First, a warning: This is slapdash.
Imagine me in the background, emitting a long scream as I frantically spit and type.
That’s about how I felt reading this fucking thing.
Now, trying to be….
I’m trying to be, you know, really objective here. But does Brin mean what I think he means? Now, I’ll be truthful, here. DB is on my shitlist, for wild talk of feminist cabals and a seemingly blinding confusion about why some feminists might find Glory Season offensive.
Do I disagree with everything he says here? Um. Not… quite… all. Am I addressing this article steeped in my own personal biases? You betch’a.
So, dip your toes in, but, in the words of the Secrete Feministe Cabal: Don’t Tell DB!
I’ve decided that I’m not going to be off-put by his article Neoteny and Two-Way Sexual Selection in Human Evolution: A Paleo-Anthropological Speculation on the Origins of Secondary-Sexual Traits, Male Nurturing and the Child as a Sexual Image. But hey, for the hell of it, let’s look at some of these winning arguments:
May we stipulate that women do often vie over men?
Sure. Of course. I’m not going to argue over this. And men often vie over women, as he mentions later. But for some reason, he seems more interested in the peculiar adornment of women. Understandable. It is indeed odd that in most of Today’s Societies women spend more than men on adornment (watch your numbers, fellas, as the media reach becomes ever more visual, you’re getting on board real quick. Plastic surgery, couture, and skin product sales among men are on the rise. Oh, wait, Brin’s arguing biology so these numbers must be wrong. After all – HUMAN WOMEN ARE HARDWIRED to read women’s magazines). If you continue reading this article, you’ll find that Brin seems to want to posit that this is a biological, unavoidable thing, and that all human societies work this way. Biologically speaking. Women naturally claw each other apart in search of “suitable mates.”
If you ignore history, sociology, and anthropology, you can make really great arguments like this. This is why these are considered the “softer,” more “feminine” studies: not sciences, of course. Because they tell you that half of what you get often has to do with the set-up of the culture you’re raised in.
This really pisses people off. Particularly people who’ve got that Assumption of Privilege mantle.
In one contemporary society, the United States, nearly all of the most popular magazines for women trumpet articles advising their readers how to stay competitive in what is portrayed as a desperate struggle to find and keep a mate. American women spend many times more each year on cosmetics than the nation appropriates for space research. (If we add fashion, diet food, plastic surgery, and related activities, costs compare to the defense budget.)
I’m sorry: “women’s magazines”? Anyone who uses unnamed women’s magazines as research material shouldn’t have a Ph.D. They should have been kicked out of graduate school.
I’m consistently disappointed at how narrow-minded most spec. fic. writers are when it comes to theorizing about alternative family structures/gender roles (I include myself here, believe it or not – one of my Clarion compatriots once pointed out the “subtle misogyny” I’d unintentionally zipped into one of my stories – I was raised in this society, too). Maybe because many of the hard-core SF guys are 1) guys in a guy-affirming society 2) more interested in chemistry and biology than sociology, because it’s easier to use “hard” sciences to “prove” social Darwinism.
Le Guin’s biggest strength is her background in anthropology and her interest in sociology (though I’m sure she’ll be the first to admit that she writes with her own biases, too). The reason you get some interesting stuff is cause she looks around not only at monkeys and elephant seals, but, you know, PEOPLE. Yes, Brin, she looks at PEOPLE, and the “different” (Read: non-American) societies they create. So you get the freer sexual practices in the Trobiand Islands, the property rights of women in the matrilocal Minangkaba culture, conceptions of androgyny and the ritual of taking on gender roles by aborigines in the Pacific, and societies where *men* make use of adornment and/or feats of skill and dancing (like, you know, all that makeup and plastic surgery in those “women’s magazines”) in isolated African and South American societies.
And, for the record, I prefer Russ to Le Guin. She’s more radical, and less read.
2 Granted, contemporary America is an extreme case,
and even women in secure marriages work on their appearance for a complex of other cultural reasons. Still, no one can reasonably dispute that female humans often do engage in zero-sum contention over an apparently limited supply of suitable males….
“Limited supply of suitable males.” Dear god, what if we run out! What will women do? Heaven forbid they stop hating one another and work together and get really great-paying jobs and then maybe men might have to start adorning themselves to get any interest at all from women who find the idea of being talked down to really tiring. Gosh, what sort of strange society teaches women to hate themselves and each other and vie for male attention because men have (until recently here, and still, in some countries) property rights, access to higher-paying jobs, and more freedom of movement?
