As a scholar of culture, I’m constantly amazed by people’s behavior: it alternates between intelligent and inane, smart and stupid. People in groups can do the dumbest things, while at other times, people achieve the most altruistic and amazing accomplishments. This is doubly true when it comes to gender and sex: some people manage to be mind-blowingly perceptive and tolerant, while others are bigoted, placing themselves or others at risk due to prejudice, ignorance, or small-mindedness.
What I find intriguing is when one group of people makes itself out to be smarter or better-informed than another, and thus tries to regulate the other’s behavior. And I’m not just talking about instances where a sex researcher says, “Hey, X is a really good idea based on the studies I’ve seen” (where X might be consistent condom use to avoid pregnancy and STI transmission, or promoting gay-straight alliances in schools, or whatever). What I’m talking about are the times when a group tries to supervise or legislate another group’s behavior “for their own good.”
Are there times when people don’t act in their own interests, due to being ill-informed, small-minded, or both? Certainly. People who used tobacco before the links between it and lung cancer were known suffered from a lack of information, so they couldn’t have helped it. People who continue to use tobacco products even today are (hopefully) making an informed decision, even if it’s not one that’s good for them in the long run.
Where I get worried is when whole categories of people, based on essential parts of their identities, are represented as not being able or willing to act “for their own good.” In the realm of sex and gender, these groups often include LGBTQ folks, sex workers, people who are into kink, and so on. It’s almost as though once someone has a sexual or gender identity that’s not the norm, mainstream people automatically assume that they’re doing something bad for them like smoking or eating too much processed sugar (though I have yet to see someone get a cavity from using a flogger, trying anal sex, or selling sex acts!).
The questions we’re asking should not be limited to “why do people keep doing things that are bad for them?” but should include “how do we determine what is good or bad for someone, and how might we be biased in our approach?” Based on my studies of people, I’ve concluded that people generally act rationally when they have access to accurate and relevant information. The main problem is that due to differences in values and worldview, “rational” behavior varies between social groups – and that’s why we need to have discussions like this one.
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