On Modesty and Male Weakness: “Pegging” and Feminism at Jezebel

I had two posts up at Jezebel this week:

Hot Girls in Tight Clothes Do Not Keep Boys From Learning Excerpt:

That modesty culture places an unreasonable burden on girls is undeniable. What gets missed is that it also sets men up for a lifetime of believing that they aren’t responsible for their own sexual urges. Boys don’t need to be protected from their own horniness (any attempt to provide that protection will end in failure), they need tools to learn to manage the intensely powerful feelings that they’re having. Teenage lust is a biological reality, but the socially-constructed assumption that it is only truly overwhelming for boys is destructive in two ways. It shames girls for being horny (because sexual desire is framed as exclusively masculine) and it teaches boys that they are at the mercy of urges they can’t be reasonable expected to control. What boys need, and aren’t getting, is the message that lust and learning aren’t mutually exclusive experiences.

If You Want a More Thoughtful Boyfriend, Try Pegging Him (Trigger Warning for, um, vulgar language) Excerpt:

The payoff for clearing those hurdles, Glickman says, is nothing less than the radical transformation of heterosexual sex. In 2011, Glickman wrote a column entitled “How Pegging Can Save the World,” arguing that no other erotic experience a man can undergo can create greater empathy with women than being penetrated by his partner. “For men who have never been on the receiving side of penetration, sex is something that happens outside the body. And when sex is external to your body, it can be easier to do when you have a headache or you’re not quite in the mood. A lot of men discover than when sex is about catching rather than pitching, their mood, their emotions, and their connection to a partner can often have a bigger influence on what they want to do and how it feels.” Men, Glickman and Emirzian suggest optimistically, will be a lot less likely to rush foreplay once they’ve experienced how long it takes to relax sufficiently in order to comfortably take a dildo (or other sex toy) in the ass.

For women, Glickman and Emirzian write, the experience of pegging a man can be equally revelatory, suggesting that “many women who use strap-on dildos discover how much work, responsibility, and (sometimes) power can be part of fucking someone.” It’s intellectually reckless to impose political meanings onto private acts, but it seems telling that in an “End of Men” era where exhausted and stressed-out women already are shouldering so much more “work” and “responsibility” than ever before, those burdens are extended — in a novel way — to the bedroom as well.

On Men Turning Lovers Into Mothers, and on Myths of Male and Muslim “Weakness”

Two new pieces up: at Jezebel, last Friday, I wrote about men who act more like sons than lovers. Excerpt:

While men’s neediness is a renowned slayer of lady-boners, part of the problem is that more than a few men aren’t clear on the distinction between being emotionally articulate and being emotionally dependent. These are the dudes who know how to relate to women sexually, but who still have their mothers as their most familiar (and sometimes only) model for genuine vulnerability with a woman. They know how to do courtship (which is still an arena in which traditional gender roles get plenty of use), and they know how to be sons to the women they love. The result is, as Sarah Innes writes at XoJane this week, “simmering resentment” that has inevitable “consequences in the bedroom.”

It sets the bar too low to argue (as virtually all of those writing about the “End of Men” have done) that women ought to resign themselves to the inevitable truth that most men will be either obtuse or whiny (or both,) invariably turning into sons rather than lovers. Letting go of low expectations is difficult to do when contemporary culture seems so intent on reminding women that “good” men are increasingly rare, and apt to disappoint. It’s hard to accept the much more promising (but less often repeated) notion that physical differences notwithstanding, most men have the same capacity for emotional availability and verbal dexterity as women have. Socially constructed lack of practice shouldn’t be mistaken for biological lack of ability –- even if the latter is a much more congenial excuse. Put simply, the problem isn’t that women want too much. It’s that we expect too little from men.

