Woman on woman

I am currently going through intensive outpatient rehab for drug and alcohol abuse.  And the facility I’m attending is an all-female one.

At first this fact barely registered with me, because, as George R. R. Martin famously said, “I have always thought of women as people.”  When I did start to think about it, at first it made me uncomfortable, even irritated.  As I’ve written about in previous posts, I am a strong advocate of not only sexual equality but sex blindness (on the condition that full equality is achieved) so I’m not thrilled about treatment being segregated.

In addition, I have always felt equally comfortable mingling with men and women.  Being queer, I experience no disparity caused by attraction; not being particularly feminine or masculine, I don’t find I have more or less in common with people on the basis of gender, sex, or orientation.

So it came as an unpleasant surprise to me when I soon realized that I actually am more comfortable in an all-female environment in this specific instance.  The obvious question it brings to mind is, why?  Why do I feel less self-conscious and more at ease than I would if men were present in our groups and classes?

It hasn’t taken me long, though, to come up with the answer, and it’s not about how I relate to men or women, but how they relate to each other.  Analyzing the dynamics of our interactions, I realized that the way the other patients interact with each other and with me is markedly different from how they would behave in a mixed environment.

A few examples:  Waiting for a support group to start on Monday, we ended up having a long and light-hearted conversation about the size and sagginess of our breasts.  Many of us, also, have experienced severe sexual trauma in heterosexual relationships, about which we speak very frankly.  And the terms “sisters” and “sisterly love” are ubiquitous– even I, not prone to finding heartwarming cliches appealing, have used it in a genuine way several times.

I don’t believe any of these communications would take place, or at least not in the same way, were men present.  For the most part, the patients identify as heterosexual and cisgendered.  Comparing our interactions to those of mixed groups– even those involving socially liberal and aware people– I realize that when both sexes are around, there is invariably an unspoken subtext of sexual tension and self-consciousness:  People may not be interested in one another; they may not be flirting; but they are constantly sizing each other up on the basis of attraction, and that’s reflected in their verbal and physical communications.

Women often don’t talk about their bodies or their sexual history and preferences, because there’s a sense that this might be either uncomfortable or arousing for their male company.  (Having, obviously, not been privy to all-male groupings, I don’t know if there are subjects that they similarly address only with other men, but I would expect so.) And there is no appropriate and simple equivalent to “sisterly love” in a mixed setting.  “Brotherly love” indicates affection between two men.  “Sibling-y love?”  That just sounds ridiculous.  “Familial love?”  Overly formal.  And even were it qualified, using the word “love” between heterosexual men and women conjures awkward connotations of romance.

That’s how ingrained, I believe, heterosexual attraction and coupling is in our society.  It so pervades our media and social norms that even when people don’t know what they’re doing, and would if asked disavow altering their behavior on sex-based grounds, they unconsciously find it impossible to break free of that early socialization.

So of course I’m more comfortable in this environment.  Talking openly about our most intimate experiences, forming bonds that can support us through the most difficult fight of our lives, making the most of our opportunity for sobriety– this requires lines of communication that aren’t blocked by coyness and reservation.  Cheesy or not, it requires unquestioned sibling-y love.

This makes me feel simultaneously depressed and relieved.  Depressed because it’s become clear to me how large a role sex and gender, like race, by default play in the interactions of even the supposedly enlightened.  And because I wonder whether I unwittingly change my behavior in the same way, which would demolish some of my claim to being unbiased and ungendered.  Yet, relieved, because it reinforces my belief that people need not be consciously discriminatory, even when they come across as such:  I don’t have to feel guilty for being comfortable in an all-female environment, because it reflects a social, not a personal, reality.

That’s what it boils down to, in the end.  However much I might wish that sex didn’t play a role in how people treat each other, that’s not (yet) a reality.  In almost every situation, I would argue that even when it feels awkward, mixed interaction needs to be encouraged, because that’s the only way it will become standard and truly comfortable– by people learning to deal with each other as individuals in real-world scenarios that necessitate common non-sexual purposes, in the same way that racial equality could only be facilitated by legally ending segregated schools and businesses.

However, in this specific case, we are talking about immediate rehabilitative care that for many may be life-saving if done right.  If that means using sexual segregation as a means, for now, because it helps this treatment be more effective, then as grudgingly as I admit it, that’s what needs to be done.