Mutual submission, mutual dreams: more on one vision of a feminist marriage

So the discussion is spirited (if inclined to the anti-feminist ad hominem) below yesterday’s post on marriage and feminism. One anti-feminist does ask a question that deserves a better answer than I’ve given so far:

You’re in a “passionately feminist marriage”? What does that even mean?

I gave my “row boat” description yesterday, and I’ve written before about the central importance of Ephesians 5:21 and the appealing notion of “mutual submission.” I’m aware, of course, that different people have different visions of what equality looks like. Many who do like the comfort of strict gender roles insist that their marriages also reflect equality, arguing that “equality doesn’t equal sameness.” I’ve seen some of those marriages, seen how they thrive, and I don’t disagree that they can be wonderful. And as we’ve discussed recently around here, it’s possible to have healthy, loving marriages in which BDSM plays an important role. That’s not my vision of domestic bliss, but there’s certainly more than one path to marital happiness.

But what do I mean when I say my marriage is “passionately feminist”? In the eyes of the anti-feminists, that may conjure up an image of a timid and fearful Hugo, walking on eggshells around his domineering wife, asking her permission for everything. Anti-feminists tend to think that any man who embraces real egalitarianism has essentially been emasculated, and has surrendered his capacity for action to his wife. Or perhaps they imagine that we have a little dry erase board in the kitchen, on which we keep track of how much time each of us has spent on domestic duties, in order to ensure that each of us is putting in precisely the same amount of effort as the other. And God only knows what the anti-feminists imagine about our bedroom. Perhaps they imagine my wife is some sort of dominatrix, or that our sexual behavior precludes penis-in-vagina intercourse, as that would indicate our acceptance of the “hegemony of the phallus.” Jeepers, the mind boggles at the possibilities!

So if none of that silliness is true, what is explicitly feminist about this marriage? For me, feminism is both a political ideology and a guideline for private praxis. (Similarly, my Christian faith gives me a “public theology” and a private moral code.) As my beloved brother says, we’re all called to “match our language and our lives”. Fighting for justice and inclusion in the world while being a domineering jerk at home is to have missed the point entirely. Obviously, my wife and I have a private life that is not open for public inspection. But even in our most intimate moments, even in the sacred space of our bedroom, we’re called to act in a way that is congruent with our values. Continue reading

Against “Bambi environmentalism”: a long post on hunting, veganism, cruelty, and the commitment to pleasure

The latest issue of Sierra, the magazine for Sierra Club members, showed up in our mailbox on Saturday. One article in particular stood out: “Life Itself Is a Risky Process” , an interview with Mary Zeiss Stange, professor of religon and women’s studies at Skidmore College. Stange is a feminist, an environmentalist …and an avid hunter. When she’s not teaching at Skidmore, she and her husband run a bison ranch in Montana.

It’s an interesting interview. Take Stange’s views on women and hunting:

Sierra: How do you explain the differences between men’s and women’s approaches to hunting?

Stange: Even before I became a hunter, I was fascinated by the Greek goddess Artemis, whom the Romans called Diana. One thing that struck me was that the goddess of hunting is also the goddess of childbirth. What do taking life and giving birth have to do with each other? They put you immediately in touch with the fact that everything that lives does so because other things die. Life itself is a risky process. Certainly one of those moments is childbirth. Another is the decision to take the life of a big, beautiful, sentient animal so that you can feed yourself and your family.

Stange gets point for candor, and of course, that last sentence (bold emphasis mine) left me indignant. It’s true that death and life are woven together, and that the survival of many creatures is contingent on their ability to kill and consume other living beings. But the fact that death is inevitable and, in some instances in the animal world, crucial for the survival of species, doesn’t mean that those creatures who have free will and have the means to exercise it shouldn’t do all in their power to struggle to minimize death. Stange and her family don’t need to live off the flesh of another sentient creature. For a 21st century middle-class American, the killing of living beings isn’t a survival imperative — it’s a decision to which there are legitimate alternatives. To pretend otherwise is foolish and cruel. Continue reading

Called to become like Christ: a long post about John Stott, following Jesus, and male transformation

I’ve been meaning to blog this for a while:

A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to this story about the retirement of John Stott from public ministry. Stott is, in the minds of many, the greatest living evangelical theologian. He’s a an Anglican, but his appeal is broad and his influence immense. The story notes that Billy Graham has called him “the most respected clergyman in the world today.” And though I do not share all of Stott’s political conclusions, I have long had great regard for his theological insights. And I was deeply moved by the sermon he preached last month — the 87 year-old’s final public sermon before heading into well-deserved retirement.

The substance of Stott’s sermon: we in the church need to focus on becoming more like Christ.

“God wants His people to become like Christ,” Stott said, as he was greeted with a standing ovation. “Christ-likeness is the will of God for the people of God.”

“We are to be like Christ in his Incarnation,” he said. “It was unique, in the sense that the Son of God took our humanity to himself in Jesus of Nazareth, but the amazing grace of God in the Incarnation of Christ is to be followed by all of us. We are to be like Christ in his Incarnation in the amazing self-humbling which lies behind the Incarnation.”

Stott based his sermon on three key New Testament passages: Romans 8:29, 2 Corinthians 3:18, and 1 John 3:2.

So much of contemporary Protestantism emphasizes belief over action. Too many pastors tell their congregations that salvation is a consequence of assenting to a simple formula: believe in Jesus Christ and his redemptive work on the cross, and presto, you’re guaranteed admission to heaven. And while assenting to the truth of the Christian story is surely one aspect of conversion, it is a beginning rather than an end. Faith in Christ without a willingness to become like Christ is empty faith — and John Stott, in the twilight of his remarkable ministry, makes that case.

Becoming like Christ is, obviously a process, rather than a singular event. Becoming an agent of love and justice and selflessness isn’t easy, even with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But what I appreciate from Stott is his reminder that all Christians are called to do this incredibly difficult work. The life that Jesus calls His followers to in the Sermon on the Mount is a life marked (to borrow from Lexus) by the relentless pursuit of perfection.

Perfection, we are told, is impossible for humans to achieve. Without faith, it probably is. But for me, as a Christian, one of the central tenets of my own belief is that Jesus is calling me to be as He was. I am called to model Christ and emulate Christ, and that is infinitely more useful than merely telling people about Christ. As Stott makes clear, the “Great Commission” for Christians is much less about what we say and much more about how we live.

