Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"Women and Children First": Resurrecting a 2002 book on gender differences (and it isn't what we want to hear); aftermath of "Dr. Phil"


During the immediate and “privatized” tugboat rescue of the passengers from US Air Flight 1549 which seaplaned into the Hudson River last week, we heard the phrase “women and children first.” While that line was heard in the film “Titanic”, we don’t hear if very often in a modern, technological, supposedly stable free society. We object to the idea that inborn biological gender can lead to unequal sacrifices for the common good, even though a couple generations ago the male only military draft presented a major moral issue.

Last week, Dr. Phil created a bit of a media flap with a program involving transgendered children, particularly with his choice of one of his (“present both sides”) experts (on the “con” side), Dr. Joseph Nicolosi. Let’s say at the outset that transgenderism and sexual orientation are different issues, even if both related to gender. A quick check of Amazon showed that Nicolosi has authored some books on “reparative therapy” for homosexuality, and particularly this item from 2002, authored with Linda Ames Nicolosi: "A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality." (Call it a parent's guide to ensuring a biological lineage.) It is published by InterVarsity Press (IVP), with ISBN 0-8308-2379-4, and a little older (dated 2002). The description is “258 pages, paper.” I got the impression from the show that those against parents’ accepting transgenderism and homosexuality held their views on “moral” or religious grounds, and not science. I gave in to curiosity and ordered the book.

The title of the book seems to trivialize its issues by suggesting that one can write a handbook for parents (but I’ve seen gay rights activists write handbooks for employers, so both sides play this game). The title would suggest (to a multiple choice test taker, anyway) that the book is intended for parents with only one son concerned about having a biological lineage. Sorry, he's not pulling our legs with this title; he's serious. He may not need a "rational" reason for his prescription, just "customers." Or maybe there is some coherent right-wing ideology. We need to know what he is thinking, if at all possible. Is there anything more to this than "monetary interest" driven by societal circularity? Never take a quasi-liberal status quo for granted in a world that has become so dangerous.

Right after the Dr. Phil show aired, as I quickly checked Amazon I discovered that his first chapter is titled “Masculinity Is an Achievement” and is followed with a quote from Camille Paglia, “a woman is, but a man must become.” That resonated, and I thought he might be going down some real arguments. I wondered, though, why isn’t a woman’s bearing a child an “accomplishment”? Yet, I got the idea. Nature starts with a default of female; something has to happen to make an organism function with initiative (the male). Even the science of the “gay brain” assumes this.

Indeed, the book is filled with rather typical “advice” for parents having to do particularly with (Freudian) oedipal problems, and material regarding the needed attachment of a boy to his father. (In a couple places, he suggests that fathers shower with their sons to help them get comfortable with their own maleness.) It even suggests that mothers often allow their sons to pick up on their disappointment with the intimacy they receive from their husbands. Indeed, marriage and parenting are very intimate affairs (not for everyone), and the tone of the book often projects this reality. He has harsh words for some groups, like PFLAG and Planned Parenthood, and isn’t afraid to bring up Dr. Laura’s awful phrase “biological error”.

I get to a chicken and egg problem in this review, but, again, I really wanted to see a “moral” take on his position. In Chapter 8, “The Politics of Treatment”, on p 168, he (after allusion to gay male promiscuity and medical issues) writes that “traditionalists who believe there is a moral order grounded in nature’s design” (for biological gender) find “a warning that humankind does not have unlimited freedom.” That’s pretty much it. It’s a proxy argument for religion. Rather disappointing. But it does invite all the epistemology of Philosophy 101.

I’ll take a crack at what he could have written in a moment – but then, he would get a different book, and one for which his rather abrasive title doesn’t fit. But the heart of the matter starts with challenging the typical liberal arguments about “immutability” and realizing that we find ourselves chased, by almost mathematical logic, into apparent contradictions and paradoxes that are difficult to face, whatever the best of intentions.

People are born (effectively, whether by genetics, congenital factors like uterine hormonal influences on the brain, upbringing, exposure to infectious agents, etc) with a variety of abilities, capabilities, inclinations and aversions. I’ll start with what he makes a facile analogy. He says that people can be born with a tendency toward obesity or alcoholism. True, and we normally expect people to do something about these problems; we don’t accept the destructive behavior or medical issues that result, which others must often “pay for.” In a sense, everyone, we think, owns his or her own karma (we could get into whether there is “family karma” though).

The analogy doesn’t quite work with sexual orientation. (In fact, the whole idea could invite abuse; imagine what totalitarian societies do with this kind of thinking, and just look at history.) Imagine a gay adult man in a monogamous relationship, or at least without promiscuous “unprotected” contacts. Is he unhealthy in the same fashion as implied in these examples? I think not.

