Sex and Self-Mutilation at Jewrotica

I’ve got a second contribution up at Jewrotica today: I Can Read You with My Fingertips: Scars, Ink, Sex, and Leviticus. It may be a little triggering to some who’ve had issues with self-mutilation.. and a little PG-13 in terms of sexual description. Here’s how it finishes:

My ex-lover Amy, one of the first women I slept with in my early sobriety, was the first to find evident erotic delight in my scars. I’m grateful that she didn’t turn out to be the last. As I learned to have sex without the crutch of drugs and alcohol, I also learned not to flinch from curious fingers and playful tongues as they explored the marks on my skin. “I can read you like Braille,” one woman said; “all these stories at my fingertips.” I shuddered in gratitude when I heard that.

My four year-old, Heloise likes to sit beside me as I read her a book, or as we watch Scooby-Doo. In recent months, she’s made it clear she wants to sit on my left side so that she can explore the scars on that forearm. While she listens to me read, or gazes at the television, her little fingers rhythmically and repetitively trace the bumps and raised lines. Heloise knows only that they are marks “where abba got hurt;” she’s years away from hearing how or why. There is of course nothing sexual about her caress. But my own ability to sit still and welcome that gentle touch from my child grew out of what I learned from the lovers who loved on my scars with their hands and mouths.

My face is weather-beaten and lined from years of running in the sun and the wind. My arms and torso carry the innumerable marks of a chaotic and hard-lived youth, and though they may not be beautiful to many, they are treasures to me. When I meet G-d at the end of things, I will meet him with this battered body. Returning to the faith of my ancestors, I will go down to the grave as a scarred, tattooed Jew.

“My sweet boy, my goy toy”: a debut piece of non-fiction at Jewrotica

From the confessional writing files: a true story about a brief grad school fling serves as my debut piece at Jewrotica. Check out My Sweet Boy, My Goy Toy and please note that the piece does contain sexually explicit scenes and may not be appropriate for all readers. AND NOT YOU, MOTHER.


We ended up back in her apartment, kissing on the couch. She pulled my tucked polo shirt out of my jeans, her hands running up my torso, finding my nipples. I gasped, my own hand reaching up to cup her breast. Chana suddenly pulled back, pushed back her spectacularly tousled hair, and announced, “Wait. I need to ask you something.”

I was sure she was going to ask one of two things. Perhaps: was my divorce final? (It wasn’t.) Or: did I have a condom? (Not on me, but I was prepared to sprint to the nearest pharmacy.)

Instead: “Are you Jewish?”

I was stunned. My first thought was that she was trying to figure out if I was circumcised. But what an odd way and time to ask, I thought. “I’m half,” I replied, “my father is.” Chana nodded. “But not your mother?”

“No, she’s an atheist Episcopalian. Does it matter?”

Chana leaned forward, butting her head gently into my chest. I kissed her hair, waited. “This can never go anywhere serious,” she said, proceeding to explain – without ever raising her gaze to meet mine – that she was totally committed to her faith and her heritage and would only consider marrying a Jewish man. I stroked her hair while she talked, trying to figure out if I was flattered that this brilliant, gorgeous woman would consider marrying me – or if I was insulted that my mother’s background took me out of the running. Mostly, I was amazed. It was 1992! What serious academic (and Chana had extraordinary intellectual chops) made decisions based on religion?

I lifted Chana’s face to meet mine. I kissed her. “It’s okay if we can’t get serious,” I whispered, “I just want to enjoy this now.” She laughed. “I’m gonna hold you to that, baby; remember you said that.” She cocked her head to one side, studying me. I held her gaze, sensing that if I wavered, I’d be asked to leave. And then, without another word and in one fluid motion, she pulled my shirt up, over, and off.

Read the whole thing.

Ultra-Orthodox Men Wearing Blinders to Avoid Seeing Women

At Jezebel today in a very short piece, I look at the strange news out of Jerusalem: an ultra-Orthodox outfit is manufacturing special glasses to act as blinders for observant men, to prevent them from seeing anything that might serve as an occasion for sin. Excerpt:

On the one hand, this is good news. As the Times notes, these eyeglasses mark a “change in tactics” in the Israeli ultra-Orthodox campaign against immodesty. Rather than forcing women to cover up (and spitting on eight year-olds with exposed forearms), these blinders place the onus for avoiding temptation where it belongs: on men. If the choice is between harassing women for displaying bare skin and turning men into carriage horses, the latter seems like the preferable option.

