Friday 30 March 2012

Rebutting (sorry!) Edward Shorter's piece (sorry again!!) on gender roles and "Fifty Shades of Grey"

[We interrupt the regularly scheduled, shameless, and utterly unrelenting promotion of the blog author's book, The Meaning Of Children, for something completely different...and altogether serious, so far as it is possible for her to be serious, of course.]

Okay, I know I must have better things to do--and probably, so do you!!--but I must tell you I practically blew a gasket over today's Glob & Pail article by Edward Shorter, "Who's on top? You'd be surprised."

Edward Shorter (give him enough rope &...)
He starts off ostensibly considering the massive interest of women in the E.L. James’s novel of sadomasochism, Fifty Shades of Grey, "about how much women like subordinating themselves to men in bed...Who knew women had such a longing to be bottoms," he writes.

To quote Rose Castorini, Olympia Dukakis' character in Moonstruck, Dr. Shorter, "what you don't know about women is a lot."

Of course, the article has little to do with the novel; the novel is just a jumping off point for a man who comes across as one of those artful mixers of pop cult & "research," someone impressed with the sound of his own voice. Shorter is, apparement, a professor of the history of medicine and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. Among his books is Written in the Flesh: A History of Desire, which is probably the real reason he wrote this article.

A writer myself--a feminist one to boot--I recognize a promotional opportunity when I see one. And I recognize an ahistorical diatribe when it's thrust down my throat, too.

Still, one hardly expects to read sexploitation like this on the oped page of The Globe, Canada's newspaper of record, so cadaverously thin this week I fear the end must be nigh. 

Lest I be taken (dear me, one can hardly stop oneself) for one of those Real Women types, it isn't a discussion of sex or sadomasochism that has me objecting to Shorter's piece (oops). It's the way this man twists the history of feminism--probably the history of anything to do with women--that I take issue with, that offends and infuriates.
If you’ll remember, the feminist message in the ’70s was about sex and power. Sex wasn’t really supposed to be fun and joyous. It was an exercise in power relations between men and women. So the idea of bottoming* for some guy was about as appealing as gouging out an eyeball.
Feminists didn't want people to enjoy penetrative sex, is THAT what you've gleaned from your decades of probing the female psyche, Dr. Shorter**??

As a woman who came of age in the '70s, I'm distressed to say Shorter gravely misconstrues what he calls "the feminist relationship" between sex and power: it was RAPE, feminists vehemently argued, that was about power rather than sex.

What kind of sexual historian thinks of feminists as the ultimate sexual buzz kill?

Shorter sounds like the worst sort of misogynist (as if there's a good sort!!).

It is a...words fail me, but, forgive me, perversion is the only one that fits here--to posit that the feminist ideal of sex is that it be joyless.

I know there were feminists who equated heterosex with rape--there probably still are, but they aren't mainstream now, and they probably weren't then, either, though I'm sure they grabbed a lot of air time.

What Shorter posits about feminism in this article is nothing short of hateful. I suppose there's an outside chance he's trying to be funny...but hateful it is, all the same.

And when he goes on to say turns out that all these independent, high-powered women out there long for this erotic frisson of briefly, and revocably if need be, surrendering control over their own bodies. This really represents the definitive burial of ’70s-style feminism.

And that
For me, as a historian, what’s so interesting is that it’s new. These are not age-old themes in the history of sexuality but recent increments to the sensuality palette. For centuries, sex was about the man-on-top missionary position and rutting in the gloom of the cottage on the straw mattress. It was behaviour that was biologically driven but not necessarily sensual.
all I can say is that I hope he IS joking...he must be joking, though for this hetero feminist, the joke is neither joyful nor fun.

Because the idea that a professor of the history of medicine and the history of psychiatry at the University of Toronto could get up on his hind legs in public and make such hateful, ignorant, and surely--SURELY!!--ahistorical remarks about women, sex, the history of feminism, the history of heterosexuality, and how wonderful it is that we are all 
expanding the sensuality palette dramatically...[coming] home from work, kick[ing] off [our] boots ...and...experimenting with fetish/S&M


I was relieved to discover Shorter has a PhD in history and isn't--thank anything that might still be considered holy in this heartbreaking age of ours--an actual, hands-on-patients psychiatrist...

According to an online biography I found that he probably wrote himself, Shorter "has worked for many years on the history of the family (!) and the history of emotionality (!!) and although he has written widely about medicine’s past, he has remained interested in the ever-evolving social history of sexuality(!!!)"

Pity the poor medical students and residents, suffering through this man's presentations on the "history of the family," "history of emotionality" and the "ever-evolving social history of sexuality." (Like anything isn't "ever-evolving." Has evolution stopped??)

Has no one ever complained about this man? How few goddamn women do they have in the history of medicine and the history of psychiatry at the U of  T, anyway? Surely hundreds have been exposed to this drivel from a man whose ideas about feminism remind me of Philippe Rushton's thoughts on race and intellect.

