On mama’s Christmas party

I’m in what I consider my hometown, Carmel. With my grades turned in and a respite from other projects scheduled, I’m enjoying a holiday break. My wife and daughter will come up north on Thursday, so for now I’m alone with my mama in the house I grew up in. While Los Angeles is getting historic rainfall, it’s dry and cool here on California’s central coast.

My mother held her Christmas party last night, the same party she’s thrown 36 out of the last 37 years. From 1973-2003, she had 31 straight parties; she spent Xmas 2004 in England, and resumed the tradition in 2005. I missed that ’05 party as Eira and I were in South Africa, but I’ve been at each and every other party mama has had.

The Party has rules.

It is never held earlier than December 18, nor later than December 21. It is not to be held on a Sunday, as one of my mother’s dear friends also has a Christmas Party that has been on the third Sunday in December every year since the Kennedy Administration. Since my mother’s gathering only dates to the final year of Richard Nixon’s presidency, she defers. The Party is always scheduled from 4:00-6:00PM. Guests start trickling in at about 4:15, and invariably, some family members will linger until 7:00 or beyond. We are lenient with departure times! Peak attendance tends to be around 5:00, when my mother’s little cottage nearly bursts with people.

For most of the past 37 years, we’ve served the same menu: cold cuts and cheeses, assorted cookies and brownies, lots of chips and dips. In my childhood, we made and decorated Christmas cookies; with her sons grown, my mother buys them now at the store. (She still makes her famously unkosher clam quiches and her “midnight meringues”.) We serve mulled wine, made according to a recipe that requires lots of cinnamon sticks, sugar, and huge gallon jugs of cheap Gallo red. I helped make the wine when I was a child too young to drink; now I make it as a sober alcoholic who no longer drinks. (There were only a handful of parties where I was both old enough to drink the wine and not already trying to get sober!) We serve a non-alcoholic punch, which is made of cran-rasbperry drink mixed with diet 7-Up. Sounds dreadful, but it’s served in a lovely ancient punch bowl. The store-bought cookies and cheeses taste all the better on 19th century silver, too.

Growing up WASP (OKOP) means having lots of store-bought things served on heirloom china and family silver. (I came to learn, as I went out into the world, that others cared more about the taste than the presentation, preferring home-cooked delicacies served on paper or plastic. Diff’rent strokes.)

Some fashions have changed. In the 1970s, one of my jobs was to help lay out the cigarettes. We had Vantage and Merit and Camel on offer, cunningly arranged in little silver trays. My christening cup was useful for holding cigarettes, and we had lighters placed handily about. Ashtrays were ubiquitous, and emptying them during the party was nearly as important as passing hors’ d’oeuvres. We began to phase out cigarettes around the time that disco lost its appeal, and by the time I had graduated high school, smoking was only done outside. The christening cup now holds candy canes, but no one ever takes one. It is not as useful and needed as once it was.

I’ve also become much more helpful. In 1973, I was six, and my main job was to police my three year-old brother during the party, something I did with excessive vigor and a grave sense of responsibility. As we grew up, my brother and I evolved into indispensable co-hosts. Mama is 73 now, and can’t do what she used to do with the same ease. I watch her now to make sure she doesn’t get over-tired during the party, just as she once watched me to make sure I wasn’t eating too many meringues.

And of course, the guests are so much older. I, who so often am the oldest person in the room when working with young people, was the youngest by two decades at last night’s gathering. My mother was in her mid-thirties when she started her Christmas parties, and most of her friends were her peers, young parents and fellow professors; friends from her poetry club, the League of Women Voters, and various local boards and commissions. There were older guests as well, but not many. And there were children for my brother and me to play with. We often needed to whip up an emergency extra batch of mulled wine. Some who left the party ought not to have been driving.

But no more. So many of those who came in the past have gone on to the brighter party from which none need take their leave. Those who do still come grow frailer each year, something I notice keenly as I only see most of these guests for an hour each December. There are canes and wheelchairs to be managed. They eat and drink half what they did in their younger years, but from their faces, with no less pleasure. Those who in my childhood were towering and vigorous, younger than I am now, are gray and stooped. Their fingers shake when I hand them a cup of wine, and they take my arm when I lead them up and down the garden path to and from the party and their cars.

Last night, I walked one of my mother’s recently widowed friends out to her car, carefully made sure she was situated safely behind the wheel, and watched her drive off. Carmel has no street lamps, and the street was pitch black at 6 in the evening. But as I looked back at our house, I saw the tree aglow in the window, saw the light radiating out, smelled the wood smoke from the fireplace. It might have been blasphemous, but as I stood on the cold dark street and stared at the glow from the house in which I was raised, the words of John 1:5 came to my lips. I felt the pinpricks of tears in my eyes, as I realized that these parties won’t keep going forever. My mother finds them a bit more tiring every year; each year less and less is eaten; each year the guest list shrinks inexorably.

