who’s your girl?

I’ve been having a lot of conversations about gender and attraction lately, from “what kind of guys/girls are you attracted to?” to “what happens when one member of a lesbian couple transitions to male?” I know so, so little about this subject, but I’m just going to meander through my thoughts and observations, and invite other people to contribute theirs.

Basically, um, gender identity and sexual attraction are complicated and many-layered, and the more set you are on consistency and rationality, the more mind-fucked you’ll feel. Yeah? So now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…

My “type” in men is often consistent: I like slender, bookish men, smart and/or artistic, and particularly there’s a certain lithe grace about the way some men move that I adore. Every so often there’s a category-buster, but on the whole it’s a solid trend. My “type” in women has been harder to pinpoint, maybe because I haven’t been thinking of myself as bi for as long, but I’m starting to pick up on trends. The women that turn my head when I’m out and about have a look of strong, abundant femininity about them: thick, curly hair; full, curvy mouth; dark coloring (which for some reason connotes strength and capability to my animal brain, as opposed to fair skin and hair.) Medium-to-full breasts, although I think that’s mostly just because I like breasts, whether they’re on me or someone else.

Several of my lesbian or bi friends are only, or primarily, attracted to androgynous or masculine-presenting women. Also, a couple of these friends who identify as lesbian have said that they generally find muscled, tough-looking men more attractive than the slim fellows I like. Russell Crowe and Bruce Willis, as opposed to David Tennant and Jude Law. I’ve never understood that (I like a pretty face, on a man or a woman), and of course my sample size is much too small to be significant, but I find it interesting.

I’d love to see a survey of people who admit some level of bisexual attraction (whether they ever care to act on it), that asked them to pinpoint their most common “type” on the gender-expression continuum for both men and women. I’d be interested in finding out whether more people are attracted to masculine (or feminine) traits in both men and women, or whether their attractions tend to cluster around androgyny for both types, or conversely, to strongly expressed masculinity in men and femininity in women. Or whether there’s no trend at all, just all-over-the-map craziness.

Of course that question presupposes a pretty binary notion of gender, which is what I meant when I said I don’t know much about this topic… I’m not yet terribly well-informed on the nuances of gender study. So if a better-informed reader wants to come in here and deconstruct the entire question I’ve just asked, they’re more than welcome.

I find it interesting to see how trends in attraction change over a person’s life. My sister Laurel was famously into Asian men for most of her teenage years. Eventually this broadened to “Asian and Middle-Eastern, and sometimes African-American” and then eventually she just dubbed it her “melanin fetish.” I guessed, and she confirmed quite recently, that this had a lot to do with feeling like an alien in her own culture. Recently she’s found herself more able to be attracted to Caucasian guys as well, at the same time as she’s found herself freer and freer to express things about herself that clash with the conservative, religious, suburban world we grew up in. Likewise, Charis’s preference for androgynous women loosened as she became more and more comfortable with her sexual identity (am I right, Char? We haven’t talked about this in a while.)

For myself, I wonder how much my own current attraction to strong, feminine women owes to my recent embrace of the power and beauty of being a woman (something noticeably lacking in my mental landscape as a child and teenager — I’ll post about that another time.) I wonder if it will change over time; whether I’ll become more or less attracted to women in general and that type of woman specifically. I expect it will.

I’ve found myself able to identify trends in the “types” of hetero male friends as well. My brother is drawn to women with small facial features (something he didn’t notice until I pointed it out). Shaun, on the other hand, seems to like women with strong noses. Is this just a fluke, or does it say something about the degree of power or intensity each desires in a woman? (Of course I suspect the latter, or I wouldn’t have mentioned it… but again, small sample.) And will my brother’s “type” shift if he dates other women after his current girlfriend (a very curvy, strong-featured, strong-personalitied woman indeed)?

But back to the queers. I like to hear stories from people whose lovers have transitioned, because of how radically that has to uproot your thoughts on gender and identity and attraction. I’m equally interested relationships that survived the transition and those that didn’t. I’m not so interested in questions like, “If you’re a lesbian with a girlfriend who becomes a man, and you stay together, are you bi now?” Those questions assume a rigidity of categories that seems kind of obsolete in context.