All I can say is good luck, Dr. Shorter, on your trips to the bank.

You mountebank.

You perverter of scholarship and of history.

And good luck, Globe and Mail...I have read you for a decade and enjoyed it immensely, but you must surely be circling the drain to have included, under some mistaken attempt at being--I dunno, hip, is it?--such an article on the oped page.

God, I miss Edward Greenspon.


*Note to self: pls. research whether heterosexuals generally refer to 'tops' and 'bottoms' or if this is BDSM lexicon?

**An aside: Montreal has a famous ornithologist name of Bird, and there are many whose choice of career appears somehow influenced by their name. Without wishing to attack ad hominem, Shorter, by the way, is an absolute laugher of a monicker that might provide some sort of unconscious explanation for the work he has plunged into, as it were, lo these many least it would in a novel.


  1. You certainly don't believe in taking prisoners!

    I may be wrong, but I don't believe that Professor Shorter is as mysogynistic as you say.

    I agree with you that he misunderstands feminism. He also has a very flawed understanding of S&M, like someone who is spouting "book learning" about something that can only be known through real life experience.

    But I don't see him as malevolent, and your blistering attack makes me feel a bit sorry for him.

    As to your note to self, "tops" and "bottoms" are indeed terms in the BDSM lexicon. Often the term is used by people who are into erotic spanking. In that context, "bottom" is very descriptive. Many people prefer the term "dominants" and "submissives".

  2. thanks for your comment. not malevolent, perhaps. just astonishingly ignorant of HALF THE HUMAN RACE (more than half, ackshully),for a professor of the history of medicine AND the history of psychiatry at the U of FRIGGIN T...though why this should surprise me, i'm not sure.

    i don't think you need to feel sorry for him as he could probably make mincemeat of me, with or without whips and chains.

    "The lady doth protest too much, methinks," you say? probably.

    i seem to have an indefatigable sense of outrage ("i should take a flamethrower to this place!") women, like al pacino, can be like that.
    in fact, that's the only way we've ever gotten anything accomplished. the vote, the abolition of slavery...but, again, i digress.

    could be spring fever, the sap running and all that. but finding an article like this on the oped page of the G&M is as outlandish as reading one equating homosexuality with mental illness.

    1. I really doubt that Professor Shorter could make mincemeat of you. Your command of invective is awesome.

      Professor Shorter's article caught my eye because I'm involved in a domiant/submissive relationship myself, not in a heavy duty whips and chains kind of way. My wife and I have this arrangement which people in this lifestyle movement call "wife led marriage" (WLM) or "female led relationships".

      My wife doesn't do the whips-and-leather domainatrix thing, but she is bossy in a loving sort of way, so we both benefit: I find it very sexy that my wife "wears the pants" and my wife has real power, which means that I do way more housework than the average husband. LOL.

      Anyway, I bought Professor Shorter's book about the history of sexuality a couple of years ago, and I read part of it. (It is in a box in the basement now). I was disappointed with his chapter about sadomasochistic relationships because it was too superficial to contribute to my understanding of myself, which is the whole point of reading such books.

      I am a strong believer in feminism myself. That's not because I am a submissive male either. I know some male submissives who believe in "female supremacy", and they think of themselves as "feminists" because they elevate women to a superior postition. I think that's nonsense. Those guys are making the mistake of projecting their private sexual kink onto society as a whole and thinking that's the way it should be. I believe that true feminists would be horrified by the idea of simply reversing the power structure of patriarchal society. Feminism is about equality, right?

      I know thoroughly modern feminist women who like to be taken over their parnter's knee for a spanking. But that doesn't negate "feminism" any more than a wife spanking her husband promotes feminism. The loving erotic games that husbands and wives play are a separate issue from feminism.

      That's why I am baffled by the logic of Professor Shorter's claim that the popularity of that ebook "Fifty Shades of Gray" shows that 1970's feminists sold women "a bill of goods" about women's sexuality. Professor Shorter is obviously a smart man, so it is strange that he can such a glaringly invalid logical inference. Especially since he acknowledges that in the BDSM community the terms "top" and "bottom" are gender neutral.

      Anyway, nice making your acquaintance through the G&M. I like your website. I read lots of books on my Kindle, and I will check out your book.

      All the best,

  3. Very interesting, Beverly. I haven't read Shorter's article, so I won't comment on it. But your post catches my eye because I write family history, and I've been wondering lately how gender, patriarchy, and related matters shape a family (and hence a family's history). Haven't been thinking about sexuality per se as a factor in family history, although it obviously must be one. Not sure how I'd learn about, say, my grandparents' sexual preferences, or even that I'd want to know. But your post was very thought-provoking. Thanks for writing.

  4. Andy, I would say that sexuality must be a huge factor in family history. How could it not be? Thus, for all the shortcoming's of Shorter's article, I think he is performing a valuable function by delving into the history of sexuality from a scholarly point of view.

