Archive for January, 2009

(Non)sense of Smell.

January 13, 2009


One of my three brothers has been producing television newscasts for nearly a decade now, and he will be the first to tell you that “news” — perhaps particularly on television — is as much an entertainment field as game shows or nighttime dramas.  Keeping that in mind, it’s always interesting to me, when I do watch the news, to see what’s included and how it’s framed.  The fact that (as my grandma would put it), it’s “all a big dog show” doesn’t change the fact that it’s perceived, a lot of times, as simple fact.  And when the news covers “science” — which we also mis-construe as bias-free — things get doubly shady, meaning (from my perspective, of course) that they get doubly interesting.

Up until almost two weeks ago, when I crossed state lines to spend some time with my niece, I was actually staying with my grandma, watching several newscasts a day from a local station that I probably wouldn’t bother with normally, but which I have no concrete reason to distrust.  When their science beat teased audiences with a story about results from a “new study,” my interest understandably perked.  I have a professor with a feed on her computer set up to alert her of the nine million (or so) new studies that hit the scientific community each day, so I know the news media has a significant amount of material to choose from, and I was curious which story they had chosen and how they would frame it.  I would have been even more interested if I’d known then what I discovered later that night, with the help of some quick Internet searches:  The “new” study, covered by this local news station last week, was actually released over six months ago, in mid-August.   Get with the times, people.  Sheesh.

The study itself focuses on birth control, and its findings — even diluted for the AP feed — are not uninteresting.  According to (other) research, (heterosexual) women (although no one bothers to specify that, annoyingly) are largely attracted to men whose major histocompatibility complex (say that three times fast, or just go with MHC), best complements their own.  Basically, the belief is that genes are encoded in scent and (het’ro) women are attracted to men whose genes are most different from their own.  From an evolutionary perspective, this makes some sense: when men and women with different genetic backgrounds mate, their offspring have stronger immune systems and fewer genetic health problems.  However, with the hormone shift of taking contraceptives, women’s smell-based preferences reportedly shift as well, landing on people whose genes are more similar.

This would largely just strike me as interesting if not for the various conclusions drawn from it, both in that initial broadcast and in the articles I’ve dug up since:  I’ve seen birth control blamed for divorce rates, break-ups, and infidelity, just to name a few of the winners.  The most interesting claim to me, though, is the idea that birth control interferes with the ability to choose one’s ideal partner.  I’m fascinated by the way that ideal is being defined.  Although a few of the articles bother to use terms like “most genetically compatible” or “best reproductive potential,” the majority stick with popular language, making claims about birth control as an obstacle in finding “Mr. Right” etc.  This completely floors me.  Not only have we reduced “relationships” to exclusive heterosexual relationships, but we’ve reduced those exclusive heterosexual relationships to a forum for reproduction.  In the majority of reflections I’ve read on this study, there’s no mention of relational fulfillment outside of procreation, of a Mister or Misses Right whose capacity for babymaking is not priortized.  (God forbid one whose procreative compatibility is irrelevant.)  There are multiple mentions of increased difficulty with infertility for people with similar MHCs and an increased risk of misscarriages, but no discussion of the childfree population.  Arguably, this is not their focus, but even with their focus elsewhere, isn’t it a tricky decision to shift the definition of relationship so far in one direction, to lose track of emotional/ social/ psychological compatibility in favor of the best reproductive odds?  Bizarrely, this leaves only those populations that don’t really need birth control — homosexuals, asexuals, the infertile, etc — “safe” taking it.  Is this really a claim we need to tout on the nightly Healthbeat?

I mean, I’m a big fan of smell myself.  But we have five other senses, not to mention our often stellar cognitive abilities.  How’s about we use them all?

In Which Asexuality Goes Green.

January 5, 2009


I meant to post this, as a much shorter snippet, well over a week ago.  But I didn’t finish babbling before I had to leave that evening, and alas, it hit the back burner until now.  So, um, enjoy?

