Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Testosterone, Castration, the American Political Right: A Consideration of the Narrative

When I expressed my impatience recently with theories that ground male misbehavior in nature (specifically, in testosterone), Colleen Baker responded with the following illuminating anecdote:

When I was in grad school I did a research paper in which I asked only one question: "What is the worst thing you can possibly imagine happening to you?" It was a face to face interview situation and we asked people to give us the first thing that popped in their heads. About 80% of women said death of themselves or a loved one. 73% of men mentioned some form of genital mutilation. We were shocked with the male responses....to say the least. 
Both answers are species survival oriented, but it is amazing to think almost 3/4 of men value their genitals as much as 80% of women value strong love relationships.

In her Salon piece to which I just linked in my previous posting, Heather Digby Parton notes the all-pervasive fear of the American hard right that it's now being emasculated, specifically, as more and more Americans support the human rights of LGBTI people. She cites a deliciously over-the-top Townhall screed this past weekend — the same weekend that the right-wing shootings occurred in Cumming, Georgia, and Las Vegas, though the article has no mention of those — whose title screams, "Armed and Dangerous: The Terrorism of the LGBT Radicals."

The article states,

Make no mistake about the LGBT intentions. No longer content to 'fit in' or simply be 'accepted' by others for living an odd lifestyle, today they are out to castrate the minds and hearts of others into supporting their deviant faith – or crush those who might oppose their ranting into oblivion.

Gay folks want to castrate their opponents. As Digby notes, isn't it telling that the right wants to go there as support for the human rights of gay folks advances in the U.S. — as if the definition of masculinity, which in the view of the religious and political right is foundational for American self-understanding, is all bound up with the presumed "rights" of heterosexual men to lord it over women and gay men, and to punish refractory members of both groups as they get out of place and (symbolically) threaten to castrate straight men by doing so?

Leslie Savan notes this strange fixation on threatened man-bits in the American political right in an insightful piece at The Nation last month. As she notes, "Right-wing pols and militia men seem to be thinking about castration an awful lot lately," and this is happening, she proposes, for the following reason:

Right-wing pols and militia men seem to be thinking about castration an awful lot lately.Conservative white males, now a minority in a country led by a black president, are losing their demographic cojones. Maybe they’re threatening their foes with what they fear most—or maybe talking like a mohel allows them to sound violent and still be considered vaguely humorous.

The American political and religious right imagines it's in danger of being castrated. The American political and religious right responds to such imaginings with threats to castrate its imagined enemies in return. What these fixations say about the American psyche, especially in its right-wing manifestations, is revelatory.

To me, it's revelatory of the extent to which toxic sub rosa assumptions about (heterosexual) masculinity drive almost everything in American culture, to such an extent that when those assumptions are in any way challenged, a significant proportion of Americans are ready to claim that the whole world is falling to pieces around their ears. When testosterone no longer rules the roost, imagine what calamities will befall us! Why, for God's sake, the next thing we know it, we'll be seeing lady policemen and lady soldiers parading around in uniforms aping men!

Why do I keep pushing back against the meme that testosterone "explains" unacceptable male behavior, a meme on which Andrew Sullivan continues to bear down? I do so because I hear in it an appeal that men be given a kind of special pass for their bad behavior not accorded to anyone else in society, and, in particular, I hear a hidden but nonetheless strong appeal in this meme for the continued dominant role in our culture of privileged men, men from socioeconomic and educational elites, who want to convince us that they embody "good" testosterone-driven masculinity in a special way that transcends the "bad" characteristics of masculinity exhibited by lower-class men.

To say that I am unpersuaded by these claims would be to put the point mildly, indeed. Let's say that I'm as little persuaded that men deserve a special pass to misbehave because of testosterone as I'm little persuaded that women are irrational, emotional creatures prone to hysteria because they have uteruses. And hormones.

The graphic: I'm not sure where it first originated. I find it used at many blog sites online. Isn't it interesting how many photos of sperm online are bathed in that magical-mystical divine white light?

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