The Colors of Words

My boyfriend and I just had a two hour debate over something we agreed about completely. “Sure, you need to be careful about what judgments you make, and how you treat people based on those judgments,” he would say, “but its still fair and inevitable to make some judgments, especially based on things people really have choices about, like the slogans on their T-shirts.”

“Sure, we all come to conclusions about each other, and when those are based on real choices, not things people have no control over, that is somewhat justifiable,” I would respond, “but you still need to be careful when making judgments, especially when those judgments affect how you treat someone.”

On and on, in a circle of exhausting agreements that still felt like a dispute.

When we both finally tired of playing Ring Around the Rosie, we eventually found the source of the argument. It was in the word “judge.” Like so many words, it carries the load of a few different meanings, and we were thinking of distinct ones as we spoke. We were committing a classic sin of debate; failing to properly define our terms.

According to the conventional narrative of how debates play out, that was supposed to resolve the problem. We were supposed to mutually redefine our terms and laugh about the error. Oddly enough, though, that didn’t happen. Even knowing what the problem was, we both struggled to use the word “judge” in the sense that the other meant it. We were both using the word in a somewhat limited sense, and neither of us could easily expand our definition.

Grant’s father was a judge. He listened to cases, had the opportunity to see both sides of an argument, deliberated on all sides, and came back with a consequence that was reasonable and appropriate. Over and over, throughout his life, Grant heard of judgement being delivered in that manner. When people tell him not to judge, it feels like telling him not to think, not to be fair, not to care about justice, not to come to any conclusions about anything. It makes him feel vilified when he has to make a decision and doesn’t have all the facts at hand, or all the time in the world to investigate them.

To me, though, judgment means Judgment Day. It means how dare you think for yourself, be raised in a religion that isn’t ours, make a mistake, wear too much lipstick. It is when Moses strikes a rock to get water from it, instead of only speaking to it, and God says he will die in the desert without ever entering the Promised Land. (Numbers 20:2-12) It means seeing someone with spiky blue hair and concluding they worship the devil, whether they know it or not. Judgment lets one mistake, one action, one facet of your complex being define you, and it removes any qualms you have over punishing someone, harshly, for that small thing.

For both of us, our associations with the word judge were intimate, personal and deep, and in order to end the argument we had to get away from it entirely and find a new word, “assess.” Its all right to make qualified, well evidenced assessments about a person, provided you are also fair in how you treat them and willing to revise those assessments as you get to know them better.

I think all of us have words like that, where the associations we have, based on the context in which we learned them, color their meanings. The dictionary can solve some definitional problems, but not all of them. Sometimes its on us to recognize our linguistic biases, acknowledge the rights of others to have their own, and meet each other halfway.

Gender-neutral pronouns: or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the “ze”

I’ve been resisting “made-up” gender-neutral pronouns for at least a decade. My argument has always been the same: they’re ugly, they sound super-awkward, and they’re unnecessary. At first I said “he” is a perfectly acceptable gender-neutral pronoun, because I was young and ignorant of many things. Then I said that “they” is fine, as it has a long history of use as a gender-neutral singular. I still say that, actually, but I’ve come to accept that it may not be the best choice, especially for an individual who prefers not to use gender-specific pronouns. It might be grammatically correct, but it still feels slightly depersonalized. The plural connotation has a semantic impact, and it makes it feel less like you’re talking about a single, unique individual. So there’s that.

At the same time, my resistance to the alternative pronouns has been weakening. First of all, in the circles I know they seem to be standardizing: most people I read who use gender-neutral pronouns use the ze/hir system (sometimes zie). That means that what sounds awkward and clunky to me may well sound natural to a new generation. I’m all for the evolution of language, even if it leaves me behind. I wish that people had standardized around the “ey/em/eir” system, because I think it sounds the best, but as long as people standardize on something I’ll be happy.

More importantly, though, I’ve realized how using “ze” instead of “they” or something else that feels more natural draws attention to the fact that we’re using a gender-neutral pronoun. Sometimes that’s not what you want, but a lot of the time it is. My brain, like (I’m betting) a lot of yours, still has a habit of considering male the “default” gender, so that if someone says, “The person next to me on the plane ate their lunch really loudly” I’m usually imagining a man. (A white man, natch. Around 35 years old. That’s what a default human being looks like in my brain.) Whereas, if the story is, “The person next to me on the plane ate zeir lunch really loudly” the unfamiliar word jolts my brain into awareness that this person could be any gender. (Now if only we had a quick and easy linguistic convention that could do the same for race and age!)

