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By Bruce Fleming


The Montréal Review, September 2017



Gender theory is a hot subject academically these days. In terms of methodology, it is positioned somewhere between humanities and social sciences, because it is based on a point of view that makes individual sex and sexuality subjective rather than objective, but still wants to make objective statements that force agreement from others. Instead of merely keeping to the subjective and saying, for example, I think I am 25% male and 50% female and the rest something else to be determined, its emphasis is on making others say and do certain things because what I say is true is objectively true. The subjective controls the objective. It says: you will acknowledge that I am what I say I am and treat me using the same responses you use to others who are what I say I am, and oh yes, you will call me by the following pronouns. It’s about me calling the shots and controlling the behavior of others. It’s the revenge of the individual on the collective.

Of course, the very use of the word “gender” in “gender theory” splits sexuality and its manifestations from the bedrock of common givens, to which the use of the old-fashioned word “sex” (what you’re born with and what you’re fated to do) was the precursor, and shows that  what the individual thinks not only matters but determines.  And hence the almost tautological use of the “construction of” phrase with “gender”: if gender isn’t something given objectively, that seems to leave only us to be the ones who make it. Still, it’s clear that this switch from “sex” to “gender” (that its proponents present as so revolutionary) relies on the same old subjective/objective dichotomy. Actually, it’s neither constructed by us nor an objective fact of nature: what we want to do sexually is determined by what seems to us chance, but which is not for that reason any less inexorable.

Nowadays we are told we control everything—we self-identify as one gender and adopt social cues to show this, and it’s all up to us; nature takes a back seat. Gender theory with its insistence on subjectivity offers an interesting antidote to the previous objective view, but the truth about sexuality is that it is neither wholly objective nor wholly subjective. And we don’t control it.

The shift of perspective from objective to subjective is central to the intellectual foundation of gender theory. It’s like moving from one side of the room to the other. Doing so doesn’t logically require denigration of the previous position, but that in practice is what it has entailed, in an apparent attempt to deflect criticism of the switch. Gender theory nowadays asserts that objective views of sexuality that leave out my input are flat wrong. Men are not men and women women, marriage is not defined by a specific sexual pairing, gender trumps sex (chromosomes and whatever else is found to be unalterable), which becomes trivial. Gender is intrinsically fluid, and all gender is subject to the will of the individual. Sex, of course, it is conceded, may be given, but it is trivial. The invention of a new term controlled by the individual and putting this front and center is the subjective switch.

A logical development of this switch of perspective is the possibility of what we now call “gender reassignment surgery”—which has given rise to such interesting locutions as being a man in a woman’s body, or the reverse. The split of spirit or soul from body has a long neo-Platonic and Christian heritage, so an inside at war with an outside is not in and of itself a new idea. However what’s interesting here is the notion of a matroshka-like encapsulating of one body in another. In the Michelangelesque manner of envisioning the sculpture he ultimately liberated with his chisel that was previously buried in the raw block of stone, we now imagine one body caught in the other, and cut until that hidden body is revealed.  

The problem, which gender theory refuses to consider, is that bodies are not made of stone: they have insides that matter, and are not completely malleable. When we declare success in having the inner, say, female, emerge, we do so from a purely cosmetic point of view. And it depends on forcing others’ reactions. We do not ask: Is the result in some essential or subcutaneous sense a woman, but rather: Does this look like a woman?

Gender theory is based on the switch to the subjective, so unsurprisingly it uses subjective criteria rather than objective to judge its results. But—here’s the paradox: it’s others’ subjectivity. It turns out we are necessary after all. The question it asks itself is: Will the result seem, probably from a distance or to the uninitiated, what the body’s inhabitant wants it to seem? (Not: what would a doctor say.) Only when it doesn’t, gender theory insists that the perceivers are off base and need re-education. This is too a woman! That’s contradictory, because they need our reactions to valorize their results. These can’t be forced.

We can change some things and not others, so gender theory bases its definitions on the things we can change, not the things we can’t. We’ve figured out how to change genitalia, body hair, voice timbre, possibly even throat configuration—but not size or hands and feet and not chromosomes. Gender theory points to the breasts and the lack of body hair on the woman that has emerged from a man’s body—it’s more than we had before, so this is what it focuses on, simply ignoring objective objections.