    As a social historian, writing about the history of the family, do you not sometimes feel as though you are trying to assemble a puzzle with many missing pieces? The missing pieces are the intimate interactions that one just didn't talk or write about until very recently.

    When I attended the University of Toronto many years ago, Shorter was something of a rising star. He was a strong proponent of "social history", the notion that history is shaped not by “great men” and battlefield turning points, but by all of the "little" things going on in the lives of ordinary people.

    As I see it, Shorter's exploration of human sexuality as a historian is an attempt to illuminate a dark area, and it is understandable that he will stumble in his explorations. But the effort should be applauded. Is Shorter's outlook limited by his gender and the time period in which he was raised? Probably. Who can totally escape one's own personal limitations?

    The way men and women respond to social movements like feminism IS undoubtedly influenced by private sexual desires and fantasies. When men oppose feminism in a visceral way, they explain their opposition rationally, but it is likely that many of them are motivated by something far less rational, a feeling of threatened masculinity.

    And I would not be surprised if some of the female resistance to feminism by self-styled "real women" over the years was the result of confusion between their sexual fantasies and their thoughts the way things should be in society at large. After all, there is a long history in mainstream romance novels (bodice rippers) of strong men taming headstrong women with a good over-the-knee spanking. .

    Moreover, SOME sexually submissive women DO struggle to reconcile their sexuality with their belief in feminism. . I know women like that from the days when I used to write stories on spanking websites. Some struggle with sexual frustration because their husbands, having internalized the values of feminism, cannot bring themselves to act on their wives' masochistic fantasies. They think that only a Neanderthal thug would do the things their wives want them to do.

    The significant point, which Shorter pointed out but underplayed, is that just as many men have the same desire to be dominated by their women. (I do, and luckily for me, my wife likes the benefits of being dominant).

    Shorter HAS put his finger on an interesting social phenomenon: the mainstream popularity among women of "50 Shades of Grey", a book about a young woman being controlled, spanked, etc., by an powerful (i.e. wealthy) older man. Shorter is right that the mass appeal of such a story among women may SEEM surprising in our post-feminist society.

    Where I disagree with Shorter is his idea that 1970s feminism "sold women a bill of goods". I think the point of feminism was that women should be equal, and that they should be free to explore their sexuality on their own terms. As I see it, the success of feminism HAS freed women to explore their sexuality, and for some women that freedom means the freedom to explore the pleasures and thrills of sexual submission (or domination) without renouncing their equal status in society at large.

    All this is to say that I don't think that social history can ignore sexuality. But how to get at the unwritten history of the intimate relations between men and women is the challenge.

    Incidentally, homosexuals engage in sadomasochistic erotic play just as frequently as heterosexuals do, which is another indication that sexual dominance and submissiveness are gender neutral.


  5. A-HAA! I discovered why Shorter's article appeared in the G&M as it did: it is publicity for this new (instant?) book...

    The article is actually a precis of the excerpt (ha) found in this new (to me) publisher of ebooks (who was/is an agent...Beverley Slopen)

    Sadomasochism and ardent love: a reader's guide to 50 shades of grey by Edward Shorter

    Synopsis (from the webwsite): "This short book by award-winning historian Edward Shorter explains the popular appeal of E.L. James erotic novel ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ with its theme of sadomasochism. Shorter, a professor at the University of Toronto, is the author of ‘Written in the Flesh: A History of Desire’ which was short-listed for Canada’s major literary prize, the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction. Here, he focuses solely on fetish and sadomasochism, a side-bar in the history of desire. It was unknown in the ancient world and for some has been part of tool kit for sexual pleasure for only 100 to 200 years. Shorter traces the history and literature of fetish/sm and illuminates the sources of its appeal."

    i am going out now to buy a deerstalker and meerschaum.

  6. A-haa indeed!

    Bloody hell! "Sadomasochism and Ardent Love". Shorter appears to have written the book that I was hoping write. I hope he did a bad job of it.


  7. I happen to know Edward Shorter personally. He is able to look at sex with a very clinical and historical perspective. He often comes across as cold, paternalistic, and arrogant in his writing. This is what makes it so interesting. There isn't a book he's written, nor a statement made during his many lectures that are considered non-flammable. Almost everything he says is controversial and meant to provide the listener or reader with a sense of outrage. If you aren't outraged then you will likely find that he provides a sense of relief as he does to those who live any kind of alternative sexual lifestyle. The two collide at times and may trigger writers like Beverly Ackerman to explode. It makes the world a more interesting place. If you haven't read his new book "Sadomasochism and Ardent Love, the Reader's Guide to Fifty Shades of Grey, I think you will find that it sheds fifty shades of light upon a deep, dark, ignored topic. Thank you Dr Shorter for making us all think a little bit differently about our lives.

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