Monday, January 22, 2018

The thing that always gets left out by feminists

Megan McArdle lets the cat out of the bag.
If you cast an eye back over history you’ll see that what most societies have actually come up with is the social equivalent of a cartel: if you want the sex, you’re going to first have to invest in some sort of relationship, because it’s not (readily) available any other way. Those regimes, of course, were often quite punishing to women, but then, that’s how cartels often work; when a cartel member cheats by selling below the fixed price, it is the member, not their customer, who suffers retaliation from the rest of the cartel.

Which suggests an uncomfortable possibility. No, not a neo-Victorian morals police to force morally loose women out of town. But a decision by women to force better behavior from the men who offend them, and even to browbeat other women into going along.
No one, of course, lets the cat out of the bag. Cats hate being in bags and fight hard to get out. What people  do is fail to keep the cat trapped in the bag. The cat in this case is that, in order to succeed, feminism requires women to change as much as it needs men to change.

The problem McArdle is attempting to solve is the unhappiness many women feel about sex. An unhappiness that runs so deep they are attempting to criminalize bad sex. We saw it most recently in the case of "Alias Grace" and Aziz Ansari. Grace flirted with the much-more-famous Ansari after meeting him at an event. She went on a date with him, went back to his apartment, willingly got naked and willingly performed oral sex on him and then got uncomfortable about sex. She then sent some, decidedly ambiguous signals that she thinks implied a lack of consent. I don't think she's lying about that. Nor is she lying about his response: he missed them entirely. I suspect he missed them for the simple reason that he wasn't looking for them. It's like seeing motorcycles on the road, you have to train yourself to see when a woman is uncomfortable with sex and then stop and ask her if something is the matter.

As I say, this is all true. Trust me on this one: women will go along with sex they don't really want. That's always been the case and it always will be. A tiny number of exceptions aside, relationships between men and women involve the man having a lot less sex than would be the case if it was only up to him and the woman having a lot more sex than would be the case if it were only up to her. It's a difficult challenge but most of us find a way to make it work because we want very much to be in a relationship of some sort.

Things have been stirred up lately by a situation that has cropped up on university campuses. I'll let McArdle explain.
In part because casual sex was so risky, there was still a robust dating culture, which gave women alternatives to the nightly chase. Most of us chose those alternatives, which in turn limited the ability of heterosexual men to choose the nightly chase over dating.

This does seem to be different now. AIDS is no longer invariably fatal; apps like Tinder have made it easy for men to pursue frictionless hookups; colleges have shifted from majority-men to majority-women, which plausibly would lead the college culture to revolve more and more around the casual sex that the scarce men seem to prefer.
If you're a female college student, men have much more power because there are fewer of them. If you don't give him sex on terms he likes, he can go out with someone else. Women no longer have a choice between being in some sort of relationship with one guy as opposed to another, they now have to choose between giving a guy sex on his terms or staying home and studying for four years. Let's go back to Alias Grace a moment. Ansari is a celebrity. It's not at all unusual for a woman a decade younger than him to offer him sex. He may or may not be looking for a girlfriend but, even if he is, he isn't going to be looking among star-struck 23-year-olds for one. Alias Grace could be with him on one condition and one condition only: if she was willing to settle for sex with very little in return. I suspect she started to send ambiguous signals about whether she wanted sex right around te time the awful truth finally struck home. On a modern university campus there are a lot of women in Grace's position. Understandably, they are very unhappy with this. And feminists, always desperate to remain relevant, are listening to these women.

The problem, the cat McArdle lets out of the bag, is that some women are not unhappy with this situation. For them college is just a four year adventure prior to settling down. They easily accommodate themselves to the prevailing morality because most people easily accommodate themselves to the prevailing morality. They spend three or four years giving men sex on the terms those men like. It probably never even occurs to them to question the situation. They easily adapt their expectations to deal with the situation. They have a few great years and then move on to something else. If anything, they cherish the memory. There are lot of women who see things this way.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Anyone worthy of liberty should be able to stand up for themselves

I propose these principles for men.

1) Don't be a male feminist. It's condescending and insulting to women. They're perfectly capable of running their own liberation movement.
2) Their challenges are their challenges not yours and not society's.
3) Take a critical attitude: don't accept irrational arguments or assertions just because a woman or some women says they matter to them.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The latest alleged sexual misconduct

I had never heard of Aziz Ansari before this morning so I don't have any opinions about the man. He has described himself as "a feminist" in the past and that is usually a bad sign. In any case, he has been accused of "sexual misconduct" by a woman who went on a date with him and ended up having sex she didn't want to have.

