Societal Conflations of Primary and Secondary Sexual Attraction

A lot of the time, I see people making moral claims and/or just arguing about whether it’s better to be (sexually and/or romantically; the two are usually treated as the same thing) attracted to people based on who they are on the inside, or if it’s ok to have preferences based on appearance.

Often times these conversations get totally gridlocked, and it is pretty clear to me why that is, although the people having them rarely manage to see it. It’s that people think they’re talking about the same thing (usually sexual attraction) when they are in fact talking about two different things: primary and secondary sexual attraction.

Brief definitions: Primary sexual attraction is the kind of sexual attraction that a person might feel for another person more or less immediately after meeting them. My understanding is that it is a visceral response based mainly on superficial (or otherwise immediately recognizable) characteristics of people. I don’t totally know, y’all, because I don’t experience primary sexual attraction, so if anyone wants to help me out in the comments that’d be great.

Secondary sexual attraction is a form of sexual attraction that develops only when a person knows someone really well and has formed an emotional bond with them. It’s based on things like the ways in which those people relate to each other and positive emotions they feel toward one another.

I’m going to go out on bit of a limb here and say that most allosexual people experience both kinds of sexual attraction. The way I think about secondary sexual attraction in an allosexual context is that it’s the thing that allows people to remain attracted to each other over time in long-term relationships, as their bodies inevitably change drastically from however they used to look, and stop having the characteristics that caused the initial primary sexual attraction they may have felt for one another.

My impression is that this sort of thing, over time, can also change the characteristics to which a person is primarily sexually attracted (i.e. if an allosexual person falls for/develops secondary sexual attraction for a person with some characteristic they are not usually primarily sexually attracted, they may find themselves subsequently developing a primary sexual attraction to that characteristic, and responding to it viscerally in the person they are attracted to, and possibly in others.) I’ve seen this in action, for the record; more than one person that I’ve had a long-term sexual relationship has mentioned at some point that they were surprised by how attractive they wound up finding some characteristic in me that they weren’t usually attracted to.

So, secondary sexual attraction is important. And primary sexual attraction is, at least to some extent, and/or at least for some people, malleable.

But, that’s not the same thing as saying the primary sexual attraction is controllable, or that it is fair to moralize about people’s visceral sexual responses to people. I don’t think that most people are capable of completely eliminating their primary sexual urges, nor are they capable of somehow making them egalitarian or whatever the fuck it is that proponents of non-superficial attraction think people should do. You may be able to moralize about someone’s behaviour when they have a visceral sexual attraction to someone but the fact that they experience it (or don’t, for that matter) in response to whatever characteristic they do or do not respond to isn’t in and of itself worthy of judgment. If they use the presence of lack of primary sexual attraction as a measure of other people’s general worth as humans, or are more likely to be friends with or give jobs to people they are viscerally attracted to, that is fucked up and wrong. And that is a real pattern that we see happening to people. But the problem is not inherent to the fact that some (I guess most? this still confuses me to be honest) people do feel this kind of attraction, the problem is with what they do with that fact.

For the record, I also have a *lot* of thoughts about things like people specific preferences for (or against) certain races of people, etc. I do not think these sorts of claims are even remotely benign, and despite what I have said here, I don’t believe that sexual preferences are somehow magically above criticism, but I am going to save further unpacking of that issue for a future post. I simply want to set a foundation here for the idea that I understand that primary sexual attraction exists, and that I don’t believe that it is inherently wrong or less moral than secondary attraction.

Further thoughts on religious exemptions

My post from a while back on religious freedom (TL;DR version is that I have a problem with religious exemptions to rules or laws on the grounds that they effectively discriminate against people who are not members of the exempted religion. Any rule that should either apply to everyone, or to no one) generated an interesting discussion on facebook. A friend of mine brought up a very important perspective. He said:

As I understand it, the whole religious freedom thing started because laws were as much about enforcing community norms as anything else. When minority communities accrued enough power it became too costly for the majority to continue enforcing their norms upon them.

