Friday, February 03, 2012

Inherently inaccurate

Dan Savage really does seem hung up on this idea that women have the capacity to be attracted to the person, regardless of gender. He got an angry letter from a lesbian teen whose parents showed her Savage saying this to tell her she's not meaningfully "out" as anything, because she could just as easily go for a dude.

Says our teen lesbian:

Newsflash, Dan: I've never been into dudes. Like, ever. Always known it, from back when I prayed to God when playing spin the bottle it would land on my girl friends and not one of the guys. So some girls might like to swap and change, but others don't.
Yup. And guess how many more girls growing up have passionate, not necessarily romantic as in flowers-and-chocolates crushes on boys, and only boys, and could describe this in ways that would strike a gay man as entirely familiar? What this girl is describing is real. But it also extends to her heterosexual sisters.

Is Savage convinced? Not quite:
But the fact is, however, that female sexuality is more fluid than male sexuality. That isn't to erase anyone's lesbianism, and it doesn't prove that there are not lesbian women out there who are solids, not fluids, who were "born this way" and always will be this way. There most certainly are.
A "fact" that he has derived, it seems, from having had some female friends who once identified but no longer identify as lesbians. Savage's exchange with this teen is kind of painful to read, because the girl (understandably for a gay kid!) is star-struck that Savage even answered her at all, and totally backtracks on her criticisms. Reasonable, given the circumstances, but frustrating.

Andrew Sullivan has also weighed in (via here, via PG), in reference to the now-notorious Nixon quote about her lesbianism being a "choice":
My own view is that female sexuality is inherently [emphasis mine] more fluid than male sexuality, and that lesbians and bisexual women, because they are less fixated on crude physical signals for arousal, have more of a choice than men, gay or straight, in their choice of loved ones. I think this is about the difference between lesbian identity and gay male identity.
Presumably Simon Doonan will be the next to offer an opinion, one that will make what Sullivan and Savage had to say seem positively tame.

Anyway. My hunch is that male sexuality is more fluid than commonly thought, but not infinitely so, that female sexuality is far less than Savage, Sullivan, and popular culture would assume, and that most of us humans really are only substantially attracted to those of one gender.

It's easy enough to explain how we came to the notion of female easygoingness in this area, without resorting to "inherent" flexibility. For one thing, homophobia is stronger against gay men than against lesbians. This makes it it possible for more gay and bisexual women to be open about their desires. It also means that women who are not attracted to other women are sometimes willing to engage in female-female intimacy, for the sake of college experimentation, or - sorry - to please a man. Oh, so the other thing: men - straight, bi, gay - are viewed as having the right to demand partners to whom they're sexually attracted, whereas women are not. If a woman can't demand a hot guy, perhaps she can't demand a guy, period.

Both of these tell us much about pragmatic discrepancy discussed in this somewhat racier (text, but NSFW) Savage Love post about straight couples on the prowl. Savage always presents this scenario as though more straight couples with this hobby unanimously 'prefer' picking up a woman to picking up a man. When it would seem that with straight couples, the man would prefer a woman, the woman a man. Some combination of male uneasiness with male homosexuality and female socialization to be agreeable makes one version of this infinitely more plausible.

And it's not just uneasiness coming from men - a man isn't going to fear that a woman being OK with (or even enthusiastic about) the one scenario is a lesbian, while a woman will totally assume that, if her dude so much as grudgingly agrees to the corresponding scenario, he's about to flee to Chelsea and do crazy things like buy new socks when the old ones fall apart. It's as good as inconceivable that dude would go along with the extra-dude out of the very heterosexual desire to please a woman, because women are presumed to be passive in straight relationships. Anything that occurs, occurs because the man wants it to, so if this occurs, next stop is the proverbial sock store.


Chris Petersen said...

Generally, I think your criticisms are spot on on this matter. But I do wonder if we might be able to draw at least one distinction between male and female sexuality when it comes to sexual inclinations towards our respective same sex.

