Monday, January 07, 2013

A serious woman

It suddenly occurred to me why that makeup "Room For Debate" hit such a nerve.What the makeup conversation is really about, if you dig a bit, is whether it's acceptable for a woman to want to look good to men. To men generally, to the men she finds attractive, or to only her boyfriend or husband - the number of men is not the issue here. And it's not so much that makeup itself attracts men (and it can, in subtle ways - the men who profess to liking a woman with a half-inch layer of foundation on are few and far between), as that wearing it - often if not always - announces the intention to do so. But this, I think, gets at why we're incapable of having a straightforward discussion about women's motivations for wearing the stuff. The various defenses of wearing it tend to involve a great deal of insisting that this is something women do for themselves, because it's like art, but god forbid because they want to appeal to the opposite sex. 'I do it for me,' as if 'me' couldn't possibly want a dude. Yet I think we realize, on some level, that most women are interested in attracting at the very least one man at any given time. Makeup use represents women desiring men, pursuing them, even. Which makes us uncomfortable.

As for why it makes us uncomfortable, it comes down to a three separate and somewhat contradictory issues. First is that it's taboo, in an outdated, misogynistic, "The Rules" sense, for women to want men. (The 'Ew, gross, this guy totally asked me out, who does he think he is?' line of thought.) It's seen as less feminine for a woman to pursue a man, and also as futile - either you do it for him or you don't, so why humiliate yourself by asking the question? Along the same lines, a woman who says, look, yes, I wear makeup because it makes me look more attractive to men, is saying that without it, she doesn't look so hot. This is the opposite of what men want to hear, because they unanimously demand 'natural' beauty. The effort can't be visible. Thus the very women wearing makeup to attract men could well be the ones most likely to make a fuss about how they barely wear any at all, just a teensy bit, nothing more. It's shameful to be seen trying. It ruins whichever archaic dance.

Next is the ostensibly feminist 'male gaze' argument - one that defines male-female relationships as about a woman's desire to appeal to men/some men/a particular man. This, I suppose, comes from second-wave feminism - this notion that just as a woman can never choose to wear makeup in a society that demands that self-presentation of them, a woman can never be attracted to men/a man except within the context of a society that demands that she find a dude. It's the idea that female heterosexuality is inherently submission to the patriarchy, and never just about, you know, most women being wired the same as we modern folks understand gay men to be. Indeed, as I've argued here before (links to the various posts assembled here), it is this understanding of female heterosexuality that leads some women to identify half-seriously as gay men trapped in women's bodies.

A third, something of a depoliticized version of the second, is that a woman who likes men, a girl who likes boys, is less serious of a person than one who doesn't get what all the fuss is. As a kid, were you the nerdy, bookish girl who felt alienated when your childhood girlfriends began swooning over male classmates or rock stars? Whereas we basically expect boys and men to desire someone, in most cases women, and don't think a boy is less serious, a man less intellectual or capable, if he sees Beauty and responds in one way or another. It doesn't detract from a man's respectability to love, lust, whatever, because the male perspective on romance is, you know, Art. But also because when a girl or woman desires, this is assumed to be the desire to get a boyfriend, get a husband, raise some kids. That, or - goes the thinking - she's effectively a prostitute. A serious woman with a life of her own won't get tied down by any man, neither a Wall Street tycoon nor a slacker. While adult women are sometimes able to reconcile this approach with, well, hormones, we-as-a-society continue to love the idea of the tomboy who just has more going on in the brain department than her boy-crazy peers. So this relates to the much-discussed slut-stud dichotomy, but that doesn't get at all of it.

Anyway, long and blathery story short, a woman who wears makeup to look good for men/a man disappoints traditional feminists as well as gender-role traditionalists. Progressives and reactionaries alike, albeit for different reasons, find female desire for men suspicious as well as basically incomprehensible. We-as-a-society on some level understand that desire for men is what's behind much if not most if not virtually all makeup usage. Thus, we must talk around the elephant in the room, and pretend that makeup is innocent self-expression or this dreadful chore one must do to look appropriate at the office.

