Posts Tagged ‘media’

(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?

Things I’d Like Sexuality to Value: Aging.

August 4, 2008

Source: Dove Pro-Age campaign.

After I wrote that entry kicking off the (potential) series of “things I’d like to see desexualized,” I started musing about whether there’s anything I would like to see sexualized, if only because I’m a fan of balance.  I honestly don’t know that I would like to see anything sexualized in the way that I most immediately think of sexualization, as a means of commodifying people’s bodies and harnessing (other) people’s desires for the sake of marketing.  I did start to think, however, about the possibility that in our culture sexualization is semi-equivalent to value, in that what we don’t sexualize, we don’t particularly value.  In the scheme, then, of expanding and redefining sexuality so that it is more inclusive and less off-putting, I’ve been thinking lately of “things I would like sexuality to value” as the counterpoint to things from which I’d like to see (the assumption of) sexuality removed.

First installment?  — Aging.  Particularly aging as it relates to women since men (not surprisingly) seem to have the long end of this double-standard-stick, in that our culture characterizes older men as “distinguished” and “accomplished” while lamenting the crow’s feet appearing on its “haggard” old women.  The flip-side of our desire to halt the sexualization of young girls is to value the physical reality — and even the “sex appeal” — of aging women.  When we define the “sexy” female as small, smooth-skinned, et cetera, we set ourselves up for so-called cultural pedophilia, and while I firmly believe that there are people and forces at work in the world that are choosing to sexualize young girls for other reasons, I stand by the “croning” of older women as part of the fallout from that.

Furthermore, since we live in a culture that has apparently decided that individuals turn in their sexuality when they start receiving their social security paycheks, and that (all) older people are fundamentally asexual and should stay that way, — (Viagra aside, the most common response to “old people having sex” remains “ewww!”)  —  the decision to value aging in sexuality could result in the necessary understanding that sexuality continues (in various forms), even after it moves past the point where the media willingly plays voyeur, to the point where we insist we’d rather not think about it. 

Valuing aging, to the point we view it as having sex appeal, also takes a step toward valuing health.  Rather than striving in our seventies to look as we did in our teens, we could look forward in our teens to how we would be viewed in our seventies.  Rather than pumping our skin full of botox and replacing our organic bodies with increased amounts of silicone and plastic, we could see the glamour in our real physical selves.  I understand why the marketing industry won’t get on board with that (Dove somewhat accepted), but I don’t understand why actual people refuse.  I read an interview once with Cybil Shepard in which she said one of her main reasons for taking a role on The L Word was that it offered her a chance to continue exploring the sexuality of a character, an unheard of opportunity in mainstream (i.e. non-cable/ hetero) media.  Is there no such thing as a wrinkle fetish, in a culture that’s willing to fetishize so much else?  If we’re willing to speak up for the value of freckles, why not age spots?  Who decided what was sexy, and who (else) isn’t willing to leave it at that?

Fantastic Beasts and How to Asexualize Them.

July 30, 2008

Labels aside, many of us enjoy a good fantasy. Is it possible that the themes of our fantasies are not as different as we think?  To consider this question, I’ve undertaken a tongue-and-cheek exploration of how similar sexuals and asexuals really are.  MLA gurus will note the lack of citations, which suggest this — like Wikipedia — does not constitute a reliable source.  Sufficeth to say that real conclusions about sexuality and asexuality should probably not be drawn from it.  Conclusions about my dorky sense of humor may, however, be in order.  (Case and point, the title of this entry, which is intended to rest less on the notion that sexual fantasies are beastly and need to be asexualized and more on the fact that I, quite frankly, am still a Harry Potter geek.)

Fantasy 1: Domination/ Submission
1a) Sexual: For sexuals, domination tends to involve complete power over the erotic pleasure of a consensual sexual partner. It might be “vanilla” (i.e. non-kinky) or overlap with BDSM.  Sexual fantasies of submission are similar (in that they are consensual explorations of power dynamics in a sexual framework, and may or may not be kinky); however a “submissive” person receives sexual pleasure from being dominated (rather than dominating someone else.)
1b) Asexual: Many asexuals also have domination fantasies. Except, while the sexual domination fantasy is likely to involve, say, a leather-clad woman wielding a whip, the asexual domination fantasy more often manifests in a tweed-clad, androgynous geek, thoroughly pwning their partner at a video game (or other recreational pastime). Sadly, this asexual pwning, both in fantasy and in practice, is not always consensual, although I’ll be the first to admit that with the right partner (and the right attitude) even getting thoroughly stomped at Scrabulous can constitute a good time.

