The OF Blog: Gender, sexuality, and reading patterns

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Gender, sexuality, and reading patterns

I've had a few things on my mind the past couple of days:

Well, as you will. I'm not sure we read the same type of books, so you may not like her [Storm Constantine], and that's a valid opinion. It seems that males tend to not like her moreso than females, probably because the Wraeththu story tends to make you open your mind about masculinity, femininity, and sexuality in general.
This reminds me of a discussion I had with another about a year ago regarding how male and female authors in general tend to depict male suffering and indignity. The friend I was discussing this with observed that in her opinion, based on what she's read by contemporary male authors, in most cases, a male character might suffer physical or even sexual abuse, but the effects on the characters' psyches is rarely explored, while with many female authors (Karin Lowachee and I believe Sarah Monette were discussed here), not only are the effects shown, but they are shown in such a direct way that seems to make many male readers "uncomfortable." Although I disagreed as to the extent of this "uncomfortableness," I couldn't think of a plausible refutation to her claims.

  • Ekaterina Sedia's article for the current issue of Clarkesworld Magazine, "Cheer Up Emo Kid: Being Depressed (or Gay) is Not All in Your Genes":

In recent years, popular science journals have been full of articles excitedly reporting "genetic markers" for depression, sexual orientation, alcoholism, IQ, and any number of other behavioral traits. The scientific journals cheerfully publish heritability statistics, which are often mistaken for estimates of genetic contributions to behavior, and used as justification to start looking for genes. And the common assumption is that there is a gene (or several) for just about everything.

Genetic explanations are a double-edged sword — on one hand, they remove the stigma sometimes attributed to a choice of an unpopular behavior; on the other, they have been used to justify mandatory sterilizations and other violations of human rights. The current fashion for uncovering genes underlying everything from alcoholism to schizophrenia is not exactly new, but quite pervasive. Without much proof, a sizeable chunk of the population is branded as "hardwired" for depression and other mental illness, and most of the population is convinced that genes affect human behavior in a straightforward way. They are wrong.

Sorry, but your depression is probably not due to your genes. It is a popular view seemingly substantiated with many news articles, but the evidence for this is a lot less impressive than what popular media would have you believe.

This article led to some interesting discussion about research fallibilities and (to an extent) about the "nature" (or is it nurture causing all this?) of being gay. While the discussion on homosexuality interests me only because of the friends and acquaintances of mine that are gay, the depression bit is what I really paid close attention to, since I have suffered periodically from it, mostly as a reaction to sustained and often-intense workplace stress or as a reaction to certain medications that I was taking for unrelated matters.

In a sense, this last link is a fusion of certain strands implied within the first two. Despite it being around 160 years since the Seneca Falls convention and almost a century since women gained the right to vote in most "Western" democracies, the attitudes displayed in the linked thread (just one of a multitude; pick a forum and ultimately you'll find something related to it) are quite...I don't know how to say it concisely, so I'll just leave it hanging here.

While I don't believe that the adage of people fear what they least understand holds true in every situation, I would have to say that it does apply here. Most of those who express a "distrust" of female authors admit to reading a very few (if any). And of those very few, it appears that most write in a style that is closest to the forum's predominant emphasis: epic fantasy. The fact that almost 300 comments have been made over the course of a year on that topic indicates something more than just a vocal minority (majority? plurality?) speaking their piece. If I had to postulate reasons for such concerns, I would refer back to the first link and the poster's observation that many males tend to be "uncomfortable" with certain themes that subvert or invert the "natural" order (i.e. male "superiority" over suffering and passion).

But it runs much deeper than this. I think there's so much uncertainty about gender roles and expectations that people are willing to grab at this or that label (Sedia's article can be read as a critique of those who grabbed at a "lifeline" in regards to sexuality or depression issues, although there's much more to it than that). In uncertain times, people often fall back upon "tradition." Being "manly," or strong and rough and tough - those are some attitudes that can be found in certain commercials, talk shows, lead ups to wars, "man programs,"...and fiction, including some SF and epic fantasies. Things that run counter to this are often shunned or feared out of hand. "Distrust" is a revealing term in that one forum post. Distrust of what? Of being exposed to other interpretations of the world and of how the genders deal with matters of love, hate, joy, pain, sorrow, happiness, sadness, boredom, and desire?

