Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016
[Trigger warning for the non-explicit but potentially unexpected discussion of sexual perpetrators and sex crimes.]
One thing I enjoy about The Curious Tale is that it often—and not by coincidence—serves as a court of ideas where I can work on further developing my worldview and my personal convictions. That's what this week's article is about.
This week I had the humbling, bumbling experience of changing a character who had previously used masculine binary pronouns to one who uses the nonbinary "they." Even though the gender nonbinary is prominent in my own mind (being nonbinary myself), and even though I routinely use nonbinary terms in my spoken discourse and reasonably often in my analytical nonfiction, it's much rarer if not unprecedented for me to deploy nonbinary pronouns in a work of fiction.
Watching Undertale recently, where the protagonist is given a nonbinary gender throughout the entire game, I realized it was well past time for me to include nonbinary pronouns in my own work. There are a number of societies in Relance, Gala included, where this can and would occur. Their name used to be Janus Zeur. I found that name undesirable for several reasons so nowadays it's an amalgam: Jazeur. (And that's still not final.) They're a young, low-ranking, and disaffected soldier in the Galan army, and thanks to the help of a friend they later end up in the Handsel Band.
Consistent pronoun usage on Jazeur turned out to be hard for me. Reviews of the manuscript indicated that I kept stumbling, kept reverting to the old "he" terms.
Partly this happened because, like I said, I don't have experience doing this in my fiction. Partly it was because the character had previously used binary terms and thus I was working against inertia of memory. And partly it was because the way my brain works makes it hard for me to change certain practices, especially as pertain to the structure of English usage. (That's partly why I tend to be so explicit with the usage changes I do adopt.) For instance, when writing Jazeur's new pronouns and discovering during review that I'd used the wrong ones in certain places, it's not as if I deliberately did so. I honestly had no idea that I was doing it at the time. It flew below my conscious radar. That is a testament to the insidiousness of the ubiquity of the social gender binary.
But although it doesn't apply in Jazeur's case, the most interesting reason that I might have trouble with nonbinary pronouns, I think, is that, in one particular regard, I'm a little bit more in bed with the gender binary than perhaps I was ready to acknowledge till now.
I'm not unaware of this. I've known for many years that sometimes I'll subtly go out of my way to use pronouns to indicate a person's sex when it has not otherwise been established. The reason I do that, in turn, is because sex is an important identifying characteristic to me. And why is that? Well, here's the humbling part:
One of the two main reasons is uncontroversial: In the case of people of any sex who are subverting gender roles, I want it to be known that these people are not defaultly sexed. And in the case of females, I want it to be known that females exist and are represented as natively occurring in society rather than cloistered off in some seraglio as all too often occurs both in fiction and real life. Promoting diversity and minority visibility is very important to me.
But the other reason that sex is an important identifying characteristic to me is because of my personal sexual orientation and sex drive. I have a naturally high sex drive. I think about sex a lot—more so than people on average, I expect, and also more so of late, during the longest sexual dry spell in my life since I first became sexually active over a decade ago. One of the two major sexes has zero people in it whom I'd potentially like to have sex with. (We'll exempt Leonard Cohen, whose bodily matter is merely a ruse of quavers, capped by an exquisitely fashionable hat.) And the other major sex has a rather higher number than zero. On this level, it is frequently compelling to me to denote which people are females, and which people are anything else. Now, if you're even remotely read-up on the sociology of sexism, you know what a dangerous act it is to let hypothetical sexual interest (or lack thereof) color one's perception of people, be they fictional or, even more so, real. Indeed, a huge amount of sexist mistreatment and prejudice occurs exactly because of this.
Sexual self-expression doesn't have to lead to evil, obviously, and if you possess common sense and a lick of humanism you also know that one can't simply shut off their sexuality, nor should they, and neither should everybody necessarily suppress their sexuality all the time as a matter of social conduct. The world would be a much less interesting place if they did, and I'm not convinced that sexism would be any weaker than in that world than in this one—because a society of sexual suppression is still denying, rather than accommodating, one of the fundamental human compulsions. There should be a rich and wide tolerance for sexual expression in society.
If I may speculate idealistically for a moment, in a healthy society people would express their sexuality publicly, easily and often and joyously. The "no sexual expression" areas would be the exception rather than the norm. However, and crucially, amid their sexual self-expression, people would simultaneously respect other people's personal boundaries and autonomy, distinguish between subjective sexual desires and the objective realities of other people's character and capabilities, and uphold cultural civility thereby.
The problem, of course, is that a disturbingly large percentage of people (mostly males) can't—and I honestly do think that can't is a more accurate word, more often, than won't—do both at the same time: They can't be sexually expressive and also behave like civilized creatures. (It's a popular sociological position these days that rape is about power rather than sex. I think that's wrong. Occasionally it's about one or the other, but most of the time it seems to me that it's about both. From reading the news, and from my own studies in human nature, it seems quite clear that most sexual assaults occur because the perpetrator wants sex, and doesn't have the power to get it consensually.)
