One of the persistent vexations of autistic life is being told by other people that one should want other things than one does, a demand whose apparent reasonability from the point of view of the demanding party in itself constitutes a formidable cognitive obstacle. I sometimes talk about neurodivergent experience in terms of “caring too much about the wrong things”. Autistic “special interests” - those “fixations” from which others so earnestly wish to separate us - have a deviant salience: they stick out like a sore thumb.
I was reminded of this recently when reading a paper of Robin Dembroff’s exploring transgender experience as “wilful gender deviance”. Are we autists being wilful, headstrong, unreasonably perseverant, in wanting what we do want and not wanting what we do not want? Dembroff found a way of putting it that I liked: “we are wilfully…deviant, but in the same sense as we willfully draw breath: we choose to do so, but doing so is compulsory for our well-being” (in case you were wondering, my ellipsis here conceals the word “gender”). I’m not sure that entirely works: we breathe in our sleep, and cannot voluntarily suppress respiration indefinitely. What is compulsory for our well-being is also, in the penultimate instance, involuntary. But willing, wilfulness, stubborn volitionality in the face of the non-negotiable, are inextricably involved in the situation. Our adversaries (mine and Dembroff’s, who are often enough the same people) are technically in the right when they tell us we could always just stop breathing, but only within a narrow time-horizon.
Among the several anxieties I had on opening Nina Power’s What do Men Want? was that the titular question was purely rhetorical, and the author was about to tell me what I should want. Not, necessarily, in the form of a direct interpellation - you there, man, must adjust your expectations! - but rather in the indirect but no less presumptuous form of a tangle of motivated ontological precepts. SInce this is what you are (I anticipated being told), this is how you should rightly seek to realise yourself; if it appears that you are trying to realise some other kind of being than that which you are, then failure and misery are inevitable. A claim to authority which plants its feet in such premises can always represent itself as concerned for our own good, turning us aside from failure and misery. In seeking help from self-help books, readers are often looking for just such an authority: one that will reassure them that their innate being is viable and worthy of flourishing, and direct them towards the proper expression of that worthiness. To a large extent, Power’s book does operate according to the rules of this genre: it offers to restore the credit of a tarred and feathered masculinity, and outlines a prescription for mutual flourishing between the sexes which turns out to rest largely on an off-puttingly Pollyanna-ish construal of the paternal role.
Power’s book did not reassure me that my innate being was viable and worthy of flourishing. If I am right about the broad intent of the book, this must constitute a type of performative misfire: an infelicitous interpellative. Because I am not remotely interested in articulating what is compulsory for my well-being in terms of a reconstructed “traditional” masculinity, I cannot find myself anywhere on the map of redressed gender relations Power lays out. I might as well be reading a book which purported to teach the reader how to become a champion water-skier, except that I wouldn’t be altogether surprised to learn that there were generally applicable lessons to be learned from the pursuit of excellence in that field. Positionality must matter somewhat here, so let me add: as a father of three (four, soon), I naturally wish to be a “good dad” (or, Kleinishly, a good-enough one). But I have found that very few of the challenges arising over the course of this endeavour are meaningfully or helpfully addressed by exhortations to be honourable and courageous in some distinctly manly way, or appeals to an “abstract rage to protect” as opposed to, say, a timely impulse to prevent my small daughter from running out into the path of oncoming vehicles.
The core ontological claim of What Do Men Want? is that sexual difference is real. I happen also to think that sexual difference is real. Here’s what I mean when I say that. At the level of population, the human species like other mammalian species is sexually dimorphic: human phenotypes exhibit a bimodal distribution of sexed traits, such that individuals clustered around one mode will tend to be equipped to perform one of two functional roles in sexual reproduction, and individuals clustered around the other mode will tend to be equipped to perform the other role. By observing a newborn infant’s externally-visible anatomy, we can make a significantly better than random guess about which, if either, of these roles they have a chance of viably performing. Sexual difference at the population level has a marked structural and temporal coherence: the same pattern holds over time, across generations, and the biological mechanics it puts into play serve to reproduce it faithfully, notwithstanding things like endocrine disruptors in the environment. This is the level at which, and the manner in which, sexual difference “coheres” as a distinct and enduring thing in the world. It is also, inasmuch as we are counting the functional roles involved in sexual reproduction, “binary” rather than “unary”, “ternary”, etc. (a different kind of distinction than that between “binary” and “a spectrum”, which as we will see applies in a different domain).