And at Role/Reboot this week, I look at the controversy over proposed blasphemy laws — and the ways in which both Muslims and men are depicted in the west as incapable of self-control. Excerpt:

Those who argue for blasphemy laws do so not only on the grounds that insults to religion violate the human rights of believers, but also on the premise that certain kinds of speech will inevitably incite a violent reaction. Writing in the Los Angeles Times last month, Sarah Chayes suggested that the “The Innocence of Muslims” was not protected speech because it was “deliberately tailored” to cause “intentional” violence. In other words, the filmmakers preyed on Muslim hyper-sensitivity. Speech that pushes fragile people past the point of self-containment isn’t protected, or so Chayes argues. Hers is a variation on the same argument used by the parents, pastors, pundits, and police officers that argue that scantily-clad women share some responsibility for the reaction their bodies provoke.

The “myth of male weakness” suggests that at least some men cannot control themselves in the presence of a sexually attractive woman. Women must cover up, the myth says, in order to protect these overgrown boys from their own impulses—and to protect themselves from rape. Defenders of blasphemy laws peddle a comparable “myth of Muslim weakness,” suggesting that Islamic religious sensitivities are so delicate that a schlocky YouTube video can push adult human beings into spontaneous and uncontrolled acts of violence. Each camp shifts responsibility from those who are offended or aroused to those who (intentionally or not) are doing the offending and the arousing. That argument infantilizes heterosexual men and pious Muslims by implying that neither group is sufficiently mature to resist sexual temptation or theological provocation.

Ultra-Orthodox Men Wearing Blinders to Avoid Seeing Women

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

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

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

Read the whole thing.

Beauty and Sexuality at Relevant Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

Modesty and Lust and an Open Letter Revisited

Modesty is a cruel bludgeon, something of which I was reminded by this very fine post from Lauren Nicole: Modesty, Lust, and Emotional Rape. Lauren is a Christian, and she writes for Christian audiences (as I have done many times). Her orientation may be evangelical, but she’s right on the money when it comes to identifying the problem:

Dear men: If you believe my neckline is causing to stumble, you have bought into the lie that women are the problem, NOT YOUR LUST.

Whether “lust” is a sin is a theological question. But whether men — religious or otherwise — ever get to hold women responsible for their arousal is a psychological as well as a religious one. And the answer, as I’ve written before, is always no.

So below is a post originally inspired by Rachel Hills. Here was her question that led to this open letter to a 16 year-old girl:

Dear Rachel,

I wish that I could offer you specific fashion tips that would guarantee that creepy older guys wouldn’t hit on you. For that matter, I wish I could share with you how to dress in a manner that would assure that your peers wouldn’t frequently judge you, either to your face or behind your back. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how to ensure those things — because the sad truth is that no matter how you dress, no matter what you wear, you will be perceived by some men as a target for their unwanted advances.

You may have heard people say things like “girls who wear short skirts are asking for ‘it’”. By “it” they may mean anything from rape to crude comments and penetrating stares. But as you may already have noticed, girls aren’t immune from harassment when they’re wearing simple or “modest” garb either. I’ve had plenty of students who’ve been accosted while wearing sweatpants or long dresses. I’ve had Muslim students who chose to wear head coverings, and they’ve been harassed both religiously and sexually. The bottom line is that there’s nothing you can wear that will guarantee respect from others. And the reason is that the root of this problem isn’t skin or clothing, it’s our cultural contempt for women and girls.

Have you noticed the way this works yet? If a girl is thin, she’s accused of being “anorexic”; if her weight is higher than the cruelly restrictive ideal, she’s “fat” and “doesn’t take care of herself” or “has no self-control.” If she wears cute, trendy clothes she “only wants attention” and if she wears sweats and jeans, she “doesn’t make an effort.” If she’s perceived as sexually attractive, and — especially — if she shows her own sexual side, she’s likely to be called a “slut.” If her sexuality and her body are concealed, she’s a “prude.” As you’ve probably figured out, the cards are stacked against you. You cannot win, at least not if you define winning as dressing and behaving in a way likely to win approval (or at least decent respect) from everyone.

The advice I’m going to give may sound clichéd, but it’s important nonetheless: you should dress in a style that makes you comfortable.

Comfort, of course, has many dimensions. There’s physical comfort to consider. A fashion choice that leaves you sweating and itchy on a hot day, or shivering on a cold one, is by definition uncomfortable. When the weather’s warm, wearing more revealing clothing is often as much a matter of comfort rather than style.

