Thursday, September 1, 2011

American Sexual Identity Crisis

Living abroad you are bound to mix with people you never thought you would. In any big city anywhere in the world, like, for example, my former temporary home, Guangzhou, China, you will find a diverse community of expatriates, people living outside their home country, that group themselves together for no other reason than they are also not from here. You meet people in bars from countries that you would struggle to locate on a map or even spell. To cite one example, while watching the US vs. Ghana match in last summer’s World Cup, I had to endure constant abuse from a good friend of mine, also named Samuel, who is in fact from Ghana.
From associating with such an odd assortment of individuals, you sometimes notice things you never would at home. One thing I noticed almost immediately was that very few expats date other expats from their own home country or part of the world. You would think that in such a foreign environment, people would cling to things that reminded them of home, and thus, attach themselves to other Americans, for example, but it seems the opposite is the case.
Of course, I will be generalizing here to a great degree, and there are always exceptions, but in my experience in such circumstances, I have found two basic guidelines. Men from the US and Western Europe see Asian and Eastern European women as the ideal mate, while the modern woman prefers South American, African and, surprisingly to me anyway, Middle Eastern men.  Why would this be true? I would venture to say that we see qualities in these groups that we think are absent or lacking in potential mates from our own culture.
Both the delicate Asian flower and the macho Latin lover are stereotypes we are familiar with. The Asian woman is shown as beautiful, quiet, and devoted to their man. The Latin man oozes with confidence and seduces the unlikeliest targets, and “makes them feel like a woman.” They appeal to us so because they represent they represent pure femininity or masculinity. Part of the reason they seem this way to us is because they come from less evolved cultures with more clearly defined sex roles.
We in this country believe in the equality of men and women. It doesn’t seem to make sense that men would fantasize about women who would be completely dependent on them, or that women would idealize a man who would control and dominate their life. The truth is that there are some facts about human life that don’t fit with our progressive world view. While men and women are equal, THAT DOES NOT MEAN THEY ARE EXACTLY THE SAME. The Asian and Eastern European woman embodies the traditional feminine virtues; passive, soft, beautiful, receptive. The South American, African and Arabic man represents traditional masculine virtues; confidence, strength, engaging, charismatic. Ignoring these differences is to deny reality.
So, I theorize that the reason behind this glorification of the extremes in gender roles is that Americans are not really satisfied with the options they have in their own countrymen or countrywomen. Somehow we have reached a point where our men aren’t quite as manly and our women aren’t quite as womanly. Women are determined to not show weakness, and men are determined to show they are sensitive and caring. Now, I’m not saying this is right or wrong, good or bad. All I’m saying is that these are relatively new developments in man/woman relations, and a deviation from, well, pretty much, the entirety of human history.
I partially blame the media for America’s sexual frustration. Sitcoms, romantic comedies, and even commercials influence our ideas about gender and sexuality. Have you ever noticed that in 99% of commercials and family sitcoms the male characters are bumbling idiots that can’t do anything without their wives holding their hands? What about how women root for the nice guy in the romantic comedy but go for the bad boy in real life? Other examples of the media turning traditional sex roles on their heads include the obligatory hot female reporter attached to every sporting event, or TV personalities who sabotage their own gender. I’m looking at you, Dr. Phil.
What we end up with are unrealistic expectations of our partner. Women say they want a funny guy, who is sensitive, not afraid to cry, but also a rugged outdoorsman and a Mr. Fix-It around the house. Men simply want pot smoking, sports fanatic supermodels. These are unrealistic expectations. MOST outdoorsy men aren’t known for sharing their feelings. MOST beautiful women could care less about sports. MOST witty intellectuals seldom ever do more work around the house than changing a light bulb.
These expectations we have for our mates point to the real root of the problem. We look to our lover to fulfill all our unfulfilled social needs, and inevitably end up disappointed.  In a world where we are more connected to other people than ever, I would argue we are also more isolated from other people than ever. Kurt Vonnegut in God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian talks about the reason for the sky high divorce rate in our country.
"OK, now let’s have some fun. Let’s talk about sex. Let’s talk about women. Freud said he didn’t know what women wanted. I know what women want. They want a whole lot of people to talk to. What do they want to talk about? They want to talk about everything.

What do men want? They want a lot of pals, and they wish people wouldn’t get so mad at them.

Why are so many people getting divorced today? It’s because most of us don’t have extended families anymore. It used to be that when a man and a woman got married, the bride got a lot more people to talk to about everything. The groom got a lot more pals to tell dumb jokes to.

A few Americans, but very few, still have extended families. The Navahos. The Kennedys.

But most of us, if we get married nowadays, are just one more person for the other person. The groom gets one more pal, but it’s a woman. The woman gets one more person to talk to about everything, but it’s a man.

When a couple has an argument, they may think it’s about money or power or sex, or how to raise the kids, or whatever. What they’re really saying to each other, though, without realizing it, is this:
“You are not enough people!”

I met a man in Nigeria one time, an Ibo who has six hundred relatives he knew quite well. His wife had just had a baby, the best possible news in any extended family.

They were going to take it to meet all its relatives, Ibos of all ages and sizes and shapes. It would even meet other babies, cousins not much older than it was. Everybody who was big enough and steady enough was going to get to hold it, cuddle it, gurgle to it, and say how pretty it was, or handsome.

Wouldn't you have loved to be that baby?"

Many of the peoples from Africa, or Asia, or the Middle East have not lost this sense of family and community from their cultures. Parents still rely on their children to take care of them when they are old. Women congregate and talk in the kitchen, while the men bullshit, brag, and tell stupid jokes out in the fields. Things are changing everywhere, but in what we would call less advanced societies the gender roles are still closely differentiated because the people maintain some aspects of the clan, family, community way of life that got us all to this point.
Girls always want someone to constantly gossip with. Men always want someone to constantly chill out and be bros with, but your girl ain’t your bro, and your man ain’t your girlfriend. If we continue to demand the impossible from our partners, only frustration and suffering will follow. If you accept the person you care about for the person they are and fulfill your other social needs through family and friendships, your relationship will thrive. Men should be men, and women should be women, and there is nothing at all wrong with that.

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