What Statistics Says about Your Desire

November 21, 2009

–or– What Gets Lost in Translating Statistical Analysis of Research into the Common Parlance

http://www.fas.harvard.edu/home/news-and-notices/news/press-releases/faces-10302009.shtml

“’Our work showed that gay men found highly masculine male faces to be significantly more attractive than feminine male faces. Also, the types of male faces that gay men found attractive generally did not mirror the types of faces that straight women found attractive on average,’ says Glassenberg. ‘Men, gay or straight, prefer high sexual dimorphism in the faces of the sex that they are attracted to. Gay men and straight men did not agree on the types of male faces they considered attractive.’”

Hmmm. ALL men? No exceptions? Now, with straight women, we get a little nuance: “on average.” But all members of the category “men” have exactly this preference: strong sexual dimorphism, i.e. no gender-bending, natural or intentional. And all you pretty boys and drag queens are just SOL, along with butchy women and jocks. And I’m terribly surprised that gay and straight men don’t agree on which men are attractive — doubtless, gay men who’ve been attracted to straight men, who weren’t interested in them, could tell us a great deal more about this phenomenon.

Right.

And what exactly can I say to this?

“The study is the first to examine the facial feature preferences of gay men and lesbian women. Women’s preferences are more complex than men’s, as indicated by prior research demonstrating that ovulation, contraceptive use, self-perceived attractiveness, and sex drive all affect face preference. In this particular study, straight women preferred more masculine-faced men than lesbian women, while lesbians preferred slightly more masculine female faces than straight women or men.”

Well, first: Aren’t most lesbians women?

Second: DUH?

Third: what an array of (apparently) biological (ovulation, sex drive) and cultural (contraceptives, self-perceived attractiveness) factors that affect women’s preferences. Astounding! Amazing! And so few! Could there be other factors? What kind of preference for men, with more or less masculine faces, do these lesbian (women) have? Is it comparable to THE preference of lesbian men? Is it at all comparable to the “preference” for men a straight woman or a gay man might have? I’d be interested in hearing more about straight women’s preferences for lesbian women, though (unless it was just murky syntax in that sentence). And whose ovulation counts? or, for that matter, whose contraceptive use?

I don’t know about other lesbians (women or not), but I don’t find that my “preferences” for more or less masculine faces of women is all that generalizable. Depends on what I’m preferring someone FOR, to be honest, and when and where and under what circumstances. Well, depends on the face. So I don’t actually see myself in the blanket assertion for my category of persons.

I’m suspecting, somehow, that there were, once upon a time, numbers associated with responses to the questions the researchers asked themselves, and perhaps their subjects. And there was a spread of results, that rather finely nuanced their subjects’ responses.  I suppose, maybe, they could have just rounded up a bunch of people who were all alike. We don’t, after all, get any idea of what kind of research these folks did, what questions they asked, how they got answers. It all seems kinda muddled to me: the attractiveness of men to straight men and lesbians, as if attractiveness of a person to whom you’re not (by definition) “attracted” (i.e. isn’t your object choice) is the somehow the same thing as that of someone who is (or could be) your object choice.

Somehow you’d expect better of Harvard.

My take: yet another report of research that reinforces gender stereotypes and received wisdom, that adds very little nuance to our understanding of the diverse realities of human desire, attraction, behavior. Perhaps it should have been titled “Best Practices for Gay Men and Straight Women in Preferring Men.” Or maybe “Best Practices to Eradicate Gender-Bending.”

Why do I feel like we’re heading back into the 50s, with its knee-jerk insistence on marking gender/sex difference as strongly as possible, even among queers. (A historical phenomenon that, I have to note, also complicates the research reported here — or at least this report of the research.)

But, then again, statistical analysis generally lies about the particular (or at best says nothing), and is generally used to aggregate particulars into categories (sometimes called “trends”), and individuals into cohorts (the equivalent of “herd” for humans). If you want to know about the particular, it’s not much use. And the “trend” — what’s true “on average,” “in the main,” “generally” — is perhaps useful to marketers, enforcers of the norm and conformists, and academic psychologists, but how useful is it to you and me, when in fact we more often than not don’t quite fit the norm. I’m not ready to become a lemming, myself.

It’s the margins that are interesting, in ever so many ways, not the self-congratulatory and self-reinforcing conformity of the center of that bell-shaped curve.

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2 Responses to “What Statistics Says about Your Desire”

  1. Gailie said

    Excellent points, Linde bird!!

    This reminds me of a “study” I read that claimed there is *no* such thing as bisexuality in men. Right…so, what are the researchers going to say to the bisexual men? “I’m sorry sir, but you cannot exist.”?

    You wish they’d put this research money into something like, um….well, almost anything else.

  2. Tyger said

    As an ovulating lesbian man trapped in the body of a gay man who uses contraceptives, I must confess to being attracted to the sometimes masculine, sometimes feminine looking face I see when I look into the mirror. When I look at the faces of other men and women out in public (or in private), I am most attracted to the faces of those who do not run screaming when they see me.

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