Gender is not a two-party system, that much is clear. As with almost all such categories, you find more variation within groups than between them. Some men like football and guns, while others are into cooking and fashion—and the same goes for women. No matter how you parse it, gender is a clock rather than a toggle switch, and you can find someone occupying every minute on the dial.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing that can be said about categorical differences between men and women.
For instance, it’s almost always men in high places—Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Brett Favre, Larry Craig, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), and now Anthony Weiner—who star in the sex scandals that make headlines. They do things that are hard to keep private, especially in the context of lives lived in public, and thus more than typically vulnerable to exposure. They share photographs that can easily be forwarded to others; or leave a trail of emails, receipts, and phone messages for their enemies to follow; or even victimize someone without seeming to understand that their conduct will make it highly unlikely that person will keep their secrets.
This week, it’s the Anthony Weiner affair, in which a right-wing blogger leaked risque photographs the young Democrat in Congress had sent to females fans who followed him on Twitter. Republicans are demanding his resignation, and the commentariat is busy assigning culpability, relevance, and consequences.
The Huffington Post is full of responses to the Weiner affair, including psychotherapist Michael Bader’s assertion that everyone has transgressive impulses, and that vilifying a public figure for acting them out is defense against our own guilt; Alec Baldwin’s apologia, blaming modern technology; and Paul Vitter’s attack on Republicans calling for Weiner’s resignation who backed the re-election of Louisiana Senator David Vitter, embroiled in the “D.C. Madam” scandal in 2007.
The way I see it, there are two stories entwined. One has to do with the psychology of certain powerful men—the force of their compulsions, the sense of immunity their power seems to confer—and where on the spectrum of transgression a public figure should forfeit power, which seems the most germane question in relation to the public interest.
In this regard, Rebecca Solnit’s account of DSK’s sexual assault on a hotel maid as colonialism in action is well worth a read: “How can I tell a story we already know too well? Her name was Africa. His was France….” Criminal charges are one thing, buying the services of a prostitute or sending risque photographs of oneself, not quite so clear. “Bad judgment” (or the personal equivalent, “bad character”) is the usual label cited to justify the political excommunication of a public transgressor; but if bad judgment were a firing offense, many of them would long since have lost their jobs for political errors, no?
It’s the other story that I keep thinking about, that distortion of maleness that wants to impress itself on the world, whether the world wants it or not.
I find it confusing. On the one hand, my adventures in online dating world have shown me how interested I am in experiencing a male energy that is markedly different from my friendships with women. (You can read about it in my occasional series entitled “The Annals of Online Dating.”) I notice that I like being pursued, and can’t get very interested in a man whose caution overwhelms his desire to engage. Even though I can’t work up an interest in meeting any of the twenty-somethings who write to women my age at dating sites (not my thing, I tell them), there is something I like about the way they know what they want and pursue it.
On the other hand, of course, “No” means no.
It’s all a continuum, right? At one end is the intimate gaze of the lover. I don’t think it can be expressed more beautifully than John Berger did in Ways of Seeing, in contrast to the collector’s gaze that expresses possession:
When in love, the sight of the beloved has a completeness which no words and no embrace can match; a completeness which only the act of making love can temporarily accommodate.
At the other end, we have the digital exhibitionism of an Anthony Weiner or Bret Favre. At every hour on the gender clock, no doubt, there’s someone who wants something different: to be embraced only in total darkness, to exhibit oneself to strangers, and everything in between.
What does the gaze of the beloved have to do with sending photographs of your body parts to absolute strangers? Over in my region of the gender clock, we have absolutely no idea. I laughed out loud at Kristen Schaal’s hilarious turn as “Senior Women’s Issues Correspondent” on The Daily Show, which summed it up perfectly. She said that the “sending-photos-of-your-penis craze can be chalked up to an age-old misconception, that women want more information about your penis.” Even if her bit doesn’t make you laugh at first, it will be worth watching to the end.
The same day Schaal’s excerpt was broadcast, a male friend brought me a link to a series of comic photos headed “If Women Ruled the World…” (You can find this on a zillion Websites, most crammed with even more puerile humor than this one, so forgive me for not being able to locate a link without it.) Some of the images may offend you, some may crack you up, some may make you nod and smile in recognition. When my friend and I sat looking at them together, our shared amusement (and shared groans) reflected the doubleness of the humor: seeing something which skewers an aspect of the truth and at the same time, reflects a stereotype.
(If it really bothers you and you feel the need for equal-opportunity ridicule, though, check out “Men Can Fix Anything.”)
A few years ago, I wrote an essay entitled “Why Do Men Spit?” It is one of the most commented-on pieces published on my site: nearly four years after publication, someone still sends me an email or posts a comment about it every week or two.
Almost as popular has been “To The Car Fairy,” an essay I posted a couple of months ago agonizing about my need to buy a car (and my indifference to almost everything about cars, including color, dropping me squarely into the box labeled “If Women Ruled the World…”).
Most of the responses have come via email. In that essay, I said I didn’t want “more pragmatic advice,” since that had already been so amply supplied by my friends. A few people wrote offering hands-on help (and I am just about ready to take them up on it, gratefully). But almost all of the dozen or so emails I received focused on practical advice. Three-quarters of them were from men. None of them made the same recommendation, which was kind of interesting. I hadn’t known there were so many approaches to car-buying. Some even picked out a car for me, sending me a link to a listing on Craigslist.
Writing “To The Car Fairy” helped, but some anxiety lingered. I talked to my shrink about it, trying to dig under my phobia in hopes of rooting it out. He is extremely fluent with feelings, and very astute. I explained that I had received tons of practical advice, which I could apply, but first, I wanted to get over feeling so daunted by the task.
He nodded sagely and told me what kind of car to buy and how to look for it.
I strongly resist essentialist ideas about race, gender, religion, ethnicity (and just about everything). When someone cites women’s superior compassion, I cite Margaret Thatcher in refutation. I never had a “biological clock” installed, evidently, since I am dubious about assertions that every woman should want to be a mother; my personal choice was to mother the world instead of my own children. Countless books have been written on the subject of gender, without definitively establishing what is intrinsic and what is the product of social conditioning.
Regardless of the cause, after days of trying and considering countless explanations offered by experts and pundits, I am still unable to wrap my mind around the impulse to send strangers photographs of your genitalia. It seems really stupid. But if stupidity were a blanket disqualifier for public office, we’d need a raft of special elections, pronto.
There’s been one song running through my mind while I write this, about as apt an ending as I can imagine. Listen to the immortal words of the Isley Brothers, “It’s Your Thing. “Do what you wanna do. I can’t tell you who to sock it to.”
Just be sure you have permission, okay?