Monday, July 2, 2007

If Nobody Else Jumped Off a Bridge, Would You?

One of the pitfalls of promiscuous reading is the multiple contacts. You read one book, it leads you to another, and another. Thousands of contacts in a lifetime, Dr. Kinsey! And sometimes you feel cheap and used afterwards. I picked up Sandra Lipsitz Bem’s The lenses of gender: transforming the debate on sexual inequality (Yale University Press, 1993) because I’d seen it cited here and there, and it sounded interesting and useful. But from her opening pages Bem made some strange assumptions:
I was recently asked to write a brief essay for Feminism and Psychology on “how my heterosexuality has contributed to my feminist politics.” That essay turned out to be rather different from what the editors expected because, although I have lived monogamously with a man I love for over twenty-seven years, I am not now and never have been a “heterosexual.” But neither have I ever been a “lesbian” or a “bisexual.” What I am – and have been for as long as I can remember – is someone whose sexuality and gender have never seemed to mesh with the available cultural categories, and that – rather than my presumed heterosexuality – is what has most profoundly informed not only my feminist politics but also the theoretical analysis of this book.

When I say that my sexuality does not mesh with the available cultural categories, I mean that the sex-of-partner dimension implicit in the three categories of heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual seems irrelevant to my own particular pattern of erotic attractions and sexual experiences.
Although some of the (very few) individuals to whom I have been attracted during my forty-eight years have been men and some have been women, what those individuals have in common has nothing to do with either their biological sex or mine – from which I conclude, not that I am attracted to both sexes, but that my sexuality is organized around dimensions other than sex [vii].

I detect a note of smugness here, especially in the “(very few)” aside. How dreary for you, Professor Bem. But what bothers me is how stupid some of these statements are. To say that someone is “bisexual” is not to say that her sexuality (whatever that is) is organized around a sexual dimension, whatever that means. Rather, it means that someone, the person using the term, is looking at the sexual “dimension”, for lack of a better word, of a person’s life. It need not be supposed to define every aspect of the person, any more than height or weight or eye color does. If I say that I am five feet, eight inches tall, would Bem say that I am organized around a dimension of height? For that matter, if I were to say that I’m a Methodist, would I be saying that I was organized around a dimension of religion? I might be, but I would as likely be simply describing that dimension, one of many that could be adduced. If anything, Bem reveals here that she is thoroughly invested in essentializing these traits.

A “bisexual” is someone whose sexual experiences (which can include attractions not acted on) have encompassed people of both sexes. Bisexuals (which in this sense includes people who don’t identify themselves, even inwardly, by that term) respond erotically in a wide range of manners, or styles. Some want basically the same things from their partners regardless of their sex, others want one thing from males and another from females. Many say, as Bem does, that they are attracted to the person and not the sex. According to the usage of some self-identified “bisexuals,” then, Bem does fit into that category, so she’s either inexcusably ignorant for a psychologist writing on this topic, or she’s disingenuous.

Granted, many people ignore these differences, but a prominent psychologist should know better. Bem’s certainly not the only one who makes this mistake. What is really alarming is the way she adopts a very popular but dishonest defensive stance, defining her term narrowly and unrealistically so that it conveniently and oh so coincidentally doesn’t include her case. (I’m not gay, even though I’ve had sex with thousands of men and no women, because I don’t do drag, or see the same guy more than once, or because I believe in marriage and most gays are just a bunch of sluts, or because I am only a top [my partners are queer, not me!], or only a bottom [see, I never get an erection – men don’t turn me on!], or because I’ll do anything but kiss [kissing’s queer, cowboys don’t kiss!]. And so on, and on. You’re not fat, Eric – you’re big-boned!)

A monosexual will respond differently to different desired individuals of her own preferred sex. Identity doesn’t necessarily agree with practice: many people who consider themselves heterosexual (or, more likely, as not-gay or not-queer or not-that-way) or homosexuals have a considerable amount of erotic experiences with people of both sexes. I don’t experience my own sexuality as “organized around [the male] sex”, or as my being attracted to a “sex.” Rather, I find that my desires and emotions, and later practices, that are generally classified as sexual occur only in relation to males. I have had a good deal of interaction with women, including very dear friends, but never have been stirred erotically by them. I have no idea why this is, but to say that my “sexuality” is organized around sex would seem to me to be pretending to know more than I or anyone knows about the roots of sexual desire and practice. (More likely it’s circular, like saying that opium puts you to sleep because of its Dormative Quality.)

Many people assume that terms like “homosexual” and “heterosexual” and “bisexual” encode a particular model of sexual organization; but this assumption is usually made on the basis of little or no evidence. Despite the work of Kinsey and many others who resisted the siren call of essentialism, such things continue to be widely assumed, even by avowedly anti-essentialist writers and scholars. Bem seems to imply that maybe some other people are “attracted to both sexes” and their sexuality is organized purely around a sexual dimension or dimensions. Those people really are bisexuals, but not her! I’m not sure there is any good reason to believe so, but perhaps Bem will provide some evidence as I read further.

