Systemic Bias and the Single Girl

Standard

I sometimes call myself a spinster because it’s my word to use. I’m a grown woman, single by choice. Call me an aromantic. No, really, do so – it’s a word I’ve accepted after exploring the realm of asexuality and aromanticism, which get little attention in dialogue of sexual diversity and can be pathologized by simplified concepts of evolutionary biology. As I get older the prejudice against me as a single woman is only going to increase. What’s wrong with me that I can’t find a man? What traumatizing experience did I have that turned me off relationships? What is lacking in my physiology that hinders my biological drive for mating and partnership?

(The answer is nothing, by the way.)

I’m lucky enough to have a family that at least doesn’t speak openly about its opinions and prejudices against single women. I’m lucky to be able to work at a job that pays well enough to support myself. But those personal benefits aren’t present for everyone, and any disadvantage asexual or aromantic people might face is from systemic bias. It’s not only embedded in our culture, but written in stone in the law and applied to the economy that single people should face consequences for a lifestyle choice, no matter how healthy and natural the orientation away from sex and partnership actually is.

Culturally, it’s not hard for anyone to see how much value is placed on sex, romance, marriage, and offspring. All of those are implied in the word “family” (though small advances have been made towards greater acceptance of childfree couples or unmarried parents). Legally, everything becomes an inconvenient ambiguity when you don’t have a spouse to default as your next of kin. Tax laws are framed around marriage. Economically, most housing is designed for couples and families. Home prices are cashing in on the dual income standard. Newer developments have dual sinks in the bathroom and dual closets in the bedroom, or as many bathrooms as bedrooms assuming that there will be children living with parents. There are heterosexist implications as well, especially where same sex marriage and adoption are legally prohibited, and they tend to stick to the narrow definition of a nuclear family that doesn’t accommodate multi-generation households. The legal definitions of “family” are very subjective to our culture, and yet they’re applied in objective ways. We’re led to believe that it’s the natural way, and recognition or accommodation of any other family structure under the law is seen as unfair.

Sex and romance are ubiquitous in popular culture and the media. It’s what sells, and there’s a lot of money to be made off of not only ignoring but outright stigmatizing asexual and aromantic people. Characters portaryed as such are at best in the background with beta personalities, but they’re frequently the joke. A single person’s life without weekly dates and sexual adventures has no stories to tell, especially for women. Main characters who don’t have romantic interests are portrayed as psychologically broken, or it’s merely a symptom of an overarching mental condition, like the neuroatypical Sherlock, or sociopath Dexter who started out in a relationship that was part of an overall guise. Even those characters are white men.

In feminist critiques, sex and sexuality is ever present. It’s absolutely an important aspect of patriarchal structures and gender inequalities, and this overlaps with the stigma and structural barriers to single, asexual, and aromantic women (or all genders, really). But so much of popular feminist dialogue revolves very specifically and exclusively around heterosexual dynamics that occur within the context of romantic relationships, sexual desire, or sexualized behaviours. Other conversations within feminism are LGBT inclusive, and examine dynamics within same sex relationships, and the broader oppression of LGBT people and lives by the cissexist and heteronormative establishment. Again, this is very important to the overall discussion around the harm patriarchy imposes on individuals and their personhood, but it doesn’t invite asexual and aromantic people.

Even LGBT dialogue can turn their noses up at the voices of asexual and aromantic people. In the elaborated acronym LGBTTQIA, the A is often assumed to mean ally, and it’s specified as such even by some LGBT organizations. It gets very complicated when you include multiple dimensions of asexual and aromantic orientations, because while some people don’t want sex they might still be homoromantic, biromantic, or heteroromantic. Aromantic people might still be sexual to varying degrees – grey-sexual is a common term for someone somewhere between asexual and sexual (or allosexual, as it is often referred to). I’m sometimes sexually interested in men, making me hetero-grey-sexual, and beyond desire to have sex I still do experience aesthetic and physical attraction to men. This saves me from the stigma and persecution of homo- or bi- orientations, whether romantic or sexual. So how much of a place do I or people like me really have in the LGBTTQIA dialogue?

This is skimming the surface of a deep issue that permeates the institution of medicine, workplaces, money, religion, and social rites. It’s like a Freudian Inception – our society is so obsessed with sexual undertones that we base our understanding of existence on sexual undertones, and we see a lack of sex in life to be unhealthy no matter what the individual genuinely desires. Aromantics aren’t cold, emotionless people unable to maintain meaningful social relationships. Asexuals aren’t stunted adults who are missing some kind of hormone fundamental to basic health. It’s also not black and white – I mean, I literally used the word grey to describe my own sexuality – and actions that may or may not include sex or relationships don’t make an asexual or aromantic person a fraud. Sex and relationships are still a means of survival, and asexual and aromantic people are physically and mentally capable of participating as a compromise or in their best interest.