I guess my point is, “they” doesn’t necessarily work much better than “he” for combatting the standard programming that male is the default. “Ze,” on the other hand, does. And I care more about changing gender-related assumptions and preconceptions than I do about making language conform to my aesthetic likings.

The C-word

Strong language ahead!

I actually really like the word ‘cunt.’ Unlike most words for female genitalia, it sounds strong and earthy and unsentimental, which is how I like to think of my vagina. It’s long been my favorite genital slang word for either sex (I don’t really like any of the slang for “penis.”)

Beyond my personal preference, I’m generally all in favor of word reclamation: a word is only an insult if you let it be. So I’d like to see “cunt” brought to the same level of acceptability that “pussy” holds. Which means I had a weird cognitive clash the other night when I read about Penn Jillette calling a female humor writer a “fucking cunt” just for writing an article he found unfunny.

I’m really not interested in excoriating Jillette: this is not the first thing he’s done that made me think I wouldn’t like him as a person, and there are plenty of other people calling him out anyway. What I’m interested in is how strongly I reacted to seeing “cunt” used that way. It evoked a feeling of threat, of violent hostility, directed not toward a particular personality but toward womanhood — which meant that the threat was vaguely aimed at me as well.

This is pretty much how I always feel when seeing someone referred to as a “cunt” in a way that’s clearly hostile. I know it’s not always meant that way, and that in English-speaking countries other than the US the word is much more mild in connotation. But to me, unique among gender-based insults, “cunt” sounds to me like the speaker is about two steps from brandishing a knife, and lashing out not only at the person who evoked their wrath, but at anyone else who bears the same genitalia.

I freely use words like “dick” and “tool” to describe people who are displaying a stereotypically masculine unpleasantness, and “bitch” to describe people who are displaying a stereotypically feminine unpleasantness. I don’t have a problem with my own or other people’s uses of those words. But “cunt,” to me, is different, and I’m not sure why. Is it because “bitch” seems aimed at female behavior, and “cunt” seems aimed at femaleness itself? But then why am I okay with “dick” and “tool”?

My theory, and it’s pretty off-the-cuff, is that there is not nearly the level of culturally-engrained loathing of the penis as there is of the vagina. (In all the ensuing discussions of culture, I’m talking about the segment of modern US culture I inhabit.) Penis-having is seen as a pretty positive thing; we expect men with penises to be proud of them, and we treat penis-related indiscretions with the kind of indulgent scolding we’d give to a puppy who knocked over a cookie jar. Oblique references to the penis are constant and pervasive in our culture, and most of them are positive.

The cultural view of the vagina is much more ambivalent: there are a lot of people, both male and female, who see the vagina as dirty, disgusting, and treacherous. We talk less about vaginas, we joke less about them, we don’t pat ourselves or anybody else on the back just for having one. While phallic imagery is usually met with a giggle, vaginal imagery is often met with a vague feeling of discomfort. The mainstream cultural voices never seriously think someone’s worth is lowered just because they have a penis; sometimes they do think someone’s worth is lowered just because they have a vagina. “Cunt,” as an insult, draws on a whole deep well of hatred and revulsion that’s just not present, in our culture, for penis-based insults.

I find it interesting that “pussy” is only an insult when it’s directed at a man, which possibly sheds light on another subtext of “cunt.” Pussy is a soft word, in both sound and meaning: it’s gentle and cute and unthreatening. Cunt, as I said at the beginning, is powerful: it’s just as direct and plosive as cock. Women are never insulted by being called pussies: gentle, cute, and unthreatening is what women are supposed to be. Daring to be powerful while having a vagina is what gets women in trouble.

Orientation vs. identity: some thoughts on belief

When sexologists talk about sexual orientation, we often use some variation of the Orientation-Behavior-Identity model (OBI). The idea is that sexual orientation can be understood and discussed in three distinct aspects: a person’s identity, what they define themselves as, both publicly and privately; a person’s behavior, their actual sexual acts with different genders; and a person’s orientation, the natural bent of their attractions (which may or may not be innate or changeable, but which is much less subject to power of choice than the other two aspects.) It’s a helpful distinction, and clears up a lot of miscommunications about what it means to be “really” gay, het, or bi.