What I’m more interested in is questions like, “How did your attraction change over the course of the transition?” And, for both those who have been through it and those who haven’t, “Would it be harder to stay attracted to your partner if they changed gender or changed weight?” (I’m pretty sure my attraction to Shaun would better survive his becoming a woman than his gaining 200 pounds.) And, “What about intermediate, less-dramatic changes?” What if your girlfriend who has always worn makeup and skirts starts dressing androgynously, cuts her hair short? Or vice versa?

I told you this would be a rambly post. I don’t have a lot of concrete thoughts or answers, just questions, observations, and curiosities. And there’s lots and lots of territory I haven’t covered. Please feel free to ramble and ruminate in the comments.

a different mono/poly dialogue

I was reading pretty much everything Franklin Veaux has to say about BDSM and polyamory, and liking almost all of it. When I got to this article, though, I found myself so annoyed I had to immediately email my best friend Charis. Charis is the person I first heard about polyamory from; an ex-girlfriend of hers is poly, which is primarily why they broke up. From this, you may infer that Charis is pretty solidly monogamous, and so I wanted to hear her perspective on the monogamous girl whose voice appears in the above-linked article. I thought Ms. Mono was being fairly obtuse, but I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just my poly-goggles making me see things that way.

Char responded, as she does, with wit and eloquence, and I want to share some of what she said. With all due respect to Franklin Veaux and his monogamous friend (and, if I didn’t make it clear before, I think the rest of the writing on his site is solid and insightful), I find this a much more satisfactory mono/poly dialogue.

(Char’s writing in brown, mine in black.)

When A and I first started talking about being poly, I pulled out the usual, predictable list of concerns: “Human beings weren’t meant to live that way” (meant by whom?  I’m not entirely sure.  Never mind that most species of animals aren’t monogamous); “I’ll get diseases from you;” “If you love someone else, then you can’t love me as much;” etc.  Now, after watching A and others be in several successful poly relationships, I can rationalize most of those concerns away.  But I’m still uncomfortable with polyamory (as it concerns myself and my own relationships, just to be clear) on a gut level.  I have none of the concerns I see Ms. Mono voicing in this debate.  All of her concerns seemed to be rooted in (a) a misunderstanding of mature polyamory; and (b) a fundamental discomfort with polyamory that she is desperately trying to rationalize.  My read is that she feels threatened on a very deep, gut level by the thought of “sharing” a lover.  All of her “arguments” against polyamory seem to be a way of legitimizing these feelings.  I think I’ve moved past the need to rationalize my discomfort with polyamory.  But I think the feelings of discomfort need to be interrogated, especially at first.  It was important for me to ask myself, “Is my discomfort with the poly lifestyle simply a result of social conditioning in a culture that is invested in monogamy?”  There was an extent to which the answer to that question was “Yes.”  So I allowed my conception of, and attitude toward, polyamory to be transformed by open-minded conversations with poly friends.  I worked hard to suspend my judgment about polyamory as far as possible (which is something that Ms. Mono CLEARLY has not done).  This suspension was enabled by my own subject position as queer in a culture that loves to delegitimize the queer experience.  People love to tell me that my deeply-rooted same-sex attraction isn’t “real” or “natural.”  I wanted to be careful not to do the same thing to the experiences of my poly friends.