Individual life-histories occur against the backdrop of two large facts, the first being population-level sexual dimorphism as I have described it, and the second being each individual’s placement in a genealogical line which can be traced through a tree of occasions of sexual reproduction. Whether or not we have “fathers” and “mothers” in all the variously culturally overloaded senses of those words, we do all have ancestors who performed the “male” and “female” functional roles in sexual reproduction. This seems like it might be existentially significant: it means that we originate in difference, being neither spontaneously self-created nor replicas of a single entity faithfully reproducing itself. Each new human life is a roll of the dice, in terms of genetic combination, and the culmination of a long chain of such dice-rolls stretching back beyond the epoch of humanity itself.
Nothing in my view authorises us to proceed from these facts to the assertion that each individual human being “has a” unitary sex, that this is one of two sexes, that it is immutable, that it carries with it a fixed set of associated traits (whether anatomical, psychological or sociological), and so on. What is coherent in the large, at the population level, loses coherence once we get down to the level of the individual organism, where the “binary” of reproductive function around which the bimodal distribution of sexed traits is organised breaks down into a “spectrum” of multi-dimensional variety in the actual expression of those traits. Human beings are not (contra fascist imaginaries) instantiations of ideal types. There is a clue in the notorious “gender critical” slogan which purports to define “woman” as “adult human female”. One is not born an adult. Human beings come into the world in a radically unready state, and must acquire practical and cognitive skills, symbolic orientation, social identity, and physical maturity through a lengthy process of development. In that process not only their minds but also their bodies acquire new attributes and capabilities. What sex is for human beings is the entire corpus of phenotypic expression of sexed traits, enmeshed with and modulated through the entire stack of environmental contingencies which shape development towards adulthood and beyond. It is wildly complex, formed in the dance of multiple reciprocally-determining physical and psychosocial systems. You cannot simply make a cut in that complexity and organise everything on one side of that cut into a bucket labelled “immutable biology” and everything on the other side into a bucket labelled “transient social norms”.
The reduction of the complexity of our life as sexed beings is a political project, the goal of which is to corral human beings into reproductive silos and enforce a division of labour based on presumptive reproductive role (the role we take an educated guess at when observing the externally visible anatomy of newborns). We refer to this project, in its various manifestations across an extremely wide range of temporal and geographical contexts, in shorthand as “patriarchy”. It seems to have originated with agriculture, but you’ll have to ask an anthropologist for the details. Like most political projects, it has a PR wing, and PR for patriarchy mostly consists of essentializing fables about what men and women are really like - a tangle of motivated ontological precepts, serving as justificatory grounds for just-so stories about what one ought to want and how one ought to go about obtaining it. Alongside the carrot of ideological images of ontologically-aligned sexual contentment you will usually find the stick of phobic constructions of deviance: if you stray off the path, you will end up warped, a degenerate, a menace to the peace and safety of women and children. Power also waves the stick around, although so listlessly rote are her invocations of transphobic talking points that it rather feels like it is waving her.
I’m going to use the term “gender” to refer to our symbolic mapping of the terrain of sex in toto, both the bad parts such as stereotyped gender roles and the good parts such as the extraordinary diversity and creativity of (as it may be, “deviant”) gender expression through which people try to symbolise and negotiate what is compulsory for their well-being as sexed creatures. The patriarchal project of simplifying this terrain, carving it up into distinct and manageable territories, correlates with a cultural politics around gender which demands simpler language, clear distinctions, unchallengeable definitions, firm limits on the use of imagination. Would-be “gender critics” are actually in the position of gender cops: gender only appears to them as gender when it is doing something unexpected, something which must immediately be put to a halt (to take a trivial example: pronouns are only “pronouns” to them when they’re not the expected pronouns).
