I dwell in the
universe of the university, where the humanists these days have a special set
of definitions. Sometimes, even about the seemingly obvious.
Biology dictates that
there are two sexes. Culture acting on biology, so the story goes, makes
gender. Thus gender differences are "socially constructed", as the
jargot--a combination of jargon and argot--has it.
I teach in the
humanities core course for freshmen honors students each year, where such
distinctions are crucial. Once I innocently asked how many genders there were,
and the puzzled response was, well, two, of course. What about homosexuals? I
asked. Don't they represent different persuasions, different cultural flavors? After
culture operates on biology, why should there be a one-to-one mapping?
There followed an
uncomfortable silence, in which it became clear that gender was just a code
word for the latest academic cultural spin put on sex.
well, not an issue. Was it biologically determined? Well, no. It was socially
constructed, as were attitudes toward it. Then why was it persistent in human
societies? No answer.
Much in the
humanities has no answer, for the language is innocent of data. They lack the rub
of the real.
Yet issues of
sexuality, of that old question--what is natural? --remain. We're a highly
charged, sexy species, and such matters mean much to us.
Will technology take
us beyond these issues? This is a science fictional question. Can we ever
achieve a total detachment of gender from sex?--that is, switch roles utterly?
A total polymorphousness?
These are curiously
analytical questions to ask of a subject so steeped in legend and shadowy
emotions. Permit me, then, a digression into--as the humanists would
* * *
To the American male
the vagina has always been a dark realm, moist and mysterious, controlled by
rhythms he could not sense or slake. Beyond that often-obliging passage lay the
vast, dusky domain of the uterus, where the magical act of bringing forth life
occurred, buried deep. He had mere abstract knowledge of that strange cavern
territory, a geography forever beyond touch. He could only hear it, with an ear
pressed against a wife's belly, listening to the random thumps of babies on the
way, swimming in night.
So as the American
turned from the dying frontier of the west, having reached the Pacific and
found its oceanic turmoil a salty vastness, he set out to find a new land. The
sac that surrounds the embryo has the same saline content as the ocean -- as
does the blood that knocks in our veins -- echoing the Pacific's patient
emptiness. So we began our twencen frontier there: the inner ocean, dark and
engulfing, enclosing each of us at our most vulnerable beginnings.
The new frontier was
opened in the name of sanitation, the same impulse that brought forth indoor
plumbing in the 1890s; a Pasteur-driven passion to cleanse the world and make
it fresh and new again. So woman was cleaned up, like a problem in municipal
Douches, baths, tubes
you insert to suck up the dismaying flood, sprays, anti-itch powders,
diaphragm, foams, pills -- they all ran together as the decades raced through,
one stopgap (quite literally) blending into the next as the distinction between
hygiene and birth control blurred, and the old dark land yielded to invasions,
thrusts deep into its territory, things that dried and sealed off and, after a
first rough chill, became an accepted piece of that dimly lit landscape, a mild
discomfort at best, an ... appliance.
An old tobacconist's
saying about drawing a customer in goes, Start with a pinch, end with a
pound. So it was with the saline frontier. The urge was not merely one more
land rape, but the desire to mechanize, to make rich cropland from the untamed,
(Could the rigid
rectangularity of the checkerboard Midwest have a great deal to do with their
sex lives? The furrow lines in fields draw you forward to the infinity where
parallels meet over the horizon. In the grip of such geometry, such
mathematical order, the impatient, snaky pant and slither of sex doesn't fit.
The American instinct, pinned to the Euclidean landscape, has been to mechanize
their own reproduction, just as they did to wheat.)
Agriculture isn't a
hand-dominated industry anymore. Why do all that work? the ads say.
Sure, they're talking about household chores, cleaners, toothpaste -- but
what's the most basic home-making job a woman has? No mess, no fuss ...
So medicine makes sex safe and dry, far from the moist dark territory of the
The first step is
basic: disconnect the groin from the id.