After I opened myself up as far as possible to the validity of the poly experience and came to understand what mature poly relationships looked like, I still got a knot in my stomach when I thought about being in a poly relationship with someone I deeply loved.  My reaction to that “fantasy” is immediate and visceral: I feel a little sick and want to cry.  Why?  I’m not really sure.  It’s not a trust issue.  It’s not a privacy issue.  I also don’t feel the need to be the most important person in my lover’s life (“top dog,” to quote Ms. Mono’s juvenile phrasing).  I embrace the fact that I can’t be everything to another person.  I want the person I’m with to have lots of love in her life from lots of different people, as I desire to have lots of love in mine, coming from many different relationships.  But there is a kind of intense emotional and sexual connection that I can only healthily share with one person at a time.  I can be in love with multiple people at once.  I’ve had sexual relationships with more than one person at a time.  But I can’t nurture and commit to love with more than one person without a great deal of stress.  And I can’t give you good reasons why.  The feelings cannot be rationalized.  And you know what?  They don’t have to be.  The fact that I’m monogamous is true about me.  This is not something I’ve always known.  I’ve only really known it recently, after divesting myself of prejudice toward other kinds of relationships and trying to be aware of the raw, fundamental needs at my core.  My core tells me that I need to be committed to one person, because that’s what’s going to make me really happy.  And that’s enough.

I think this is so, so important. If you’re going to negotiate tough, controversial, culturally marginal territory, you have two choices: use cultural prejudices to back up your knee-jerk response, or try to move outside of those cultural prejudices and think about how they could be wrong. If you’re listening to someone describe a lifestyle that makes no sense to you, that seems wrong and perverse and unhealthy, it’s far more productive, more conducive to your own growth and to a good relationship, for you to weed out all that’s weak and illogical in your own position. Try to see the other person as a fully-developed, functional human being, and imagine how the things they’re describing could be part of a fully-developed, functional human identity, instead of a perversion or aberration.

This is not to say there can’t be boundaries. There are acts, inclinations, and lifestyles that I won’t hesitate to call “wrong.” But before I do that, I’m going to think through why I call them wrong, whether that’s consistent with other beliefs I hold, and make sure that my judgement rests on fairly solid ground.

Another boundary, even harder to defend, is subjective need. Charis has had a long, hard slog through the last decade of her life, and one thing she’s learned is that it’s okay to need what she needs. You don’t need to declare something wrong or perverse to say that it’s not for you. I really admire Char’s ability to say, “I don’t want to be polyamorous, and I don’t need to rationalize that.”

Ms. Mono’s objections to polyamory are pretty unfair, because she’s working from a “straw man” conception of poly relationships.  She is then juxtaposing this unattractive “straw man” with what she sees as the “ideal” monogamous relationship.  Most mono relationships are not even close to the kind of relationship she’s describing.  They are fraught with selfishness, miscommunication, lack of trust, cheating, lying, etc.  Most people do monogamy pretty badly.  Just because you’re mono doesn’t mean that your partner will respect your privacy.  Just because you’re mono doesn’t mean you’ll be “top dog” and get the attention you feel like you need.  Just because you’re mono doesn’t mean your relationship won’t be fraught with complications and conflicts of interest.  It’s dangerous to invest one particular relationship model with the power to fulfill all your hopes and dreams.  Beyond judging relationship “models,” I think that what make a particular relationship “superior” has nothing to do with it’s mono or poly character.  What makes a relationship “better” is the ability of all parties involved to honestly communicate their needs and wants, and then negotiate/compromise with their partner(s) for the fulfillment of those relational needs.  It’s about investing in each other’s lives in a way that is life-giving and that facilitates the spiritual growth of all parties (I’m using the word “spiritual” here quite loosely).  Of course, I think this is a worthy goal for many kinds of relationships, not just romantic ones.

Word. Inevitably, in any kind of lifestyle outside of the mainstream, problems get blamed on the lifestyle structures, whereas the same kinds of problems in a mainstream lifestyle are chalked up to “well, sometimes it just doesn’t work out.” When a gay couple breaks up, it’s because gayness is unnatural and doomed to failure; when a hetero couple breaks up, well, that just happens sometimes.

It’s important to realize that, in a way, we’re all polyamorous.  The poly lifestyle isn’t as “weird” and “unconventional” as people like to pretend it is.  I don’t have “one love.”  I have many loves.  I know better than to count on one person for the fulfillment of all my needs.  It’s simply not possible.  This is where I think mono relationships tend to go wrong.  Like I said earlier, one person can’t be everything to you.  Long term, I don’t want to share my bed or intimate romance with more than one person.  But that doesn’t mean I won’t be sharing my heart with many, many important people who are irreplaceable in my life.

