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06 August 2012 @ 09:25 am
A plea for new language  
Herein, a plea:

Many years ago, the term "lesbian sheep" was coined to describe the difficulties of dating in the lesbian community in a world where women are socialized to be the passive recipients of romantic overtures:
"It's very difficult to look at the possibility of lesbiansheep," Perkins explained, "because if you are a female sheep,what you do to solicit sex is stand still. You don't mount. So,it's very rare that a female sheep would mount another femalesheep."
"Maybe there is a female sheep out there really wantinganother female," Perkins speculated, "but there's just no way forus to know it."

Okay, so that's a handy story-shorthand for a real challenge. Fine.

But I sometimes hear men describe themselves as lesbian sheep, and I beg you to stop. What you are, if you are a man who has a hard time making your interest known to a woman, is shy. Which, by the way, is a totally fine way to be and experience to have. I, too, have felt shy about making a move, and I can totally relate.

But the underlying logic to the lesbian sheep metaphor relates to gender socialization of passivity, not simply the experience of being shy. When I hear men describe themselves as "lesbian sheep", I hear them glossing over the larger context and dismissing the importance of gender in pre-mating rituals. It feels to me like appropriation that dismisses women's -- and especially lesbians' -- experiences in favor of a jokey way of saying you're shy.

Let me be clear: If you're a man who's described yourself as a lesbian sheep in my presence, I still like you! I don't think you're a bad person, and I'm pretty confident that the men in my community would never intentionally be dismissive of women's or lesbians' experiences or context. I wouldn't bother writing this post if I thought the issue was that you guys are jerks. I'm writing this because I think you are awesome people who, like all of us, are always learning and growing.

Yours in loving honesty,
aroraborealis

PS - Men, please also stop describing yourselves as "a lesbian in a man's body". The term you are looking for is "heterosexual man". Kisses! -ab
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Renata Piper: blue gownlyonesse on August 6th, 2012 01:29 pm (UTC)
i'm with ya (as someone who read the sheep research in the 80's...)

lesbians in men's bodies are not politely referred to as men at all, least of all by themselves. they're transwomen who happen to be queer.
funner'n a sack a weaselsmoominmolly on August 6th, 2012 01:50 pm (UTC)
Good point re transwomen. But I have certainly also heard this phrase used by men who identify as men, but who are trying to express a flavor of desire not traditionally attributed to straight men in our culture: say a desire-to-be-desired, or to be appreciated as beautiful, or seen as a peer, or to be submissive. (relatedly: an interesting article dilletante recently pointed me at.)

There are a lot of kinds of male sexuality that aren't part of the standard script, and I get that people want to express them. And I also get the desire to reach for the female experience as a shorthand. It's just... lazy, and dismissive of the actual experience of actual women, including transwomen.

Edited at 2012-08-06 01:51 pm (UTC)
(Deleted comment)
funner'n a sack a weaselsmoominmolly on August 6th, 2012 05:35 pm (UTC)
I also use words like "beautiful" or "gorgeous" to describe men! I feel like that's awesome. I just have trouble with words like "lesbian" that specifically refer to femaleness.
(Deleted comment)
cheveux sable with earworm rampant: pride challahlcohen on August 6th, 2012 03:50 pm (UTC)
i have most often heard "lesbian trapped in a man's body" used by men who wish to express that they are enthusiastic about going down on women. i have no idea if this experience is widespread or if i am just lucky that way.
That Chick with the Evil Laughsparkymonster on August 6th, 2012 08:37 pm (UTC)
I've heard lesbian trapped in a man's body from guys who want to let me know how awesomely sensitive and feminist they are. It usually goes down hill rapidly. As in a straight guy letting me know he's really a lesbian because he doesn't like hockey or checking out cute girls in sundresses.
wild, predictable abandon: me_laughing_bwcontessagrrl on August 6th, 2012 09:55 pm (UTC)
this.

the situations in which I have had men explain to me they are a lesbian in a woman's body:

* men who want me to understand they Really Like Pussy and are Really Good at Oral Sex on CIS-Women. as if that is what lesbian means. in my experience, not inherently true!

* men who want me to know they are Sensitive and Feminist and Not Like Other Guys. to be fair, the first person I recall using this meaning WAS feminist-aligned and pretty awesome. but again, being a lesbian != being sensitive and/or a feminist.

* (similarly, and like you say) men who want me to know they are Not Into Men Things. as if it's some shorthand for "I don't like sports, and I love romantic comedies" which - good for you! those can be wonderful things to like. as are sports. as are action adventure films! none of them defines "lesbian".
Randy Smithrandysmith on August 6th, 2012 01:33 pm (UTC)
Huh. I certainly grant you that gender socialization of passivity as being a real issue, and one that there's harm in papering over or dismissing. But I had never heard that the lesbian sheep metaphor had been coined to refer to that pattern; I thought it was just an amusing discussion of the difficulty of studying non-hertosexual sexuality in sheep, and hence available for adoption by whatever parallel situation wanted it. Do you have referents for the intended application of that phrase being specifically around (human) lesbian communication dating?

ruthless compassion: thinkyaroraborealis on August 6th, 2012 01:49 pm (UTC)
I don't have referents, and I probably misspoke in saying that that's what it was intended for. But I stand by my feeling that it is misapplied in the cases I described, because of the larger context and embedded gender framework of both the study encapsulated by the phrase and human relations. I don't see the origin, but that context and framework, as the most important parts of what I wrote above.
Renata Piper: brains skin horselyonesse on August 6th, 2012 02:01 pm (UTC)
the problem with adopting it any which way is that "lesbian" is already a word about women. so the term has already been humanized in that phrasing. in the sheep research, it was simply noted that no sex-seeking behavior could be observed in the hormonally-treated female sheep, but the same was true for the control group.
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ruthless compassion: martini handsaroraborealis on August 6th, 2012 01:56 pm (UTC)
"Trapped by the kyriarchy", like the rest of us?

