"My research has found that people who identify as scientists are genetically predisposed to be assholes." --mme_louise
There's a paradox to studying difference--whenever you argue for difference between two categories, you are arguing for similarity within those categories. When you hold forth on how cats are different from dogs, you are implying that cats are like cats and dogs are like dogs; that is to say, that the differences between the categories is more significant than the differences within the categories.
The cover story in the New York Times Magazine this Sunday, by Daniel Bergner is entitled What Do Women Want? The tagline on the cover reads: "A postfeminist generation of researchers is discovering things Dr. Freud could never have imagined."
So. Being no more a postfeminist than a postantiracist or a postnonhomophobe, I confess I was bristling before I even opened the magazine.
If you've ever looked at my journal, you pretty much know the broad outline of what happens from here--
Wind up a Vinnie Tesla doll, and it complains about the mass media's apparent inability to miss an opportunity to engage in gender essentialism and gross overgeneralization.
This article is long and target-rich enough that I'm just posting a quick sketch today--an essay in the true sense of the word. I reserve the right to do more ranting on this subject in the future.
The daunting thing about criticizing this piece is that I'm always going to be second best. Bergner's most rigorous and thorough antagonist is himself. There's barely a single point in the article that isn't parenthetically questioned a couple lines later. For example, early in the piece, he mentions a study finding that transwomen responded to a particular set of sexual stimuli in patterns more characteristic of men than of women. First he claims that "this seems to point to an inbred system of arousal," but then he continues, "yet it wasn't hard to argue that cultural lessons had taken permanent hold within these subjects long before their emergence as females could have altered the culture's influence." So we're at a stalemate? Nope. On he goes with his thesis that the root is biological, as if citing the obvious counterargument somehow tamed it.
This tendency climaxes in an eloquent and powerful critique of the whole notion that women have this inbred weird, mysterious, passive sexuality:
And sometimes [Professor Meredith] Chivers talked as if [female desire's] complexities were an indication less of inherent intricacy than of societal efforts to regulate female eros, of cultural constraints that have left women's lust dampened, distorted, inaccessable to understanding.* "So many cultures hahve quite strict codes governing female sexuality." she said. "If that sexuality is relatively passive, then why so many rules to control it? Why is it so frightening?"
There are, however, two elephants in the room--notions too sacred to be questioned, or even articulated explicitly.
- Male sexuality is clear and simple. The unifying simile of the article is the Dark Woods "'I feel like a pioneer at the edge of a giant forest,' Chivers said... 'there's a path leading in, but it isn't much.'" Over and over, he comes back to that image--the frightening, spooooky mystery of female desire. Male desire, its presumably bright twin, goes almost unmentioned. The phrase appears twice in the article, once in a discussion of Viagra, and once here:
Earlier, she showed me, as a joke, a photograph of two control panels (linky?) one representing the workings of male desire, the second, female, the first with onlyu a simple on-off switch ,the second with countless knobs.
I'm tempted to put some sarcastic line here expressing what male sexuality is supposed to consist of in this scheme, but doing so would obscure a very important point. BERGNER NEVER SAYS. He never takes a stab at describing this clear, bright, simple system men, uniquely and universally, have.
- Women who aren't amorous are broken, and need to be fixed. The article begins by describing studies in which women became physically aroused in response to stimuli that they didn't report being turned on by. Several times afterwards, he comes back to the burning question: how can these women be persuaded that they are actually turned on?
My own experience tells me that desire/pleasure and physical engorgement are not the same thing. Strongly correlated? Yeah, absolutely! But not identical, as anyone who suffered through the classic mortifying math-class boner can easily attest. And yet there's something wrong with women such that they *don't realize* that when their genitals are engorged, that actually means they're turned on. Specifically, the phrase he refers to that state with is "objective" arousal.
I'm just scratching the surface here. I haven't gotten to the prime quotes like "for women, 'being desired is the orgasm.'" (Mme. Louise notes, "Umm, the orgasm is the orgasm, actually.") and shocking revelations such as that women who identify as bisexual often turn out to be attracted to both men and women, or that "[a]lthough bad relationships often kill desire...good ones don't guarantee it," but I'm tired by now, and I rather suspect that you are too.
There's a way to read the article that isn't too problematic: it's a profile of a bunch of contemporary sexologists who happen to have arrogant, essentialist theories of female sexuality. (The only male scientist who made the cut, in a remarkable throwback to Freud, is attempting to map the neurological differences between clitoral, vaginal, cervical(!), and nontactile orgasms, Curiously, he does not receive the establishing description of his clothes and hairstyle that the other researchers got.)
Is it so very much, though, to wish that a New York Times feature would mark the difference between the actual scientific studies they're doing, and the extravagant theories they then spin around them?
* Has Bergner been reading too much Allison Bechdel or something? Check out the alliteration!