Talking about the Christian duty to pursue Christ-like perfection brings us quickly to a seeming paradox. We’re called to become like Jesus — but a central part of His message is forgiveness for those (surely including ourselves) who regularly and repeatedly fall short of the mark. What we’ve got to do, it seems, is hold two things in simultaneous tension: the knowledge that we are all loved, just as we are, even if we never change — and the knowledge that we are called and required to do the achingly hard work of relentlessly changing ourselves and the world.

Sometimes, I imagine Jesus saying something like this to me: “Hugo, I love you just as you are. No matter what you’ve done, no matter what you’re doing or thinking or saying, I couldn’t love you any more than I already do. No matter what, no matter what, I adore you. But I long for you to change and grow; I’m calling you to follow me and to feed my lambs.”

I haven’t blogged about my faith in a while. But it seems that in recent months, the Spirit is stirring in my life in a more overt way again. I’m feeling closer to God than I have in a long time, feeling His call on me more acutely. John Stott’s valedictory sermon has been very heartening, and it’s been much on my mind these past couple of weeks.

It’s influencing what I’m writing about gender, too. At the risk of being accused of monumental hubris, I do believe God is calling me to do very specific work with men, particularly young men. My post on Monday has not been well-received for a variety of reasons, but perhaps especially because of this line: Our culture is too easy on our young men.

I love young men as I love their sisters. But I am tired of the ways in which various figures in our popular culture perpetuate the myth of male weakness, I am disgusted by the ways in which everyone from Harvey Mansfield to Dr. Laura infantilize men and blame women for male failures. I am angry as a man, as a feminist, but also as a Christian who believes that the message of the world’s largest faith is that we are all called to become like Jesus. Though there is no male or female in Christ, Jesus lived as a male, knowing all the temptations of the body, and He transcended the limitations of the flesh. And as John Stott (and the apostle Paul) remind us, we are called to be transformed into His likeness.

I’m a long way from perfection. I’m a long way from really being Jesus to the people in my life. But I’m growing closer and closer, and can already mark how far I’ve come even as I am stunned (but not disheartened) at how much further I have to go. And I am a man who lived as impulsive, self-destructive, and unChrist-like life as any. I’m not calling on young men to immediate perfection. I’m calling them to transform themselves and the world, and I’m working — as best I can — on ways to make the case for that transformation as compelling, seductive, and winsome as I can.

Not just consent but enthusiasm: some notes on college sex workshops and stoplights

The thread below this post has gotten sidetracked in a variety of typical ways. Noumena wrote:

How to not get raped’ workshops are legion and often mandatory for new college students, but I’ve never heard of a `how not to become a rapist’ workshop, to say nothing of `having a healthy sex life at college on your own terms’.

And I mentioned that I’ve facilitated a variety of workshops that deal with these issues, though not with those titles. One workshop I helped design years ago, and which I would love to do again, was something we called “Consent and Beyond”. Originally growing out of the work of Peer Sexuality Outreach at Cal, the workshop was designed to create honest discussion about how young people can communicate more effectively about desire, boundaries, limits, and, of course, consent.

Most boys, for example, get the “no means no” message pretty loud and clear in high school and college workshops. It’s a worthy if basic message, and one well worth repeating over and over again. But as anyone who works around young people and sexuality will tell you, in and of itself a “no means no” reminder is woefully insufficient. Many of the young men and women I work with, for example, talk to me of what I’ve come to call the “stoplight” phenomenon. Traffic signals, of course, have three colors: red for stop, yellow for caution, green for go. Good drivers are taught to stop on “red”, which functions as a “no”. But of course, even at the busiest urban intersections, no light stays red indefinitely. If you wait long enough at a stoplight, every red will become green. And when all we do is teach young men that “no means stop” when it comes to sexual boundaries, we often send them the message that if they just wait long enough (or pester, push, nag, beg, play passive-aggressive games) they’ll get the “green light” they’re so hungry for. Good “sexual boundaries workshops” go beyond the “no means no” message. Specifically, we look at the ways in which many men will accept a “no” as a “yellow light” rather than a red, assuming that if they simply keep up unrelenting pressure (often abetted by alcohol or exhaustion) they’ll get the permission they seek.

Part of being a good man, I teach, is not being a relentless advocate for your own pleasure. Part of being a good sexual partner is not using a variety of psychological (and chemical) tactics to turn the red light to green, to turn the “no” into a “yes”, or even worse, to simply wait until the young woman has grown tired of saying “no” and falls into a resigned silence. This is all part of the “how not to be a rapist” workshop. And while one hears anecdotal stories of young women persistently pressuring male partners for sex, all of the evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of the pressure is uni-directional, from boys towards girls.

The message that needs to be repeated over and over again is this one: true consent is never tacit, it is never silent. Too many young men become date rapists by confusing silence with a clear, verbal affirmation. “No means no”, but with folks you don’t know well, you need to presume that silence (especially when accompanied by physical passivity) is also a loud, clear, shout-it-from-the-flippin’-rooftops, “NO!” How many women have had sex they didn’t desire with men they didn’t want simply because they were too tired of fighting, too tired of resisting, too eager to just have it over with?

A dangerous line I sometimes use: “The opposite of rape is not consent. The opposite of rape is enthusiasm”. It’s dangerous because it’s shocking, and of course, it’s dangerous because it twists the purely legal meaning of the term “rape.” But from the standpoint of one who cares desperately about the well-being of young people, my goal in offering workshops like these is not merely to prevent sexual assault that meets the legal standard of a criminal act. My goal is to prevent that, of course, but to also offer shy and uncertain young people tools to prevent them from having bad sex characterized by obligation, confusion, and detached resignation. I always argue that anything short of an authentic, honest, uncoerced, aroused and sober “Hell, yes!” is, in the end, just a “no” in another form.

That sets the bar pretty darned high. But given the consequences of unwanted sex to the body and the heart and the mind and the soul, given the potential for sex to be life-affirming and ecstatic, our young people deserve to have the bar set just that high.

