Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A very small pet peeve

I've seen/heard this argument a whole lot lately, and it's beginning to bug me. The argument goes: There is no necessary and sufficient condition for being (biologically) a woman. Some women have a Y chromosome, some women lack a vagina, some women lack a uterus, some women lack breasts, some women begin life with male genitals, and some women go on to acquire male secondary sex characteristics and/or genitals. Furthermore, we typically classify people into sexes based on secondary sex characteristics and social characteristics, not based on chromosomal structure or reproductive organs. Therefore, (and here's where I get off the boat) there is no legitimate biological category 'woman'.

I can certainly see why someone would find this persuasive. (I can also see why someone would be motivated to find it persuasive, which is a bit different.) Still, I think it's based on a misguided view of concepts in general, and a misunderstanding scientific concepts in particular. The premises are all right, but they don't entail the conclusion. Even in science, few categories have neat edges, and especially in science, many categories are invisible to the naked eye.

'Species' is a good example of a category that's both unobservable and fuzzy. People don't realize it, but there's no simple and easy criterion that two things must fulfill in order to belong to the same species. Here are some possible ways of cashing out the idea of 'species':

1. Two creatures are members of the same species just in case they are cross-fertile.
2. Two creatures are members of the same species just in case they have the same phenotype.
3. Two creatures are members of the same species just in case they have similar DNA.

These are all important to the idea of species, but none of them captures it exactly. 1 is too broad, since there are inter-species hybrids, many of which are fertile (e.g., dog-wolf and dog-coyote hybrids, or the famous wholphin that recently had a baby). There's another problem with 1.: some creatures are cross-fertile only under extraordinary circumstances. If two creatures have different breeding seasons in the wild, but produce fertile offspring under special laboratory conditions, are they cross-fertile or not? There's an even bigger problem when we consider organisms that reproduce (only) asexually. How can two amoebas be cross-fertile?* So 1 seems like an inadequate definition of species.

Like 1, 2 is too broad: there are creatures that share a phenotype but seem to be different species. For instance, there are several species of mosquitos that look extremely similar, and until recently were classified as the same species based on phenotype. Some of these species breed only in salt water. Others breed in fresh water and and can reproduce without a blood meal; still others breed in fresh water and require a blood meal to reproduce. In addition to being too broad (because of the mosquito example), 2 is too narrow: a chihuahua and a great Dane don't share a phenotype, but they're of the same species. And how broadly are we supposed to define 'same phenotype' anyway? It seems hard to define it in a way that will lump different breeds of dog together, but keep different species of mosquito apart. Finally, what about creatures that exhibit dramatic sexual dimorphism, like many kinds of spiders, or even drastic sexual polymorphism**, like ants and bees?

As for 3, how similar is 'similar'? Can haploid, diploid, and polyploid organisms all belong to the same species? Do mules constitute a different species from horses and donkeys? What about bacteria, which go around absorbing chunks of each other's genetic code? Do they change species over time?

So I don't think there's any neat way of defining 'species'. Nor are species observable: two of the concepts three concepts that I've associated with species--cross fertility and DNA--are invisible to the naked eye. Although the differences between species are kind of messy, however, I don't think you should throw out your field guide just yet. In general, cross-fertility, phenotype, and DNA tend to go (roughly) together. And vague and unobservable 'species' is, it's still a good guide to many important things. It tells you which plants are edible and which will poison you, what role organisms play in their ecosystems, and when putting two organisms together is likely to get you babies. Just because it's not a perfect classificatory system doesn't mean it's useless. Otherwise, we'd have to throw out classificatory systems altogether.***

One last word on species: even if most organisms belong to a species, not everything has to. Maybe mules, tigons, and wholphins don't. People should recognize the limitations of their categories.

To bring the analogy home, chromosomal makeup, reproductive equipment, secondary sexual characteristics, and perceived gender come apart to some degree. But more often than not, they tend to go together, and that fact is useful for anyone who wants to understand and manipulate their environment and/or themselves.

