The spiritual life is not a theory. We have to live it.
— Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous
While listening to Clarisse Thorn lecture in my women’s studies class last Thursday, this quote popped into my head. Though I didn’t mention it in my most recent post, it was already on my mind when I wrote about rethinking my dismissiveness towards the plight of men eager for “feminist dating tips.” One could substitute the word “feminist” for “spiritual” in the AA quote, I think, and get to the heart of what I’m wrestling with this week.
Theory has consequences. Ideas have an impact. That’s not a new insight for me or anyone else. But when it comes to writing about men, women, and feminist sexual ethics, I’m ever more keenly aware that those of us who seek to encourage the transformation of both the individual and society at large often end up inadvertently shaming the very people whom we are trying to inspire.
I wrote a three-part series a couple of years ago, praising Robert Jensen’s wonderful Getting Off. But when I actually assigned the book in my “Men and Masculinity” course, I found that Jensen’s radical anti-porn stance not only aroused disagreement (which is healthy) but shame (which isn’t). This past July, I wrote about rethinking my own anti-porn stance, and about my decision not to reassign Jensen’s book (which I still think is very useful) as mandatory reading for my masculinity course:
I loved Jensen’s thesis… Many of my students did too. But some of my students of both sexes who told me they viewed porn felt overwhelmed, shamed, guilt-ridden as a result. One young woman told me she had stopped looking at porn but felt guilty about the arousing images that still popped into her head. Another young guy, one of my best students, told me that he felt as if he’d been set up for failure, as if Jensen and I were positing abstinence from pornography as the sine qua non of being a decent male. â€œIf I masturbate to porn can I still be a good man was the question I got from more than one anguished participant in the class. And if several of the students were willing to divulge such private pain to me, I can only assume that still others felt the same way but kept silent.
Clarisse is a well-known advocate for what is usually called “sex-positive” feminism, as well as an activist for BDSM acceptance. She takes the position that some folks may have an innate orientation towards BDSM, a stance of which I am deeply suspicious but not immediately dismissive. But watching my students’ reactions to her — and reading the emails and Facebook messages I got from several of them afterwards — I realized how important it is to have feminist voices that celebrate pleasure and desire. Theory matters to Clarisse as it does to me; justice matters to her as well. (In her real life, where she goes by her birth name, she is a committed activist for a variety of causes.) But though she recognizes that our culture is deeply corrupted by what is increasingly often called “kyriarchal” influences, she understands that all of us have to live and love and fuck and create and nurture within that culture. Just as ringing Sunday sermons in church aren’t of much use if they aren’t applied in the weekday lives of the congregation, so too a feminism that is heavy on inspiring classroom rhetoric needs to offer folks reassurance and encouragement in every other aspect of their lives.
One of the critiques that feminists of color had of mainstream white feminism a generation ago was that middle-class white feminists tended to prioritize “sisterhood” over all other values. Women of color who lived in what white feminists considered “patriarchal” and “oppressive” ethnic groups were encouraged to extricate themselves from their families and their cultures for the sake of individual happiness. Black, Latina, and Asian feminists insisted — quite rightly — on a different kind of feminism, one that could be synthesized with traditions and values that they held dear. What seemed hopelessly oppressive to well-to-do WASPy feminists was experienced very differently by many non-white women.
The same problem happens around sex.
So I’ve gotten the point: when I say that “using porn in inherently exploitative”, it’s the same thing as saying “Mexican culture is inherently sexist.” If I force a young person to choose between his or her sexual desires and feminism, it’s not far off from forcing a young Chicana to choose between her heritage and her commitment to women’s liberation. Our sexualities are influenced by the same things that mediate our experience of our etnhic origin: biology, upbringing, media, peers, faith, and so forth. Rather than condemnation, people need tools to negotiate and interpret and live out their sexual lives in ways that are just, safe, and life-affirming, just as they need tools that help them stay in their cultures and their families if that’s what they want to do. The feminist life is not just a theory. People have to live it.
Some of my students are going to have a BDSM-orientation (I’ve already had one email already from one, who was so moved by Clarisse’s candor that she’s ready to talk about an aspect of her identity she’s always considered deeply shameful.) Many of my students of both sexes look at porn, or have fantasies that aren’t perfectly congruent with what we might think of as the feminist egalitarian ideals. Some are working through abuse issues, some aren’t. But assuming that they aren’t actively engaging in the exploitation of another,or in non-consensual sexual activity, they could stand to be reminded that neither their human dignity nor their feminism (nor, for the believers, their faith) is on the line as they live out their intimate lives. This doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to the way in which misogyny may have infected our thoughts and desires. It means accepting that excising injustice and woman-hating from our culture is a long and hard battle that we’ll be fighting for years to come. Living in sexual limbo until that happy day is an unhappy and unnecessary sacrifice.
In the meantime, living as we do between the “Already” of the sexual revolution that allowed us to have these conversations, and the “Not Yet” of the genuinely egalitarian and shame-free world for which we fight, we need to be easier on ourselves. Are our wantings shaped by an imperfect world? Sure. Does that mean that our wantings are invariably wrong, and should be subject to endless critical analysis and second-guessing? Hell, no.
Encouraging reflection, transformation,and growth is an important part of feminist pedagogy. But so too is encouraging self-acceptance and an end to shame. With both men and women, I’ve sometimes been too heavy on the former and too light on the latter. I’ve been wrong, and where I’ve fostered feelings of being “not good enough” — something I know I’ve done — I am so deeply sorry.