This is my favorite part of her email. It was during my senior year of college, a time when I was experiencing intense love for a number of people (most of them non-romantic, although that line has always been fuzzy for me), that I established the emotional habits that I think have enabled me to move so comfortably into a poly relationship. Letting go of the need to be everything to someone, realizing that my love for each of these people was unique and non-competitive, seeing how intimacy between my close friends enriched me… I learned these things in intense friendships first, and carrying them into my romantic life was (for me) quite natural.

My part in this “dialogue” is actually pretty weak, and seems to have mostly consisted of saying, “Hear, hear!” But I do have one thing to add: it can be very, very hard for people on one side of a question like this to really get that other people just feel differently. Reading poly message boards and the like, I hear some people talking as if all mono people have to do is work through their insecurities
and then they could be happy poly people too. It’s pretty clear to me that this is not the case. It’s sometimes hard for a poly person to look at a mono without seeing insecurity and possessiveness, just as it’s sometimes hard for a mono to look at a poly without seeing greed and lack of self-control. This is where my earlier stricture comes in: assume, until shown otherwise, that the person you’re talking to is intelligent, healthy, and mature. If doing so requires you to question some of your assumptions about what intelligent, healthy, mature people do, so much the better. If it turns out they’re actually stupid, self-destructive, and childish, and your assumptions withstand the challenge, you’ve still gained something by trading in unthinking assumptions for thought-out beliefs.

nice boys don’t

Men get such a raw deal in our society.

Before we go any farther, let me just guard against an inevitable objection: yes, women get a raw deal in our society too. Talking about the one does not belittle or ignore the other. Misery is not a zero-sum game, and the cultural framework of patriarchy and male privilege oppresses us all. And just for today, I’m going to talk about how it oppresses men.

Specifically, I’m talking about male sexual desire, and how it is stigmatized.

Oysh. I can’t even go a sentence without delivering an “on the other hand” disclaimer. Yes, in addition to being stigmatized (which I’m going to talk about at great length), male sexual desire is elevated to being the sole definition of manliness, and held at a standard few men can honestly live up to (or should.) They get it coming and going. But, again, today I’m mostly interested in the stigma.

Watch romantic comedies, and you can apply an easy matrix to see which man the woman will end up with. First, sort the eligible male characters into “attractive” and “unattractive.” From the attractive group, rank the characters by how sexually expressive they are: how interested they seem to be in sex, as opposed to, well, anything else. In easily 90% of these movies, the Prince Charming is going to be the least sexually expressive of the bunch.

Let’s take Bridget Jones’ Diary, which has the advantage of being one a classic offender, and also a movie I rather liked. You have the two suitors, Daniel whatever-his-name-is, and Mark Darcy. Daniel sends Bridget salacious messages at work and has sex with her halfway through the movie. Mark is shy, keeps a chaste distance, and their big intimate mid-movie moment is a cooking scene. (If you’re worried about spoilers, you shouldn’t have even read this far, but go ahead and stop right now.)

Now I’m not arguing for a minute that Bridget should have ended up with Daniel instead of Mark… Daniel was kind of a jackass. But if you try to separate his jackassery from his sexual forwardness, it can’t be done. Dear Mark, on the other hand, never speaks an inappropriate word, and shows appreciation for Bridget’s personality rather than her yummy curves. It’s distressingly easy to draw the conclusion that sexual forwardness itself is a sign of jackassery, and that appreciation and desire for someone’s body precludes appreciation of them as a whole person.

