How Reading about Animal Husbandry Helped Me Talk about Sex and Sexuality (or, “Girls Love Horses”)

Maybe it’s a little strange to be thinking about gender and pronouns after reading a book about animal training and welfare, but I guess I actually think about gender and pronouns for a lot of reasons and in a lot of contexts, so maybe it’s no stranger than any other time.

In Animals Make Us Human, Temple Grandin writes about the difference between positive and negative reinforcement, and the effect they have when training and socializing animals. When I first read the terms, positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement, I assumed I knew what they meant: Positive reinforcement is when you reward good behavior, which encourages more good behavior; negative reinforcement is when you punish bad behavior, which, ostensibly, stops bad behavior.

The author sees and explains it in a different way, however: Negative reinforcement is creating an undesirable situation that creates a desirable outcome, such as tugging on a horse to make it move forward. The horse moves as a response to the uncomfortable experience of being tugged, in an effort to stop the feeling; the response is what the trainer wants, so they keep tugging, and the horse keeps moving. I’d never really seen that angle to it before; I’d always just thought it was like, I’m doing something wrong, my mom yells at me, I stop doing that thing, but I then also feel terrible about myself. You know?

“How does this relate to gender and pronouns, Meister?” Can’t you just hold on for one damned second? I’m getting there.

My therapist, who’s really just the greatest, has half-jokingly dubbed this season “Fall into Sex,” because for the first time in our nearly six years of working together, we’re finally actually talking about my various swirling self-consciousnesses and issues about sex, sexuality, sex abuse, gender and identity, and body-image stuff, rather than simply talking around it. To be honest, it’s terrifying, but it’s also really interesting and, naturally, because sex and shyness and jiggly parts are pretty funny, we’re laughing a lot at ourselves and each other. I don’t know why I waited this long except I know I had to wait this long; it has taken me these six years to trust him enough to go down this road.

Anyway, one of the first things I’ve been able to open up about during these past few weeks is that I actually literally do not know if I am gay, bi, straight, asexual, whatever. I have zero idea what my sexual orientation is. I’m a grown-ass human being, and I’ve been in relationships before — I was married! — so of course I’d understand if you were thinking, “That’s some basic shit, kid. You have to know what your sexual orientation is by now, come on.”

The fact is, I don’t, and it’s more complicated than you might think. There’s all kinds of things swirled up in what makes a person attracted to another person, and what that attraction means. (And this I guess is a good time to mention that I’m speaking about myself here, and not intentionally making generalizing statements about other people’s sexuality or identity, etc etc, and so on and so forth.)

For starters, I don’t think that I feel physical attraction in the way a lot of other people do, in that I don’t feel lust, and I don’t crave sex. That’s not to say I’ve never been physically attracted to an individual, or that I’ve never craved sex with an individual, but generally speaking, it doesn’t happen that way for me. The thought of sex with another person actually makes me really uncomfortable — if I think about it enough, I feel nauseated. That’s what years of not dealing with a history of sex abuse can do to a person: My coping mechanism has gotten so strong that now it prevents me from engaging in what could be consensual pleasurable experiences, because it’s going overboard trying to protect me from nonconsensual, painful ones.

When you don’t feel sexual attraction to people, it’s hard to know if you’re gay or straight, right? This is one of the things I’ve been thinking about WRT negative reinforcement: When my body has wanted sex, my brain has triggered this nausea. It has discouraged me from wanting sex, so much so that there is a part of me that is effectively numbed beyond comprehension. Mission sort of accomplished.

Another thing that makes it really difficult, even as a grown-ass human being, to know what my sexual orientation is, is that I don’t know what I am, gender-wise. I mean, I’m a human and I was born with female body parts, but I struggle with the idea of being and identifying as a woman.

This is really what I wanted to write about, but I felt like I had to get a bunch of that other stuff out of the way first. As a journalist, this is what we call “burying the lede.”

A few weeks ago, I ran into a person I know a little bit through work and social media and whatever, and whom I like a lot. As we came up to each other to say hello, the first thing they said was, “You use they/them pronouns, right?” I’m always a little taken aback when someone asks me this question — not because I’m offended, I’m actually very touched by how generous and accepting it is, and how respectful it is to ask. I’m taken aback for a few, again sort of complicated reasons that I’ve struggled to give voice to.

The first reason is that I always inadvertently come off as a total shit with my usual response, which I’m sorry to say typically makes the person who asked the question feel bad. My answer most of the time is that I don’t actually care what pronouns anyone uses for me, that I accept “they/them” if that’s how someone reads me, but I also don’t mind being referred to with female pronouns because there’s nothing wrong with being female, and I feel it would be misogynistic to be offended if someone used “she/her” to describe me.

It’s not a perfect answer for about a hundred thousand reasons that I’m sure I’ll hear about after sharing this long diatribe, but it is my usual answer to that question. I’m still workshopping it.

The second reason I’m taken aback by the question is that it reminds me that I am not seen as a woman, and that I’m not generally read as simply and unquestionably female. I’m clocked as being something else.