Or think about it in comparison to the “disability” paradigm. Someone with a learning disability (or communication disability like autism) must overcome this (or at least be accommodated) to be able to function independently in a market economy. Nicolosi proposes that gay men (or “prehomosexual boys” – he uses some overloaded words with rather moralistic-sounding effect, much as have a few other books, like Peter Wyden’s notorious “Growing Up Straight” from 1968) suffer a “gender deficit” (p. 44) as if it could be compared to an “intelligence deficit” or even a "moral deficit". (He also gets into the comparison to pervasive developmental disorders, like autism or asperger, but not many professionals would accept any relevance.) The “gender deficit” idea gets to be elaborated with discussions about playground bullying, incompetence in competitive sports, and physical shame. That does ring true for me, but the moral significance assumes something else: that everyone has a moral obligation to reproduce, or to help others who do reproduce. True, in Biology 101, reproduction is one of the most fundamental life processes, as is learning.

The comparison (to obesity, etc) offends because, after all, the adult gay person has established an identity that, in a free market society, does really work and has become important to him or her. It’s true, it doesn’t use the usual socialization mechanisms of the traditional family, and may compete with the family, which I think helps explain a lot of the political problems. But it is so intrinsic to the adult that it seems immutable. Society, then (in his world), can presume it must interfere and make the emerging adult “want” otherwise unwanted intimacy with others (and usually rejection of unwanted intimacy is seen as a fundamental right). That implies that lesbians have a moral obligation to be receptive to men, for example. Nicolosi’s views would mess with the most personal and intimate and “private” (even if readily discussed on the Internet) portions of someone’s life. We begin to realize that Nicolosi’s idea of intrinsic limits on “humankind’s” freedom simply invites back the arguments leaning on immutability.

There is, however, an existential trap that Nicolosi mentions several times. For example, on p 199 where he quotes an interview with “Dr. N” (is that “Dr. No”?) as saying “Many gay men … say that homosexuality places them above the average guy. They are the artists; they are the sensitive people, and the average guy is just a worker.” Boy, he’s reaching for Marxism here. “But paradoxically, at the same time, they are sexually attracted to the same type of guy they have contempt for.” There’s a lot more to develop here. Back in 1962, psychiatrists confronted me with the idea that I wanted to use announcing homosexuality as a way to "step on people's toes", get back at boys who teased me by making them aware of their own vulnerabilities. Nicolosi argues that less competitive males (“sensitive” people – and what we call psychologically feminine men) can become heterosexual, but he seems to overlook the intrinsic value of the sensitivity: sometimes such a person questions all the reckless risk taking around him and stabilizes it. I knew a gay adult who had learned to drive at 15 in rural areas, and never sped, never gotten a ticket, never indulged in any typical teen behaviors while logging tens of thousands of miles.

I relate to this, but it’s a bit mistranslated. I felt attracted to men who were both “smart” and “strong”, not to “the proles.” (We had talks about this in the barracks when I was in the Army; it seemed in 1969 that the military, when there was a draft and men were needed, could be a more hospitable place for gays than a lot of civilian life.) But you see the process, and Nicolosi is right about that. I was the playground pariah, but I was the pianist, the musician, the artist, I knew what truth was. Why should I look to women for what I already had myself? It didn’t make sense. I needed real men. So I found myself “the judge” as to who really deserved the accolades of manhood, and I noticed that a lot of other guys didn’t. (A moment of candor: I did feel deep bodily shame [and "modesty"] about my own lack of physical presence and competitive competence, compared to other boys, during my "tween" years; I didn't pull out of it until I was about 15, well into high school, when it was "too late." During this period I noticed "something else." The fact that I’m Caucasian may matter a little; since white males may, relatively speaking, often have more body hair than other races, the differences in secondary sexual characteristics may invite more male visual “lock-on” to what psychologists call “part-objects”. Nicolosi reminds us that gay men often reject the effeminate in their own ranks and values conspicuous masculinity as something to be “achieved.” Racial differences may have to do with appearances, or may have to do with relative levels of affluence and “individualism.” Nicolosi calls this whole process of "upward affiliation" [in another writer George Gilder's parlance] a "self-reparation".) I became like the defeated chessplayer kibitzing at the remaining higher boards in a tournament. The psychological process is harmless on its face, and builds an adult identity, and it’s expressive. It actually works. But as it leaks out, it inspires resentment, and is eventually seen as a serious distraction to those who have taken on the burdens of having and raising kids in the socially supported structure we call marriage. It seems as though, right, I placed no importance on having a lineage myself (my own potential "vicarious immortality"), but in adolescence and young adulthood, men are typically more concerned about their own personal vocational and expressive issues and not about procreation. Civilization simply offers too many distractions.

I could migrate here into the discussion of psychological polarity – that people are masculine or feminine regardless of biological genitalia, and in a stable society ought to have the surplus that gives them the opportunity for the relationships that bring their own fulfillment. Part of the problem with that might be that society isn’t always stable. We all have to be prepared and do our part. Sometimes there are priorities --- like women and children.

You get where this is headed, to a more collective style argument, which I think Nicolosi wants to make. I think we need to run through it, like a river, perhaps.

It seems to go like a “film in three parts.”