So, powerful enough minorities (but not the small/ politically weak ones) could get exemptions from state-enforced cultural laws.

It just so happened that what riled people up enough to get them to fight/ demand exemptions was religion. So, we ended up with religious freedoms.

And additionally:

We’re not as far from the past as one might hope (wrt legislating social norms).

I wanted to address these points here, because I think they are extremely important. My take on religious exemptions, while I still stand by it in principle, is in reality rather outrageously optimistic (at best), and actually potentially dangerous.

The fact is that the setting in which religious exemptions get granted is extremely complicated. The existing power structures in North America (and many other Western countries, as well as others) are very invested in maintaining the status quo. The people in power are those whose backgrounds, culture, beliefs, and traditions are already privileged, and those who, in general, see no reason to change things from the way they’ve always been.

And it is against this background that (many) pleas for religious exemptions are made. The fact is that, as much as I might like the argument in these cases to be one from first principles, about whether a given rule is valid, and for the decisions made to be universally applicable, the reality is that this system would not work within the existing power structures. Because for most of those in power, the argument “but this rule has no real reason to exist” isn’t good enough reason to remove the rule. Because to many people in power “tradition” outweighs the lack of reason, and is itself a reason in favour of no change, rather than the removal of a rule of the relaxation of a social norm.

And it for this reason that the argument from religious freedom, the basis on which religious exemptions are granted, is ultimately of vital importance. Because the way religious exemptions work is by actually reinforcing the norms, by identifying minority religions that gain exemptions as “other” (while religions and cultural traditions for which the “regular” rules are appropriate retain (i.e. white Protestantism, and to some extent Christianity in general) a default status).

Moreover, the religious freedom argument is simply more politically expedient than the “but this is a stupid rule” argument, especially in the US in many ways, because the country was founded in part by people who had fled religious persecution in their countries of birth (I will acknowledge here the extreme hypocrisy of their treatment of American Indians; nevertheless, the point stands that religious freedom is a culturally and politically powerful rhetoric in the US and elsewhere).

Mostly, what I am saying here is that I recognize that the existence of religious exemptions (well, most of them; corporate abuses of the idea of religious freedom are another thing entirely) is very, very important, and much better than the alternative wherein people inevitably would be prevented from practicing non-harmful aspects of their religions. It’s a flawed solution, and it only partially solves the problems it addresses (because of the problem of reinforcing the idea of what is actually normal, as well as in the fact that it only provides partial freedom), but it is nevertheless the best solution I am aware of in the context of political and societal norms that we know are notoriously slow to shift.

Ultimately religious exemptions, while technically discriminatory, are pretty analagous to things like scholarships that are made available only to people of colour, or women, or to any other identifiably under-privileged group. Strictly speaking, these scholarships are also discriminatory; they explicitly discriminate between people on the basis race, sex, and other factors. But we can all recognize that they do so with an eye toward boosting overall equity and justice in society, and that if we continue to fight the good fight, one day these kinds of protective discrimination will be unnecessary. And until that day comes, I will continue to fiercely support these forms of “discrimination”.

Carving out whatever space we can to protect marginalized people living right now, today, is just as important as keeping our eyes on the goal of greater freedom for everyone, and so I’m going to stop complaining about religious exemptions in general, and just focus on the ones that are actually harmful (as in Hobby Lobby, and similar cases).

Rethinking religious freedom

I have a beef with “religious freedom”. And I put that in quotations marks for a reason, because I am in favour of people being allowed to freely practice their religion and freely believe their beliefs. Absolutely. But I don’t think that religious freedom, as the phrase is frequently used today, is actually about religious freedom. In fact, it very often is practiced in ways that are actually forms of religious discrimination.

What I’m talking about here is religious exemptions. That is, any case wherein people of a particular religious faith are permitted to do a thing that is generally not allowed. Or, as has been happening lately, when corporations are allowed exemptions from legal obligations on religious grounds.