Rejecting the “he who wants less, wins” model: a reply to Bob about marriage, faith and disparate desire

I’m home from some happy family time in Northern California. Yesterday, while driving down Interstate 5 through the Central Valley, the temperature gauge in my Solara registered 113 degrees. ‘Twas a toasty day, and I did my best to expand my carbon footprint by keeping the inside of my car at a comfy 65.

A reader named “Bob” writes:

I’m wondering though what you think about the concept of sexual frequency “normalcy” in marriage or committed relationships. In other words, if one partner has a higher sex drive than the other, what are the responsibilities (if any) of one to the other?

I know how the Church generally feels about this issue. The feelings range from glorified body ownership (a wife should submit to her husband’s sexual “needs” no matter what) to lessons of “thorns in the flesh” (repressing sexual “needs” are a good sign of spiritual discipline).

But how does a feminist feel about this? What do you do (if anything should be done) about unequal libido within a committed relationship? As the partner with a higher drive in my marriage, I constantly question my desires. Am I too dependent on my wife for sexual fulfillment? Maybe I should show more restraint as an independent person and a Christ follower. Perhaps this is my thorn in my flesh, a test from God. But then the Christian ideal of marriage seems to say much of “two becoming one,” some kind of mysterious interdependence, or even a combined identity. To have two different ideals of sexual unity, or any other ideal for that matter, seems counterproductive to the married unit.

Obviously, my first recommendation to Bob and his wife is that they seek counseling. That doesn’t mean I’m pathologizing his wife’s low sex drive or Bob’s more boisterous one. I am a great believer, however, in the marvelous progress that can be made with a good marital therapist. There are increasing numbers of Christians who work as marital therapists, and they integrate spiritual and psychological insights very effectively. Most married couples could benefit from a periodic therapeutic “tune-up”, even if no burning problem seems to be presenting itself.

Too often, we do tend to over-analyze incongruent libidos. It’s a staple of pop psychology that the partner with the lower drive is “repressed” or perhaps dealing with abuse issues from his or her childhood. Similarly, we often assume that the partner with the stronger drive is emotionally needy, or someone who seeks to soothe their anxiety and stress through sexual activity rather than a more appropriate outlet. Too often, partners can get into a tail-spin; the more the one with the higher drive presses, the more the one with the lower drive resists. The one with the higher drive feels neglected, unattractive, anxiety-ridden, frustrated; the one with the lower drive feels pressured, nagged, frustrated. Most people who’ve been in long-term relationships can recognize themselves in one (or both) of those roles!

It is by no means always the case in heterosexual marriages that it is always the man with the lower sex drive. But that’s Bob’s situation, and that matches up with our stereotype, so I’ll say a little about it here. I’m not going to rehash the great and mysterious words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 7. I will note that the New International Version says:

The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband.

In the context of a chapter on marital sex, that does make clear that a married couple do have sexual obligations to each other. But it would be a huge mistake to assume that Paul means that the lower-drive partner must always acquiesce to the one who’s hornier. I like how the Message version handles this same passage:

The marriage bed must be a place of mutuality—the husband seeking to satisfy his wife, the wife seeking to satisfy her husband. Marriage is not a place to “stand up for your rights.” Marriage is a decision to serve the other, whether in bed or out.

That’s really good, especially the bit about marriage not being a place to “stand up for your rights.” The mystery lies in how we each serve the other without ever insisting on those rights. For the higher-sexed person to demand that his or her partner provide sex on some sort of a schedule is clearly not what Paul is suggesting. At the same time, each partner is called to be deeply concerned with the well-being of the other — and of the partnership itself. That concern will manifest itself in the higher-sexed partner practicing self-control, not only in terms of physical restriction but also by refraining from nagging and pestering. The higher-sexed partner can’t come from a place of entitlement.

Similarly, the spouse with the lower drive has the obligation to be alert to the various ways in which he or she can provide emotional reassurance; the spouse with the lower drive is also, I think, obligated to honestly explore whether some dynamic within the relationship is causing a lack of interest. There’s a huge difference, after all, between genuinely not being “in the mood” and withholding sex as a passive-aggressive technique to gain the upper hand in the relationship. I’ve known plenty of men and women who’ve pulled the latter trick. They know the ugly old rule most of us first learn in adolescence: “He who wants it less, wins.”

The bottom line is that the “Yes” or the “I will” of the wedding vow is not a permanent disavowal of the right to say “No” in the future. Whether we are married to our sexual partners or not, none of us has the right to demand that another human being please us. In practical terms, it’s safe to say that the greatest enemies of true eros are entitlement and expectation. Nothing is a greater turn-off than a petulant insistence that someone “owes” us an orgasm (or even a kiss).

Sex drives have a way of fluctuating over time, of course. Most of us will go through periods in our lives (or in our months) in which we are hornier than at other times. That’s true for one of us in our solitude; it’s all the more true for a couple over time. Some couples stay at the same level of frequency in terms of sex for years and years; others start off fast and furious and taper off; still others go through various fluctuations depending on any number of circumstances (ranging from children to job stress to, heck, you get the idea.) Having spent lots of time with religious and secular couples, I note that these anxieties about unequal sex drives show up equally in partnerships where the two “waited” and where they didn’t. Refraining from pre-marital sex is no guarantor of post-marital sexual bliss; by the same token, lots and lots of “experience” prior to marriage doesn’t make anyone an expert on how to have great sex for years and years after the wedding day.

So, to Bob: there’s nothing wrong with having the higher sex drive. There’s nothing wrong with wanting your wife more often than she wants you. I understand that it feels disempowering and scary to be the one who “wants it more.” But you’re not wrong for wanting what you want, and your wife is not wrong for not wanting what you want. The test of your marriage is not the equality of your passion, it’s the prayerful, courageous honesty with which you both work through this disparity together. It’s a hard thing to talk about, even with (and, I think, especially with) a spouse; our fears and resentments and anxieties can come up so quickly. But there’s no way to work through this without that kind of radical honesty, which is why having a patient therapist to facilitate is often a really good idea.

Look, I’m not quite two years into my fourth marriage, so I’m hardly a relationship guru. But I’ve been around the block a time or nineteen, and I’ve done a lot of listening and living in my time. And I know some great marriages where there isn’t a lot of sex; I’ve seen some marriages fall apart even while the spouses within them were getting it on nearly daily. This I can say based on my own experience and on that of countless friends of mine: the absence of regular sex is not an automatic indicator of trouble, and a regular and mutually enthusiastic erotic life is no prophylaxis against marital misery. What makes a healthy marriage is the way in which the two partners deal with their incongruent desires. If they each practice radical mutual submission, remembering that marriage is not a place to assert one’s rights, they’re probably well on their way.