First, sexuality is different from almost everything else in our world in that it is predicated on elements of surrender and “irrationality.” Nicolosi points this out several times. Moral values about right and wrong with strongly individuated notions of “personal responsibility” don’t always work. A partner, and an experience with the partner is exciting partly because it is expressive, and, however private and consensual (legally) the circumstances, is imagined to have an “eventual” (in a mathematical sense) and then even “frequent” effect on the lives of others. Someone experiences a "surrender of self" of sorts for something more important (progeny) or expressive, which sometimes means that normal ways of thinking about personal self-worth and "personal responsibility" don't reliably work.

Second, the nuclear family as a socializing unit really does matter for its own sake, partly because the family can take care of variations in ability among its members, and not only because it raises kids. Of course, the capacity for the family to do that can be abused, and often has been. But it confers certain prestige and even power that goes along with marital intercourse. Yes, it’s sexist. It may be unjust, but in a curious way it eliminates the need for absolute justice, which is unachievable anyway. (That’s why we have “Grace”). Human attempts to install perfect “justice” end in catastrophe anyway. (Look at Chairman Mao and his dragging of intellectuals to the countryside.) But one critical point remains: the social structure, even reporting hierarchy, that results, at least indirectly from heterosexism (which Nicolosi says is ubiquitous in nature – but it isn’t always) make long term monogamous intimacy (and not just monogamy or fidelity alone) “worth it” for the couple that does take on marriage and family. It really needs the social deference – not so much to fall in love, but to stay in love. So we get a world where social authority for its own sake – where a man is respected just because he is a man with a family and not because he is enough of a genius to discover the next level of general relativity or become the next Beethoven – must remain important and expected. Therefore, it follows, pressure must be applied to the “non conforming” male to learn to compete according to the rules of others – because they need to have these rules mean something to provide for the non-conformist in the first place. (Otherwise, the non-conformist winds up in Mao’s rice paddies. Got that? It's bad karma.)

Third, however, it’s true, we have to map all these ideas onto the mechanics of an individualistic society, which generally runs on the ideas of “harmlessness” and personal responsibility for chosen actions (and the libertarian ideas of property rights and “freedom to contract”). One way to look at it is to accept that some responsibilities are intrinsic merely for having been brought up and given certain opportunities that others don’t have--the "karma" argument, again. (If one was brought up this way, that is.) The market economy and money system can’t account for all of the obligations one has – just look at the debate now over national service, for example (or the way that, 40 years ago, student deferments from the male-only draft seems like such a burning moral issue -- that issue made this whole "moral question" about male "socialization" sound like one of physical cowardice, because if someone like me didn't fight, someone more "manly" might "sacrifice" in my place). So it’s reasonable so suggest that, if one is to share some of the “abundant life” derived from parents, which maybe others don’t have, one owes the obligation to accept the risk and uncertainty of providing the next generation. One can say that, even if we have some different inborn issues and propensities, we have some moral obligations to overcome them because the “real problems” in the rest of the world are so much greater. (Imagine that view when applied to anorexia.) One can go on with “moral” arguments like this, that really derive from collectivism.

One thing seems to be happening, however. Technology, while providing the mobility and tools for personal expression and self-promotion, and creating new kinds of duties within families. Look at what is happening with the demographics of eldercare. Suddenly, people who did not have their own kids must care for their parents, who live longer and sometimes create a “childhood in reverse”. People without the skills to function in a social hierarchy (intrinsic in the normal heterosexist world) suddenly find themselves unprepared to deploy the authority they need to protect others. Likewise, the media makes us all much more aware of the need for “co parents” and role models (Nicolosi suggests that other family members like older siblings and uncles can rightfully be expected by parents to serve as additional role models and additional resources for raising children) – and that raises the obvious question about how “non conforming” men serve as role models when needed (and therein leads to the political debate on gay marriage and gay adoption, even gay teachers). Technology, in fact, helped create the Hudson River landing where we still needed to save “women and children first”. Fortunately, everybody came through this time. But the next time this happens, there might be real sacrifice. When your turn comes, you have to stand up, no matter who you are. And there’s the rub.

I sometimes wonder, what if this technological world, that allows us these degrees of separation, were taken from us (even by aliens). Actual relationships, chosen or not, would be all that’s left. Competencies, and those that enable one to compete with others in a social hierarchy, perhaps do matter. But they need not be as closely connected to biological gender – itself a somewhat malleable concept in nature – as the author believes.

Update: April 16, 2009

Dennis Ayers, Associate Editor of "After Elton" has a great column mentioning this book (and "You Don't Have to Be Gay", by Jeff Konrad) in a criticism of how Amazon's search engine works in relation to gay-related keywords. The link is here, and the link (called "Best.gay.week.ever") showed up on a imdb's page for NBC's new show "Southland" (I don't know why it did). I love Ayers's "unsolicited" comment: "(Here's my bit of unsolicited advice to Amazon shoppers who might be interested in A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality: "Do everyone a favor and don't have kids!")" I don't have them (thankfully), but I wanted to explain what people like Nicolosi are thinking -- after all, Dr. Phil let him on his show as an "expert" without checking first! Ayers goes on to discuss the odd results from Amazon's searches as related to a policy letting users flag "objectionable content", inviting "flagging vandalism".

On April 17, 2009 The Washington Blade reported "Amazon restores sales rankings for gay materials: Firestorm created after website drops rankings" link here.

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