I wonder if a similar model would be useful for discussing religious belief. Is belief or unbelief in a deity (pick your favorite!) a choice? I would argue that at any given moment, a person does or does not believe in a particular deity. Analogous to the “orientation” piece of the OBI model, this is just a program that is running in your brain: you cannot choose to switch it on or off, although various paths you take in life may contribute to its running or shut it down. But it’s not subject to conscious, volitional will.

Then there is the “identity” component: whether you think of yourself as a theist, and usually a member of a particular religion, or not. This may or may not have anything to do with your belief orientation. There was a time in my life where I identified as a Christian although I no longer had the belief in God that I had in my earlier years. Similarly, anyone who identifies as an “atheist” because they are mad at God is not an atheist in the orientational sense: people who genuinely lack belief in a deity have nothing to be angry at.

Finally, there is the behavior component, which is independent of both orientation and identity. Attending church does not make you a Christian believer, nor do you have to call yourself a Christian to attend. And many people identify as members of a religion without engaging in any of the behaviors prescribed by that religion. Whether there are any behaviors that could be categorized as “atheistic” is an interesting question… I can’t think of any off the top of my head, although I can think of many that could be described as humanistic or skeptical.

What do you think? Useful categories for discussions of belief and unbelief?


The rumors are true: I’m getting married. After the most romantic proposal ever (a text message from me to Shaun saying “Hey, can I call you my fiancé?”) and careful analysis of best possible timing (“Spring is nice, wanna get married next spring?”) we’ve announced wedding plans to friends and family, and changed our facebook status to “engaged.” (That’s how you know it’s for real.)

Naturally, a lot of people have wanted to know if we’re still going to be polyamorous. Yes we are; this relationship has never been about “we’ll be non-monogamous until I decide if I really want to commit to you.” What really weirds me out, though, is the people who ask what the point of marriage is if it’s not going to be exclusive.

I’m not being flip here, I really am mystified. One person close to me said “What is a marriage without sexual faithfulness*?”– and then denied me the opportunity to respond, so I’m going to respond here. In marrying Shaun I am making him a partner in all my life decisions. I am committing to upholding the health of our relationship, and prioritizing it over everything except my own growth and wellbeing. I am declaring my intention to be with him through all the changes of adult life. I am trusting him to be the primary decision-maker on my behalf if I am ever incapacitated, and accepting the responsibility of doing the same for him. These things are the bedrock of my commitment to him, and though I’ve had very different ideas about the meaning of marriage throughout my life, these are always the things I have thought of as being the essence of marriage. Once upon a time I considered sexual exclusivity part of it as well, but only because I couldn’t imagine a kind of non-exclusivity other than cheating. Exclusivity was part of the marriage contract not in itself, but as a sub-category of the “upholding the health of our relationship” clause.

When I talk to someone who seems to have trouble imagining what a non-monogamous marriage could possibly mean, I begin to have rather unflattering thoughts about them. Such as (if they’re married) “has sexual exclusivity been such a monumental struggle or sacrifice for you that it’s come to define your marriage?” Or “is marriage, for you, more about ‘nobody else can have you’ than about the positive commitment you’re making to each other?” Apart from something like this, I really can’t conceive where such a question comes from.

But enough of that. My marriage is about the commitments and intentions I named above; I believe that Shaun and I both are better, stronger, and happier together than we would be apart, and in marrying him I am making public that belief and my intention to continue working to make it a reality.

*Faithfulness is the wrong word here; as I’ve said many times before, Shaun and I are faithful to each other. We each communicate our needs, emotional and physical, and faithfulness is a matter of us each considering the other’s needs before our own gratification. Exclusivity is only part of faithfulness if you make it so.

Conflict, consent, and blirtatiousness

My new gentleman friend requested that I write about blirtatiousness. I assumed that he had made a typo, and thought, “What do I have to say about flirtatiousness? Other than how bad I am at it?” Then he sent me this link. So, okay, blirtatiousness. Stupid word, useful concept. The article linked to, after defining “blirtatiousness” (for those who don’t want to click, it’s basically a measure of how quickly and easily you say what you think), talks about problems in relationships where the woman is highly blirtatious and the man is not. But since my relationships tend to be the opposite, I’m not really interested in that, and if I wrote about it I’d probably wind up writing about the insane cultural pressure we put on males and females to act in certain ways, and, um… I write about that a lot.

