Thursday, April 2, 2009

Men, watch out! Lesbians are stealing your women!

A few days ago, my father directed my attention to an article by Mary A. Fischer in this month's Oprah Magazine. The article's entitled, "Why Women Are Leaving Men for Other Women," and my dad's of the opinion that Oprah's paving the way for her own coming out. (I'm not really one to speculate, but if I were, I would agree that she does spend an awful lot of time with that Gayle!)

Anyway, the article is moderately interesting, although it doesn't say anything earth-shattering and there are some problematic moments. FeministGal points out a few issues, such as Fischer's use of 'lesbian chic' as evidence of society's acceptance (rather than exploitation, a more accurate term) of lesbian relationships:
Lately, a new kind of sisterly love seems to be in the air. In the past few years, Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon left a boyfriend after a decade and a half and started dating a woman (and talked openly about it). Actress Lindsay Lohan and DJ Samantha Ronson flaunted their relationship from New York to Dubai. Katy Perry's song "I Kissed a Girl" topped the charts. The L Word, Work Out, and Top Chef are featuring gay women on TV, and there's even talk of a lesbian reality show in the works. Certainly nothing is new about women having sex with women, but we've arrived at a moment in the popular culture when it all suddenly seems almost fashionable—or at least, acceptable.
Lesbianism is fashionable? Um. Yay? Also, I've heard that before (e.g. Laura Cottingham's book(let) Lesbians Are So Chic...: ...That We Are Not Really Lesbians at All and Linda Dittmar's article "The Straight Goods: Lesbian Chic and Identity Capital on a Not-so-Queer Planet," both written in the mid-1990s and a long time before the age of Katy Perry and Tila Tequila).

Fischer also points to a landmark 2004 study (referenced a few months ago in this New York Times Magazine feature) as evidence that female sexuality is more fluid than male sexuality. I don't know. I haven't read the study itself, but it seems that Fischer is vastly simplifying the results. Regardless, I don't have too much of a problem with the idea that women's sexuality is more fluid--stereotypical though it may seem. Who knows, maybe it's true? I have a much bigger problem with the conclusion Fischer draws toward the end of the article: that women who leave men for other women tend to be more attracted to butch lesbians, androgynous women or bois. She writes:
Ironically—or not, as some might argue—it is certain "masculine" qualities that draw many straight-labeled women to female partners; that, in combination with emotional connection, intimacy, and intensity. This was definitely true for Gomez-Barris, whose partner, Judith Halberstam, 47, (above right, with Gomez-Barris, left) says she has never felt "female." Growing up in England as a tomboy who had short hair and refused to wear dresses, Halberstam says people were often unable to figure out whether she was a boy or a girl: "I was a source of embarrassment for my family." As a teenager, she was an avid soccer player—not that she was allowed on any team. And her 13th birthday request for a punching bag and boxing gloves was met with the demand to pick something more feminine. "Throughout my youth," she says, "I felt rage at the shrinking of my world." Halberstam channeled her anger into a distinguished academic career and authored several provocative books, including, in 1998, Female Masculinity. It was during the past few years that she started calling herself Jack and answering to both "he" and "she."
With all due respect to Judith (Jack) Halberstam, whose work I really admire and whose own sexuality isn't really the issue here, it does seem a little reductive for Fischer to argue that most "straight" women tend to fall for masculine/androgynous women, and the article seems to come to some sort of unspoken conclusion that socially-sanctioned gender binaries (male as rational and female as emotional, for example) still play a role, even for women who fall in love with other women. This may be true for some people. It may even be more often true for straight women who date lesbians. But it's certainly not something I'd be willing to build an argument around.

Do you think female sexuality is more fluid than male sexuality? Do any of you who are gay, bisexual or heteroflexible want to speak to whether or not you tend to be attracted to more "masculine" or more "feminine" women? And what that might mean, if anything? Is this even something about which we can make generalized claims?

Lest I sound too grumpy, I think the article's mostly fine, especially for something published in a mainstream publication. What do you all think?


Natasha said...

No comments yet? Weird!

No, I don't think women's actual sexuality is more fluid than men's; I think that it is more acceptable by Western society for women to love women than men to love men. Just as many or most lesbians used to identify as either 'butch' or 'femme' but now lesbians are (more) able to just BE. Men are behind, handicapped by the terror of the heterosexual male of homosexuality-- they pretty much still have to be all one or the other. Note the still strait-jacketed effeminate male homosexuality which so many gay men feel they have to fit in with.

I believe that sexuality is arranged along a continuum, biologically, and very few people are actually 100% hetero- or homosexual. Socially we are taught what categories we have at our disposal and we fit our world into them.

A simple example is that there are cultures/ languages in which there is no distinction between green and blue. We English-speaking natives have no trouble telling green from blue because we have words/categories for both. But take someone who has only one category to start with and tell them to create two subcategories of a bunch of hues-- and they won't end up with all greens here and all blues there.

Here's a better example: "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists."

Thus if our culture tells a man that there are only 'masculine' -i.e., heterosexual- men and 'effeminate'- homosexual men, his only natural option is to self-identify as one or the other (as 'race' used to be just white/black, for instance)-- and then for his behavior to fit the mold he is given by society. Because homosexuality in women is so much less scary to the public, women aren't as forced to choose.

In response to the second question, on a more personal note, I, a bisexual-by-theory, mostly heterosexual-in-practice (just haven't met the right woman) woman, am attracted to women with cute asses. I like women who are intelligent, clean, clothing-creative, and may or may not wear lipstick. I'm not attracted to the 'lipstick lesbians' that I have met-- and I'm sure that term means different things to different people, but in my experience it means girlie lesbian bimbos. I'm not attracted to women who have to be macho and tough and 'ugly' (as an attitude)-- or that behavior in men, for that matter. I like youthful bodies, clean fingernails, pleasant breath! It all comes back to the same thing. I don't prefer a category of women that has already been described. I am happy to be in a position of understanding to know this about myself and not cripple myself by trying to fit into someone else's idea of how the world is divided up-- that I don't have to choose if someone asks me if I like butch or femme women better. My response doesn't have to be one, the other, neither, both, or none-of-the-above: My answer is, you asked the wrong question.

Natasha said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aviva DV said...

Natasha, so sorry I didn't respond to your comment, yet; I've been meaning to for days.

First off, I get what you're saying about men, homosexuality and societal expectations, but I'm not sure I'm completely convinced. I think it's hard to know whether or not sexuality (and its relative fluidity) is a hard-wired biological trait or a socio-cultural one. Perhaps it's only about cultural norms and men are taught to believe that they have to stick with one sexual orientation their entire lives, but without any verifiable/scientific way to back up that assumption, it's as likely that men do tend towards more rigid sexual predilections than women in general. We'll probably never know.

I certainly agree with you that sexuality falls on a spectrum, although I think the range of male sexual expression is a lot more varied than you describe. I've met plenty of heterosexual men who were not uber-masculine and very few gay men who were effeminate or "gay-acting."

For what it's worth, I know that I tend to date feminine women (not quite what some might call a "lipstick lesbian," which, by the way, I totally used to identify as, although I don't think I'm a "girlie lesbian bimbo"!). I certainly didn't mean to suggest by my question that people have to choose between like one kind of gender presentation over another (feminine women vs. butch women, for example); I was just wondering if other people have experienced what the article describes regarding the kinds of people to whom bi vs. straight vs. lesbian women are attracted. Personally, I think "types" are a very individual thing and having nothing to do with sexual orientation. Some people may not be attracted to types at all or it may have nothing to do with gender presentation but rather with a preference for red hair or strong shoulders or witty personalities. Etc.