Discover more from the pillow book
the uses of homosocial shame?
In 2018 I took this writing class with Joyce Carol Oates at Berkeley; she taught there one spring semester every year. We were lucky to have her from Princeton, this imposing doyenne of American letters who wore running shoes every week and sat compactly in a hard wooden combination chair-desk like the rest of us. Class was 3 hours long in a basement classroom with no windows. I workshopped two short stories in that class: one was published later. The worse of the two was a heavy-handed story about race and dating a white person. It covered well-trodden territory — the protagonist feeling othered — and I remember little other than the first line: I count people when I walk into a room. How many of a race, how many of a gender.
My protagonist counted because I do. OK, maybe I couldn’t give you the straight-up census for every space I occupy, but I’m clocking a moment, the look-around-and-assess split second after I walk in the door. I wonder if this gets folded into what people mean sometimes when they say vibe check. For mine: Feminist Philosophy class? Pretty good. Campsite in rural California? Terrible. (My vibe check is a complex algorithm. It takes in a lot of inputs besides race and gender, like the number of visible “State of Jefferson” separatist bumper stickers.) I guess it’s collecting a bunch of rough heuristics trying to answer a question, like Will I be OK here?
The sociologist Thomas Lyttelton came to address a department workshop today about his research (paper here) on gender and sociability at the workplace. He described workplace sociability as both a site and a driver of inequalities: exclusionary homosocial (all or mostly men with other men) interactions are linked to gender inequality at work. They are also more prevalent in male-dominated workplaces; think of business deals over the golf links or in Conference Room G (what some Yelp employees’ called the SF strip club that served as a frequent meeting venue until scandal hit). Women are not less sociable than men generally — they interact with friends more — so Lyttelton argues that homosocial (male) workplace interactions reflect workplace and organizational problems.
During his talk I kept wondering if the guys on the golf course ever look around and think, Huh! Everyone here is a dude, I wonder why that is.
I think that rich men who spend a lot of time hanging out with other rich men should feel bad about this and not do it. Thinking of pledging a fraternity? Feel bad! Don’t do it! Thinking of speaking on a manel (all-male panel at a conference)? Feel bad! Don’t do it!
There are a lot of sociologists who collect empirical evidence on how people’s leisure and socializing choices can reflect and reproduce inequality, mostly organizational sociologists working on hiring and workplace data (e.g., “Hiring as cultural matching”). You can look at this data and take the position that these practices of male homosocial gathering keep women out of certain fields and off corporate boards, so it’s objectionable. Some would say, That’s a neoliberal girlboss-y concern, I don’t care if men or women or nonbinary people are on the board of the company that fracks in my backyard and pollutes the groundwater. I get that very much but I think the attention to homosocial interaction as a mechanism of exclusion is important, not just for the more venal concern of winning the rat race and getting a promotion at your silly Big Three consulting firm; exclusionary homosocial interaction isn’t limited to the workplace at all. There are so many ways leisure is segregated (I’ve previously kvetched about the gym), and education too.
In college when a party had a very male ratio someone would call it a sausage fest, derisively. “Homosocial shame” may not be the right phrase for a certain quality — looking around and noticing, Oh, shit, this is kind of a sausage fest — in part because it’s not just about gender. But I think that some kind of reflexivity that takes the demographics of how you’re socializing into account is necessary to break up some of the most tenacious of monopolies on opportunity: the ones we make with our friends, weak ties, and people we just happen to like because they also play the resource-intensive sport we do. We form these bonds under the illusion that it doesn’t really matter, because we just get along, we’re just hanging out, he seems like someone you’d want to get a beer with, [that other person] didn’t want to come, it’s just fun.
It’s just fun! There’s this weird carve-out that some people have: that if you’re doing an activity for fun, or associating with people for fun, it doesn’t really matter, it can’t be sexist/racist/whatever else in a big serious political way. Maybe I’m really critiquing the distinction between the private and public spheres and Carole Pateman/legions of feminist writers have done this better before but hear me out. The philosopher Manon Garcia said on a panel about consent a few days ago (very paraphrased): just because you’re having sex with someone doesn’t mean you can subsequently be impolite to them, there’s still a minimally sufficient standard of politeness! You wouldn’t choke, slap, or spit on a stranger on the street without asking them first, so why the fuck have a third of British women experienced unwanted choking, slapping, or spitting during sex? In her frustration with how politeness (respect for dignity?) can get jettisoned when it really should not be I also heard an apt critique of individuals acting as though there’s a different standard for moral behavior when the purpose of your interaction with someone is pleasure rather than, IDK, productivity. I think we should probably interrogate the things we do for the purposes of pleasure and not only when those things are intertwined with the things we do for productivity (in the case of work sociability).
It’s easy to justify using the workplace as a site to study exclusion because it’s so clear that exclusion has material impacts — you can see and measure women getting promoted less and making less money over time — but harder sometimes to say the gender dynamics of people’s really free time matters. I wager it does. And I say that not just because of the visible harms of the ol’ boys’ clubs, of people spending time with people who are granted dominance in the same ways as them — the consolidation of power and money and prejudice it often entails — but because of what we could have if this all was different.
What if we saw play itself not as some space where our worst selves are allowed to roam free, a place for maintaining the distinctions and powers stamped on us from outside, but as a place for experimenting with utopia? That’s the great thing about fantasy and science fiction and kids molding Gaudí palaces inside sandpits: you can make something new and weird and magical, make better rules than the ones handed down by grown-ups, men, or mortals.
What you think utopian play should look like will change depending on the telos for society you have in mind. I personally want a society where socialization doesn’t happen along gender lines. Meanwhile right-wing figures in the U.S. have focused a lot on sports as a practically sacred ground for maintaining binary sex, picking on trans athletes in particular. What if we figured out better ways to do sports that don’t rely on sex segregation? What might that look like? (Korfball is one attempt.)