But mother is not quite done.

As a sentimentalist to my core, I like my Tennyson, and as I stood on the roadway, I remembered something else, a line from his most loved poem: death closes all: but something ere the end, some work of noble note, may yet be done. In the grand scheme of things, a Christmas party is not a great work of noble note. But when we gather around the tree and the fire once again, with rain and chill outside, and catch a scene or two from the last act of a play we’ve been watching all our lives, we are bearing witness to the light. And the darkness will not overcome it.

“I’m not faithful because I love my wife. I’m faithful because I love myself.”

You’re working in the modeling industry now? Good thing your wife is both beautiful and tough; that must help you stay faithful.

– a (now deleted) Facebook comment that appeared yesterday on my link to my post about the Perfectly Unperfected Project.

I got that comment just as I read an email from a good friend of mine, who wrote:

I saw Geraldo (Rivera) on Oprah talking about his past as a playboy. He is now married for the fifth time to a gorgeous woman at least 30 years younger than him. He says that he has put an end to his womanizing because she is “all the woman he needs” and that he no longer “needs” to look anywhere else. I’m sure, at least on the surface, his wife takes this as a compliment. But I was disturbed by it. The obvious implication is that his affairs were due at least in part to his previous wives not being “enough” for him

This isn’t a post about Geraldo, or about my new work within the modeling industry. It’s about fidelity.

I am not faithful to my wife merely because she is beautiful. I am not faithful to my wife because I am afraid that she will beat me up (she is a kickboxer) if I cheat. I am not faithful to my wife because I have a reputation to uphold, and I know that my career(s) depend on my living out my professed values in my private life. Make no mistake, I am in awe of my wife’s enduring loveliness; I am keenly aware of her physical strength, and the thought of a divorce makes me shudder. And of course, I know damn well that my work as a mentor, a writer, a public speaker on issues of gender, relationships, sexuality and self-image hinges on my ability to be whom I claim to be. But none of these things are the real reason I’m faithful.

Like Geraldo, I’ve been married several times. Like Geraldo, I was a cheat, chronically unfaithful for many years. My cheating, however, never had anything to do with the beauty or the personalities of the women with whom I was in what was supposed to be a monogamous relationship. I cheated for other reasons, many of them: I cheated because I wanted validation, I cheated because I liked “new skin” (the chimera of everlasting novelty), I cheated because I wanted to prove that I wasn’t the dorky awkward kid I had once been (see Mick Hucknall, whose story reads very familiar to me), I cheated because cheating kept me safe from becoming too dependent on one relationship. I cheated because I was afraid. I cheated because I could.

My infidelity and promiscuity were not the fault of the women to whom I was committed. I didn’t cheat because they were insufficiently beautiful, or because we didn’t have sex often enough (or the right kind of sex.) Nothing — nothing that they did or didn’t do could have kept me from cheating because I was in the throes of a compulsion that I alone had the responsibility to solve.

I learned how to be faithful from my late mentor and Twelve Step sponsor, Jack. Jack had been unfaithful to his wife in his drinking days before coming to AA. In AA, his sponsor told him “You need to start being faithful to your wife.” Jack complained, “But how can I be faithful? I don’t even think I love her!” His sponsor snorted. “Of course you don’t love her. You don’t know what love is yet. But the reason to be faithful isn’t because of her. It’s because you made a promise. You owe it to yourself to be the kind of man who keeps his promises. If you cheat, you cheat on yourself first. And if you know you’re a cheater, you set yourself up to drink.”

“Oh”, Jack said. He told that story to me and to countless other sponsees over the course of his nearly four decades of working a program. And he learned to be faithful to — and to love — that same wife.

Jack’s story and mine were different in many ways. But what he impressed upon me all those years ago has stuck with me ever since. When we make a promise to someone, we make a statement about ourselves. We’re saying that we’re the sort of people who can make promises — and keep them. So when we cheat on a spouse or anyone else with whom we’re in a monogamous relationship, we’re breaking the promise we made to ourselves. As I wrote in another post, we become what we pledged not to be. And we don’t become what we pledged not to be — a liar and a cheater — without doing serious harm to our own self-worth. (Aristotle pointed this out, back in the day.)

I don’t stay faithful to Eira because I love her. I stay faithful because I love myself. That doesn’t mean I don’t love my wife: I do, with all my heart. But the feeling of love waxes and wanes in any marriage. If I am faithful out of love for her, I do what Geraldo did in his Oprah interview: I shift responsibility for my own actions away from myself and on to my wife. It’s not her job to keep me faithful, either by being lovable or by being sexy. If another woman tries to seduce me, that’s poor behavior on her part– but another’s enticement doesn’t absolve an adult man from responsibility for his actions. Men are not so vulnerable individually and collectively that the very fabric of society can only be held together through women’s sexual self-control. That’s the myth of male weakness: the false notion that women are biologically “stronger” than men when it comes to the capacity to resist sexual temptation.

