Judy Blume’s Boy Fans

My Genderal Interest column this week looks at the influence on boys of the legendary Young Adult writer Judy Blume. Blume achieved fame as one of the most frequently banned and most consistently celebrated of authors who wrote for teen girls — but young men read her work too. Excerpt:

Judy Blume’s books shattered the old prejudice that teenage girls had no interest in sex. Emailing back and forth with these 31 men, I realized that her writing helped break down another myth as well. Though like Chris and me, these guys underlined the “dirty parts” when they were in junior high, Blume’s works were so much more than stroke material. The real thrill of these books lay in the insight they offered into a world we desperately wanted to understand. The image of adolescent boys as perpetually horny is grounded in considerable truth – but contrary to stereotype, raging teenage libidos don’t necessarily cancel out compassionate curiosity.

Reading Judy Blume didn’t just show me how strong, how hungry, and how ambitious young women could be. My own reaction to her novels, and to the complex female characters within them, taught me that arousal and empathy could coexist within me. Just like girls, I could lust and care – at the same time. As many other men told me this week, I wasn’t the only one to learn this lesson from these enduringly powerful books. Blume satisfied our curiosity and showed us our own compassion. “I can’t imagine my adolescence without her books,” emailed Brendan (41); I wrote back that I couldn’t more fervently agree.

Beauty, Disrupted and Best Sex Writing

Beauty, Disrupted: A Memoir by Carré Otis (for which I served as collaborator) continues to garner good reviews. Here’s a recent piece that ran in Plus Model Magazine.

And I’m so happy to have an essay included in Best Sex Writing 2012, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel and available now. The anthology is garnering some great reviews, and also includes pieces by Amanda Marcotte, Bussel, Marty Klein (with a wonderful essay on circumcision), Ellen Friedrichs, Tracy Quan, Susie Bright and many others. I’m very proud to be in this company.

This review from an Amazon reader was particularly gratifying to read.

“Beauty, Disrupted: A Memoir” in stores tomorrow

Beauty, Disrupted: A Memoir hits the shelves tomorrow, October 11. The autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, it tells the story of her meteoric rise in the 1980s, her explosive relationship with Mickey Rourke, and her struggles to overcome a life-threatening eating disorder and a heroin addiction. I co-authored the HarperCollins release.

Beauty, Disrupted also offers a behind-the-scenes look at the dark side of the modeling industry, where the sexual and emotional abuse of minors was (and still in some cases is) rampant. Carré names names, not out of vindictiveness but out of a commitment to the healing power of truth. Most models who have written their memoirs have taken care to protect key industry figures, even those who were — and are — notoriously abusive. This book goes where that book doesn’t.

And of course, it’s also a memoir of transformation. Carré recovered from her multiple, intersecting addictions. After years of hard spiritual and emotional work, she’s reached a place of remarkable peace; she and her second husband have two wonderful daughters and a stable life in Colorado. How she got to the place where she could get out of herself and give back to the world, how she healed from sexual trauma and violence, and how she became the happy and loving activist she is — that’s also the story of this book.

It’s a fascinating thing to be a collaborator on a memoir. For the year we were writing this book, my task was to be a partner but not a director, making sure that her story and her voice came through. As I learned as a professor assigning autobiographies, it’s easy to tell another person’s tale — but much more challenging, and much more important, to help them tell their own. A collaborator has to know what questions to ask, and how to form the answers into a readable narrative. My own insights were useful in helping form the right queries — but not in constructing the replies. As someone used to my own voice, the challenge was to make myself disappear, letting the power of my partner’s memories form the story. I needed to know when to “step up” as a collaborator — and when to “step back” and let the memoir take shape organically. It was an exciting process.

I’m proud of this book, and look forward to a variety of such collaborations in the future. For anyone interested in celebrity, in an unprecedented degree of insight into the modeling or fashion industries, in the anatomy of a toxic yet strangely tender marriage, or in a classic narrative of recovery and transformation, Beauty, Disrupted won’t disappoint.