Still, not everyone necessarily belongs to a sex. There are people who fit sex categories only imperfectly, if at all. People need to be mindful of that, and not force others into categories that don't necessarily fit.

Please note that although I believe in biological sex, I think gender stereotypes are generally bullshit. The reality or close-enough-to-reality of sex doesn't give anyone a license to be sexist. My take-home message here is that feminism and biology are not at odds. Feminists can't afford to reject a nuanced view of biology or other sciences, any more than scientists can afford to reject a nuanced view of feminism.

*I bet some smartass is going to come and tell me about sexual reproduction in amoebas now. If so, very cool.

**I'm sure it's not really called that. But can anyone explain to me why worker bees are supposed to be female, rather than just a third sex? This does look like a place where stupid presuppositions get in the way of accuracy.

***Other concepts that we'd have to throw out awfully fast are 'gene', 'color' (as in 'visual color'), 'race', 'and 'class'. This would make it really hard to navigate the world.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Age and Sex, Part I

Hugo Schwyzer has an interesting series of posts on relationships between older men and younger women, although I can't say I completely agree with his conclusions. I do have some relevant personal experience. When I was 18, I began an affair with a man 13 years my senior, which lasted for about about a year. The relationship could have been better in some ways, but seven years later, I don't feel as though he exploited me because I was young and naive. I did a most of the pursuing, most of the wanting, and all of the having my heart broken.

It was my first overtly sexual relationship. (Jesus, I find that hard to type without thinking how bad it all looks.) I'd spent my high school years in celibacy, partly for political reasons involving adult authority figures, and partly because I didn't like or respect most of the boys in my high school. So when I met this clever, clever graduate student with his hot, hot swimmer's body at a friend's party, the experience of white-hot seething lust was all rather new and surprising. I convinced him to share a bottle of wine with me and take me back to his apartment. Somehow, I managed to call my parents, with whom I was still living, and make up a story about where I was staying. I made out with him frenetically until dawn, but kept all my clothes on, suspended halfway between my lust and my guilt. Then I took the bus home and hid in my room. He probably thought he had seduced me.

I couldn't stay away from the man, and I felt like I couldn't stop myself from touching him. Ordinarily, I feel myself exerting effort when I move my body. With this man, I felt as though some strange compulsion had taken hold of me. My lips and hands seemed to seek him out of their own accord, without effort, and it was only with attention that I could hold myself still. He would put his head between my legs and made me feel like I melting. I wanted to turn into a puddle of molten wax and run down his chest, his back, his gorgeous, muscular legs.

The compulsion was all internal. He never pressured or nagged me into sex. When I wanted to stop, we stopped, and when I wanted to go home, he'd call me a cab. He also never lied to me about his intentions either: he was looking for sex, not for a relationship. I, on the other hand, lied profusely to myself. Nice girls weren't supposed to have sex, but the rules could be bent for cases of True Love, so I convinced myself I was in True Love. This involved a lot of looking out for the guy's well-being, which, since he was not a very self-preserving person, was a fairly substantial job. He had a big mouth and liked to piss off guys who were bigger than he was. He'd also get drunk and do physically dangerous things, though I repeat, he was never cruel or violent toward me. I worked myself into a furor of jealousy over the other women he slept with. (He was never forthcoming with details, but I'm sure there were several. He once came home with a hickey on his inner thigh, for which I demanded explanation, and which he steadfastly refused to explain. I fumed, but I was back the next week.)

It wasn't True Love, but I don't think it was just sex, either. I enjoyed the little intimacies: post-coital cuddling, making goofy shampoo hats in the shower (yeah, I'm secretly six years old), cooking together, the sarcastic barbs that he'd toss at me, and that I'd return. He'd eat as many hot peppers as he could, just to show off; it was sweet. I didn't Love the guy, and I probably shouldn't have lost much sleep over him, but I did genuinely like him.

Was I looking for some sort of father figure? I don't think so. His status as a clever grad student made him more attractive in my eyes, and I did enjoy the approval of someone I thought was smart. But he wasn't fatherly, really. He was more like a high-status, slightly unstable, bad boy type. I'm close to my father; I love my father; I'm probably his favorite kid; but I tend not to sleep with men who truly resemble my father. That would be... weird.