It’s as if we can produce the effect at a distance of ivory by using plastic, and thus pronounce ourselves satisfied. It’s not chemically ivory, or seen up close. But from a distance it may pass. We declare this “gender reassignment surgery” successful because we want it to be such—we could just as well emphasize the things that can’t be changed. At the same time we haven’t changed a thousand other things: we wave these away; no matter. Think of the way Caitlyn Jenner comes across as far more female in the posed Annie Leibowitz photos for Vogue than she does in videos, where the size of her hands and feet, voice timbre, and body language interfere with our having this reaction. Or are we supposed to pretend we don’t notice? I want you to pretend you don’t, so I’ll attack you if you let on you do. We perceivers learn to police what we say, and even our facial gestures: the individual (that is to say, you, not me) is triumphant. That’s the contradiction of the “political correctness” of our day: you make it so clear what I am to say that I am unwilling to pay the price for not agreeing. But I think the opposite.

The intellectual punch of such locutions as “a woman in a man’s body” is so great precisely because the bedrock assumption it challenges is the old-fashioned one of unalterability when we speak of “man” or “woman”—it’s still sensational to suggest this is not primary but secondary, and can be changed.  So the locution itself is a “gotcha.” I bet I can shock you! Changes that seem less absolute are effected all the time and are intellectually uninteresting. It’s not at all interesting to say “I am a person who parts his hair on the right in the body of a person who parts his hair on the left.” We think this is silly: just change the part, we say. Or even “a person with a big nose in the body of a person with a little nose” (usually the opposite): get a rhinoplasty, we say, given that this is now a common procedure.

But this doesn’t mean that “gender reassignment surgery” (ex-“sex change operation”) is just as banal. There are some things that can be changed easily and, it seems, absolutely: re-combed hair is now parted where we parted it, not merely seems to be so. A little further along the scale is a nose job: on one hand a re-shaped nose is a new nose, because we never look at the broken and re-shaped cartilage—but an X-ray might. And our children may inherit the old nose. So achieving success or admitting failure is determined by what we are aiming at and how closely we look, and for what purpose.  A woman can only be freed from a man’s body if we accept the givens of gender theory and underline the miraculous things they can now do to the human body—and get others to go along either by subterfuge or force.  This allows us to ignore things like feet size, voice timbre, and chromosomes (as well as child-bearing or –begetting abilities).  And some things are beyond our ability to change: say to make an old person young again. Only the devil, at least according to the Faust legend, can do that.

So let’s ask what seems the $64,000 question: Is there such thing as a woman trapped in a man’s body, or the reverse? Our response is determined by what we presuppose. Sure, if we define success in freeing the trapped person in a way that allows us to achieve it. Of course not. If others get to do the defining, as they may well say that this is just a very convincing costume or for that matter not a convincing one. It’s true there is no alteration that cannot to some degree be accomplished; if we get to define what constitutes success, we can achieve it, so long as we are allowed to ignore other factors. This is the kernel of truth at the heart of the assertions of gender theory. If being a woman is defined as a) saying I am a woman or b) having long hair and wearing slinky dresses rather than c) being capable of at least trying to bear children, of course we can be a woman if we want to. It’s all subjective. We’ve reduced our definition to what’s achievable, excluding what isn’t—like chromosomes. So of course we can achieve it. One for gender theory.

Where gender theory goes astray is in failing to realize that there is in fact a scale of achievability. Alterations are not all of the same degree of importance, and so, that some can be achieved more absolutely than others. Changing gender (or getting it right where Mother Nature didn’t) is simply not as absolutely achievable a change as putting on another pair of shoes. Yet the intellectual punch of gender theory is in suggesting that the spectrum ranging from “completely achievable” to “it’s a stretch” to “cannot be changed” isn’t a spectrum at all, but only one thing. In fact, our reaction as well as our sense that the change is successful depends on where on the spectrum the thing changed was located, and what we are focusing on.

At the trivial end of the spectrum are things we do like moving an inch closer or further away, or lifting a finger a bit higher or lower. Generally we agree that these can be achieved absolutely: I am not a person with a finger at this angle in the body of someone with the finger at that angle. Moving a bit further along, we don’t generally argue about things like where the hair is parted, or a new pair of shoes.  It would seem that we can absolutely change the part of our hair, or even more easily the shoes on our feet. But though changes here at this end of the spectrum seem absolutely achievable, even they need not be judged so when we look closer at them. Changing a pair of shoes, for instance, seems an absolute and complete change. But a new pair of shoes doesn’t adapt to our feet, or hasn’t yet, and so we may limp because we are in pain. This seems to betray the change in the same way that the hands and feet of a trans-sexual cannot be changed. Is the change of shoes more absolute if we merely suffer without limping?