Jack and Jill again: a response to Father Figure about mentoring and attraction

It’s genuinely flattering that I get several e-mails a week from people who have read my posts and are asking me for input on issues ranging from chinchilla care to student crushes to youth ministry to older men/younger women relationships. I want to make it clear to those who do write me, however, that I assume all unsolicited email is “bloggable”. I am not able to offer replies or advice outside of the format of this blog. I will, of course, change names and details in order to protect the writer’s anonymity. That seems a fair policy.

Got an email last week from a fellow who calls himself Father Figure. Father Figure is married, and though he doesn’t specify his age, seems to be forty-something (I take great delight in calling myself a forty-something these days). He writes:

You seem to be very perceptive on the area of
crushes developing on mentor/father figures.

How does the mentor/father
figure disengage from such a relationship as he sees
himself being attracted to the young woman [half his
age!] who’s paying so much attention to him?

The last three years have been among the worst of
my life, mainly from being unable to forget about the
attention that this young woman gave to me for a few
months, but also from incredible guilt for the way
that I totally broke off contact with her. Even now I
tend to feel that if I see a mutual friend, I should
casually inquire about her, not so much because I want
to know, but out of concern that if the conversation
gets relayed back to her, it will hurt her that I
didn’t even ask about her. Her own father died or
left the home when she was a young girl, and it seems
that in some ways she related to me as a sort of
“safe” father-type figure. The problem was that I
fell for her, and so I found the only way to deal with
my feelings was to stop contact. But my breaking off
contact [when we had been fairly close friends] must
have come across to her as rejection of her as a
person. Hence, my profound feeling of guilt.

It’s a painful situation for Father Figure, and clearly equally painful (if not more so) for the young woman whom he has pushed out of his life.

My first thought is that those of us who do enjoy mentoring young people have an obligation to set strong boundaries with ourselves. I meet with and mentor a small group of young people; some are former students and some are former “youth groupers.” I mentor both men and women. One of my chief jobs as a mentor is to never, ever forget that my relationship with my mentees is one of mutual respect, but not one of mutual support. I am there for them in a way that they cannot and should not be there for me. In my relationships with my mentees, I make very little mention of my private life (less, in most cases, than I do on this blog). When I do talk about myself, it is usually only in order to share an anecdote from my past that may prove helpful to the mentee.

The mentor/mentee boundary is not as rigid as that between therapist and patient. No one is on a couch, and there’s no strict psychological protocol to observe. But I always remember that this young man or this young woman with whom I am sitting in my office or drinking coffee under a tree here on campus is there as an opportunity for me to be of service. My mentees are not potential “best friends forever”. That doesn’t mean I don’t like them, and heck, it doesn’t preclude me from starting to care very deeply for some of them. I love working with young people; it gives me a great sense of purpose and satisfaction to do so. But my students are not my dearest friends, and I don’t confide in my mentees as they confide in me. That’s not about power, that’s about respect for boundaries.

I wrote a long time ago about the story of Michael Gee, an adjunct professor and journalist who was fired from his teaching position after posting to a website his feeling that one of his female students was “incredibly hot.” As part of that post, I wrote about how we as teachers and mentors can respond to students whose bodies might be distracting to us. I wrote about an old student of mine named “Jack”, whose cigarette stench and body odor made our office hours together difficult; I wrote about “Jill”, whose unusually revealing clothing posed a different challenge. Jack and Jill were wonderful students, solid “A” students, both interested in having me mentor them. Jack’s smell was burdensome; Jill’s state of near-perpetual underdressedness posed a similar problem. With both students, my job was the same: to not allow their bodies to become my focus. I made a conscious effort to be there for Jack in all of his malodorousness, and to keep my eyes on Jill’s face. I’m not an instructor in grooming, fashion, or deportment; if I am only able to be present for those who are bathed and reasonably covered up, then I am a piss-poor mentor and teacher and ought not to be in this job. I learned a lot from Jack and Jill.

Perhaps it’s because I’m happily married, perhaps it’s because I’ve worked so hard to establish excellent boundaries, perhaps it’s because I’m in my forties now — but for whatever reason, I don’t any longer have the trouble “Father Figure” has had with this woman he mentored. That’s the result of some hard work on my part, and also the result of being willing to ask for grace to come into my life and guide my mentoring relationships.

With the Jacks and Jills of this world, there’s a prayer I use. It was one I learned many years ago, and it has served me in good stead. I use the same prayer with the potentially attractive as with the potentially hostile:

“God, show me this person not as I see them but as you see them. Help me to be for them what I am called by you to be. Remove from me my fears and my selfish desires, and show me how to love them as you love them”.

Yeah, we have a problem with singulars and plurals here, but you get the point. I really do use that prayer, though much less often than I used to. God has been faithful to me, and I can say that when I have prayed that prayer sincerely, it has always been answered. I have never had to break off a relationship with a mentee because I was worried about my own growing feelings of attraction towards him or her.

Does that make me better than “Father Figure”, who did choose to break off his mentoring relationship with a younger woman to whom he was increasingly drawn? No, not really. It was far better for him to abrogate their relationship than to act on his feelings. But while seducing her would have been a profound betrayal of his commitment to her (and, of course, to his marriage), breaking off their contact (which had become important to her) without telling her why is a serious form of abandonment. There’s a general rule in working with much younger people, even when they are in their twenties: if you as a mentor cut off contact or withdraw from them, they will almost always assume that it was something they did. They will very rarely conclude that the problem was with the mentor; they will assume that they did something to drive him or her away. They may feel ashamed or guilty without quite knowing what they’ve done. It’s a serious wound, and I’ve seen it inflicted many a time.

Father Figure inquires as to what he should do. In the best case scenario, he would be able to resume his mentoring relationship with this young woman, taking responsibility for keeping his own feelings and desires strictly in check (and asking for spiritual help in order to do so.) Given that the young woman is an adult, his next best option — but not the best — is to be candid with her about his reasons for terminating their time together. He’ll have to be very emphatic that the responsibility is his and his alone, and that she did nothing wrong. It’ll be hurtful, but she’ll at least have (oh, overused word) the beginnings of some closure. The worst thing to do would be to continue to be distant and unvailable without giving a reason why.

