Since I made a (minor, narrowly construed) concession to complementarian theories of marriage earlier today, I want to follow that up by wholeheartedly endorsing Amanda Marcotte’s commentary on this study:
What’s remarkable about all this is not that men and women have so much in common but that these commonalities persist despite relentless gender policing that usually involves quite a bit of shame. Men face ridicule if they’re perceived as having female-like levels of empathy and concern for their friends, and yet, according to the study, they overcome it. Women are routinely told there’s something wrong with them if they have “masculine” attitudes towards sex and men are emasculated if they aren’t horny all the time or if they desire intimacy alongside their sexual adventures, and yet both genders tend to have a mix of adventurousness and tenderness when it comes to sex. We’re constantly being put in gender silos, and yet, apparently, we keep escaping.
I can be pretty epically un-self aware at times, but one moment from my past that’s been on my mind recently, given all the guns/gun control chatter of recent months, was an incident when I was, I think, 11 years old. I was invited to spend a Saturday at a friend’s house for the first time. He lived out in the country a bit, and had several older brothers. Neither he nor I were developing particularly stereotypically “masculine” personalities at this point. He had a couple of older brothers, as well as a father, who exhibited far more stereotypically masculine personalities, and whose approval my friend (elusively) sought. At some point while I was visiting, the father and older brothers decided it was time for target shooting, apparently a regular activity for them, and invited my friend and I to join. (He did–and missed badly, and was taunted for it). I’d never handled or even physically seen a gun before, but I’d already developed a visceral distaste for them, so I politely declined my turn. At first I was given assurances–it was OK if I didn’t have experience, they’d teach me, nothing to be afraid of, etc etc. When I persisted with my Bartleby-esque refusal, they (including the father) shifted from assurance and encouragement to overtly gender-baiting taunting. Was I a wuss? A sissy? Afraid? Didn’t I want to be a man? and so on and so forth. I was pretty baffled by this; whatever gender policing I’d encountered up to that point in my life, I hadn’t been particularly aware of it, but this was so obvious, and so absurd (I’d never been exposed to the guns/masculinity connection before, as my family had nothing to do with guns) that it defied comprehension. The sheer illogic–the utter nonsense–of connecting shooting a gun to one’s masculinity was overwhelming to my 11 year old self. They clearly expected the gender-baiting to work, and weren’t prepared for my capacity to resist it, because they kept escalating until it was clear that they began to make themselves uncomfortable with the level of frustration my refusal was creating. (especially the father, who eventually seemed to remember he was supposed to be the grown up in this situation). Later, when no one else was around, the mother, who had hovered on the periphery of this bizarre scene, privately tried to reasssure me that it was just fine if I was ready to shoot a gun yet. The father and older brothers, boisterously welcoming when I’d first arrived, were visibly uncomfortable with my presence the rest of the afternoon.
While this incidence was uncomfortable, it wasn’t particularly traumatizing. In fact, in the version of my childhood my memory has constructed, it was a clarifying moment for me. I decided around this time that this sort of gender-norming was bullshit and I wanted nothing to do with it. From then on, when I recognized gender-baiting going on, I didn’t call it out or anything, but I did a pretty good job of not letting it bother me. My adolscence wasn’t great; while I had a few good friends I wasn’t at all popular or normal, and while I was pretty good at being more or less invisible much of the time, I got my fair share of taunting and bullying. But my ability to identify and classify the gender-policing aspect of taunting/bullying (which was, of course, the bulk of it) proved a pretty essential skill at dealing with those years. I didn’t remain particularly close to this friend mentioned earlier, but I saw enough of him to know that he wasn’t coping anywhere near as well with I, and he became pretty withdrawn as time went on, compared to his far more open (and openly weird) 6th grade personality that I’d connected with. A couple of years later, he became the victim of some of the cruelest and most viscious taunting I can remember witnessing in all of my middle school years, when he had the profound misfortune of getting an erection in the shower after gym class. After that I tried to reconnect with him, but he almost seemed like he flinched in fear when I’d try to start a conversation with him. I hoped for his sake his father and brothers never found out about that.
The level of awareness about the social policing of gender norms I was able to acheive at such a young age, and the indifference and contempt toward gender policers I was able to create with it, are obviously and unfortunately rare accomplishments, which is a shame, as I can’t imagine a more useful tool for surviving the social horrors of adolescence. It’s always struck me how much people who find (or at least outwardly seem to find) gender complementarianism comfortable fits for their own personality and relationships are agressively committed to the notion that what’s comfortable to them is also deeply and profoundly natural, and that belief in the naturalness of it all serves as a warrant for the social policing of gender norms. (Which, of course, makes so sense, as Amanda (following John Stuart Mill) notes: if it were truly natural, the social pressure wouldn’t be necessary.) I find it more or less impossible to make sense of the gender complementarian argument for not recognizing same-sex marriage through any lens other than this: “Because X works pretty well in my marriage, and it must serve as a foundation for all (proper) marriages!” (At this point religion and “science” show up to bolster and deepen the commitment). So I join Amanda in imploring the good people of the world who find conventional gender norms a comfortable way to make sense of themselves and their relationships to knock it off with the gender policing in general, but especially with respect to children. It’s perfectly fine to be comfortable with such norms in your own life, and accepting they are conventional rather than natural shouldn’t be a threat to that. A whole lot more people than you probably realize don’t fit particularly well within them, and our collective social capacity to create the expectation that adherence to these norms is a measure of one’s value as a person is probably the most efficient and effective technology we’ve developed for ensuring maximum levels of adolescent misery and crippling insecurity, a fair amount of which extends well beyond the adolescent moment.