Here is my thing: when you say that people of x faith are allowed to do y, but only people of that faith may do it, you are discriminating against everyone who is not a follower of religion x for their lack of adherence to that religion. And here’s the further thing: if it is ok for x-ists to do this thing that otherwise has a blanket rule against it, then why is it not ok for other people to do it? Why is that rule there in the first place if it is clearly not that important?

Because really, we should be able to decide whether or not a thing should be permissable, and universally apply the permissability thereof. If a thing is ok for some people to do, it should be ok for everyone to do; and if it’s actually not an ok thing (if it’s wrong; if it causes undue harm to people, whatever), then it should be not ok for anyone to do.

And to some extent we understand this. There are, reasonably, limits to the reach of religious freedoms, which is why it is not ok in North America to put gay people or non-virginal brides to the death, even if we refer to the Bible as the justification for those actions. That is a thing that we as a society have decided is not an ok thing to do, regardless of a person’s faith.

And I would apply this same logic to the recent ridiculous Hobby Lobby decision providing a religious exception to the federal mandate that employers include birth control coverage in their health insurance plans. Because here’s the thing: either birth control is an important enough thing that all employers should be compelled to provide it, or it’s not. If it’s not actually that important, then why not let everyone decide? Why are religious reasons more valid than any other reasons? I mean, I would argue that religious reasons are often less valid than other reasons, since they can hide behind faith and avoid actually having to justified by facts or reality, so this frustrates me greatly.

And of course, the facts and reality of women’s lives and reproductive health make it clear that the federal mandate for inclusion of birth control coverage is important, and is a good decision.

And as such, it should apply to everyone. Seriously, period. That’s all there is to say in this paragraph.

For a slightly less inflammatory (and simultaneously more complicated) example: most public schools have rules against wearing hats in classrooms. There are, of course, exceptions made for people whose faiths mandate various kinds of head-coverings (be they yarmulkes, or hijab, or turbans). Which, I mean, obviously people of these faiths should be allowed to wear these things. And I also want to be very clear here that I am not arguing that we should all agree that it should be totally ok for anyone to wear a hijab or a yarmulke – such an action would be culturally appropriative for someone from outside of the relevant religions to do; it would be problematic, and I don’t want to suggest otherwise.

But here’s the way I do want to look at it: if it’s ok for all of these people to wear head-coverings in class, why is it not ok for everyone else to do so? Why are most Christians and all atheists banned from wearing hats in class, and how is this anything other than discrimination against them for not belonging to a faith that mandates such things?

Because the thing is, all of these religious exceptions to this rule expose a glaring truth: that there is no actual problem with people wearing things on their heads in classrooms. It’s not a thing that there should be a rule against in the first place. These rules are, as far as I can tell, old rules based on old ideas of propriety and respect for the institution, or whatever, and actually don’t have any particularly good reason for existing. They’re actually pretty classist when you really look at them, based on weird ritualized ideas of what constitutes respect, instead of basing a person’s perceived respectfulness on their actual actions.

There may be valid arguments for why hats with brims that obscure the face might be a problem, as they can be used to hide the fact that a student is sleeping, or whatever – though I would suggest that if someone is sleeping in a classroom the problem goes beyond the fact that they are wearing a hat. But beyond banning brimmed hats (or requiring that ball caps be worn backwards while in the classroom) there is literally no reason not to permit everyone, regardless of faith, to wear things on their heads. Anything less constitutes discrimination against people who do not belong to the faiths that are excepted from the rules.

My conclusion is pretty simple: Rules that exist for a good reason should apply to everyone. Those that don’t exist for a good reason should apply to no one. That’s it. No exceptions, religious or otherwise.

