About a month ago, I read Middlesex, the Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, whose first novel was The Virgin Suicides. I had seen the film version of Suicides, directed by Sofia Coppola, but that isn’t why I bought Middlesex.
The voice of Middlesex is a person whose anatomy is not easily identified as male or female, what has come to be termed intersex. I have a child who, though not physiologically intersex, has been influenced by Simon Baron-Cohen’s Empathizing-Systemizing theory which holds that autism spectrum disorder, or Asperger’s syndrome, leads to an extreme male brain (EMB). As described in a 2011 post on Woman with Asperger’s, some female Aspies do feel in between:
While I am biologically female, I have never felt at home in the world of women. I have trouble understanding and socializing with most neurotypical women, and I am not interested in the same things that they are: I’d rather talk about the Enneagram or philosophy than about the latest gossip in the mill. My sense of fashion and style has come from years of observation, developing my own color palettes (I find that black, purple, blue, red, gold, and silver are each to match with each other), finding comfortable fabrics and shoes, and making a lot of mistakes, and it did not come natural to me; you are looking at the girl who was more interested in Greek mythology and African-American poetry than fixing her hair, which used to drive the aunt who raised me to distraction. And as I have mentioned before, I have empathy but lack the ability sometimes to decode the signals of what people are feeling and what they might need. Truthfully, I do almost feel half-female, half-male as Simone described above – for example, I have a primary male alter-ego who finds himself as the speaker in about a good third of my poems.
But EMB is a controversial theory, as described in a 2013 post on Musings of an Aspie:
There are a lot of holes in the EMB theory. It bases maleness and femaleness on a single pair of traits, which aren’t even mutually exclusive. It subscribes to outdated gender stereotypes of men as less nurturing and women as less logical/intellectual. It uses questionnaires designed by the researcher to prove the researcher’s point. It fails to even acknowledge the existence of nonbinary gender identity (which is especially significant in autistic populations, as mentioned later in this post). It completely ignores the possibility that females are simply underdiagnosed, which undermines the protective effect line of thinking. It uses characteristics of autism as a proxy for gender traits, thereby “proving” a link between gender and autism.
I have read my child’s prolific fan-fiction writings, and they strike me as coming from a female perspective, but it isn’t my journey. So I’m trying to read up on intersex and transgender issues.
Intersexuality is a very uncomfortable topic, as evidenced by all the people arguing over who uses which bathroom. I guess some people simply don’t know the difference between transvestites, who simply wear clothing of the opposite sex, and transgender people, who have changed their bodies to become the opposite sex. Others do know the difference, but enjoy being mean.
3 Quarks Daily featured an article in Nature, The spectrum of sex development: Eric Vilain and the intersex controversy. DSD is short for Disorders of Sex Development. It’s a good article:
Vilain has spent the better part of his career studying the ambiguities of sex. Now a paediatrician and geneticist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), he is one of the world’s foremost experts on the genetic determinants of DSDs. He has worked closely with intersex advocacy groups that campaign for recognition and better medical treatment — a movement that has recently gained momentum. And in 2011, he established a major longitudinal study to track the psychological and medical well-being of hundreds of children with DSDs.
Vilain says that he doesn’t seek out controversy, but his research seems to attract it. His studies on the genetics of sexual orientation — an area that few others will touch — have attracted criticism from scientists, gay-rights activists and conservative groups alike. He is also a medical adviser for the International Olympic Committee, which about five years ago set controversial rules by which intersex individuals are allowed to compete in women’s categories.
But what has brought Vilain the most grief of late has been his stance on sex-assignment surgery for infants with DSDs. Although he generally opposes it, he won’t categorically condemn it or the doctors who perform it. As a result, many intersex advocates who object to the practice now see him as a hindrance to their cause.
Some deaf people have embraced their lack of hearing as normal for them, and assert that cochlear implant surgery separates deaf children from the mainstream of deaf culture. Similarly, some intersex people oppose any sort of corrective surgery on infants or children as not normal for them, and as rife with disastrous realizations later in life. In some ways, Middlesex is a very long explanation of that point-of-view.
What a hornet’s nest!
Back in May 2014 I posted The Neg, in which I compared the Pickup Artist technique to Richard Feynman’s account of picking up strippers from his book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman. I am no scientist, but I enjoy reading about science, and have read The Feynman Lectures, Six Easy Pieces, the Krauss bio and the comic-style illustrated bio of Feynman.