I am absolutely certain that I will not cross a line with my students and youth groupers, either in act or in fantasy. I am confident that my intent will remain clear and my goals pure. Is this hubris? No, because I don’t rest this certainty on my own will alone. I’m a mortal human being, and I know all too well how quickly my own unchecked desires can run riot. My confidence lies in my faith in a faithful God, a God who will not give me any challenge I cannot handle if I ask for His help. I also have faith in my peers who hold me accountable, who ask me questions about my motives, who watch me. If I seem to be crossing a line, they’ll gently inquire and remind me of where it is that my priorities lie, what my obligations are.

If I can only mentor the unattractive, the well-groomed, the polite and unchallenging, I’m not doing my job. (Of course, the reverse is true: if I seek out only the beautiful and the brilliant to work with, something else is amiss!) If I were to find my own feelings getting in the way of my work with a mentee, I am confident that I would be given the strength to overcome those feelings. And by overcoming, I don’t just mean the strength to not act upon them. I mean the strength to eradicate them altogether. My wife is the human being in whose company I am happiest. If I were to be more excited about spending time with a friend or a mentee than with my wife, that would be a colossal red flag. And I am prayerfully, quietly confident that God would give me the strength to redirect my desires and my thoughts themselves if I asked Him to. But if for some reason that sustenance didn’t come, then I would have to terminate the mentoring relationship.

What’s in it for men?

One question that those of us who are male feminists are bound to get asked over and over again: “What’s there for men in feminism?” The Chief asks a version of that question below Monday’s post:

Hugo, particularly, loves to preach on how men CAN change. He’s weak on providing the reasons why we SHOULD. To put it crassly, what’s in it for us?

I suppose I could quote Aristotle to the effect that virtue is its own reward, but something tells me that wouldn’t go very far.

I do answer this question regularly, as I’m asked it semester in and semester out. As most any serious feminist will tell you, feminism is about reconfiguring the culture in order to create greater equality between men and women. For most feminists, it’s also about liberating both men and women from the chains of sexism and patriarchy. As countless men in the pro-feminist movement have pointed out, oppressing women doesn’t make most men nearly as happy as one might imagine. We make a huge mistake when we assume that to be complicit in injustice brings joy and fulfillment. Yes, the benefits of living in a sexist culture are there for most men — but most men are so accustomed to taking these benefits for granted that they derive little if any sense of satisfaction from their own privilege.

When I meet with young men, I hear the same lament over and over again: “Why won’t women trust me? Why won’t women smile at me? I”m not a predator, I’m just a nice guy. Why am I always guilty until proven innocent?” I’ve answered those questions before: read “Guilty until Proven Innocent” and “No Right to be Assumed Harmless”.

When men work to transform themselves, to become genuine egalitarians in the bedroom, the boardroom, and cleaning the bathroom, they make the world a better place for themselves as well as for the women with whom they interact. When men challenge other men’s catcalls, porn use, leering stares and rude comments, they work to eliminate the very things that cause so many women to be justifiably mistrustful of so many men. Many men’s rights activists (MRAs) decry the epidemic of t-shirts that say things like “Boys are mean, throw rocks at them” or simply “Boys lie.” I’m not fond of those shirts myself, and I don’t think they’re in the least bit funny. But I recognize that in addition to reflecting an adolescent desire for attention, they reflect a legitimate anger, a legitimate fear, a legitimate frustration on the part of many women with men.

Quite a few men I know would love to be trusted more. They’d love to have their friendly “hellos” returned; they’d like it if everyone, male or female made eye contact with them and returned their smiles. They’re depressed by the way so many women respond to them, with guarded distance. Some of them become angry at women, blaming the targets of sexism for not being more warm and open to those who might well hurt them further. But the wiser ones understand that creating a world where men are trusted, believed, and smiled at involves changing the basic rules of masculine behavior.

One of the cardinal rules of American maleness is “Don’t call another man on how he treats women.” Men co-sign each other’s bad behavior far too frequently; the end result is that the “nice guy” who doesn’t harass women is rightly lumped into the same group as the jerk who does. Boys, if you’re not actively part of the solution you are — at best — passively part of the problem. If you’re respectful, friendly, honest and thoughtul to women in your interactions with them, but you remain silent while your male friends and relations behave otherwise, then you’ve got no right to complain about women’s suspicion!

I’m tired of living in a world where a man who wants to work with small children is automatically presumed to be a pedophile; I’m tired of living in a world where folks worry that the embraces I give the boys and girls in my youth group have a perverse, ulterior motive. But simply pleading my innocence isn’t enough. The incidences of abuse, the incidences of betrayal, the incidences of profound irresponsibility on the part of men in positions of trust aren’t just anecdotal — they’re overwhelming. And the answer for those of us who are trustworthy and long to have others know it isn’t to blame other people for being suspicious. It’s to work doubly, triply hard to create an authentically feminist culture in which men hold each other accountable, in which bad male behavior is immediately called out by other men.

In his comment, The Chief compares men to wolves. Just as its not easy to make a carnivorous wolf into a herbivore, he doesn’t think it’s easy — or even desirable — for men to change their essential nature. (I’m not a great believer in anyone’s essential nature, and have written umpteen times of the ways in which biology is used to excuse passivity and defeatism in the face of sexual injustice.) But it’s true that a great many women do see men as being like wolves, and a great many men do behave in ways that give women reasons for thinking that lupine comparison is apt. The damage predatory male behavior does to women is obvious. But what’s less obvious is that the “lone wolf” of lore is a symbol of isolation. I know a lot of guys who’ve tried to be lone wolves, tried to live up to the masculine ideal of the strong, silent, sturdy oak. Most of them, as Thoreau pointed out, lead lives of quiet desperation. Most of them, especially as they age, cope with an alternating sense of numbness and profound pain.

A sexist culture leaves men cut off from their own pain. Years and years of hearing “boys don’t cry” leaves many men in their teens and twenties in a state of permanent numbness, with only anger and lust as identifiable emotions still flowing through them. Feminism — with its insistence that men are as entitled to emotional expression as women — liberates men from the awful standard of “lone wolf-hood”. It allows us to stop being ciphers and become human beings, complete and whole and kind and good. It allows us to balance our strength with our humanity.

