Category Archives: gender

Need help finding a story about…

I’m looking for a movie or book or short story or comic about sexuality fluidity.

The storyline I *don’t* need is, “Here I am going along in my life and WHAMMO ALL OF A SUDDEN IT TURNS OUT I AM GAY (or straight) WHEN ALL ALONG I THOUGHT I WAS STRAIGHT (or gay).”

I’m looking for an example of a person (let’s call them Chris) who has one identity, falls in love with a person whose own gender is incongruent with Chris’s identity, and Chris does NOT decide that they were in denial all along but instead goes, “That’s unexpected! I’m in love with someone who violates all my expectations about the gender of the people I love!” and keeps or queers their identity, rather than switching to another category.

Anybody know anything like that?

The one example I know of is Erika Moen’s excellent and now defunct Dar.

a highly educated, never married white woman

According to the New York Times, I am a member of the group of Americans that will live “the longest, healthiest lives of all groups.” I am a highly educated, never-married white woman.

Education is protective against all kinds of health risks, that’s been obvious for decades, and a background of ANY privileged status (in this case race) improves health outcomes, and only in the last decade or so has the “marriage is good for men’s health and bad for women’s health” trend begun to change (PDF). So of course I’m in the healthiest group.

But man, this is an article full of sentences that make me blink hard and shake my head, to make sure I really read it. Like:

One reason educated heterosexual women may worry about their marriage prospects today is that overall marriage rates have been slipping since 1980…

I… wait, why would women “worry about their marriage prospects,” when unmarried women fair better? Because of cultural expectation of marriage I guess. And in fact the rest of the paragraph is about how marriage rates among educated women have slipped the LEAST, so actually we (the educated women) don’t need to worry after all, at least not compared to less educated women.

Because we were worried. Apparently?

And then:

ONE of the dire predictions about educated women is true: today, more of them are “marrying down.”

That is, marrying men with less education and less earning potential than the woman.

Okay, so surely the “dire” is tongue-in-cheeck, since a couple paragraphs later the article says, “But there is not a shred of evidence that such marriages are any less satisfying than marriages in which men have equal or higher education than their wives,” and then it goes on to identify those benefits (husband participates more in housework and childcare.)

But then there’s this nugget:

The degree to which housework is shared is now one of the two most important predictors of a woman’s marital satisfaction. And husbands benefit too, since studies show that women feel more sexually attracted to partners who pitch in.

Right? Because more sex is an asset to the HUSBAND in a relationship. Men want sex. Women want chores.

But then:

[E]ducated wives…are more likely to receive as well as give oral sex, to use a greater variety of sexual positions and to experience orgasm regularly.

So sexual pleasure is or at least might be important to women’s relationship satisfaction…

(Actually, there are reliable results across many decades indicating that orgasmicity is associated with social class. I have yet to run into a satisfying account of WHY this would be true, apart from generic “stress.”)

I mean paragraph after paragraph, it just alternates between painful gender stereotype and celebration of women’s education and autonomy. I had whiplash by the end of it, from the pitch and toss between “education and economic independence is good for women and men” and “young ladies go to Smith to meet Harvard men.” I tried to read it as “ha ha look at these sad old stereotypes, isn’t it awesome how great educated women are doing?” but I can’t make that interpretation stick. It’s a vertiginous mismatch.

Anyway, it’s February 13, the day before Valentine’s Day. For the past two years, I’ve written Valentine’s posts celebrating being single on Valentine’s Day, and this year I’m not single. I have a valentine who is “down” – less educated than I am.

I still believe that being single has many benefits, not least the avoidance of V-day drama. But if I’m going to have a Valentine, at least I can celebrate my continuing independence and overall wellbeing as a highly educated never married white woman. I’ve got a better chance of living longer than you (and longer than the Valentine, come to that) AND I’m more likely to give and receive oral sex, which makes the long life rather more worth living, eh?

To all the women who are single and smart on Valentine’s Day, whose mothers or friends or siblings are wondering when you’ll make it happen: you’re set up for a healthy, happy life.