So instead we’re going to talk about conflict and consent, because I’ve noticed sort of an interesting pattern. It’s related to my recent post about social status updates, and the core question is this: does a person always have the right to engage another in verbal/ideological conflict? Or is there a question of consent and mutual willingness that needs to be considered?

When put in terms of physical conflict, this is a no-brainer. I don’t get to decide I’m going to have a friendly boxing match with you: it’s something we both have to agree on. If I try to initiate a friendly boxing match by hitting you without prior discussion, that is what we call assault, and most of us will agree I’ve done something morally wrong… even if I back off immediately afterward and say, “Okay, no problem, we don’t have to fight, I just wanted to put it out there.”

On the face of it it seems preposterous to draw a comparison between physical attack and verbal challenge. Throwing a punch hurts someone, whereas questioning someone’s beliefs (for example) doesn’t. Oh wait… yes it does. Plenty of people feel acute emotional discomfort when somebody is challenging a cherished idea of theirs. Social conventions aside, a lot of people would suffer less from a moderate-strength punch on the arm than from a bluntly-worded “You’re wrong about this.” The pain of the punch lingers for a few minutes and then is forgotten… the ideological conflict tends to stick in the brain, to keep eating at you. What specifically bothers you will vary: perhaps it’s feeling that the other person thinks less of you; perhaps it’s the niggling fear that maybe they’re right; perhaps it’s the frustration of not having had a good response.

Blirtatiousness, I think, is a good predictor of how much the first and third factors will bother someone who’s been on the receiving end of a verbal challenge. According to the aforementioned article, high-blirt people tend to be less worried about whether others think badly of them, and by definition they’re more likely to be ready with a response. A low-blirt person, on the other hand, is likely to be plagued with anxiety that the other person thinks has a low opinion, and with frustration at knowing they have a response to the person’s challenge, but not being able to access it in time. So a low-blirt person is more likely to view the challenge as an unwelcome assault, and a high-blirt person is more likely to either engage in argument or dismiss it with scorn.

If I polled people on the question whether it’s rude to challenge someone’s ideas in a non-debate forum (i.e. not a blog, classroom, editorial, etc) I’m guessing answers would correspond with the responder’s blirtation level. Overall I think our society comes down on the side of the low-blirters. It was interesting to me, in the article I linked above, to read that high blirters tend to be better-perceived socially: “The high blirters were seen by the others as more competent, sociable, emotionally reactive and extraverted than low blirters.” Since most of the high blirters I know also tend to have strong and controversial opinions, their readiness to say what they think is often a social liability. Our cultural norms act to protect the low-blirters from unwanted challenge, which they feel as a kind of assault.

If this were all there was to it, I’d tend to side with society, especially since I am a mid-to-low blirter myself (although I also have strong and controversial opinions, which is an interesting space to occupy.) But there’s that second reason I mentioned for people’s discomfort with ideological challenge: the niggling fear that the challenger might be right. It’s very easy for a person to protect themselves from questioning their own ideas by crying rudeness when another person questions them. And I don’t think that’s healthy. I think we would all do better in life if we questioned and reconsidered our ideas on a regular basis. (And yes, that is an idea that I have questioned and reconsidered.) So I don’t think “shut up about your controversial ideas unless the other person has indicated willingness to get into a debate” is the right answer.

I have to go back to work now, so I’m throwing the floor open: what do you think? Are you highly blirtatious or not? Do you think it’s rude to challenge someone’s ideas without an invitation? What is your perception of the social conventions around verbal conflict, and do you think they should be different?

Polygamy, polygyny, polyamory

Figleaf has a brief description of his own experiences with jealousy that completely jibes with my own. The times I’ve experienced romantic jealousy have all been times when I deeply longed for a certain intimacy, and saw someone else getting it. If I am not feeling loved and desired by my partner, to see him loving and desiring someone else is upsetting: if I am secure and happy in the knowledge that he loves and desires me, then his also feeling that way towards other people bothers me not a whit. Not sure if that’s true for most people or not, but it is for me.