But since I won’t participate in romantic relationships, I face consequences in my everyday life. It’s easier to get by as a single woman here and now than in eras when financial independence and sexual freedoms were aggressively blocked off for my gender, and I’m grateful for that. But all things are not equal, in culture, in the economy, and in law. If I punch someone in the face for saying “Oh, you’ll find someone” too many times, I’ll be charged with assault. What’s the deal, huh?

Straight Answers

Standard

First of all:

This is to Macklemore’s song. I know little about Macklemore, on account of the incapable-of-following-popular-music stated above. But apparently in the song performed that was in support of gay rights etc, he also talks a lot about how he himself is straight.

Nobody really asks and nobody is really shocked to find out that I’m heterosexual because I don’t fit a stereotype, therefore I’m “normal” enough for my sexual orientation to not cross most people’s minds. Questions aren’t asked of me as they’re asked of others – although my singleness may come under more scrutiny than it would for a man – and that’s an example of my heteronormative privilege. When issues are of sexual orientation they aren’t about me. I don’t need to speak up on my own behalf, and the LGBT* people who do get to speak first.

What I Hope For in 2014

Standard

I have my own plans for 2014 that have nothing to do with it being a new year – they’re just chronologically sensible choices and they’re mine to make and do something about. The world as a whole, however, is beyond my control – but there are things I want to happen that are very well possible.

I hope Colorado demonstrates a successful means of legalizing recreational marijuana and other jurisdictions either follow suit or work up the courage through precedent to propose their own plans and pass them into law. This may not happen in Canada in 2014 as we don’t boot our government out until the year following and they will not legalize marijuana, but the stage can be set through gradual development on other levels of government that help wane the war on drugs so 2015 can be yet another constructive year in building sensible solutions.

My government must, however, reform prostitution laws by the end of 2014 and the existing ones rejected by the Supreme Court of Canada give Stephen Harper and his Conservatives with their ever-waning loyalty little room to make them more restrictive. I hope that a safe and empowering sex trade is developed and law enforcement can better focus on abuses that were previously seen just as bad as consensual transaction.

I hope same-sex marriage in the United States reaches legality in 25 states. Adding Washington DC, this makes it over 50% and in population it’s probably already approaching there if not surpassed with populated states like New York and California among the list. By a quick check on Wikipedia’s list, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, and Washington both state AND District of Columbia make it currently at 18 states/19 jurisdictions out of 50/51. We need six more to make a majority and the list is still not including promising liberal territory like Oregon, Michigan, Colorado (as they get stoned and chill out more), and Pennsylvania, and of course the state with no morals and a huge wedding industry, Nevada. Ohio is already recognizing same-sex marriages from other states, and SCOTUS is getting ever closer to making this right blanket constitutional.

I hope Putin is overthrown, and protests in Russia are pro-queer. I hope the disgustingly homophobic laws are overturned or the country is boycotted by every major international sporting event until they are. It’s too late to stop Sochi, but we can cause a ruckus and take a stand.

I hope more people are cured of HIV – both babies and adults, through increasingly practical means that could help more than just extreme situations. I hope at least one of the people cured, as it’s unlikely to be masses, is African. Medical research is easier in the West, but medical need is stronger in Africa, and they so justly need to be treated as equal humans so stupid Twitter comments can go away by means other than online lynch mobs.

I hope the number of people fluent in indigenous languages – all over the world, not just in Canada – increase. This could be a major accomplishment of the Idle No More movement that spreads globally, along with hopefully blocking further destruction of land that we belong to, but doesn’t belong to us.

I hope Assad gets overthrown and the death toll in Syria simmers down. It would be too wishful to expect conflict to essentially cease; as other Arab countries are showing it’s a slower process than our modern patience can handle as we expect the tumult to last about as long as our half-hour high school history class that glossed over the entire French Revolution.

I hope Barry Gibb doesn’t die. He’s the last of all the Gibb brothers. The world isn’t ready to live without a Gibb.

The Goldilocks Look

Standard

There’s sexism, objectification, and misogyny that’s ubiquitous but laced ever so subtly to go unnoticed by the majority of people. Even the things that are obvious are accepted as just a part of “human nature” – one of my least favourite phrases for its meaningless, lazy resort as an answer for anything that people (typically white heterosexual men) want to justify.

Women face certain types of discrimination on a spectrum. One of those types of discrimination is different treatment on the basis of looks. This is why restaurant servers are disproportionately young and attractive – while the youthful element can be partly explained by the physical demands of the job, the attractiveness is the money maker. Restaurants will be more likely to hire young attractive women as servers because they bring in more repeat customers, and attractive women are more inclined to work in restaurants because they get higher tips – or so goes the logic in a sociological thought experiment, and I would imagine there has been scholarly inquiry that provides quantitative analysis in this area.