All of my sexual and romantic energy flows towards my wife, not simply because I love her (which I do) but because I believe in what it is that we are accomplishing together. I believe in our partnership, but I also believe in myself. I know myself well enough to know that I am a man of great passion, but also a man who thrives best in a committed, monogamous relationship. (Hence the penchant for marrying early and often.) But I couldn’t really bring what I needed to bring to a monogamous relationship until I grasped that it wasn’t the job of love, or desire, or a woman to keep me faithful. Fidelity was and is all about me, not because I’m a narcissist, but because my capacity to love my wife and my daughter and my students and my business partners and my friends and my family and the whole damn world rests on my capacity to love myself. And if I love myself, I will be the sort of man who honors his commitments when it’s easy, and when it’s tough. I know how painful it is to be a liar and a fraud; that awareness more than anything else drove me to the point of suicide. And I’ve come to know how good it is to live a congruent life, where my words and actions cohere.

I love my wife. But that love is not what keeps me faithful. The love that keeps me faithful is the love for the man whom I was called to be.

No refuge: how webcams and cell phones ratchet up the pressure to be perfect

In my women’s studies class yesterday, one young woman asked me about the changes I’d seen in my students over my years of teaching. I thought for a moment about how much the world has – and hasn’t — changed since I first came to lecture at Pasadena City College in 1993, and thought of all the possible answers I could quickly give. And then it occurred to me that one of the most troubling of recent developments about which I hadn’t yet spoken or written was the loss of safe space created by the advent of webcams and cell-phones.

Count me among those adults who think that the frenzied anxiety about “sexting” is both prurient and overblown. Frankly, I’m more worried about the motives of school principals who go through students’ cell phone photos than I am about the photos themselves. And as someone who rejects the “one mistake will ruin your life” warning that is foisted onto kids (girls in particular), I suspect that most teens whose naked photos make their way into the public domain will survive the embarrassment just fine. We’re only three decades away, at most, from a presidential candidate being confronted with images and video from her impulsive adolescence — and I strongly suspect the reaction will be a collective yawn. So my problem with webcams and cell phone pictures has very little to do with sex.

My problem is that for countless young people — again, particularly for girls — their “private spaces” are no longer as private as they once were. Just a decade ago, a girl’s bedroom or bathroom were hers alone (even if shared, say, with a sibling.) In the looks-obsessed culture of American teenagers, the bedroom was a refuge. A young woman who had been scrupulous about her appearance all day could return to her bedroom at night, change into what was comfortable, and have at least a little waking time where her looks didn’t matter. Since the 1950s (if not before) a high percentage of teen girls have had telephones in their bedroom, but until the past decade, those phones didn’t transmit visual images. You didn’t have to get dressed up to talk. That’s all changed.

A 2009 survey suggested that an astonishing 71% of teens used webcams in their bedrooms. In commenting on the study, the primary media concern was with the potential for sexually explicit video chat, as boys cajoled girls into stripping for the camera. No doubt the pressure to sexualize webcam conversation is real, and no doubt some young people end up doing what they regret — only to find that the images or video have gone viral. (By the same token, “webcam sex” — like phone sex before it — has a lot of potential good to it as well, allowing for the safe expression of fantasy and for connection in long distance relationships. I dealt with that topic here.) But the real problem has nothing to do with sex. The real problem is that the webcam has stripped the bedroom and the bathroom from their role as safe refuge from the beauty-obsessed culture. The real problem is that now, even with the door shut, a young woman’s looks still matter.

The self-portrait in the bathroom mirror is one of the iconic images of the 2000s. First on Myspace, and then on Facebook, these photos were — and to a great extent still are — de rigueur for young millenials. Some of the photos are sexy, some are silly, but because these photos are taken by desperately image-conscious teenagers, all are posed. In 2007, I asked the kids in my high school youth group about these self-portraits, asking how many snaps they took on average until they found the right one to upload as a profile pic. Most reported taken dozens if not more, carefully striving for that right balance of attractiveness and teenage insouciance. It’s not new that kids want to be seen as cool. It’s not new that kids study themselves in the bathroom mirror. It is new that they are expected to share those poses with everyone else. It is new that so many of us expect to see and share the contents of these bedrooms and bathrooms. It is new that these most private of spaces are now at least partly public.