What about changes of hair? Here there are more and less severe changes, and hence more and less absolute ones. So even these are part of the same spectrum. Changing the part? Hair generally just combs the new way and does not bear marks the way cloth does in re-tailored clothes. But even here there may be traces of the change: sometimes hair has a natural way of growing, so that we may be going against the grain in combing it differently  and the hair sticks up. (Or would we insist that this is not “natural” but a mistake on the part of Nature?) Or a new part reveals something on the scalp that wasn’t visible before so it seems the change is not so absolute. What if we cover this with a scarf or a hat? Is the change more absolute? It depends on what we are focusing on.

In any case we can’t change whatever memory people have of the old way and perhaps photographic evidence. What if no one knew us before, or nobody still living, or nobody in the new place where we live? Coloring the hair may produce the strange contrast in the middle-aged of hair too dark for the complexion; roots grow out of lightened hair. Has the hair color really been changed? Or has the hair been colored? We could go with either view. If we applied the givens of gender theory to hair, we would insist that the inner red hair had been liberated from the brown that covered it.

What about other things towards the more unalterable end of the scale of alterability, such as intelligence or height, perhaps near male or female if not at the same spot? They can also be changed to some degree, but it’s harder, and has more limited success, at least in the eyes of most people: this last fact leads to frustration on the part of those who want to declare success. Take height. Tall people can have (as of the twentieth century) an inch or so of leg bone removed, but short people must resort to elevator shoes or the equally gruesome stretching operation with bone, which in any case has limited addition possibilities. Does the first make the person shorter? Or just produce the illusion of this? We’d be more inclined to say that the person with bone removed really is shorter, while the one in elevator shoes is appearing so. But what if we focus, as a doctor might, on the bone that has a scar? Then we might still say it’s a tall person with an inch removed. And more than an inch isn’t possible.

Even IQ, that seems so objective, can be subjectivized in a number of ways (deconstructed, we might still say): perhaps by saying that the measurement system is invalid because it’s an expression of power, or that there is something else that is ultimately more important, say what we call “social IQ.” The other may still be there, as the Y chromosome does not go away when a woman is liberated from a man’s body, but it is secondary.   To make this work, we will have to assume that the individual’s view of these things is primary: we’ll have to invent a subjective version of IQ, for example, so I can be whatever I want to be. Indeed this process of subjectivizing the objective is well underway: we assert that there is “social IQ” that trumps objective, and that things like race are “constructions.” If we can’t assert away the bedrock facts, we claim they are irrelevant.

Kinsey Is Wrong

Nowadays, we are all children of Kinsey, even if we add caveats and asterisks to his theory: like Kinsey, we believe that our sexuality is determined by qualities of who we are as an individual. Nothing could be further from the truth: our sexual reactions are the result of the fact that each of us is caught in a situation.

Gender theory is based on the notion that I alone get to say whether I am male or female even if, or especially if, I am the only person saying it: sex is one thing, gender quite another. What we nowadays call sexual orientation, which similarly splits desire from biology (we can’t say that merely because someone self-identifies as female that she will be attracted to apparent males), also makes things up to me: others’ views about what will or should happen are irrelevant. I alone hold the power to say what I am.

Yet in fact sexual desire, which starts the whole process of action and self-definition going, is quite independent not only of me, but of the object of my desire as well. It isn’t identical with the person, so we can’t use the nature of the person to define it. Desire is a fact about the world we cannot explain, though we may generalize about its instances. But that does not mean it is predictable. I am no more able to assign a label to myself than others are. The push to insist that sexuality is based on self-definition and individual will is quite misguided. Sexual desire is beyond the bounds of individual will: that is what we can say generally. That doesn’t mean we can say nothing at all generally—indeed I am doing this here. It means that as we get closer to the center of desire, we fall silent, and it slips away.

For consider: all self-labelings start assuming sexual attraction, rather than considering the case of attraction in its context of a multitude of situations where attraction does not occur.  Thus these situations without attraction are never considered. Saying whether I am straight or gay or in the middle summarizes what I am attracted to and generalizes about me based on this. Let’s say everyone I am attracted to is female, therefore I, as a male, conclude or assume (or do not question the assumption) that I am straight.  Everyone I am attracted to is in addition to being female tall and blonde: this is my “type.” But the converse is not true, so this is merely a generalization of what is observed.  I am not attracted to all females, or even all tall blondes, so these are clearly not sufficient conditions even if they seem to be necessary ones.  So what explains the individual case of desire, even if every single case involves a tall blonde? There is nothing that can do so.