One of my ex-girlfriends was bisexual and her explanation for that was that though she typically preferred a man there were times when she would want to have sex with a girl simply to have sex without the risk of pregnancy that hangs over a woman's head anytime they are having sex with a man, even if they have taken every conceivable contraceptive step. Thus, her occasional sexual interests in women tended to be purely functional.

Now this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective since when it comes to sex and/or mate selection a woman engages in more of a cost-benefit analysis because she obviously bears more of the risks associated with pregnancy as well as being the one who must bear the literal burden of a growing fetus within her. (In a hunter-gatherer society pregnancy would enhance a woman's vulnerability to predators as well.) So I guess what I'm saying is that when it comes to sex between two bisexual women they do not have to engage in this cost-benefit analysis. Therefore, it's much easier for sex to be purely sex between two women. At least this was the rationale of this particular ex-girlfriend.

Of course this doesn't answer how these particular women form their attraction to other females in the first place but you made some reasonable suggestions in your post that might speak to that (college experimentation, e.g.).

So I guess what I'm very tentatively suggesting is that if a reason could be found for why women might have more of a proclivity towards bisexuality it could be located in our evolutionary past.

Ok, sorry for rambling. Great post as usual.

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano said...

I'm so glad all these men have told us ladies about our sexuality!

Criminy. I agree that it might *appear* as though women's sexual orientation is more inherently fluid--we're culturally allowed to be more physically affectionate with one another, women's bodies are socially constructed to equal sex (so no wonder straight women often fantasize about other women), and of course there's always the "two chicks getting it on for the bros" thing. But you've hit it spot-on: Men's sexuality is probably more fluid than most people like to believe, so easier to pin it all on women.

PG said...

Sorry if this is getting too explicit, but I'm a bit puzzled as to how a bisexual woman would deem sex with another woman to be preferable to sex with a man because she can avoid the risk of pregnancy. Everything the other woman does to her, she can have a man do. Is it just that she never found a man willing to forego traditional, pregnancy-risking intercourse?

Certainly the fear of pregnancy is a sound reason for women to be more cautious about sex with men in general, and for there to have arisen a social norm of men's pursuing more sexual partners than women do. Even if we'd been in a society otherwise free of patriarchy, so long as men only devote resources to rearing children they think are their own, a woman who can't give plausible assurance to a man that she's had his baby and not another man's puts too much at risk. But in a world where there are sexual activities besides the one that makes babies, I don't see a reason to prefer women to men at any time unless men demand that kind of sex even if they *also* don't want babies.

Chris Petersen said...


Valid argument. However, I would like to clarify one thing. What I had in mind about a woman sometimes preferring sex with another woman was not about the notion that they could get something different from those situations than they could from having sex with a man; rather that sex with another woman would be burden free whereas it wouldn't be with a man (unless of course certain factors such as infertility, etc. are factored in) This at least was the thinking of my ex.

At any rate, I was playing an if-then game here: if true that there is a difference...then maybe evolution.... I for one suspect that conceptions about sexuality are more environmentally and/or culturally determined as opposed to something more fundamental in human nature. Thus I agree with the general sentiment expressed here that male sexuality is probably more fluid than most people think.

PG said...

rather that sex with another woman would be burden free whereas it wouldn't be with a man (unless of course certain factors such as infertility, etc. are factored in)

Hmm. I am still not getting this, but in the interests of keeping WWPD's comments SFW, I will leave it at: being sexually active without getting sperm in contact with ova should be as possible with a man as with a woman.

On the culture point about the fluidity of male sexuality, the main comparison brought up tends to be classical Greece, where apparently almost every upper class man was functionally bi.

David Schraub said...

PG: I imagine something that might push in favor of Chris' theory (which I'm not sure I buy) is that the women wants to have sex in a situation where she does not have a risk of pregnancy and feels as if she can fully reciprocate vis-a-vis her partners desires. This isn't to say there is no such thing as a man who isn't totally happy engaging in sexual activity without intercourse, but there are a variety of reasons why she might prefer that option not even be on the table.

Chris Petersen said...


That's exactly what I was getting at.

Andrew Stevens said...

On the culture point about the fluidity of male sexuality, the main comparison brought up tends to be classical Greece, where apparently almost every upper class man was functionally bi.