29 comments:

Andrew Stevens said...

As a kid, were you the nerdy, bookish girl who felt alienated when your childhood girlfriends began swooning over male classmates or rock stars? Whereas we basically expect boys and men to desire someone, in most cases women, and don't think a boy is less serious, a man less intellectual or capable, if he sees Beauty and responds in one way or another.

I don't really disagree with this, but it is telling that all male personifications of Reason in literature, etc., are asexual from Sherlock Holmes to Mr. Spock. Men don't have to be asexual to be considered serious, intellectual, or capable, but I do think asexual men do also get a leg up on being thought of as serious and intellectual. Of course, to a large extent, this doesn't work in reality much any more because modern culture has decided asexuality in men doesn't really exist. (They must simply be closeted homosexuals, don't you know.)

Phoebe said...

"Of course, to a large extent, this doesn't work in reality much any more because modern culture has decided asexuality in men doesn't really exist. (They must simply be closeted homosexuals, don't you know.)"

Not sure I entirely agree with this. Warning: overanalysis ahead!

For one thing, Sheldon on "The Big Bang Theory" is exactly what you're describing, and that's a contemporary, hit show, from the same creator as "Two and a Half Men," at that. The actor playing Sheldon is gay and out, so if we were meant to read Sheldon as gay and closeted, this would be in the show. The audience could handle it. It would be tough to argue that certain select audience members ought to read between the lines and get whichever coded references.

Because that's what you're referring to, from way back when - there couldn't be overtly gay actors or characters, so there were characters only a certain audience might guess about. If anything, in the old days, it would have been all the more difficult to distinguish between contented bachelors and "bachelors." And given that there are likely more gay than asexual men out there, which is the safer bet?

Also, in terms of society as opposed to media... if we take Dan Savage to be the popularized cutting-edge of such matters, there's now awareness of asexuality, a whole asexual community, with its own subdivisions. Whereas in the undifferentiated past we're referring to here, not so much. Unless a man was a priest, he was assumed to want women, or at the very least a wife.

Thus the really bizarre "Dick Van Dyke Show" episode I watched recently, where a handsome bachelor moves in next door, and Rob and Laura immediately set about getting him a wife... before knowing anything about him. To the contemporary viewer, the first thought ("single, thin, and neat," to reference a more recent but not current show) will be that this handsome bachelor with the just-so moustache is gay. Indeed, that will not long after be the plot of a "Mary Tyler Moore Show" episode. But in 1960-whatever, not just yet, so the big secret is that the guy is a divorced wife-batterer. Which is all treated very lightly. As I said, a bizarre episode indeed. Digression, yes, but my point is that if women were all expected to want husbands, men were all expected to want something.

Andrew Stevens said...

Sheldon is, indeed, a decent example of what I'm talking about. Due to his neuroses, he can't really be the embodiment of Reason that Sherlock Holmes or Mr. Spock were, so it's not perfect, but he's in roughly the archetype I'm talking about. In fantasy, the old wizard is always asexual as well. But J.K. Rowling, who quite clearly created Dumbledore as an example of that trope, decided, at least in her own head, to make him gay instead. Doesn't believe in asexuality, you see. But you can see that the creators of Big Bang Theory believed Sheldon had to be asexual, having transcended passions of the flesh, in order to have achieved his intellectual abilities. This is a powerful trope and has been since at least Sherlock Holmes (and probably much older).

In the old days, though, it was accepted that there were "confirmed bachelors" who weren't interested in women. Keep in mind that nobody had any idea how widespread homosexuality might or might not be. It simply wasn't discussed. I'm sure homosexuality was speculated occasionally even then (and I'm sure it was also true in many cases), but it took modern times and recognition of homosexuality as much more common than previously believed to decide, for example, that Sherlock Holmes must have been having it off with Dr. Watson. By the way, I would guess that about 3/4 of men who aren't interested in sex with women are gay and the other 1/4 are asexual. So, yes, the probabilities go that way, but not nearly to the extent that most people seem to believe.

