Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Renegotiating the Gender Contract.

This past weekend, mixed in with the cookie-baking and fixing my car (Seriously) I actually managed to read some articles on sociology. I know, this amazes me too as it implies that my posts in the future might not be as staggeringly uninformed as they have been in the past. I am almost giddy with the possibilities. Giddy I tell you!

In any case, one of the articles I read was "In the Fraternal Sisterhood: Sororities as Gender Strategy," in Gender and Society 9(2) 1995 by Lisa Handler, who is currently a graduate student at SUNY-Stony Brook. Normally I don't care much for ethnographic, qualitative work like that in this article. What can I say? I'm a quantoid. Still, I found this article to be well written and very useful.

Handler attempt to analyze the rise of sororities, and their continued existence, as a solution to a particular problem. Specifically, sororities are conceived of as a competetive solution to the problems women face in an educational institution dominated by male fraternities.

In the article, Handler identifies a number of processes sororities engage in. There is the effort to construct within-sorority relations as friendship and, more importantly, as a transcendant form of friendship labelled sisterhood. This invests the relations encompassed by the group with a significance that is useful in maintaining cohesion and loyalty. Secondly, sorority membership is a sort of social contract, wherein members agree not to compete romantically with each other and to offer emotional and academic support to other members. Thus, sororities form a kind of romantic labor union and even allow for a weak sort of collective bargaining.

Beyond this, sororities function as systems for regulating and enabling contacts with males. They operate to provide enhanced opportunities for meeting males, create standards of appropriate behavior in regards to males, and provide a system of support for dealing with what the author identifies as a male-dominated "romantic marketplace."

Of course, much like more mundane labor unions, sororities face significant coordination problems. Just as individual workers feel a tension between loyalty to the group and desire for personal gains, so too do sorority members feel a tension between loyalty to the sisterhood, and personal preferences. Thus, the possibility of romantic competition between sisters can create strife just as defection from a picket line can.

What makes this article most interesting to me is that it intelligently discusses the emergence of sororities within the context of male power. By this, I don't mean the author's contrasting of sorority sisterhood with feminist sisterhood- a contrast that is so completely useless to the article that I'm amazed it wasn't removed by the editor- I mean the author's arguments about the functional uses of sororities. Handler cogently argues that sororities are a system for improving female outcomes in a system largely controlled by men, but that they do so at the cost of reinforcing that system. Therefore, sororities allow women to play the game more skillfully, but only at the price of legitimating that game in the first place. This is a valuable observation, in that it recognizes the role of oppressed groups in maintaining their own oppression.

Now, I'm not saying this because, as a man, I want to displace as much responsibility for the mistreatment of women as possible. I'll admit, that would be nice, but that isn't my reason here. No, I think this is a valuable observation because, if anything, I have a great deal of respect for women. In my experience women and men are equally intelligent, equally driven, and are capable of the same heights and depths of courage and depravity. I have yet to observe a manner in which men and women are different, besides the rather simplistic (if pleasant) contrasts of sexual dimorphism. So, I have always wondered why women permitted their own oppression. We're talking about fully half of the human race here, slightly more with modern medicine. It seems odd to me that one half should be able to dominate the other, even with the physical advantages men enjoy.

During my youth, raised as I was in a conservative household, I accepted arguments that this justified gender inequality in some way. Clearly, since women accepted lesser status, an equitable exchange was going on. Men and women had accepted separate spheres of activity, and all parties were satisfied with this set of tradeoffs. It was not until I matured more, and read more extensively, that I discovered a long history of female resistance to male domination. That this resistance was often unsuccessful did nothing to wash away the realization that the presence of such conflict itself signalled that matters were not quite as equitable as I had once believed. Say what you will about my conclusions, but I pride myself on being open to argument.

It took more thinking, as well as an introduction to social science, in order for me to understand the role of the macrostructures that infuse our society. Indeed, they more than infuse our society, they are our society in a very real sense. Individuals can come and go, but the structures persist, giving our society the feeling of palpable reality we all know so well. Men and women had never signed some Hobbesian contract to create a gender leviathan- instead outcomes of power struggles became crystallized, and institutionalized, confronting each new generation with the inexorable might of a glacier. Individual women can resist individual men, yes, but individual women cannot resist the strength of an entire social structure any more than individual men can. And so long as women were prevented from organizing collectively, individual women were forced to stand alone. We can imagine the effects this might have on the social ties of both men and women.

The functionalists of old, who argued that every social mechanism operated for the greater good, were tragically incorrect, but a certain functionalist flavor can add spice to our thoughts. Perhaps particular mechanisms don't work for the greater good, and many mechanisms are essentially pointless, nothing more than vestigial social organs, but still many social formations do serve the interests of their constituent groups. The key, however, is that while they do serve the interests of their constituents, they do not necessarily serve the best interests of those constituents.