At the same time, these eyeglasses and their stickers send two toxic and unmistakable messages. First, women’s bodies have such power to do harm that men need to partially blind themselves for protection. Second, men are totally incapable of exercising self-control. In the book of Job (Iyov in Hebrew) the title character says “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then should I look lustfully at a girl?” A covenant is a promise sustained by faith, not by a crude device that impairs the senses. Deeply religious men usually have the ocular muscles to redirect their vision from that which might prove a solicitation to sin. Outsourcing that willpower to a pair of glasses makes the idea of self-control almost meaningless.

Read the whole thing.

Food, faith, and fashion: an article in the Fuller Semi

A few weeks ago, I wrote a short piece for Relevant, a Christian magazine, on Beauty and Sexuality. The same day it went up, the editor of Fuller Theological Seminary’s student magazine asked me for a follow-up piece for their spring special issue on faith and fashion. The issue went up yesterday, and my offering is here: Fashion and Food. Excerpt:

One basic truth that can’t be repeated often enough: created things can have more than one purpose. The tongue, for example: it exists to taste, to speak, and to prevent us from choking. It can also be used in kissing, or in lovemaking to give pleasure to another human being. It would be silly to rank those capabilities in any sort of hierarchical order. (Would “preventing choking” rank above or below “tasting for spoiled food”?)

What’s true of body parts is true of what we use to fuel that body. Yes, food keeps us alive. But it also is the greatest source of consistent physical pleasure that many of us will ever know; for most it is our first and last delight. The preparing and eating of meals can turn food itself into a spiritual glue that bonds communities together. And of course, food is a means of taking God into ourselves, as Jesus reminds us at the last supper. Food is many things.

So too with clothing. It exists to cover our nakedness, to keep us warm, to protect us from the rays of the sun. Uniforms of one kind or another help us distinguish certain professions or ceremonial participants: police officers, flight attendants, brides. Where clothing becomes fashion, however, is when garments move beyond the utilitarian need for comfort (or occupation signaling) and towards the provision of visual delight. The delight in gorgeous clothes and the body inside them is as natural as the delight in the taste of truly delicious food. Like anything truly beautiful, the purpose is to draw attention to a divine gift.

Please check out the other great articles at The Semi as well!

I’ll note that I’m particularly pleased to have been asked to be part of this issue. Fuller Seminary is near and dear to my heart. For many years, I lived walking distance from its flagship Pasadena campus. My most recent ex-wife got her Ph.D. from Fuller while she and I were wed. And Fuller’s long-time president, the great theologian and philosopher Richard Mouw, was my father’s very first graduate student some fifty years ago.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written for explicitly Christian audiences in explicitly Christian spaces, and it’s been a refreshing experience indeed. My appearance at Relevant was not without controversy. In that light in particular, I’m touched to have the continued support of the Fuller community and of the Relevant editorial staff.

Beauty and Sexuality at Relevant Magazine

It’s been years since I’ve written for a Christian audience, so I’m excited to have a post today at the progressive evangelical Relevant Magazine. Beauty and Sexuality revisits issues of grace, desire, community and aesthetic appreciation:

Because we refuse to take seriously men’s ability to not lust in the presence of loveliness, we shame the great many women who—whatever their other fabulous qualities—also want to be affirmed for their beauty. If every man is “fighting a battle” against lust, and if few men are capable of distinguishing appreciation for beauty from carnal longing, then every woman who dresses to be validated becomes a traitor to the cause of spiritual purity. The end result is devastating for too many. Lauren Lankford Dubinsky, founder of the Good Women Project, wrote in an email that “women are victimized by the soul-crushing weight of having your motives (or even personal worth) judged incorrectly on the basis of something as simple as an article of clothing. A huge percentage of women within the Church are silently battling eating disorders, self-harm, pornography addiction and depression—all stemming from misplaced shame, a shame they feel because fellow Christians have equated their beauty with intentional malice or deliberate seductiveness toward men.”