And if you don’t believe me or don’t know how to allow that to be real, see last year’s valentine’s post.

how often you think about sex… or food or sleep

A neat blog post from Brian Mustanski over at Psychology Today, about a study on frequency of thoughts about sex. It’s a neat study that asked participants to press a clicker each time they thought about either food, sex, or sleep – depending which group they were in. (Brian is another Kinsey alum, so I have a natural bias toward his work. I really like his stuff.)

My favorite part is on page two of the Psychology Today article, where Brian talks about problems in the media’s coverage of the study, which parallels my thinking on mainstream journalism reporting science:

1. Writers were either confused or deliberately choosing the more extreme, less representative central tendency (the mean rather than the median) to report.

2. Writers emphasized the central tendency, to the exclusion of standard deviation, when one of the most compelling results of the study was the wide variability among subjects.

3. Writers also emphasized the sex part, paying inadequate attention to the fact that thoughts about sleep and food were as frequent as thoughts about sex.

4. Writers emphasized population-level differences between men and women, neglecting to clarify that there was lots of overlap so that, even though the men on average reported more thoughts about sex (and food and sleep), many of the individual women had more thoughts about sex (and food and sleep) than many of the individual men.

5. Writers generalized the results to All People, rather than recognizing the delimitations of the population studied: college students, who are likely to be WEIRD.

What can we really conclude about frequency of thoughts about sex? We think about sex about as often as we think about food and sleep, and we vary a great deal from each other in all three topics.

I wanted to insert another thought here, too:

Hunger and sleep are both drive motivation systems, with a powerful homeostatic mechanism punishing an organism for failing to get adequate food (hunger) or sleep (fatigue). Sex, in contrast, is an incentive motivation system, pushing an organism toward appetitive stimuli, rewarding the organism for exposure to positive experiences rather than punishing it for not getting enough.

(This is not so simple a binary as I’ve made it sound.)

So I wonder how frequency of sex thoughts compares with other incentive motivation systems, like exploration (what’s a thought about “exploration”? Heck, what’s a thought about “sex”?)

KATE FRACKIN’ BORNSTEIN.

The first thing I want to say is: Kate, how do you look? You look FUCKING HOT. You look FUCKING AMAZING. You look sexy and disreputable and rebellious and brilliant and highly, highly gorgeous.

The Sonic Screwdriver

And YES, my friends, that IS a sonic screwdriver. And YES that is Kate Frackin’ Bornstein (pron. Stine, just so you know, not steen) across a dinner table with me, holding a SONIC SCREWDRIVER. YES.

YES.

Do I have a magical life? I have a magical life.

I am in Saratoga Springs at a college health education conference and Kate Frackin’ Bornstein was the keynote speaker after lunch and she is even more brilliant than her several brilliant books would indicate. Here are the notes I took during her talk:

Emily's Plenary Notes

Two things I want you all to know from the talk:

1. Bullies use binaries as a weapon, forcing people into either/or scenarios. You can ask a young person (or anyone, really), “Are you being forced into an either/or scenario?” as a way to assess whether or not they’re being bullied.

Do I think binaries can be used in a loving, supportive way? I do. But I also think they can be used as weapons. Scalpels can be used for surgery or for sex or for threats; it’s not the tool (as the Dog Whisperer says) it’s the intention behind the tool that matters.

2. Postmodern theory can save your life. How? Well, we’re all constructing and reconstructing our Selves (our “who”) based, alas, on the Hierarchical Vector of Oppression (class, gender, race, sex, religion, etc etc etc) as we try to find a “Who” that best attracts the people we want to attract, and we do this when we allow our attempt to create a “who” for which FEWER PEOPLE WILL GIVE US SHIT, rather than a “who” based on WHAT MAKES LIFE MORE WORTH LIVING, viz, identity (who are you? for whom do you want to be a role model?), desire (whom you do want to fuck?), and power (having access to the resources that make life worth living). Suicidal thoughts are giant, important taps on the shoulder to say that one of those “who’s” really needs to die; your PHYSICAL SELF doesn’t need to die, just the identity you need to shed in order to create space for a more genuine Who.

Dig?

So postmodern theory, which is approximately the idea that things can have more than one meaning, and mutually contradictory meanings too, at the same time, saves your life when you realize that suicidal thoughts are not about killing your body but about killing an identity construction that coexists poorly with the others. So there’s never a need to kill your body, just a need to find things, anything, that make life worth living.