(I wonder sometimes just how many, out of all the males I've ever encountered, are rapists. Statistically, it's virtually guaranteed to be more than zero. I find that thought unsettling. And, when supplemented by my prominent philosophical conviction that people tell us more about themselves than they realize, I've also come to develop a crude evaluative system for identifying sexual perpetrators. I say "crude" because I haven't subjected it to accuracy tests yet (and such tests are hard to run; it's not as though I can just go up to people and ask them). The real value of my evaluative system has proven not to be in identifying specific criminals, but in developing a much stronger awareness of the kind of behavioral traits that are strongly associated with sex crimes. Just paying attention to this sort of thing is edifying, and if more people did it I think we would narrow down the spaces in which sexual perpetrators operate with relative impunity.)
I think we must acknowledge this awkward and frustrating truth: that, through a mixture of evolutionary baggage and sociocultural failures, an unknown but significant minority percentage of males (and a tiny sliver of non-males) are dispositional sexual criminals who, when they are held in line at all, are held only by the social suppression of sexual expression and the social enforcement of those taboos. No one is perfect, but in our midst live quite a few particularly defective, dangerous people.
That sad and infuriating truth is one of the fundamental sources of conservatism. Social conservatives look at human nature and give up on ever uplifting it. They say "The best we can do is keep females safe by stripping them of their place in society and tightly controlling male access to them." It is an inherently dehumanizing viewpoint, and one that has no place in my worldview or in the world of the future that we are trying to build. (And it gets even worse when you factor in the parallel motivation of sexual objectification; that is, the conservative impulse to make sure that males in general have a pathway to getting a wife, and the insistence that a wife's place is to produce and rear the next generation.)
So, back to me. I said that one reason—the relevant reason out of several—that I sometimes indicate a person's sex when I don't have to is that I am in effect indicating whether or not I am potentially attracted to that person. Based on what I've said thus far, I think you can see that I think this is not inherently a bad thing, and indeed that in a healthy world it would even be best practice, when applicable. And if anyone's judgment in the matter could be trusted, it would be mine—as someone with a strong sex drive who nevertheless honestly, ardently holds to the principles of sexual equality, and upholds those principles in real life by treating people with egalitarianism, basic respect, and full recognition of their intrinsic autonomy.
(Note: We live in a culture that expects claims of self-virtue to be a lie, but I've never believed in false modesty. I am as candid about my virtues as I am about my weaknesses. I never lie. The only thing you have to figure out is whether you trust my judgment on a given point.)
Nonetheless, it still makes me uncomfortable enough to pause. I've always been vaguely uncomfortable with knowingly indicating people's sex when I don't have to do it, but I never sat down and had the conversation with myself about whether I am potentially in the right or inherently in the wrong when I do it. The backdrop of this week's article is me having that conversation at last.
In favor of the "inherently wrong" possibility is the fact that it's a double standard, and double standards, even when justified, should always raise a yellow flag initially. Any routine practice that treats the sexes differently should be scrutinized for sexist motives, methods, or outcomes. I myself am very insistent on this point, so I of course must apply it to myself first and foremost.
There are essentially two areas where it can be okay to treat the sexes differently, or three if you include inbuilt social failsafes for protecting females from an unreasonably high risk of sexual assault (which is, for instance, the rationale behind segregated public restrooms): First, there is the anatomical stuff. It makes sense, for example, to treat females differently from males when it comes to sexual health exams, because of our dimorphic anatomical differences.
Second, and more interestingly, there is the sexuality stuff. If you're doing sex right, you're getting laid by one or more people whom you regard as individuals rather than members of a sexual class. However, inside that context is the implicit, prerequisite fact that people of a given sexual orientation are only interested in people of one or more specific sexes. To make a long story short, human evolution has assured us that one of the very first things adults do when we see another person is identify their sex. If that other person belongs to one of the sexes that we're attracted to, a whole added dimension of mental processes begins, layered on top of—and, in some people's dismaying cases, squeezing out—the processes that occur when we meet someone of a sex that we're not attracted to. It's always okay to find people from one sex and not another sexually attractive—that's a part of human identity—and it can be okay situationally to act on those attractions.
My instances of sometimes identifying a person's sex when it isn't otherwise necessary—and specifically the instances where I do so with my own fictional characters—clearly want to qualify for an exemption under that second category: sexuality.
Whether such an exemption is appropriate depends on my motives, on the particulars, and on the context. My motives are clear: to indicate potential sexual desirability. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. The particulars are pretty simple: When I do it—and I only do it sometimes—I replace generic "they" pronouns (not to be mistaken with nonbinary "they" pronouns) with binary gendered ones. So I'll say "she went" instead "they went," and so forth. And that's the extent of the divergence. Lastly, the context is: I am setting up these characters (in the case of female ones, and am not setting them up in the case of non-female ones) to be potentially desirable to me, and to be eligible for sexualized artistic development.
(Note: There is a totally unrelated process by which I may also set characters—of any sex—up for eligibility for sexualized artistic development. Depicting sexuality is an important second-tier goal of mine as an artist, regardless of whether I myself find sexualized characters sexually desirable. Don't confuse this thematically-driven process with the personal sexual self-expression process.)