Oh, a heterosexist patriarchy. That’s right. Silly me. I forgot. I kept forgetting those examples of, you know, other HUMAN SOCIETIES that have DIFFERENT SEXUAL PRACTICES AND GENDER POLITICS than mine.
Right. Of course.
The presumption goes that human mothers need long-term, dependable partnership to help them carry big-brained, dependent children across the hazardous, exhausting stretch from embryo to maturity. And while some human societies have used brother-sister alliances to fill this need, or communal role-sharing, the majority have left mothers primarily dependent on continued loyalty and aid from the fathers of their children.
I totally agree. Women should have long-term, dependable partnerships in order to help them nurture and raise children.
But instead of comparing societies where communal childraising works and ones that haven’t, Brin’s talking about the necessity of male-female pair bonding in the raising of children. He’s talking biology and making the arrangements of childrearing hardwired. He ignores societal difference and potential difference. Is there a biological disadvantage for groups of women to raise children? Or families and friends. Or groups of friends. He’s not even talking about two or three men getting together and agreeing to raise a female friend’s child.
Brin argues that the absence of male father-figures is wrecking the upbringing of children, that women with children who don’t pair up with a man are more likely to live in poverty than those that do (I’m ahead of myself here – read the article, or scroll down the next big excerpt to see what I’m referring to here). Yes, this is true. But he’s thinking inside the happy-hetero-pair bonding box that even Le Guin has been known to teeter about in (particularly in her earlier work). Women *do* need help raising children. Babies are born essentially helpless. It’s difficult for women, in a society not created to support mothers, to raise children and support themselves at the same time.
But Brin puts this essential problem of single mothers and poverty on the shoulders of biology. He blames the inherent, biologically instinctual philandering of men, and the stupid women who irrationally “choose” to bear their children (better hope these same women have access to abortion/contraception and the ability to fight off the attention of men they’re not attracted to). Men just can’t help it (don’t men find this offensive?). They’re naturally looking for lots of partners, and women are naturally just looking for one.
Um. Excuse me. Doesn’t the average marriage last only 7 years in the US? I’d argue that most people are serially monogamous, which is much more biologically advantageous to both sexes. Do we have a lot of long-term friendships? You betcha. Do they all include sex? No. Do some? Sure.
And what’s allowed for serial monogamy in women in the US this century is the advancement of women’s rights. When women’s sexuality is controlled, it’s a lot easier to keep up the illusion that women only ever interested in having sex with one man (let alone a couple of women). Alpha Male Number One. Go Team Go. Using “women’s magazines” to prove that all women in contemporary America are crazy about finding death-till-you-part male mates is just bad reasoning, lazy “research,” and fucking offensive.
Oops, sorry. My claws are showing. Let me compose myself. Ahem.
To put this in perspective with nature at large, consider the extreme case of the elephant seal….
I still have problems with Brin using “women’s magazines” as supporting research while comparing the mating habits of men and women to elephant seals. He uses the mating habits of other primates to compare those of contemporary American society. Don’t get confused and think he’s talking about any other society, because he’s not. The only researcher he quotes at length is Hrdy, who has done some great work on primates, but she doesn’t study people. Just primates. But wait. I’m getting ahead of myself.
Here’s Brin’s solution for alleviating the poverty of single mothers in our contemporary society and aiding them in the raising of glorious offspring:
A better remedy might be to help women and girls learn to judge better — to tell apart the various types of men — and to distinguish a sincere promise from mere words aimed at an immediate end. In other words, use the tools of science to help young female Homo sapiens do what most females of other species do — choose as well as they can, despite the complexities of modern context. For many, this could make the difference between a successful, happy life and eventual abandonment in poverty. Indeed, the pages of most women’s’ magazines seem obsessed with exactly this effort — floundering chaotically toward alchemical prescriptions for choice-directed happiness. This effort currently receives virtually no support from feminist intellectuals, who consider the approach ideologically anathema, holding that woman should not base her happiness on marriage or successful mate-choice, even though such success, when achieved, demonstrably leverages improved lives for women and children in all contexts and at all social levels, and furthermore that same success can be perfectly compatible with actualization in career and other areas of life. In other words, a woman who chooses a mate well is also more likely to succeed in areas beyond home and marriage.
The problem is: women are just fucking stupid.
Again, he doesn’t give any stats to back any of this up except those still-unnamed “women’s magazines.”
Brin could have suggested that perhaps women – if socialized in a society that encouraged female cooperation instead of competition, and paid women and men equally for their labor – could form partnerships with one another and pool their resources and raise their children together with friends and family in a supportive network, with or without the aid of the man she had sex with. Instead, Brin says women should be more careful about who they’re fucking.