These two successive paragraphs from the story really jumped out at me:
Grace compares Ansari’s sexual mannerisms to those of a horny, rough, entitled 18-year-old. She said so to her friends via text after the date and said the same thing to me when we spoke.

But Aziz Ansari isn’t an 18-year-old. He’s a 34-year-old actor and comedian of global renown who’s probably done more thinking about the nuances of dating and sex in the digital age than practically anyone else. He wrote a book about it, “Modern Romance”, and it was a New York Times bestseller. Ansari built his career on being cute and nice and parsing the signals women send to men and the male emotions that result and turning them into award-winning, Madison Square Garden-filling comedy.
We've heard that before. He's done a lot of thinking about it but his actions are another matter. What we have here is nice-guy syndrome on steroids.

All that said, there is still part of me that wonders why this woman couldn't have seen that their encounter was likely to work out the way it did. She approached him at a party. He's a celebrity; she acted like a groupie so he assumed she was a groupie. And I think she knew this. That was why it was hard to just bluntly say she wasn't interested in sex. If she had, he might well have said goodbye and never contacted her again. He didn't have the "sexual mannerisms to those of a horny, rough, entitled 18-year-old" he had the sexual mannerisms to those of a horny, rough, entitled celebrity. And he got that way because his experience backs up that sense of entitlement. When women at parties knock back a few drinks and then approach celebrities it's usually because they want sex with a celebrity.

Is that vulgar and a little degrading for all parties involved? Yes it is but so is everything about celebrity culture. I'm not feeling a lot of sympathy for her. We don't live in a fairytale—she needs to stop imagining that things will work put like a fairytale.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

How women misunderstand women

Thanks to a recommendation by Ramesh Ponnuru I was able to read a great  essay on Oprah Winfrey by Caitlin Flanagan. It's a very insightful piece that is almost devoid of Flanagan's usual faults. That is until this paragraph:
There are certain things about women that men will never understand, in part because they have no interest in understanding them. They will never know how deeply we care about our houses—what a large role they play in our dreams for ourselves, how unhappy their shortcomings make us. Men think they understand the way our physical beauty—or lack of it, or assaults on it from age or extra weight—preys on our minds, but they don’t fully grasp the significance these things have for us. Nor can they understand the way physical comforts or simple luxuries—the fresh towel or the fat new cake of soap—can lift our spirits. And they will never know how much our lives are shaped around the fear of bad men and the harm they can bring us if we’re not careful, if we’re not banded together, if we’re not telling each other what to watch out for, what we’ve learned. We need each other’s counsel, and oftentimes it comes when we’re talking about other things, when we seem not to have much important on our minds at all.
Just about every statement in that paragraph is untrue.  I'll grant that men are not held to the same standards as women are in terms of appearance and, consequently, a lot of men probably never grasp the impact aging and gaining weight have on women. That said, there is no reason a man who set out to understand the impact that or fear of violence from men has on women they know. No human experience is sealed off from other human beings willing to make the effort to understand.

The deeper problem, though, is not what Flanagan has to say about men but what she so easily says of other women. Consider, for example, "Nor can they understand the way physical comforts or simple luxuries—the fresh towel or the fat new cake of soap—can lift our spirits." Well, of course we can. Like all emotional responses, it's a matter of habit. You develop and deepen these feelings through regular practice. Or you don't and some women don't.

Flanagan consistently mars some very fine writing that way.

Friday, January 5, 2018

That 1980s feeling

On another blog, I wrote about how the fall of 2016 was feeling a lot like the time leading up to the 1980 election:
I was cheered last week, when walking back from the bus stop I saw two school buses carrying students from Carleton University to a protest march to the effect that university education should be free. I was cheered because Carleton has 28,000 [full-time] students and the people organizing the protest could only gather two school bus loads to support their cause.

That reminded me of how it felt back in 1979. The protesting few got all the press then as they do now. You felt alone if you didn't agree with the notion that university education should be free. You might meet others who felt this way and it felt good to talk to them but that good feeling would be quickly overwhelmed by all the press and attention to protesters got.
To be a university student in the late 1970s was to feel oddly disconnected. The press reported all the time that students were politically radical and the students running the student federations all were but you rarely ran into students who felt that way. Students tended to be liberal but in a pretty easy-going and noncommittal fashion as, I suspect, they have been for centuries.