Navigating the Gender Binary: Women-only Spaces

So, this thing happened. It was a tiny little thing, really, and most people wouldn’t have really given it a second thought, but it actually threw me for a bit of a loop. Here’s the thing:

Yesterday, I got a facebook invite to a clothing swap event. I was super excited! I’ve been wanting to cycle out a lot of my old wardrobe and get new stuff in, but haven’t had an affordable way to do it. This seemed like a good opportunity for me to at least make a start on doing that. And really, the only minor speed-bump for me is that a big part of my desire to switch out a good portion of my wardrobe is that I want to have more of a masculine/feminine/neutral gendered mix to the clothes available to me in the day-to-day – I’ve been borrowing my husband’s clothes sometimes, but that makes me feel silly in a weird way, and I want my own – whereas the swap was pretty clearly targeted at women and intended for women’s clothes

Anyway, I figured I could probably at least swap out some of the dresses I don’t want anymore, and get some button-down shirts or something in return. It’d be a start right? And I didn’t think too deeply about it being a woman-focused event, since I’d be bringing “women’s” clothes to the thing, so whatever.

And then, a few hours after I “joined” the event, the organizer posted:

In case you didn’t already know, this is a female only event. Thanks!

Oh. Well then. So I find myself in a bit of a dilemma?

Maybe. Maybe not. I am frequently, in my day-to-day life, required to implicitly or explicitly indicate my gender, and when it comes down to brass tacks, I go for the female marker. When using public washrooms, I use the women’s room 100% of the time. It’s safer, and since I do get read as female the vast majority of the time (no matter how hard I try sometimes) it’s just simpler. I’m unlikely to be challenged on it, so it’s what I do.

A few months back, I even attended a women’s only spa. I did think it through before making the call, but in the end I felt that I was obeying the spirit if not the letter of the rule. (And if I chose to interpret women in this context as “people with vaginas” – as I suspect they really meant; I imagine that some trans feminine people would be excluded, for instance – I was obeying the letter of the law as well.) I’ll break this one down.

The spa consists of a variety of baths at various temperatures, as well as a sauna. And it’s clothing optional. So, as is often the short-hand way of eliminating/minimizing sexual harassment and helping people feel comfortable, it was women only. And yeah, I get the intent behind this kind of rule; in similar environments that are co-ed, it can be difficult to prevent harassment from occurring. And even if a cis man is trying to be respectful, his body might betray him and make people uncomfortable. I don’t know if there’s a good solution to this, either. In order to eliminate the desire for women’s only spaces in this context, huge portions of our culture would have to be dismantled and reformed. We would need to stop sending the message that the naked female body is inherently sexual, and empower everyone (and especially straight cis men) to be able to still treat women context-appropriately regardless of their level of dress. And we would need to live in a society where an erect penis wasn’t automatically interpreted as a threat. Because it shouldn’t be, but I also understand why it is so often seen that way.

Anyway, I figured I would be as non-threatening to the environment as any other visibly queer (and I’m not even certain that I do read as queer to straight people, most of the time) vagina-having person. And I really needed the opportunity to relax and socialize, so I went. And I didn’t even feel horrible about it.

So why, then, am I having second thoughts about this clothing swap deal? Well, to be frank, the motivation behind the exclusionary policy here isn’t as compelling as it is in the case of the clothing-optional spa. There’s a bunch of things going on here, really, but before I dive into it, I want to be clear on a couple of things.

First, I don’t ascribe any ill-intentions to the organizer whose post threw me for such a loop. I’m certain it wasn’t even directed at me, in fact; she couldn’t possibly know my gender identity, after all, and after the post appeared, I checked the RSVP and invite lists and found that there were a handful of masculine-presenting people with clearly masculine names appearing there. So I suspect the notification was intended for them.

But still, I thought, why was it so important to make sure those men didn’t show up? Is she just concerned that they’ll be disappointed at the lack of other masculine folk with which to swap? Are we assuming these people are hoping to trade “men’s” clothes? Would it make a difference if we knew that they were looking to trade out feminine clothing to refresh their wardrobes? Or is the attendance of cross-dressers being deliberately discouraged (because it makes people uncomfortable)?

These are not the men who RSVP’d. But maybe they would like to go one of these events. Is there any reason not to let them?

