People like simple answers to complicated questions. We want everything to be easy to understand, to be black and white. Most people don’t feel comfortable with complexity or shades of grey. We’re hard-wired to think in this way. Being able to draw simple conclusions about complex situations helped our ancestors to survive. As in, when you hear a rustling sound coming from the grass behind you, it’s not a good idea to stand around calculating the probability of it being a predator.
The problem is that people are complicated creatures. We are the product of billions of years of evolution, an extremely complex process (even though the mechanisms of the process itself are simple) with complex results, and each of us has been moulded by a unique series of life events.
When we deal with other people, we instinctively try to place them in an easy-to-understand box: friend or foe, safe or dangerous, familiar or other. We use heuristics to assign simplified good / bad motives to the behaviour of people we don’t know or understand.
Consider the question of homosexuality. Why are some people gay? Is it nature or nurture, or both? Many hours and much funding have been spent trying to answer this question, only to reveal that there are no simple answers. There is some evidence for a biological explanation, but this explanation itself would seem to be extremely complicated, and it does seem clear now that there is no single “gay gene”.
Of course people find this frustrating. Gay rights advocates have embraced the idea that LGBT individuals were “born this way”, that a person’s sexual preference is predetermined by nature. This is understandable, since if sexual preference is as immutable as skin colour, the fight for gay rights can benefit from victories previously won by the struggle for race equality.
The opposing camp has naturally latched on to the “nature” explanation, since if homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, gay people can choose to become straight in order to enjoy the rights the rest of society take for granted. I feel that this idea is particularly ugly, having spawned such horrors as gay-to-straight rehabilitation programmes.
And yet some people do seem to be able to choose. Many people identify as bisexual, and many others seem to experience a change in preference quite late in life. In reality sexuality seems fluid and the spectrum of sexual preferences vastly more complex than most people are willing to admit. Even within the LGBT community people struggle with this. Many people who identify as gay or lesbian look down on bisexuals, asexuals and pansexuals, labelling them as confused or “in denial”. Others are disgusted by transgendered individuals.
Feminism is another area where the oversimplification of complex issues causes conflict. Last night I attended a roller derby game. Roller derby, as showcased by the movie Whip It, involves teams of scantily dressed young women racing round a track on roller skates while viciously elbowing their competitors out of the way, resulting in quite spectacular falls and audience-pleasing views of sexy undergarments.
My girlfriend asked me how I felt about this sport as a feminist. The answer is complicated. On the surface, this sport may seem to be little more than an excuse to watch girls in sexy lingerie fuck each other up, akin to a mix between mud wrestling and lingerie football. The girls are dressed to excite and the audience is not just there to admire their athletic prowess.
It is clear to me that there is a lot about this for a feminist to disapprove of. But looking closer, I see another side to it. This is one of the few sports which is organised and played almost entirely by women. Despite appearances it is in fact a serious sport, and is under consideration for inclusion in the 2020 Olympics. The women who take part in it appear to be strong, independent and sex positive. Watching the game last night, it seemed to me that these were serious athletes who enjoy being in the spotlight and revel in their sexuality.
I am not alone in having mixed feeling about this. A search of the blogosphere reveals that the issue has been thoroughly debated. After some internal deliberation, I feel that ultimately these are “girls doing it for themselves” (clichés are clichés for a reason, after all). They are not powerless victims of exploitation, but are grown women having fun according to their own set of rules. Let’s celebrate them as part of the wonderful, complex variety of femaleness that has been made possible by feminism.
The final topic I want to touch on is far less fun. This reddit thread, where rapists openly talk about their rapes, makes it clear that rape comes in many different shapes and forms. It is precisely because of this that there have been so many efforts to define rape. It becomes particularly complicated when alcohol is involved, as it often is. Two different women might have exactly the same experience, and one will feel that she has been raped, while the other doesn’t. A woman might feel she has been raped by a man who thinks they shared a fun sexual encounter.
The horrible reality is that many rapists hide behind this ambiguity and often get away with what is clearly rape. Black and white simplifications like “no means no”, or “only yes means yes”, are an attempt to prevent this, but it’s clear that this has not been very successful. And reading through the thread and some of the many comments on it, I wonder whether these attempts at simplification don’t tend to stifle honest and possibly productive discussion of the issue.
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer here, much as I wish there were.