My opinion was that following his long courtship of, and brief marriage to, the terminally-ill Arline, he immersed himself in meaningless sexual experimentation for several years, and a bad second marriage. I was disappointed to read about his affairs with the wives of coworkers, but it did seem that he had finally settled himself with a third marriage.
On July 11th 2014, Ashutosh Jogalekar posted, Richard Feynman, sexism and changing perceptions of a scientific icon – a far more critical, but well-reasoned, take on the famous man. I only found it from links on the Galileo’s Pendulum post. Scientific American, however, soon removed Jogalekar’s post … then restored it some time later:
The irony thus seems to be that, just like Feynman was fond of generating cherry picked anecdotes about himself, we seem to be fond of generating skewed, cherry picked anecdotes about him that accuse him of sexism. … My own perceptions of Feynman have changed, and that’s the way it should be. At first I idolized Feynman like many others, but over time, as a more careful reading of his life revealed some of the unseemlier sides of his character, I became aware of his flaws. While I still love his lectures and science, these flaws have affected my perception of his personality, and I am glad they did. There are things that he said or did that are clearly wrong or questionable at the very least, but we can at least be grateful that we have evolved to a stage where even the few instances of his behavior that have been documented would not be tolerated on today’s college campuses and would be instantly condemned. As a man I do not now admire Feynman as much as I did before, but I am also glad to have a more complete understanding of his life and times.
At The Curious Wavefunction, Jogalekar explains why his post disappeared and reappeared:
Here’s the gist of the story:
1. I host a guest post on women in science and later, I write a post on Wade’s controversial book (these are 2 of almost 200 posts on a variety of topics I’ve written for SciAm).
2. In response to criticism of the two posts on social media, SciAm issues a public statement. The blog editor asks me to run “controversial” posts by him. No specific guidelines are discussed (something I now regret not doing).
3. I write a post about how my perception of Feynman has changed and how we need to judge historical figures in their entirety and understand the times in which they lived. I do not think the post was “controversial” in the least and therefore do not run it by the editor.
4. The post elicits both positive and negative responses on Twitter, blogs and email.
5. The post is taken down because the editors find it “controversial” and think that I should have run it by them. I am told that it would be best to part ways with the network.
6. SciAm resurrects the post with a note containing what I would consider an accurate, but incomplete, description of events.
Two days later, Matthew R Francis at Galileo’s Pendulum posted, The problem of Richard Feynman. Francis didn’t think Jogalekar went far enough, but many commenters asserted that Feynman was just a normal guy for his time being accused under modern political correctness:
Feynman doesn’t need us to defend him, anymore than Einstein does. Their legacies in science are secure, so it doesn’t behoove us to defend their often less-than-stellar personal lives, especially when they did damage to people less powerful than themselves. It certainly does nobody any favors to say, as Ash Jogalekar did in a blog post for Scientific American, that Feynman was no worse than anyone else in his era. The post was removed by the editors (and I’ll leave it to others to debate whether that’s a good tactic or not; I have mixed feelings myself), but several people archived the text before it vanished. [The post is now back. See the Update below.] While much of the post is valid — Jogalekar doesn’t deny a lot of Feynman’s bad behavior — he ends up falling into the same pit of excuse-making. Worse, he implies that Feynman’s “game” is probably universal and necessary for men to play.
On the same day another Sci Am blogger, Janet D Stemwedel, posted, Heroes, human “foibles”, and science outreach – essentially echoing Matthew:
While it is true that much of what we know about Richard Feynman’s behavior is the result of Feynman telling stories about himself, there stories really don’t seem to indicate awareness of the harmful impacts his behavior might have had on others. Moreover, Feynman’s tone in telling these stories suggests he assumed an audience that would be taken with his cleverness, including his positioning of women (and his ability to get into their pants) as a problem to be solved scientifically.
And a day later, Mathematigal posted, Feynman is not my hero:
… every time I hear someone in my department or in one of my classes go on about how Feynman was so awesome I mean he was kind of a jerk to women but whatever, I file him (and it is almost always always a him) away as someone who would have sided against me in every single one of the situations I’ve mentioned. Every time I see a joking tweet or post about how Feynman’s second wife divorced him because she didn’t like that he was always doing calculus in his head, while totally ignoring the fact that the divorce papers indicate that he would fly into a rage, attack her, and break furniture whenever she interrupted said mental calculus, my world gets a little bit smaller.
