On the Segregation of the Sexes

One of the things I always liked about dancing was the way it forced a mixing of the sexes.  Of course, not all forms of dancing involve such a mixing, but as far as mainstream dancing is concerned, ballroom or country-western, for instance, it does.  The word “forced” in my first sentence may strike some as peculiar.  Are not men and women of heterosexual orientation naturally attracted to each other?  Indeed they are, and yet they also have what I regard as an unfortunate tendency to segregate.

I was at a party one night many years ago, and after a while, the men congregated on one side of the room; the women, on the other.  The men started talking about sports, a topic that is apparently inexhaustible, but which I care nothing about, and so I quickly lost interest.  I was fortunately seated in such a way that I could, without calling attention to myself, ease my way over to where the women were.  I have had many pleasant and stimulating conversations with women, and thus I thought things would be more interesting in their group.  No sooner had I surreptitiously joined them than I found they were deep into a discussion of baby snot, the color of which is apparently of great significance.  From there they went on to the color of baby doo-doo.

In The Wind and the Lion (1975), Raisuli (Sean Connery) is chief of a band of Berbers.  He tells of how he escaped from prison, after being confined for many years, and how he came upon a group of women washing clothes.  “I do not normally enjoy the chatter of women,” he says, as his swarthy band laugh in manly agreement.  But, he goes on to say, on that day their voices filled him with delight.  Not having spent time in prison, however, I was not similarly enthralled.  I withdrew into myself and wondered how long I would have to wait before I could get away from this “party” without seeming rude.

It occurred to me as I sat there that the conversation of the women might have been more interesting had there been no men in the room at all.  For one thing, they might have talked about their husbands.  A friend of mine overheard one such conversation, and he said he knew right then and there that he would never marry.  Alternatively, the women might even have confided in one another about affairs they were having.  But as the men were within hearing distance, the women were reduced to conversing on subjects more fitting for their roles as wives and mothers.

It all made me think about movies I had seen in which rich people attend a dinner party, where the hostess arranged the seating so that the men and women would alternate along the table, while each woman would sit opposite her husband, no doubt so that he could make sure things were not getting too cozy on the other side of the table.  That mixing of the sexes seemed to be an admirable convention.  But then the time would come for the women to retire, so that the men could enjoy their brandy and cigars.  In these movies, the men generally begin to discuss politics, which is better than sports at least, but what happens with the women is usually not depicted, probably because the men that made those movies figured it wasn’t important.

In the movie Giant (1956), Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), presumably wishing to avoid a discussion of the color of baby snot, tries to sit with the men after the women have retired to another room.  As these men are hyper-macho Texans, this is regarded as an unacceptable breech of etiquette, all the men becoming quiet and embarrassed, except for her husband Bick (Rock Hudson), who becomes angry.  Had I been in that room, I would have been thinking, “Oh, thank God!  Leslie’s going to join the conversation.  Now I won’t be bored.”  But I would have been the exception, apparently.

And now that I have brought up the subject of movies, I cannot help but think of Blackboard Jungle (1955).  In that movie, Mr. Dadier (Glenn Ford) becomes a teacher in a school with some of the worst juvenile delinquents that was then imaginable, though later movies, such as Lean on Me (1989), would make this movie look like the Blackboard Tropical Rainforest.  Later on, Dadier tours another school where the students are polite, patriotic, and studious.  Oddly enough, it does not seem to occur to Dadier or anyone else in the movie that the school he visits has both boys and girls in it, whereas the school where Dadier teaches is for boys only.  That is why I always shudder when I hear people argue that students do better when they attend an all-boy or all-girl school. The girls may do better, but without girls around, boys become even more brutal than they already are.  It was bad enough in high school when it was time for P.E., because without the civilizing influence of the girls, the boys reverted to barbarism.