I want to write about our experience on the talk show, and I will — when I’m able to post a link to the show itself, if not sooner — but right now I want to address a confusion about words. One of our fellow guests on the show was a woman who had been in a polygamous sect (I imagine fundamentalist Mormon, though I don’t think she ever said specifically), married at 15 to a man who had 5 wives before her and 4 after her. Partly for that reason, the show’s producers wanted us to avoid using the word “polyamory” on the grounds that people would confuse it with “polygamy.” (Viewers are Morons, after all. And, not to bite the hand that fed me my 15 minutes of fame, but in this show’s case they’re probably mostly right.) The funniest thing to me is that, even though we carefully said “non-monogamous” and “open relationship” an audience member still addressed us as “the polygamists.” So clearly the confusion is there.

Let’s just get dictionary definitions out of the way. Polygamy means multiple marriage: any marriage configuration where more than two people are involved. Polygyny means a man has multiple wives, but women are only permitted one husband. Polyamory is this newfangled Greek/Latin hybrid of a word referring to a specific cultural movement, emphasizing loving and mutually fulfilling relationships with more than one partner, where honesty, openness, and communication are paramount. (Yes, there’s also a word for women having multiple husbands — “polyandry” — but in our patriarchal heritage that word’s been practically irrelevant for many centuries. I was tickled to learn it when I was a kid, though, and enjoyed the idea of having more than one husband at a time. Shoulda figured I’d end up a hedonistic reprobate.)

Polygynous fundamentalist religions are almost always referred to as “polygamous” even though it is inevitably the men getting the multiple partners. And the history, and current illegal practice, of oppressive polygyny is a huge problem for those of us who think it might be nice someday to legally marry more than one person. While the ideas of polygyny and polyamory might be easily confused in the popular mind, they are very nearly opposite in moral philosophy. Polygyny is deeply sexist, both in structure and in common practice. Polyamorous communities are usually ahead of the cultural curve in gender equality. Polygyny demands that its participants submit and repress their feelings to conform with its rules about acceptable social and sexual behavior. Polyamory encourages people to understand their desires and seek out ways to satisfy them in harmony with the needs of others. Polygyny is imposed from without, often upon people too young to make a sound decision about lifelong matters. Polyamory comes from one’s inner sense of what is right and healthy for oneself. (At least, it should. I know there are many people who feel coerced into trying or adopting polyamory because their partner is insistent on it, and this is unhealthy both for the individual and for the relationship. But the poly community frowns heavily on this.)

So it’s kind of funny to me that the two groups in American culture that would like to see polygamy decriminalized are so profoundly opposite in overall philosophies of life. It’s awkward, because while I like the idea of being able to marry more than one lover, I’d rather never see that freedom if the cost is oppression of young girls married off before they have a chance to understand the world and the choices they make within it. But how to draft a marriage law that would allow my kind of polygamy without paving the way for theirs?

One idea is to impose a much higher age of consent for a multiple marriage than we impose for a monogamous one. 25, maybe? With no loophole for parental approval? (A loophole I think shouldn’t exist in an case.) A 25-year-old might make bad, self-destructive decisions, but by 25 most people have scoped out the world a little and are ready to start on their own chosen path in life, ready in a way no 15-year-old can be. Polyamory in the broadest and most literal sense — building loving and nourishing relationships with multiple people — requires emotional maturity, whether it’s being done within a religious sect or among godless hedonist reprobates like myself.

And the heart of the matter really lies in the difference between “polygamy” and “polyamory.” The “-gamy” suffix means “marriage,” which despite our modern romanticization, has been a political and commercial arrangement as much as it’s been a romantic and self-fulfilling one. I am reluctant to defend multiple marriage in and of itself, just as I’m reluctant to defend marriage, period. A marriage is only as good as the love and respect given by its members to one another. As our fellow talk-show guest related, polygamy without concurrent polyamory is soul-destroying. The love, the respect, the commitment and devotion to caring for each other through good times and bad… that is what makes a good relationship, whether or not it’s exclusive and whether or not it’s formalized.

Words I dislike: normal

Does anybody remember The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle? Great book. During Charlotte’s trial-at-sea, the captain is accusing her of “unnatural” behavior — as a young female passenger, she came to wear sailor’s clothes and take a place in the ship’s crew. They have an extended dialogue where he points out each aspect of her behavior and says “Is this not unnatural for a thirteen-year-old girl?” and she counters with “Unusual, not unnatural.”

“Natural” and “normal” are two words we use to express a dual meaning: what is commonly done, and what is in some way right or healthy. As a society, we equivocate on these two meanings to a shocking degree: we establish that something is “normal” in the sense of “statistically average within our population” and then we breeze merrily along and declare that to be otherwise is a sign of something wrong.