After a year, my first lover finished his Ph.D. and got a job on another continent. We parted ways amicably. I missed him terribly when he left, but I don't know whether he missed me. He sent me some mittens the following Christmas, and a note that said to keep myself warm. I didn't write back, and eventually I lost track of where he was. I hope that he's happy, and that he hasn't killed himself in some fit of drunken stupidity.

Well, that's been an awful lot of personal narrative and no discussion of Hugo. But I think it's important to add to the story, if only to say that yes, I had an affair with an older man, and yes, I was naive, and no, I wasn't filled with foresight, but I still own that part of my past. Nobody coerced me.

I'll close this ode to my lover with the last stanza of Theodore Rothke's poem "I Knew a Woman", a poem which always reminded me of him. Since he was a man and not a woman, I've taken the liberty of changing a few pronouns.

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay,
I'm martyr to a motion not my own.
What's freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear, he cast a shadow white as bone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn his wanton ways.
I measure time by how a body sways.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Chasing up that idea about swear words

I have an ambivalent relationship with profanity. On one hand, many Anglo-Saxon swear words are obviously sexist. (As far as I'm aware, this is true of swear words in most other languages too.) On the other hand, they're useful for several purposes, none of which seems sexist in itself, but which seem sexist when taken as a group. For instance:

Expressing strong emotion: If everyone just stipulated that swear words were for expressing strong emotion, would their literal meanings really matter? I hear "damn", "hell", and "Jesus Christ" as mildly profane, despite the fact that I haven't believed in God since I was 14. If people could just leave off using "fuck" to indicate rape and sex interchangeably, it could be a perfectly nice hook to hang an emotion off of. For a native English speaker like me, nothing (including swear words in other languages) has quite the zing of a good Anglo-Saxon obscenity. It would be hard to give this one up: I would have no words left forcases of excruciating physical pain. (Since destroying my knees, I'm not really confident that I'll be able to avoid excruciating physical pain in the future.)

Sex: This might be a sub-category of "expressing strong emotion". Some words which have sexist connotations also strike me viscerally as sexy. (Actually, "fuck" comes to mind.) Whether I use these words or permit/ask my partner use them, depends on my mood and the situation. But it's odd that I get off on words that are attach to such deeply sexist concepts. Most of the things that I get off on aren't about sexism or female submission (Twisty Faster's views aside), but this one has me sort of worried.

Reclaiming: Some swear words have useful meanings, but terrible connotations. "Slut", "bitch", and possibly even "flaming faggot" come to mind. I have friends who use the word "slut" as a term of approval for both men and women, probably thanks to Easton and Liszt's delightful book, The Ethical Slut. Sometimes I have to tell myself that it's OK to be a bitch, i.e., to stop people-pleasing and get stuff done. "Flaming faggot" is a tough one, since I'm not a gay man and it wouldn't be an appropriate word for me to use in most public contexts, but I sometimes use it with my partner to express approval and affection for a certain aesthetic orientation. (My partner is a fairly swishy bisexual man, so I think he's allowed.)

Telling people off: This becomes difficult if try to use a word that I say I'm reclaiming. A few weeks ago, I heard some boys at the bus stop talking about how Miskatonic girls are sluts. I gave them an impassioned speech to the effect that they were sluts for sleeping with Miskatonic girls, which seemed to shut them up at least for a little while. I'm not really sure that was the right thing to say. How can I call them sluts, and rely on the negative connotations of the word, when I also call my friends sluts, and claim that I don't mean anything negative by it? Am I really allowed to capitalize on other people's sexist attitudes like that?

Indirect discourse: Sometimes people have sexist concepts, and I have to appeal to sexist concepts in order to explain their thoughts; e.g. "He called me a bitch." Sometimes, it's possible to paraphrase this one away; e.g., instead of saying "He thinks Miskatonic girls are sluts", saying, "He thinks Miskatonic girls are promiscuous, and he thinks that's a bad thing". But the paraphrase doesn't always make sense.

