Sep. 12th, 2013

dormant_dragon: (Default)
This seems like an appropriate follow-up to my last couple of posts in which I have been pondering how we define and value relationships. This post is drawn from an idea suggested by [personal profile] etfb, regarding the appropriateness or otherwise of the standard questions one finds on forms - "Name?" "Sex?" "Relationship status?" Quite often, especially when it's an electronic form that suggests a list of responses, the range of answers being sought seems woefully inadequate. The catch-all phrase "It's complicated" seems at first to be a good alternative to more defining terms; but really, it just reinforces the fact that we're reluctant to discuss the real breadth of possibilities.

It's perhaps kind of appropriate that I have a YouTube video playing right now which is a discussion about how or even whether morality is something that falls within the purview of science, since the idea that it does runs counter to the "received wisdom" that morality occupies some nebulous territory impenetrable to empirical observation; since it's easy to see how, in discussing issues of identity, sex, gender and relationships, one can become mired in the notions imparted by received wisdom, sometimes without even noticing it. Once we start questioning, however, we very quickly find that the received wisdom is really an artificial construct, one that requires constant reinforcement to remain in place. Official - and some unofficial - forms are at present one means by which this reinforcement is conducted.

As humans, we're generally very fond of defining and categorising - it's the way we create simplified, understandable models of an incredibly complex world, in which some of the most complex things are our fellow humans. We are limited in our abilities to observe and comprehend; if we can quickly size up a particular individual and place them in a familiar category, that makes this individual immediately easier to understand. Or so we suppose. The trouble is that it's all too easy, having categorised someone, to dismiss the more nuanced aspects of their personality, to misunderstand their behaviour, in short, to treat them as a type rather than an individual.

Let's start with names. I have a number of friends who have, for various reasons, changed their names or who go by two or more different names in different contexts. I changed my own name by taking [personal profile] japester's surname when we got married; though this was much more of an aesthetic choice than a wish to uphold an outdated tradition. There's a peculiarly persistent notion that everyone has a "real name" - which, depending upon your perspective, might be the name you were given as a baby, or the name you've later chosen for yourself that you feel better reflects your personality, or maybe some other name that you have yet to discover. The name we're asked for on most forms is the name by which one is known for legal and financial purposes but again, this may or may not be what one considers one's 'real' name.

A name is essentially a label by which we identify a particular person and sometimes the identification is at more than just an individual level. Most names are gendered, so we can tell immediately whether a particular name belongs to a male or female - but what if a name is ambiguous? It can be unsettling to consider the extent to which our interaction with a person, especially in the relative anonymity of cyberspace, can be coloured by the assumptions we make based on their name. I have written under ambiguous names in online fora and often been taken as male, which I find amusing; but it's easy to see how there could be a more sinister aspect to this kind of assumption - especially if a particular individual is seen as an easy target for online bullying or harassment.

And what if one's legal name doesn't, for example, match one's sex on a given form? That carries potential for awkward questions from whatever official organisation provided the form; and raises another issue about which society at large is only gradually becoming more enlightened.

A person's sex is one of the first things we recognise, generally speaking, upon seeing them. When there is ambiguity in a person's appearance, it's hard not to do a double-take, seeking those tell-tale features that will define an individual as one or the other. It's easy to see why, in evolutionary biological terms at least, it might be important to pin down the sex of people we meet; but being human, we just can't leave it at that - being placed into the category of male or female comes with a raft of expectations about how we will behave and what roles we will fulfill in society. Not everyone wants to or is capable of living up to the expectations attached to their physical sex, nor should we, I believe, assume that they will - but many do assume, even to the point of castigating those who mess up their tidy little categorisations by not looking the way they "should" or not behaving in expected ways.

That brings me to the fraught issue of relationship status. This is where the "it's complicated" response really comes into its own but it's hard to find that option on forms outside of social media. I have bumped up against unexpected - to me, anyway - questions on the basis of forms I have filled in, using what I had always thought was the status-neutral term 'Ms'. When a form calls for a title - and most official and legal ones do - a man has the single option 'Mr' but a woman has a choice between 'Miss', 'Mrs' and 'Ms'. Unbeknownst to me in the past, 'Ms' is not the "none of your business" approach to marital status I had always thought it was; the assumption attached to it is that you have been married but are now divorced - or so I was once told by a very confused administrative assistant.

It is undoubtedly a result of the historical fluctuations in the legal and social status of women that we have three options for women but only one for men (assuming you're not a doctor or a lord or some other titled individual). Men, historically, have been far less defined - and their legal standing far less affected - by their relationship status than have women; but it's not just this baggage that gives us reason to question the requirement to declare one's relationship status - coupled with the limited range of options - on a form, official or otherwise. Again, being human, we tend to like things to fit neatly into categories; but increasingly, intimate relationships are breaking out from under the tidily defined labels offered by most forms. One might be married and have a partner or two in addition to one's spouse; alternatively, one might be 'single' in a legal sense but be sharing accommodation with a handful of partners. There's no current legal recognition for polyamorous relationship arrangements; and even if there were, the possible permutations would make the most dedicated bureaucrat's head spin.

It might be nice to suppose that one day, there will be forms that are not implicitly designed to fit people into narrowly defined categories but which genuinely and inclusively seek such information as individuals are prepared to provide. It might be a pipe-dream but at the very least, it would be encouraging to see forms that don't tend towards excluding those of us who prefer not to live within the confines of the box.


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October 2013

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