Monday, March 30, 2009

Oprah's "Why Women Are Leaving Men for Other Women"

I'm glad that my friends hold me accountable for blogging and send me various articles throughout the week that i should have read or should be reading. I swear, i'll get to them... i've been swamped with work and personal drama. A good friend, Heather, sent this article to me stating that she was a bit conflicted. I agree. I think the author meant well... but a few aspects of this piece read a bit off.

To me, Fischer's article seemed doused in stereotypes. Men never. Women always. The piece quotes a woman who states, "I enjoyed sex with men, but there was a lack of emotional intimacy with them." As a feminist woman committed to a feminist and gender bending male, i find it difficult to evaluate things in such black and white terms. I think it's important to highlight the uniqueness of lesbian relationships without devaluing heterosexual relationships and especially without exploiting mainstream lesbian stereotypes like the examples of media in the article:

"Actress Lindsay Lohan and DJ Samantha Ronson flaunted their relationship from New York to Dubai. Katy Perry's song "I Kissed a Girl" topped the charts. The L Word, Work Out, and Top Chef are featuring gay women on TV, and there's even talk of a lesbian reality show in the works. Certainly nothing is new about women having sex with women, but we've arrived at a moment in the popular culture when it all suddenly seems almost fashionable—or at least, acceptable."

Most of those examples barely make for genuine relationships. They are more a form of faux lesbianism that has been tolerated throughout the decades. I use "tolerated" purposefully because examples of straight men daring women to make out with each other and watching isn't genuine acceptance of same sex couples. And though these straight men reveling in faux lesbianism may be extreme and some would argue, outdated, Work Out, Katy Perry's pop hit, and reality TV shows come pretty damn close. They all feature hot, leggy, women and a sense of "trying it out" that doesn't really make for commitment. Either that or androgynous and "butch" women who are entirely open about their sexuality. But where are all the women in between, that don't fit either mainstream norm? Don't get me wrong, i think openly gay women on TV shows and radio is such a step in the right direction, i just wish it was more genuine and less forced into those stereotyped boxes that society and media has for gays and lesbians. Even Rachel Maddow, who i absolutely adore, has been discussed in terms of fitting into a standard of beauty that she may not be 100% comfortable representing off the screen.

But what makes me even more conflicted is, as feminist philosopher Susan Bordo, states for the article, "when a taboo is lifted or diminished, it's going to leave people freer to pursue things." So okay, whether or not media is exploiting lesbian relationships for ratings, just by showing same sex couples on the screen diminishes the taboo around these relationships and gives lesbian, bi, and questioning women and chance to feel comfortable in their sexuality and embrace alternative options. That is such an important step.

The other part of the article that left me wondering was a paragraph about a 2004 landmark study in sexual orientation:

"During the experiment, the female subjects became sexually aroused when they viewed heterosexual as well as lesbian erotic films. This was true for both gay and straight women. Among the male subjects, however, the straight men were turned on only by erotic films with women, the gay ones by those with men. "We found that women's sexual desire is less rigidly directed toward a particular sex, as compared with men's, and it's more changeable over time," says the study's senior researcher, J. Michael Bailey, PhD. "These findings likely represent a fundamental difference between men's and women's brains."

But how much of this too is socially driven and impacted by media exposure and the diminished taboo surrounding lesbian relationships? I would argue that even arousal in the confines of a home, let alone when being observed and evaluated by a researcher, is mediated by shame and the participant's ideas of normatively. Being called gay or "fag" is so much more a perceived threat for men than it is for women in our culture. My thoughts are that fear and shame surrounding stereotypes and homophobia impact men's arousal much more than they impact women's. "Lesbian" for women isn't used in the same negative connotation or to the same degree as "gay" is for men.

I think a lot of Oprah's article is valid. Definitely great to get the message out separating sex, from gender, and then especially from sexual orientation. I also think there's a lot of importance to putting a face on same sex relationships, as this article has done, to tell people's stories as apposed to always talking in terms of research and data. Putting a face to the literature always helps readers feel connected. But i do think the article could have done a better job assessing stereotypes rather than exploiting them.

If you have a few minutes, check out the article and let me know what you think :)


phd in yogurtry said...

As usual, you make many valid arguements.

Regarding the experiment you discussed, where women are turned on watching hetero and lesbian films, the case needs to be made that women are in both. Did they test to see if women were turned on watching only men?

Aviva said...

From other references I've read to the same study, the videos shown to both the female and the male subjects included not only heterosexual sex, but also both gay male and lesbian sex, footage of men and women masturbating and sex between monkeys. Women were generally aroused by all the videos (including the monkeys) whereas men had more specific arousal patterns based on their sexualities. That said, you're right that it could still be partly societal and the research is undoubtedly not completely accurate -- not to mention that drawing the conclusion that female sexuality is more fluid from those results may not be entirely right either. I think O Mag over-simplified the study...

Anonymous said...

"But where are all the women in between, that don't fit either mainstream norm?"

umm, we're right here. and quiet after being rejected by both the gay and straight communities. and men that think it's all a show for their enjoyment are still very common. and even though I'm not 'confused', life is confusing. and I hate Oprah on principle.