Social mechanisms likely develop in a somewhat Darwinian manner, which calls not for "Survival of the Fittest," as many people believe, but rather, "Survival of the Barely Adequate." Evolution does not demand perfection, it does not even necessarily want it as an organism that is too capable may well destroy itself. One need only observe the grievous threat human success poses to our own continued survival, as global warming yearly makes its presence known, to understand the potential dangers of too-perfect an adaptation. No, evolution leads not to perfection, but to adequacy, even mediocrity. One need not be good, only good enough. Social mechanisms develop in the same blind, halting, moronic fashion as biological organisms, struggling not for perfection, but only for competetive adequacy.

I bring all this up today not because I want to lecture on evolution (though that's always fun) or because I enjoy the mountain of hate mail that associating gender, functionalism, and evolution is sure to bring (Yippee!) but because I want to discuss a website that deals with similar issues in a charmingly ham-fisted manner.

The site is the straightforwardly-named "NoMarriage.com" and, unsurprisingly, is a criticism of the institution of marriage. Well, no, sorry, let me take that back. It's actually a vitriolic argument that American men shouldn't marry anyone except foreign women, if they marry at all.

Wait, no, sorry, did I say argument? I meant incoherent rambling. Sorry about that.

In any case, the website makes a number of interesting claims in "article" form (if you are willing to include collections of vignettes under the heading of "article") including, but not limited to:

Why Men Should Not Marry which makes the argument, among others, that:

As men, we all know that a woman's primary objective is to marry. After years of experience I've discovered their most commonly used strategy. here it is:

1. Girl pressures guy for marriage.

2. Guy delays.

3. Girl gradually starts destroying guy's self-esteem and eliminating his friends.

4. Guy becomes too weak and too much of a loser to find something better than what he has.

5. Girl starts to limit sex. In effect controlling the only good thing in the guy's life.

6. Guy is in despair. Capitulates to marriage.


Then 5-10 years later the guy is an empty shell of his former self. Girl is a ruthless manipulating machine. Girl divorces loser husband. Girl takes 80% of guy's stuff because the guy is too brain dead to find a good lawyer. Girl lives happily ever after. Guy becomes bald alcoholic who dies of heart attack at 45 years old.


You should be proud if American women call you a "loser"

[A] Description of modern American women

And, my personal favorite:

Fucking decent mid-priced whores twice a week is less expensive than a wife

Needless to say, this site's view of women (American women, anyway) and marriage blows right past "negative" into the happy realm of "loathing." The thing is though, buried amidst the incoherent writing (and the writing really is piss poor, whether you agree with these guys or not) are some interesting sociological bits.

Take, for example, this excerpt from the article Why marriage no longer makes sense:

Traditional marriage balances different privileges and obligations for men and women. Modern woman wants all the benefits of "equality" without any of the responsibilities.

Traditional Western culture balanced special privileges for women with special obligations, and the same for men.

Equality states that no one get special privileges, and that responsibilities and rights should be equally shared.

Either system is balanced and fair.


Indeed, they make an interesting sociological argument here. First, that a social formation may involve differences in responsibilities and priviledges and that, second, there may be more than one such combination that can be achieved. Indeed, I have no choice but to observe that, for all of its rage against women, this site is more egalitarian than our friends the Masculists because it, at least, recognizes that there may be several possible stable configurations of gender relations.

Of course, that being said, where this argument runs into trouble is in the assertion that "Either system is balanced and fair." Ideally speaking, yes, that's the case BUT there's ample reason to believe that the traditional system was a bit more balanced and fair for men than for women.

Hints of this, as well as further (unintentional) elaboration of the sociological point, emerge elsewhere in the site. One such place is in the article suggesting that men should only marry foreign women:

Latin American women seem to make decent wives. My friend married a hot girl from Venezuela. Sweet, beautiful, cooks, cleans, and is the perfect wife. Like how American women were in the 1950s America.


So, we have both a recognition that one gender role requires a partner who enacts a compatible gender role, even as the desirability of a particular traditional female role is reasserted. An even stronger assertion that this earlier, traditional, female role is desirable can be found in another article. Interestingly, earlier in this article on foreign brides another man (I assume, anyway, since I can think of no other reason to divide this up in such a disjointed fashion) asserts that:

Popular Myth: Western men looking for foreign wives are only seeking subservient slaves.

Truth: Most Western men today are evolved and modern and truly believe in the 50/50 system. Most Western men are dismayed by the lack of sincerity of Western women. I can do my own laundry and cooking thank you!


This implies, to me at least, something rather interesting. There is a strong suggestion that the dislocations generated in our society by the ongoing shift to greater levels of sexual equality are being felt by both males and females. It's not that men don't recognize the desirability of an equitable split, even an egalitarian 50/50 split, as the author refers to it, but that the enactment of this equality is problematic. Neither sex appears to be fully comfortable with or confident in its present gender expectations. This is hardly surprising, considering the significance of gender for society and the recency of the major waves of feminism.

Of course, buried in this material are also a few points that could do with some social scientific clarification. For example, the argument is made that:

Almost 90% of American women "marry up" to a man that earns more than they do. Coincidence? I think not.