Anyway, there is further evidence of this disconnect, it seems students are not nearly so fond BDS as we have been led to believe.

Gender performance: "That's it. That's the exhaustive list of the biological ways to communicate our gender to others. Every other expression of gender is performed."

A little context, the quote in the header is from the third answer provided to the question, "What is gender performance?" at Quora.
It's actually far easier to list ways in which we DON'T perform our gender, i.e. ways in which our gender is expressed in biological ways. Our natural speaking voice usually gives a clue to our genders due to biological differences in pitch, women are more likely to have breasts, men are more likely to have penises, if someone's pregnant or having a period then chances are they are a woman, if someone has a full beard chances are they're a man. (No definite judgements can be made from any of these, however, because on rare occasions someone's actual gender may not match their assigned physical gender, as is the case in trans* people.)

That's it. That's the exhaustive list of the biological ways to communicate our gender to others. Every other expression of gender is performed.
Last time I discussed the subject, I focused on an interesting paradox. Some people say gender is something inside you. You are your gender because you were "born this way". Others say that there is almost nothing inside you, your gender is the performance, the "you" underneath is nothing more than a peg that the roles you play can be hung upon. Nandini Seshadri, the writer who provides the above answer, is very much of the latter school.

I'll start by calling attention to is the rather odd expression of one sentence in that quote: "That's the exhaustive list of the biological ways to communicate our gender to others." Do we communicate biologically? There are biological signs. The list of symptoms for a disease might be an example. But sickness or health are hardly things that communicate themselves. The claim here is that everything about gender is a matter of communication.

If we take this seriously, the notion that you were "assigned" a gender at birth makes some sense. I say "some" sense because it avoids an obvious question: who does this assigning" I've seen this handled in a  quasi-religious way, as if some unnamed biology-god gave you a gender. And I've seen it handled in a very human way as if the doctor who told your mother whether you were a boy or a girl had somehow transgressed medical ethics in doing so.

We might call this the communication theory of gender. You should be able to see where it's going to get very hard pretty quickly. To hold this view, you have to believe that gender is communicated all the time and communication requires intention.

I saw a trans person posing for a fashion shoot on Kent Street this summer. A block away, before I could make out anything other than that this person had long hair, was wearing a mostly unbuttoned blouse with a jacket over it, a short white skirt, and running shoes, I thought "that's a trans person". Look again at X's list of biological ways of "communicating" gender: pitch of "natural speaking voice", presence of breasts or penises, possibility of pregnancy or a beard. None of those things was detectable from a block away. So how did I know? Answer: skeleton! I couldn't see this person's skeleton but I could see its effects.

I was watching someone who was very good at gender performance. Someone who had put a lot of effort into it and who had done so at some expense. When I got to the corner I stood and watched the trans model and the photographer and their team work. Just in the few minutes I stood there, people drove by expressing everything from mockery to outright hatred. You cannot say that this person's gender performance had been undertaken lightly or without price. And yet there was something over done about it; there was something that said, "this is a performance."

The big thing was the walk. The photograph being taken featured the trans model walking in the cross walk. They had to kill time waiting for traffic between shots and because of that there were two modes of performance. One was when the trans model was "on". They walked with considerable sway that was almost a parody of a woman's walk. I say almost, because we've all seen models do this, it's what we expect. Between these moments there were long stretches when the model was not on, when they relaxed. What I saw then was a man's walk. And it is unavoidable that this will be the case: men and women have different skeletons and these structures affect our walk.

There is a similar issue in the movie The Year of Living Dangerously. In that movie, Linda Hunt plays a man. For most of the movie, the performance is quite credible. The pitch of Hunt's voice is feminine as is the shape of her face but there are men with high-pitched voices and feminine faces (as there are women with low-pitched voices and masculine faces). But there is one seen in which Hunt walks away from the camera and that scene gives the secret away. Odd as this may seem, you can't hide your skeletal structure.

I think that is why the suicide rate is so high among trans people. Yes, it is horrible to have society against you and to face haters but that can be done. There are other groups that face similar kinds of opposition and don't have nearly the suicide rate that trans people do. No, the deeper problem in being trans is that your sex is against you. The skeleton, your muscles, your brain are all determined by chromosomes and these things have powerful effects on how you perceive, thing, move and react. You can change what you communicate, you can even get plastic surgery but you can't change your skeleton, your brain or your genes. These things are going to fight you all your life and they will succeed in making you miserable.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

"Jodie Foster Slams Superhero Movies"

She did. And got roundly mocked for it. She probably deserved to be. That said, there is a not crazy notion that could be teased out here.