I can vouch that a divorce action is not always the best source of facts. And it is not unusual for many men to want to sleep with women, and for some women to accommodate them. But as I have looked at the Polanski, Cosby, Allen and now Richardson and Charney stories it is clear that a lot of successful men that have preyed on women and girls will be granted the benefit of any doubt by other men, and even some women that admire their work.
So I will now think about Feynman a bit less charitably. But it isn’t just the famous that get a pass. The leading story in the NY Times last week was about a first year student who was raped at a party soon after arriving at Hobart and William Smith College.
It took the college just 12 days to investigate the rape report, hold a hearing and clear the football players. The football team went on to finish undefeated in its conference, while the woman was left, she said, to face the consequences — threats and harassment for accusing members of the most popular sports team on campus.
Some guy just shot a bunch of young people because girls wouldn’t sleep with him. Even though he tried the techniques prescribed by so-called PUA – PickUp Artists – he wasn’t getting anywhere with them. So he wrote a manifesto, then bought a gun and started shooting.
I did read about this PUA pickup technique a few years ago, and it basically involved the “neg” – putting women down, a little, so they’d try to impress you. Normally I wouldn’t expect that to work at all if not for certain women I have known that do always seem to gravitate to men who treat them badly. So perhaps it works on women with serious esteem issues. And perhaps it occasionally surprises attractive women who are used to being pursued.
PUA reminded me of something I read in Richard Feynman’s odd autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman. I had assumed he was a born rogue, but later I read Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science, by Lawrence Krauss, and discovered that Dick actually grew up as a nice young man, albeit brilliant, and married his childhood sweetheart Arline – even though she was clearly dying of tuberculosis.
I suppose that loss could throw a guy’s psyche for a loop. After Arline died, Feynman became known as a womanizer, even sleeping with a colleague’s wife, but after a bad marriage and some wild years settled into a long, happy marriage. But long before finding Gweneth, he found himself going to strip clubs, buying drinks for the girls but getting no action. He complained to the MC at the bar, who advised him:
“OK,” he says. “The whole principle is this: The guy wants to be a gentleman. He doesn’t want to be thought of as impolite, crude, or especially a cheapskate. As long as the girl knows the guy’s motives so well, it’s easy to steer him in the direction she wants him to go.
“Therefore,” he continued, “under no circumstances be a gentleman! You must disrespect the girls. Furthermore, the very first rule is, don’t buy a girl anything — not even a package of cigarettes — until you’ve asked her if she’ll sleep with you, and you’re convinced that she will, and that she’s not lying.”
“Uh… you mean… you don’t… uh… you just ask them?”
“OK,” he says, “I know this is your first lesson, and it may be hard for you to be so blunt. So you might buy her one thing — just one little something — before you ask. But on the other hand, it will only make it more difficult.”
Well, someone only has to give me the principle, and I get the idea. All during the next day I built up my psychology differently: I adopted the attitude that those bar girls are all bitches, that they aren’t worth anything, and all they’re in there for is to get you to buy them a drink, and they’re not going to give you a goddamn thing; I’m not going to be a gentleman to such worthless bitches, and so on. I learned it till it was automatic.
Then that night I was ready to try it out. I go into the bar as usual, and right away my friend says, “Hey, Dick! Wait’ll you see the girl I got tonight! She had to go change her clothes, but she’s coming right back.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I say, unimpressed, and I sit at another table to watch the show. My friend’s girl comes in just as the show starts, and I’m thinking, “I don’t give a damn how pretty she is; all she’s doing is getting him to buy her drinks, and she’s going to give him nothing!”
After the first act my friend says, “Hey, Dick! I want you to meet Ann. Ann, this is a good friend of mine, Dick Feynman.”
I say “Hi” and keep looking at the show.
A few moments later Ann says to me, “Why don’t you come and sit at the table here with us?”
I think to myself, “Typical bitch: he’s buying her drinks, and she’s inviting somebody else to the table.” I say, “I can see fine from here.”
A little while later a lieutenant from the military base nearby comes in, dressed in a nice uniform. It isn’t long, before we notice that Ann is sitting over on the other side of the bar with the lieutenant!