What we see here is the typical gap between what women say (and may believe on a conscious level) and what they do (Some are conscious hypocrites, others choose wealthier men on a subconscious level, screening out less successful guys without even admitting it to themselves). Only a small minority of women at present (just over 10%) marry men who make less than them. They are the only ones who without a doubt chose men for themselves.


The problem here, of course, is that with the wage gap most women don't make as much as similarly educated men. So, if women marry within education or rough occupation levels, they are statistically likely to marry someone who makes more than they do, whether they want to or not.

Then there is the article asserting that the Majority of American women have narcissistic and histrionic disorders

[The] Medical community generally says that only 2-3% of American women have Histrionic or Narcissistic disorders. That is obviously an outright lie that flies in the face of common sense. Read about various disorders on the above link [Go to the nomarriage site if you want to see the link] (it's a fun project, you might even find that you have a disorder of your own), then think about all the women you dated or women you know well (particularly women between 25 and 30 years old). You will see that almost all of them have at least one disorder, and majority will have two or more disorders.

Medical community generally says that 80% of women have a short-term form of Postpartum depression (also called baby blues). But the baby does not go away after a few weeks. Responsibilities and stress do not go away after a few weeks. If baby, stress, and responsibilities make 80% of women depressed for several weeks after giving birth, then they will be even more stressed and depressed after 6 months of constant dealing with the baby.

What we have here is medical community that is afraid to say that a big percentage of American women have very serious mental problems.


Okay, taking things in order. First off, I'm always skeptical when someone dismisses statistical estimates with an appeal to common sense. Common sense is often contradictory, as in the common statement that "Birds of a feather flock together" and the equally common statement that "Opposites attract." Clearly common sense is a rather confused source of wisdom.

Secondly, the author seems to think that any random layman is capable of diagnosing psychopathology, a notion I find rather unlikely. He even steers his readers into the classic "medical student's disease" of diagnosing one's self with some unknown number of disorders while reading over descriptions of illnesses.

Thirdly, the suggestion that you compare your previous dating history to the criteria for mental disorders is problematic on two levels. In one sense, it's a problem because many of us have rather negative views of our ex's, regardless of their real or imagined faults. In the other sense, and this is just a hunch, visitors to a site like "NoMarriage.com" are likely to be disproportionately composed of disgruntled males, and curious sociologists. Neither group is exactly known for its romantic success. Thus, the experiences of these groups do not provide a reliable source of information on the character of women as a whole.

Fourth, post-partum depression is a medically distinct condition from major depression. There is some evidence suggesting that the hormonal changes that occur in women following labor contribute to or even cause this condition, and help to account for its typically short duration. Specifically:

Hormones also play a role. High levels of female sex hormones circulate in expectant mothers' blood, but drop precipitously within hours of delivery, contributing to biochemical depression. Pregnancy also increases levels of endorphins, the body's feel-good chemicals. [Technically, endorphins are endogeneous pain killers, but that isn't the point.] Endorphin levels fall abruptly after delivery, adding to risk of depression. Hormone levels stabilize in almost all women, including those who become depressed, two weeks after delivery; but it is possible that in some women who are highly susceptible to the effects of changing hormone levels shortly after delivery, the mood deepens and persists because of other past and present circumstances.


Fifth, considering that the medical community long clung to diagnoses like "penis envy," I'm rather doubtful that it is particularly reluctant to make assertions that feminist groups don't like.

I could go on, and have been lumbering on for some time now, but I'll restrain myself. My real point in all this is that the changing roles for males and females are traumatic for us all. Men feel lost and unsure about our position, women feel stressed and overloaded by the addition of a working world without the reduction in their "second-shift" duties. Until we work out some new, hopefully more egalitarian, system we will all be suffering to some extent. That men, who enjoyed a priviledged position under the old rules, sometimes react to this suffering by longing for a return to the past is not surprising, nor even something I can easily condemn them for.

That being said, however, it does no good to glamorize the past. Much as sororities represented a way for women to make the best of a largely bad situation, traditional marriage for women was a way to achieve some stability and security in a world that was largely hostile to them. That this was an acceptable deal does not mean that it was a good one. I cannot condemn men who gaze longingly into the past, but I can and will condemn those who long for a past that never existed, and convince themselves that women derived more benefit from that past than they did. Let us not delude outselves about the nature of our traditions.

A truly fair and balanced system is one in which all participants are benefitting in a positive way, not just avoiding the worst possible outcomes. It is, perhaps, the difference between profitting and breaking even. It is certainly the case that none of us are completely satisfied with the present state of gender relations, but that does not mean we should return to a past of male domination. Instead, our dissatisfaction means that we must press forward and discover a new way for men and women to relate to each other as equals, protected under a law that favors neither women or men. The transition from absolutist monarchies to more democratic structures was surely traumatic, yet was that trauma sufficient reason to retreat from such a change? I think not, and I'm willing to bet you agree with me.

When our society once more achieves social homeostasis let us hope that it is in a place where all participants will declare it "good" and not merely "good enough."

1 Comments:

Blogger Brayden said...

Drek - Your hope for a "good" world sounds nice. I'd like to live there someday. How do you sign up?

Thursday, September 23, 2004 11:16:00 AM  

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