Nowadays the push has been to reject the assumption that all men are attracted to women—but almost no one considers the fact that even men whose objects of desire are all female are not attracted to all women. Even those who assume that the default given for men is attraction to women will not attempt to predict what “type” or types any given male will be attracted to, nor to say exactly how any man will want to have sex with these women. Fast/slow? Aggressive/passive? First one then the other? We simply stop running the public transcript at this point. They’ll figure it out themselves.

Even if we claim that male attraction to female is the biological natural given from which diversions are aberrations—thus that being attracted to leggy blondes is “normal” in the sense of an approved way to go—we still can’t explain why I am not attracted to tall blonde woman X. After the fact I can try: perhaps she’s too old, or too loud, or has a tattoo.  I can’t list all the qualities it would take to disqualify her, or for that matter, have me be attracted to her, because no listing of qualities can add up to desire without the desire being given. Blonde and female may seem to be necessary, but they are certainly not sufficient. And who asserts that I will never be attracted to any other person than a tall blonde female? Even a short blonde one? A brunette? Even if we say that we will never be attracted to a man, even a blonde one, we would presumably accept if we (so to say) broke our type with women and were attracted to a redheaded woman. Nobody cares, so we don’t have to justify it.  

So we can never say why we are attracted to the individuals we are attracted to past a certain point, even if we assert that their femaleness or maleness is a given, a fact about us that can never alter. The fact that we can one day find ourselves attracted to a female redhead after a string, we thought unbreakable, of leggy blondes, and accept this, does not necessarily mean that we will one day find ourselves attracted to a man: that some qualities are secondary doesn’t mean that all are. Nor does it mean they aren’t; we can’t tell from the fact of attraction, which we have only seen from the other direction, presupposing the attraction and generalizing about it or drawing conclusions. Desire is always an objective given, not subject to individual volition. But it is an objective given that has to wait for the world, not just me.

Much queer theory is the obverse of traditional gender theory that insisted that men simply were attracted to women, as this was the nature of being male: it insists that being gay is intrinsic—being gay means I can’t help being attracted to men—and therefore is also left with empty hands to explain why a man who is attracted to only men is not attracted to all men. So the assumption of intrinsic orientation working backwards from the list of situations where attraction occurs doesn’t work any better for queer theory than it does for the traditional view that men like women and the reverse.

Gender and sexual-definition theory is undergoing something of the same transformation as monetary theory when the gold standard was abandoned (in the US, in the 1970s). In economic theory, we have acknowledged that without a fixed amount of metal to determine the amount of money in circulation, we have to define our givens and our objectives and horse trade to get results we generally agree are the desired ones. The fact that money isn’t limited by precious metals doesn’t mean that there fail to be objective constraints: we can cause the economy to tank or perk up—or perhaps we can’t?—by pulling on certain levers. Debate abounds on what levers to pull and how hard, but everyone agrees that pulling the wrong ones, or not pulling others, will lead or perhaps has led to bad things. Nobody argues that a recession is subjectively just as good as growth.

Sexuality is not this far yet: we don’t yet operate within a world of flexible objective givens—or rather we do, but don’t admit we do. The avant-garde has given up the objective basis of sexual definition and sexuality and hasn’t yet acknowledged that we are now in a brave new world of figuring out how what we objectively desire or feel relates to what we subjectively wish to determine. For even if we assert that some qualities are necessary for desire to happen for me—say, the person being male or female—these are never sufficient, and if these are not based in something objective, we don’t know for sure they are even necessary, only that they have always been so. If we give up an objective basis, we are left with perception. And perceptually, the difference between saying I haven’t yet been attracted to a man, being a straight male myself, and saying I can never be, is non-existent. I don’t go as far as Hume, who asserted that we say the sun will rise only because of generalization on the perceptual fact that it always has—merely that we can’t tell the difference in perception alone between generalization based on perception and an objective reason accessible to us only in perception. This is where Kant fails to accomplish what he undoubtedly thought he had done, providing a scientific basis for speaking of the future.

In fact, sexual attraction is a spark and a flame coming out of darkness; we can’t say beforehand who or what will cause it. Thus it is beyond individual volition, and isn’t caused by a person (the assumption that “object choice” determines sexuality is the basis of gender and sexual identification theory: I control everything—but I am pointing out that I don’t). Most fundamentally, sexual attraction is something in addition to the person who is its occasion.