Carré will be on the Today Show tomorrow, October 11 — and also that same day will appear for the entire hour with Anderson Cooper on his new program. Check your local listings. For more, visit the Beauty, Disrupted site.

“Hey, Shorty!” A new resource for combating harassment

One of the most welcome contemporary trends is the sudden interest in resources to combat sexual harassment. The global SlutWalk and Hollaback movements have brought unprecedented attention to the problem, as has Holly Kearl’s wonderful recent book Stop Street Harassment. Without question.we’re seeing a new level of commitment in the struggle to create safe public spaces for women.

One particularly exciting new resource comes from Girls for Gender Equity. GGE and Feminist Press have released Hey Shorty! A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment in Schools and on the Street. This brief, accessible, inexpensive book (and accompanying documentary film) focuses on the epidemic of sexualized harassment and violence in the New York City public school system, but its message and lessons are applicable worldwide. Hey, Shorty! tells the story of a decade-long struggle to develop programming to keep girls and women safe — programming often initiated and implemented by high school students.

Hey, Shorty documents the ubiquity and scale of sexualized harassment — and the toll it takes on young women’s lives. It’s an important reminder not only that words matter, but that solving the problem of harassment is inextricably tied up with the larger campaign to transform women’s relationship with their bodies.

The same media that foists upon us unrealistic and unattainable images of physical perfection also normalizes the sexualization of the young and the vulnerable. Women’s bodies become public property for comment, for desire, for rape and assault. We cannot hope to address the epidemic of eating disorders and body dysmorphia without also working to stop the verbal and physical harassment of women in public spaces.

Hey, Shorty! is a crucial warning about how daunting the challenge is — and a much-needed source of inspiration for how best to respond.

The “already” of choice, the “not yet” of certainty: a review of “Undecided”

I’ve written often about the Martha Complex and young women’s perfectionism. And I’m not the only one: since Courtney Martin’s Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters hit the shelves four years ago, many other books and articles have looked at this same phenomenon. In too many instances, however (and I plead partly guilty to this) our capacity to illustrate the problem exceeds our ability to propose a workable solution to the perfectionism crisis. We see the wrong more clearly than we see the right.

One new book does offer a more promising road map for women stuck on the ceaseless treadmill: Undecided: How to Ditch the Endless Quest for Perfect and Find the Career-and Life-That’s Right for You. Written by the mother-daughter team of Barbara and Shannon Kelley and published by the feminist Seal Press, Undecided is a helpful, funny, winsome guide to navigating through both perfectionism and its close cousin, “analysis paralysis.”

The Kelleys recognize that for the relatively privileged young women who are the target audience of their book, the sheer number of available choices (for careers, relationships, cities) can seem overwhelming. But they offer this helpful reminder:

The choices that paralyse us now were earned — not so long ago — by women who were dismayed (and often infuriated) by how few choices they and their sisters had. And a certain measure of our difficult in navigating these choices has to do with the fact that they’re just so new.

This generation of Millenials is caught between an “Already and a Not Yet” that fuels and exacerbates the perfectionism/choice surplus crisis. For at least a great many young American women (not enough, as poverty statistics continue to make clear) we’ve already created unprecedented opportunities for autonomy and agency. But we have not yet broken the powerful cultural stranglehold of older ways of thinking that condition young women not only to be people-pleasers, but to be terrified of failure. What we have not yet done is give young women sufficient permission to fuck-up; the “one mistake can ruin your life” narrative still holds sway. Continue reading

You should adore your kids more than they adore you: in defense of “Guess How Much I Love You?”

When Heloise was born, we bought (or were given) all the classic children’s books. We have Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny; Each Peach Pear Plum and Ferdinand. We read what we were read; I can’t wait to recite Charlotte’s Web to my daughter in the next few years, as I loved it so. (My brother and I grew up listening to the LP’s of E.B. White reading his famous book aloud.)