Fantasy 2: Teacher/ Student
2a) Sexual: Perhaps because this fantasy (like that of domination or submission) explores a power dynamic, or perhaps because it allows for sexual relationships which are — in reality — a punishable taboo, it has long been a staple in sexual fantasy, role-play, and pr0n.  The fantasy commonly involves private school garb (the Catholic schoolgirl introduces an added layer of religious taboo) and/or bun-toting, glasses-wearing teacher-prudes who transform into sexual vixens to satisfy their students.  (The glasses, sadly, are usually lost in the transformation process.)
2b) Asexual:  While asexual folks may not wish to know their teachers in the biblical sense, the desire to know them non-biblically remains.  So, fantasies of well-plotted post-class loitering exist; they’re just less likely to evolve into something that would (in the real world) spark dishonorable dismissal and juicy newspaper headlines.  For a good sense of the asexual teacher/student fantasy, temporarily suspend your image of two semi-naked people entangled on a classroom desk, and replace it with, say, two basically-clothed folks getting way too excited about literary analysis, sociology, queer theory (or whatever other fetish asexually arouses them.  Maybe even a theoretical discussion of sex.  Crazier things have happened.)

Fantasy 3: Librarian
3a) Sexual: Take it from Prof. Harold Hill, librarians are just plain sexy.  Similar to the teacher in the previous fantasy, sexual librarian fantasies often involve a modest matron who transforms into a hypersexual Aphrodite basically in one fell swoop.  Another popular version involves what this blurb on the (perhaps no-longer-existent) Library Bar in New York terms “librarians dressed as though they were too busy reading to finish” putting on their clothes.  Often, the sex-appeal of librarians is thought to be rooted largely in what David Austin calls the “quite persistent stereoytpe [that] librarians are sexually repressed.”  Uncork all that pent up sexuality, and boom, you have a less-disturbing, less-vaguely-sad version of a scene from Aimee Bender’s “Quiet, Please,” an idea many sexuals apparently can’t renew often enough. 
3b) Asexual: Asexuals tend to be bigger fans of the library than the librarian.  Whether spying on your reading list, indulging that nagging urge to alphebatize, or overanalyzing their latest read, asexuals often opt for self-checkout, hawt librarians aside.  (Unless, of course, the librarian in question has been identified as a trusted source of a good recommendation, or has shown interest in discussing one’s most recently-devoured tome.)  The asexual funny bone is the one that led me to chuckle a few days back when — perusing a recently reorganized bookstore — I came upon signs informing customers that “romance” and “erotica” had both been “moved to fiction.”  In short, despite what the t-shirt says, reading is as asexy as it is sexy.  After all, trysts with librarians are bound to cut into one’s recreational reading time.

Fantasy 4: Poolboy/ Gardener/ French Maid/ Secretary
4a) Sexual: Whether it’s Legally Blonde’s Brooke Taylor Windham admitting she likes to watch her poolboy wear a thong while he cleans the filter, Clue: The Movie trading in frumpy Mrs. White for the salicious Yvette, or basically any Hollywood secretary wild for her boss, employer/employee fantasies are commonly represented in film.  Although I could probably manage an entire post on why the extension of paid service to include sexual service strikes me as problematic (at best), I’ll save that for another time and simply point to the “taboo” nature involved in this fantasy, which often seems to be amplified by the committed marital status of at least one of the involved parties.  For many people, there remains something tantalizing about the so-called forbidden fruit.
4b) Asexual: Asexuals, in many cases, are just looking for a good Marco Polo partner. They’re likely to be more jazzed about a clean apartment (or filter) than the person cleaning it, they can do their own copyediting (although they have mixed feelings about phones), and as for gardeners… well, let’s just say the asexual concept of “getting dirty with a gardener” usually has more to do with literal dirt (read: soil) than the figurative kind.  They also tend to fantasize more often about paid employment than they do their paid employees.  Mmm, paycheck.

Fantasy 5: Multiple Partners
5a) Sexual: Have you seen a music video recently?  Although music probably lands on my list of things I’d like to see desexualized (or at least see sexual in a less misogynistic fashion), the media clearly reflects and contributes to a fanstasy of multiple partners (although often only granting heterosexual men the right to have said fantasy, but… another entry, seriously).  Sexual fantasies involving multiple partners may involve threesomes, orgies, or simply still another season of The Bachelor.  In practice, they tend to find their basis in relatonal structures such as polaymory or swinging.
5b) Asexual: Simultaneous asexual intimacy with multiple people is most often referred to as a dinner party. Book clubs, stitch-and-bitch groups, and other meetups are also common. In a pinch, group therapy may also suffice.


So granted, this was mainly an exercise in dorkhood for me, (and one that took far too long at that!), but I agree with David that blurring the line between sexual and asexual desire is not only necessary, it’s rather a good time.  Beyond potentially getting a smile out of you, I hope this constitutes a good first attempt on my part toward that blurring the desire line, and compells you to consider playing with those boundaries yourself.  I’m all for a good line in the sand where it increases one’s comfort level, but let’s not make walls of those lines, ok?