all people are sexy, just not like you think
January 19, 2004 11:13 AM

I was sent a link this weekend from a mysterious lurker who essentially challenged me to explain the automatic annoyance he felt upon reading this essay/book/whatever.

And lo, I felt the same annoyance. Or rather, I felt some annoyance, same or not. The reasons?

One. The author is not up to the historical task he takes on. He views, as is entirely typical of those who write unresearched treatises, history through the lens of his already decided conclusion: women have a historical need to hide sexuality, and have for thousands of years. Well, not so true. Women were thought the uncontrolled, sexy gender for many hundreds of years of recorded Western history. Before that, what? We don't know. But he misses what is very clear from solid readings on women's sexuality, gender, marriage and power through history: the notion of woman as asexual and passive is Victorian, and as Kerri pointed out, only the "correct" social norm, not necessarily the prevailing attitude. This is the most glaring inconsistency when one compares his "book" with other readings on the same subject, and I think it's symptomatic of a misreading of history on his part.

Two. He fixates on the female as other, like yet another theory of biological determinism. He may believe differently than other determinists, but he's clearly approaching things from a Mars v. Venus perspective. As a result, he generalizes his experience to all men and women and consequently does a disservice to both women and men. I consider that a very thin premise upon which to build a book, but it has worked for a lot of people. His commenters certainly seem willing to go along with the idea of men and women as wildly different; though they disagree on exactly how and by what means, no one seems to question the validity of the difference. But how can you write a book that purports to but a historical context around sexual interaction and not question that?

Three. There are a number of supposedly "feminist" aspects of his opinions that I'm supposed to accept just because he calls them feminist. Well, I don't. He reads, for example, the icon of "Victoria's Secret women" as sexually liberated, while most feminist readings see those touched-up, passive figures as an example of fixation on the female as eagerly receptive and unrealistically squooshed into male fantasy form, not liberated and not active in her sexuality. He borrows feminist words, but I don't think he gets it.

This applies to men, too. He assumes certain "typical male" expectations and desires from his presumably male audience; honestly, some of the things he attributes to his audience are insulting to them. And I fear that his advice will come from this same place - not asking men and women to both consider where they get short shrift in the How Things Are, but assuming that women bear the burden, while also assuming that the inside of a woman is in line with some sort of universal male fantasy.

Fourth. It's a style thing. The didactic "advice-book" style he takes is irritating when the content it wraps around is social/cultural history. It might be fine for the advice part of his book, but it makes me want to smack him down when he uses it to discuss (sometimes erroneously) history.

Furthermore, his entire essay is based upon the idea of a male-defined notion of feminine "sexiness", which he embraces as fact, not as cultural norm. It would be more interesting to see him question this norm, or at least attempt to explain its origin, but he never goes there.

I remember my own introduction to this dichotomy. I was working with employees of a health care institution who spent most of the day dressed in sexless hospital clothes resembling pajamas. Then one year I attended their Christmas party. The same women appeared in little black dresses cut mid thigh and held up with spagetti straps. Gold bangles clanked on smooth, well-tanned arms and breasts strained against push-up bras and underwired camisoles... a glimpse of the hidden world women usually keep under lock and key, even from themselves.

The little black dress, the heels and jewelry are all part of a cultural norm. But a person may feel sexy in a tee and jeans, in "sexless" baggy clothes, in a wide range of stylistic choices. Quite a number of women feel awkward in those little black dresses, just as many men feel awkward in tuxedos. I think he mistakes one style of "provocative" dress or behavior for the definition of sexy, and he's shortsighted in this.

[Edited to add - Oh, now I see. I suspect Chapter 11 of the book explains it all. If the same thing happens to you repeatedly, you might assume a commonality between the other parties involved (other than the obvious - yourself). You might concoct somewhat elaborate theories about it. Just as I mentioned in the comments about sociobiologists, what you saw in the world might be influenced by what you already believed.]

TrackBack : in feministy stuff « virginia & lee-jackson-king day | Main | civil rights fiction »
your wicked thoughts

I'm the "mysterious lurker," and I just wanted to clarify a couple of things. First, insofar as it matters, I'm a he. Second, I'm one of the commenters who was "willing to go along with the idea of men and women as wildly different," but that was only to push him on an inconsistency in his thinking that he didn't seem to be recognizing or accounting for: Female sexuality is just like male sexuality, but men and women have very different roles with respect to sex. And you're absolutely right about his specious and sloppy use of history.

But after thinking more about it and reading your thoughts on the matter (which I knew would help me to clarify my thinking), I think what bothers me most is that he takes the attitude that he has figured out something that no one else has, when in fact, he's just assembling a vaguely creepy view of the world from outdated ideas and observations. In the end, he's just an old man looking for a "bad girl." Thanks for your thoughts.

these are the thoughts of Morgan on January 19, 2004 12:33 PM

Dur, I'll correct the gender. I had assumed from your name that you were female, but it was vague enough that I should have asked.

There is a place for sociobiology and drawing conclusions about inherent, global differences based on sex. The concern I have with his comments (and a couple of yours, but to a much lesser extent) is that the science behind biological determinism is too often unquestioningly influenced by its cultural context. I think sociobiologists see gender differences as evolutionary because they believe gender differences exist and they believe in evolution. It makes me question their science.

However, if this guy hadn't been so focused on giving his theories some sort of historical/scientific background, his advice might be fine. Practically speaking, for whatever reasons, men and women act differently about sex in our culture. So he could have skipped the junk history and just written an advice book - it might have been alright.

these are the thoughts of april on January 19, 2004 01:41 PM
...the science behind biological determinism is too often unquestioningly influenced by its cultural context. I think sociobiologists see gender differences as evolutionary because they believe gender differences exist and they believe in evolution. It makes me question their science.

That's it exactly. Very well said.

these are the thoughts of Morgan on January 19, 2004 04:05 PM

Oh, wow...I need to go read those links now. I did a lot of work with Victorian literature, and sexuality was taboo in general, not just for women, but if you open any Victorian novel, poem, book you can find sex everywhere. Rossetti's (sp.) "Goblin Market" is a good example of this. I'm not going to argue that women weren't oppressed during that era, but that sexuality was treated in such a weird way, entirely.

these are the thoughts of Kerri on January 20, 2004 12:22 PM

please note that your IP address is logged when comments are posted, and comment abuse including spam will be investigated and reported to your internet service provider.

in this section
miss anything? (monthly)
artsy stuff
books & tv & internet stuff
fat & health stuff
feministy stuff
generally political stuff
nerdy & silly stuff
sexually liberated stuff
vaguely personal stuff
work & money stuff
i have a livejournal, too
more info
email me
design by seven ten


about the site wicked thoughts edge of the season arts links we have brains