I’ve learned that children’s books can divide parents; everyone has one they love or loathe. But I was surprised to read this commentary at Daddy Dialectic about one of my daughter’s favorites (and one I also treasure), Sam McBratney’s Guess How Much I Love You. Jeff writes:

In it, two rabbits – an adult and a child – engage in a game of one-upmanship in their quest to say how much they love each other. The game begins with the little rabbit telling the big rabbit “Guess how much I love you.” The little rabbit then stretches his arms out wide and says “This much.” The big rabbit smiles, and, doing the same thing with his arms, says “Well I love you this much.” They then proceed in back and forth fashion through raised arms, extended legs, jumps, etc. until the little rabbit begins to fall asleep. At this point, the little rabbit presents his final claim: “I love you all the way up to the moon.” The big rabbit ultimately concludes the book by replying: “I love you all the way up to the moon – and back.”

According to the publisher this book has sold over 15 million copies and is published in 37 languages. The children’s book review publication Booklist gave it a starred review and said about the book, “There’s not a wrong note in this tender tale.”

Am I the only one who thinks the adult rabbit… is a bit of an asshole? Aren’t the adult rabbit’s constant moves to up the ante on the little rabbit evidence of an ego that’s out of whack? Even when channeled through professions of love, this kind of behavior doesn’t feel particularly tender to me. In fact, it seems to me that the adult rabbit’s answer to the question of how much love it has for the little rabbit should be, “Not enough to restrain myself from besting your every move.”

Gosh, that’s not how I read it at all. And since I’ve never written about children’s books before, I’m happy that my defense of McBratney’s charming tale will be my first. Continue reading

Sex, Lies, and Exegesis: on Jennifer Knust’s Marvelous New Book

I’ve written quite a bit about Christianity and sex both here and elsewhere. I’ve made the case for a more inclusive and liberated ethic on Scriptural, spiritual, and psychological grounds. Folks who are curious about where they can learn more about a progressive — yet authentically Christian — sexual worldview often ask me for recommendations for further reading. And I now have a new text to add to the list I give: Unnprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire, written by Jennifer Wright Knust, an American Baptist pastor and New Testament professor at Boston University.

Unprotected Texts (a clever pun) is the rarest of books: instantly accessible to the layperson, yet sufficiently scholarly to serve as an appropriate text for a graduate level theology course. In some 250 pages (not counting the extraordinarily extensive bibliography and footnotes), Knust examines the sweep and scope of both Old and New Testament writing on sexuality, sin and the elusive notion of purity. She’s created a refreshingly non-polemical work, managing to do what so few of us who write about sex and faith accomplish: avoid taking one side or another in the ongoing culture war.

Knust is writing for those of us who take the Bible seriously. If there’s a consistent charge thrown by theological conservatives against their liberal brethren, it’s that those of us who advocate for an inclusive sexual ethic don’t take a sufficiently rigorous or reverent approach to Scripture. Knust dismisses that charge, reminding her readers in the introduction that

…the Bible is not only contradictory but complex…biblical teachings regarding desire, marriage, and the human body are entirely inconsistent and yet thoroughly fascinating. The Bible does not offer a systematic set of teachings or a single sexual code, but it does reveal sometimes conflicting attempts on the part of people and groups to define sexual morality, and to do so in the name of God.

Knust’s summary of these “conflicting attempts” is dazzling; from Genesis to the Epistles, from the story of Noah’s nakedness and Lot’s daughters to Paul’s views on homosexual sex and marriage, she deftly explains that the “plain meaning” of these texts is not nearly so plain at all. For students of biblical criticism, it’s remarkable how well Knust uses multiple levels of interpretation (historical, grammatical, and yes, “reader response”) to explore complicated and influential passages. Along the way, Knust shares some remarkable stories from the Apocrypha and other non-canonical sources. (I had no idea, for example, that it was the Proto-Gospel of James that went so far as to claim that not only was Mary a virgin when she conceived Jesus, but that she never menstruated and that her hymen remained intact after the holy birth!)

Knust warns her readers, both right and left:

Whatever we wish for can be found somewhere in the Bible, which is why it is so important to admit we have wishes, whatever they may be. We are not passive recipients of what the Bible says, but active interpreters who make decisions about what we will believe and what we will affirm. Admitting that we have wishes, and that our wishes matter, is therefore the first step to developing an honest and faithful interpretation…. it is up to readers to decide what a biblically informed and faithful sexual morality might look like. (Emphasis mine.)

