Lovely lovely Mumsnet! In a way, this post doesn’t really belong on this blog but on one of my others, but because it straddles two issues, one gender-related and the other not, it should be here. A couple of things happened today which brought this thought to my attention, and it’s worth going into to illustrate both sides of the issue.
First of all, Mumsnet.
I’ve recently been reading autobiographical works by Eddie Izzard and Grayson Perry, and was curious about how all those nice people on Mumsnet felt about them as gender non-conformists. I was rather surprised to discover that a lot of people on there actually quite like them. Not all of them though. Put on your Joo Jantas and read this if you don’t mind giving them traffic. I’m not going to quote them directly but the opinion is expressed, perhaps unrepresentatively, that someone feels uncomfortable with the fact, and according to his own words it is a fact, that his choice of presentation is sexually motivated and that he’s aroused by other people’s reactions to it. And of course, that’s simply a fact so inflexible that it’s hardly worth saying that it’s her right to feel that way. She just does. That, then, is on the paraphilia side.
Whilom, there had been a post on a FB birdwatching group about a cartoon spider and apparently a number of other posts of spiders which were removed and threads on this matter which had their comments turned off by an administrator. Now I am entirely at peace with the idea of protecting people vulnerable to being triggered and completely support those decisions, but it also gives me pause for thought, because as you probably know I used to be kompounophobic, and no such protection can be available for such a person. Or rather, it can, but it would be futile and disproportionate. Out of respect for people who are still kompounophobic, I still avoid posting pictures of the items in question, because it amounts to a freak of nature that I lost the phobia myself. This, however, is not about that but about the principle of individual differences in general, some of which can be very rare. In fact the Australian military once proved that there weren’t enough things most people had in common for them even to design a small range of well-fitting uniforms for their troops. It is in fact impossible to cater for unknown rare phobias, and having had one, that fact is deeply ingrained in my attitude towards shielding people from them. Of course you should try to avoid triggering people, just as you should avoid giving people with a nut allergy nuts, but there has to be a cut-off point below which the “reasonable person” cannot be expected to be aware of certain phobias, particularly if those phobias are unique. That said, the disabling effect of having these triggers around is just as severe if one’s phobia is rare.
On the other side, there are rare paraphilias, or even common ones which don’t occur to people. This means that one may not know how others are perceiving one, and this, for example, is an extra reason why the idea of enforced modest dressing doesn’t make sense. It assumes a level of conformity and stability in the focus of sexual arousal which I doubt exists. There will be some people, mainly men probably, whom I suspect will actually be more turned on than seeing a naked female form, and in fact hiding bodies away is likely to increase interest in what they’re hidden under. But that may be more a power-based imposition by men on women than about real modesty and it is of course victim-blaming. It also assumes a fixed focus, and behind this, I think, is a desire for a sense of security and a stable world.
And this is the thing. I think what was behind the poster’s expression of discomfort at Grayson Perry’s sexual motivation for his choice of clothing was that they disliked the idea of unanticipated sexual arousal by others. There are two elements here. One is that there is indeed an ethical question with sexual objectification which is occurring here in an unusual way because he likes the idea of being considered ridiculous by others and it’s that sense of ludicrousness which arouses him, without consent, but it also opens the door to a real world in which people might find anything sexually arousing, and there’s no defence against that, which is highly disturbing. It takes away the idea of a safe “home” environment which one can make decisions to venture forth from, because in fact this environment exists in your own head. Jean-Paul Sartre talks about the essential discomfort of other people, as dramatised in «Huis Clos» with his depiction of Hell as simply being trapped in a room with other people forever. This is because of the uncanniness of a “hole” in one’s world where the other person’s subjectivity is situated. That is, one has one’s own version of the world, out of which one cannot step, but this includes other people, who are out of one’s control and to some extent insight. However, I regard this as a very gloomy interpretation of the social world. To quote the psychedelic group Love:
Yeah, I heard a funny thing
Somebody said to me
You know that I could be in love with almost everyone
I think that people are
The greatest funLove – ‘Alone Again Or’ from Forever Changes, (c) 1967.
In fact, I’ve always found Sartre to be a bit miserablist and also self-centred and I don’t really understand how such an egoist could have become Communist. I suspect also that Simone de Beauvoir’s negative view of femaleness as biologically determined and basically a trap compared to maleness regardless of social circumstances is related to this. I don’t know as much as I ought about Sartre, but it seems either that they were drawn to each other by their pessimism or that one drew the other into their negative world view. I do understand, of course, that the condition of being female is problematised in patriarchal society but this is the result of what sexism and the patriarchy does to people rather than some rigid biological “given” as she puts it. There’s a lot of biological determinism in her attitude. I don’t mean to disregard her breakthroughs, such as the sex-gender distinction, but there’s a general feeling of trappedness in both their works which strikes me as a failure of imagination.
