03: Sexuality cont’d

with 8 comments

In conversations about “new” masculinity there is a lot of lip service to balance: to complementing the masculine with the feminine, and vice versa. But balance is good, right? It prevents things becoming too extreme? Unfortunately, this is not the case. Based on the work of gender theorist Judith Butler, what I’m about to say might initially appear like an inconsequential philosophical/theoretical exercise, but it has significant ramifications. When we talk about complementing the masculine with the feminine with the intention of seeking balance and preventing gender extremism, we are actually doing the exact opposite: we are consolidating the masculine and feminine poles we are seeking to complement. How? Because by complementing one pole with the other we confirm the perceived “reality” of those poles. As Butler puts it, “to be not quite masculine or not quite feminine is still to be understood exclusively in terms of one’s relationship to the ‘quite masculine’ and the ‘quite feminine.’” If you want to “complement” or “balance” those poles (in other words, abandon the extremes on which they are based), you need to proactively reject the concept of the pole in the first place. In short, forget balancing standard perceptions of masculine and feminine: instead, change the standard perception of masculine and feminine (indeed, understand that there is no justifiable standard perception of masculine and feminine).

Here’s the second important point about maintaining those values in an appropriate way. When I unhook those words “time/history, intellectual, explicit, analytic, linear, sequential, focal, logical, causal, argument and perfection” from masculinity, it does not mean that I am dispensing with them; nor those words we also need to unhook from femininity. All those values and words remain on the table, it’s simply that we no longer call them masculine and feminine; we no longer hold them in polar tension to one another. All those values remain available to all people at all times: men/women, gay/straight, fiery/cool, or whatever.

We do not need to think solely about new things in order to break through the conspiracy; rather, we have to think about old things in a different way. This is neither revolutionary nor traumatic, but a simple shift in perspective that can have massive implications for sexuality (and all things). Suddenly, we are not one of two likely ways of doing things sexually, but one of an almost infinite number of ways.

Before we get on to The Solution section where this sexual multiplicity will be further explored, I want to suggest one last easy exercise that can be used to challenge texts such as Lawlor and Deida’s that I call the Mother Test. In order to undertake the Mother Test, you need to identify certain points in the text and read them out loud to your mother. If you don’t have a mother, it could be any senior woman—either in age or achievement—in your life who you hope holds you in good stead. I’d like you to read out loud to this woman the passages where Deida writes things like, “for the feminine truth is a thin concept,” and Lawlor that “ancient texts state that telling lies is an essential characteristic in female nature.” You might also read out the passages above from Lawlor and Deida about rape.

How do you think that’s going to work out? I’m not suggesting for a second that mothers are the bottom line for values in society: indeed, there most certainly will be things that need to be said that many mothers will not want to hear (like how they often perpetuate the conspiracy, for example). But the Mother Test is one of many tools that can be used in tandem with others to gauge whether what’s on the table is genuinely a “new” (presumably positive) masculinity that you should throw your weight behind, and what is embarrassingly old.



Written by Joseph Gelfer

August 1, 2010 at 12:41 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Hi Joseph! Just wanted to say, I’m enjoying your book so far. I really appreciate your style – I think the balance of analytic rigour and informal tone works really well. It strikes me as a very “honest” way of writing. As someone who likes to think, and read about the thoughts others have had, I’ve developed a strong distaste for the pseudo-objective tone of much academic prose. After writing a bit of that type of material myself, I realized how essentially phoney it was. It’s based on little more than trivial things like word choice and grammar structure – and yet it often creates (or strives to create) the impression in the reader s/he is being Schooled by a True Expert. Your writing is a refreshing contrast to such silliness. Your ideas are well organized and clearly conveyed, but you also freely admit to your own values and agendas, rather than trying to gloss them over with rhetorical sleight of hand. It’s a great way to discuss things, and I hope more people follow your example.

    That said, I am having some reservations with the direction I anticipate your argument will take from here. I commend your effort to critique ideas that have misogynistic (or misanthropic!) implications or consequences, but as for me personally, I have had a sense of the reality of the “male/female” dichotomy for a very long time. For me, the male principle is one of purposive action, while the female principle is one of harmony and perception. You might call them “doing” and “being”. I guess my biggest qualm with this dichotomy is that it is based on gender at all. The fact that we have assigned these two poles to the two genders respectively seems like a generally unnecessary afterthought to me. Personally, although my biological sex is male, I have never felt that I embody the “male” half of the dichotomy more than the “female” half. I think they are both equally valuable, and for me, to focus on one would be to forfeit a portion of my potential as a human being. If anything, I think I gravitate more to the “female” principle – perhaps because I feel that this principle is somewhat neglected in our current culture.


