Humans are complicated. Yet we need to simplify some things in order to understand them. Can we simplify sex and gender at all?
It’s a coincidence that I happened to read this post by Justin Lehmiller about how to identify experts by how they characterize sexual behaviour just as I’m thinking about this topic. Basically, if your so-called “expert” says things like “all women do this” or “this is always a problem”, then they’re not really an expert.
I’m only a few weeks into my psychology classes, but I already see issues when we talk about research: it’s easy to misinterpret and essentialize studies into “well, all men/women must be like that”.
In psychology (or at least the little I know of it), it seems that all we can identify are tendencies. Some are stronger than others, but in general, we can never say “all”.
The beautiful thing about human beings is that we’re all alike yet all different. We more or less function on the same baseline: what motivates us is pretty universal. But how we interact with the world, how we react to stimuli, how we learn and the things that interest us are a unique combination, just as unique as our genes.
There’s an inherent danger in giving advice on a public forum like this one: I could sound as if I think that my advice applies to everyone and in all cases.
But it doesn’t.
Right now, I only have my own personal experience to go on. I can use that experience, as well as those I witness around me, and those that people confide in me. And even though there are commonalities in those experiences, I can’t pretend that what’s good for one is also good for the other.
But how can we try to understand human behaviour if we don’t make some kind of generalizations? I wish I could deal with every person as a discrete individual, and in some cases I can, but in some cases I can’t.
Is it fair to sometimes make generalizations about groups? I think so. I guess it depends on the point you’re trying to make. A sociologist or a psychologist’s job is to try to understand that kind of common behaviour. Even a psychotherapist needs certain guidelines, a certain understanding of normal vs. abnormal, of healthy vs. unhealthy, in order to help patients. Because otherwise, we’d need to build a theory for every single person… and nobody has the time for that.
On theories and their application
I have a love-hate relationship with theories, especially when they apply to human behaviour and/or art (like literature).
On the one hand, we need theories to understand the common things we experience. There’s a theory for child development, for example. Without it, it would be difficult to identify children who are growing up “normally” and those who might have some mental illness or developmental problem. However, the theories do not apply 100% of the time with 100% of children. Some may present with slower development in one area while being normal in others… and then they may catch up on their own.
There are theories about sex, about gender, about orientation. But there are less than you think.
The only things we know for sure about sex are the sexual response cycle, that men and women’s orgasms are similar and that they light up similar parts of the brain, and that sexual orientation probably has a strong biological component, and almost nothing to do with the environment—at least for men. (There are other things, but these are the salient one that are coming to my mind right now.)
With these theories, we can assess whether someone has a sexual dysfunction (a problem with going through the sexual response cycle), for example. But the theory doesn’t tell us what might cause that dysfunction. Is it biological? Is it psychological? It could be social, even. Other theories deal with that, I imagine.
So when I explore this new topic and try to make sense of my experience through them, I try to keep in mind that humans are unique beings driven by similar things: biology, mostly, but also a social and cultural context.
And by trying to understand the world through these theories (which may or may not be relevant to whatever I’m doing), I want to do my best not to essentialize anyone’s experience; I want to avoid reducing them to basic components of a theory.
How you feel, how you act, they’re both unique to you. The only thing I’ve seen psychology do is uncover tendencies of human behaviour, not absolutes. And so I want to approach my work and my writing in a way that frames uniqueness in a picture that we can relate to and understand.
That’s how art works. That’s how literature works. We channel our unique experiences and feelings and somehow translate them into something that may not reflect an exact experience in the viewer/reader, but something similar enough that they will be able to somehow relate to the work, to feel like they are not alone.
Somewhere in the world, someone maybe gets angry at the same things I do. Somewhere in the world, someone else maybe reacts the same way to anger as I do. But these experiences are not common in the whole of humanity. So how do I connect my anger to something more universal? How do I connect the experience of anger, which is universal, to the things that make other people angry?
I’m fascinated by this tension between the universal and the particular. I remember in Middlemarch the search of Causabon and Lydgate for a mythological and medical universal, respectively. Both fail, for different reasons. But mostly they fail because there are no such universals. But our search for it leads us to other paths, and maybe help us discover if not universals, then at least categories.
Can we frame uniqueness in a way that helps us make sense of it in relational terms? Is anything every really unique?
Maybe it’s because true uniqueness would not be understandable to us at all. Could we recognize something unique to us, like a piece of alien art, as a piece of art? Or would we just dismiss it as just another weird piece of metal in a junkyard?
As much as I don’t like theories (and this has been true since my literature days), I have to admit that we need them in order to at least make some sense of the world.
And yes, I know that simplistic categories like “male” or “female” don’t express the range of lived experiences. That’s when we expand our theories to include lived experiences that are more common than previously thought, or simply more common by virtue of social change.
It’s hard to talk about sexuality without at least trying to make some sense of it through theoretical frames. And yet, we know so very little about sex that even the sex specialists can’t really find frames that work well.
Where was I going?
Ah, yes. “All men do this, all women do that”. Especially when it comes to sexuality, this is a crock of bullshit. If you read someone writing this, or hear someone saying this, you probably shouldn’t trust them.
Because humans are complicated. Alike in some ways, different in others, but always varying and diverse.
And this is why I’m doing what I’m doing. Because people are fascinating, and I want to know as many fascinating things about them as I can.