0595 – tentative thoughts about gender

I’ve been thinking a lot about manhood and masculinity over the past year or so. I haven’t been obsessive about it; it’s not like I borrowed or bought a bunch of books and tore through them. There’s still some stuff that I’d like to read that I haven’t really gotten around to. But it’s been one of my dominant interests. Why is that?

I think a part of it has to do with growing up, and thinking about what it means to be an adult, period. But I also have grown to think that there certainly is something about being a MAN in particular. It feels a little funny to say that, it’s almost politically incorrect just to say that. The past few years have seen a lot of conversations about the complexity of gender and sexuality – we’ve learnt that it isn’t all that binary, that there are people who don’t tidily fall into one category or another, and so on. And I think those things are valid and true, and I’m happy to see progress on that front. I am a supporter of marriage equality, and I’d like to see 377A repealed in Singapore. Trans people are people, and they should be treated with the same respect as anybody else. We should appreciate how difficult life is for them. So on and so forth.

That said, I think there’s something to be said for traditional gender roles for the majority of people. And again, there needs to be a caveat here – there are lot of ugly and toxic ideas out there, and history is full of them. Women should be free to be whoever they want to be, and they should be treated fairly and equally under the law, at the workplace, everywhere, really. And men shouldn’t feel pressured to conform to an oversimplistic notion of masculinity – hiding their feelings and whatnot. Perhaps here might be an appropriate time to say, “A real man doesn’t really care very much about what it means to be a real man – he just does what he thinks is right, as informed by his values and beliefs, which he questions and evaluates…” you get the idea. Blind adherence to anything is dumb. Pay attention, reorient yourself, learn, blah blah.

ALL of that said (what a monster caveat), I think that there’s something about gender that tends to get ignored or overlooked, at least in the intellectual/writerly/academic/activist type circles. There are definitely differences between genders, in aggregate. We can observe this in nature (but yes, humans have in some senses been unshackled from nature… but in other senses we have not). There are still certain things about our biology that remain true. It’s still true that it takes a woman about 9 months to carry a baby to term, and that a single man can impregnate thousands of women in a lifetime.

Around 8,000 years ago, 17 women reproduced for every 1 man. (This statistic seems weird, but it has to do with survival rates – a few men had most of the children that survived.) Apparently today’s human population is descended from twice as many women as men, and this is described as the single most under-appreciated fact about gender. Throughout the entire history of our species, about 80% of women reproduced but only 40% of men did. Poor children were likelier to die. “Head of the household” was a definite thing.

I don’t know, as I try to trace my thoughts around all of this – it’s just endlessly complicated, and it seems like you could spend your entire life trying to grasp all of it and never quite succeed. But I feel like it’s something that’s worth making sense of, because we all do live in a world of humans, and gender and sexuality is such a big part of who we are.

Anyway – what my experience and instinct has been telling me lately is – old habits die hard. It’s unfashionable right now to say things like, “we’re all products of our biology”, or “we’re shaped by our biology”, even though we surely know that a part of it must be true. Yes, nurture and advertising and whatnot shapes the way we think and feel, as does language. But I think there’s also something quite fundamental about our urges and impulses. I mean, why is infidelity such a rampant thing throughout all of humanity? Why aren’t people able to be monogamous, despite incredible societal pressure and huge disincentives? It’s easy and convenient to say something like, oh, those people didn’t really want it – but why are there so many of them?

I guess as I get older, I find myself wanting to be clearer about the truth about how the world works, because trying to operate with a faulty model of the world is painful and frustrating. You’ll screw yourself over and find yourself in shitty situations because you misread them.

I was having lunch recently and I noticed that the teenagers from the nearby school were all split into groups according to gender. Which is to say that girls hung out with other girls, and boys hung out with other boys, and there were no exceptions. I wonder what that is. Is it simply because we were “socialized” as kids to hang out with kids of other gender? I’m sure some folks have done some research on it.

I HAVE seen some mixed groups of older teenagers before, and in my reading of the situation(s) (and maybe I’m projecting), it usually seems like there are a couple of girls in a boy’s space. There’s this interesting process of experimentation that happens. I don’t know how to describe the specifics, but now that I think about it I think Robert Cormier did a pretty good job with it in The Chocolate War, and Mean Girls did a pretty good job too. There is a gendered element to social groups – women seem to tend to have a group of female friends they call “the girls”, and men similarly tend to have a group of male friends they call “the boys”, and there’s something about all of that… why is it the way it is? Why isn’t it different? “The existence of purple doesn’t invalidate the differences between red and blue.”

I was also thinking about my own experience as a male student in an all-boys school, and how much I enjoyed that – and I saw something recently that implied that same-sex schools were a bad idea. I’m not sure why but I just impulsively felt that that was wrong. That there’s something that boys can learn only from men, and that thing, whatever it is, is important and good, and I think we have a deficit of that in the modern world, which is why I’ve had friends ask me questions like “why are fathers so lacking?”

It’s all one big mess, and this doesn’t even begin to properly outline what I think about it. This is all one big preamble. But I’d like to have some clear thoughts about it. So I’ll probably be developing this over time.

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