Later that evening I’m sitting at the bar, Ann is dancing with the lieutenant, and when the lieutenant’s back is toward me and she’s facing me, she smiles very pleasantly to me. I think again, “Some bitch! Now she’s doing this trick on the lieutenant even!”
Then I get a good idea: I don’t look at her until the lieutenant can also see me, and then I smile back at her, so the lieutenant will know what’s going on. So her trick didn’t work for long.
A few minutes later she’s not with the lieutenant any more, but asking the bartender for her coat and handbag, saying in a loud, obvious voice, “I’d like to go for a walk. Does anybody want to go for a walk with me?”
I think to myself, “You can keep saying no and pushing them off, but you can’t do it permanently, or you won’t get anywhere. There comes a time when you have to go along.” So I say coolly, “I’ll walk with you.” So we go out. We walk down the street a few blocks and see a cafe, and she says, “I’ve got an idea — let’s get some coffee and sandwiches, and go over to my place and eat them.”
The idea sounds pretty good, so we go into the cafe and she orders three coffees and three sandwiches and I pay for them. As we’re going out of the cafe, I think to myself, “Something’s wrong: too many sandwiches!”
On the way to her motel she says, “You know, I won’t have time to eat these sandwiches with you, because a lieutenant is coming over…” I think to myself, “See, I flunked. The master gave me a lesson on what to do, and I flunked. I bought her $1.10 worth of sandwiches, and hadn’t asked her anything, and now I know I’m gonna get nothing! I have to recover, if only for the pride of my teacher.”
I stop suddenly and I say to her, “You… are worse than a WHORE!”
‘“You got me to buy these sandwiches, and what am I going to get for it? Nothing!”
“Well, you cheapskate!” she says. “If that’s the way you feel, I’ll pay you back for the sandwiches!”
I called her bluff: “Pay me back, then.”
She was astonished. She reached into her pocketbook, took out the little bit of money that she had and gave it to me. I took my sandwich and coffee and went off.
After I was through eating, I went back to the bar to report to the master. I explained everything, and told him I was sorry that I flunked, but I tried to recover.
He said very calmly, “It’s OK, Dick; it’s all right. Since you ended up not buying her anything, she’s gonna sleep with you tonight.”
“That’s right,” he said confidently; “she’s gonna sleep with you. I know that.”
“But she isn’t even here! She’s at her place with the lieu —”
“It’s all right.”
Two o’clock comes around, the bar closes, and Ann hasn’t appeared. I ask the master and his wife if I can come over to their place again. They say sure. Just as we’re coming out of the bar, here comes Ann, running across Route 66 toward me. She puts her arm in mine, and says, “Come on, let’s go over to my place.”
The master was right. So the lesson was terrific!
I want to interject here, a former girlfriend of mine told me about a conversation she was having with a stripper on DC Metro once. The woman told her, “Stripping is easy, you just have to hate men.” Presumably these 1950s era strippers did not all hate men, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them were easy to manipulate. Feynman goes on:
When I was back at Cornell in the fall, I was dancing with the sister of a grad student, who was visiting from Virginia. She was very nice, and suddenly I got this idea: “Let’s go to a bar and have a drink,” I said.
On the way to the bar I was working up nerve to try the master’s lesson on an ordinary girl. After all, you don’t feel so bad disrespecting a bar girl who’s trying to get you to buy her drinks — but a nice, ordinary, Southern girl?
We went into the bar, and before I sat down, I said, “Listen, before I buy you a drink, I want to know one thing: Will you sleep with me tonight?”
So it worked even with an ordinary girl! But no matter how effective the lesson was, I never really used it after that. I didn’t enjoy doing it that way. But it was interesting to know that things worked much differently from how I was brought up.
Anyway, I never tried this myself, but rereading it again, I wonder if Dick was all that rigorous in testing his theory. It makes for a great story, and Feynman was a great raconteur. Maybe he was bragging a little. Or maybe he realized that the sort of girl that falls for this approach was not what he really wanted, and that the sort of guy that plays these games was not what he wanted to be.