I’ve been reading some very interesting things lately, upon my long-belated reentry into the blogosphere.  Among them are Pretzelboy’s recent thoughts on the claim that “all people are sexual.”  It’s no secret that I was a fan of Carol Queen’s comments to David about a more inclusive definition of sexuality that could even encompass asexuality, although I maintained reservations along the lines of “I wouldn’t want anyone claiming that my homosexuality could be encompassed in their ‘more inclusive version/ of heterosexuality.”  I said a version of that in response to Cory Silverburg’s article as well, but was largely assured by those asexual-identifying folks who responded that the idea bothered them less, because they didn’t see asexuality as the binarial opposite of sexuality (ala homosexuality and heterosexuality) but rather as a place on the larger spectrum of sexuality. 

However, Pretzelboy has raised some points recently that draw my mind in new directions, although the conclusions are (as usual) pending.  With the exception of his superb satire, perhaps the most compelling point in Pretzelboy’s series (for me personally) occurs when he questions the effect of broadly defining sexuality on asexual sex-ed students:

The people in sexuality education seem to use a “broad” definition of sexuality because that makes sense in their lives. But for asexuals sitting in on their classes, does such a definition make sense of their experiences or does it render them invisible? Does this “broad” definition empower them or does it declare them disordered? Does it validate their experiences? Does it help them think about decisions they have to make regarding relationships, regarding sexulaity, and about their lives more generally?

I have no desire to render anyone invisible.  Based largely on Pretzelboy’s posts, I highly doubt that the clearest understanding of asexuality is rendered through the lens of sexuality.  Imagine the inversion.  Imagine basing our understanding of sexuality entirely — or even largely — on asexuality.   While it’s less likely, given the power of the majority to determine social perspective, it’s hardly less confining.  I’m reminded of a train ride I took recently, and the difficulty I had seeing the minimal landscape through the foggy glass of the train windows.  I’m reminded even more of a series of Through the Viewfinder (TTV) photos a friend of mine has been working on, in which each shot is taken through lenses from two different cameras.  The representation of the image loses certain clarity, and in some ways its realism is compromised as a result.  I would argue, however, that it’s not necessarily the lens on asexuality that’s the true problem, but more precisely, the prioritization of this one perspective, this one representation, this one understanding.

When I first read Pretzelboy’s posts, the metaphor that occurred to me had nothing to do with train windows or photographs.  Rather, it was a metaphor of color.  This is hardly unprecedented in the discussion of a/sexuality, I know.  We’ve had the problematic metaphor of asexuality as equivalent to colorblindness and the general discussion of the a/sexuality spectrum in terms of the color spectrum, but this particular thought had more to do with how we come to understand each individual color.  Take green.  Based only on the color wheel, if someone asked you to explain green, you could answer them in several different ways.  You could say that green was like blue, but with a higher concentration of yellow.  You could say that green was like yellow, but with a higher concentration of blue.  You could direct them to imagine the complementary opposite of red, or a “cool” color more in range with purple than, say, orange.  Each of these explanations would give the person some information about green, likely increasing their understanding of the color.  Ideally, each of the explanations could combine with the others to create a strong foundation for understanding green, so that it was not simply a matter of choosing the best description (is it best to imagine the opposite?  or to describe things that are similar?), but of offering a multitude of descriptions, which — in concert — help highlight the true nature of the hue.

For the purposes of this post, I’m calling asexuality green, and I’m wondering if the obstacle in our gaining (or offering) clarity about the nature of asexuality isn’t so much a problem of looking through the wrong lens (i.e. coming at it from the “complement” perspective of the sexual red, and trying to understand it as the opposite), but rather an issue of too few lenses.   If we could understand asexuality not solely in relationship to sexuality, but also in relationship to its color-wheel neighbors, (the blues and yellows of its world, say celibacy or homosexuality or… well, what might you suggest?) , as well as  in relationship to colors with similar degrees of warmth, and finally — based solely on its own information (viewing green starting with green), we might have a more multi-dimensional grasp on the experience.  The problem I see now is that one perspective — the perspective that starts with the opposite and works its way around the wheel — has been prioritized to the point that it’s difficult to start anywhere else.  And that’s limiting our understanding.

Come to think of it, that’s limiting our understanding of sexuality as well.  Having comprehended it largely on its own grounds, rarely investigating the surrounding and complementary territories, how much can we truly know?