Friday, August 5, 2011

Some notes on attraction, sex, and power

  • I knew someone would suggest that interviewing "attractive men" is sexist or objectifying. I considered this possibility but quickly dismissed it. Acknowledging attractiveness isn't objectifying, anymore than acknowledging race is racist. I don't believe in pretending we don't notice superficial facts about the way people look.
  • Attractiveness is subjective, but not entirely. If you ask a thousand people to rate a bunch of faces on a scale of 1 to 10, some of those faces will have higher average scores than others. If a face has an average score of 8, it's fair to say that most people would agree that face is attractive. (Of course all 8's are not the same.) I'm not doing a scientific study, so I didn't ask a thousand people to rate my friends' faces. I'm just guessing.
  • I absolutely do not think that "attractive" people are more likely to experience sexual harassment/assault.
  • My survey wasn't designed to investigate sexual harassment/assault. I was more broadly curious about noncriminal activity and day-to-day social navigation. Was that not clear?
  • As a woman, I feel that a) my looks are constantly being evaluated (most of the time I don't think about it, it's just background radiation), and b) social relationships I think of as perfectly platonic often turn out not to be (in other words a friend/acquaintance/colleague/etc. comes on to me). I would not categorize the vast majority of these situations as harassment, just variously awkward and uncomfortable.
  • I have no idea if these (socio-sexual?) situations arise because I'm a woman, attractive, both or neither (though I certainly have assumptions), hence the inclination to change one variable, for starters. I also thought the title (a play on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, of course) was catchy. I also thought it would freak men out to have their looks foregrounded. One commenter who in the past theorized that I have more male readers than female readers because I'm "vulpine" ("In real life (i.e., physical, non-electronic), your vast audience of immature poetry blog trolls, myself included, would be thrilled to get the time of day from a smart pretty girl who probably smells nice") commented that the title of the series "implies that there is some accepted standard of human beauty." He also accused me of "looks-ism." What I take from this is that women are expected to be evaluated on the basis of their looks; men are not.
  • "In real life" I often pursue friendships with stereotypically nerdy, intellectual, introverted/non-aggressive men. They often seem like the most interesting people in, say, an office environment. (It's semi-hard for me to make friends at work because my "real life" interests are obscure and snobby.) Frequently, these "nerdy" men whose (platonic) company I find appealing are not "thrilled to get the time of day" from me. On the contrary they often studiously avoid eye contact and conversation or ignore me entirely. Not always, but it's a pattern. Why is that, I wonder? Do they think I'm going to make fun of them or something?


  1. "Acknowledging attractiveness isn't objectifying, anymore than acknowledging race is racist."

    However, taking specific action based on attractiveness (i.e., identifying and then interviewing only attractive men) is objectifying. Similarly, acknowledging race is not racist although acting based on race is (e.g., hiring only white people).

  2. Objectification is to present or regard as an object. It's not like I'm posting big pictures of these guys in provocative poses with no signs of their inner lives.

    The comparison to "hiring only white people" is just utterly ridiculous.

  3. I would probably say that attractiveness is some combination of subjective and cultural. Thorsten Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class has a lot to say about this, though it's a hundred years old: attractiveness is often culturally connected to our ideas about money and power. For instance, slender women are often more prized in a cultural context where their degree of "uselessness" (i.e. not working) is a marker of their, and their husband's, social status--although there have been other cultural contexts which have found "overweight" (from the vantage of our cultural context) women attractive for the same reason. In some contexts though, a woman who is physically strong is seen as an asset (which, I hate to say, is really what ideas of attractiveness are probably based on--we find "attractive" that which seems to offer an asset to our perception of ourselves and our needs) and therefore, quite literally, more attractive.

    One can say similar things about men, although (maybe) in a smaller degree: there have been contexts (usually aristocratic ones) in which males of "refined sensitivity" are considered more attractive than tall powerful men with muscles.