Each of these uses on its own seems like a fine way of reconciling swear words with an anti-sexist outlook. But when I use all of them together, I get words that switch between positive and negative in an unpredictable way ("bitch", "slut"), that indicate things I like, but sometimes have really bad connotations, or are ambiguous between sex and rape ("fuck", various body part words), and that retain aspects their original, problematic meanings (anything used in indirect discourse). Since I'm not willing to give up my expressive capabilities for the sake of ideological purity, it seems like the best I can do is to be sensitive to context, and try not to say inappropriate things by mistake.

I wonder what profanity would look like in a Utopian world. The best attempt I've seen is Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed, where most of the swear words relate to aspects of capitalism. "Profiteer" and "propertarian" are really obscene. But even LeGuin messes up at one point: about 100 pages after explaining why her Utopian society doesn't use the word "fuck" she has a character from that society use "fuckless" to mean "sexless".

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Twistical goodness

This sounds like a completely sensible plan to me. One unmentioned perk is that it would result in a more equitable heterosexual dating scene (not that Twisty gives a shit, of course, but I do). Women would feel more free to approach men for sex, since this would no longer be read as "I am a worthless slut".* Men would feel less entitled (and probably less pressured) to approach women for sex. Happy rainbow kittens would ensue.

*This is not meant as a slur on all the worthy and ethical sluts out there. I'm never sure whether to give up on words like "slut" or not. The question probably deserves a post of its own.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

A Slashfic

It's about time for a fun post. So, taking my inspiration from the delightful regyt, I bring you... philosophy slash. (Warning to the easily squicked: proceed at your own risk!)

Bored by my paper on the philosophy of mathematics, I summon up a mental image of Ludwig Wittgenstein. He comes to me sporting a schoolboy uniform and a large erection. "I have some rules for him to follow," I declare in my strictest headmistress voice. He nods and wordlessly hands me a metal ruler.

"Recite the six-times table," I command, rapping him lightly on the knuckles.

He complies, standing in the middle of my office as I circle him, brandishing the ruler. "... Six times three is eighteen. Six times four is thirty-six." At this point, our common practice dictates that I smack him on the rump. "Six times five is thirty-eight." Another smack, slightly harder than before. He goes on in the same way. (I must say, from the way his cock jumps each time I hit him, I suspect he is breaking the rules deliberately.)

When I've had enough of our little language-game, I decide it's time for him to remove his uniform. I express this thought perceptibly through the senses: unraveling his tie; unbuttoning his shirt and trousers; then pulling everything off hastily and tossing it to the floor. I look with pleasure on his general form. "Chair!" I command, and he sits down in the wooden seat I've reserved for guests. I plop down next to him in my considerably comfier wheelie chair, and proceed to remove my skirt.

"Here is a hand", I say, grabbing his right hand. He seems unsure as whether I've expressed a verifiable proposition, so I demonstrate the use of the hand by placing it between my legs. He catches my meaning now, and sets to work without asking for further explanations. I grab hhis cock, so that the elements of my body correspond to the elements of his.

He is flushed and panting; his blood pressure has doubtless increased. I, too, am breathing heavily. But do we experience the same sensations? Does he feel the same tightness in the stomach, the same explosive lightness in the chest? When I recall that it felt just like this last time, am I remembering correctly? To distract myself from these questions, I rake my fingernails across his thigh. He moans.

"Did that hurt?" I ask. He nods in reply. "How do you know it hurt?" Silence. "Would you like me to do it again?"


"Then tell me how it felt."

"Like pain." This frustrates me, but I have to admit, it's a reasonable answer to the question I asked. I scratch him again, harder. He tries to describe his pain, but I realize it's no good; there's no such thing as a shared private language. I cover his mouth with my free hand. What else can I do? Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.


Yeah, I realize this is some prime blackmail material to be placing on the Internet. In theory, I could be outed as a huge dork.