I feel like the reasoning here is that the people who are interested in clothing swaps are generally pretty heavily female, and that therefore it makes sense to make them women-only, um, because… well, I mentioned above that people hoping to swap masculine clothing would be disappointed, so we can go with that. I do think the opening assumption there is acceptable – I suspect that women are more inclined to be interested int his kind of event than men are, on average, for all kinds of reasons that aren’t important in this discussion.

But I don’t see this as an important enough gender-related tendency for it to be explicitly reified and policed in the way the event is organized (strictly speaking, we should strive to never police gendered tendencies, though I acknowledge that the exclusionary policies of the spa to just this*). Why not decide that men/masculine clothing is welcome, but warn prospective masculine attendees that the pickings might be slim for them? It’s clear in the language of the event that it is primarily targeted toward women, but I see no point in being explicitly exclusionary. It’s entirely uncalled for, and it was certainly uncalled for to switch from the implicit exclusion of men (in the targeting of the event) to the explicit exclusion in the little public service announcement I posted above.

So, in the end, I don’t think I feel uncomfortable attending because I necessarily feel excluded (I certainly don’t feel intentionally excluded.) But I do feel uncomfortable attending an event that is explicitly excluding people without any non-discriminatory motivation for doing so. To make this distinction very clear: the swap would still function if men were welcome, whereas the spa might not; it certainly wouldn’t function in quite the same way (as much as I and many others might like it to).

But I also really need new clothes :\

*The primary reason I feel comfortable differentiating between the gender policing of the swap, and that at the spa (beyond the distinction made above) is that while both are reacting to gendered tendencies that are at least partially rooted in the patriarchy (in the case of the spa, it’s the inability of (straight) men to see women’s bodies in a non-sexual way; in the case of the swap, it’s the idea that men don’t really want to swap clothing), the spa policy is designed to reduce the negative impact of the gendered tendency by eliminating opportunities for men to harass women in the spa, while the swap policy is designed to perpetuate the lack of men participating in clothing swaps, which is pointless at best, and damaging to those men who are interested at worst.

Inclusion fail

(via Tessa de Jongh on flickr)

A number of years ago, I attended a Bachelor of Education program. I’m theoretically qualified to teach junior and senior high school, but I have not maintained my membership to the Ontario College of Teachers, so I’m not eligible for any (public school) jobs. Teaching didn’t turn out to be what I actually wanted to do with my life.

Among the things that happened that annoyed me during the program (and there were many; because Ontario has dedicated Catholic school boards for all districts, a distinct proportion of the students accepted to Ontario teaching programs are Catholic, to fill the rosters of those schools), one haunts me in particular because of its genuine good intentions, but failed execution.

There’s a disturbing pattern among the classic lesson plans for teaching tolerance of diversity, which is that the plans tend to assume that they will be applied to a homogenous class of students who sit solidly on the privileged side of whatever division is being discussed.

For example, there’s the Jane Elliott’s blue eyes/brown eyes exercise that is meant to make white students understand what it is like to live in a world where you are a member of a discriminated-against class of people (i.e. what it’s like to be a person of colour in North America). It’s not clear to me how this exercise would work in a mixed-race context. It might actually be more interesting in some ways, but it’s pretty clear to me that it was not designed for this purpose.

The clearer example I have is geared toward reducing anti-LGBT (ar at least anti-LGB) prejudice. In one of my classes, the professor actually ran the exercise on us, so I got to experience first-hand just how problematic it is. It’s a simple enough premise, and involves walking through one version or another of this questionnaire.

The questions are kind of cute, and intended to inspire reflection among straight people on their assumptions about sexuality. And that’s all well and good. But.

As a queer person, I found myself completely and utterly excluded from the entire exercise and ensuing discussion. The answer to many of those questions for anyone who isn’t heterosexual is a simple “not applicable”. It was extremely frustrating, not least because the exercise could easily be altered to explicitly ask for input from LGB people (or, for the sake of not putting LGB students on the spot if they are not comfortable discussing it, at least leave some implicit openings/prompts that can be meaningfully addressed/answered by LGB people.) As it was administered, the whole process was deeply lacking in opportunities for meaningful diaogue.