Our wishes matter, of course, because that’s part of how we were intended to relate to God and to Scripture. People of faith are always in multiple relationships: with God, with sacred texts, with the living and the dead interpreters of those texts. Every relationship is a two-way street, of course. Our desires and our hopes are at the very core of our identity, and to imagine that we can purge ourselves of them completely so that God can simply inscribe God’s will on the blank slate of our souls is a naive fantasy. The prophets and the scribes brought their agendas as we bring ours. It has always been so and will continue to be so, and to pretend otherwise is foolishness.

If you’re looking for a scholarly yet highly readable analysis of what the bible says — and far more importantly, doesn’t say — about everything from menstruation to homosexuality to virginity to marriage, Unprotected Texts is indispensable. A stirring rebuke to those who claim that the Bible speaks with unmistakable clarity on contemporary moral issues, Knust’s terrific new book will also serve as a tremendous source of comfort and inspiration to those who long for affirmation that the way in which they express love and desire is not contrary to God’s will.

Coming attractions

For those of you who want to know about this book I keep dropping hints about, I can finally come clean about what it is I’ve been working on. You’ll see more publicity about this in the months to come, but here’s the first sign the book is real and is on its way. Click here or here.

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Read Up: Books that Make Great Gifts

‘Tis the gift-giving season, so here’s a list of great non-fiction books on gender, sexuality, and feminism — all of which first appeared in 2010. Ask for these in your stocking, or consider these as ideal gifts for a friend. Here are some of my favorite reads of the year gone by, in no particular order. Some are more academic than others, but all are accessible to a general audience.

Want more ideas, especially for young people? Check out the Amelia Bloomer Project, which collects and reviews great feminist-friendly books for children and young adults.

If you order through Amazon, why not do it through the NWSA (National Women’s Studies Association) site? Just click the banner on their page, and 5 – 7% of the purchase will support the National Women’s Studies Association and help us sustain projects including the Women of Color Leadership Project, and provide travel grants for conference attendees.

Share your ideas for other great non-fiction titles (published in 2010) in the comments!

Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists edited by Courtney Martin and and J. Courtney Sullivan

Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, Cordelia Fine.

Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture edited by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone

Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women
, Rebecca Traister.

Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Spaces Safe and Welcoming for Women, Holly Kearl.

Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, Sara Marcus.

Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, Jennifer L. Pozner

And one from a few years back that is still indispensable for every young person:

S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College, Heather Corinna.

Share widely!

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Time to Grow Up: a review of Philip Gulley’s “If the Church were Christian”

I recently received a copy of If the Church Were Christian: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus. Written by Philip Gulley, a former Catholic turned Quaker minister, If the Church were Christian is a brief, highly readable, and impassioned call for a a rethinking of our faith along progressive lines.

We are a society that has grown fond in the past decade of polemical tracts from across the political and theological spectrum. The Christian marketplace groans under the weight of books calling for reform and transformation of one sort or another. Few in the church look at contemporary Christianity and say “Yes, this is exactly what Jesus intended.” But even fewer make a coherent case for what the church ought to look like, and of those, hardly any do so with the grace and the winsomeness of Gulley.

A little over a decade ago, I read John Shelby Spong’s Why Christianity Must Change or Die. Though as a liberal evangelical, I shared most of Spong’s progressive views on sexual liberation and economic justice, I winced at the former bishop’s tone. Spong hectored and belittled those who clung to more traditional views; he couldn’t resist mocking those for whom the Virgin Birth and the resurrection were precious articles of faith — and fact. Spong did little to win the hearts and minds of traditionalists; rather, despite his good heart and his excellent politics, he became an easy target for them because of his tendency to be so relentlessly intemperate. I’ve been waiting ever since for a progressive manifesto that argued for the same end goal — but did so with a far greater respect for those who continue to hold conservative views. My wait is over. Continue reading