Anyway, one of the reasons why I enjoyed dancing so much was that dancers always try to have a balance of the sexes in their groups, so the tendency to segregate is overridden by the desire to have plenty of opportunities for dancing.  But eventually the years caught up with me, and I began getting tendinitis with greater frequency, with longer periods needed for recovery.  Telling a partner that I might not be able to go dancing for a couple of months became a nuisance, and I eventually decided to hang up my dancing shoes for good.

After a hiatus of several years, I started thinking about bridge.  I learned to play bridge in college in the 1960s, back when the game was an essential social skill.  I had pretty much abandoned the game once I started dancing, but now it seemed like a good time to take it up again.  After all, one of the things I liked about bridge, apart from the pleasure of the game itself, was that it was something men and women could do together.  It may not force them together the way dancing does, but the game certainly lends itself to a mixture of the sexes.

Bidding systems come and go, so I knew I needed to learn the latest fashions.  And thus it was that I decided to make my entry into bridge society by way of lessons.  Though it is the segregation of the sexes that is my subject here, yet I cannot pass this point without mentioning other forms of segregation as well.  On entering the bridge studio, I was struck by the fact that I had not seen so many Caucasians in one place in thirty years.  Houston is ethnically diverse, with people from all over the world living here, but you would never know it from being in that bridge studio.  As my eyes became accustomed to the glare of racial purity, I did discern a smattering of Asians, but I have yet to see any Hispanics or African-Americans playing the game.  Of course, the people playing bridge were mostly elderly too, which may have something to do with it, apart from cultural differences.  I have been told by people I play bridge with that their grandchildren have no interest in playing the game.  So there is age segregation going on as well.  But I digress.

Much to my satisfaction, in any event, there were plenty of both men and women at the tables.  In the months since I decided to take up the game again, however, I have heard from three different sources about three different groups of women that get together and play bridge, men being excluded.  It was then—and only then I reluctantly admit—that I finally realized a principal motive for such segregation.  A lot of people are married or at least living with someone.  As such, they get their fill of the opposite sex.  No wonder they want a night out with the boys or a night out with the girls.  Even those that are widowed or divorced may, as a result of all those years of living with the opposite sex, still have a need for same-sex socializing; whereas I, on the other hand, having never been married or lived with anyone, have never experienced a surfeit of the fair sex.  Even when I had a girlfriend, we always unconsciously adjusted our dating frequency so as to not get too tired of each other.  As a result, I have never had a need to get away from women and be among men only.

Now, given this principle, bachelors like me being the exception, men have as much desire to get away from women from time to time as women have to get away from men.  And yet, I noticed that whereas I had heard of three women’s bridge clubs, I had not heard of any bridge clubs for men.  “Are there any groups of men that get together and play bridge,” I asked of those sitting at my table.  I was met with complete silence, so that I concluded that not only were there no such men’s clubs, but also that it had never occurred to anyone that there would be such a thing.  I know you can find a few men’s bridge clubs around the country by Googling them, but I am talking about impressions I have formed casually in my own milieu.

I have concluded that while men have a desire for the company of other men same as women have for their own sex, bridge is unsuitable for that purpose.  It might be going too far to say that bridge is essentially feminine like the game mah jongg, which is why the play The Men of Mah Jongg has such a humorous premise.  Instead, I shall say merely that bridge is insufficiently masculine.  As I noted above, in reference to Blackboard Jungle, females have a calming, civilizing, some would even say emasculating, effect on males.  In Giant, the main reason Bick becomes angry when Leslie intrudes upon the male preserve is that marriage creates the suspicion of an enervating domesticity.  As a result, Bick feels it is important to put her in her place, lest his companions have doubts as to who wears the pants in his family.  Consequently, when men have a boys’ night out, they must do more than merely get away from their wives.  They must engage in an activity that reaffirms their manhood, something like playing poker, bowling, or shooting pool.  Playing bridge just doesn’t cut it.

But for me, bridge is just right.  My only hope is that the women don’t get too carried away with these women’s bridge clubs.

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