Ever since Freud,
we've thrown up temporary barriers to the unconscious -- the newly-elected seat
of all our dark, base drives. But anyone who has been through traditional
analysis -- or Jungian, or anything more trendy -- knows how badly that
works. (A recent study of psychotherapy techniques showed that patients had
just as good a chance of improving if they skipped their Freudian-based therapy
sessions entirely, and went for a walk.) So if you can't wrestle the id to the
ground, and handcuff it securely, what next?
that sex organs are accidents of birth. Assume that sexuality is carried in the
genitalia like incidental freight, neatly packaged. Sure, there are nasty
hormones in the blood. (Including that worst offender, testosterone, one of the
aggressors; and we know what the United Nations thinks of them.) But
those hormones are easily fixed -- just tinker with the glands. Most of them
are lodged in those dictatorial organs, the genitals. Outlying areas can be
mopped up later.
So some feminists
tell us that men and women are basically alike, except -- in a coolly
analytical phrase I lifted from a tract -- except for the plumbing.
(Recall the 1890s. Here lies the final victory of the flush toilet.)
It is tempting to see
sex as a set of detachable appliances, fitted to the basic human body frame at
birth. Then we can all believe that, way down deep, we're really the same
pluribus unum. Chevy products are all the same car, you
know -- even though the add-ons and extras are deceptive, the real car has the
identical engine, gears, axle. As with products, why not with people?
Social behavior can
be endlessly altered, trimmed, sanitized, so this argument goes -- if we'll
just overlook the, uh, plumbing. The eternal edgy peace between men and women
can then be smoothed over, and final treaties signed, if we apply a bit of
operant conditioning -- that ugly but useful phrase that comes from Skinner's
* * *
Seem too simple
minded? Orwellian? Something out of Brave New World?
Look at heavy metal's
recurrent images: women coupling with things that are half-machine; androgyny
rampant; high tech meets low lust. Nowhere is the American ambivalence about
sexuality reflected better than in these images, saturated with the strange
eroticism of the man-machine interface.
Or look to science
fiction. The most interesting version of future sexuality to emerge in the
1970s was John Varley's quick-change utopia, in which people switch sexes
whenever taste dictates. From The Ophiuchi Hotline through Steel
Beach, he envisioned a society restless with change--indeed, alive with
This ferment produces
a remarkably laissez-faire society in which family roles dissolve. All is
optional. Varley assumes that there will be no more racism or sexism in such a
world because everyone will have the ability to be anything. When you can be
the Other, there soon is none.
The next subtle yet
crucial assumption is that when you switch you take no baggage with you. The
details of the process are high tech indeed -- you speed-grow a clone of
yourself, have your brain transplanted -- or just "map" the brain --
and zap you're reborn.
Is this plausible?
More to the point, do Varley's assumptions set the stage for a fiction that can
tell us something about the nature of sexuality and society? Does the brain
flip-flop from male to female, on orders from the hormones?
We now know by direct
experiment that men use one local part on one side of their brains to process
sound. Women, on the other hand, use both sides in a more diffuse manner. This
may explain why girls have greater early verbal fluency while men's abilities
grown steadily greater from a slow start.
Why did our evolution
select this substantial difference? Seldom is a trait taken on for a single
cause, especially in the complex warrens of our neural labyrinths where
abilities cross-link. We will probably never know why our specializations
arose. But the plain differences between men and women stand out; we are
moderately shaped for specialized tasks.
Men are better at
high-power work, using motor muscles. Their sense of spatial arrangement is
better and appears earlier. Women can sit longer, do delicate hand-eye work
more adeptly, have better color perception. (Partial color blindness, such as I
have, is carried by the female, though; one of evolution's little jokes.)
We differ. Nature
wanted it that way. On average, with a considerable spread in individual
abilities within each sex. Plenty of women in my neighborhood can outrun their
So consider an
opposite tide of thought about sex, one moored in the molecular architecture.
Edward Wilson's Sociobiology (1975) sounded the trumpet for an enduring
genetic program, seated far back in the brain, not lodged in the organs.
Hardwired sexuality that could not be pried out.
Wilson's On Human
Nature (1978) enraged people across the entire political/social spectrum.
Anyone who believed in the high merit and ultimate perfectibility of humans was
offended -- from the gentle philosophical humanists to the flinty-eyed,
Wilson's point of
view is simple and comes from an essentially conservative notion: that much
social behavior springs from genetic programming. Society itself -- insect or
human -- is often a manifestation of genetic needs.
So are sexual roles.
An example: Humans (and other primates) produce few children and nurture them
intensively. A female's reproductive potential is then limited by her ability
to provide nurture. A male, though, can sire many more young than a single
female can bear and raise. The more females he mates with, the greater his
reproductive success -- i.e., how many of the next generation carry his genes.