BTW, Kate gives out Get Out Of Hell Free cards, so that you can do whatever you need to do in order to make life more worth living and not kill yourself, and if that includes things that mean you have to go to Hell, she’ll do your time. See in the picture? The only exception is being mean. You can’t be mean. Other than that, do anything you need.

Read Kate’s blog

Follow Kate on Twitter

See Kate’s It Gets Better video

Buy Kate’s books.

And in case any question still remains, yes I am utterly smitten.

womanhood is a terminal condition

On a long drive I started listening to Bill Bryson’s entertaining (and at times ghastly) “At Home: a short history of private life.” The book travels through the rooms of a house and recounts interesting tidbits from history that made that room what it is.

In Chapter 15, The Bedroom, he writes about the 19th century:

…[W]omanhood was automatically deemed to be a pathological condition. There was a belief, more or less universal, that women after puberty were either ill or on the verge of being ill, almost permanently. “The development of breasts, womb, and other reproductive apparatus drained energy from the finite supply each individual possessed,” in the words of one authority. Menstruation was described in medical texts as if it were a monthly act of willful negligence.

‘Whenever there is actual pain at any stage of the monthly period, it is because there is something wrong either in the dress or the diet or the personal and social habits of the individual,’ wrote one (male, of course) observer.

He goes on to describe the medical treatment of sexual thoughts by “the thorough scouring of her vagina with borax” and the treatment of nearsightedness with hysterectomy.

Just remember that, would you, when you consider whether or not a medication might be the appropriate treatment for your low sexual desire, slow orgasms, or lack of lubrication. Just remember the centuries of pathologizing of everything female or feminine, that constitutes our cultural inheritance. Just remember that when you or your partner can’t just WANT SEX spontaneously or doesn’t get wet as soon as foreplay starts. You can’t just want sex or get wet because you’re a WOMAN; being woman and being broken are not the same thing, no matter what your doctor, a magazine, or your parents tell you.

So into this books falls the recent Jezebel piece about men who like to give women orgasms because they like to give women pleasure, not as an ego boost.

How does it relate?

(Some stereotypes get used here, so just take a deep breath and be okay with it for argument’s sake:)

For men, orgasm and pleasure are closely linked. They’re practically the same thing. They can enjoy arousal without orgasm, sure, but basically they can tell if they had a good sexual experience by whether or not they’ve had an orgasm.

And they apply that standard – THEIR standard, the male/masculine standard – to their women partners. As though women are men, and as though to be anything else is to be broken.

So even if a guy wants his female partner to have orgasms because he wants to make her feel good, which is lovely and very nice, why can’t he just MAKE HER FEEL GOOD because he wants to make her feel good, without the performance demands of orgasm?

Orgasm is often slower and more effortful for women than for men; it’s more variable from woman to women, more variable from day to day in an individual woman. Sometimes orgasm just isn’t there for her; she can still experience truckloads of pleasure, though.

Anyway. We’ve certainly come a long way if in 150 years we’ve gone from improving eyesight by removing a uterus to using male standards to judge female orgasms, right? Not bad.

BTW, the commenters at Jezebel said a lot of sensible things about enjoying the journey and not worrying about the destination, to which I would only add, pleasure is a destination, not a journey; if you feel good, you have already arrived.

@feministhulk

So you guys! Did you read about how @feministhulk went to the school where I work?

I am FRICKIN’ STOKED about this.

Now, full disclosure, I do not personally think Judith Butler is quite the shit that the social constructivists in the audience might, I don’t really buy the argument that biological sex is socially constructed, and I actually think the gender binary is a perfect reasonable way to think about human life on earth, as long as you bear in mind the extent to which biology is both messy and not inherently meaningful.

But! I am all about some joyfully expressed feminism, which is something I suck at and something I’ve been thinking about a lot since I started the blog. ‘Member like year ago when I talked about feminism and the nerd voice? Funny and feminist is the pinnacle of genius to me.

The thing is, I’ve been learning that people need and seek out information, but they get addicted to entertainment! They go BACK for entertainment. And feministhulk is perfect as entertainment that communicates with breathtaking clarity about patriarchy and oppression, specifically because the character uses words like “patriarchy” and “oppression” in a silly, self-reflexive, self-deprecatory voice.