Guess the work begun at Seneca Falls (Stonewall, etc.) is far from complete. I wonder what the next generation of spec fic readers will worry about.


Jonathan M said...

I find it interesting that the word "trust" comes up at all. It wouldn't occur to me to think about whether or not I trust various authors.

Lsrry said...

I trust authors as much as I know them personally. Texts I trust as much as I would a politician's promises.

Liviu said...

I think that the issue regarding that post about female authors is actually: is an opinion like that debatable in polite settings or is it just another fringe-loser kind type of opinion as you can find on any political blog

Personally I am of the second persuasion and I would not waste my time with debating it - refuting morons is almost as bad as agreeing with them since it allows them to feel they are taken seriously.

If people do not want to read female authors, that's their prerogative and if they shout generalities about that, I feel I am entitled to label them in a general way as morons, trolls or whatever and ignore them...

Lsrry said...


I'm much of the same opinion, which is why I think I posted once in there months ago about a tangential point and left the "fringe" elements to fret about their own blissful ignorance in peace. But since my paying job is being a teacher, it's very difficult to resist the temptation of educating them...

Elena said...

I actually read through that whole forum the first time you posted it (well, in the last couple months first time, I mean), and it seemed to me to be split between those we can term "morons" who just had a kneejerk sexist answer, and those who felt that, in general, the things men and women read for and therefore the things they write for are a bit different. Obviously that's not true in all cases (and this goes both ways, for women who read male writers with no problem and for men who read women writers with no problem), but it's a point that's been nagging me ever since. And I really can't decide if it is ignorance or fear of the unknown, or merely a preference for a different type of thought pattern that causes a gender split along reading lines. So I'm always interested in hearing other seemingly reasonable people's thoughts on it.

Oh, and what troubles the next generation: transhumanism.

Liviu said...

Personally I never paid any attention to the gender - or race/sexual orientation for that matter - of a writer. Sure sometimes it comes through a book, but so what...

It is possible that I read more male authors overall because sf and especially military/space opera sf is still mostly male, with lots of notable exceptions though - for example Lois Bujold who is in my top 3 authors, but in fantasy I absolutely love S. Swainston and S. Monette, they always make my top 10 books of the year. And there are many more female sff authors that I read and enjoy, listing them would make tedious reading though, but I want to emphasize that those 3 are in my top, top tier of sff writers, that I buy and read on publication anything they put out

Outside of the sff genre, I think my reading pattern is closer to 50/50, since I read mostly historical fiction and there I do not think the gender of the authors tilts notably in any way...

So coming back to gender lines, honestly I cannot say I see such a split in my reading patterns outside of the sf part mentioned above - but that is changing too since more and more women are writing military sf, adventure sf, alt-history sf - after all Linda Evans is cowriting the Hell series with David Weber and it's as good as any Weber - he is still co-#1 living writer for me with P. Hamilton, Virginia De Marce is cowriting some 163* with Eric Flint and it's as good as any in that series...

I am sure that sooner rather than later the gender tilt will dissapear in sf too

Lsrry said...


Transhumanism may be a concern then, but I'm cynical enough to bet it'll deal with power inequities among the social classes, exacerbated by what I fear might be a growing resource scarcity.


I think I'm a bit more sensitive to such divisions because of working most of my adult life in "feminine" jobs (mental health care, teaching). That probably colors things to a degree.

As for the gender tilt in the various genres, I believe it's only in certain types of SF and non-fiction where male authors outnumber female authors (trying to remember what link I read recently where 70% of readers now are women, as that is applicable here as well). I wonder if the gender tilt might become more of a reading/non-reading split in the next few decades.

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