calling”, a vocation, outside of our role in the church. And it was another Lutheran, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote the famous Cost of Discipleship, with its devastating line: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Bonhoeffer, of course, was martyred by the Nazis for many reasons, not least because he stood up for the dignity of creation in the face of the monstrous evil that was the Third Reich. George Tiller was martyred today, not least because he stood — and stood publicly and openly — for the God-given dignity of women in the face of a movement that seeks to deny women their full humanity.

(I am well aware that today, some loathsome folks have dared compare Tiller’s murderer to Bonhoeffer; the latter, of course, was involved in the plot to kill Hitler. Some see abortion as akin to the Shoah, and an attack on Tiller as akin to the less-successful one on Hitler. But these bloggers have it back-to-front. It was Tiller himself who was far more like the gentle German pastor, and his assassin far more akin to those who martyred him.)

According to the Wikipedia entry on his life, Dr. Tiller had originally planned to be a dermatologist. Few emergencies or controversies in dermatology, after all; his life would have an easy and untroubled one, no doubt far more lucrative to boot.* But something changed, as he himself said:

In July of 1970, I planned to start a dermatology residency. On August 21, 1970, my father, mother, sister and brother-in-law were killed in an aircraft accident. My sister had a 12-month-old boy, Maurice. They had written out a will in longhand the evening before the airplane crash, that I was to raise Maurice. So we took charge of my sister’s boy and we moved back to Wichita. My game plan was to spend six months here, close out my father’s huge family medicine practice.

We Christians know a lot about game plans. As we say, if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans. Tiller:

And I found out that in 1945, ’46, or ’47, a young woman for whom Dad had already delivered two babies came to him pregnant again right away, and she said something to the effect that, “I can’t take it, can you help me?” That is apparently the way you asked for an abortion from your regular doctor before abortion was legal. Dad said, “No. Big families are in vogue, by the time the baby gets here, everything will be all right.” She had a non-healthcare provider abortion and came back and died.

I can understand how upset my father was. I do not know whether he did 100 abortions or 200 abortions or 300 abortions. I think it may have been something like 200 over a period of about 20 years, but I don’t know for sure. The women in my father’s practice for whom he did abortions educated me and taught me that abortion is about women’s hopes, dreams, potential, the rest of their lives. Abortion is a matter of survival for women.

When it became legal and my patients began to ask for it, I’d say, “Sure. It’s a legal process.” I was a service provider. I was a physician. The patients needed abortions, and I did them. It is my fundamental philosophy that patients are emotionally, mentally, morally, spiritually and physically competent to struggle with complex health issues and come to decisions that are appropriate for them.

Bold emphases mine. God didn’t want George Tiller doing facial peels, removing basal cells, and comforting the be-pimpled. God had something else in mind for him, something that in the end George was one of the few to do. Dr. Tiller heard a call in the midst of a family tragedy, and answered it. He lived and — died — in a very Lutheran way. Christ called Him, and George said “yes.”

George Tiller died today while ushering. Ushers quietly and unassumingly help folks to find their place in God’s house. Ushers, in many churches, are the first to tell a visiting newcomer that he or she is welcome. Dr. Tiller did that at his church on Sunday mornings, and he did it at his clinic all week long when he welcomed in women who had nowhere else to turn. And he was murdered in cold blood today as he did this precious work. I have not peeked at the Lamb’s Book of Life; but I say this with all the certainty that my rebirth in Christ has given me: I think George Tiller’s name is in that book, and that he has been welcomed today with love and rejoicing on the far side of the Jordan.

When I first heard the news, I prayed. I got angry, very angry. And then I donated money, as that seemed the only tangible way I had at my disposal to strike back against this act of evil, this killing of a righteous man who knew how to do what was needed in the face of so much danger and hatred. I give monthly to Planned Parenthood, but at Heather Corinna‘s suggestion, gave a large donation today to the National Abortion Federation. I gave a smaller donation to Medical Students for Choice, which works to raise up the next generation of abortion providers. I gave in memory of Dr. Tiller, of course, but also in the name of my wife, my daughter, my mother, my sisters, and all of the women in my life. As I’ve written before, any lingering sense I had that I might still place a foot in the anti-choice camp ended the day I saw my wife give birth to our daughter. I pray that my daughter will never be in the situation that so many of Dr. Tiller’s patients were in. But if she should be, I pray a doctor of his decency and caliber will be there for her.