In other words, the “Hulk” voice is a kind of nerd voice. And that kind of voice is absolutely CRUCIAL to engaging people in this kind of communication. Feministhulk is important because it promotes justice at the same time as it pokes fun at people like me, who lose their sense of humor when they get intense about things like justice. Feministhulk makes the concept of justice safe and friendly.

Now, something a bit more practical: because I now spend multiple hours of each day talking to someone who writes a comic and puts pithy things on t-shirts for a living, my appreciation of @feministhulk has expanded beyond funny-feminist love into full-fledged thoughtfulness about merchandise.

There should be feministhulk t-shirts. I’d wear one, wouldn’t you? Green, with an all-caps declaration of solidarity? And there should be buttons. And stickers! And, hell, an action figure.

Jessica Lawson is a grad student and a new mom, both of which mean she’s got way too much of an actual life to think about these things, so I’m putting it out there: I think somebody should help Ms Lawson out. Make some cool stuff and split the profit with her 50/50, wouldja?

(One can’t help hoping that a book deal has already been offered, right?)

bossypants

I read Tina Fey’s “Bossypants.” Well, I had her read it to me. Audiobook.

I admit that part of the appeal is her reference to Pathmark and No Frills, two keystones of my own childhood in northern Delaware. But also she talks a lot about body image and the sexualization of women, both of which are topics dear to my heart. She says near the end:

I have a suspicion that the definition of “crazy” in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore. [...] Even if you would never sleep with or even flirt with anyone to get ahead, you are being sexually adjudicated by these L.A. creeps. Network executives really do say things like “I don’t know, I don’t want to fuck anybody on this show.” They really do say that stuff.”

The solution to this problem? More women becoming network executives and creating shows for women the L.A. creeps don’t want to fuck.

Which, totally. Right on.

Until then, can we spend a minute talking about regular women in their every day lives being “sexually adjudicated” (which is a phrase that I am now going to incorporate into my everyday vocabulary)?

This, to me, hearkens back to Mr Ironwood’s comments vis a vis the perceived potential sexual availability of women. Actually his post was more about whether or not a woman might ever even theoretically want to fuck him, not whether or not he wanted to fuck her, but it still feels immediately relevant.

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal for a variety of reasons, not least because I have recently posted a profile on an online dating site. Yeah. I know. And I have pictures posted. And most of the messages I’ve received so far have been about the pictures. “Nice pics.”

I’m a girl with a PhD, gainful employment at a job I enjoy, and a list of interests that provide more than enough possible targets for comment from people who want to send me a message. And yet what do they begin with? “You’re cute.”

Really??

There will probably be people who read this and feel that it’s perfectly natural that a user on a dating website’s first and biggest reaction will be in response to the images – especially, I know some will say, if that user is a man.

I have, in the past, believed that men’s response to me as a potential source of sex was caused by my job. Now I’m learning that it’s caused by my appearance – my face, my body, and the putative vagina that go with them. I’m being sexually adjudicated before I’m being personality/intelligence/emotional-fuckwittage adjudicated.

Probably I should get over it. I’m sure there are lots of people who would enjoy the feeling or at least forgive it on the grounds that it’s inevitable, that on some level ALL men (even the good ones) are like the L.A. creeps.

But I don’t enjoy that feeling. I don’t enjoy the sense that men perceive my body as existing in the public domain, accessible to their senses for their consideration and judgment. Like their judgment has anything to do with me. I can’t be invisible, in order to avoid the judgments, so as a next best alternative, just keep your opinions, which you probably can’t help having, to yourself.

Let me add for the record, because I think some people might wonder, that I do not sexually adjudicate first. I have examined my reaction to profiles and I learned that what I judge first is a sort of social class/intelligence factor. Does this person’s brain seem to work like mine? Sexual adjudication – “Can I imagine ever being naked together with this person?” – is somewhere down the list, maybe between 5th and 10th.

I guess this boils down to a tip for people who want to impress girls:

Even if the first thing you THINK about a woman is sexual adjudication, don’t let it be the first thing you say.

backwards, regardless of shoes

It’s been a while since I was as disappointed in a work of non-fiction as I was in Backwards in High Heels.

