Some Thoughts on Gender, Part 3: Gender, Sex, and Attraction

This is the third post in a series responding to people who answered this previous post by saying ‘if this account of gender you attack is so bad, what’s your account of it?’ Rather than trying to give a completed and systematic answer, I’ve been focused on resolving some of the seeming tensions that people saw among different ideas I had committed myself to. The first post was about membership criteria – who counts as what gender? The second post, yesterday, was about the idea of an individual gender identity, and how I could consistently think both that gender is socially constructed and that gender identities might (sometimes) be innate.

In this post I’m going to talk about gender and sexual attraction. People standardly talk about sexual attraction in terms of being either ‘into women’ or ‘into men’ or both, and there’s sometimes controversy about what exactly this means. If a monosexual (i.e. straight or gay) person is exclusively ‘into men’, does that mean they’re attracted to members of a biological ‘sex’, or members of a social ‘gender’, or what?

Now, I don’t want to legislate the meaning of words, and the empirical facts of human attraction are probably very messy and complicated, so my aim is not to lay down some rule about who qualifies as ‘straight man’ or a ‘gay woman’ or whatever. There are a lot of fuzzy boundaries here and people should navigate those boundaries for themselves.  But I do think there’s a tension in the sort of view I’ve been defending, which it would be useful for me to address, just to try and say ‘here is one consistent position that is available.’

The tension as I see it is between two ideas: on the one hand, the class to which a monosexual person’s desire is oriented might be a gender class, including cis and trans people of the same gender; on the other hand, desire is in large part responsive to concrete physical features of a person – it matters how someone looks, sounds, moves (maybe smells?), etc. The tension is that what connects cis and trans people of the same gender, on my view, is their gender identity, a psychological rather than physical trait, so it can be hard to see how gender in and of itself could be what, so to speak, gets the motor running.

The solution I’d suggest would appeal to what the first post called ‘expressivism’. Expressivism says that gender-perception is the primary phenomenon – ‘seeing-X-as-a-woman’ is more basic than X ‘being a woman’. And it can add that, at least for us blinkered monosexuals, the mental state of gender-perception is deeply connected to the mental state of sexual attraction. I don’t claim to know why this is or how it works: it’s just that for many people, it seems like they generally can only be attracted to someone by seeing them as a certain gender.

So then, what would be the class of people to which a given monosexual is potentially attracted? Those they gender-perceive a certain way. But who are those? Depends on what influences that person’s gender-perception most (of the various relevant bodily, sartorial, verbal, etc. influences), which might differ from person to person, and might not line up strictly with any one factor, biological or social.

In fact, it’s likey that ‘people they gender-perceive a certain way’ is not a fixed or stable class, because who they perceive as what gender may change over time, may depend on how others are presenting (or how they are presenting the first time this person meets them), may depend on how they hear someone being gendered by others, etc.

So observe that this account absolutely does not imply that, e.g., woman-attracted people will consistently be attracted to all and only people who identify as women. They will be attracted, to put it crudely, to people who trigger enough of their brain’s ‘Oooh! Woman!’ cues, and while knowing someone’s self-identification may well be one of those, it’s not the only or dominant one.

What this account does imply is that a woman-attracted person, who follows the criterion of gendering people in accordance with their self-identification, has a policy of trying to see a woman-identifying person as a woman, which is a precondition for them being attracted to that person. They may in practice not see her that way (gender-perception is not fully voluntary), and even if they do, they may not be attracted. Everything depends on the details of that person’s sexual psyche.

(This account also implies the converse about a woman-attracted person committed to following a trans-exclusive policy, trying to see someone as a woman if and only if they believe that person to have XX chromosomes, or to have a womb, or to have developed pre- and post-natally under the influence of an oestrogen-dominated hormonal system. They can’t simply will their brain into actually seeing people as women, or actually being attracted, only when they have those scientific beliefs.)

(It’s also worth remembering that although our society constructs two exclusive genders, a given brain may have all sorts of messier and more complicated forms of gender-perception, in between or in addition to seeing-as-a-man and seeing-as-a-woman. And someone might be more attracted to those they gender-perceive in one of these other ways, or less attracted, or attracted in a different way. The categories ‘gay, straight, and bi’ may not adequately cover a lot of this terrain.)

So that’s how I would answer the empirical worry: ‘how can attraction be gender based, if gender is based in self-identification, and self-identification is the wrong sort of thing to control attraction?’ Answer: attraction is based on gender-perception, and self-identification is the right criterion to use for gender-perception, not the exclusive determinant of it.

That basically concludes my treatment of the question I started with. But I probably can’t proceed without saying at least something about the ethical issues that have made this topic into a flashpoint. For those fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with the controversy, in principle it revolves around whether trans women are part of the class that lesbian desire is directed at.

What can make the controversy a little hard to follow is that both sides claim the same official position, and accuse each other of violating it. That position is something like: people have a right to be attracted to whoever they are attracted to, and their attraction or lack of attraction to any given person should be unconditionally respected. Manipulating someone into sex by making them feel guilty for not being attracted to you is a terrible thing to do.

I think that ‘official position’ is clearly right (and the account given here, which underlines the individual and unpredictable mix of factors that go into gender-perception, hopefully reinforces it). The accusations made on either side are: that the pro-trans side supposedly pressures cis lesbians into sleeping with trans women by calling them transphobic if they refuse, and that the anti-trans side supposedly dismisses lesbians who are attracted to trans women as self-deceiving bisexuals.