Dan Savage may be on the cutting edge and that may indeed indicate there will be more recognition of asexuality eventually, but it's certainly not here yet. In the past it was accepted and not just for priests. Even for non-priests, Christianity (and other religions) still idealized asexuality. (Better to marry than to burn, but better still to live as St. Paul did.)

Phoebe said...

I see. I guess what I was reacting to, in the part of your comment I quoted, was what I took to be a tone of nostalgia, regret. As in, I took it - correct me if I was wrong - that you were saying a) that there used to be more acceptance of whichever micro-minority of men is attracted to neither men nor women, and b) that acceptance of homosexuality came at the expense of asexuals. Anyway, if we may return to Savage, he's made the point that not infrequently, men will come out as asexual, only to later admit that they're just gay - this was a way to avoid being with a woman. Which would, understandably, make people suspect that asexuals are gay, even if rules of politeness and tolerance of self-identification dictate that we accept, publicly, at least, that people are what they claim.

As for Christianity and not just priests (the end of your second comment), as I understood it, celibacy was considered ideal, but this is about lifestyle, not desire. At any rate, given how few out there are asexual, it would seem better to accept it as one possibility, and not idealize something virtually no one would live up to.

Finally, to bring this back to the post topic, I agree that there's an archetype of Reason as an asexual dude, but Reason can just as well be a dude who gets around. Here, Sartre comes to mind. Einstein. Or if we're thinking fictitious, the rest of the "Big Bang Theory" crew. Whereas - and this was my point - a woman with interest in men, a girl with interest in boys, they don't just have an advantage in terms of being taken seriously, that's a prerequisite. A girl's interest in boys is assumed to go along with general idiocy and conformity.

Michael B Dougherty said...

Not sure I can speak for "gender role traditionalists" but your explanation for why women wear makeup jives perfectly with my own intuitions about the subject.

I don't think this precludes doing it for oneself. I don't expect anyone to notice the working button-holes in my jacket sleeve, but I like to wear bespoke jackets because I notice the details, they give me confidence, a sense of superiority even. I meet the world at my best as I define it.

But as a card-carrying reactionary I have no problem with the idea of women using a little "art" or, more accurately "artifice" in the attempt to gain a mate. I even appreciate the effort and want to reach for a bottle of bleach every time I hear about a guy saying "I don't want you to wear makeup." Maybe it is the *Catholic* thing - traditionally the bride and groom are supposed to walk down the aisle together. The implication is that it was a mutual decision, based presumable on mutual attraction. It was Protestants who came up with the novel idea that the father should escort his daughter.

As a side note Christianity does no idealize "asexuality" - it has a privileged place for chastity, which is a different word for a reason. It denotes sacrificed or even humiliated sexuality rather than the absence of it.

Phoebe said...

Michael,

First, the end of your comment comes as a relief - I wasn't imagining things re: celibacy vs. chastity in Christianity.

Next, I agree that primping can be for one's self as well. After all, the typical woman will want to attract not men, but men she finds attractive. So being her own most attractive as she defines it will attract the appropriate mates.

Re: Catholicism vs. Protestantism, could be, but I'd be very nearly the last to know.

Michael B Dougherty said...

Oh- and you are right. I meant to type "celibacy."

Chastity is merely "well-ordered" sexuality.


I just found it odd the idea that traditionalists should be confused by or disdaining of women who are attracted to men. The idea of a woman just being the passive captive of a man's attraction to her is really unsettling to me.

Perhaps this is also why I find Tom Wolfe's "I Am Charlotte Simmons" unsettling, since it tries to describe the "wiring" but accepts the idea that there is no soul involved.

Phoebe said...

"I just found it odd the idea that traditionalists should be confused by or disdaining of women who are attracted to men."