Males then compete to fertilize females, investing little in each offspring.
On the other hand,
the female's preferred strategy is to choose a male who will lend a hand in
bringing up the kids. A well-respected study of western women by anthropologist
Heather Fowler found that women associate two basic symbols with sexually
attractive men: money and status. Such men can provide a good nurturing
background, steadiness, security -- they're success-symbols. Similarly, men
notoriously go for women with unwrinkled skin (therefore younger, able to
reproduce better), large breasts (better nurture?) and a "certain sexual
receptivity" (promising a ready "conquest").
Do men and women
think this through? No! They're wired for it, through pleasure. In most
societies, sex is widely regarded as something men seek and women dispense.
This attitude is so common across cultures that it cannot be an accident.
Still, it's a wise
man who knows his own son -- so cuckoldry is a rage-producing taboo. A man who
dutifully rears children who do not, in fact, carry his genetic code never gets
represented in the next generation. In our operas, he is the butt of jokes.
It's not surprising
that evolution has selected for males who have strong views on such matters.
The prime reason for murders of women by men, in both America and Africa, is
suspected or actual female infidelity. It's even an important cause of murder
among male gays. Its passions run deep.
Gays, in fact,
represent one of the unexpected insights that a good scientific theory gives.
The maladjustments many male gays have with their own sexual impulses represent
something very deep -- an abiding sense of frustration over the conflict
between genetically driven patterns and what society wants us to do. The
family, after all, is a rickety cage, restraining male promiscuity, husbanding
(literally) resources, providing continuity to all. Society shores up family
life in many ways to build big, stable institutions based on the small, private
virtues learned at home. This disguises some of our innate drives.
To see the naked
patterns of sexual behavior, then, look to homosexual behavior. There,
society's bonds are gone. Every study shows that gay males tend strongly toward
one-night stands. Lesbians are much more apt to pair-bond, forming long-term
relationships. The two divergent strategies laid bare.
Ironically, then, we
can see our genetic heritage most clearly in the patterns of the homosexual
outgroup. Doubly ironic, since this is the one group that passes on less of its
genetic material than do the couples of suburbia.
Why, then, any
homosexuality at all? The fashionable attitudes of our time hold that
homosexuality is perfectly all right because it is a right, like free
speech. The political language revolves around "sexual preference,"
trivializing a profound inner sense into a fashion choice. Who ever looked over
the sexual opportunities, like shopping?
A more persuasive
argument rests on biology itself. Homosexuality persists in all societies, and
indeed, among the higher primates generally, because it has an evolutionary
brought into play the idea of "kinship selection". The term itself
came from studying why groups in the wild can manifest seemingly odd behaviors,
ones not immediately useful in survival.
This means that a gay
man or woman can work for the betterment of his relations, laboring in the
tribe as specialized labor, free of the burden of child rearing. Gay males
might have been leaders, or explorers, or craftsmen. They might have stayed
close to the mothers, to protect while the other men were away. Lesbians could
have done general service in child rearing, or helped hunt (women often have a
better sense of smell). These are available, specialized labors, just as men's
and women's bodies adapted to special tasks.
These ideas resemble
"Just So"-style stories explaining why given traits emerged. The
crucial point is that they did emerge, in the crucible of rapid human
The genes which can
occasionally confer homosexuality (in about one percent of the human
population) are shared by kinfolk. Usually the slight genetic influence does
not manifest itself as homosexuality, and so gets transmitted through ordinary
But because the gay
brother or sister labors on, the tribe as a whole has a better chance of
surviving. Homosexuality need not be accepted because it is a right, but rather
because it is indeed natural. It is preferred as a minority strategy by
evolution of the hunter-gatherer hominids we once were...and still are.
The ancient past
speaks to us, but we seldom hear. I live in a town with about 30% gay
population. The mayor is gay, and a friend of mine. He has been selected for,
far back in Africa.
I suppose whatever he
does in the bedroom does not fit the antiseptic American ideal. He does far
more outside it, for our community, than I, standard issue heterosexual male,
will ever do.
He belongs here. He
is natural. So are the two lesbians on the city council.
I held, back in that
humanities class, that we could productively consider both homosexual modes as
alternate social/biological strategies which demonstrably propagate themselves.
