Tuesday, November 25, 2008

In response to "On hooking up and hormones"

by Eva Wash

In his recent piece “On hooking up and hormones,” Equal Writes contributor argued that we ought to focus less on the differential hormonal effects of hook ups on women and men, and more on the culture part of the “hook up culture.” To this, I would say that of course no one talks about oxytocin when they are discussing (either ambivalently, proudly, or regretfully) their hook ups. It’s like how one rarely mentions the physiological details of alcohol’s effects when reminiscing about nights on the Street—but it’s important information to know regardless. I appreciate Josh’s stance about looking at the bigger picture and recognizing individuals’ experiences, but I’d like to clarify that in my previous post, “A feminist, scientific perspective on the hook-up culture” I was not trying to argue that hook up behavior is purely determined by our biology. Nor was I trying to say that men are emotionally numb when it comes to sexuality, for I know of copious and salient exceptions.

However, in writing about the role of oxytocin in hooking up, I was using a very specific, biological example to demonstrate what very few can deny: that by our very physical and psychological differences (yes, even hormones!), women are often more vulnerable in hook ups. To name some obvious examples, women are at risk for pregnancy and for HPV, which men can carry, but which is only symptomatic in women. Moreover, we not only have to worry about pregnancy as a possible result of our behavior, but possible infertility later.

Finally, there are the emotional consequences. So many women I know, when told that we have a tendency to become more easily attached in sexual relationships and suffer feelings of confusion and hurt, say something to the effect of “duh!” The possible causes for this are myriad, and it’s most likely a variety of aspects acting in conjunction that result in an individual woman’s response. As Josh effectively asserts, the emotional motivations and reactions to hooking up are often deeper than just biology, and he is right in saying that these should not be ignored in an evaluation of the hook up culture. Yet, having some concrete and universal evidence, such as the activity of oxytocin, is significant, if at least because it helps a woman who has been scarred by casual sexual activity to understand that it’s not because of some personal defect or flaw but because we may have such innate predispositions. Also, it’s just another factor that women (and men) should be cognizant of when considering a casual hook-up.

Anyway, I’m glad to have sparked a broader discussion of the hook-up culture and invite further perspectives, from men and women, on the issue. Thanks to Josh for his insight and perceptiveness.


At November 25, 2008 at 12:20 AM , Blogger pufsc said...

I would very much like to agree with your post here, and earlier with regards to men and women and the hook-up culture. Sorry to burst the bubble for some of those who commented on the previous post as to the "main point of feminism", but the biological differences BETWEEN men and women are MUCH greater than any variation within each sex. It is true that for each sex there is a distribution, and that at each end of the distribution for a particular trait there is some overlap, but in the end there are HUGE differences between men and women. This in and of itself is not bad, even though many feminists seem to think so. However, this does mean that if the average woman does create a bond based from oxytocin after a physical experience such as hooking up, this is most probably true for the majority of women, depending on the distribution. Therefore, in the end, there is a much greater likelihood that a woman will be more affected (not necessarily negatively) by a hook-up experience than a male partner (if she is heterosexual). Biologically, this makes sense, since women are predisposed to stay longer with a single partner to utilize the most of his resources, whereas men are much more likely to be promiscuous (biological definition) since then they will have the most offspring possible.
What does this mean for pastimes such as chivalry and the hook-up culture? It means that if the chivalrous man is considered a better provider of resources, then this is to his benefit. If the recipient considers it sexist, then that particular pairing will not come to fruition.

At November 25, 2008 at 10:08 AM , Blogger Franklinster said...

Thanks for your post Eva.

I appreciate your point that understanding oxytocin's role in shaping the hookup experience does provide explanation or comfort for some. But I think it's necessary to consider who we are supporting and how we are supporting them.

As a man with a complex experience regarding hookups, I don't feel like this discussion includes me. I can use this mode of discussing hookups to explain my own experience only as far as I accept my own deviance from the norm of masculinity. From a personal perspective, I'm not inclined to want to participate in a dialogue that labels me as abnormal. From an abstract perspective, I don't know how to feel about a perspective that claims to be feminist yet works to entrench traditional beliefs about gender.

I think as a community we have a responsibility to give ourselves modes of interpretation through which we can navigate the hookup culture. The question I want to raise is: what does it mean that we're making biology a prominent mode of interpretation? I think that by doing so, we exclude a lot of people. Biology applied in this way is the new opiate of the masses; we absolve ourselves of any duty to look at our lives critically and produce real understanding by leaning on immutable scientific truth. I'm certain that this is really comforting for certain women who have been scarred by their emotionally disengaged hookups, but I think it's limiting for a lot of people. It's these exclusions that I worry about, and I'm not sure that we can include everybody by merely adding qualifications (like noting that there are 'other factors' that contribute to a person's reaction to a hookup or that 'men have emotions too!') -- by framing these as qualifications or merely subtleties, I think the sense of exclusion is just reinforced. Maybe a discourse on the hookup culture with biology at its center is doomed to exclude those it labels as abnormal, and as feminists I think we ought to be deeply worried about that.

But I want to point out that I used the phrase 'a discourse with biology at its center' carefully. I don't want to deny the truth of biology; I want to question its value. For all the people that oxytocin comforts, how many does it alienate? How can we situate these studies in a context where the salient mode of interpretation is an inclusive sense of community responsibility and ownership? It's not that I think that understanding these differences is wrong or bad per se; rather, I think that it can be perceived as very important to understand them because that understanding is filling a void in our social management of the hookup culture. What ought to be in that void?

Thanks for your post Eva!

Also, it's not true that HPV is not symptomatic in men. According to the CDC [http://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv-and-men.htm], men can develop genital warts, penile cancer, and anal cancer from HPV.

-Josh Franklin

At November 25, 2008 at 3:54 PM , Anonymous Shocked said...

I can't believe that a supposedly feminist blog would post this nonsense about biological differences between women and men. To say that women and men are fundamentally different is to renege on the very precepts of feminism.

At November 25, 2008 at 11:29 PM , Anonymous Chloe Angyal said...

Hi "Shocked." We certainly are a feminist blog, and one of our goals is to make it clear that feminism is not only a large tent, with room for conservative people like Ms. Wash, who is a self-proclaimed feminist. We also value discussion about what it means to be a feminist, as well as discussion of what gender equality looks like, and how we can get there.
I don't think it's reneging on the precepts of feminism to include people like Eva, and arguments like the oxytocin one, in that discussion. I don't think it's helpful to ignore biology and to belligerently insist that gender is more powerful than sex; sometimes, it just isn't. Perhaps in the case of oxytocin and hooking up, biology isn't hugely relevant, but perhaps it is, and we'd be doing ourselves a disservice if we didn't talk about it. In publishing pieces like Eva's I'm certainly not suggesting that we let biology rule our lives, I'm simply insisting, as editor of this blog, that we give voice to all kinds of feminism, and that we engage in an open dialogue.


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