The Five Modalities of Male Desire and How They Limit Women’s Opportunities:
In the previous essays of this series, we argued that women’s economic opportunities are shaped by male employers’ decisions about which occupations and jobs should go to women. These decisions in turn are shaped by five different modalities of male desire which govern what men want from women at work. In that previous essays, we discussed
Modality I: Men Excluding Women from the Workplace to Reinforce Their Own Status as Men
Modality II: Men Seeking Approval from High Status Feminist Gatekeepers and
Modality III: Men Seeking Approval from High Status Patriarchal Gatekeepers
In this essay we discuss:
Opportunistic Wolfism only applies on Wild-West-Style Frontiers. If you live in New York City, this does not apply to you. However, plenty of people do live and work in Wild-West Style Frontiers even in the present day. If you drill for gas in the Amazon, you work on a frontier. If you do commercial logging in the West Papua New Guinea Highlands, you work on a frontier. If you are mining copper in the Yukon, depending on where the mine is, you probably work on a frontier.
Frontier towns have their own distinctive gender dynamics, which can be called Opportunistic Wolfism. Opportunistic Wolfism is the confinement of women to hyper-female jobs, generally those involving sexuality. Because traditional female sex-roles are being exaggerated, side opportunities, such as they are, can be opened up in domestic service. The dominant theme of Opportunistic Wolfism is newly enriched males celebrating their new wealth and power through the conspicuous consumption of female resources. Men-as-men are celebrating their increased access to women-as-women.
Frontier towns have extremely distinctive social structures. They are disproportionately or nearly entirely male. Social control over these males is relatively weak. These men have left their families and friends. Then, for whatever reason, migrated to remote locations. Social ties are completely attenuated. In some cases, this is quite intentional. The men may have moved to the ends of the world precisely to get rid of social ties: ditching ex-wives, controlling parents, parole officers, whatever. Even the men who are not by nature loners or drifters are now more cut off and isolated by virtue of being far from everyone they knew. No social ties mean no social discipline. The only people in their social network are other cut-off individuals like themselves.
Not only are the men free from social constraints, but they are rich enough to buy whatever they want. The first wave of work in frontier towns is lucrative. New mines or new crops are developed in response to world shortages and favorable price trends. Generally, there is a full-fledged mineral or agricultural boom in progress. Big profits mean high wages.
The result is a perfect environment for bad behavior. There is substantial conspicuous consumption and high levels of celebratory deviance. Partying, drinking, fighting and whoring are the recreational activities of choice. Over time, the wild behavior settles down. Women migrate into the town. The gender balance stabilizes. The initial boom winds down, returning profits and wages to normal levels. However, the opening decades of frontier towns can be pretty intense.
The gender relations of frontier towns are highly patriarchal. However, there is very little to need to exclude women from work. The mostly-male labor force means there are no threats to male economic monopoly. Male domination of the environment is complete.
What is going on is a phenomenon known as boundary heightening. When two groups are present in the same setting in extremely unequal numbers, the visibility of the minority group becomes conspicuous. There is a tendency for the majority to exclude the minority from nearly every form of professional and social interaction, for the minority to be stereotyped with the extremely standard stereotypes associated with the groups, and for majority members to act more like the stereotypes of majority members when they are around members of the minority. In the case of gender in highly male environments, women become stereotyped into extremely-hyper female roles – generally those involving either sexuality or domestic work. Men act in super-macho super-sexual ways when around small, outnumbered groups of women.
A good empirical illustration of these principles is the early history of gender relations in Singapore. Singapore was originally a center of rubber plantations. Since the Southern Malay Peninsula was sparsely settled, and the plantations needed very substantial numbers of rubber workers, these had to be imported from elsewhere in Malaya, China and Southern India. The sex ratio was approximately fifteen men to one woman. Early Singapore was a fairly rowdy place, with secret societies, a great deal of crime and substantial labor militancy. Women were intentionally brought in by the plantation authorities from Southern China.
Essentially the only jobs that were available to women on arrival were prostitution and domestic labor. Brothels were widespread throughout the colony – and even by the 1880’s, well after the founding of the rubber plantations, the brothels employed over a third of Singapore’s women. Female house servants were also in demand. Very young girls would be bought from their parents in China and taken to Singapore to work either in the brothels or as domestic labor. Older women generally graduated to domestic labor. Later on, women would marry rubber workers and become integrated into the rubber economy. However, the early jobs open to women were extremely female stereotyped.
The early years of frontier towns put women into an extreme state of vulnerability. It is difficult to attain meaningful economic power from a position as a domestic servant or a sex worker.
Does any of this relate to non-frontier settings?
Are there any work environments in which young men are suddenly making vastly more money than they are used to seeing?
Are there any work environments where men outnumber women nine to one?
Are there any work environments where the men have weak or no ties to church, family or community, but live in a hermetic environment interacting exclusively with the other men at work?
Would such a work setting lead to the sexualization of women, widespread harassment and limitation of women’s economic opportunities?
You be the judge.
For More Information
For a general discussion of the social dynamics of working on the frontier, including both gendered and non-gendered considerations, see Rex Lucas’ superb history of remote Canadian single-industry towns, Minetown, Milltown, Railtown.
The concept of boundary heightening comes from Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s discusses in Men and Women of the Corporation, which is arguably one of the greatest books on gender that has ever been written.
Histories of Singapore tend to have juicy subject material that the authors treat with great reserve and understatement. Some of the best material is only distributed in Singapore. Sumiko Kazeno’s Role of Women in Singapore: Collaboration and Conflict Between Capitalism and Asian Values and Jean Lee et. al.’s Three Paradoxes: Working Women in Singapore are hard to find but useful. For a somewhat franker account, see James Warren’s Ah-Ku and Karayuki-San: Prostitution in Singapore 1870-1940.