It depends what we mean by "traditionalists." I don't know how it goes in sorting out marriages in traditional Catholicism, for example. I was referring to the popular if not PC idea that men are visual creatures, while women are not. That a man can (rom-com-style, "game"-style) pursue a woman until she changes her mind, whereas a woman either does it for a man or she doesn't. Not that looks will be a man's only concern, but she'll at least have to pass a threshold to be a romantic possibility. Women, meanwhile, are imagined to care about the person.

It's this myth that explains things like "The Rules" - the man needs to approach first because his physical attraction to the woman is the prerequisite for anything to happen between these two people. If the woman pursues, goes the thinking, she's a) ignoring that if he was interested, he'd have made a move, b) basically a prostitute, or c) a pushy, emasculating feminist.

Also - a woman who is attracted to men could potentially find more than one of them attractive. In certain versions of traditional, it's accepted that men will notice - perhaps sleep with, perhaps just admire - pretty women their entire lives. But a woman who merely puts up with the physical to snag husband-and-kids isn't likely to run off with Vronsky.

Rather than accepting that men and women alike notice attractive folks of the opposite sex, but need not act on that, it's simpler, for some reason, to imagine that women are fundamentally asexual, whereas men-are-pigs.

And: I remember finding "I Am Charlotte Simmons" unsettling as well, but am now forgetting why. Something to do with it seeming more like an op-ed about kids-these-days than anything resembling a real college experience. Then I remember seeing a copy of that book at every single Park Slope stoop sale circa 2008.

Britta said...

Please don't ask me how I found this blog, but there appears to be a grass-is-greener phenomena in terms of whether men or women sleep with better looking people relative to themselves, or at least it appears that way to the PUA(?) douche-bro(?) writing it.

Britta said...

He does, however, have maybe a better awareness/more honest assessment of heterosexual men's attitudes towards make up:

http://www.therulesrevisited.com/2012/05/how-to-avoid-looking-fake.html

Andrew Stevens said...

Phoebe, no particular nostalgia or regret there. It's more irritation at reading modern critics saying, "Well, of course, Sherlock Holmes had a huge crush on his best friend, Dr. Watson. snicker, snicker." This bothers me because A) there really are asexual people and there really not that much rarer than gay people, B) Arthur Conan Doyle clearly intended Sherlock Holmes to be asexual and probably never once entertained the possibility that he was gay, and C) there is still an implication there that, if he were gay, this would be funny because everybody knows that gay people are inferior.

I've never heard Savage make that point, though you'd know better than I would. He has certainly claimed that gay men will claim to be bisexual and then come out as gay. If he says the same about asexuality, he must live in a very different world than I do. I've never met an "out" asexual. Asexuals generally don't talk about their sex lives at all, for the obvious reason that they don't have any.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

Both of those posts have that quality of, there's a nugget of truth, but an overall sense of pseudoscience. A true statement followed by wild misinterpretation.

First, re: makeup, it seems fairly uncontroversial (if not often understood by men) that 'the natural look' requires more effort than the more garish alternatives. (The amount of eyeliner I'm wearing on a given day is inversely proportional to the amount of time I spent putting it on.) Also true: it's useful every so often, at least while young, to rethink your routine. In middle school or so, I was convinced that powder-blue eyeshadow was awesome, because I liked the color. Nothing to do with what it looked like on me: awful. (I could easily write 10,000 words describing similar unfortunate styling choices: the glittery hair clips I used to pull back growing-out bangs, until a classmate, I think in 9th grade, helpfully - and I mean it sincerely - suggested I reconsider. And so on. I will restrain myself). But does any of this add up to, you should put as much effort as possible into your look? Hardly! Past a certain threshold - of effort, not just of whichever form of artifice - one will look worse. Also important: past a certain threshold, appearance-related effort starts to cut into everything else you have going for you. If you're primping to the exclusion of, I don't know, a career, then the results had better be pretty damn spectacular.