But because their repeat customers come for the ogling, they’re likely to face customers who range from benignly flirtatious to outright pigs. Very attractive women in other professions can be deemed, consciously or subconsciously, as either a distraction to heterosexual men or an envied threat to other women in the workplace. While they reap so many benefits of higher earning potential in some fields, and more options in selecting a mate (god, I sound like the kind of person who uses “human nature” as the panacea), there are barriers attractive women can face because of their appearance. (The same does not apply in the same magnitude, if at all, to attractive men.)

Women who range from “plain” looking to an outright unfortunate mix of features won’t get the same tips in the hospitality sector as the pretty ones. They may not be taken seriously enough for the more educated or prestigious professions, and likely have grown up with unfortunately stunted confidence that impeded their ambitions anyway. (I know this to an extent from personal experience, although as I will explain shortly I’m lucky to have escaped these circumstances.) The women you will see in occupations of lower prestige, if you take the time to look as they are largely invisible because of these factors, may be less attractive in a variety of ways – size, facial features, some skin differences like scars or birthmarks that are unfortunately placed, or any other conceivable trait that removes the objectifying appeal of that person. As a woman, without any attractiveness, standard patriarchal objectifications do not apply and these women are often ignored.

There’s a range in the middle, whether one is blonde or not, with a Goldilocks advantage. Women who look feminine enough to be accepted as women, yet not so attractive to throw out all rational evaluation of character, are going to be treated with more dignity in career and other sectors of life in this state of society. The strides towards equality benefit women who maintain a polished appearance but can maintain eye contact instead of being ignored or subjected to the wandering gaze away from the face that represents their personhood. While I have let myself be taken down by the dehumanization of less attractive features in the past, I have overcome that with the overall “normalness” of my appearance and I now fall in this category. It saved me from getting suffocated by the wooing of men, or from a lasting impression being made at a formative age that my looks define me. It’s allowed me to confidently pursue things because I can look people in the eye without fear of the consequences for being looked back at.

But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so is ugliness, so subjective judgements keep me mildly vulnerable to the consequences faced by either side. More importantly, it doesn’t matter which of these problems I’m safe from – which of these problems “aren’t mine”. They’re “ours”, the burden of all of women and men who believe other women should be taken seriously and acknowledge our collective best interests of realizing the potential of every person. Men who experience similar discrimination – which will be less often and less severe, but real nonetheless – are suffering from the same problem of patriarchy that treats integrated gender interactions as sexualized battles for glory and prize.

Most women fall somewhere in between, but rather than dodging these disadvantages entirely there is a risk of encountering either at any time. Any interaction with a new person creates a new subjective interpretation of appearance, and reaction thereto. There is, despite the Goldilocks nature of this middle ground, no “juuuuust right”. There never is when the imbalance of power remains so great.

Knots in the String

Standard
Twitter is an interesting social medium. It’s ripe for political dialogue, even if you’re not directing the message at anyone in particular, or at someone you don’t know who may not even read your response.

Then there are conversations with the people who you do know, about things you probably already knew they thought, but as it’s not a private conversation like by IM, text, phone, or in-person, it becomes a public display of dialogue. The other day my friend Ben and I did just that. (Edited for style, and all but the first is a response to the previous.)

@ben_chaotica: I support a woman’s right to choose to have a safe, legal (preferably early) abortion. I also support public subsidies for contraceptives.

@khrismonegenege: And you also support a woman’s right not to have sex. All very important steps in human welfare.

@ben_chaotica: Absolutely I do. The right (for men and women) to chose not to have sex is fundamental to the sovereignty of one’s body.

@khrismonegenege: Some don’t quite understand that…or think the right to one’s body is surrendered when practised (e.g. choice in clothes).

@ben_chaotica: Not even getting married, or getting comatose-drunk and naked in public, surrenders the right to not to have sex.

@khrismonegenege: Not even starting sex revokes the right to stop at any point.

@ben_chaotica: Agree. Although it is better for all parties if party intending to exercise that right does so as early as possible.

@khrismonegenege: Yes, because we should all have the self-respect to be decisive and not give into pressure.

@ben_chaotica: The right not to have sex comes with the responsibility to exercise it honestly and healthily (i.e. not for power games)

@khrismonegenege: Yup, with clear motives and mutual understanding, respecting personal limits.

@ben_chaotica: It is my fond wish that ALL interpersonal relations be conducted with clear motives, mutual understanding and self-respect.

@khrismonegenege: No kidding! It’s something I try to do, and hope it’s paid forward. I’m impressed with guys who are clear and ask for clarity.

Even though this conversation was just between the two of us, it’s visible out there if anyone happens to stumble upon it. It’s unlikely many people will, but there are other conversations like this on Twitter that get wider readership. It’s a form of democratic dialogue as much as a social medium. I socialize with Ben separately…and it’s on topics of less substance, like how similar he is to Data from ST:TNG. (You can’t really tell from this discussion, but in due time…)