I am a feminist because I see organized feminism as one of the great vehicles for social justice and personal transformation. I am a feminist because I want to see a world in which both men and women are free to become complete people. When we shut down women’s anger, women’s desire, women’s impetuousness — we create half-people. When we shut down men’s tenderness, men’s vulnerability, men’s empathy — we create half-people. Half people alternately long for a partner to complete them, and resent the hell out of those partners for being able to do for them what they could not do for themselves. It makes for a pretty miserable existence, characterized by the strange and odious way in which men and women simultaneously long for and loathe each other. That’s not nature, that’s a social construct that needs to be dismantled.

I’m a feminist because I want to create a world where men and women alike can realize their potential; I’m a feminist because I believe that our potential is not directed or confined by our chromosomes or our secondary sex organs. My penis and my Y chromosome do not destine me to be unreliable, predatory, and emotionally inarticulate. My wife’s uterus and her estrogen do not limit the horizons of her professional or athletic ambition. Feminism is, as we’ve all heard, the radical notion that women are people. But it’s also the radical notion that men are people too, complete human beings, with the same range of emotions and the same capacity for empathy and self-control as any woman.

Feminism frees men to become truly complete human beings. And there’s an amazing payoff in that.

Note: You don’t have to be a feminist to comment here, but misogynist broadsides and anti-feminist bromides — as well as personal attacks — are out.

Another in the student crushes series: the “daddy crush” and the need for a mentor

I’ve written a few times about student crushes and their meaning, starting with this post that still gets loads and loads of hits from search engines. My basic thesis:

There’s an old axiom in pop psychology: we don’t just get crushes on people whom we want, we get crushes on people whom we want to be like! Students don’t get crushes on me because they want to go to bed with me or be my girlfriend or boyfriend; they get crushes on me because I’ve got a quality that they want to bring out in themselves. They’re externalizing all of their hopes for themselves. And rather than encourage the crush to feed my ego, my job is to turn the focus back on to the student, encouraging him or her to take their new-found curiosity or enthusiasm or passion and use it, run with it, indulge it, let it take them places!

One thing I’ve really started to notice in the last two or three years is an interesting, satisfying shift in the way that some of these crushes seem to play out. Something shifted in my relationships with my students right around the time I became old enough to be their father. The crushes that students got on me — and the way they made those crushes known — were qualitatively different when I was 30 than they are today at 40.

Leaving me out of it, I know that some student crushes on their teachers are explicitly sexual. But most really aren’t, even if they appear externally to be motivated by physical desire. Young people, you see, have a good vocabulary for sex. Romantic longing and sexual fantasy are part of the discourse of most college students. But we don’t have the same vocabulary for wanting a mentor, or even a father-figure. When a 20 year-old college student says of her professor, “I think he’s hot”, her friends may or may not agree — but they understand her frame of reference. They’ll likely take what she says at face value.

But what if that same gal told her friends “I really want him as a mentor”? It’s likely she’d be teased; “Yeah right, you want him as a mentor! Puhleeze! Can’t you be honest about it?” We live in a culture that insists on eroticizing our desire to be guided and cared for to such a degree that it is assumed that anyone who insists that his or her longing to be nurtured isn’t sexual at its core is, well, lying. As a result, we don’t have a way to let young people ask to be mentored, guided, even loved in a safe, non-sexual and yet intimate way.

Talking about sexual desire also sounds so much more adult than talking about a desire for a father figure. We live in a culture where many young people see lust as evidence of maturity. Saying about your teacher: “I want to do him” makes you sound grown up, aggressive, sophisticated, a “together woman.” Saying about that same person, “I want to spend time with him, he’s kind of like a Dad to me” may seem — to peers if not to the young woman saying it — like evidence of immaturity. “What, you’re still not over your father issues?” Too often, I think the vocabulary of erotic desire masks something else, something more tender and raw.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that some female students will flirt with me early on in visits to my office hours. It’s not particularly flattering, and it’s not evidence of my desirability. What I’m convinced it is is simple: so many of these young women, particularly first-generation college students, have been taught by their parents (or by bitter experience) that “men just want one thing.” If they want guidance and mentoring, if they want to be noticed for their ideas, they figure they have to get a male professor’s attention first by using their sexuality. They sometimes don’t trust their own inner worth enough to assume that they could get that attention without being flirtatious, and often they don’t believe that men — even older men in positions of authority — will really give them as much validation if they don’t wear certain kinds of clothing and behave in a certain way. Once a relationship is established that feels safe and entirely non-threatening, I notice the tendency to flirt usually goes away.

I’m opening myself up to several charges here: narcissism, for one, for assuming that so many folks do get crushes on me (regardless of the meaning of those crushes). Two, I’m being presumptuous about what young people, particularly young women, “really” want from me. I make no secret of my longing to be a father (seven chinchillas, an active avocation for youth ministry); maybe I’m just projecting my own need to be a Daddy onto my students. I’ve got a colleague who just assumes that all of his female students “want” him sexually; he preens like a rooster (though he’s old enough to retire with full benefits) and talks graphically and embarrassingly about his students’ dress. His ego needs tell him that legions of women thirty-five years his junior long to go to bed with him; is it not possible that my ego needs lie to me as well, telling me that a great many of these young people think of me as, if not a father figure exactly, at least a mentor? Perhaps I flatter myself as badly as my lecherous colleague.

But even if I do exaggerate the case, I think the “daddy crush” is more real than we know.

Some thoughts on marriage, socialization, libido and the vocabulary for one’s own inner terrain

It’s not uncommon to have a “gender divide” in discussions of feminism, sexuality, or marriage. Rarely, however, has the divide been as stark in my comments section as it is beneath my post last Thursday about men and “emotion work” in marriage.

One thing that tends to happen in these discussions is a revisiting of the nature/nurture argument. In particular, many men make the claim that women are simply hardwired to “do emotion work better.” They insinuate that it’s unreasonable for women (or their pro-feminist allies) to demand that men “behave like women” and learn to talk openly and freely about their feelings.

