A Working Hypothesis of Human Sexuality image

A Working Hypothesis of Human Sexuality

As in households across the UK, the women in my life were hooked on the Poldark TV series. This was down to the storytelling and scenery, though the physical attractiveness of Aidan Turner certainly didn’t put them off watching; frankly, I fail to see what all the fuss was about.

The hysteria generated by Turner’s ‘pecs appeal’ highlighted the enduring allure of a stereotyped hyper-masculinity to many women. The ripped abs of Turner’s Poldark are definitely at the far end of the normal distribution curve, and no more standard issue for a man than Gisele Bundchen’s legs are for the typical woman. Poldark stands in a continuum with representations of idealised masculinity such as Michaelangelo’s David; and that this kind of physical appearance should get as much attention as it does is interesting in a culture where there is also an increased acceptance of gender-blurring.

Having posted recently about the challenges of the transgender agenda I had my ears open to responses to the news that Bruce Jenner is ‘transitioning’ – not least to the fact that there were no dissenting voices or even questioning of Jenner’s decision on a discussion I caught on middle-class, middle-England Radio 4. Culturally, transgender activists have already won their case; even though I can’t see it being any more compassionate to carry out gender reassignment surgery than it would be to fit an anorexic with a gastric band.

So, weak knees aplenty at Poldark’s physique yet not a murmur of disapproval about a former Olympic athlete having a sex change. Strange times. What we are witnessing is a confused and confusing approach to sexuality in which the sexes are regarded with increasing fluidity even as the physical distinctiveness of the sexes are especially prized.

The current prevalence of beards is another manifestation of the appeal of the masculine. Of course, this hirsuteness is simply a fashion trend, that will pass as do all fashion trends, but it is notable that famously bearded periods of our history have often coincided with a rise in female power; one thinks of the Elizabethan and Victorian eras, for instance. By contrast, those eras in which women have been allowed little or no public role or authority have often been closely shaved: Imperial Rome being a case in point. It might be almost impossible to prove empirically, but I think a case could at least be made that a more feminised culture encourages beard growth, as men seek out ways of displaying their masculinity by means other than the normal manifestations of male power.

Indeed, it could be argued that for all our sexual equality, the physical distinctions between the sexes are more pronounced now than has often been the case in far less equal societies. Not many men achieve quite the results of Aidan Turner, but there are far more men around who have spent a lot more time in the gym than used to be the case. This might just be a reaction to the much less physically demanding lives most of us lead than did previous generations, and a need to stress the body in a way that working at a desk does not allow. Only we also seem to be in an era of hyper-feminisation in terms of the attention paid by women to their clothes, hair and nails. (Not to mention the growth in cosmetic surgery.) Go to many parts of the developing world and even though the power structures between men and women might be much more ‘traditional’ than how we do life in the west today, the external physical distinctions between the sexes are often fewer than is the case in our more cosmopolitan towns and cities. Our ‘liberation’ from the tyranny of manual labour has enabled visible sexual distinctions to be expressed like never before.

An alternative observation could be made from the ubiquity of tattoos. Once the preserve of only the hyper-male (sailors, gangsters, bikers) every male under the age of thirty now seems to bear a tattoo – but so do almost as many women. In this case the hyper-masculine has been appropriated by members of both sexes, and rendered sexually neutral.

Tat-ology aside, I’m beginning to form a working hypothesis about human sexuality: That it is like squeezing air in in an air-bed: push it out of one area, and it pops up in another. Being distinguished as male and female is so real, and so fundamental to us, that it always manifests itself by some means. Suppress or blur it here, and it becomes all the more evident there. The inevitably of this is perhaps most obvious in those sections of the gay community where Poldarkian-type physiques are especially prized: a denial of ‘normal’ masculinity in one area demands a corresponding expression of it in another area.

This working hypothesis also squares with my caution about use of the term ‘gender’. Gender has captured the debate, and makes everything slippery and contingent. Its use means we can make innocuous sounding statements like, ‘the Bible doesn’t really tell us much about how a given gender is meant to function’, which are suddenly clarified when we use Genesis 1 language instead: replace ‘gender’ with ‘male and female’ and the ground suddenly becomes much more solid.

We are male and female, and we shouldn’t allow the subjective to assume ascendancy over the objective. Our sexuality will always express itself, even in an age when many would seek to bury it. And that is no surprise: it is how we were made.

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