I write a lot about the crushing pressure to be perfect which afflicts so many teen girls. (And I always recommend Courtney Martin’s superb Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters.) There’s no question that technology has exacerbated that pressure. The ubiquity of cell phones has meant, for example, that young women are expected to be constantly available to their boyfriends — and to each other. Friendship maintenance, so crucial to so many young women, may require dozens of texts a day, each of which “needs” to be replied to promptly. For those who are raised to be people pleasers, technology simply means that the people one needs to please can now make demands more incessantly than ever before. Being at school, being in the car, being in one’s room is not an excuse any longer for being unavailable.

And being in that bedroom or bathroom is no longer a respite from the pressure to be pretty, to be sexy, to perform.

The Paris Paradox: how sexualization replaces opportunity with obligation

I’ve often quoted Courtney Martin’s now-famous line from her Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters:

We are the daughters of feminists who said, “You can be anything” and we heard “You have to be everything.”

I call it the Martha Complex, others call it the Supergirl syndrome; whatever name you give it, most of us who work with young people agree that it’s absolutely rampant among contemporary girls and young women (even those whose mothers weren’t feminists!) The complex has many sources, but one factor that particularly exacerbates the problem is sexualization.

Ariel Levy, in her powerful and controversial Female Chauvinist Pigs, quoted Paris Hilton’s remarkably perceptive remark about herself that she was “sexy, but not sexual.” Hilton isn’t alone. My students today, who are mostly in their late teens (though I have many older ones as well) were deeply influenced by Hilton, who was at the peak of her notoriety four or five years ago, when these now-college freshman were just entering high school. And sadly, not unlike many of their older sisters, they find themselves stuck in what we might call the “Paris Paradox”.

Young women with the Paris Paradox were raised in a culture that promised sexual freedom, but what they ended up with looked a lot more like obligation than opportunity. It’s not hard to understand why the pressure to be sexy so often trumps the freedom to discover one’s authentic sexuality. As Levy and Martin and others have been pointing out for the past decade, we’ve begun to sexualize girls at ever earlier ages, as anyone who noticed the Halloween costumes marketed to tween girls will be aware. The explicitness — the raunchiness, to use Levy’s word — of this sexualization is relatively new. But when that sexualization (or pornification, to use another popular term) meets the far-older pressure on young women to be people-pleasers, we have a recipe for misery. Continue reading

From a long line of Dekes: on Yale, Cal, privilege, fear and misogyny

One of my favorite family photographs — taken nearly eighty-five years ago — hangs in our living room. In it, some three dozen well-dressed young men smile at the camera from the front steps of a sprawling, Craftsman-inspired house. Some sit, others stand; some have hands in pockets, others have arms draped affectionately over the lads next to them. My maternal grandfather, Arthur Moore, sits next to his best friend Jerry Bishop. The two would eventually marry sisters, my grandmother and my great aunt. Next to Jerry sits Arthur’s cousin, Allan Starr. Behind them, standing on the porch, stands Allen Chickering, the man who — at the time this photo was taken — was engaged to the woman whom my grandfather Arthur would eventually marry. (The happy family story is that Allen broke off the engagement with my grandmother around 1929, and she married his friend Arthur instead. In 1991, both long since widowed, my grandmother and Allen Chickering married, 62 years after ending their original engagement.) Other family friends, including many who lived into my childhood and whom I knew well, are recognizable in the picture. To the best of my knowledge, every man in the photo is dead now; the youngest would be at least 102 were any still alive.

These were the brothers of Delta Kappa Epsilon, Theta Zeta chapter, at the the University of California, Berkeley. In 1926.

“Deke”, as it was called, was the “family fraternity”. Many of the older men who most deeply influenced my life were Dekes, including my uncle Stanley, Arthur’s younger brother, who became a renowned philosopher and communist. And it was thus with chagrin, but no great surprise, that I read of the vile behavior of DKE pledges at Yale University this month. As part of an ongoing initiation, the pledges marched around campus chanting “No Means Yes and Yes Means Anal” and other appalling misogynistic slogans. A video on Youtube brought the ugliness to national attention.

Michael Kimmel, the nation’s foremost historian of masculinity, has a great piece about the DKE pledge incident at Ms: The Men, And Women, Of Yale. He deftly explains the sexual anxiety that undergirds the chant the pledges repeated. The goal of the first part, “No Means Yes” (which was recited repeatedly in front of Yale’s Women’s Center, the safest place for women on campus) is clear enough. As Kimmel writes:It’s a reminder that men still rule, that bro’s will always come before “ho’s”. Even the Women’s Center can’t protect you. That is, it’s a way to make even the safe unsafe. In a world where more women go to college than men, in a world where women and minorities have made tremendous strides, the chant is an ugly attempt to reassert traditional dominance: “We are Dekes, and we are older and more powerful than the rules that protect the vulnerable.”

