All primates need grooming

Healthy social animals will generally “groom” each other, touching and cleaning each others’ bodies, and maintaining their appearances. Grooming helps social animals build and maintain their social bonds and structures. Grooming can exchange information relevant to future sexual partnerships, although is generally not sexual in itself.

Modern humans usually treat touch as sexual by default (sometimes with exceptions for women touching each other). Certain forms of touch are, therefore, restricted to exceptional relationships such as monogamous partnerships. On the basis of observations of social animals, it is reasonable to posit that this modern behavior is unhealthy. It is healthy for a community of primates to groom each other, to communicate about sex and appropriate sex behaviors with each other, and to touch each other even without the implication of wanting to be a reproductive or monogamous sexual partner.

The right’s new slur against queer people and especially trans people is “groomer”.  Republicans are introducing legislation across America to restrict instruction of students about sexual orientation and gender identity. This is not about “child grooming” in the narrow sense of adults soliciting sex with minors below the age of consent, which is a crime. The behavior in question that seems to be objected to is adults shaping the sexual preferences and behavior of adolescents and young adults, in this case by giving a menu of available sex roles (e.g. “cisgender”, “homosexual”) and their typical and appropriate behaviors.

Intact extended families involve “grooming” in this broad sense, sometimes for arranged marriages. The nuclear family compromises between the extended family and atomized individualism and moralistically competes with both. Some amount of adults shaping adolescents’ sexual preferences and behavior is inevitable, and even legally obligatory; statutory rape is a crime, and adults are required to not be accomplices in rape between adolescents.

As an adolescent, one gets a lot of mixed messages from adults about what sexual behaviors are appropriate. It’s easy to come by “don’t”: don’t rape people or pressure people into sex, don’t have unprotected sex, and so on. It’s much harder to come by “dos”: what does appropriate sexual behavior look like for someone like me? Presumably, just going up to people and asking “would you like to have sex?” is off limits, and is in a lot of contexts creepy and scary. You’re supposed to ask them on a date. Ok, so go up to people and ask “would you like to go on a date”? No, that doesn’t work, you strike up a conversation and ask if she has a boyfriend, and invite her to “coffee” or “dinner”. Uhh, what do you do after that? If you’ve had dinner three times in a row, does that mean you’re dating? When is it appropriate to ask the sex question, or is that supposed to be implicit somehow?

Adolescents will at this point find it hard to get more specific advice from adults. “Just be yourself!” “It’s complicated, you’ll figure it out!” One gets the point that pinning down the precise details of appropriate dating is defeating the purpose. They can get some examples of “dating” in the media, and can take classes in gender studies if they want to get really studious about it. Boys, especially, will be urged to look into “feminism” for appropriate instruction, on how not to be “entitled” or participate in “rape culture”. This advice will be confusing, requiring a large amount of interpretation and discussion of texts produced and interpreted under politically constraining conditions, and some will turn to more transgressive “pick up artist” material from men online, which advises men in how to be “dominant” and exert “frame control” (hey, isn’t that kinda rapey?), and claims to have more success with this approach.

Meanwhile, for many college students, underage drinking and frat parties are how they expect sex to happen, how they’ve heard about it happen in their social group. Sex happens as an accident; over a drunken game of truth and dare, someone dares someone to give someone else a lap dance, and people gauge each others’ reactions. Dating typically follows sexual touch (“hooking up”), rather than preceding it. Sometimes people get “groomed” by their social groups: the cooler people set up two of their friends or acquaintances with each other. The TV show “Community” depicts some of these dynamics: the cooler members of a community college Spanish study group encourage the less-cool members to pursue or not pursue certain sexual and romantic opportunities, often due to accidental political conveniences.

Supposedly, it’s different for queer people, who are dealing with a very different set of issues. It’s usually easy for “gay” boys to have a lot of sex (and strangely, to touch more boobs than straight boys in some cases???), and it requires less shame and complex social dances; “consent” is presumably easier to assess given the similar gender of the participants, so there’s no worry that one is being “patriarchal” by sexualizing another boy. Similarly, “lesbianism” is a possibility for girls, and it has feminist implications; having sex with another woman isn’t showing one’s self to be a sex object for men, it’s outside of heteronormative patriarchy.

There is somewhat more muted discussion of other categories, “transgender” people who may present as members of the opposite sex; male-to-female transgender people face “transmisogyny” and are not simply perpetuators of the patriarchy, and their sexual relationships with women (cis or trans) can be legitimately “lesbian” since they are both women under patriarchy, although there are very fierce online debates about this subject.

