My last post was twenty days ago. I used to put them out every week, but things change.
When I started writing this blog in 2012, the year I retired from teaching at the College (NIC) I was focussed on working through my relationship with Ernest Becker’s books The Denial of Death and Escape From Evil. For me these books contained some profound truths about us humans, how we relate to life and death, how we organize our societies as competitions for God’s attention. It’s interesting that we created God as a projection of human values, a projection that we then use as a means of judging our actions to determine just how worthy we are of eternal life. We even, according to Becker and other cultural anthropologists, divided our social groups into moieties (halves) to set up the competitive structure by which we could establish winners and losers for God’s favour, which is nothing less than immortality. Countries and Nations are the logical expression of this thesis.
We also, over the millennia, elevated man (that is, not woman) to the predominant social position. It took millennia to do that, but once the idea stuck, it got so strongly entrenched that it became normal. The idea that men were somehow superior to women infiltrated all aspects of culture. Women were, for all intents and purposes, relegated to slave status, gatherers of food, and bearers of children. The perfectly natural womanly monthly experience called menstruation where menses (blood and other matter) are released from the uterus was held against women. Blood reminds men of dying. When men fall in combat or by accident, they bleed and they die. Men don’t like that. So women bleeding regularly could not be good either. It is a huge reminder of death. So, many cultures isolate menstruating women, treat them with contempt and shun them. By extension, men could pretend that they were more ‘spiritual’ than women. Women were biological, men spiritual. Men were clean, woman dirty. This could not be more clearly demonstrated than in childbirth, a very messy and bloody process, proceeded by months of lessened capacity and followed by the need to nurture infants, a relationship of dependency that created an avenue for men to assert dominance. These tropes still survive to this day, in some ways stronger than ever.
I’m still captivated by the ideas I gleaned from Becker, but after I was diagnosed first with pernicious anemia (in the 1990s) and then with multiple myeloma (in October, 2019) my focus changed, and this blog became a chronicle of my life with chronic pain and cancer. Old age, of course, plays a predominant role in my life, how I feel, and how much energy I can devote to any particular task. I don’t think anyone can understand the effects of old age on the body, energy levels and strength, until it becomes personal. I promised myself for decades that once I retired, I would do all the things I had no time to do as a working person. That was true for a time, but when I hit 70, things changed, and they continue to change. From now on I cannot expect things to improve. All I can do is adjust to my changing body with its lower levels of energy, suppleness, and strength. I think my mind is still capable of some surprises. That may be delusional on my part, but that’s fine. I guess I have the right to some minor delusions.
So, I may be afflicted with cancer and old age, but I was trained in the social sciences and they still have a strong hold on my mind. I still think that we, as men and women, need to reconcile many powerful forces that dominate our lives. One of them is misogyny, the curse that lives deep in our psyches but is not based in biology. But what of basic biology? Well, let’s explore that a bit here.
At the end of my last post I said I would discuss penises and clitorises, so here we are:
Penises and Clitorises.
Most of us have one or the other. The fact is that they are very similar in structure and function. As the long quote below maintains, at the sixth week of gestation we all have clitorises. That’s not quite right. We all have a precursor to both the clitoris and the penis. That is, penises and clitorises arise from the same tissue in the early embryo. So, the pleasure men derive from penile stimulation is the same as women derive from clitoral stimulation. Depending on the chromosomal and hormonal environment we become either female of male, or both, or neither. To say that men and women are opposite sexes is profoundly misleading. We are not, as Alice Dreger so aptly points out in her book I introduce below.
For many years I studied love and sex and taught College courses on the topic just before I retired in 2012. It’s a truism to say that the sex act is a social act so it’s clear that we are social animals right from the start. Like for most animals, our sex lives and our social lives are strikingly interconnected.
The pleasure we derive from intercourse, and especially from genital stimulation of any kind, including from masturbation, has profound social implications, but not all of us are capable of deriving pleasure from genital stimulation, the source of sexual pleasure. That follows from the fact that humans come in so many sizes and shapes. We vary in a hundred different ways including when it comes to our sexual organs.
Before the sixth week of gestation (more or less) we are sexually undifferentiated meaning that there’s no way to tell whether an embryo is male or female. After the fourteenth week and the androgens kick in we begin to display our sexual organs.
There is so much information available on this topic on the internet that I don’t even want to go there. A huge number of popular sites exist along with a large number of scientific ones. I just finished reading a (Kindle) book called Hermaphodites and the Medical Invention of Sex, by Alice Dreger (1998). The book explores the way things don’t always go as we expect in the womb. Yes, the vast majority of us either end up male or female, but that dichotomy isn’t as clear cut as it seems. A visual inspection of external sex organs may lead to the belief that a person is either male or female, but looks can be deceiving and it’s impossible to look inside the brain at the hypothalamus and the sexually dimorphic nucleus (SDN) to determine maleness or femaleness as the brain evaluates it. The quote below is from a popular website. It can give you some idea of what’s available now on the internet since Dreger published her book in 1998. It addresses a point I made earlier about our embryonic selves:
Everyone starts the same in utero.
What determines whether you’re born cis-male or cis-female are your XX or XY sex chromosomes. The XX pair is cis-female and the XY pair is cis-male. During gestation (the time between conception and birth), the genes on the sex chromosomes are expressed and the fetus becomes cis-male, cis-female, or (in some instances) intersex. These sexual differences are expressed as the penis and testes (cis-male), the vulva and vagina (cis-female), or some combination of the two structures (intersex).
However, in the first six weeks of a pregnancy, before the genes in these chromosomes are expressed, all budding fetuses actually begin as cis-female, meaning that everyone begins their development in the womb with a clitoris. (Wow, right?!) Then, one of two things happens due to “a low level of the hormone testosterone [being] released,” this structure grows into a penis, says Laurie Mintz, Ph.D. licensed psychologist, certified sex therapist and author of Becoming Cliterate. Or “when testosterone is absent, the tissues develop into a vulva (including the clitoris) and vagina.”*
[Check out this YouTube event for the experience of a transgendered man. Born a ‘girl’ he never fit in and was always a man in his mind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOmstbKVebM.%5D
So, enough for now. I still want to explore further the idea of sexual reproduction going back to early eukaryotic cells and the consequences for evolution of sexual reproduction. I also have a number of other related topics I want to explore along with continuing a chronicle of life with myeloma. Later.