But Kimmel notes the second part of the chant is more telling, the bit about “yes means anal.” Continue reading

Homosociality and homophobia: why the distorted rules of “manhood” are the real problem

As sociologists and others have noted for years, suicides, particularly among the young, seem to happen in clusters. In the last few weeks in North America, more than half-a-dozen gay or lesbian youngsters have taken their own lives in response to bullying or harassment. On this National Coming Out Day, I’d like to point towards a site — and a movement — that has gone viral in recent days, the It Gets Better project hosted at Youtube. It Gets Better features videos from celebrities and ordinary folks alike; the messages are funny, moving, and consistent in their reassurance that the pain and heartache and loneliness that GLBTQ teens suffer will not last forever. My favorite is BD Wong’s deeply moving contribution.

As it is National Coming Out Day, it’s important to point outthe role that homosociality plays in the harassment of gays and lesbians. Homosociality is a primarily male phenomenon, particularly common among young American guys. Simply put, it’s the idea that the approval of male peers (and male authority figures) is the driving factor in men’s lives. Well documented by sociologists, the theory of homosociality suggests that winning approval from other men is more important to young men than anything else, including validation from women.

A few years ago, C.J. Pascoe wrote a marvelous study that I reviewed here on the blog: Dude, You’re a Fag. A study of compulsory heterosexuality and gender norms in a California high school, it’s the best work I’ve ever seen on the role public displays of homophobia play in shoring up fragile masculinity. From that post:

Pascoe writes of what she calls the fag discourse. The discourse manifests itself in the almost incorrigible way in which young men label each other “fags” while seeking to avoid having that label applied to them. According to this discourse, fear of being called out publicly as a “fag” is the primary driving force behind what Pascoe cleverly calls the display of “compulsive heterosexulity.” Playing on Adrienne Rich’s classic notion that contemporary society functions with a discourse of compulsory heterosexuality, Pascoe notes that among young men desperate to establish their masculine bona fides with their peers, what we see in American high schools amounts to compulsive, almost frantic efforts by young men to prove their manhood.

Anyone who has worked with adolescent boys knows how much anxiety many of them feel about their own masculinity. It’s not news to say that our sons, like their fathers before them, often have to endure or participate in physical or at least verbal violence that we tragically and falsely believe is necessary to transition into manhood. It’s not news that boys torment each other with the “fag” epithet. And it’s not news that the real stigma in being labelled a “fag” doesn’t lie in the association with homosexuality, but with being seen as feminine. Continue reading

Homosocial anxiety, the virginity obsession, and the sexual double standard

In my “Beauty and the Body” class yesterday, I revisited the topic of homosociality and male anxiety. Homosociality is the notion that winning validation from other males is the primary concern for young American men. Contrary to popular wisdom, “getting laid” matters less than the social cachet of being seen by other guys as someone who “gets laid” regularly and easily. (Michael Kimmel introduced the concept of homosociality in his magisterial Manhood in America; A Cultural History). I wrote this in an earlier post on the subject:

To use one cheap and easy example, homosociality explains the function of catcalls and wolfwhistles. I’ve often been asked by female students why men whistle and hoot at them from construction sites and passing cars. “Why do they do it? Do they think this actually ‘works’ to pick up women?” I usually inquire whether the whistling was done by a single man or a group; the answer is almost invariably that it was the latter. The answer, seen through the lens of homosociality, is obvious — men whistle and yell to connect with other men. Women are, alas, mere devices for creating non-sexual, same-gender bonds. This doesn’t explain all catcalling behavior, but it goes a hell of a long way towards doing so.

In yesterday’s class, we connected homosociality to male “performance” anxiety. We were talking about Susan Bordo’s wonderful, albeit dated, The Male Body, and her discussion of men’s anxieties about penises and performance. (I’ve written about this topic before as well, here and in this archive. I offered the not very original suggestion that the longing for homosocial approval is inevitably wrapped up in competition. Men gain status in other men’s eyes by competing with and bettering other men; the whole culture of sport, of course, is rooted in this. This relentless pursuit of dominance and validation is exhausting, painful, and anxiety-producing for everyone involved, not least the women who are turned into mere yardsticks with which male competitors can measure their success. Continue reading

Apples and appetite: on anorexia and western faith

For the first time since Spring 2008, I’m teaching my “Beauty and the Body in the Euro-American Tradition” course. For the past decade or so, I’ve had a fairly predictable schedule. Each semester, I teach at least one section of Western Civ, Modern Europe, and Women in American Society. Those three classes are my “bread and butter”, as it were. I teach a fourth class each semester as well, and rotate among Gay and Lesbian American History, Men and Masculinity in American Society, The Dysfunctional Family in the Western Tradition, and the Beauty and Body course. I sometimes play with or alter the sequence. I’ve taught other courses in my nearly eighteen years here (such as the two-semester sequence of British History) and I’ve got a few other courses I’ve got in mind to develop (A History of Pornography class, and a course on American Religious History.)

