Friday, February 3, 2012

Is something ever 'just a preference'? (Pt. 2)

Right when Anna talks about how insightful I am, I have a post about Ska puns. Sorry if anyone was expecting any different.

But! In my last real post I was talking about whether something being 'just a preference' was a way of avoiding responsibility if the preference seems racist. I think that using that example, I was able to show that it is not really  tenable to say that showing racial preference has no ties to racist thinking, and that it being out of one's control doesn't really make it any less of a problem. At the very least, I think that I raised questions as to the legitimacy of the 'well that's just what I like", and why at least in the instance of desiring other people, that is not a complete defense against criticism. At the end, I said that I was going to bring this question to gender, and look at whether this criticism of 'just my preference'  could be extended in the same way.

Just for some background in my feelings on gender: I think that it is completely a social construct. That isn't to say that there aren't personality traits that might be inborn; there are certain physical characteristics that one might be born with, or a set that one feels more comfortable with. However, the grouping of 'male/men' and 'female/women' is socially constructed, and the ways that we understand people as being grouped into them  is definitely not some sort of objective reasoning. Let alone that there are two definite categories, male/female, is its own opinion, not fact. Just to give a quick, very cursory Gender theory 101.

So in the light of that thinking (which postulates both race and gender as categories which are socially created) we come to a challenging thought. If your sexual preference being based on race feels to many people as intuitively prejudiced, then why is it different with gender (barring heterosexism/cissexism/tradition)? That is to say, don't all the arguments that I made in the previous post about race apply in perhaps similar ways to identities like 'straight' or perhaps even 'gay' or 'lesbian'?

What pushed me to write this this time was a recent news article where Cynthia Nixon said that her gayness "is a choice". Later, she withdrew that statement. This drew a large amount of ire from the mainstream LGB people who believe that there is some sort of physiological or genetic cause to their orientation. I disagree with them, based on the notion of gender that I have above, but I don't really want to discuss that at this post.

The question might be: "Is it problematic (not a word I enjoy, but I'll use here) to distinguish between who you are attracted to based on gender/sex?" As we saw before, the majority of arguments are going to fall along the same two lines that the race question did, although this time with much more emphasis on the first response than the second. To show those again in this new argument, it would be:

1) Not being sexually attracted to (or especially to) a certain gender/sex is not (cis)sexist

2) If it is (cis)sexist, then since it is not under my control, it is not unethical (/I'm not (cis)sexist)

Now, we see that a lot of the reasons that people brought up for finding certain races preferable are also used for having a certain orientation. However, there is a change in emphasis.

The one that is most obvious is that people will hold that the genders are biologically different in ways that races aren't, namely dealing with how genitals and secondary sex characteristics are configured. This sounds similar to Devin's comment that people might use race as a shorthand to mean certain physical characteristics, although in this instance it is much more obvious. There are two problems with this argument from what I can see: it denies the variety of different types of people might have the same primary (and secondary) sex characteristics (and is therefore cissexist/transphobic), and it is also based almost completely on bodily objectification of other people.

The first problem here is that when one says woman, they mean 'vagina' and when they say men, they mean 'penis'. This looks over the fact that there are women with penises, men with vaginas, and a range of possibilities in between. And, to be blunt, you can not see someone with clothes on and know for certain what is going to be under them. Not only that, but there is a great deal of overlap in body shape, type and so on between people of all genders. So saying that you are using shorthand to certain physical characteristics is presupposing that there is only one type of each gender. This is cissexist/transphobic in ways that are, to me, rather obvious.

The second problem is that when one says this, they are basically saying "all I care about in my partner is what junk they have," which while I wouldn't qualify it as transphobic, I would certainly say is either sexist or just generally unethical. to use an example: A straight man is into women, generally. But if he meets a transsexual woman who has not had any surgery (because she doesn't have money, doesn't want to, etc.) most of the time he will not count her as a person to sexually desire. What this implicitly says is that it's not being a woman that he is attracted to, but that the vagina is the most important quality when it comes to his attraction to women. This seems obviously objectifying, and kind of unethical. This likewise goes for gay men who don't want to date someone without a penis, lesbian women who don't want to date someone with a penis, straight women who don't want to date someone with a vagina, and all the people who would not date intersex people. It would appear that the preference is not for the person, but only for their body, which I find to be somewhat unethical.

Another argument for it being 'just a preference' is that people are attracted to a certain 'je ne sais quoi' about people of a certain gender. A lot of times, I kind of consider this to be a form of essentialism, but we can see how this basically trades in stereotypes just like people saying that 'asians are more [x]'. This will not always be the case, and to try to exclude people because their stereotype doesn't fit your attraction is not beyond criticism.

For instance, there are plenty of women who are just as masculine as most men. Beyond the objectifying primacy of genitals (as just discussed) it is hard for me to see why someone who is attracted to men for their masculinity would not likewise be attracted to masculine women. To say that it's a different form of masculinity seems to me to just be essentializing women as not being able to be as masculine as men.

So I guess that would be my response to the first point. Maybe not as fleshed out as I would want, but I can always add to it later. Now, onto the second response: this occurs much less frequently dealing with gender than race, mainly because the first response is still very acceptable. But I think the second response falls apart for many of the same reasons it did in the earlier post.

One perhaps can not change their desire, but one can certainly change how you look at people, how you group and categorize them. I reject the essentialism that someone can just instantly spot who a man or woman  instinctively. And grouping people into 'man' and 'woman' is what allows for identities like 'gay' and 'straight' to exist. Without understanding people first as (definitely either) man or woman, the categories of gay and straight become very hard to use, and mostly unhelpful. So in that way, I would say being straight or gay is a choice: a choice to see men and women as the two main categories of people that exist, and to choose your partner based on that. I'm just not sure how ethical I think that choice is.

1 comment:


    For realsies, though, this is a really interesting question, and one I've been struggling with for a while (especially as I try to thrash out my own gender identity). What do you make of this discussion at Alas? It posits a division of people into "cis men" and "everyone else" (i.e. people with marginalized gender identities). I think that's what I do in my head, especially when I think about people I am / could be attracted to, but it's not an entirely unproblematic way of categorizing people.

    (Is there an unproblematic way of categorizing people?)