Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Wanting you

When we are attracted to another person there is usually an element of fetishism there.  I am attracted to women, therefore any woman I get romantically involved with can assume that I am fetishizing her to some degree.  Whether it be breast size, skin colour, hairstyle, weight or some other thing it is nearly certain that some part of her is getting me riled up.  Most of them wouldn't be offended by the idea that I wouldn't be attracted to them if they weren't women; that is by far the norm.  Sometimes though fetishes for particular things drive people away and we as a society seem to differentiate strongly between the two types.  I was reading a bit about this on a Dan Savage column in the comments and there were two really strong camps there:  One camp was convinced that there are fetishes that are a problem like having a fetish for someone in a wheelchair, say, and some that are fine like having a fetish for breasts.  The other camp felt like everyone is attracted to random things and that there was no fundamental difference.

I think the difference between an attraction that is fine like (me being attracted to women) and one that is not fine (dating a person only because they are disabled) is the basis of the relationship, not the attraction in particular.  If I am dating a woman only on the basis that she has large breasts then our relationship is probably going to be crap but if I only consider that a bonus on top of an otherwise good relationship then everything is just fine.  There are some really thorny problems though for those who are attracted to somebody who has a very rare trait.  In the article I linked the person writing in was a lesbian who was only able to get about in a wheelchair - if that is who you are looking for you are going to have a very limited set of options for dating and the person in question would be right to wonder whether you are with them only because you can't find anybody else.  It doesn't seem especially fair though to suggest that anyone who has a fetish for a rare trait is automatically suspect - there is no reason to give the stamp of approval to my desires just because they are statistically normal.

I also wonder if I am maybe looking at my own relationship incorrectly.  Someone only interested in lesbians in wheelchairs would be viewed with some suspicion on the basis that if their partner were to be cured (of the disability, not the orientation!) they would lose interest.  On the other hand I think people generally believe that if their partner were to declare that they were transgender that ending the relationship is reasonable.  I am torn on that topic... I love Wendy in a multitude of ways that are gender irrelevant but would I still be attracted to her if she identified or physically transitioned to male?  I feel like ending a relationship is acceptable in cases where your partner changes drastically who they are and gender is a pivotal part of our identities.  I would certainly give the relationship a chance but I can't guarantee it would work; a relationship where I have no sexual desire for my partner seems untenable to me.


  1. I swear you're baiting me with this one... so I'll bite.

    The missing component here is the nature of the distinguishing characteristic. If someone is attracted to me for my athleticism, I'm ok with that. If someone fetishizes my mind, that's acceptable. Those are things I am proud of.

    But being trans is (was?) a source of enormous trauma. It's something I generally prefer to forget. And the only things which identify me as trans are things I most definitely don't want to draw attention to.

    So attributes like breasts are a toss-up. Some well-endowed women are plagued by their breasts, and have a history of trauma around them. Others upgraded as an adult, and are damn proud of their bodies. I suspect each would respond differently to being fetishized for them.

    I'm not touching the trans topic though.

  2. If the missing component is the nature of the distinguishing characteristic, which characteristics are okay and which are not? Obviously in an individual case you could decide that a given characteristic is something you are proud of, impartial about, or unhappy about but is there any sort of objective divide? Certainly individual cases are fairly simple but I am trying to get at how people think about cases in general when it has nothing to do with them.

    The trans part of the topic is really just to avoid using magic in my scenario. The real question is what would I do if Wendy were magically turned into a male? I generally try to avoid invoking magic though because I find that getting useful responses is difficult to impossible; the first reaction would be to question how exactly such magic happened and that isn't what I want to get at. I used the trans example to avoid that issue but of course it brings up other issues itself. The answer I want is difficult to arrive at because the question is a challenge to frame. It wasn't baiting, but I can totally see how you would see it that way. :)

  3. I think you've got a very interesting point about wheelchairs vs. sexes. It *feels* reasonable to me that a relationship would end when one person transitions from one sex to another. Not that it's good or fair, just that I would think it would happen in many cases and that I'm not up for vilifying either person involved.

    But when I think of dumping someone because science found a way to generate/regenerate nerve or muscle tissue and let them walk... that gives me a really strong negative reaction. Similarly I wouldn't think dumping someone because they got in an accident and lost the ability to walk wouldn't speak highly of the person who did it - I could understand a relationship breaking up because of fallout and trauma from such an accident, but not so much an "Oh, I really don't want to be with you now that you can't walk."

