Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Man oh man UPDATED

A woman writes in to Prudence, insists that she's super duper tolerant, then confesses that she's not sure if she should stay with her husband, now that he's announced he's transgender and in the process of making his body match his identity. Prudie's right that this woman has a good reason to leave, but not about why:

"People would not expect you to stay (and you probably wouldn't) if he said he realized he was gay, or he wanted to enter into a polygamous relationship."

OK, so there are people who think women should remain married to gay men, that women should enter marriages with out but pious gay men, but overall, yes, point taken. But these are all different issues. "Gay," especially if this is a new piece of information, means he has in effect left her. The wife may still be interested, but it's over, and he ended it. "Polygamous" means dude thinks he can have a bunch of wives, but is not extending the same openness offer to his original wife. He may still be attracted to his wife, and she to him, but the terms have changed. What he's asking for constitutes infidelity under the original arrangement, and will be interpreted as, I'm looking for greener pastures, but by all means keep cleaning the house/raising the kids. Polygamy is also, you know, illegal.

The seemingly obvious difference with the letter-writer's concern is that if she is a heterosexual woman, she isn't sexually or romantically attracted to women. That she respects but isn't sexually into her husband-now-wife ought to be the confirmation she desires that she isn't transphobic. She now views her spouse (was this ever a good time for "spouse"!) as a woman, which is how her spouse identifies, and the proof that she does is that this very same person, now a different gender, isn't doing it for her.

This letter, as well as Prudie's response, really do show the problem with our society's discussions of female desire. It's presented as if it's all about emotion, nothing about the fact that a straight woman desires men. We somehow have to talk around this, like it would be too crude, or too demanding, to broach the subject. To act as though any woman could like any person with a good personality. If a straight man's wife made the equivalent announcement, it would be simple: he's into women, not men, and unless he discovers a bi side, or is content with a companionate/appearances-sake marriage, game over. Women, though, we assume, never desired their partners, or anyone for that matter, in the first place, so no big deal - oh, other than the deception - if a husband becomes a wife.


In the comments, Jacob expresses a certain degree of Prudie-phobia. In deference to that stance, a similarly-themed debate in the Guardian. "Is there a gay gene?" A lesbian argues that there is not, a gay man that there is. This from the yes-there-is:

Maybe it's different for women. I've met lesbians who say that their sexuality is a choice – a political rejection of heterosexual norms. I've yet to meet a gay man who put his politics before his penis. For them, gay desire came first. Gay politics came later – if at all.
To which I must respond articulately: meh. Some of dude's "earliest memories are of crushes on other boys"? Well, remove that "other" and heterosexual women can, I suspect, say the same. (Just because gay kids may pretend to have crushes on opposite-sex classmates, doesn't mean all crushes are feigned for social approval. Just ask anyone straight who had crushes on opposite-sex but for whatever reason - geeky, etc. - socially-unacceptable classmates.) While there are no doubt more girls/women than boys/men declaring homosexuality or bisexuality for political reasons (although contrary to dude, I have heard claims of bisexuality from what I believe may have been straight men trying to seem interesting/progressive), do these women, you know, live their lives, or any significant portion of their lives, as lesbians?

On the one hand, it's nice for women that there's less pressure to be 100% straight. On the other, we seem convinced as a society that female heterosexuality - something experienced, I also suspect, very much like male homosexuality - doesn't exist. Women want boyfriends, husbands, children, but not, shudder, men. When it's like, no, straight women are socialized to present their interest in men in this framework.


caryatis said...

Knowing how sexually unsophisticated Prudie is, I suspect she's using "polygamy" to mean what I would call "polyamory." Which, of course, is still a breach of the terms of the original marriage contract, albeit less unfair.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I don't know if she's quite that unsophisticated. I think she's implying that the man is asking not for an open marriage, but for license to have more partners, without losing his first one, and without offering the same to her. It's not so unusual for a man to feel entitled to this, so I wouldn't assume that what Prudie actually meant was a negotiated, feminism-informed polyamorous arrangement.

Jacob T. Levy said...

I know better than to click on the Prudie questions on Slate, but somehow I don't know better than to read your posts about them. No matter how good your takedowns are, I'm always just depressed at the level of stupid you're reporting on.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


You really have it in for Prudie! But in a follow-up to this that I hope to have time for, I'll be linking to commentary on a related topic in the Guardian. Higher-brow, at least, maybe. It's the bigger issue this speaks to that interests me, not the admittedly moronic question of whether it's OK to leave your spouse after he gets a sex-change.

Sigivald said...

Polygamy is also, you know, illegal.

Well, legally marrying multiple people is illegal, yes.

Effective polygamy [or polyamory, whatever], without an attempt at a legal marriage among the plural members, is perfectly legal - and just as much a potential relationship problem.

(Just as "I want an open relationship, and you can have one too" can be a deal-breaker with as much legitimacy as "I want an open relationship, but you can't" - anything that changes the fundamental ground-rules of the relationship can be a valid end-point, whether or not it's "feminism-informed".

[Even if it's "negotiated", for that matter, since negotiated agreements that feel fine now might not later, and a "permanent" relationship isn't something one can realistically sublimate to "but you said it was OK then!", forever.]

The preceeding above is slightly different from the conversation with caryatis, above, but related.)

caryatis said...

Along the same lines, Phoebe, did you read the latest Savage Love? A man wants a polyamorous relationship, but the woman wants monogamy. He says, well, I'm willing to accommodate her by not forcing her to have sex with other people. Why can't she accommodate me by allowing me to sleep around?

So yeah, it sounds very edgy to describe yourself as 'poly' but when male entitlement gets involved, for this guy at least, what you end up with is a Newt Gingrich-like monogamy for you and not for me thing.

PG said...

She now views her spouse (was this ever a good time for "spouse"!) as a woman, which is how her spouse identifies, and the proof that she does is that this very same person, now a different gender, isn't doing it for her.

Most trans people I know do not like references to their having been a different gender at some previous point. It's more like having been "closeted" about their true gender, and now coming out as a woman. The letter indicates the husband is of this type: "Then my husband, whom I love very much, told me he wants to become a woman—or, she has always felt like a woman trapped in a man's body, and if she doesn't begin transitioning, she will be emotionally crippled."

So it might be more precise to say, "this very same person, now [known to be] a different gender, isn't doing it for her." I agree with Prudie's point, "This feeling he is a woman trapped in a man's body is not a new discovery for him, and he withheld absolutely crucial information from you prior to your marriage."