To put it another way, we shame men by insisting they’re fundamentally weak, constantly vulnerable to being overwhelmed by sexual impulses. We shame women for not being better stewards of that supposed weakness. That shame doesn’t just lead to unhealthy sexual relationships (including between husbands and wives); it leaves too many men feeling like potential predators and too many women feeling as if they’re vain, shallow temptresses.

After having written for the Good Men Project for so long, it’s fun to be affiliated with The Good Women Project. I’m grateful to founder Lauren Dubinsky for helping arrange the piece to appear at Relevant.

I can’t stress strongly enough that this article is written for a Christian audience that sees lust as problematic. I recognize that that’s not a universally held position, and if I were writing for secular readers, I’d frame the problem slightly differently. But whether one believes lust is a sin or not, the reality is that both the church and the wider world put the lion’s share of responsibility for male desire onto women. And that’s indefensibly unfair.

Catching up with Bethany Patchin

Saturday’s “Beliefs” section in the New York Times features a story on Bethany Patchin, a wonderful friend of mine from Nashville.

As the Times story relates, Bethany began her writing career as a fierce but winsome teenage advocate for conservative Christian sexual values. Her first piece (at Boundless, the youth website for Focus on the Family), was a proud promise that she intended to save her virgin lips for her wedding day. One young man was so impressed with that article he started writing to her — and in time, became both the fortunate recipient of her first kiss and, not at all coincidentally, her husband.

Bethany and Sam Torode had four children and a book: Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception. Young, attractive, articulate and counter-cultural, the Torodes found themselves darlings of the religious right, which is how I first heard about them. Their book came out when I was in the brief throes of a flirtation with evangelicalism, and my rave review of Open Embrace represents a set of views that I’ve long since repudiated. (The internet preserves our intellectual embarrassments forever. It’s much worse than a topless picture in a bathroom mirror.)

After I checked out Open Embrace, I started reading her earlier work, and was so impressed (but not entirely convinced) by Bethany’s writing that I started assigning some of her Boundless pieces in my women’s studies class. Her work was grist for some tremendous discussions and debates.

Bethany and I started corresponding in late 2002. Though she’s fourteen years my junior, she was one of inspirations to start blogging, and the first person to whom I sent a draft of an article for a pre-pitch review. We stayed in touch for the next several years, even as we each started taking separate paths away from evangelical positions on faith and sexuality. We wrote more frequently as her marriage to Sam came to an end. Where she had once given me advice about books and articles, I was able to return the kindness about divorce and related topics.

I count Bethany as one of my favorite people in the whole world whom I’ve never met in real life. The same web that archives our indiscretions for posterity gives us the opportunity to make and sustain true friendship across vast distances. That’s a happy thing.

She’s got a powerful story to tell. (Agents and editors, take note.) And do check out the Times piece.

Whether they wear burqas or bikinis, we need to trust women

An earlier version of this post appeared in February 2010, when the French were first considering the ban on the burqa that went into place today.

A couple of folks have asked me about the French attempt to ban the wearing of the burqa or the niqab in public. (Google about for various discussions about the not-always-clear distinctions between the two.) What is important to note is that the burqa and the niqab, terms sometimes used interchangeably and in slightly different ways in various parts of the Islamic world, both involve concealing much if not all of the face. This is distinct from the notion of hijab, which normally refers only to the covering of the hair, and perhaps the concealing of arms and legs.

Before I go any further, let me recommend this short and sensible response from Jill at Feministe. Another good post is here, at Muslimah Media Watch.

The French initiative is motivated by concern for the rights of women. Though only a tiny fraction of Muslim women in France actually wear the burqa in public, they are highly visible symbols of a particular kind of conservative Islam, one that severely circumscribes women’s public role. It is no doubt true that women who wear the burqa do so on a spectrum of volition. Some are presumably forced to wear it; others — and the evidence for this is considerable — do so in opposition to their family’s expectations rather than in acquiescence. One person’s oppression, after all, is another’s vigorous assertion of independence and identity.

Reading coverage of the burqa story in the mainstream and feminist media, I’m struck by what a number of other feminists have also noted: the degree to which those who claim to be acting on behalf of women seem to be certain that they know what women are actually thinking. Concealment of the body that goes beyond a cultural norm is automatically read by some as oppressive, something no woman in her right mind could want for herself. It reminds me of the same damn argument I hear from some of my students about classmates who dress in more revealing clothing.