    There's a hundred clever ways I can justify this difference, but I'm not sure any of them matter. Ultimately I don't understand what it is like to be trans, I don't understand what it's like to be in a wheelchair and I don't understand what it's like to be sexually attracted to people in wheelchairs. It's probably not an accident that given these two scenarios I am not judgmental of the one person who could be me.

    Maybe I'm being too harsh on the "devotee" here, and maybe Dan was as well. Rather than dumping her immediately, maybe the woman in the letter should talk to her about posting those pictures and understand what is going on. After all, I would put a picture of my wife on FaceBook without asking her permission, and that devotee community may have been the only social networks that the devotee in question could be herself. To want to post pictures of someone you love for your friends to see isn't actually sinister. It's easy for us to imagine that a devotee community would be all about sex and anything posted there would be automatically sexual, but we wouldn't think the same thing of an online gay community (and this is something we should be careful about, unless we want to be like Catholic School Boards).

    If you are actually sexually attracted *only* to people in wheelchairs (rather than being sexually attracted to lots of people and wheelchairs just being your favourite fantasy) then you've got quite a burden to carry around with you. Maybe there is room to be more sensitive to people with really challenging sexual preferences.

  4. Yeah, I should have been clear that I don't think that leaving a partner who comes out as trans is the best thing to do, an automatic thing to do, or a good thing to do. I just think that for many people that is what is going to happen because the relationship with their partner is just not going to be all they want it to be after such upheaval. Obviously I would expect them to try to stick it out and make it work and I would do the same but I wouldn't at all fault them for failing to make it work. Hell, I might make it work in the situation but I might not too; I honestly don't know.

    I don't agree with your assessment of the devotee here. Being someone who is sexually attracted to people in wheelchairs is not a crime or even bad; it is just who you are and you have to deal with it. However, the devotee in the story had to be 100% certain that her partner would object to those pictures being posted. You posting pictures of your wife on Facebook is fine because your wife doesn't care and you know it. I don't think that putting those pictures up is at all problematic except that it will obviously upset the person whose picture it is! We are saying that we should be understanding of someone who wants a wheelchair bound partner so I think we should be equally understanding of someone who doesn't want their pictures posted on devotee internet sites.

  5. I do not think posting the pics in the Devotee community is the same as posting pics of the wife in Facebook (I understand you were not putting it as a like for like, but as an example of a tame environment. Bear with me).

    I think it would the same if you post pics of your wife in a swimsuit, or some other situation or posture that made her feminine charms obvious, in a boys medium. Say, a sport cars forum. Regardless of your intention you KNOW some of the audience will sexuallize it and it will become fapping material for someone, somewhere (Truth be told if the wife is pretty or busty, her dressing as a nun would be enough to raise some offcolour comments). So your intention becomes moot: you made your partner fapping material without consent, and you cannot claim it was unexpected.

    In summary, I am sure a devotee forum is not full to the brim of weirdos. But it is not mumsnet, it is slanted towards people who sexuallize wheelchairs et al, so it is going to happen.

    And, to be honest, the 'tame intent that unwillingly brings creepy result' thing would hold if she posted photos of her smiling in her wheelchair, but I think I read about photos of her body in the wheelchair with her head cropped out, right? Prosecution rests.

  6. Well, if it was body in wheelchair with no head then the intention was obvious. Perhaps I did not read thoroughly. That being said, I still think that you have to keep in mind the possibility that a member of an online community built around a common sexual fetish may feel like the other people in that community are their only "real" friends. There's a lot of missing context about the community, and the easiest thing to do is to fill in the idea that they have nothing in common but sex and that everything there is all about sex.

    To use Peke's example of posting pictures of your wife in a swimsuit on a racecar forum - okay, there are probably lots of women out there who would be really mad at their husbands for doing this. But would they get a divorce over it? In the column they aren't married, but the woman who wrote in told her friend this might be "the one" after eight-months of dating. In your mid-30s that sounds to me like a very serious commitment. I don't think Dan would give the same advice to a woman who found out her wonderful, successful, loving, witty and in every way almost perfect boyfriend had posted pictures of her feet on a foot fetish site.

  7. Addendum: Dan's column this week mentions that he is fairly sure the letter was a fake, so it turns out we are discussing a hypothetical situation after all.

  8. Well, I guess there is some value on running this scenarios through your head anyway, fake or not.

    What thing I did not cover, and for which I agree with you, in the extent of the punishment. So, from my point of view trust was broken, period. Now, the penalty to it will necessarily vary depending on personalities and circumstances, including the length and importance of the relationship. It is fairly similar to cheating, really, in my book. Sometimes you would be able to endure, sometimes it is the end of the relationship, who knows?