Only in deeply misogynistic Athens and Thebes, and it was considered shameful for a grown man to not be the penetrating participant, which puts a bit of a damper on the fluidity argument. (Some people think that even in Athens, this practice was confined to the aristocracy, but that's not the majority view.) Sparta did not approve of such relationships, keeping the mentor/student relationship, but proscribing the sexual component. It is an interesting correlation that, in ancient societies, the more tolerated homosexuality was, the worse the status of women; women enjoying much higher status in intolerant Sparta and Rome than in Athens and Thebes.

Phoebe said...

Chris and PG,

If we're taking as a starting point a woman who is bisexual, that is, who experiences sexual desire for women and men, it's reasonable enough, without bringing evolutionary psychology into the picture, why a woman would be preferable, at least for casual encounters. But a woman who is not attracted to other women, nor cloistered in an all-female environment, isn't going to feel that way. Birth control (as in, say, pill plus condoms) is awfully effective, abortion continues to exist as (ideally) a last resort, and a woman will sooner go to a pharmacy (or risk pregnancy) to fulfill her desires than sleep with a woman.

And yes, a risk of pregnancy factors into it, which I think is what David is also getting at. With heterosexual intimacy, if things escalate, they generally escalate in a predictable direction. A woman not entirely sure a man won't rape her, a situation where one or both parties are intoxicated, only exacerbates matters, but even assuming two perfectly sober and respectful individuals, there's always a chance that plans to only do acts A and B change along the way to include act C. A fear of pregnancy, or even STDs or sexual violence, might - and I mean this in the everyday and not evo-psych sense - make a man a more frightening partner for a woman who might go either way.

My point, then, in response to this is that if Chris's argument is a compelling reason why a bisexual woman might, barring major homophobia in her milieu opt for same-sex hook-ups, it's not a terribly compelling one for why a straight woman would get involved with partners who, by definition, she wasn't attracted to.

But to get this back to what I think is the more important issue here - and this is addressing Autumn's comment - while it's important to consider that men's sexuality might be more fluid than we'd thought, because there are no doubt bisexual men out there repressing a more full expression of their sexuality, it's at least as crucial to highlight how the idea that female sexuality is fluid seems, on the surface, to be about empowering women, but is in fact quite the opposite. It's about denying female desire, desire that is in most cases for men, in some cases for women, in others, for a woman or a man, depending. Straight women do not - as is popularly believed, and as this whole 'women could go for anyone' myth perpetuates - merely put up with physical intimacy with men as a way to get a boyfriend, husband, baby, diamond ring, whatever. Straight women, like gay men, desire men, yet it's almost taboo to state this.

The other side of it - male desire being more flexible than normally thought - strikes me as a less pressing concern, because gay (and to a lesser extent, bisexual) men who are in a position to be out, which is more and more the case these days, generally feel - much like straight men - entitled to go after the partner(s) they desire.

Chris Petersen said...


Your assessment of my argument is spot on: its explanatory power is quite limited. I'm sorry that I got the discussion a bit off track.

PG said...


Yes, it was role-gendered in a way that kind of reminds me of prison sex, except so far as I know the younger man being penetrated wasn't explicitly (e.g. in the terms used for him) seen as a *female* inferior, right? And this was a temporary role; as an upper class adult, he in turn would be the penetrator.

(I don't know much about this aside from the Nussbaum-Finnis-George fight at the trial level in Romer v. Evans on whether Plato is most correctly translated as describing men engaging in homosexuals acts as having been "guilty of enormities" or not.)

Andrew Stevens said...

There was also rarely any penetration involved. (Generally, it was intercrural.) But, no, he certainly wasn't regarded as female.

PG said...

That's interesting, I hadn't known that about the lack of penetration -- it certainly alters the plausibility of seeing ancient Greece as a precedent for accepting actual sodomy, as opposed to the other "element[s] in a personal bond that is more enduring." For some reason it reminds me of the bit in D.H. Lawrence where a male character speaks disparaging of women who have only clitoral orgasms and says they're mostly all lesbians.

Andrew Stevens said...

Safe to say that one was Freud's fault.