Some of my women’s history lectures were recorded and put online last semester by my wonderful student Mon-Shane Chou. At some point, I’d like to get all my lectures up online, both so that my students could review them and interested outsiders could hear them as well. Since I (and the college) make attendance mandatory, I’m not worried about a sudden drop off in the number of folks in my classes as a consequence. In my nearly seven years of blogging, I’ve also written posts that recapitulate some of my lectures, as long-time readers may know.

In yesterday’s Beauty and the Body course, we talked about Christian conceptions of female appetite. In a broad interdisciplinary course like this, it’s hard to spend too much time on any one topic, but I’m introducing them to Western theories of the body and desire as quickly and accessibly as I can. The previous lecture had been on Plato’s mind/body dualism, and the problems that his views pose for us down to the present day. I want my students to see that suspicion of the body and its needs has a history, and that their own struggles for self-acceptance are rooted as much in an ancient tradition as in the effort to conform to a standard set by contemporary culture.

I can’t remember who I was reading in grad school (it might have been Joan Brumberg, or Caroline Walke Bynum) or somebody else when I first realized that the original sin of Adam and Eve revolved around food. Though the serpent tempts Eve with fruit from the tree of knowledge (rather than merely telling her that the apple, or whatever it was, will taste yummy), the means by which she commits the first sin is through eating. Adam eats too, but subsequently. Put plainly, one of the many ways to read the story of what happened in the Garden is that pain and suffering entered the world because a woman couldn’t control what she put in her mouth. That has tremendous implications for women’s relationship with spirituality and food down to the present day.

I’ve written often about the “moral language of food” (the habit of describing being on a diet as “being good” or eating something fattening as being “bad”). We first see this emerging in American vernacular in the 1920s, but of course it’s much, much older than that. The fasting behavior of medieval women that Bynum documents predates, obviously, a modern media culture obsessed with women’s thinness. But the constant throughout history, as I suggest to my students, is that thinness has had a moral dimension.

Thinness is radical self-denial made manifest for all to see. Whether one is virginal or promiscuous, whether one masturbates or lives sadly ignorant of self-pleasure, one’s private sexual behavior rarely leaves enduring marks on the body. Neither sexual virtue or vice shows up the way that extreme dieting or overeating will. (Though the most common consequence of one kind of sex, pregnancy, does leave a mark — but only on women’s bodies.) Food is public in a way that sex isn’t; eating is the most pleasurable thing most of us will ever do in groups. So food has a moral implication that no other source of bodily delight does. Not even sex carries the same, um, heft. Continue reading

Intercourse, suffering, pleasure, and feminism: more on “envelop” v. “penetrate”

I’ve gotten a few emails from readers in the past few days asking me to respond to something else Factcheckme (FCM) discusses on her blog. (See my post immediately below this one for an explanation of the disagreement she and I are having about the role of men in the feminist movement.) Though I don’t think FCM and I could have much of a conversation (a civil exchange requires a mutual recognition of good faith and legitimacy, and she’s made it clear she doesn’t think I possess either), her views are not unique to her and deserve a response.

One of FCM’s tabs is her Intercourse series, a lengthy set of posts exploring her reactions to Andrea Dworkin’s famous book by the same name. As even a casual reader of her blog will realize, FCM takes Dworkin quite literally in her insistence that heterosexual intercourse (penis-in-vagina sex, or PIV) is abusive to women. Women should generally resist PIV, FCM argues; any man who dares claim the label feminist ally for himself must renounce PIV if he wishes to be taken seriously. Refusing intercourse is the proof of one’s seriousness and credibility.

There’s a lot of debate among Dworkin scholars as to whether her work was meant to be taken literally in all instances, or whether she was often engaged in a complex and dazzling rhetorical performance designed to elicit shock and reflection. (I tend to hold the latter view, and I suspect that FCM leans towards the former.) I certainly think that feminists ought to challenge people’s conventional views about heterosexual intercourse. In my women’s history class, for example, I point out that until relatively recently, one of the leading causes of death for women was complications related to childbirth. (In some places at some times, pregnancy and childbirth have been the leading cause of female death.) The overwhelming majority of pregnancies are the consequence of heterosexual intercourse; therefore, it is logical to conclude that heterosexual intercourse has led to the deaths of hundreds of millions of women over human history, as well as to unimaginable pain and discomfort to those who did not die but were merely injured by everything from miscarriages to fistulas to prolapsed uteruses.

