British feminist VJW Smith wrote a memorable blog post about a year ago in which she recounted her complicated relationship to girlhood and womanhood—a relationship, she says, that was disrupted by the anorexia that affected her teenaged years. The disease caused her to develop more slowly than the girls around her, and as a result Smith says she felt like she was missing out on essential aspects of female life. She didn’t start her period until her twenties, for example, and she didn’t experience (or realize that she was experiencing) the normal sexual harassment that most young women report. Her sexual desires, too, were “fully repressed” to the extent that she “felt no conflict between them and the passive role” she was expected to play. Without all of these experiences, she says, she felt for a while like she never really had a girlhood. Like she wasn’t really a girl.
Gradually, Smith came out of that misperception. She says that she came to see that if female experience means anything, if there’s such a thing as “shared female experience,” it’s exclusion.
Smith primarily means the ways that women and girls are excluded from power structures in contemporary society. But she’s also referring to the common ways that girls (and women) are excluded from the ideal of girlhood (and womanhood). She writes:
It took me a long time to realise it simply wasn’t the case that some wondrous biological process, for me interrupted by illness, had allowed all the women around me to grow seamlessly into their designated roles. They, too, for a whole host of other reasons (social, physical, economic, racial, religious) had had to find different ways to situate the real experience of being a person within the false ones proposed by girlhood and womanhood. Many, if not most, of them were damaged by it.
She sums up her realization like this: “The experience that girls share is not so much that of being a girl but that of not being one.”
There’s a term for the misperception that Smith finally left behind, which I didn’t know until I read this post at the The Atlantic from Derek Thompson: it’s called pluralistic ignorance.
Pluralistic ignorance starts from the fact that none of us can really know what it’s like to be someone else. But we make assumptions about what everybody else is like anyway, about what they think and what they do, based on societal narratives. Unsurprisingly, those assumptions often turn out to be false.
Thompson points to a study showing that teenagers who don’t drink or do drugs all that much, and who don’t have much sex, assume that their peers do. Thompson writes:
To be a teenager is to be the subject of nearly universal misunderstanding. Teens appear as strangers to their own parents, as hormonal monsters on television, and as flighty naifs, with smartphones grafted to their palms, in the media. But it turns out that teens are just as hopeless at assessing themselves. A new study of high school behavior finds that young people wildly over-estimate the sex and drug life of their own classmates and even their own cliques.
Popular kids and male jocks aren’t having nearly as much sex, or doing nearly as many drugs, as other high schoolers assume, said Geoff Cohen, a co-author and professor at Stanford University. “Teenagers grossly overestimate the amount of substance abuse of [pot heads] and the sex life of jocks,” he said. “We knew there were stereotypes, but we were surprised by the level of caricature.”
And, Thompson points out, kids perceived as “popular” tend to have about the same number of friends as kids perceived as “brains.”
This strikes me as a really important understanding, and not just for the way we think about kids today. As Thompson writes, to be a teenager is to be the subject of nearly universal misunderstanding. But Smith’s piece shows that we could replace “teenager” in that sentence with “girl” or “woman.” And, since “manliness” is making its way back into the news, I think it’s worth connecting the concept of pluralistic ignorance to masculinity, too.
That’s an easy connection to make, since some of the misconceptions Thompson describes in teenagers are specifically tied to things that (at least some parts of) society considers manly, like sexual success and being the “alpha” at the center of a large social group. Recently, for example, Arthur Chu at Salon addressed the comments of MIT professor Scott Aaronson, who expressed his disenchantment with feminism through the high-school-movie trope of the dumb jock getting all the girls:
All this time, I faced constant reminders that the males who didn’t spend months reading and reflecting about feminism and their own shortcomings—even the ones who went to the opposite extreme, who engaged in what you called “good old-fashioned ass-grabbery”—actually had success that way. The same girls who I was terrified would pepper-spray me and call the police if I looked in their direction, often responded to the crudest advances of the most Neanderthal of men by accepting those advances.
The resentment in that passage comes, in part, from pluralistic ignorance. (It also comes from a mammoth sense of entitlement, which Amanda Marcotte unpacks here.)
We can see pluralistic ignorance working in religious notions of masculinity, too. Take another phenomenon recently in the news: the Ex-Gay movement.* If you read much of the movement’s literature (unfortunately, I have) you get the sense that, to steal Smith’s phrase, to be a man is to own something called manhood, a magical substance given to some in greater quantities than others. This site, for example, insists that reparative therapy is not “just about shifting your sexual attractions” but instead about achieving “congruity” between your idea of gender and your self. How? Not by junking or seriously revising your idea of gender—the site abounds with stereotypes like “men need adventure”. No, instead you’re supposed to bring yourself in line with your idea of masculinity. Do that and you can become a Whole Man. You can take a Journey into Manhood.
The idea behind that, of course, is that the problem is with you, not with society’s ideas of manhood. And that, in turn, depends on the notion that we (straight guys) have “it”—at least, that we have enough of “it” to avoid same-sex attraction. Which is bullshit.
In this document on the Center for Gender Wholeness website, reparative therapist David Matheson describes an experience he had as a high school sophomore when he saw another boy walking shirtless after gym class:
One day when I was a sophomore in high school I was walking toward the playing fields for gym class. Another young man was leaving the playing field at the same time, walking toward me. This young man was one of the athletic, cool, and intimidating guys in my school. He was wearing shoes and red gym shorts—and nothing else.
I saw him as physically perfect and absolutely confident—in my mind his physique and athleticism made him superior and more worthy than I. My view of myself was tall, gangly, uncoordinated, and unattractive— in my mind I was inferior, unworthy, and less than masculine.
According to Matheson, his homosexual urges result, in part, from the disparity between this red-shorted icon of masculinity and his own perceived shortcomings. Really, deep down, he doesn’t want that guy sexually. He wants to be that guy.
Anyone who’s ever been friends with grown-ups who were once the popular kids, or who wasone of the popular kids, knows there’s a good chance that red-shorted boy didn’t see himself the way Matheson did. Sure, maybe he was confident about his physique. That doesn’t mean he didn’t feel like a failure in algebra class, that he wasn’t terrified about disappointing his parents, that he didn’t feel stupid and inadequate talking to the smart girls in his homeroom. How much better served would Matheson have been if, instead of blaming his sexuality on his insecurities, he had recognized that insecurity is part of the normal human condition? Especially during high school? Especially about sex?
How much better off would he have been, in other words, if he had recognized, like Thompson, that what divides us is more our “grotesque misperceptions” than our actual differences? Sure, then he’d have to look for a different explanation for his sexual desires. And maybe what he’d come up with would be less amenable to a “cure”. But at least he’d be starting with a better grasp of the world as it is.