We can see this from the fact that in the vast majority of cases, sexual attraction is not lust at first sight. We see the person a good deal and yet have no sexual response, perhaps even live or work with the person; then suddenly something re-aligns and we see that person differently, as the object of our desire. Let’s say we work with a woman for months until one day she makes a gesture or looks at us or smiles, and we feel a stab of desire. Or we see her out of the office with her hair down and can’t get it out of our mind.  Sexual desire is absolutely particular: no principle can explain it before the fact, and it cannot be scientifically investigated. We can say general things after the fact about the objects of our lust—they tend to be X or Y.  And perhaps we can list some deal-breakers: it’s almost certain they will not be A or B. But we cannot say with certainty what they will be.

The realm of this completely individual attraction has been touched on most fully by the expression form of absolute particulars: literature. Anna Karenina’s obsession with Vronsky, for example, or that of Romeo and Juliet, or Phaedra for Hippolytus—these are particular situations, and we take for given that the attraction has happened. Literature tends to offer extremes to get our attention, so we have works about the single strong obsessive cases that end tragically, and less about the shifting landscape of daily desire that may or may not ever be acted on—cases of desire at much lower levels on the scale. We still talk about inappropriate cases like the old-age reawakened desire of Professor Unrat at the Blue Angel, the subject of Heinrich Mann’s novel that was the basis of the movie with Marlene Dietrich, but what of the normal life of the young unattached male, or even female? Its desire flickers in and out, leads to action or its lack, many small sparks born to die unseen and a few to create fires of varying duration and intensity.

We usually speak as if it is another person, the whole person, who inspires sexual desire in us: we desire that person. But making our sexual feelings apply to a person is a very self-centered view of things—we start the transcript rolling at the point where we feel desire.  What of things before our reaction? It’s rare when the desire starts at our first glimpse of the person. And even when that happens, typically a raft of other conditions that we usually overlook must typically be met first.  The world has to align. We can’t predict when it will, as the congruence of us with another person is always by definition unpredictable.

Sometimes to be sure the lag is zero. At a dance club—which is where young attractive and available people go to find others who fit that description—let’s say I see a hot woman; she smiles when I approach: it’s a match. At least so far; it can still derail for one of a dozen reasons. But this apparently instantaneous jolt of desire—which seems to be for the person herself, because the moment we saw her we wanted her—presupposes many things already having been resolved to make the instant line-up plausible. Being young, and in tight clothes, and present at the dance club to begin with—the presence there generally shows availability, in a way that tight clothes among a group of girls in a bar on “girls’ night out” does not show availability.  (Men are not wrong to be confused; this is something that has to be explained to them.) The circumstances act as a filter to strip away things that get in the way of a lineup in the rest of the world: think how many impediments would have to be removed if this same woman were not at the club, not dressed like this, not relaxed with a beer, or –why limit “what ifs” to things that can be changed in a matter of minutes or hours?—what if she were twice as old, lame, or a man? What if this same woman were someone I knew to be the girlfriend of a buddy, or a distant work colleague who had never so much as looked at me? These objections might be as unremovable as being twice the age of this woman, or she my mother, or egregiously short or tall if either is a deal-breaker for me, or male, or a child.

When we have the sense that we desire bodies, which is to say when the desire starts on sight, this is only so because of either blind chance, or the sorts of situations created to filter out absolute deal-breakers, or a combination of these. The percentage of people on a city sidewalk whom we desire even faintly is minimal. We may look at, say, a woman in a short dress and heels—this is a signal not of availability but definitely of sexuality—but she does not look back and strides on. The spark dies. For the spark not to die we would have to be available and looking and she too—typically looking at us. The transitory brushes with people that define our lives in cities create many such might-have-been or short-lived sparks. It’s more possible to have these when we know that nothing will ever come of them—for a brief moment on the sidewalk we become just a body and shed our real lives as husbands, fathers, Scoutmasters.  These are harmless because they can only occur on the sidewalk: when they get bad is when we try to lead a double life—carrying on an affair when married while telling the other woman we are single, for example. On the sidewalk we too have a moment where we are just a body.