Though maternal death is far rarer today in the industrialized West (though troublingly higher here in the States than in Europe), it is still a very real danger in less developed parts of the world. But pregnancy is not the only consequence of PIV that can lead to death. In Africa the AIDS epidemic is primarily carried on through heterosexual intercourse; the vast majority of women who die of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa contracted the virus by having PIV. When fundamentalists speak of AIDS as God’s punishment for homosexuals, it’s worth replying that God has punished far more women with death for having PIV with their husbands than he has male homosexuals for having anal sex. And God is said to be a fan of PIV in marriage. Feminists do well to point these things out, and I do so in every class I teach.

(Parenthetically, heterosexual intercourse put me in the emergency room once, as I wrote in this post. There’s no comparison, of course, between the physical danger of PIV for women and for men. But PIV can bring everything from frenular tearing to broken hearts to males as well; to suggest otherwise is to be blind to the reality of male vulnerability. And vulnerability isn’t a zero-sum game.)

It’s also important to note that women’s legal right to resist intercourse with their husbands is very recent, and by no means universally accepted. The first successful prosecutions for marital rape in this country only took place in my lifetime; many traditionalists in many places still find the notion of marital rape itself to be an oxymoron. Empowering women legally and socially and psychologically to say “no” to their partners (including their husbands) is an essential part of the global feminist project.

But of course, there is another side to all of this discussion. As Dworkin’s critics have long pointed out, much of her objection to PIV is rooted less in physiological reality than in the language we use to describe it. I wrote about this last fall, describing an exercise familiar to all my women’s studies’ students. An excerpt follows.

One of the first gender studies courses I ever took at Berkeley was an upper-division anthropology course taught by the great Nancy Scheper-Hughes. It was in a class discussion one day (I think in the spring of ‘87) that I heard something that rocked my world. We were discussing Andrea Dworkin’s novel “Ice and Fire” and her (then still-forthcoming, but already publicized) “Intercourse”. I hadn’t read the books at the time (they were optional for the class). One classmate made the case that on a biological level, all heterosexual sex was, if not rape, dangerously close to it. “Look at the language”, my classmate said; “penetrate, enter, and screw make it clear what’s really happening; women are being invaded by men’s penises.” Another classmate responded, “But that’s the fault of the language, not of the biology itself; we could just as easily use words like ‘envelop’, ‘engulf’, ’surround’ and everything would be different.” The discussion raged enthusiastically until the next class irritably barged in and chucked us all out. I was electrified. Continue reading

Step Up and Step Back: more on the role of men in feminist spaces

The discussion of men in the feminist movement heats up in the comments below this post by Amelia at Feministe: The Masquerade: I call myself a feminist, therefore I am a feminist. She tells a story that is all-too-familiar to campus activists. A male student at Amelia’s university attempts to hijack a feminist student organization while claiming, with ever-increasing vehemence, to be a feminist. When his aims are thwarted, the male “feminist” insinuates he’s more committed to feminism than the women who lead the organization. The disruption he causes is more than exasperating, and raises serious questions about the role of men in the feminist movement.

There are many ways in which men who claim to be feminists can do tremendous harm. Two summers ago, we dealt with the infuriating and depressing story of Kyle Payne, an anti-violence campus activist, dorm adviser, and self-described feminist who ended up sexually assaulting a woman in his residence hall. But the problem isn’t limited to rapists who are “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Indeed, there’s a range of problematic male feminist behavior, with outright sexual assault at one extreme and well-meaning but utterly clueless insistence on taking on a leadership role in the anti-sexist movement at the other. Spend enough time doing anti-violence or other sorts of feminist work on campus, and you’ll meet young men very similar to the sort Amelia describes.

One commenter at Feministe suggests that the problem lies in having men take on any role in feminist organizations:

sorry, but you are going to have this problem constantly, and consistently be wasting your time with aggressive, entitled men and mansplanations, as long as you let men into womens and feminist spaces. full stop. there is no remedy for this problem, except to not allow them access. and unfortunately, theres really no way to limit membership and privatize groups when you are in a public school setting, even when its to deny men access to womens spaces DUE TO WOMEN NEEDING PRIVATE WOMEN-ONLY SPACE, DUE TO AGGRESSIVE, ENTITLED MEN.

I sympathize. But as a man who is committed to doing feminist work, I respectfully reject the commenter’s suggestion.

I’m a man who has spent close to 25 years working in feminist spaces, since I took my first undergraduate course in Women’s Studies at Berkeley in the mid-’80s. I was a member of a variety of feminist organizations when I was at university. I’ve taught women’s studies at the community college since the mid-’90s, and have been an adviser to campus feminist clubs throughout that time. And I’m particularly interested in this topic now as I’m working on the nascent Feminist Masculinities project within the National Women’s Studies Association. With colleagues from Harvard, Penn State, and USC, I’ll be part of a panel discussion on Men and Anti-Sexist Activism at this November’s NWSA conference in Denver. This will be a follow-up discussion to our very successful dialogue at last autumn’s NWSA conference in Atlanta, about which I blogged here.