I’ve seen much better evidence of the latter accusation than the former, but I am also not a lesbian so don’t take my impression as any sort of guide to what’s going on in that community. I can at best make some analytical distinctions that I think serve to illuminate the weakness of many of the claims made by the anti-trans side.

I have seen a lot of anti-trans activists try to blur the line between ‘pressuring people into sleeping with you’ and ‘agitating against your de-sexualisation’, where the latter particularly includes ‘objecting to public declarations about who would or would not ever be attracted to you’.

That is, the sequence seems to go something like:

  • someone says ‘I would never sleep with you, you’re biologically male and no real lesbian could be attracted to a biological male’;
  • someone responds ‘don’t just declare that no lesbian would ever be attracted to me, they can make up their own minds on that’;
  • the first person responds ‘so I’m not allowed to say I would never sleep with you? I have to sleep with you or else I’m transphobic? is that what you’re saying?’

I think blurring that line is wrong: marginalised groups do and should campaign against being publicly declared unattractive, or implied to be unsuitable as sexual and romantic partners. That agitation can include drawing attention to patterns of representation (e.g. that certain people are always cast in movies as comic relief, never as romantic leads), it can include objecting to public expressions of disgust, it can include promoting ideas and images of them as beautiful and desirable, and it can include wanting partners to publicly own their attraction and be recognised for it.

Those all seem to me legitimate forms of activism when engaged in by racial groups, by disabled people, by fat people, by sex workers, and by others. Reacting to such activism like it’s sexual coercion, an attempt to ‘force’ people to be attracted to or to sleep with, e.g., disabled people, is a fallacious and reactionary move to silence it. I can’t help but see a lot of anti-trans arguments on this topic as exactly that.

But there are complications to this topic that are absent in the other examples, because monosexual desire is obviously not a form of oppressive de-sexualisation of whichever gender one isn’t attracted to. Women obviously aren’t oppressed by gay men’s sexual disinterest, etc.

To put it in the terms of my account so far, there’s a difference between a trait making people not gender-perceive someone in the way necessary for them to be attracted, and people gender-perceiving someone the right way but some trait making them not be attracted to them.

But I don’t think this complication makes much difference in practice, since both of those general possibilities are appropriate targets for the sort of activism I’ve been talking about, and neither is, by itself, an appropriate target for individualised criticism of an individual – not least because there is always the third possibility that a given individual just happens not to be attracted to another individual, despite gender-perceiving them the right way. It would be wrong and coercive to say ‘if you’re not attracted to members of group X, you’re bigoted’, but you don’t have to say that in order to say ‘bigotry makes people de-sexualise group X’, or to fight that de-sexualisation by saying, in words and deeds, that people in group X are beautiful and loving them is normal.

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6 Responses to Some Thoughts on Gender, Part 3: Gender, Sex, and Attraction

  1. Pingback: Some Thoughts on Gender, Part 4: Femininity and Asymmetric Oppression | Majestic Equality

  2. Pingback: Some Thoughts on Gender, Part 5: Gender Abolition and Gender Anarchy | Majestic Equality

  3. Pingback: Some Thoughts on Gender, Part 1: Social Construction and First-Person Authority | Majestic Equality

  4. Pingback: Some Thoughts on Being Nonbinary | Majestic Equality

  5. James says:

    First I would like to say I really like your series. It explains gender and gender abolition in an easy to understand way and touches on things that I don’t see talked about much with respect to it. I wanted to ask about gender perception and attraction and what you think about how it relates to gender anarchy.

    I agree with your idea that attraction is contingent on gender perception. As a woman-attracted person, I have experience of this myself, I have noticed that if I am sure of someone’s gender then I feel comfortable being attracted to them, but if I am unsure of their gender then I feel some anxiety. Male presenting people don’t do it for me, and if I try to sexualise them I start having feelings of disgust. This admittedly is just observation on my part and not scientific but It does line up with what you are saying.

    Given the above, how does this square with gender abolition? Abolition would necessarily entail people to stop perceiving people as having genders, but if gender perception is necessary for attraction then it seems like there is a contradiction there.

    Thanks again

    • lukeroelofs says:

      That’s a fair question: at the moment it seems that most people experience attraction only conditionally on gendering, so it’s not clear what to expect attraction to look like in a society where gender is blurring or has fully withered away.

      You might at first worry that attraction might disappear: everyone will just collectively lose interest in each other. But I don’t think that’s at all likely, for a few reasons. One is just that bisexuals exist, so it’s clearly possible to be attracted to people without requiring seeing them as one specific gender. Another is that humans seem to be very flexible at being turned on by things: of all the different ways that people have ever looked, dressed, altered their body in different cultures, none of them seem to have prevented people from being attracted to each other. But probably the most basic reason is that a genderless society would allow for a greater range of appearances for people, not less, so there’s more styles to potentially be attracted to. There could still be bodies and clothes and presentations that would register as feminine, even hyper-feminine, to our gaze. And there might be people who are only attracted to that sort of presentation, just like there are people nowadays who have well-defined ‘types’ – after all, nobody is attracted to every single member of their preferred gender. It’s hard to say in advance how attraction patterns would change in the shift to a genderless society, but there’s no reason to doubt that attraction itself would remain, even if the shape of it changed as society did.

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