The greatest sexual freedom is afforded to the sexually mature but young who have fewer responsibilities, a less well defined place in the world than most of us past a certain age. They are not yet husbands and fathers, or Scoutmasters, and so long as they seek their own kind they are generally left alone. As we rise in the hierarchy we gather about us an increasing number of sexual prohibitions, since people are not merely bodies but people we are responsible for or who exist in relation to us. We do not have access to our children or their friends, not our employees or students, basically no one but our spouse. To be able to change these givens of who we are and how our desires have to be channeled, we’d have to leave our net of responsibilities—go to Tahiti in an earlier time, like Van Gogh.

These factors so channel our desire that we rarely even consider them as impediments or deal-breakers, simply because they seem so absolute that we cannot imagine them gone. The most absolute never get questioned. We don’t say, of a man, perhaps he will get a sex-change operation/gender reassignment surgery, and then the desire will take off. Nor do we typically say, perhaps I will be into men someday. Our desires, like rivers, grow after a time to have accepted the banks they flow within: we don’t ask why they don’t have another route.

However not all forbidden situations are this far away, and so we might even think about what would have to change to make them possible. We might fantasize about a buddy’s hot but off-limits girlfriend thusly: if my buddy breaks up with her and I have his permission, or if I talk to her and see if she’s interested… Most people would counsel us to forget it, but it’s at least within the realm of possibility.  Most possible of all is that the girl wants to sleep with us that night but has a prior engagement—say a movie date with a girlfriend. Break it! We say. She wavers, then agrees. Problem solved.

All of us use the filters that narrow the choices to the plausible. It’s rare for desire to start when it’s an extreme long-shot (maybe I’ll be attracted to a man this time though all the others have been women). Occasionally the world can amaze us by offering someone who seems to have just turned up independent of filters—but not usually. We are so adept at applying the filters we sometimes forget we have done so.

Though it’s possible to desire somebody whom we know to be unapproachable—which is further evidence of its chance nature—desire usually presupposes a certain state of affairs, the plausible. which means that evident deal-breakers have been removed. We don’t actually see any reason why not. Desire presupposes that two metal plates, in an electrical analogy, are close enough to allow the spark to pass: if they are too far away there is usually no spark. If the woman is my mother or too old or too young or a man, or a stone, we do not even think of trying to negotiate the distance between the plates. Unless it’s possible, even remotely, we don’t usually feel the spark. There has to be some degree of plausibility, though we cannot say beforehand with any degree of certainty what constitutes this.

Nowadays either person, usually the man, taking what we might call the sexual initiative—trying to find out from the evidence just how far apart the plates are—is frowned upon because it seems to be aggressing the other person, usually the woman. The idea nowadays is that we are supposed to wait until we’re clear the two plates are close enough. The woman has indicated interest. Taking the sexual initiative has gotten a bad name from its misuse: usually men either taking too great a leap—coming on to a random woman about whom they know absolutely nothing (even being in a bar is to know something: if she’s alone at the bar she may, but need not, be available)—or not asking for information, but insisting on a result as if they had no idea that the vastly greater probability is of too many hurdles to leap than of getting the answer they want. This suggests that they are unaware that they are not the king of the world, that they must be aware of givens and the fact that cannot re-make the world in their own image. And some men don’t take no for an answer.

But if it is a plausible request and done without too much force, it’s part of the process. In order for the sparks to pass at all, an infinity of hurdles has to have been jumped; the plates must be millimeters apart, not miles. For the person who senses the spark, many boxes have already been ticked. What seems to elicit comment is the fact that there remain any hurdles at all that must be jumped by human intervention rather than being givens arranged either by the circumstances or chance. But why are we not allowed to ask about the remaining hurdles when so many have been jumped already?

Taking the sexual initiative is thus itself not problematic—and should not have a bad name. The problems arise when he (as it usually is) thinks that his own lack of absolute deal-breakers means there are none. He persists in his attentions, for example, when he finds out she is married, or fails to accept a clear “no thanks.” But coming on to the woman is really only an attempt to get information. It does not have the clear and unavoidable goal of trying to get in her pants. The fact that some men do not accept negative answers has given rise to the illegitimate conclusion that coming on to a woman is like aiming a gun at a target: if it goes off it will necessarily hit. Coming on to a woman is really an attempt to find out more information than we have.

Desire isn’t defined by the object. And it’s not the result of a quality of me alone. It involves an entire situation.

