Being a man nowadays is a serious business. Play the dating-game, as it used to be called, and you run the risk of misreading a signal and assuming consent where none has been formally given. And even when that isn’t in dispute, you might still find yourself outed on social media the morning after for conduct that was either caddish or possibly not caddish enough.
Being a woman is no easier. It must be a great relief that you’re no longer expected to put up with unwanted advances (and worse) from your boss. But #MeToo and movements like it offer no protection against the disappointment of bad dates and bad sex — and may even make it seem that such feelings, should they arise, are your fault for not being more of a feminist.
The so-called Battle of the Sexes may be as old as history itself. But in the twenty-first century it seems to be entering a new phase, one appropriate to an era in which we’re not meant to approve of conflict. As counsellors and psychotherapists, I think we’re well-placed to report from the front-lines of what is perhaps best characterised as a stand-off.
Talking recently to two friends who work for college counselling services, I was struck by their observation that many of the students they see don’t seem to have sex lives — even when this is not the presenting problem. Of course, there could be a range of reasons for this. And the existence of on-line chatrooms and internet pornography might make us want to ask what we mean by the term ‘sex-life’. But I wonder if the prospect of actual sex with another person isn’t starting to feel too fraught with difficulty and danger.
At the same time, we’re living in an era of gender fluidity in which it is held to be fine, if you suffer from gender dysphoria, to undergo hormone therapy and surgery in order to change sex — and in which it is also considered fine, if this is your preference, not to identify with being either male or female but rather to think of yourself as non-binary.
Now these are usually presented as choices you might make with regard to your gender or gender identity rather than your sexuality or sexual orientation. Certainly the two are different. But I’m not sure that the distinction between them is as clearcut as is sometimes argued — and wonder whether it isn’t even a bit binary to insist that it is. That is why I deliberately opted for the word ‘sex’ in the middle of the preceding paragraph when referring to gender: to draw attention to the existence of this interesting ambiguity — one might say fluidity — in English usage.
The point I want to make is not, however, a linguistic one. What I’m curious about is the possibility of a connection between these two contemporary cultural trends: the turning away from sexual relationships on the one hand and the changes to traditional forms of gender identity on the other. Could it be that the deconstructing of gender is making sex difficult and perhaps even impossible?
If you think this a question that only a paid-up member of the dying patriarchy could ask, I recommend a visit to the production of As You Like It currently on at the Globe Theatre in London. One of Shakespeare’s most delightful comedies, it is also one of his most ingenious and intricate, culminating in no less than four on-stage marriages — each of them improbable in view of everything that has gone on beforehand, yet also inevitable given that the play is one long celebration of the power of love and desire. Audiences know all about this power from their own experience, and this probably accounts for As You Like It being such a favourite among theatre-goers. At the close of the performance I went to, as the actors filled the stage to dance a final jig, you could feel the sense of exuberance around the auditorium.
This was after a dizzying three hours of gender-bending and cross-dressing, with many of the main male roles being played by a female actor — and vice versa. To some extent, this is in keeping with the acting conventions of Shakespeare’s own day. Female roles were always taken by boys, and a character like Rosalind must have teased the imaginations of Elizabethan audiences wonderfully. For half of As You Like It she disguises herself as a man — who then spends some of the time pretending to be a girl. So what we see at the Globe in 2018 is similar to what might have been seen there some 400 years ago: a boy playing a girl playing a boy playing a girl playing a boy. Only nowadays, of course, this is something both genders can play at. In this production, the character of Orlando — who is head-over-heels in love with Rosalind — is acted by a woman.
But beyond the playful casting and the costumes, at a more profound level what this As You Like It is about is the play of opposites. Gender exists. There’s no getting away from male and female — or, rather, from our fantasies about what these represent and also how they are to be represented both on stage and in real life. It is these fantasies that fuel desire. And it is desire that propels the action of the play leading inexorably to the pairings that come at the end.
These are the outcome of what can only be called a kind of gender euphoria. If there is no gender dsyphoria in Shakespeare, at least in the comedies, it’s not because he’s a pre-modern writer who doesn’t understand these things. It’s because he knew better than to take gender literally. Gender is not based on anatomy — and it cannot be based on the denial of anatomy either. That kind of thinking is sure to result in worse sex if not also less sex. What we would do well to remember is that, in the final analysis, male and female are roles. It is up to us to decide how we play these roles — what we make of them. This is the truth of As You Like It’s most famous line: ‘All the world’s a stage’.