    I think it's interesting, by the way, that American culture, and American women, are somewhat split on male attractiveness in this regard. With all due respect to you and them, Elisa, and based only on the pictures of them, the men you have chosen seem men of a certain urban, refined sensitivity, although obviously I only have the pictures and could be wrong about that. But I'm not seeing any large, weight-lifting, beefcakey military men of the kind that are also often prized in American culture as "attractive."

    None of this is at all critical of this fascinating series of blog posts.

  4. Re last bullet: I have at times been one of Those People. There are various reasons one might want to avoid having to deal with friendly attractive women at work: (1) They might be trying to mock you. (2) They might be of the kind that are _into nerds_ -- which, for any sufficiently self-loathing nerd, is a turn-off (qua confirmation of one's own nerdiness). (3) It is bad to get into situations where you end up embarrassing yourself, by mistaking politeness for friendliness or friendliness for attraction. (4) Attractive people are alien and often irritating in the way they interact with the world. On average they tend to be entitled and show-offy compared with others. To the extent that you have no real intention of trying to sleep with someone, attractiveness is arguably a mild net negative. (A tradeoff: they are often good at getting served at crowded bars.) Of course I realize that this is a stereotype and that there are tons of exceptions...

  5. After catching up on your last couple of posts, I must say:

    * Someone get Travis a drink.

    * You are unafraid of crossing boundaries and pushing buttons. Love that.

    * While the men you have interviewed are attractive I suppose, their responses are largely uninteresting. I will look forward to hearing your point of view regarding this topic.

    * Of all the lesbians I have known and become close friends with, not one has ever hit on me. Ever. This is vaguely troubling and also attests to their good manners.

    * Nerdy guys are the ones that can have an interesting conversation without them staring at your tits.

    * Beauty is power, in men and in women. That has always been the case and it's not about to change.

    * Everyone just relax.

    Keep shaking things up, Elisa.

  6. Mark: I think the consensus thing is definitely cultural. I think of it as more objective than one person's subjective idea of attractiveness, but of course you couldn't get people to agree on the same standard across different cultures or times. But even then, perhaps, there are some objective standards, for humans -- I mean Nefertiti would do pretty well, right?

    Perhaps it doesn't come across in the picture -- I'm a little surprised -- Danny is actually an ex-marine and I would absolutely put him in the category of "large, weight-lifting, beefcakey military men" as you describe. But I admit, I'm limited to the pool of people i know, most of which are writers (Danny is not; he's an old friend of John's), and my current circle is not all that diverse. It saddens me, often -- when I was in college, my social group was much more diverse.

  7. Sarang, thanks for your honesty. I can understand all that. Especially given my history of having people misinterpret my friendliness for attraction -- I can hardly hold someone responsible for preempting it.

    Josephine, I really appreciate that. Eventually I hope to open the comments up to hear more from women on these questions -- I expect the answers would be very different. (But, to me, not so surprising.)

  8. "Of all the lesbians I have known and become close friends with, not one has ever hit on me. Ever. This is vaguely troubling and also attests to their good manners."

    The above does not surprise me at-all: the answer being--fear; getting the sexual orientation topos "wrong" strikes me as likely a totally cliche homosexual feeling: tho I could be wrongly extrapolating from my experience of being gay and a personal--tho it somnewhat feels very impersonal and saturated in crappiest 3rd-person politics--dread of hitting on a strayt guy.

    I wld--sort of in response to MW--argue that for men rich is not hot, that a sight which figures some likely absurd working-class mythology is totally the hothot.

    The richyrich man--unless he is in "drag"--is the "fortune five hundred fag." So fabulous how that phrase writes gay men out of American mythos, out of the delicious man in the Stetson perfume add.