This is probably in part because I’ve talked about feeling “other” before, and probably in part because I also look and sound and act and comport myself in a way that seems outside of the box we put women in, right? I’m not pretty and I’m not stereotypically feminine and I wear a lot of boys’ button-down shirts and on those occasions that I wear a dress there are always pants underneath it. I hide my face with big funky glasses that can only really be described as “unisex,” and I have a terrible short homemade haircut that definitely does not scream “lady.” Because we all know what a “lady” really looks like, right? We see pictures of them everywhere.

I’m realizing of course that I’m negatively reinforcing the ideas that a woman can’t look like I do, would never look like I do, and needs to be pretty in order to be a woman. I’m part of the bigger social and cultural problem, by feeling the way I feel about myself.

“I’m not pretty” is always the part on which my therapist pushes back. “Do you want to talk about how you’re not ‘not pretty’ again?” he asked a couple weeks ago. “Because you are not unattractive. You’re an attractive person. You’ve intentionally made yourself ‘not pretty’ to protect yourself from men.” This is 100% true: I have successfully transformed myself into something so diametrically opposed to the Western ideal of “pretty” and “attractive” to straight men that I’ve also convinced myself that that means I’m not attractive at all. I don’t look anything like the women in magazines or on TV, and that’s totally intentional, or at least it once was. Now it’s just the way I look.

This past week I actually made an effort to perform “pretty” one day — one day! — and on that day, while I was walking my dog, a man who was in the park with three of his buddies actually lunged out and tried to grab me, saying, “Come here, pretty.”

You can’t make this shit up, that’s literally what he said — as though he were sent by cosmic assignment to be the realization of one of my biggest fears. A friend of his shoved him out of the way right before he actually got to me, shouting, “Man, don’t disrespect like that!” I thanked his friend, who then turned to me and said, “You do look good, though.”

Negative reinforcement.

When someone tries to show me respect by asking if I prefer nonfemale pronouns, what it really says to me is, “I recognize that you do not look or act like my idea of what a woman is.” That not only means that I am receiving the message that I’m not a woman, over and over and over again, but it also means that other people have this very same concept of what it means to be a woman: pretty, feminine, maybe not wearing clothes that come from the boys’ section at Target. It’s like, I appreciate that my gym has an “all gender” locker room, but I also feel awful using it because I’m not all gender, I’m no gender. Or I’m some gender, but I’m not your gender? What the fuck. All because I’m not pretty?? Apparently by choice?!?

This creates a ton of confusion for me, because I will be honest with you — I want to be pretty. Real bad. So bad sometimes it makes me cry (like right now, writing those words — my eyes immediately filled up). But why do I want to be pretty? Is it because I would feel like more of a woman, which might feel better than this on-the-outside-looking-in halfway-between-genders place that I occupy? Is it because we are constantly shown images of what pretty is and how appealing it is, and that kind of feedback can be really positive? Is it because I’m afraid of being afraid for the rest of my life? Is it because I’m actually a heterosexual woman who would secretly like the attention of heterosexual men but don’t really get it because I’m somehow wearing this costume and terrible haircut that keeps me protected from their attention—the world’s weirdest sexual Catch-22?

When I verbalize portions of this in conversations with people — which doesn’t happen often, as you can probably tell by the sheer length of this brain vomit — their response is almost always, “You’re just you! You don’t have to be a woman or a man or call yourself genderqueer, you’re just Meister” — which again is a very nice thing to say but doesn’t actually help because it effectively tells me, “Nobody actually cares what you are, because you don’t matter.”

Negative reinforcement.

So!

The past few weeks of “Fall into Sex” have been really challenging and interesting, and we haven’t even actually talked about sex all that much because as you can plainly see there’s a lot more than the old in-and-out that goes into what makes a human being a sexual animal, and I’m not actually even really in this thing for the old in-and-out anyway. Whatever, I’d rather eat a piece of pizza and fall asleep than have to wade through the emotional mire of putting mine and yours together for 20 minutes of sweating on the sheets I just washed.

I guess the point of this story is to say a few things, TL;DR, right?

First is that sexuality is more complex than we tend to believe at a knee-jerk level.

Second is that I don’t care what pronouns you use for me, and while it’s really very nice of you to ask, please stop asking. If I ever figure it out, I’ll let you know.

Third is that our ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman, and the ways that those ideas encourage us to behave toward one another, are really pretty messed up and can be damaging. Apparently.

Fourth is that I’m doing all this work amidst a political landscape in which the word “pussy” is being routinely tossed around, and that’s not helping matters at all.

Fifth is that I know a lot of people are scared of therapy or have preconceived notions about it but let me tell you something, it’s undoubtedly the single most important hour of my life, on the weekly.

And lastly, I guess, the point is that this is really scary stuff to admit, and it opens me up to accept a lot of other people’s insecure fragile sense of themselves, and I get that. But if it’s made you think about yourself, or about someone else in a more open-minded and curious way, then it was worth it.

Oh, and you don’t have to tell me I’m pretty. It’s more important that one day I’ll be able to tell it to myself.