Oh, but that’s a medical category, right? It’s complicated. There’s this story of “born in the wrong body”, and a lot of trans people hate their bodies and want to change them, but it’s criticized by a lot of trans people, and some say they weren’t born in the wrong body, they were born in the wrong society. There’s definitely a “gender dysphoria” diagnosis, but the main symptoms are persistently wanting to be the other sex. Although some trans people know they are trans from an early age, it’s more common to find out much later, and only in retrospect see the early signs of transgenderism as definitively indicating transgender identity. At some point, you just have to ask someone whether they’re a woman or man or both or something else, and trust them, as long as they’re being consistent about it.

Transgenderism is hard to define the boundaries of, due to limited scientific understanding of the phenomenon and due to politics. Do people transition because of hormones in the womb, because of genetics, because they have a body map not matching their body, because of cultural gender associations learned from an early age, because of ongoing gender roles, or some other cause? Attempts to standardize on a purely medical notion of transgenderism have been attempted (“transsexual separatism” or “truscum”) but have been unsuccessful both scientifically and politically.

Actually going about transitioning requires undertaking a hazing ritual of epic proportions. Act “gender dysphoric” enough to the psychiatrists to get their prescriptions, present as the other sex despite having very little practice or instruction, endure intense online debates about whether one is “really transgender”, is “a man intruding on women’s spaces”, is “just a confused butch lesbian who really shouldn’t be injecting testosterone”. The arch nemisis in this intense hazing is the “TERFs”, who say that male-to-female transgender people remain men, and are necessarily participants in patriarchy and rape culture. A budding trans woman must philosophically defeat this nemesis to be secure in the knowledge that she is a woman who isn’t inherently sexually assaulting other women by hitting on them clumsily.

In cis-hetero culture, people can project the authoritarian, anti-life and anti-choice binds they find themselves under to the other gender: it’s patriarchy, it’s women preferring dominant men evolutionarily, it’s women forming a sex cartel. Queerness lessens or dissolves many of these boundaries, making it clear that consensual, pleasurable sex really is possible, with no “dominant frame control” required.

Does “grooming” exist in queer culture? Milo Yiannopolis was a gay darling of the right until it was revealed that he had consensual sex with older men as a teenager and liked it. The Platonic dialogues clearly indicate that philosophy discourse was contiguous with homosexual seduction, and “Platonic love” was re-defined to mean “non-sexual, non-romantic love” as part of a cover-up of pederasty in philosophy departments.

Exhibit A of transgender grooming, the label on a bottle of injected estradiol I ordered from a DIY hormone replacement therapy website:

an estradiol injection bottle depicting an anime girl saying "Don't look at my giant Girldick"

Is this an appropriate label for an estradiol injection bottle? Anyone with a penis considering estrogen treatments should really be spending a lot of time thinking about girl dick. It would be irresponsible to inject estradiol without spending at least several hours sexually fantasizing, reading erotic literature, and watching pornography involving girldick. The only reason why it would be inappropriate for a person with a penis considering estradiol treatments to be thinking about girldick is if they’ve already thought through the implications and find it pedestrian.

Having written that, I feel anxiety about how I might be sexualizing young people and positively shaping their sexual preferences and behavior. But I’m pretty sure I’m right about this. I stand by every sentence I wrote in the preceding paragraph.

Part of why we have the present standards of care for trans people is John Money, who tried unsuccessfully to groom David Reimer into a female sex role. When the boy David Remier was born, his circumcision was botched, and his parents, fearing he’d lack success living as a man, took him to gender psychologist John Money, who decided to surgically re-assign him as female (removing his testicles) and socialize him as a girl, since gender is socially constructed after all. This female socialization involved instructing Reimer to simulate sex with his brother. This is a rather central instance of “child grooming”, and was an attempt by adults to shape a child to sex roles appropriate to their body morphology.

The attempt was unsuccessful; Reimer was too masculine to fit in with the girls, eventually adopting a male identity and then killing himself. This case proves that “gender identity” is to some extent a real psychological property that can’t be changed with “conversion therapy”; Money went on to be quite influential in the medical classification and care for transgender people.

The Reimer case is interesting because it’s simultaneously a bogeyman of the left and the right: it’s conversion therapy, and it’s transgender grooming! As such, Money makes for an ideal scapegoat. And yet, on the hypothesis that Money was operating under, that gender is a social construct, such treatment may have been expected to be to Reimer’s benefit. If people are blank slates to be filled in with culture, culture must instruct them in sex role behavior, with creepy implications. The alternative hypothesis is that there are some sex role behaviors that are innate, that children may have a “gender identity” that is an internal sense rather than an external imprint of culture.