On the other hand, she speaks of these “categories” as though she doesn’t think they refer to real entities in the real world, so maybe there are no bisexuals; but in that case she’s as much a bisexual as anyone else. On the next page she writes:

In the early 1970s, I focused almost exclusively on the concept of androgyny … because that concept seemed to challenge the traditional categories of masculine and female as nothing before had ever done. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, I had begun to see that the concept of androgyny inevitably focuses so much more attention on the individual’s being both masculine and feminine than on the culture’s having created that concepts of masculinity and femininity in the first place that it can legitimately be said to reproduce precisely the gender polarization that it seeks to undercut. Accordingly, I moved on to the concept of gender schematicity because it enabled me to argue even more forcefully that masculinity and femininity are merely the construction of a cultural schema – or lens – that polarizes gender.

Notice how she dwells on the word “concept”, as though concepts were unproblematically tied to words, and their ramifications were mystically packed into concept and word, so that they need only be unpacked by the intrepid theorist. This is, I think, precisely what is meant by “essentialism.” If I disagree with that notion strongly, it’s not because I believe that words can mean anything arbitrarily, and that the question is simply who is to be the master. Words do carry meanings with them, as historically and culturally shaped constructions, and of course the theorist brings her own baggage with her. But though words and concepts are culturally constructed (as is the theorist), it is impossible to find a word that by its nature stands outside of history and culture, enabling the theorist to take a Goddess’ eye view of humanity without reproducing the assumptions she seeks to undercut. (I’ll be looking soon at Thomas Nagel’s discussion of “objectivity,” The View from Nowhere. I expect it to be as entertaining as The Lens of Gender.)

In pursuit of this Holy Grail, people go from word to word, concept to concept, in quest of the one that will magically free them from the chains of culture. Queer came into use a few years after The Lens of Gender was published; I wonder if Bem jumped onto that bandwagon too. But a look at the succeeding literature showed that it too failed. Usually unaware of what they were doing, opponents of binary thinking fell into a queer / not-queer binary. Critical of the time-bound connotations of “homosexual,” queer theorists smeared the word over all times and cultures. Some thought it was preferable to the innocuous “gay,” relishing the supposed transgressive possibilities of “queer” as they sought advancement in the conformist halls of academe, as though the word itself could automatically turn their formulaic dissertations and papers into something dangerous. (If you get a Ph.D. by using it, dears, it can’t be too transgressive.) And while queer theorists weren’t watching, “gay” became a pejorative (as in “That Is So Gay”). Many younger gay people especially began to reject “gay” as something analogous to “nigger,” a nasty word that we shouldn’t use of ourselves. Words and concepts are inescapably unstable, slippery and indeterminate. A theorist’s job, it seems to me, is to try to tease out certain possibilities and implications of a word or concept, and for the length of an article or book, pin it down to one meaning. “Androgyny” will do as well for Bem’s project as any other term she can appropriate; the hard part is not to avoid being limited by it, but to avoid being sidetracked by all the other possibilities one has tried to exclude.

Another telling blunder is Bem’s dismissal of “masculinity and femininity” as “merely the constructions of a social schema”. (My italics.) It isn’t only opponents of social constructionism who think, mistakenly, that a social construction is something illusory and arbitrary, invented out of thin air to confuse and control people: far too many social constructionists believe it too. Theory is also one of the constructions of a social milieu, as are those concepts and terms in whose coils theorists struggle, Laocoon-like. A word is very much a social construction, but you cannot ignore or change its meaning arbitrarily. A text is a social construction, but not just any meaning can be assigned to it. A social construction is built partly from immaterial ideas, and partly from human bodies; “race” and “sex” are examples of such constructions.

The word “tree” has no inherent connection to the object it refers to. It could just as easily be “arbol” or “나무” or “mti”. The connection is socially constructed, but it’s not an arbitrary construction: if you want to be understood by a speaker of English, “tree” is the sound-meaning construction you must use. (The example of language generally shows that social constructions are not mere illusions that we could see through and overcome by an act of will. You can’t learn a new language by recognizing that your old one is merely a social construction; it takes long hard work.) “Bisexual” has its limitations as a description of people’s sexuality, but it’s more useful, In My Hubristic Opinion, to point out and clarify those limitations rather than to refuse to use it where it applies. People who claim they don’t like to use labels are usually strongly attached to the use of the label “label.”

It seems to me that many theorists and critics (mathematicians and scientists too) feel smothered by the world: by their gross material bodies, by the constraints of history and culture and sociality generally. They forget, or never learned, that these constraints are what give us the possibilities of thought and choice to begin with. In this they remind me of religious (not only Christian) ascetics who hoped to escape the illusions of Maya, the Cave, the Flesh, to fly free in a realm of pure asocial spirit. The very difficulty they have in getting free of those “mere” social constructions suggests how powerful social constructions are, how bound by them we are despite these folks' insistence that they are Not Of This World, or at least, of This Cultural Schema. Dismissing them so lightly is a sort of sleight of hand to distract the audience from the “mere” constructionism that is going on in the classroom or on the page. (Just as essentialists’ or absolutists’ appeal to Nature aims to distract you from the historical and cultural in their performance.)

Oh, well. Tomorrow is another day. Prefaces and introductions often don't connect well with what follows, and many writers theorize badly but do good research. Maybe the rest of The lenses of gender will be more useful.