Oh, and re: women sleeping with men better-looking than themselves, only to 'settle' when they marry, if they even can marry after having been deflowered... geez. It makes sense that both sexes, if looking for nothing but sex, would care basically only about looks, along with, I suppose, that the person isn't a serial killer. (Sense of humor? stable career? not factoring in.) It also makes sense that there are more men out there who are desperate for sex, that some of these men are good-looking, and that just about any woman at the right place at the right time can find herself with a straight, modern-day Rock Hudson. I don't think most women end up in that situation. It would seem that most men and women would want to settle down only once finding someone who does it for them physically and in other ways - thus leaving most men and women with a trail of exes and first-and-last-dates who are less attractive to them, at least, than their spouse.

Still, it seems inevitable that in a society where men and women alike have partners before settling down, these partners will, if nothing else, be remembered as young, and as part of a relatively carefree youth. And yet, prior experience seems to decrease regrets, what-ifs. People seem to appreciate their spouses more for having seen, prior to meeting/getting together with their spouses, that other people aren't all they're cracked up to be. At least that's what Leon Blum convincingly argued in 1907 or whatever.

Phoebe said...

Andrew,

Interesting - I'd never heard of anyone 'outing' literary characters and doing so from a homophobic perspective. If anything, the opposite - I thought this was more when someone wants to see representations of their own kind in literature, and rounds up.

As for the asexual community... as with everything else, Dan Savage has been alerted to something before the rest of us have. But I'm not sure what obligation an asexual would have to be out. From this one podcast I remember, there are asexuals with some romantic interest, so maybe they're gay or straight? It would seem the main thing is for them not to get in romantic relationships with non-asexuals, which apparently does happen, and which, understandably, gets people upset.

Britta said...

Yeah

I've read more of his blog (don't judge), and I have to say he is sincere in giving women what he thinks is helpful advice to snag a husband. It's 70% Cosmo, 20% Redbook, and 10% the Game but with the overt misogyny toned down.

His blog is an acknowledgement that "natural" beauty is more of a skill or an art than an innate trait, and it can be cultivated by women who want to put in the effort to look beautiful. He has some kind of cute posts on "dressing in your best colors" or "how to do your hair," which is why it reads very women's magazine. Where it veers away from being kind of cute into annoying and more overtly sexist, but possibly an accurate viewpoint of at least some subsets of men, is that his main concern is not that a woman is spending effort creating artifice rather than being "naturally" pretty in the first place, but rather that she might not be able to maintain the effort after marriage and "let herself go," since apparently the worst thing in life is to find yourself after 30 years married to a wrinkly fatty. (No big concern on what he'll look like in 30 years, though he seems self-aware enough he would probably acknowledge he'd make an effort to stay in shape.)

Phoebe said...

Britta,

I totally don't judge. I try not to waste precious procrastination time on things that would probably infuriate me, and anything "game"-ish counts, but from what you've linked to, this seems... as you say, not incredibly original, but not evil, either. I don't agree with those who think any advice for how to snag a mate, esp. if directed at women, is inherently evil - as long as there's some acknowledgement that not all women want a man, what's wrong with admitting that many do, and that there are some common behaviors to avoid, behaviors that are generally problematic in men as well, and in other social/professional situations? It most often comes down to 'don't come on too strong,' which is something everyone knows but many need reminding of.

Re: effort and the long-married, I can't speak personally to 30 years married, but my guess would be that couples grow so used to each other as not to notice small changes along the way. (The proverbial man who doesn't notice his wife's had a haircut.) I mean, yes, if something changes dramatically, unrelated to the usual aging process, that may change the relationship (Here, the proverbial hundred-pound weight gain), but if a spouse is straying b/c novelty, youth, midlife crisis, I'm not sure what difference it would make if the other spouse had primped or worked out a bit more.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phoebe, the homophobia isn't overt. It's just present in the snickering and the winking "Of course, we know why he's not interested in women, don't we?" I have never once see a gay fan want to claim Sherlock Holmes as gay. One of my own favorite asexual icons, Doctor Who, has an enormous gay following in the U.K., which is unsurprising. He's an intellectual, occasionally even somewhat effete, hero who does not equate saving the world with getting the girl and, as an alien, is always quite different from the people around him. I have never once heard a gay fan want to claim the Doctor as gay (though I admit there might be some slash fiction out there I don't particularly want to know about). So I'm on the opposite side in that I'm not familiar with the phenomenon you're talking about.