The war between men and women continues unabated. One of the most emailed and popular articles on the NY Times has been, Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex? It is a very long article, and very speculative, but the upshot is that the author feels that equality leads to a happy wife, a happy life, but not necessarily more, or passionate sex:
No matter how much sink-scrubbing and grocery-shopping the husband does, no matter how well husband and wife communicate with each other, no matter how sensitive they are to each other’s emotions and work schedules, the wife does not find her husband more sexually exciting, even if she feels both closer to and happier with him. … “The less gender differentiation, the less sexual desire.” In other words, in an attempt to be gender-neutral, we may have become gender-neutered.
According to the article, both men and women are hard-wired to expect that passionate sex will involve male dominance and female submission. Though the devil is in the details, that idea rings bells for me. When I was a boy, my mother and I were watching a movie on tv (Number One) with Charlton Heston as an aging quarterback. In one scene he argues with Jessica Walter, who plays his disaffected wife, then forces himself on her. She initially resists, then starts to respond. “And they call that rape,” my mother said. That was … a surprise.
During one of our necking sessions my first (much more experienced) girlfriend dragged my hand to her breast. I had no idea what to do then. (OK, I had some idea, but wasn’t sure what was allowed.) She soon dropped me for someone that presumably did. Quite a bit later my first lover asked me to talk trashy to her during sex. I had no idea what to say. Tom Jones and Balthazar B were about the extent of my sexual heroes, and neither waxed eloquent while making love.
But on the other hand, many lovers later, I made passionate love during a thunderstorm, at one point holding my arms around her arms around her head. She always loved thunderstorm sex, but grumbled that me pinning her down reminded her of the time she had been raped. I’ve dated one woman who showed me a picture of her black eye, one who was intimidated into office sex, one that was date-raped, one that was raped in her dorm room by an intruder and whose ex-husband used to spit on her if she couldn’t achieve orgasm. Yes, the one that was raped had trouble enjoying marital sex.
Here is where I’m supposed to give a pat rejoinder to the article’s premise, but I’m still as confused about women as when I had a crush on a little blonde girl in Kindergarten.
It does seem clear to me that women are attracted to powerful and wealthy men who can take care of them, but at the same time it is an article of faith among self-identified nice guys that women are drawn to the bad boys. Does that sound like a plot quandary from a Woody Allen film? If so he solved it by becoming rich, powerful and a bad boy. In light of the Dylan Farrow furor, XoJane asked, What Is It About Our Artists and Very Young Girls?:
It’s no mystery why teen girls would be drawn to the powerful men who court them. Young girls, a traditionally fairly powerless group, wake up one day to discover they wield enormous sexual power, power they may use without the perspective or emotional maturity to fully understand the consequences. Many 13-year-olds with access to rock stars and visionary directors would be thrilled to capture one’s interest, but unable to fully understand how unlevel the playing field truly is.
I’ve never courted younger women, but in three musicals I dealt with teenage girls in the cast flirting with me. Over the run of a show everyone becomes close through common purpose; it is easy to confuse that closeness with other feelings, and some guys do take advantage of that. I realized that these girls weren’t looking for a lover, they were just charmed that a man would actually talk with and listen to them, and had turned me into a fantasy boyfriend. Just before dress rehearsal one actually dragged me out in the hall to show her friends.
I wonder now – if I had taken advantage and groomed them for sexual encounters, and later been accused – I wonder how many male internet commenters would step up to defend me and attack them? In, Victims Of Sexual Assault Need To Take Their Share Of Blame, Too, TPM continues to report on blaming the victim:
[Wall Street Journal columnist James] Taranto is a reliable soldier in what he’s called the “war on men.” He wrote last June that Democrats … were trying to “criminalize male sexuality” in their efforts to eliminate sexual assault from the military.
Taranto had quoted a New York Time article, Stepping Up to Stop Sexual Assault, which reported on an effort to recruit bystanders to stop the rape of approximately one out of every five college women:
According to an account in New England Monthly at the time, an extremely drunk freshman was led into a Stoke Hall dorm room by three drunk sophomores who took turns having sex with her. One went into the hallway and bragged that they had a train going, high-fiving his friends. Several students, including the resident assistant, knew what was going on but did not put an end to it. Nor did the roommate intervene as the three boys tried to pressure the girl into saying it was consensual. …
College men use two words to describe when a man gets in the way of another man’s business, and it is not “bystander intervention.” For the purposes of a family newspaper, call it “shot blocking.”
In the Urban Dictionary, Cock Blocking is defined as, “To hinder, by whatever means, the chances of another male from getting a sexual encounter with a female.”