The book is beautifully produced – interesting font, idiomatic and pretty full-color illustrations, even satisfyingly heavyweight paper – and it is charmingly written: the idea that love is not the answer is “an intellectual mouse scratching behind the skirting board;” they often use the word “hoary,” which I love.

But I have three standards when it comes to writing about sex, gender, and relationships: scientifically accurate, helpful, and well-written. With exceptions, Dan Savage tends to meet all three. And Susan Douglas’s Enlightened Sexism met all three. Everyone should read that book. My own writing is clumsy enough that I usually settle for two out of three. Backwards in High Heels meets only one.

Still, there are worse sins than unhelpful, inaccurate, but chewily written prose. Sadly, the book commits a worse sin, albeit inadvertently.

I knew going in that the authors were only writers, not context experts, so I didn’t have high hopes of learning anything, but I did have the expectation of unique and creatively expressed insights. What we get instead is creatively expressed pablum, the ordinary, bland, offensively inoffensive tropes you can find in virtually every issue of “Red Book.”

Authors Tania Kindersley and Sarah Vine say in the book’s Introduction that the book is about “making up your own mind and trusting that mind.” It is, they write, “the literary equivalent of the conversations women have every day of the week.”

This is where that “worse sin” mentioned above comes in.

Why then is it 389 beautiful pages of unenlightened platitudes, like work-life balance is about finding the balance that’s right for YOU, and you will recover from grief if you allow it to move through you? I mean, both of those things are true as far as they go, but they’re just the same old obvious stuff. Are we making up our own minds if we’re sitting around like frogs in a swamp, wallowing in the mire of the ideas that pop culture put into our heads? If oodles of Oxbridge-y literary allusions can’t lift our perspective out of the swamp and into the creative world of novel insight, what can?

Take the section called “What to do when your husband/boyfriend/lover runs off with a tall blonde who is half your age and dress size.” We all know without needing to be told that tall, blond, young and thin is more appealing than short, dark, aging, and round, which makes the paragraphs that follow (“let your girlfriends rally round” and “Go out and buy yourself a bunch of flowers”) not only unnecessary but pointless. He betrayed you because he’s a man and you’re not up to standard. The flowers and the rallying of your girlfriends can’t fix that. Here, have one of my flies, I’m trying to watch my weight and you could use some cheering up. Ribbit.

Of course they don’t MEAN it that way. They mean it to be girl-talk, supportive, “Oh men are hopeless but you are AMAZING.”

Excellent writing should show us something new, should dig deeper than we ordinary mortals dig and bring up something beautiful or jolie laide from the ditch. And all they do is wander around in the already-dug trench and describe it to us. Disappointing.

But my own personal reaction was even worse than that. If these are “the conversations women have every day of the week,” no wonder I have so few female friends. I want to believe that women are not so small as the thoughts in this book. I want to believe we’re capable of digging new trench, to overuse the metaphor from the last paragraph.

Actually, the whole book reminds me of this dinner I went to with my BFFL, back when we were both grad students. It was him and me, a professor (in the BFFL’s department) and his wife, and a visiting speaker and his girlfriend. The men were talking about animal epistemology and the women were talking about recipes. I swear to god. Can you guess which conversation I wanted to participate in? But the women tried to include me in their conversation and I felt rude rebuffing them – I don’t cook, I don’t knit, I don’t have or want or even particularly like kids, but they were being nice. But really I just wanted to talk about how squirrels know where all the nuts are.

My friend Bill – not that Bill, the other Bill – once described me as a guy with a vagina. But is my lack of engagement with the zeitgest of femininity a barrier to my finding someone to date? Does Bridget Jones bring all the boys to the yard? If I’m a guy with a vagina – and not in the sexy Carmen Diaz I-can-belch-just-as-loud-and-swear-as-fluently-at-professional-athletes kind of way but in an in-fact-I-know-more-about-this-than-you-do-and-I-won’t-pretend-otherwise-just-because-I-have-no-penis kind of way – am I therefore as unappealing to men as I am to women?

