Thursday, July 14, 2005

Quick thought on stereotypes and liberation movements

There is a nasty flame war going on at Majikthise mostly between John Emerson and Nancy, two people whose comments I have appreciated greatly in the past. I haven't read the whole thing because I don't like seeing people I like lay into each other, but I did have a thought I wanted to share.

Basically, Emerson asserted that there really were women out there who sought relationships with abusive bad-boy types. Several people accused him of perpetuating a negative stereotype about women. One person (not Nancy) compared it to the "drunk Indian" stereotype.

Here's the thing: as far as I know, alcoholism really is a problem on the rez. Sure, conquest and genocide are ultimately to blame, but right now the alcoholism is a self-perpetuating phenomenon. That means that it would be a mistake for Native American activists to pretend it doesn't exist in the name of combating negative stereotypes. And to my knowledge, Native American activists do acknowledge the problem and fight against it.

Now for the analogy to feminism: it would be foolish for feminists to deny the existence of a problem because it makes women look bad. Since everyone engages in self-sabotaging behaviors, I am certain that women engage in self-sabotaging behaviors. It makes perfect sense to say that for some women, this includes seeking out abusive partners. I don't have data here, but I'd like to see it.

Some men also seem to seek out hurtful relationships, although the harm typically takes a different form. The sociologist down the hall from me has argued based on her fieldwork that the men who go to strip clubs are actively seeking to have their heart broken by strippers, a thesis I find fascinating.

In general, feminist thought has followed two paths which are sometimes in tension. On the one hand, we investigate the ways that women's power and agency has gone unacknowledged. On the other hand, we investigate the ways that women have had their power taken away. These two endeavors can only be reconciled by a commitment to realism. Good standards of evidence, scientific thinking, and a belief that the world will always outstrip our interpretations of the world must guide us in deciding women women's agency has been effective and when women (or anyone else) have undercut themselves. In general, we need a commitment to being a reality-based knowledge-seeking community.

This is, I suppose, my first post on the topic of "realism and the reality-based community," a line of thought which is mostly about how much I like the phrase "reality-based community" and all its philosophical import.

Update: I've looked more at this thread, and there seem to be a number of interesting issues being trampled over here, including:

1. Whether men are more interested in casual sex than women.
2. Whether men are less choosy in general about their partners.
3. Whether interested women have more opportunities for sexual adventurousness than men, controlling for appearance by popular standards.
4. Whether "nice guys" do worse in general on the sexual market than "bad boys".

You can make some a priori guesses here, but for the most part what is needed is data that is almost certainly not forthcoming. Point (4) strikes me, and many on Makikthise's board, as a sour grapes attitude partially bolstered by the existence of women who seek out abusive relationships. Point (3), if expressed in terms of mean numbers of partners for men and women, is simply a a mathematical impossibility. But there might be other ways of explaining it that make more sense. If the bell curve for women's numbers of partners were flatter than men's, you could have a situation where a small number of hypersexual women were supporting a lot of moderate promiscuity amongst men. If that were so, then you might say that "opportunities for sexual adventurousness" were available to any women who wanted to join the currently underpopulated hypersexual pool.

I should take a course on statistical methods in the social sciences. I should also go home to my wife and kids.

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