  9. the last paragraph reminds me of the way i was in high school--back then i was more nerdy and lived in fear of the beautiful people (while wanting to be one of them). when one of them made friendly platonic overtures to me, i couldn't believe it. why would someone like that want to be friends with someone like me? sarang's comment, "It is bad to get into situations where you end up embarrassing yourself, by mistaking politeness for friendliness or friendliness for attraction," really rings true for my high school self.

    but i guess, in my case, it wasn't hard for me to say, ok, sure, maybe i can be one of you people after all. and i've been trying to do that ever since.

  10. Elisa, re culture and your really intriguing Nefertiti question, honestly I'm not entirely sure. In frontier cultures or other cultures of desperately difficult physical work, women (like men) are prized for physical strength. Now, in our own culture's terms (and it's so hard for us to see outside them), some large strong women are considered prettier than others, so my guess is that it probably must be true in other contexts as well, though how important it would be, I don't know. But frail women would be a liability; would their "prettiness" be acknowledged at all? All I'm saying is, Nefertiti better bulk up if she's going to be any value to those of us driving yaks across the desert.

    Djuna Barnes' great short story "Smoke" is an amazing object lesson in how these values change: from the sturdy peasant generation for whom the "prettiness" of women seems irrelevant, to more modern, urban generations where frail, pretty women become prized for their ornamentation value--but who are also often sickly and without energy.

    So "attractiveness" is a function of what people value, I guess is what I'm saying (and is what Veblen says, although somewhat more narrowly applied).

  11. I agree about physical (as in body size/shape) norms. I was thinking more about facial features -- hasn't it been proven pretty conclusively that, for example, the more symmetrical your face, the more attractive people will rate it? I think even babies prefer more symmetrical faces. I believe that even cross culturally there are consistent preferences for, like, a certain distance between the eyes and stuff like that.

  12. That's an interesting point about symmetrical features--I'd love to know the details on how that conclusion was reached.

    Is a perfectly symmetrical face an example of something like "generic" good-looking features, with a face that's slightly off symmetrical being, say, "striking"? The idea of the picturesque landscape, for instance, is one in which there's an imbalance in the two sides of the view: one more sculpted, one more wild and "sublime."

  13. I think there are multiple pieces of supporting evidence for the symmetry argument, but in one study, researchers transposed a reversed image of the left part of the face on the right side (or vice versa), making a perfectly symmetrical version of said person's face, and those faces were rated as more attractive than the real faces.

    To me, flawed/imperfect faces are often more interesting/striking, but it's not always an imperfection in the actual structure of the face. Like, one could have a scar, asymmetrical but just a surface feature. Or an unusual nose that was still perfectly symmetrical.

  14. yes-yes-yes, excellent, too often overlooked distinction:

    "To me, flawed/imperfect faces are often more interesting/striking, but it's not always an imperfection in the actual structure of the face. Like, one could have a scar, asymmetrical but just a surface feature."

  15. When I was in grad school this grey-haired guy skulked around a men's room near the English Dept. Once when I was in there washing my hands he came up to me and started rubbing my belly. Then he told me to go to the back of the room and put my back against the wall. I said something like uh, gotta go, and walked out. Soon after that I passed him walking outside the building (we called it the Fishbowl). He looked at me with a mixture of negative emotions--fear, thwarted lust, hatred?

    Once after playing tennis I went into a redneck bar. The patrons looked like those people in the diner at the beginning of Natural Born Killers. As I was sipping my Bud or whatever, the bartender--he was about 60 and ugly--sat next to me and started saying strange things. Then he tried to chicken-fox me--invited me to come home with him so we could jerk off to a porn film together. I said something like uh, gotta go, and walked out.

    You didn't ask for any of that information, I know. I'm just a compulsive writer.

    You're a pretty woman. Are you a brunette in one of your online photos?

  16. The term "chicken-fox" is new to me.

    No, I've never been a brunette.

  17. hey how about a series on "interviews with attractive women"



  18. "How often are you the recipient of unwanted sexual advances?"

    "Have you ever experienced anything you’d describe as harassment?"