They have their own cultures, intermingling with the subcultures of men-alone
Perhaps, to make a
distinction between the simple biological sexes and the cultural genders, we
should speak of four genders. Four strategies.
* * *
So the evidence is
in: there are deep currents in the human psyche, ingrained in the DNA, that
drive human sexuality. We do not learn to be men and women solely from society.
(Indeed, how could anybody who has passed through the hormonal roller coaster
of adolescence possibly believe otherwise?)
doesn't always like those deep drives. It does what it can, through
conditioning, to shape them to its benefit.
The American impulse
to mechanize its own sexuality has to be looked at this way. It seeks not just
the victory of the vaginal deodorant tycoons; the Cause extends down to the
soft-spoken socialists who dream of Perfectible Mankind, and to the feminists
who long for the Good Male. Once we were devils, but we can become angels. Fine
ideals, perhaps, but founded on the sand of bad science.
All such believers in
social perfection are manipulators. They want to forget the press of the past,
to dismiss evolution as a fever dream that will pass, if we merely Think Right.
A symptom of this has
been the drift toward androgyny. The outright manifestation is the growing
number of sex change operations. These are anatomically crude -- a long way
from add-water-and-stir clones -- and psychologically high-risk.
Yet they spring from
an underlying philosophy that is widespread: that you can fix up the hormones,
tinker with the genitals, and make yourself over. Cast off your sexual hangups!
Trade in that old set of synapses! Buy the new, new, NEW (fill in sex of
sex-change utopia is not a useful fictional/laboratory for trying out our
sexual stereotypes because it, too, is based on a stereotype -- Malleable Man.
Fictional lessons, if they are to be used, must make some contact with our real
lives. And we are not infinitely changeable.
helically-stored, immutable instructions impressed into the human brain, and
these cannot ultimately be ignored.
One of the central
lessons of our century is that the opposite ideal has produced vast police
states. The program of the Soviet Empire and its imitation, client states was
to bring about the millennium by conditioning the populace. Orwell -- arguably
the greatest English science fiction writer since Wells -- saw clearly that
Communists and Nazis alike thought they could produce a New Man from the
tattered cloth of ordinary folk, given enough conditioning. Orwell was
terrified that it worked too well. Luckily, time has proven him wrong -- but it
was a near thing.
Why do we learn so
little from such a clear case? A proper regard for the irreducible traits we
carry would lighten the hand of the reformers, make a wiser world.
In science fiction,
our concern for mind-body dualities and man-machine interfaces ignores a
singular fact. Our minds aren't cleanly divided along a software/hardware
divide. Our software, if you like, redesigns its hardware over time, laying
down fresh pathways, modifying others. Synapses build anew as you sleep.
sexuality--polymorphous and powerful as it is--will not abide easy changes in
the "software". Hormones and neurological wiring can't be neatly
patched, trimmed, deleted, copied or edited.
The weight of what we
have been is considerable. A woman who has been a man is not the same as a
woman who has never been otherwise, or wished to be. Freedom, even the blithe
liberty technology can convey, is both the ability to change vectors, and
having the weight of character to make changes mean something.
Our dreams of
escaping our selves, escaping even history, is in the end the longing for a
kind of triviality. Transsexuals can strive for the Other, but they cannot ape
the embedded hormones, the delicate balances of glands, the full and weighty
life that the mind-body synthesis commands. Motherhood, fatherhood, the ecstasy
of union--these are not experiences detachable from the rest of life.
To be interchangeable
may make us more free, but it would also make our lives matter less. Sexuality,
it seems to me, can be aided by technology only at the margin. Abortion,
contraception, sanitation--all help. In the decades to come, biotechnology will
far transcend these rather simple options, presenting us with fresh choices
which will excite us, horrify us, tempt us, and provoke endless arguments--all
dancing about one central question: who are we?
We are the thinking
beings moored in the body. We will always have pangs of love, of jealousy, of
loss. Men and women will always clash, because they have different sexual
strategies. This struggle is part of the sexual specialization we see in our
bodies, which evolution in old Africa has made moderately different.
Difference brings us
agony and amusement alike. The tension between men and women is part of our
power. The same stresses which make for romantic comedy helped us transcend the
Even in the glitzy
techno-future, we cannot solve our problems and remain recognizably human by
slicing up the human experience into sanitized, detachable parts. The
unconscious, and the body it is deeply rooted in, will be heard.