We do it with sexuality: a lot of fetishes, from liking heavier partners to liking to smell maple syrup, are statistically less common, and we immediately ask “what’s wrong with this person, that they’re turned on by something uncommon?” We don’t deem it necessary to ask whether there’s something inherently problematic about the fetish; the fact that it’s unusual is enough to make it suspicious.

We do it with body type. If we read that the average healthy person has a certain height-weight ratio, we assume that that is the height-weight ratio that is healthy for all persons. Someone whose body type differs from the average, particularly in the unfashionable direction (in our culture, of course, heavier is unfashionable), can protest all they want that this is a healthy and normal weight for them, and people will still claim that they need to change their weight in order to be really healthy. Even if, to do so, they’d have to eat less than their body actually needs.

We do it with life choices. If you didn’t go to college at 18, graduate at 22, start working your way up a career ladder, date a while, get married in your late 20s and have two kids in your 30s… well then what are you doing with your life?

We do it with hobbies and interests, though less so than when we were younger. When I was a kid I learned very quickly that the things I loved were “weird” and likely to get me shunned or laughed at. The internet has brought a lot of geek interests within view of the mainstream, and as adults people are less eager to judge you based on the way you play (they’re too busy judging based on the way you work or conduct your relationships), but I’m still shy about bringing forth my knitting or mentioning Battlestar Galactica around strangers, and occasionally I get a reaction that justifies the shyness.

When you think about it, making “normal” normative is really senseless. Do we really think that we’d all be happier and healthier if we looked alike, acted alike, took pleasure in the same things? Do we really think the ideal human being is one that most closely matches the statistical average? I don’t think most people think that. But in their knee-jerk reactions to things, they often act as if they do.

I dislike the word “normal” precisely because it encourages this confusion between what is common and what is good or healthy. We can use it in the sense of “statistically common,” as in, “it’s normal for men to be sexually attracted to women and not men.” (After all, 90% or more of men are!) Or we can use it in the sense of “healthy and acceptable” as in “it’s normal for men to wear lace panties to bed.” Or we can do what I do and avoid the word like the plague, because in most cases there just is no necessary correlation between the statistically average and the healthy and acceptable.

For reference: types of sexuality

This is a concept I find myself using a lot as I think about sexuality, so I’m going to coin terms and then refer back to this post when I use them in the future. From my experience, and according to several things I’ve read, there are two different ways to be interested in sex. You can be proactively interested, hungry for it, feeling some level of discomfort or even misery if you don’t get a sexual outlet. Or you can be responsively interested, content without sex but happy to respond if someone else (someone you like/trust/are into) initiates sexual activity, and ramping up into hot-and-horny mode after some stimulation. I’ve written about this distinction here, and Emily Nagoski writes about it here.

It seems that, while most people experience both kinds of sexual desire, a lot of people find that they typically feel one kind or the other. And it also seems that people who typically feel proactively-interested in sex are more likely to be male, and people who typically feel responsively-interested are more likely to be female. In my last post on the subject, in fact, I referred to them as “male-typical” and “female-typical.” But I want a gender-neutral way of talking about this distinction, because there are plenty of people who cross gender lines on this. So I’m going to start saying P-type and R-type.

P-type: Sexual desire that arises spontaneously, that has some level of urgency, that proactively seeks out a mate (and/or a private release.) Also a person whose sexual desire more often looks like this than like the R-type.

R-type: Sexual desire that is aroused by an external stimulus, that (in the early stages) is fairly easily dismissed, that intensifies in response to sexual stimulus (either by a partner or by oneself.) Also a person whose sexual desire more often looks like this than like the P-type.

As my study and understanding of sexuality increases, I may refine these categories, but that will do to be getting on with.

Also feel free to riddle the comment box with anecdotes: are you more P-type or R-type? What about your partners? Do  you feel that your pattern of response is typical or atypical for your gender, and if atypical, has that caused problems for you? I’d love to know.

Invisible men, invisible women

A brief moment in the discussion group last week was incredibly telling to me: we were talking about stereotypes about men and women in the workplace, and one man mentioned an industrial environment he’d worked in, where men and women did the same amount and quality of work, and got the same pay and treatment. He then mentioned as an aside that there were a few jobs women never did, because they involved an extreme amount of heavy lifting, but “a lot of the men didn’t do that work either… those jobs were saved for the” he paused and flexed his arms “men.”