Of course, many of these same men express frustration with their girlfriends and wives about sex. When, say, a wife or girlfriend shows less interest in sex than her guy, or perhaps seems to have some reticence about acting out one of his fantasies, the same guy who insists that he is “naturally” less verbal than his female partner insists that she “work through her sexual issues”. It is a pop culture stereotype that men have higher sex drives than women and that women have a greater need for emotional connection, and like most stereotypes, it’s perhaps partly grounded in truth. But what I see happen a lot in the relationships and marriages I know is a kind of profound inconsistency on the part of the husband/boyfriend — when it comes to excusing his own unwillingness to do “emotional relationship maintenance”, he explains it away with biology; when it comes to his female partner’s “sexual inhibitions” (which may simply be an unwillingness to fulfill his needs whenever he feels them), he insists that this is something she “needs to work through.”

I am convinced to my core that both men and women have enormously powerful libidos. Sex drives may vary in intensity from person to person, but that variation has less to do with gender and far more to do with individual preference. Almost all of us have a capacity to delight in sexuality. Similarly, almost all of us have the ability to express ourselves verbally; we all have the capacity to accurately describe our inner emotional terrain. The problem is obvious: in our culture, we shame and shut down young women’s sexuality to the point that many have a hard time acknowledging that they have the capacity for eros. At the same time, we shame and shut down young men who are too freely expressive with their emotions.

“Slut” and “fag” are words that whip the two genders into line; the fear of being “dirty” leaves many young (and not so young) women profoundly disconnected from their own authentic sexuality. These young women may have a sense of themselves as objects of desire, but they all too often have been shamed out of their own sexual subjectivity. In almost exactly the same way, their boyfriends and brothers have been brutalized by the cult of contemporary American masculinity. The “fear of faggotry” not only causes young men to hide their tears, it eventually leads to a kind of emotional frigidity that leaves them profoundly disconnected.

All over America, there are heterosexual couples having sex. Far too often, a key issue in the sexual relationship is that the woman “doesn’t feel anything.” She wants to enjoy sex, she’s attracted to her guy, but somehow, things just don’t end up as exciting for her as they do for him. Sometimes, she fakes it, or she’s passive. She feels guilty, perhaps, or resentful. Often, she just feels frustrated and a little bit cheated.

And all over America, there are men and women trying to have a conversation. And the guy is trying (maybe) to connect emotionally with his wife or girlfriend. He wonders why the words seem to come so easily for her, why her tears flow more quickly than his. He loves her, but when he looks inside of himself, he isn’t sure what he sees. He wonders if he’s just shallow, or numb, or some sort of sociopath. Maybe he feels guilty. And maybe he feels a little frustrated at his own lack of emotional vocabulary; maybe he feels resentful at the woman in his life for “wanting so much emotional connection” all the time.

Look, I’m doing some whopping stereotyping. Relationship advice manuals do this all the time, of course. But the point I want to make is that we make a dreadful mistake in our culture when we assume that women will never be as randy as men, and that men will never be as emotionally intuitive as women. From early childhood, we shut down women’s sexuality and men’s emotional sensitivity; in school, peers use terms like “whore” and “queer” to reinforce the point that certain things (female sexuality, male sensitivity) are taboo. And we then launch a generation of young women who don’t know how to have an orgasm and a generation of young men who don’t know how to connect to their deepest, most authentic feelings. Worse, we assume that this is “just the way it is”, and we begin to believe in the lie of complementarianism, in which each spouse becomes chiefly responsible for one specific compartment of a shared life, a compartment in which the other is neither expected nor allowed.

I’m being a bit crass here, but I want to make this point clear. We need to do more to raise our young women to be comfortable with their sexuality, with their anger, with their appetites for food. We need to do more to raise our young men to express their pain, their hurt, their anxiety. We don’t need any more “people-pleasers” or “sturdy oaks.” I’ve been the sturdy oak married to a people-pleaser, and it’s nothing short of sheer hell — alienation, distance, misunderstanding, resentment. My job as a human being is to become as emotionally complete and multi-faceted as possible. It’s my wife’s job to do the same, and to a very great extent, we can each play the role of the other’s cheerleader in that process. But in the end, we are each fully responsible for our own completion.

“A son, not a husband”: some very long thoughts about marriage in a roundabout response to Jill

Jill has a post up this week: I’m Never Getting Married. It opens

I actually don’t know if that’s true (her claim in the title of the post), but the closer I get to standard marrying age, the less I think it’ll ever happen — first because I think marriage is kind of a crock, and second because I’m becoming fairly certain that there just isn’t anyone out there who I want to be forever bound in marriage with.

It’s an interesting and lengthy post, though Jill doesn’t spend as much time on the second part of her reasoning (the near-certainty that there is no one out there whom she wants to marry) as she does on her first. Part of Jill’s criticism of marriage is directed at engagement and wedding ritual; she specifically calls out diamonds and bachelor parties. She makes some excellent criticisms of both (particularly the anti-feminist implications in the former and the horrifying behavior of many men at the latter).

Back in 2004, when I was engaged but not yet wed, I posted about diamond rings here. I noted that while I bought my wife an engagement ring, she bought me one as well. Here’s an excerpt:

…it’s important to remember that the origins of our traditions do not dictate their contemporary meaning. There is little doubt that the practice of having a father walk his daughter down the aisle to her groom (rather than having both parents escort her) is rooted in notions of the marriage as property transfer. But in the modern world, we are free to take older traditions and remake them, transforming their meaning as we please. What was once oppressive need no longer be so. I’ve known some strong women who walked down the aisle on Dad’s arm dressed in white — and they weren’t property (and they sure as hell weren’t virgins). At some point, oppression is entirely in the eye of the beholder, and these women didn’t feel oppressed by the ritual itself.

It is absolutely true that folks will make judgments about a man’s wealth and status based upon the size and perceived expense of his fiancee’s engagement ring. But again, their perceptions do not determine the exclusive meaning! For me, the engagement ring does not symbolize wealth or ownership; rather, it symbolizes sacrifice and enduring commitment. In many traditions, it is customary for a man to say to his bride “with all my worldly goods I thee endow”. In the modern world, that means he is surrendering his financial (as well as his sexual) autonomy in order to build a blended life with his partner. That’s no small sacrifice for either party when it is genuinely meant! The engagement ring symbolizes his commitment to share all that he has with her. (I suppose she could wear his 401K plan as a doily, but that wouldn’t be nearly as appealing.)