I don't believe asexuals have any obligation to be out and I don't think very many at all are. This is why I find implausible the claim (which you attributed to Dan Savage) that many gay men claim to be asexual and then later come out as gay. I have never heard of such a thing, since very few people claim to be asexual at all and, when they do, everybody gives them funny looks. If somebody did claim to be asexual, I'd have precious little reason to doubt him/her.

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano said...

It's interesting that even in this way that we all sort of know is about women doing something active to appeal to men, that it's still passive. It's not about public action, or action in front of a man; it's about a private action, one you're not supposed to admit to. (Which is why I have my bad-feminist harrumphing when I see women applying their whole face on the subway.)

Harrumph.

i said...

Given how enormous the religion is, I always find comments about "Christianity" as a whole a little surprising. The corner of Christianity that I live in, intellectually speaking, namely medieval Western European and the Late Antique Eastern texts it draws on, certainly *does* idealise asexuality. A lack of fleshly desire is absolutely an ideal, even if an unreachable one for most ordinary mortals. Witness the many hagiographies in which the saint has absolutely no sexual desire whatsoever, in contrast to the lusty, sinful folk around her or him. Or the stories of people who struggle with temptation and desire, but are eventually granted the "gift" of not desiring anymore. It's a typical moralist trope that you can sin as much with the eyes and the heart as with the body. The point is not celibacy, though that helps.

Shybiker said...

Brilliant. I've noticed and wondered about this for years, but not having been socialized as a woman, I didn't have an inside track on why women think this way. Your explanations are terrifically sound. Thank you.

Andrew Stevens said...

i: Saint Paul even remarks in his "better to marry than to burn" passage that he is quite lucky to be able to live sexlessly and he realizes not everybody is so lucky. "I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that." Perhaps he is just referring to self-control, but there's an excellent chance he was (at least close to) asexual.

Anyway, key takeaway: I agree with Phoebe on virtually all of this post. I don't think there's much question that women lose more authoritas from being sexual than men do. I'm only pointing out that men lose some as well. (Phoebe mentioned Einstein, but surely the popular conception of Einstein is child-like asexual man, even though he wasn't. And some great geniuses, such as Isaac Newton, really were, as far as we know, entirely asexual.)

Phoebe said...

Autumn,

Harrumph indeed.

i,

Interesting, and potentially good to know for my dissertation.

Shybiker,

Thanks! Although I of course can't promise to speak for all women-socialized-as-such.

Andrew,

Your latest comment has helped me articulate what I was trying to earlier. Specifically: "And some great geniuses, such as Isaac Newton, really were, as far as we know, entirely asexual." Even more specifically: "as far as we know." Because how much could we know about any minority sexual interests of those who lived a long time ago, and were somewhat discreet? It's not so strange, really, that anyone with a minority sexual leaning would want to look for evidence of it in the past, and would end up projecting it onto people/characters who maybe shared it, maybe leaned another way, or maybe - although this seems the least likely- had no sexual or romantic feelings whatsoever.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phoebe, you see you have the same problem. At a best estimate righ now, approximately 1% of the population is asexual. This is not very much smaller than the gay population. It is actually quite likely that a great many famous historical figures were asexual.

Phoebe said...

Andrew,

Where are you getting this estimate? Also, if you include not just homosexuality, but every sexual interest/pursuit other than marriage or straightforward hetero affair (and even those might not have made the history books), it just strikes me as far more likely that someone from back in the day would have liked something that didn't make it to recorded history, than that they liked nothing and no one (romantically/sexually) at all.

Andrew Stevens said...

Anthony Bogaert, Journal of Sex Research, 2004. Survey of 18,000 people. 1% responded "I have never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all." This was about 1/3 the response rate for gay people.