As I commented at Feministe, I have a simple formula I’ve developed over the years to describe my thinking about men in feminist spaces. (I am perplexed as to why I’ve never blogged about it before.) Four words:

1. Step up.
2. Step back.

“Step up” means that men who choose to identify as feminists (or, if you prefer, as “feminist allies” or “pro-feminists”) are called to take an active role in the anti-sexist movement. Building a genuinely egalitarian and non-violent society requires everyone’s involvement. Empowering women to defend themselves from rapists and harassers is important; raising a generation of young men to whom the idea of rape or harassment is anathema is also vital. We need men of all ages in the feminist movement to “step up” and commit themselves to embodying egalitarian principles in their private and public lives.

Stepping up means being willing to listen to women’s righteous anger. That doesn’t mean groveling on the ground in abject apology merely for having a penis — contrary to stereotype, that’s not what feminists (at least not any I’ve ever met) want. That means really hearing women, without giving into the temptation to become petulant, defensive, or hurt. It means realizing that each and every one of us is tangled in the Gordian knot of sexism, but that men and women are entangled in different ways that almost invariably cause greater suffering to the latter. Stepping up doesn’t mean denying that, as the old saying goes, The Patriarchy Hurts Men Too (TPHMT). It means understanding that in feminist spaces, to focus on male suffering both suggests a false equivalence and derails the most vital anti-sexist work.

Stepping up means, of course, being willing to confront other men. I’ve said over and over again that the acid test of a man’s commitment to feminism often comes not only in terms of how he treats women, but also how he speaks about women when he’s in all-male spaces. Many young men are earnest about living out feminist principles when around women (of course, some like Amelia’s troll and the lamentable Kyle Payne obviously aren’t.) But get them around their “bros” and their words change. Or, as is more often the case, they may not join in on sexist banter — but they fail to raise vocal objection to it. Stepping up means challenging the jokes and complaints and objectifying remarks that are so much a part of the conversation in all-male spaces. This is, as far as I’m concerned, a sine qua non of being a feminist ally.

Stepping back means acknowledging that in almost every instance, feminist organizations ought to be led by women. It means that men in feminist spaces need to check themselves before they pursue leadership roles. While that might seem unfair, arguing that biological sex should have no bearing on who wields authority in a feminist organization fails to take into account the myriad ways in which the wider world discriminates against women. Even now, we still socialize young men to be assertive and young women to be deferential. (Yes, there are plenty of exceptions, but not enough to disprove that rule.) Part of undoing that socialization for women means pushing themselves to take on leadership positions even if they feel awkward about doing so; part of undoing that socialization for young men means holding themselves back from those same offices.

Stepping back doesn’t mean men should never speak up in feminist spaces. Stepping back is not about silently serving in the background. Stepping back is about the willingness to engage in self-reflection, to defer, and remembering that the most important job feminist men have within the movement is not to lead women but to serve as role models to other men. Stepping back is a way of renouncing the “knight in shining armor” tendency that afflicts many young men who first come to anti-sexist work. Women need colleagues and partners on this journey, not rescuers or substitute father figures.

As a male instructor who teaches women’s history, I’ve always made sure that female colleagues feel free to critique my syllabus and teaching methods. As adviser to the campus feminist club, I’ve done everything I can to make sure not to assert any more authority than necessary, and I defer as often as possible (without shirking work) to my two feminist colleagues who co-advise with me. I recognize that “stepping back” can turn into a convenient excuse for not doing some of the more tedious work of feminist activism (like paperwork), and I do my best to make sure that I’m both “pulling my weight” and “hanging back” as needed.

I am keenly aware that a great many women are deeply cynical about men who claim to be feminists. This mistrust is rooted in real experience. The consequent desire to exclude men from feminist spaces is understandable. But I’m also convinced that men do have a vital role to play in transforming the culture and building a truly egalitarian society. Imperfectly, I’ve been doing this work for over half my life, mentoring as I was once mentored. I believe in engaging men in the struggle to end violence; to create new models for sexual relationship; to build a world in which one’s biology is not the primary determinant of one’s destiny. Women in the feminist movement have brothers and fathers and boyfriends and buddies and sons and husbands and nephews whom they love. Most women I’ve worked with very much want men in the movement, but are often understandably wary about what role we will play. And as we acknowledge both that need and that wariness, I think it’s a good time to reiterate the importance of stepping up… and stepping back.

UPDATE: Wanted to link to this post of mine from 2008, written from the WAM (Women, Action and Media) conference in Massachusetts: Some Thoughts on Changing Attitudes towards Male Feminists. I see a major generational divide in terms of receptivity towards men in the feminist movement, and I’m old enough to have seen a significant shift towards “inclusionary” views of men in feminist spaces.