A theory young trans people will encounter early on is Ray Blanchard’s and Michael Bailey’s transsexual topology: every male-to-female transgender person is supposedly either an extremely gay feminine bottom, or a heterosexual man who gets off on imagining himself as a woman. This remains an influential academic theory, although there are many critics. Trans women who talk openly enough must encounter these theories and claims that they are “fetishists” who are “appropriating women’s bodies”. It’s inherently sexualizing (and “grooming”) to be subjected to such rigid classifications of one’s sexuality and gender. There was a brouhaha when a transgender activist replied by sexualizing Michael Bailey’s daughter with the same sort of text Bailey used to describe trans women (“a cock-starved exhibitionist, or a paraphiliac who just gets off on the idea of it?”), resulting in uproar. Apparently the activities of cis psychologists towards trans people are inappropriate grooming when reversed? (Needless to say, trauma doesn’t morally excuse going on to traumatize others…)

The modern sense of transsexual people is, in a sense, a pseudo-ethnicity born out of psychiatry. There has been an inordinate amount of academic thought, papers, conferences, and so on, on the proper care of this group, and appropriate behavior for this group of people, often shared peer-to-peer through media platforms like Tumblr.

Tumbr queers and queer allies try to get an A+ in their sex class by showing off how compatible their sex lives are with the values endorsed by adults around them (e.g. antiracism, feminism, queer-positivity). They can’t find adults to groom them directly, so they find the closest alternative, in academic and activist settings. This is somewhat disturbing behavior, but it’s disturbing in much the same way that Victorian sexual morality is: overly stilted, showing great adherence to social categories and observance of sexual taboos. To people who grow up without any credible religion, the feminist and queer academic studies can be the most legitimate authority regarding sexual morality.

Ideally we’d raise the next generation to be less sexually fucked up than us; simply passing on one’s traumas and subsequent medical interventions is a poor substitute for growing a functional culture that meets people’s needs. But that means setting better positive examples rather than placing incompatible restrictions on people and asking them to figure it out themselves. Expect gender dysphoria to be on the rise as gendered restrictions on sexual behavior proliferate with few escape routes.

I’ve thought for a long time that it should be accepted practice for parents to curate porn whitelists for their teenage children. The usual practice is to simply forbid pornography watching, which is an unrealistic expectation, leading to consuming arbitrarily hard-core pornography, with perhaps quite bad sexual values, in early adolescence, rather than ramping up the level of intensity over time, and guiding teenagers towards better sexual arrangements, such as ones where both partners are clearly enjoying it. (I remember as a young teenager Google image searching various words that were plausibly associated with sex, such as “wedding”, afraid that I might get caught by the Internet police if I just searched “sex”, to accidentally-on-purpose stumble upon pictures of naked women.)

There’s a lot of anxiety around this sort of thing; is in “grooming”, is it sexualizing children too much to curate porn lists for them, guiding them towards parentally approved forms of sex? But there’s not much to be said for the alternative in comparison. Curating porn lists for one’s children is clearly more tasteful than either totally blocking them or assuming they’ll watch whatever’s on the front page of PornHub. It’s often said that sex is private and should be exclusively explained to minors by parents, not school teachers. But parents are typically quite reluctant to talk about sex with their children. Sex education typically goes into much more detail than “the sex talk”.

While some instances “grooming” are obviously more healthy than others, the contrast to “grooming” as a whole (in the broad sense) isn’t an alternative normative model of sexual behavior, it’s antinormative. As they say, “all’s fair in love and war”. You can’t have romance without the Romans, and the Roman empire was founded on mass rape. Romance prototypically involves a warlike “us against the world” dynamic, implying a threat landscape, and marital rape was legal for a long time. When sex and war go together, it’s hard to know if it wasn’t rape; maybe “rape” is a confused category in the first place, and some say all hetero sex is rape. 

Despite all these antinormative social mores, complicated sexual restrictions, and confusing, contradictory advice, many queer people have managed to, through extreme contortions, go about having normative sexual relationships. “Groomers” is the cry to queers from those who envy our sexual morality. Perhaps we shouldn’t hog it to ourselves.

2 thoughts on “All primates need grooming

  1. I like the direct, candid tone through most of the piece. However, I read the second to last paragraph has having a tone shift, from direct statements with limited metaphor or postmodern obscurantism to a writing style which includes the statement “all hetero sex is rape” which is either sarcasm or an academic catchphrase “requiring a large amount of interpretation and discussion of texts produced and interpreted under politically constraining conditions”.


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