As for bachelor parties that involve strip clubs or other forms of sexualized entertainment, I’m obviously appalled by them. (I’ve had small bachelor parties before each of my weddings, though a number of them have consisted of just hanging out with a group of friends of both sexes. None involved strippers.) I’ve posted many times about the sex industry in all of its forms, and won’t repeat those posts here. I do want to offer a ringing endorsement of what Jill writes on the subject:

Bachelor parties where the boys get together and go fishing or out to a nice dinner are one thing. But the “take the groom-to-be out to watch naked women dance around” is problematic not only because of the feminist issues with paying women to strip, but because it strikes me as a direct statement of power over his to-be wife — the message is that marriage is such a burden and a bore that he has to get all of his youthful energy out before he enters into it, even at his fiancee’s expense.

There’s no question that going back for more than a century, pop culture has set men up to believe that marriage means the end of “fun”. The jokes about “the old ball and chain” go back to the furthest extent of living memory. And of course, there’s a small grain of truth in all of this ugly humor. If your definition of happiness is the pursuit of everlasting novelty, then yeah, marriage will be dull by comparison. If your definition of freedom is the freedom to sleep with as many women as you can, then yes, marriage will seem confining.

But I’ve already written my paeans to monogamy; I’ve already said (to the exasperation of many of my readers) that I consider monogamous marriage to be the best vehicle I know for personal growth. (See my marriage archive if you want more of that.) I’m not going to repeat myself here, though I will say again that I know plenty of very evolved, interesting, compassionate people who have chosen alternatives to monogamy. To paraphrase Symmachus, there are many roads…

I respect Jill’s reasons for — at this stage of her life — rejecting marriage. But in her post, I don’t read the reason I hear from many young women (and not-so-young women) for their wariness. Whenever I launch into my glowing defense of marriage as a vehicle for personal transformation, someone (invariably a woman) remarks that in most marriages she’s seen (or been in) one partner is shouldering considerably more of the burden of creating that change. Almost always, that partner is a woman.

A good friend of mine, several years older than Jill, is recently divorced. She pledges never to remarry, saying: “In the end, most men expect women to take care of them once they’re married. I don’t mean financially, I mean enotionally. I’m just tired of thinking about someone else’s needs all the time, particularly an adult’s. I’m prepared to take care of a baby. But I don’t want my first-born to be my second child!”

My friend isn’t describing every American man. But she’s describing all too many. And it’s not just a reference to housework she makes. All of the research shows, of course, that even when both parties in a marriage work an equal number of hours outside the home, the woman tends to spend more time on domestic work. But the problem my friend is really focused on is less about doing the dishes and more about emotional intelligence (what’s often called “EQ”). Far too many men fail to do adequate self-care when they are in relationship with women. Far too many men becoming enormously reliant on their girlfriends or wives to urge them to see a doctor, to be the sole source of professional encouragement, to monitor their alcohol intake or the content of their diets. Far too many men unintentionally turn their girlfriends or wives into mother figures; in a sense, they outsource their emotional maintenance.

Every romantic partnership ought to be just that, a partnership. And while the partners are rarely going to be equally adept at every physical and spiritual and emotional task, it is important that the overall psychic workload of their union be shared fairly. Too often, women like my friend feel that when they marry, they end up focusing all of their time and energy on meeting the needs of their husbands. And while there is an element of need in even the healthiest of marriages, too often many women begin to feel that they are doing for their husbands what they damned well ought to be doing for themselves. Men can wash dishes (with hot water and detergent). Men can talk about their feelings with their friends just as so many women do, and thus alleviate some of the emotional burden many wives feel to be their husband’s sole source of psychological support. Men can stay faithful in body (and in fantasy), even when their wives don’t feel like having sex every night of the week.

Of course women have a huge part in this as well. Far too many women have traditionally derived their sense of self-esteem from their skill at providing pleasure and happiness to others. Some women deliberately seek out men who will be emotionally needy; part of the “bad boy” syndrome is sometimes less an attraction to the “bad” than it is to the “boy” who, beneath his truculence and his self-destructiveness, just “needs a little special TLC”. Both women and men can be architects of their own adversity in this regard. I am not absolving women of all responsibility here.

But in the end, I’m convinced that a great many women (not necessarily Jill) are reluctant to marry (or marry again) because they believe that their are relatively few men worth marrying. Many women look at the colossal sacrifices other women make in marriage, they look at the legions of husbands and fathers who are emotionally distant or desperately dependent, and they say to themselves “no thanks.” They are legitimately concerned that when they marry, a part of themselves will disappear; they fear — sadly, often rightly — that they will be forced to neglect their own growth to focus on enabling the growth of their husbands and their children.

I am not a perfect husband. One of my most important jobs as a husband, however, is to strike a balance between genuine intimacy and interdependence on the one hand, and emotional self-sufficiency on the other. Even now, at 40, after four marriages and a decade of therapy (including two years of formal analysis), after a dramatic and enduring spiritual conversion, after years and years of serving as a mentor and a counselor and a gender studies professor, I still have work to do. I still have to be vigilant not to slip into a pattern in which my wife ends up doing for me what I ought to do for myself. It’s not my wife’s job to make sure I eat right and get enough sleep, it’s not my wife’s job to tell me that I need to cut back on the exercise. If I am to be the man God calls me to be, I cannot outsource my self-care to my spouse.

My wife and I are trying to save chinchillas, trying to bring about social change, trying to plan for our own futures, trying to be agents of justice and love in the world. And we’re trying to have fun while we’re doing it. We rely on each other for encouragement, for comfort, for friendship. We focus our romantic and sexual lives on each other, knowing that if we put all our intimate energy into our relationship, we will emerge from our private moments recharged and more ready than ever to do the important work we are called to do.

So what’s the bottom line? There are many reasons not to want to marry. But one big whoppin’ reason for many women is that they’ve seen the available men. And while these lads may be cute, sexy, witty, kind, and bright, far too many of them strike the women around them as poor long-term investments. Far too many seem as if they’d end up being sons rather than husbands. And if we who believe in marriage want to see the institution thrive, we need to work on getting our brothers to grow up.

Note: This is an-MRA free zone, folks. No anti-feminist bromides permitted.