Now, while I certainly believe in cautionary fucking, and while I refuse to carry to term a child who’s got half the DNA of a total loser (and, ideally, I wouldn’t be fucking a total loser – but we’re forgetting that telling good people from psychos is a Charles Manson problem, and we’re completely ignoring forced and coercive sex), I’m reading in Brin’s solution more of the “blame the woman because we’ve taught men that it’s OK to split when they’ve spurted some semen” thing. And I see this so much that I get tired.
Is a woman who chooses a good mate more likely to succeed?
Does it matter if that mate(s) is(are) male or female?
People who have extensive social networks do better emotionally and financially than those who don’t.
Certainly we should put even greater effort into social conditioning, to try altering the ratio of “storks” to “reindeer” among human males. No doubt education can change the proportionate distribution of types. Unfortunately, those who expect a complete panacea out of socialization are likely to be disappointed. What good will it do to exhort boys not to act like elk, if they see elk-style men having success?
Read: boys are too smart to be socially conditioned!
Even if a program teaching girls to make wise choices were implemented and highly effective, there would still be a rub; for so long as the goal is “one man for each woman” the rules of a zero-sum game continue to apply. There will be winners and losers, and the spectacle of females fiercely competing for quality mates will continue.
To reiterate: women should be socially conditioned!
What bugs me here is “females fiercely competing for quality males.”
Basically, if you read the whole article, you’ll find that Brin argues that, like primates, men are all naturally philanderers. So really, if women just want some quality male sperm, that’s pretty easy to get. What women are apparently supposed to be competing over is a monogamous mate to help them raise said child.
Here’s my question: Why does it have to be the sperm donor who helps her raise her child? After all this talk of men and monkeys, Brin insists that it’s in women’s best interests to secure a mate.
If women were equal, why would they HAVE to compete for a “quality male”? Can’t women have good friends of both sexes that help support her financially and emotionally? Why does it have to be a hetero guy?
If women are equal, if they make the same amount of money for the same work as men do, are allowed the same property rights, and etc. why would women have to rely on a live-in sexual partner?
In our society, men have to at least be financially responsible for the children they father because they’ll tend to take off and leave a woman without a social network to fall back on. It’s a problem with male socialization as much as it’s a problem with the US’s complete disinterest in supporting women.
The question Brin never asks is: what do men get out of monogamy? What do men get out of settling down with a “quality woman”? Anything? Any answers?
Sure, he says that maybe some guys will figure out that it’s more “biologically advantageous” to hang around and make sure your offspring survive into adolescents, but really, Brin’s look at human sexuality… ignores the humans.
Sex isn’t all about procreation. It’s not all about splitting DNA. Sex and touching among human beings is social. It helps create social networks. If a guy doesn’t secure himself a social network, he’s as dead in the water as a woman without a social network.
Depression and suicide rates go down for married men. Married men live longer. They have more sex. The reason men get pissed of when women “use” them as fuckbuddies is because it messes with their conception of the sexual paradigm: she’s supposed to need you, not the other way around. It’s not “just” sex men get out of sexual encounters. Any guy who tells you that is selling something. It’s about being looked at with affection, feeling needed and appreciated, and touching another human being. If it was really all about the orgasm, we’d all sit around alone in bed and stop calling each other.
Articles like Brin’s bug me because they ask stupid questions. I read an interview with Hrdy when she was asked about what the biggest difference was between male and female scientists. She said there really wasn’t one: except in the sorts of questions they asked. She and a friend were sitting with a couple of male colleagues, and one of the men said, “We should do a study to find out if women are more interested in sex in the days before menstruation.”
Hrdy and her female colleague looked at each other and laughed. They didn’t need to know “if.” They wanted to know “Why?”
Guys like Brin ask: what can women do so that children in this society are raised better?
They don’t ask: what can society do to enable the best possible environment for children to be raised in?
Guys like Brin ask: What’s the biological reason that a human female generally has to compete with other women to get a mate?
They don’t ask: How is society enabling hetero men in pursing their choice of mate, and teaching men that their desires supercede those of their intended, justifying actions such as rape and coercive sex?
Guys like Brin ask: Why are women using women’s magazines as aids in beautifying themselves for competing against each other for quality mates?
They don’t ask: Why aren’t more men striving to be quality mates?
There’s an assumption of audience going on in these old-white-guy hard science papers that’s off-putting.
When was the last time Brin listened to a woman instead of standing around in a crowded room talking about himself? (in this instance, I speak from personal experience, standing in a room with Brin)
Tripe like this bugs me.