Let's talk about origin stories. Because everyone does. Fans of superhero movies have all incorporated this vocabulary into their discussions of their favourites. The most famous origin story of them all is Spiderman's and there is something about it that should be transparent.

A teenage boy is bitten by a radioactive spider. This gives him superpowers. And he exploits those powers to become a celebrity but, and this is really important, he does so secretly. He doesn't go out as Peter Parker to become a celebrity but goes out as Spiderman. For some reason, never explained adequately, he needs to keep his special powers secret. After a certain amount of self gratification in which he ignores opportunities to use his superpowers for justice, his uncle, the primary father figure in his life, is killed by criminals. And then he decides that he must use these powers for good.  And we get the famous line: "With great power there must also come—great responsibility!"

I probably don't have to spell this out but just in case it isn't obvious enough: this is a allegory of adolescence.  The superpowers have to be kept secret because they represent his sexual maturity. The radioactive spider plays on the love-hate relationship the public had with nuclear science when Spiderman first appeared in 1962. That the quote about power and responsibility has an obvious antecedent in Luke 12: 48 also tells us something about the dominant morality time of its origin. Biological sexual maturity is first discovered in private. It's troubling; you've known Gwen Stacy since grade two and now you can stop fantasizing about seeing her naked. (Unbeknownst to you, she has similar fantasies but perhaps not about you.) Your identity, your whole sense of who you are is being destroyed and you must negotiate your way to a new identity as an adult. And that means some troubling times with the father figure in your life.

That is absolutely brilliant and deserves all the praise it has gotten. People of all ages can enjoy this sort of story but it has particular resonance for people between between the ages of 13-17. By 17, maybe 19 at the outside, you should have the relevant moral issues worked out in your life. Sure, you can go back and revisit the fiction of your adolescence just like you can go back and listen to your favourite music from high school days. It's a harmless indulgence. The problem is not with what you're doing but with what you might not be doing.

Back to Jodie for a moment.
However, she would consider a superhero protagonist if they had 'really complex psychology'.
She's wrong about that—Peter Parker has a complex psychology.  He has a far more complex psychology than you'll find in any romantic comedy Hollywood has produced in the last twenty years. Spiderman, however, has two huge limitations. The first is that it's a children's story and the second, related to the first, is that it cannot talk directly about its subject matter.

Children's stories cannot talk about adult matters so they don't. A bear attacks Merida's family. Why? Because we cannot talk about sexuality so the bear is a stand in for Merida's raging hormones—scary new forces are arising in her life. Arranged marriages still happen but are about as rare as actual princesses and princes. So why is Merida in Brave threatened with one? Because it's a movie about not wanting to grow up. Merida is surrounded by images of sexuality but they're all threatening. She wants attention—like Peter Parker—she uses her special abilities (not to mention skin-tight costumes that emphasize her breasts) to attract admiration, but she never does any actual work with her bow and arrow and she doesn't want to marry the person of her own choice so much as avoid sexual maturity altogether. It's a magical get-out-of-sexual-maturity-free card. And maybe that's okay (not really, it tells us something rather disturbing out our infantile culture, but that's another post).

The point is, that there is nothing unusual about hiding delicate matters in children's stories but lengths superhero stories go to conceal the core issues are amazing if you think about it. Children struggle with their parents during puberty and children's story usually conceal this by getting the parents off stage. The most common, and most brutal, way of doing this is to kill them off. If you don't want to be that final about it, you can have the kids enter a magic world through the application of pixie dust or a secret passage behind a wardrobe. In this new world, you can introduce substitute parent figures that your young hero can more openly struggle with than would be acceptable with their real parents. Spiderman isn't content with a single level of insulation between the eventual father substitute. Peter Parker is already an orphan at the outset of the story and then his foster father has to be killed off before he can encounter J. Jonah Jameson.

As adults, we need to graduate to fiction that handles these issues more directly. Sex is never directly referenced in Jane Austen the real adult consequences of sex are. No one gets super powers or gets turned into a bear. Instead, they make decisions about whether to have sex and whether to get married and there are real consequences that follow from these decisions.

But what to do about it. Jodie Foster would have Hollywood stop making superhero movies but Hollywood keeps doing that because we keep buying tickets. There is a more fundamental problem with the culture that we're powerless to do anything about. Even the people with actual power can't do anything about it. But we can do something about ourselves.