We can see this from the fact that sometimes the period between seeing the person for the first time and the flame of desire is very long indeed. Perhaps we are work colleagues for months or even years, then suddenly something sparks desire. Maybe she comes up puffing and tiny beads of sweat show on the tops of her breasts, suddenly exposed as they have never been before. Maybe some hair is escaping her otherwise tight bun. Maybe she looks at me, lingering at my desk, and opens her mouth slightly in a wordless smile. Suddenly I feel the stab of desire. Or we see someone under new conditions: a work colleague, usually all business, lets her hair down in the evening or at an office party. We find ourselves working late together. She looks wordlessly at me. I lean in to kiss her. She kisses back.

We see it too from the fact that routine is the enemy of perception, as the Russian formalists insisted. It is also the enemy of desire: hence the need to set up date nights for married couples, and romantic holidays. Sometimes we are smitten immediately, so-called love at first sight. But the reason this is so celebrated is that it is so rare. Usually the person has to do something so we see him/her differently. A muscular man in a dirty t-shirt in the yard: the neighbor has never seen him that way before. She feels desire. She’s seen him a hundred times before—but now is when the spark goes off. This is not within her control.

None of these sudden flare-ups of desire can be explained scientifically, or in terms of the object alone, because we cannot ever reproduce exactly these circumstances. Say it was the gesture of the woman taking down her hair that did it to us. Other women can take down their hair with no effect on us. This woman, this time, under these circumstances: desire is always absolutely unitary. The woman has seen countless men in undershirts. Why does this one do it for her?

Desire is unitary, but we make generalizations about it. We learn what floats our boats sexually, learn what our sexual landscape is, by exploring it. Do we like rough sex? We didn’t know. Suddenly the woman becomes aggressive and this turns the man on.  Or she submits and that turns the man on. Or she is verbal and the man (or whoever) like that. Or she likes it when we are more verbal. Or more aggressive. We try things and see how they go: do we like them? Does s/he? If so they will probably stay around and even snowball. If there is dissonance—our partner likes them but we vociferously do not—we probably part ways, if we can. If we can tolerate them and our partner really likes them, we will probably do them at least sometimes.

The more experience we have, the more we know our sexual landscape: this is true of most other things about us, what we like to eat, what music we like, what our favorite time of day is, what our favorite places are. Nobody can tell us beforehand; we just have to find out. This is the basis of the lack of objectivity in sex: we generalize based on experience.

Because sex is so not-objective, gender theory with its insistence that I alone can determine everything objectively seems simply sophomoric.

Psychology, which is individual experience pushed to science, may be able to tell me: Why is it that (say) I like strong women? But I need never try to push this individual knowledge to the level of science. Similarly: Why is it that the leaves tend to fall at one end of my flat driveway even though the trees are evenly spaced? Perhaps meteorologists can tell me about wind patterns. But we need never ask these questions. And some knowledge is so wedded to my situation that it can never be turned into science: should I go into traffic here or there? I just do it. Science has to be far more general. Acceleration and speed and road surface = X. Science can’t answer questions like these: was this tone of voice too sarcastic for the situation? Did I hold her hand a shade too long or too short?

It’s silly to define our sexuality in terms of what we desire for another reason too, not just that we can’t explain what we don’t desire. Desire has to have passed unseen tests before it is even sensed. For it to grow it has to pass more. And a level one on a scale of one to ten does not necessarily grow into more. Almost everybody can say what constitutes an attractive person. It’s a quality independent of sexual allure. A woman can be beautiful without being sexual, or for us, or a child can be beautiful in an angelic way, or a baby. Or a good looking older woman. Or  man. Even if we call sexual attractiveness “hotness” this doesn’t mean that we will act on it: it becomes as distanced as saying that our own daughter is good-looking.

Gender theory has tried to speak about sex as if it were predictable in order to justify having something academic to say about it and to force others to dance to its tune. But this fact of life, like most others, is unitary—which means, tied to circumstances. Usually we’d think this joke is funny, but we just had some bad news so we don’t. We’re happy to listen to problems from X but not this early in the day, or not after yesterday’s diatribe, or not in that whiney tone of voice. Or: We always have hated cheesecake but this cheesecake is different. Usually we think cheerleaders are hot but this one is just too vapid. Or we weren’t married then, now we are: of course we’re going to say no when the hot blonde comes on to us. Do we know she’s attractive? Undoubtedly. Are we turned on? Arguably not, because we know it won’t go anywhere. But if it could, we might be.