Please check out a list that Jill has put together at Feministe. Many suggestions for where to give in Dr. Tiller’s name, and more in the comments.

Any comments here suggesting that what was done today was somehow justified will obviously be deleted.

I am George Tiller. If you support the thug who killed the good doctor, know that I stand with Dr. Tiller and give time and money to support his work. Come for me. And if you stand for a woman’s right to choose, even if it is a hard choice, then say it and repeat it: I am George Tiller. They can’t shoot us all.

*Update: Having had time to sleep on this post, I stand by all of it — save my unfair mischaracterization of dermatologists. I have dear friends who are dermatologists, and they do far more than I suggested in this piece. My apologies.

On liberals, conservatives, and the dangers of disgust

I’m a big Nicholas Kristof fan, and very much enjoyed his piece in this morning’s grey lady: Would You Slap Your Father? If So, You’re a Liberal . Kristof writes about the phenomenon of disgust, its evolutionary role in protecting us from harm, and its usefulness as a predictor of political views. An excerpt:

…conservatives are more likely than liberals to sense contamination or perceive disgust. People who would be disgusted to find that they had accidentally sipped from an acquaintance’s drink are more likely to identify as conservatives.

The upshot is that liberals and conservatives don’t just think differently, they also feel differently. This may even be a result, in part, of divergent neural responses.

I’m not a neurologist or an evolutionary biologist (though my contempt for the usefulness of the latter profession as having much to contribute to the study of contemporary gender roles knows almost no bounds). I’m intrigued by the notion that disgust manifests differently in folks who lean right as opposed to those who lean left. And it occurs to me that one of the things that is essential to my own liberalism is a sense that disgust is, more often than not, a moral failing to be overcome rather than a righteous response to the genuinely contemptible. Continue reading

Of never feeling hot: the missing narrative of desire in the lives of straight men

I’ve been thinking this week about the experience — or lack thereof — of being the object of other’s desire. Two different posts got the wheels turning: Girls, Both Real and Otherwise by Daisy B., and Figleaf’s Unforseen Consequences of Men Believing Themselves Unseen. Both Daisy and Fig, in different ways, talk about alienation from their own bodies, at least as they appear to others (and, in a sense, to themselves). I recommend both posts.

In feminist circles, it’s common to talk about the tremendous damage that objectification does to women of all ages and adolescent girls in particular. Many young women remember a moment (painful, terrifying, or, perhaps less often, full of wonder) when they realized that they were the object of another’s sexual desire. Even more women have memories of being sent the mixed message of how both to entice desire (lessons on how to apply make-up, how to dress “sexy” taught at a young age) and how to avoid appearing either “slutty” or “ugly.” (the distinction, of course, is a shifting and elusive one.) For better or for worse, most young women grow up with a cultural awareness that their generally speaking, women’s bodies (though perhaps not their own) are intensely desirable to boys and men; strategies for managing that desire are much-discussed facets of women’s magazines, the advertising industry, and conversation.

But we don’t have a culture in which many young men grow up with the experience of being seen and wanted, in which young men grow up with the sense that their bodies are desirable and beautiful as well as functional. Our cultural discourse about young men teaches that managing their own (presumably insatiable) sexual desire is the defining task of their adolescence. A “jock discourse” that encourages young men to “score” with as many women as possible and an “abstinence discourse” which encourages young men to restrain themselves heroically have essentially the same perspective: your job as a man is to channel your libido, either into sexual conquests or radical restriction. Both discourses center male desire, just as most discourses aimed at young women teach teenage girls how to gain, manage, and direct that same titanic force. The missing element, of course, is the idea that female desire can be directed towards men in general, and towards their bodies in particular.

There’s some explicitness below the fold. Use your own judgment about proceeding. Continue reading