Another sense, then, in which I would say that “sexual difference is real” is that sexual difference is the real of gender. But by this I mean not that all symbolic handwaves in the direction of sex are fundamentally oriented towards a reproductive binary, but that the decoherence of the reproductive binary in the life history of individuals, the combinatorial explosion of forking developmental paths, means that any coherent “mapping” of the terrain of sex is necessarily lacking. The question is sometimes asked, rhetorically: if two genders aren’t enough, how many would you like? Five? A thousand? One per human individual? I would suggest that even the last suggestion would be inadequate (people contain multitudes, and entertain multiple relationships with others, through which gender as a social artefact is realised and renegotiated), and that this inadequacy is built in to the relationship between the kind of thing gender is (symbolisation, cognitive mapping, storytelling, social negotiation) and the kind of thing sex is (the dance of multiple reciprocally-determining physical and psychosocial systems, including gender itself). “Sexual difference”, here, is the play of difference within sex, and between sex as it is told and sex as it is lived.
None of this is what Power means when she says “sexual difference is real”. What she means is that there are, really, men and women, and in such a way that men are men (unless they are being unmanly, which is bad both for them and for women) and women are women (unless, forsaking themselves, they have been co-opted into a masculinised psychic economy, which largely seems to mean letting the side down by having sex one isn’t supposed to want). “Traditionally”, men were indeed men and women were indeed women, but a liberal order of individual freedoms and commercial prerogatives has broken down these identities, the better to organise the resulting atomised human material into configurations of its own liking, and now everybody is miserable. Therefore, Catholicism. (As far as I know Power hasn’t actually turned to the Mother Church, but she evidently likes its paternalism, natural law metaphysics, and implacable hostility towards wilful gender deviance).
I want to steelman, briefly, the proposition that there are men and women. Suppose that, instead of seeing this as setting out an ontological precept - these and only these are the distinct types of human beings that there are in the world - we see it as marking the fact that there are not only men, or not only women, and that we live alongside (and sometimes in intimacy with) others who are other to ourselves at the level of their sexed being. It seems to me that this fact, of a proximal sexual otherness through which our own identity is inexorably reciprocally constituted, pertains to same-sex desire and coexistence as much as it does to heterosexuality. It is the enabling condition of erotic love, no matter between whom. Leaving aside the ontological status of sexual difference, we can see that it is “real” in a different sense than “structurally foundational in the order of things”: it is “real” in the sense that it is a pressing situational exigency, something with which we always have to reckon.
The question then is, how does the present order of things (capitalist, neoliberal, atomised, mediatised etc society) dispose of this reality, the reality of proximal sexual otherness? One can find Badiou, in his Éloge d’Amour, complaining that dating apps seek to reduce the chance of the sexual encounter to a managed alignment of predicates: you like old movies and light S&M, I am a Gemini who is fond of animals, the algorithm grinds and whirrs and quantifies our mutual fate. Perhaps (and this has been a signal theme of Power’s over the past few years) we should renew our vows with proximity, face each other in our otherness and mystery, learn to get comfortable with, or to deal more courageously with the discomfort of, our divergent worldviews and misaligned incentives.
All of this would seem a lot more credible if it were not yoked to a reactionary obscurantism which continually peers into the swirling mists of esoteric confabulation in search of solid foundations. Power calls on the poets of masculinism to bear witness to a virtù that can carry the existential burden of coexistence with women, and predictably gets a bunch of male fantasies about resilience, integrity, firm-yet-gentle authority reining in the emotional chaos of frail-hearted females: everything you get when you psychologically split your actual daddy into good and bad parts and glue together a private fetish out of the good ones. It is, to be brutal about it, utter cringe. But such is our cultural moment: if Jordan B. Peterson can build a career posing as a proxy patriarch, then perhaps Power can find a niche offering up the remnants of her intellectual training in supplication.
I do not want what Power is hawking here, and I do not want to be told that it is what I am supposed to want. I see the book as a squandered opportunity (and a waste of a good title). I don’t assent to the proposition that “masculinity is in crisis” (which tends to underwrite an agenda of moral repair, exhorting conformance to “role models” for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice), but it is evident that “masculinity” is one of the more volatile discourses in play in the omnicrisis we are undergoing, and masculinism (whether covertly or overtly fascist) is doing great numbers as a fantasy solution to seemingly intractable social ills. At the back of all of this are unaddressed social needs, wants, things that are compulsory for people’s well-being: material security, purposeful endeavour, some modicum of control over the conditions of their lives. Such needs will not be met by a moral project which addresses itself only to the spiritual condition of those supposedly languishing in anomie, and whose underlying motive is the aggrandisement of would-be gurus.