Speaking of trappedness, I don’t think Grayson Perry has the power to overcome his sexuality, so all we’re left with really is the power he has to reduce or eliminate his libido, and that seems like rather a big ask. That said, insofar as free will exists at all, we do have the choice to mould and express the given of our sexualities in particular ways. The classic example would be pædophiles choosing not to express their sexuality at all. On top of that, though, may be the myth of the unstoppable male libido which must be satisfied at all costs and which men themselves find irresistible. I don’t believe that’s how things really are for men, at least those who have the degree of impulse control found in most people. Given the facticity of his sexuality, involving dressing up as a little girl to provoke an air of ridicule in others, which is partly exhibitionist but no worse for that in a man who, after all, puts on exhibitions, as a creative person who wishes to perform it makes sense and is organic in how he uses that, and to criticise that amounts to kink-shaming, which I have no truck with. Some gender-critical people have described themselves as “kink-critical”, and apart from the unacceptability of that position, i.e. thinking negatively of people for something over which they have no control except the rôle it plays in their lives and whether they express it at all, it’s only a short step from that to homophobia.
This post wouldn’t be here if it was just about paraphilias. Phobias are also an issue. I used to live in a perceptual world equivalent to being expected to accept that people just would cover themselves in vomit or excrement and with the exhortation that I too should do so on formal occasions such as job interviews and funerals. This, incidentally, indicates that the morpheme “-phobia” here is used more in the sense of homophobia than arachnophobia, as a powerful sense of disgust and aversion rather than fear. Not that fear isn’t in there too. This aspect of my phobia gives me insight into the sheer ridiculousness of homophobia. Society is not going to change itself for my convenience and there’s no reason why it should. Likewise, simply because some people are disgusted by what they imagine two people of the same sex and gender get up to sexually, that doesn’t give them the right to intervene.
It must be the case that for many people the world is a constant real-life horror show thanks to their phobias, and there’s nothing to be done about it because the phobias in question are intractable and perhaps an important part of their identity, but also obscure enough not to be anticipated by the vast majority of the population. I have been such a person. It’s limiting in ways which cannot be anticipated, but also a sad fact of life. Nonetheless, it probably is worth mentioning a few rare phobias for the sake of the people concerned (tryptophobia doesn’t count as it’s no longer rare, but should also be remembered):
- Cotton wool buds
- Being “drowned” by peacocks
- Entering a space which has recently or will soon contain a hazard
- Peanut butter (presumably not the same as being afraid due to being allergic to it, which is clearly rational)
- Particular colours
- Cynthia (“The Moon”)
The question arises of how much inconvenience or difficulty it would cause to screen all of these things out just in case, and the negative consequences of doing so. It’s always going to be a judgement call, and quite a difficult one at that, depending on the likelihood of encountering that particular phobia.
The paraphilia/phobia issue is reversed in more ways than one. Not only do they seem to be psychologically similar, at least when they are apparently random and rare, but the perceived adverse effect is reversed. Having an unusual phobia makes the world a hostile place to live in because one never knows when one might encounter the trigger or it may even be practically impossible to do so. Having unusual paraphilias makes the world potentially hostile for other people because of sexual objectification without consent. It means that we may become aware of the same kind of set of circumstances as people with unusual phobias are all too aware of. Hence it’s understandable that one might wish to attempt to repel the possibility or even deny it, and it’s also something you can’t “unsee”. One is at least aware that men are socially conditioned into sexually objectifying women with a certain presentation, although it would place responsibility in the wrong place to expect those who do present in that way not to do so. The existence of a range of other unknowable paraphilias opens up a whole new frightening and creepy world one can’t do anything about.
I would, however, say this. It’s notable that the legalistic religious insistence on dress codes is reminiscent of wanting the world to be simple and comprehensible, with definite answers. The idea regarding women’s appearance is that certain features are attractive to all and only men and that they can be disguised or hidden to reduce or eliminate that attraction. It’s a simple answer to a perceived problem which fails to take into account the chaos and complexity of reality, including ourselves, which brings to mind the idea that the Universe was created in six days and will shortly be destroyed, a few millennia after its creation.
I am theist. However, the existence of my phobia and paraphilias seemed so random and arbitrary that it’s hard to reconcile it with the existence of God, not because of the idea that God has inflicted them upon me but because they are deeply meaningless. Associations can be made causally while evoking evolutionary psychology in some shape or form, but not actual reasons. They just seem so arbitrary and pointless. Perhaps it’s also the case that conservative religionists wish to defend their world view against this apparent randomness.
Reading Grayson Perry’s book ‘The Descent Of Man’ and looking at his other work, I’m left with the impression of a profoundly humane individual who has given masculinity a lot of thought. He doesn’t seem like the kind of person who is contemptuous or oblivious of people’s interests or feelings generally, and in fact it’s practically impossible for him to be so if he’s aware of the idea of wanting to look ridiculous and humiliated in front of others. Confessing to that actually seems quite courageous and honest to me. He isn’t mocking women with his image although it does reflect an unfortunate stereotype.
The point really here is that people’s uniqueness is something to be appreciated and has such a wide range that we cannot imagine it. This can make the world seem threatening, or it can make people as such fascinating.