So this book that purports to want to make me “feel that I am all right” makes me feel simultaneously very lonely and sad for the state of women in the industrialized west. If this is the best we can do with all our advantages… god.

help: drunk lesbian hook ups

I’m looking for insight from ya’ll.

In my job, I’m actually what’s known in the health education biz as “a generalist,” meaning I’m all things too all people, equal parts sex educator, alcohol educator, sleep, stress, mental health, physical activity educator… everything. It’s an important job that I take very seriously and do, if I may say so myself, extremely well. I certainly try hard, at any rate.

The sex stuff is my favorite part of course, and handily it intersects with just about all the other things, rather in the way that salt brings out the flavor of other foods, or the way alcohol gives the tongue access to flavors insoluble in water or fat. Understanding the role of sex in the other health issues is the sugar that makes the medicine palatable to students.

Lately I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about alcohol – a serious health issue among college students, not least for its impact on sexual decision-making. Nationally, something like 16% of college women report having unprotected sex as a result of their own drinking.

Having chatted about that number with some students and other folks, one of the things I’m learning is how entrenched, indeed how FUNDAMENTAL is the role of alcohol in the hook up culture of the gay and lesbian community. You get drunk, you hook up. You may get drunk without hooking up, but you don’t hook up without getting drunk.

Now, wearing my alcohol educator hat, I think, “Well that’s fine, all I need is to motivate people not to drink to blackout, which is reasonably easy, since most people would rather not blackout if they can help it.”

But wearing my sex nerd hat, I think, “What? Why? What?!”

This one student I talked to (who may or may not read the blog – if you do, hi and thanks!) helped me understand. See, I had previously assumed that people were drinking a lot because they felt guilty about the sex, ashamed of their bodies, or otherwise somehow NEGATIVE about the pursuit of a sexual connection. The non-straight community is at increased risk for a wide variety of health issues, including mood and anxiety problems, self-harm and suicidality, tobacco use, dangerous drinking, etc etc, and the typical story is that people abuse substances in order to manage negative affect. They’re drinking, I thought, to turn down the volume on the bad feelings.

But no, it turns out it’s not that. It’s just… the culture. It’s just how you do things. It’s accepted as normal – long term relationships even start that way. Personally I can’t imagine having the FIRST sex I have with someone happen when we’re both shitfaced drunk, but apparently it’s more or less the norm in this particular culture.

And there’s certainly the question of whether it’s more the case in the gay community than in the straight community, where random hookups, at least among college students, are culturally normal.

So look, obviously I haven’t talked to every gay or lesbian person in America and obviously I haven’t read ALL the research on the subject, but this is a compelling empirical question as well as an important health issue:

IS it the case that in the LGBQ community, drunken hooking up a big trend?

If it is, WHY is it?

What are the benefits?

How is drunken hooking up in the gay community different from or the same as drunken hooking up in the straight community?

What are the costs or risks, both at the individual and cultural levels? Should it be changed?

If so, how?

I’m really asking, because I’m finding it difficult to get inside the experience of having sex with a new person while wasted; I’m sure it makes sense to many of the people who do it, I just can’t see it and I’m not even sure what’s blocking my view.

Tell me everything you can think of. Send your friends this blog post and ask them to comment. I need all the insight I can get.

fun with gender dichotomies

A student sent me this:

(created by this guy)

She knows my oversimplified metaphor, that men are like driving standard transmission – if you move through the gears in the right order, you will get where you want to go – and women are like baking a souffle – the outcome depends on the ingredients and the chef, sure, but it  also depends on the reliability of the oven, the altitude, the humidity of the day… more variables, more variability.

Because I am truly a nerd and therefore can’t just let it go, I must comment that men would have TWO switches; as I’ve recently repeated, sexual response emerges as the product of the sexual excitation system (on switch) and sexual inhibition system (off switch). Or not switches, but dials, on those level things they have on sound boards.

Are men and women THIS different? … Well no… but… kind of, yes. I mean, in the same way that the categories “men” and “women” are not accurate reflections of the population – i.e., it’s not that simple and even within groups variability is great – this is not an accurate representation of the population. But insofar as the categories “men” and “women” ARE accurate representations of the population – and let’s face it, those categories work just fine for many, many people in the world – yes, it’s pretty darn accurate.