Mark also falls victim to a male version of the Madonna/whore complex: when he’s kissing Bridget at the end of the movie, she says, “Nice boys don’t kiss like that!” to which he infamously replies, “Oh yes they fucking do.” I’ll be the first person to admit that that was pretty hot, but it betrays the same expectation that women have suffered under for decades now: “Good” people are chaste and sexually reserved until they’re partnered with their OTP, at which point they turn into tigers and tigresses in bed. Never mind what they do with all that sexual energy before the “happily ever after” is sounded. (Fun experiment: try to watch Bridget Jones’ Diary, or better yet Pride and Prejudice, and imagine Mr. Darcy masturbating furiously to thoughts of Bridget/Elizabeth any time he’s off screen.)

Undoubtedly male sexual desire can be predatory, and often is. But we have let our fear of sexual predation blacken our view of any sexual expressiveness in men (at least until we’ve consented to bring them into the bedroom.) We’ve created a false dichotomy between interest in someone’s body and interest in them as a person. Women suffer from this false dichotomy as well, but they aren’t subject to the same acute suspicion if they display sexual interest in somebody.

I was in a reading group not too long ago, and we were reading John Updike’s The Maples Stories (which I highly recommend.) It’s the story of a marriage between two imperfect people, told over several decades. At one point we were discussing the question of whether the man in the marriage really loved the woman. To me it was obvious that he did (although that love was not unmixed with other feelings… when is it ever?): he cared deeply about her happiness, admired the way she thought, and was strongly attracted to her. We pointed to one passage in the book, a lovely and eloquent description of his desire for her, sensuous admiration of her beauty, and said, “How can you read this and say he doesn’t love her?” Several of the women in the group immediately replied, “That’s lust.”

It was a weird, weird moment for me, because I could remember thinking the way they were thinking, and yet from my present vantage point it was nonsensical. Lust and love are not mutually exclusive emotions. In the ideal relationship, they feed each other. If Richard Maple lusted after his wife and showed no other interest in, or respect for, her personhood, then yes, he’d be a shallow jerk. But the other women in this discussion group seemed to be looking at this instance of beautifully expressed lust and taking it as proof that he was a shallow jerk without further argument.

Let me break it down for you, kids: lust is love expressed in the purely physical realm. As human beings, we have bodies, hearts, and minds (whether you believe that the “heart” and “mind” dimensions are also purely physical or whether there’s some kind of non-material soul that houses them is, for the moment, mostly irrelevant.) I’ve had intellectual conversations with people that were so intense, engaged, and intimate that they felt like sex. I’ve had emotional moments with people that were so intense, engaged, and intimate that they felt like sex. I’ve also had… well, sex. It’s that intense, engaged, intimate connection with someone else that’s expressed in the body, and it’s fantastic. It doesn’t preclude, occlude, or threaten the possibility of connecting with someone in any of the other ways.

The presence of lust, or of strong physical chemistry, shouldn’t be confused with love that encompasses all aspects of personhood. But neither should it be opposed to it. It’s a piece of the puzzle, and it’s one of the most fun and exciting pieces. In and of itself, it should be celebrated… unless you hold to a strong Platonic dualism, a belief that everything that is material and of the body is inferior and should be ultimately rejected (and none of us here believe that, right?)

I owe my intellectual understanding of this to lots of reading and thinking that I’ve done in the last several years. I owe my practical understanding of it largely to Shaun. He is a man not shy about expressing his sexual interest and desires… if you recall, he ended the first evening we met with stroking my thigh under the table, and inviting me to come home with him. The first time we had sex, it wasn’t about much more than physical desire. We had only known each other for six days… how could it be? It was physical craving that brought him to my bed, and he was a perfect gentleman. (It was all I could do not to cast that sentence as a contradiction: “…and yet he was” or something like that. There’s nothing contradictory in those two clauses, but doesn’t it sound like there should be?) He cared about my physical and emotional well-being, checked in with me before, during, and after to make sure I was happy with what we were doing. And this was while he was overwhelmed with the emotional wreckage of his recent breakup. Boy gets a gold star for that. We enjoyed each other and each got something we needed. While there was no question of emotional love and attachment at that point, it was a very loving encounter, and even if it had ended there, I would have no regrets. It was all the evidence I needed that lust, all by itself, is a fine and dandy thing.