    October 19, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    • Hi Mark: thanks for your kind words and thoughts.

      I *think* we’re on the same page. As the book unfolds, I show that all the values often ascribed to the masculine (your “purposive action,” for example) remain on the table: we just cease to call them masculine, and assume they are open to everyone. Nothing is erased: rather, everything is re-framed.


      October 19, 2011 at 3:50 pm

  2. What I’m trying to say is that any ‘test’ of this kind at best says more about the emotional charge of a statement, or of emotional triggers in the receiver than as a tool to challenge any text. For who knows how deep the Mother has been diving into the Conspiracy all of her life? You assume the Mother to be somehow ‘free’ (or at least: more free) from the indoctrinations of the dogma/doctrine.

    Between 2001 and 2009 I researched the theme of men, masculinity and sexuality in Africa (plagued by AIDS and horrifying numbers of sexual and domestic violence) for my book, and one of the things I came across time and again is the alleged smothering of boys by their mothers and nannies in very specific ways, which is seen by many a researcher as one of the root causes for some of the problems this continent faces. In a country like Botswana, misogynism rules. However, close to 75 % of all households there are led by single-parents (read: mothers).
    I have my deepest doubts about this causality, but it does make me doubt the use of a Mother Test in many places in Africa. I’m sure you don’t mind me deciding NOT to put this exercise in my tool box.

    Having said all that: Your writing and your ideas are way too interesting for me to be put off by some weird concept of a Mother Test, to which I laughed out loud, shook my head and typed my comment.


    November 25, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    • Certainly, take whatever you find of use, run with it and throw away the rest.


      November 25, 2010 at 7:42 pm

  3. Hmmm – I am not sure how to read this part here. The author tends to use smilies in his text when something is to be read ‘tongue in cheek’. I don’t see smilies here, so I think it’s safe to presume the “Mother Test” is to be taken seriously.
    Apart from what the last remaining Freudian Warriors on the planet might have to say on this ‘exercise’, I think the idea of such a ‘test’ shouldn’t have made it through the editing table. The flimsy concept undermines in my opinion the scientific ambitions of this work.

    Because something is sure to anger the Mother, it probably shouldn’t be taken as ‘truth’…? I mean, is this a serious proposition?

    What then about doing a ‘Father Test’? If Father nods in agreement and Mom is in a rage, we’re to assume the ‘truth-ness’ is still to be debated?
    Why not read any kind of text to whomever is bound to get anywhere between irritated and enraged?
    Why not put something on an oil spill to the CEO of BP, and so test the ‘truth’ of the statement? Or about whale hunting to a person in Japan who happens to be fond of the tasty meat of a whale and so test the ‘truth-ness’?
    What happens if I read the statement about the Mother Test to a person with a PhD in Literature Critique…?
    And so on, and so forth; you’ll probably get my drift.

    Once subjective standards become the bar to measure things by, I am afraid we’re in trouble.

    Having said all this, I guess it’s safest to assume the smilie went missing somewhere along typing these particular paragraphs. 🙂


    November 25, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    • Thanks for your comments.

      I don’t really have any “scientific ambitions”: in issues of sex and gender science is usually mobilized in claims of biological determinism which, as I’ve pointed out in the text, is not my cup of tea.

      It’s a simple point: the Mother Test assumes that you would not like to make misogynistic comments to your mother, so if you would hesitate about talking to her about women’s allegedly thin grasp on the truth, then there is probably a whiff of misogyny in the air. There is nothing added to such a point whether or not the father agrees: a Father Test might be useful if daughters were talking about female authors writing peculiar things about men, but that’s not what’s on the table.

      A PhD in Literature Critique is free to read it any way s/he wants (invariably the case), but my authorial intent is for the exercise to be read straight (but s/he probably wouldn’t privilege authorial intent) 🙂


      November 25, 2010 at 5:46 pm

      • It seems to me that the Mother Test is similar to (but perhaps easier than) the Jew Test: Replace all instances of words pertaining to the female with “Jew/Jewish/etc”. If the modified text sounds anti-semitic, the original was probably misogynist. If your sense of anti-semitism isn’t all that well honed, you can do something similar with other commonly persecuted and/or under-privileged groups that work better for you.

        Apel Mjausson

        March 16, 2011 at 8:48 am

        • Yes, I think that’s why a Father Test doesn’t work in quite the same way: the systemic power of the father doesn’t fit with those persecuted and/or under-privileged groups.


          March 16, 2011 at 9:00 am

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