A good example of this would be the mathematician G.H. Hardy. Hardy was part of the Bloomsbury Group and the Cambridge Apostles, a group whose sexual lives we often know a great deal about. I have heard him referred to as a "non-practicing homosexual," but there's no evidence whatsoever that he had any interest in sex with anybody. There are known gay (or at least bisexual) members of the Bloomsbury Group. Hardy would scarcely have needed to be as discreet as all that. The probability (like with Newton) is that he was just flat out asexual.

Andrew Stevens said...

I think this comes about because, with many people, their obsession with sex is so strong and so pervasive they literally can't conceive of somebody without it and the existence of asexuality seems absolutely incredible to them. But it's much more common than almost everybody believes.

Phoebe said...

That may be part of it, but even from a level-headed perspective, one has to acknowledge the amount of repression that existed in the past, the social unacceptability of so much that's acceptable today.

Let's set aside particular examples, and consider a book from 1850 that says, of a real person or fictional character, "and he never married," and leaves it at that. I would not interpret this to mean 'and he lacked all desire.' Not because I find such individuals incomprehensible, but because the odds are, he wasn't one of them.

Andrew Stevens said...

Actually, thinking it over more, I think the biggest part of the reason for the incredulity is because asexuals are almost never "out" about their asexuality. Chances are you have met more than a few asexual people in your life and simply don't know it. If they were more visible, the incredulity would probably start to fade. Unfortunately, asexuals have every reason to remain closeted (they are regarded as "freaks," even in our enlightened times) and no reason to be "out." Gays have an incentive to want homosexuality normalized so they can be "out" about it, since being able to advertise makes it easier for them to find mates. Asexuals have no such incentive.

I agree that the probabilities of an unmarried person in 1850 being asexual are not greater than 50%, but they're not close to 0% either. (Leaving aside fictional characters, since they're not really relevant to the discussion. I think you might be surprised, though, how often an 1850 author, at least in England, did conceive of the character as asexual.)

I will say that, in my own field of mathematics, I believe the preponderance of asexuals, based on my own anecdotal experience, is considerably higher than 1%. I don't know if asexuals are attracted to mathematics or if mathematics can be a contributor to or cause of asexuality or if there might be some other causal relationship going on, but I would estimate the odds of an unmarried (older) mathematician today being asexual may well already be 50% or higher (and those odds will rise as gay marriage becomes more common). I was initially astonished by how many asexual people there were in the field, though I've since gotten used to it.

Phoebe said...

OK, Blogger ate my first attempt, so...

1) Re: mathematicians who seem asexual, I wouldn't rule out the possibility that they're just incredibly awkward (diagnosably-so or not) and therefore incapable of realizing whichever desires they have. The relevant piece of information would be which websites they visit, not whether they hit the bars or whom they bring (or don't) to the Christmas party. Anecdotal evidence would be unlikely to get at the answer.

2) You're absolutely right that there aren't a lot of "out" asexuals around. But I'd make a gender distinction here... and thus bringing us full-circle, back to the point of this post. Women are almost considered asexual by default, interested in men only insofar as men represent financial stability, social respectability, or the source of babies. A never-married woman, esp. from an earlier era, might be suspected of being a lesbian, but it doesn't seem so unthinkable that people would just assume she had other, more noble interests. If people can't wrap their head around asexuality, that would be male asexuality.

Andrew Stevens said...

1) Phoebe, I'm talking about asexuals who are not out generally, but who are out to me. Yes, I can be nosy sometimes. They are generally not socially awkward. For some reason, the socially-awkward-but-almost-certainly-heterosexual people I know all seem to be chemists, but my sample size is so small I don't think this is any kind of general law.

2) My Latin teacher when I was in high school was unmarried and still lived with her mother (by that point, of course, she was taking care of her mother). She was no great beauty, but certainly not physically repulsive or anything, so she must have been single by choice. No idea why, but, yes, asexuality strikes me as more probable than lesbianism.