I and everybody else in the group understood what he meant. There are men and women, you see, and then there are men. (And women, but we’ll get to that in a bit.) Men who are men, not by virtue of a simple set of chromosomes and genitalia, but who express their man-ness by specific man behaviors, like feats of physical strength. Who have actually succeeded at being men, instead of just being placed in the category by default. All those concepts resonated through my brain when he talked of the subset of men who did the heavy lifting. And then my rational, observing brain went “Wait… what the fuck?”

That category is bullshit, y’all. There is no such thing as a man who is better at being a man than another man. That’s like, if I met another Ginny in town, assessing which of us is better at being a Ginny. It’s nonsensical. We’re both Ginnys, those were the names our parents gave us and we’re comfortable with them, and we get to live the rest of our lives defining what “being a Ginny” means for us as individuals.

I looked around the table — of the four or five men present, I didn’t imagine any of them would have been capable of the heavy lifting jobs in the factory. I don’t imagine my boyfriend or my brothers would. But none of these people were less men than someone who would.

I thought about it again later, when one of the men present clearly had something to say, but kept getting talked over, and wasn’t assertive enough to speak until the person next to him noticed and said “Go ahead.” It’s an experience I’ve had many times, and it’s a phenomenon I’ve usually thought of as gender-relevant: the woman has something to say but is too soft-spoken or socially deferential to get the words out over men who charge ahead without noticing that she’s waiting to speak. Seeing a man in that position, my mental reflex was to shift him one peg away from “man-like,” but I stopped myself again. He is a man. He’s not less a man for being socially deferential to the louder speakers around him. And then I wondered, “How many men are there, who sit in situations like this, hearing ‘manhood’ described and defined, and thinking ‘That isn’t me at all’?”

We have a tremendous confirmation bias around gender roles. We have a set of things that we consider “man-like” behavior, and every time we see a man doing these, we think “Yep… that’s how men behave.” And when a man does something outside this set of things? We don’t see it. We might literally observe it, but it doesn’t get put into our mental category of “things men do” because, well, it’s not something that men do. So maybe this one person did it, and he’s technically a man, but it still doesn’t count because he wasn’t engaging in man-like behavior at the time, so anything he did doesn’t count as an example of man-like behavior. A man engaging in not-man-like behavior is invisible.

(Of course if the behavior goes too far in the direction of the feminine, the invisibility vanishes, and the man is harshly penalized for transgressing the gender boundary. But that’s a whole other blog post/doctoral dissertation.)

Women are subject to this too: just try being a woman who doesn’t want to get married or have kids, and you’ll see the entire culture sticking their fingers in their ears and going “la-la-la-la.” Women want marriage and babies. You may not want them yet… you may not have wanted them to any significant degree over the course of your life so far… but you will eventually, because you’re a woman. And women want marriage and babies.

And then there are the women who don’t meet conventional standards of attractiveness. As I mentioned in my last post, when sexuality is anywhere on the horizon, “ugly” woman magically cease to exist. Most people will agree that a sexually available woman can get laid any time she wants, without even noticing that their mental category of “woman” only includes attractive women.

The baby Shaun and I are taking care of has two very progressive-minded mamas who want her to be as free of gender restrictions as a city-dwelling American can be. One thing they do is dress her alternately in “boy” clothes and “girl” clothes. (When I was working at the preschool, I made an lengthy and detailed list of differences between boy clothes and girl clothes… very telling.) And it’s amazing how the gender signals encoded in her clothing affect the way I talked to her. The first day we watched her she was in a little pink onesie with flowers, and I naturally cooed at her that she was sweet and cute and adorable. On the second day she was wearing a blue outfit with firetrucks and the words “little hero” on it, and I automatically started to pay attention to the way she was moving her body and flexing her muscles. I encouraged her to do baby exercises and praised her for her strength. I noticed this pretty quickly, and once again marveled at how far behind my rational, educated brain is my instinctive brain.

I don’t know what exactly this thing we call “gender” is made of… how much of it is innate, how much constructed. People spend their lives studying it, and as far as I can tell they’re not sure either. But I do feel quite sure that it would behoove us all to unlock those “male” and “female” categories in our brains. Try to catch yourself assessing people’s behaviors in terms of “man-like” or “woman-like.” Try observing the people in your life and saying to yourself, “That man just cleaned the kitchen, therefore cleaning the kitchen is something that men do.”