And so it comes down to a question that I am capable of making an ethical judgment on: Is it inherently sexist for a person (in this case, me) to potentially (and in some cases actually) sexualize some of their characters purely for the self-serving reason of eroticization—that is, for one's own sexual pleasure?
If such a question were being asked about one's conduct toward real people, I think the answer would be much murkier and more difficult. It delves into the incredibly tangled depths of nitty-gritty details on exactly how and where sexual conduct—including flirting, overtures, and so forth, along with all explicitly sexual acts—is appropriate. (We can agree that sexual self-expression is generally a good thing, I hope, but I also expect we will agree that the devil is in the details.) And it would get tripped up on a whole bunch of stuff that looks the same superficially but is quite different in nature. For instance, some sexists express their sexism by explicitly gendering everyone, yet this doesn't mean that people who gender others are always sexist.
Thankfully, when it comes to fictional characters, I think the answer is a clear "No." Or, more specifically, the answer is "No, it's not inherently sexist, but, to the extent you do, with the motives you've indicated, your story takes on a dimension of erotica."
And I'm okay with that! I'm okay with something like The Curious Tale having the occasional undercurrent of erotica. Indeed, that's more realistic—more representative of human nature.
The trial would ideally end here, but the issue is not strictly internal. It is compounded by the matter of perception by others. At this moment in time, some of the leading voices in anthropology and in the social justice movement are, for lack of more tactful words, hateful zealots on a witch-hunt. The witch-hunters have, in my view, hijacked one of society's most important endeavors: the pursuit of justice. In so doing, they have usurped the voices of a great many social justice activists and advocates, myself included, whose progressive ideals and humanistic attitudes are much truer and closer to the goals of social justice. As a liberal myself, and as someone who appeals more readily to people of that general persuasion, I am vulnerable to the witch-hunt in a way that, say, an unrepentant conservative is not, and I always have to think about the consequences of my words and actions in the context of a radicalized and misguided terrorist culture festering within the broader social justice movement (and within parts of academia). I, as a male—and especially as a white one—cannot simply say something like "It's okay for me to allow my sexuality to flavor my writing" without potentially running into a long and derogatory lecture about objectification, predatory behavior, and the blindness of privilege—from people, no less, who more often than not understand those concepts only a fraction as well as I do, and employ them as tribal weapons! I've seen what their witch-hunts can do to their victims, and, to the extent feasible without violating my principles, I'd like to avoid becoming one of their victims myself.
So that adds a dimension of consideration to the question of whether I should affirm once and for all or else deliberately cease my practice of occasionally using gendered pronouns to denote eligibility for potential sexual desirability in my characters.
The examination here turns to the violation lines of my principles: Am I violating any of my principles by not continuing the practice?
From an artistic standpoint, I'm okay with letting my sexuality flavor my writing, providing that I adhere to my own high standards of civility and autonomy-recognition. (I keep saying "recognizing autonomy"; if you're not clear what I mean, I'm talking about the idea that other people exist as their own, independent agents with full entitlement to the corresponding civil and legal liberties, and not, for instance, as mere playthings for my personal pleasure.) I don't mind letting the world know that I like long hair, or a full bottom, or any one of a hundred other traits that attract me. In fact I'm totally find with the world knowing that, and actually I find sexual self-expression a little bit arousing, which I suppose is understandable.
(I should reiterate here that this line of discussion does not apply to the artistic possibilities in sexualized character development, which are treated under the auspices of the aforementioned thematic drive. There definitely are endless interesting artistic possibilities. Human sexuality is a broad, colorful, and fascinating subject! And it's a subject that many readers, being sexual creatures themselves, are quite interested in. Even the witch-hunters agree with me, albeit limited to their own narrow window of whose sexuality is permitted to be expressed. But artistic motivations are not what I'm discussing in this article, and artistic sexualizations would continue even if I ceased my sexually expressive sexualizations.)
If I stopped my practice of sexually self-expressive desirability denotations, purely out of apprehension of the witch-hunters, I would be closing off an aspect of my self-expression that I consider important as much as I consider it indulgent—and I would be doing so in my most important work: The Curious Tale: my most elaborate, realistic, intimate, and generally self-expressive creative project.
(Aside: I think that's the first time I've ever used two colons like that. Talk about a rare construction. Dashes or commas would work, but both would be awkward because of the local terrain.)
So, yeah, that would be a violation of principles.
After thinking it over, writing this article has helped me to make up my mind that I don't necessarily have a problem indicating the sex of my fictional characters for no other reason than to denote their potential desirability to me, and likewise I have decided that risking the ire of the witch-hunters is worth the value to be gained from my self-expression.
In turn, this all brings me back to the beginning of the circle: Jazeur, and the difficulty I've had with transitioning to their nonbinary, "they / them / their" gender pronouns. Jazeur doesn't actually fit into the "potentially desirable" category for me, being male. They were simply a convenient springboard for me to consider this issue.
In the meantime, back I go to writing Jazeur and trying, hoping, to eventually get their pronouns right.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!