So I am not a 2 or a 6 on the Kinsey scale: my sexuality is not a fact about me, but about my reactions in situations. Desire is situational. The same person under ten different sets of circumstances and relationships to us might elicit ten different responses from us: the way we see our sister is different from the way someone else might.  The mistake of current sex theory, all of which derives from Kinsey with his rankings of individuals, is to imagine desire divorced from the world, in what are a sort of laboratory situation. Do I find this person hot or not? The answer is always, it depends on my relationship to the other person outside of the laboratory situation. We can’t say: I am a Kinsey 0 so of course I will not find this man hot—or if I do, it’s the same way I find (say) my daughter hot, which is to say, I acknowledge that s/he is attractive but don’t myself (we hope) feel the attraction. The Kinsey scale is simply a summary of what has been, and thus its ability to predict what will be is completely unknown. The scale doesn’t determine reality; reality determines the summary reflected on the scale.

Incest taboos offer a way of understanding the nature of sexual desire. Many times, if we met this person for the first time on a deserted island, we can imagine being attracted to him/her. But the difference between this laboratory condition situation, the desert island with no social constraints, and real life where we are who we are due to a net of relationships, is key: the net of relationships determines desire, not the nature of the object. If we were unmarried and had never met our own attractive daughter before, we would probably be attracted to her. We’re not because we understand that she isn’t an option for us. Most people we meet on the street are not an option for us—they’re moving too quickly and the interaction time is too short.

Of course, there are circumstances that make everybody a possible object of desire; the dance club is the one most people are familiar with. If you’re in the bathhouse or cruising on the street corner  it means you’re available, and the anonymity of it all means nobody is off limits: all are bodies.  But this is the laboratory condition. All this would be ruptured if the cruisers knew each other, or if one was the boss of the other—unless they decided to laugh and go with it anyway. Back in the real world of relations—people you’re responsible for, people you are related to—things never, or rarely, get to this point.

Why don’t attractive brothers and sisters sleep with each other? Thomas Mann plays with the idea of transgressory sex in his based-on-the-Niebelungenlied short story “Wälsungenblut”—at the heart of the German myth Wagner took as the basis of his four-opera “Ring” cycle—is the incest of brother and sister to produce the one man who can defeat the gods. And a recent memoir of a woman who had sex with her father—explicable because they had been estranged and not grown up as father and daughter—suggests the allure of this scenario, the way it turns us on to think “what if” if the societal givens were suddenly stripped away.

But usually the societal givens aren’t stripped away, and they grow more absolute the further up the pyramid one moves. Outsiders, like Casanova, who had no pretensions to authority, can pick the weak members of the herd until old age because they work outside the structure, and only target available women who are being neglected, themselves in a sense absolute individuals. The rest of us become responsible for others: children, young men, women. We become the boss or the headmistress, the coach or the mentor. And under those circumstances desire dies. Or at least, it usually does.

The current furore over sexual assault, as it is called, is based on the relatively few cases where most typically a man acts as if women in his care are in fact available for his use: it’s a form of the incest taboo, which usually operates so effectively we don’t feel those feelings at all. Oedipus had apparently no problem feeling sexual about Jocasta, but then again he hadn’t seen her since he was born. Why assume that the most fundamental state is the laboratory or deserted island state, where we meet body to body? For most of us, sexual attraction is taken off the table by the relationship we stand in with respect to that person. We are the web of our relationships to that person.

Thus, most of the situations where we experience sexual desire have already leaped many hurdles. They are already fairly high up the pyramid where the tip represents full-blown sexual desire. All we see, however, is the person, and not the placement on the pyramid. We go out to a nightclub; almost everybody there is available.  Contrast this to the situation of the married responsible burger: almost no one is available.  As a result, they may be attractive but they typically do not enter the realm of the possible.  It takes a real shift of circumstances to have this contravened: late at night, a different place, anonymity—all these things can help produce something closer to the body on body laboratory situation. And this is where the net of social relationships is torn. Sexual desire happens with the tear.

Very little is predictable about sexual desire. It’s as objective as it is subjective because it happens for reasons beyond our control, as the result of our placement in the world. Gender theory is inadequate that tries to replace an objective view of sexuality with a subjective one. In fact sexuality is neither; it is ultimately beyond our control, the result of forces we cannot do more than predict based on experience, and that only partially.


Bruce Fleming is the author of over a dozen books and many articles, listed at www.brucefleming.net His degrees are from Haverford College, the University of Chicago, and Vanderbilt University. He taught for two years at the University of Freiburg, Germany, and for two years at the National University of Rwanda. Since 1987 he has been an English professor at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis. His new book is Saving Madame Bovary: Being Happy With What We Have.


By Bruce Fleming
Frederic C. Beil, 2017. 320 pp.


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