Monday, April 16, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey

A thought experiment: Suppose that a murky e-book about women as sexual dominatrices became a best-seller among female readers. How would such a thing be written up in the mainstream media?

That it really IS the End Of Men? That civilization is dying? That the sky is falling? That the most feared scenario of the misogynists is becoming reality: A world where women reverse patriarchy and force men to experience what it feels like to be at the receiving end?

No such book has been written, of course, so you don't see those takes. But I bet you anything that they would have been the takes.

Instead, there's an equally murky book about women as sexual submissives (Fifty Shades of Grey) and, oh boy, aren't we going to hear about its success among women! Not only as a poorly written soft-pron book aimed at the female market but as An Indicator Of How Women Wish To Submit In Life. To men. Katie Roiphe's voice will be heard on that topic, as it has been in the past heard on the topic of how there is no date-rape and how feminists hate babies.

She is what is called a contrarian in a society where contrarianism, when applied to gender, amounts to supporting the existing unequal gender roles.

But Roiphe was late at the starting line. Maureen Dowd managed to sneak a story in faster, with an actual interview of a dominatrix! As the source of what percentage of women might be sexual submissives! I love the careful research in these kinds of pieces, I do. And the point is ultimately always whether women really want to be equal with men or not.

We have had these discussions many times before. Indeed, they are cyclical, like periods. They are not much based on actual evidence. Katie Roiphe, for instance, appears to accept the End Of Men bullshit and seems to equate the popularity of a certain book among women of certain demographic characteristics as indicating that most women are sexual masochists, perhaps even masochists in all aspects of their lives.

Yet actual data doesn't support any kind of End Of Men and data about women's (and men's) sexual desires is very hard to come by. It's even harder to deduce which aspects of those desires are created by our life experiences* (and thus affected by the societal norms) and which aspects are somehow innate.

But the biggest misuse of the mostly nonexistent data is the one Roiphe makes, to draw conclusions about women's societal role aspirations and the popularity of one SM book. Sexually submissive men can be bosses in large firms, perhaps even presidents of countries, for instance, and those who like this book may consist of mostly sexual submissives, not of some general cross-section of women. (Or of men. I have no idea whether we know who the readers are.)

I get how irresistible this story is to the mainstream media. It has everything! Support of patriarchal views and kinky sex! And it doesn't look at the mirror side at all. Even though the man in the book appears to be a sexual sadist and the woman just goes along with his desires, we get no careful discussions to place his sexual sadism into a wider societal context as something perhaps caused by his diminished dominance in other parts of life. Indeed, the mirror side in these stories has no reflection at all!

The data that would be needed for Roiphe's thesis (which appears to be that sexual submissiveness increases in women as their equality increases) doesn't exist because we don't have good historical data on what roles people preferred in sex in the past. But I'm skeptical of that claim, myself.

What's most interesting in these kinds of stories (the pseudo-trends about women not wanting equality or not wanting the high costs of equality) is how very visible their construction is. There's never any real attempt to research a question, but anecdotes, fiction or movies are used in its place. When the pseudo-trend turns out to be pseudo, nobody cares because by then we are busy with the next pseudo-trend.
*Just one quick example: If you are taught that you are a slut or a whore (which is a bad thing) whenever you express any active interest in sex, how will you reconcile that with desire? Perhaps by adopting a passive role in your sexual dreams because then you are not a slut/whore but still get the hot sex?