I don't mean to suggest that women are the only people harmed by gender normativity, and as wiser people than I have observed, there are many ways in which the harm done to men is much more insidious than that done to women.

Perhaps men who feel the available terms are unsatisfying to describe their experience could find some animal study where the males of the species are the passive partners in sexual selection. I don't know offhand which those might be, but lobsters and seahorses are springing to mind inexplicably, so they may be a place to start.
bountiful-i-licious rexgatopreto on August 6th, 2012 03:20 pm (UTC)
Thank you, you express this very well and it makes a lot of sense.

I do wonder, though, about the roles of masculinity and femininity both in outgoing ways and in receptive ways regardless of biology. I think there is a cultural aspect to this and a biological aspect to this that is not yet fully understood. I honestly believe that it is more than being shy and may indicative of a strength in one area that overshadows a challenge in another area. Is there a better term than shy?

I will add that from my experience, personally and professionally, shy is one of those terms that can be hard to define. What does it really mean to be shy? For me, figuring out that it meant I was risk-averse helped a great deal for me to deal with it.
Beowabbit: Animals: three kittensbeowabbit on August 6th, 2012 04:08 pm (UTC)
This is a largely unrelated tangent, but I never got that the phrase “lesbian sheep” was about socialized gender-roles. I thought it was a descriptor for a certain kind of (lack of) behavior observed in sheep, and was about the behavior rather than the causes of that behavior (and I heard it used in contexts like that). Basically, my take is that humans can blame (in large part) the expectations and norms of the people around them, but sheep can blame (in almost exclusive part in this case) their genes, so I never picked up on the metaphor-for-socialization part.

I don’t have a userpic of a sheep, so here are some kittens.
Words of Fire on the Surface of the Worldinfinitehotel on August 6th, 2012 06:19 pm (UTC)
Mostly in agreement with you until the postscript.

If "heterosexual man" was sufficient, the alternative phrase wouldn't be necessary. (Consider the converse, women who describe themselves as gay men in women's bodies; can you reduce their sexuality to "heterosexual woman" as that term is commonly understood?) I think it's often less laziness on the part of the person self-describing than the recognition that there's very little established language outside academia and the kink community for describing that kind of desire outside the mainstream.

Regardless, there's something uncomfortably problematic about making declarations about the validity of others' self-descriptions, regardless of gender. Which makes the title plea all the more necessary I guess.



Edited at 2012-08-06 06:34 pm (UTC)
ruthless compassion: martini handsaroraborealis on August 6th, 2012 06:38 pm (UTC)
Regardless, there's something uncomfortably problematic about making declarations about the validity of others' self-descriptions, regardless of gender.

That is very true, thank you. I think if I heard it from men who are expressing it as a relating to their gender identity and expression, I think I would feel differently about it. In actuality, I almost always hear it from men who use it as shorthand for "I really like pussy". I don't know why they have the sense that lesbians are the ultimate pussy-lovers -- which may be its own problem! -- but it really feels invalidating to me about all the other elements of being a lesbian beyond the sexual orientation.
Meaghansatyrgrl on August 6th, 2012 07:35 pm (UTC)
Hmmm... you, and everyone else, have some excellent points! I don't recall ever hearing a man refer to himself as a "lesbian sheep", though I've heard men refer to themselves as having "lesbian sheep syndrome", which somehow sounds less problematic. Nevertheless, I think you're right, that the term "lesbian sheep" is about the way women are socialized, and to equate male shyness (which is worth addressing in its own right, with its own terms) with female socialization around sexual passivity does erase that central point of the phrase.

I've been trying to coin the term "gay ram" or "gay sheep" to refer affectionately to the significant number of men in my life who don't seek out homosexual sex but will totally go for it if offered (the analogy being that they can't be bothered to mount anything that isn't standing still in front of them). It isn't getting much traction....

As for the "lesbian in a man's body" thing... I've frankly always found it a little creepy when men say that. To me, it sounds like something a man might say when he is trying to convince you that he is sensitive and totally not a predator, which itself is usually a warning sign that someone is a predatory dickwad.

It just occurs to me now that part of the reason I find the phrase "lesbian in a man's body" creepy is that it generalizes female sexuality and desire, and lesbian sexuality and desire, in a way that I find problematic, and almost per se offensive when coming from someone who is not and has never been female. Clearly, men who say this are trying to point out that they don't identify with some set of tropes about masculinity and heterosexual male desire. But in doing so they reduce female, specifically lesbian, desire to an equally limited set of tropes. Fundamentally, a relatively privileged person trying to seem more like the unique and wonderful snowflake he is by stereotyping the behavior of less privileged people is just not cool... or sexy.

Sarcastic Meaghan now thinks that the proper response to "I'm a lesbian trapped in a man's body" is "Cool! You know, there's nothing like grabbing a beautiful woman by the hair and shoving my cock down her throat. I had no idea that there were men who felt the same way!"
That Chick with the Evil Laughsparkymonster on August 6th, 2012 08:39 pm (UTC)
Yes! Lesbian sheep problems are not the same as shy problems (though they can look similar). Also guys saying they are a lesbian trapped in a man's body because they like a few things that stereotypical lesbians like is really dumb and also minimizing/negating trans people
traballenguastraballenguas on August 7th, 2012 02:24 am (UTC)
Never heard that term before. But as a man in a... a body, good point!