May 10, 2005

A lot depends on how you frame it

Flash! Surprise! Gay men are attracted to the scent of other men!

While this is scarcely astonishing -- at least to gay men, who routinely report the subjective experience of such an attraction -- it's nice to have some preliminary lab results supporting the claim. But some of the reports are framed not the way I just did, but in terms of a similarity between gay men and women, thus reflecting (and also advancing) the widely held position that gay men are, psychologically and even neurologically, female.

The story made the front page of today's (5/10/05) New York Times, under the headline "For Gay Men, Different Scent of Attraction" (by Nicholas Wade), which frames things in terms of gay men's differences from men in general, that is, from straight men. Another piece of ideology about gender and sexuality: gay men fail to achieve, or reject, normative masculinity. The first paragraph slightly re-frames things, with gay men viewed not as different from men in general, but with gay and straight men merely viewed as different from one another. And then comes the comparison of gay men to women:

Using a brain imaging technique, Swedish researchers have shown that homosexual and heterosexual men respond differently to two odors that may be involved in sexual arousal, and that the gay men respond in the same way as women.

The effect is subtle, since the claims "gay men respond differently from other men", "gay men and straight men respond differently", "straight men respond differently from gay men" (whoa!), "straight men and gay men respond differently" (small whoa!), "gay men and women respond in the same way", "women and gay men respond in the same way" (another small whoa!), "women respond like gay men" (big whoa again!), and "gay men respond like women" are effectively equivalent in context. Yet the differ in which group is taken as the reference class, as expressed in the "from X" or "like X" phrase, and in which group the claim is about, as expressed by which group is mentioned first. There's no totally neutral version, but some are more neutral than others.

The world of discourse about gender is full of such subtle effects, many of them well known. My all-time favorite is Stuart Flexner's claim of 45 years ago that women use less slang than men. Aside from the problem that the claim is apparently about all people, women and men in general (how on earth would you test that?), the problem of figuring out what counts as slang, and the problem of figuring out how to quantify slang use across all occasions of speaking and writing, there are two, interrelated, framing problems: men are taken as the reference class, and the claim is about women (the claimed effect is the result of something that women do). Like I said, the effect is subtle. But likely to be more consequential because of that; every time the claim is repeated in this form, a particular gender ideology is reinforced, and no one is consciously aware of what's going on.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at May 10, 2005 01:36 PM