We’ve all seen it happen in the classroom on a hot day (of which we have a surfeit here in inland Southern California). A young woman walks into class a few minutes late. Perhaps she’s wearing a mini-skirt or very short shorts; perhaps she also has a low cut shirt or a tube top on. From at least some of her fellow students, she will be on the receiving end of both hostility and lust. Listening carefully, one can hear the sotto voce whispers, “Who does she think she is?” and “This is school, not a night club”, or even the simple, devastating, “What a slut.” In nearly twenty years of college teaching , I’ve witnessed this umpteen times. (More so at two-year schools, for reasons discussed in this post on clothing, class, and community colleges.)

When I ask young men and women why they think a female student might wear revealing clothing, most discount the possibility that she’s doing so for comfort or for her own pleasure. “She’s insecure”, they’ll insist. “She just wants attention.” Some get into advanced pop psychology: “She probably doesn’t have a good relationship with her Dad, so she needs male validation.” The notion that a girl could be expressing agency, courage, and genuine self-confidence is almost always dismissed. As those of us who teach gender and sexuality know, young people are all too often strangely puritanical in their insistence that a strong sense of self-worth can’t be congruent with sexual display. And they are certainly nearly universally presumptuous in their certainty about what their be-miniskirted classmate is “really thinking.” Continue reading

Every sperm is sacred: of Onan, menstrual blood, and facials

In my “beauty and the body” class, I’m using one new book I’ve never assigned before: Lisa Jean Moore’s Sperm Counts: Overcome By Man’s Most Precious Fluid. I gave my first lecture on sperm yesterday. After a brief physiology lesson where we distinguished sperm from semen and talked about things like the Cowper’s gland and the prostate, we went into the main material of the lecture, which was the spiritual significance of ejaculate in both Western and Eastern culture.

Both the Eastern and the Judeo-Christian traditions imbue semen with sacred properties. The differences, of course, are enormous. To oversimplify enormously, the Hindu and Buddhist perspective regards ejaculate as a source of divine energy. Refraining from masturbation for all, and the practice of celibacy for monks, allows men to retain rather than lose this source of inspiration and insight. Yogis and others who go without ejaculating for years and years are believed to be sustained and nourished by the retention of this precious fluid. The celibate’s batteries are charged, in other words, while the ejaculator’s battery is regularly depleted. Thus Taoist and Tantric traditions suggest that even for the married, sex should be infrequent so as not to exhaust the body of its most valuable resource.

On the other hand, the Judeo-Christian tradition is more explicit in connecting semen to “seed” — and thus to male domination. The Hebrew word “zera” means “seed” in the common agricultural sense, but it also means semen. I didn’t want to overwhelm my students with bible quotes, but the key passages are from Genesis.

Genesis 17:9, King James Version: And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. God’s covenant is with a substance — semen is the physical glue that binds a people together. It is, in a sense, the ink through which the covenant is written.

In Genesis 38:9, the wicked Onan “spills his seed” upon the ground (practicing the withdrawal method) rather than inseminate his brother’s widow. God kills Onan for the crime of having squandered the divine substance.

But what is so significant about “seed”? From a feminist standpoint, it’s quite simply at the very root of the Judeo-Christian hostility towards women. As is widely known, from the time of the Hebrews until the discovery of ova and the process of conception during the Scientific Revolution, Western authorities were largely convinced that women had very little role to play in the reproductive process. Women were like fields, soil which needed to be ploughed and planted and fertilized; the identity of the future child was entirely contained within the man’s ejaculate (the notion of the Homunculus).

Each act of heterosexual intercourse, therefore, mimicks the story of the human creation. In Genesis 2 (which is, of course, the second creation story, written well after the earlier story of simultaneous creation of men and women), God makes Adam out of the “dust of the ground.” The soil has no life until it is given life by God, just as women cannot give life unless animated by semen. Thus semen is not only the fluid of the covenant, it is the substance that makes each man in some sense like God, granting him the chance to share with the creator the joy of creating. To “waste” semen, whether through masturbation or the withdrawal method or barrier contraception, is not just missing out on a chance at making another life –it is the willful refusal to act like the Creator. (Hence the Roman Catholic and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish hostility to condoms and jerking off!)

