Friday, July 25, 2014

Not quite there

Women's value being reduced to only the sexual appeal of their bodies is both prevalent and crappy.  Obviously the same is true for all people but even though male models, actors, and superheroes are as anatomically unlikely as female ones the social pressure on masculine folks is not the same.  I tend to cheer for anyone who is happy to speak out about that problem but sometimes I have to take issue with the way they do so.  The trick is that there are two entirely separate things going on when people take issue with other people's appearance and people often conflate them.

Sexual attraction is something that is essentially random and mostly beyond conscious control.  I like feminine bodies and I don't get to choose otherwise.  Some people like tall folks, some like brains, some care about income, and some are really only interested if you are five meters tall and constantly puke up purple giraffes.  Trying to tell someone to be sexually attracted to something they are not is both nearly impossible and unethical.  The only thing we can do is accept that people are sexually attracted to all kinds of things and there is nothing we can or should do to try to convince them otherwise.

The problem comes in when people confuse sexual attraction with worthiness.  That is, if they aren't sexually attracted to a person they blame the object rather than the viewer.  Attributing moral inferiority to someone on the basis of a lack of sexual attraction, deeming them unworthy, is something we can train ourselves not to do and something we must strive to eliminate.  The most common example I think is fat shaming - there is nothing wrong with being sexually attracted to slim people but it is deeply awful to shame people for being fat.  Nobody owes it to you to be sexually attractive to you in particular.

One corollary to this is that nobody owes it to you to be sexually attracted to you.  I have seen lots of people trying to push slogans like "Everyone is beautiful!" and I really think they should be saying "We are all worthy of respect regardless of sexual attraction."  If everyone is beautiful and nobody is ugly than we might as well never use those words to refer to people as they are meaningless.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  Everyone is beautiful to somebody, some people are beautiful to most people, and everyone is ugly to somebody.  Others are absolutely entitled to think you are ugly but they shouldn't find you unworthy on that basis.  It is important to examine our own sexual attractions though to see if they are coming from deeply rooted racism, sizeism, ableism, etc. and to not use "Sorry, not attracted" as an excuse for bigotry.

I saw a Buzzfeed video featuring a guy singing about how dividing the world into tit men and ass men is terrible and waxing romantic about how he loves a girl that reads.  Thing is I share his particular preferences - I like feminine bodies and a partner who is smart, well read, a dangerous debater, and deadly clever can easily amplify that initial lust or even create it when it had not otherwise existed.  But positioning sexual attraction to women who are reading a book as morally superior to sexual attraction to breasts isn't helping anything.  People who aren't smart and aren't good debaters get tossed on the heap and we are left still in the same boat where people are deemed unworthy, just for different reasons.  That the singer has selected a series of physical traits he cares about but slags others for selecting a particular subset of those traits to care about is a bit of hypocritical heteronormativity I doubt a lot of people notice.

The solution is not to say "Well *this* is the trait everyone should be going for" because that just leads to marginalization of a different set of people.  We also can't pretend the problem away by claiming that everyone is sexually attractive to an open mind.  They aren't.  The solution is to say that you can be sexually attracted to anything without reproach but that you should treat people who aren't sexually attractive to you well.  You don't have to love them, have sex with them, or even like them but you do have to accept them.  Someone out there wants them and the fact that you don't is your problem, not theirs.

Note that attraction comes in many types and that sexual attraction is regularly privileged over the other types.  This is especially problematic for those on the asexual spectrum but it creates problems for many other groups, notably women.  My central message here applies equally well to other types of attraction - treating people badly because you aren't inclined to be close with them and positioning it as due a moral failing of theirs is terrible too.  I do think that this issue is far more prevalent and egregious when it comes to sexual attraction though so that was my primary focus.


  1. "But positioning those desires as superior to someone who really only cares about breasts isn't helping anything." Aiiee, I am pretty sure this is not what you actually meant. The thing about these conversations, is there's not really suck a thing as someone who really only cares about breasts (or at least, if there is, they actually are inferior and misogynistic.) I'm pretty what you're talking about here is people whose physical attraction to other people is primarily (or even solely, sure) based on their breasts. If someone wanted to base their relationships only on that, and were reducing the people they dated only to that trait, that would be a problem. Primary sexual attraction is not particularly controllable, but caring about people beyond their breasts is superior to not doing so.

    Honestly, I really think this entire thing is super confused by the fact that you haven't defined what kind of attraction you are talking about here. And seperating out things like sexual or aesthetic attraction from that other kind of attraction that people feel toward those they want to develop lasting relationships with (platonic or otherwise) actually makes it easier to clarify the point you are making.

    Because there are people in the world who will discount the possibility of having any kind of meaningful relationship with people of the sex/gender toward which they experience sexual attraction, if those people don't possess the requisite qualities for said attraction, and these are the people (I think) you are trying to point out as wrong here.

    Really, it boils back down to the problem of dudes who think women's only use is sex. Those dudes are wrong. But sometimes they are criticized in terms that make no sense and villainize people who are actually fine, as when people are generally shamed for "basing" their sexual attraction to others on physical appearance. Which is a thing that most people do, and can't choose not to, so.

  2. When I say "only cares about breasts" I really don't mean someone who literally has no preference at all about other people's thoughts, habits, lifestyle, etc. I mean someone whose primary sexual attraction is only triggered by breasts and that attraction dwarfs any other physical attraction they might feel. That is fine, just as it would be fine if their thing was big noses, broad shoulders, or anything else. That doesn't mean they have a free pass to treat people as if that is their only value, which is my primary point. You can be attracted to people in whatever way you want but you have to treat them decently and that includes not treating them as if a singular body feature is their only value.

    I was definitely thinking of sexual attraction when writing this. The main point stands in that being attracted or not based on any feature you choose is fine but you should not base your opinion on the person's worthiness, morality, or otherwise on your attraction or lack thereof. However, aesthetic attraction is such a minor thing for me compared to sexual attraction that I don't know that I could usefully write a similar sort of piece about it. I feel like it would be similar to me trying to write about what it is like to be female in that I have a theoretical understanding and have heard lots about it but lack the real experience. I clearly don't experience aesthetic attraction in the way others do.

    1. I was mostly just saying that it was unclear in the way this whole post was written what kinds of attraction you were talking about. Which is why it is important not to use the word attraction in an unqualified way like that. People who are not sexually attractive to a person can still hold attractions of other kinds. I actually think that talking about attraction in an unqualified way like this is the reason why this conversation gets so confused - sometimes people don't realize they are actually talking about different things, as when someone suggests that basing attraction entirely on physically grounds is shallow and always awful. It's true that if you're entire understanding of "attraction" is only physical, that's fucked up, but that's why we need to talk about the different kinds of attraction. The people you're arguing against here actually have a point, they are just expressing it as badly as you are expressing yours :P, and because you're using the same word to talk about entirely different things (pure sexual attraction vs. a more general desire to spend time with a person), while pretending that you are all talking about the same thing.

    2. TL; DR
      The real problem here is that so often in society sexual attraction is considered the only kind of attraction worth mentioning, or the only thing that exists or can define a person's (particularly if that person is a woman) value. And by using the word attraction to mean only sexual attraction as you have done here, you are contributing to that problem. All I am saying is that you should have qualified your terms in the first place, if it is even going to be possible to have the conversation you are trying to open here. But instead you wrote a post wherein you assumed that the people you were arguing against were using attraction in the same way you are, even though they very obviously aren't. It's not productive.