The explicit connection to misogyny comes easily. In the Western tradition, women are dangerous because they tempt men away from their responsibility to “act like God.” The righteous woman is a careful guardian of men’s semen, and she guards it through modest dress (so as not to tempt men to lust, because then they might masturbate and waste the sacred fluid). A strictly observant Jewish woman makes sure that her husband’s semen only comes into her body after she has ritually purified herself through the practice of Niddah; she’s got to earn the right to take something so magical, so male, so pure, into her comparatively unclean body. Throughout much of the broader Abrahamic religious tradition, women are responsible for protecting semen in two distinct ways: one, by doing all that they can to keep men from irresponsibly “spilling”; two, by being radically open to conception. Contraception and abortion, the great bugaboos of religious conservatives, are hated not merely because they empower women but because they are seen as women’s rejection of the sacred spermatic gift. Continue reading

Pilates with the Orthodox: thoughts on modesty, compromises, and community standards

My wife and I have worked out with the same Pilates instructor, Stephanie, since 2005. She’s become a good friend of ours, and we’ve followed her around from studio to studio over the years. Happily enough, her main studio is now just four blocks from our home in the Pico-Robertson area of West Los Angeles. I can take a short walk to work out with her, and given my very tight schedule, that’s a real blessing.

We live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood one block south of Beverly Hills. Our neighbors are all Jewish; we’re the only goyim on the block. Most of those who live around us are religiously observant, and on Shabbat and on holidays (today is Sukkot) nary a car moves from its spot, and the sidewalks are filled with families walking to and from shul. Ethnically, the neighborhood is a mixture of Persian and Ashkenazi Jews, with plenty of Israelis of various backgrounds as well. One hears lots of Farsi, lots of Hebrew, and, a little less often, Yiddish. Since my wife and I are active in the Kabbalah Centre, we’re a source of bemused curiosity to most of our neighbors, who know that we’re not Jewish (the Christmas tree last year was one of many signs) but sometimes see me strolling on a Saturday with a tallit draped over my shoulders. Everyone gets along, however, and we feel very welcome. It helps that Heloise, my extroverted daughter, is a hit.

In any case, most of the clients at the local Pilates studio are Orthodox Jewish women. Besides Stephanie, the other instructors are Jewish as well. Many of the women who work out at the studio observe the traditional modesty restrictions of their sect, including wearing wigs, long skirts, and tops that are of at least “three-quarter sleeve” length. Because of the rules against wearing pants, some of the women do Pilates and yoga in floor-length skirts with workout tights underneath. The studio does their best to accomodate them.

Of course, many of these women are uncomfortable working out with a man present. There are very few male clients at the studio, much fewer than you would find at comparable Pilates and yoga facilities elsewhere in L.A. Orthodox Jewish men are not often raised in a culture that values fitness, after all. Many of the female clients at the studio will not lie on their backs or get into other poositions (such as reclining on a Pilates reformer) while a man can see them. The studio is one large room, and it’s thus impossible for me to work out while Orthodox clients are doing so as well.

Stephanie and the other instructors have worked to rearrange schedules so that I’m there only when I am either the sole client or sharing studio time with those whose interpretation of modesty regulations is more lax. But we still sometimes run into trouble. I’ve had a standing Wednesday 6:15AM workout time with Stephanie on the books for months; we do Pilates/yoga fusion for an hour. But yesterday, a traditional Orthodox female client showed up at 7:00 to do Pilates with another instructor. While Stephanie and I hastily finished up, the conservative woman did some arm band exercises which allowed her to remain upright. As soon as I could depart at quarter past seven, she was able to get on the reformer and start “working her core”, something she would not do with me anywhere in the room.

Stephanie and I will now be working out Wednesday mornings at six, pushing back our start time fifteen minutes so I don’t overlap with those who cannot sweat or recline in my presence. I’ve also been asked to make sure I never enter early for an appointment at other times, as I might interrupt an Orthodox client in a “compromising position.” While female clients are welcome to sit and wait inside, I’m occasionally relegated to standing on the sidewalk, if only for a few moments. Continue reading