Of course, there’s a psychological aspect to comfort, too. The more revealing your clothing (regardless of your reasons for wearing it), the more of your body others can see. It’s important to be honest with yourself about how that makes you feel. Different people have different levels of comfort with having their bodies noticed. That’s a normal variation, and the key thing is to be aware where you are on the spectrum. If your peers or parents urge you to dress in a style that leaves you feeling vulnerable and uncomfortably exposed, you have a right to push back against them. The reverse is true, too.

It’s important too to note that however much skin you are revealing, you are never responsible for another person’s inappropriate behavior. Save for the blind, we are all visual people. We notice each other. There is no right not to be seen. But there is a right not to be stared at with a penetrating gaze of the sort that makes you feel deeply uncomfortable. While it may seem that you get those leers more often when you’re showing more skin, you’ve probably noticed that you get those creepy stares at other times as well. And the key thing you need to know is that men can control their eyes — they really can — and women can control their judgment. Your body is not so powerful that it can drive others to distraction. (And yes, if we’re honest, sometimes we wish that our bodies were that powerful, particularly if it meant drawing the attention of someone to whom we are attracted!) If some men choose to be distracted by you, that is their choice, a decision for which they (not you) are solely responsible. No matter what anyone tells you, you need to remember that.

It is not inconsistent to want to be seen and not be stared at. You know the difference, I suspect, between an “appreciative look” (which can feel very validating) and the “penetrating stare” that leaves you feeling like crawling into a hole. While people are not required to give you the former, it’s not unreasonable to expect them to avoid giving you the latter. It’s also not unreasonable to want guys your age to be interested in you, and want the creepy old ones to leave you alone. Remember, it’s not hypocrisy or naiveté on your part to dress in a way that you hope will get you that positive attention you want without also bringing the negative attention you fear and loathe.

Sometimes, of course, we need other people’s insight and advice. There are little fashion rules that it can be helpful to know (even if only for the sake of breaking them, like the old one about not mixing browns and blacks, or not wearing dark-colored bras under light-colored tops.) Friends and family members may have suggestions for what colors or styles are most flattering to you, and sometimes those suggestions may be helpful. I’m certainly not suggesting you shouldn’t listen to those tips. But I want you to know there’s a world of difference between saying “you know, I think lime green isn’t really your color” and saying “you shouldn’t wear short skirts, because then men will think you’re easy.” The former bit of advice is rooted in an aesthetic truth (aesthetics is a fancy term for the study of what is beautiful or good), the latter in an anxiety that is based on a false assumption about male weakness.

It’s okay to ask, when headed to a new school or a workplace or a party, about the dress code. Few of us want to stand out as totally different from everyone else. Most of us can figure out that what you wear to a birthday party at the water park is different from what you would wear to a funeral service in a church. Dressing for the occasion is part of living in a community with others. But that standard should still have room for a lot of flexibility. A bikini is probably not appropriate at Thanksgiving dinner (unless you’re poolside), but when it comes, say, to school, don’t let anyone tell you that can’t dress up (or down) depending on how you feel.

Here’s a key point: As a father and a teacher and a youth leader and a feminist man who has been around a while (and worked with thousands of young people), I want you to know that while not all men are safe and trustworthy, men’s bad behavior is never, ever, ever, ever, ever “your” fault. Your miniskirt doesn’t cause guys (of any age) to do anything they don’t choose to do (no matter what they say to the contrary). It’s not your job to dress to keep yourself safe from men.

Lastly, let me say that finding your own style is an adventure. It involves a lot of trial, and some not infrequent errors. I promise you, ten or twenty years from now you’ll look at photos of yourself at 16, roll your eyes, and say “What was I wearing? What made me think that looked good?” Despite what some folks tell you, these are not the best years of your life. Not even close. And in terms of your style and your beauty, you aren’t anywhere near your peak. I say that not to belittle you, but to reassure you that you don’t have to get it right yet. You have much more time than you think.

All the very best,

Hugo

The Talmud and 1 Timothy: the real meaning of modesty

I’ve got a short piece up at Jezebel this weekend. It’s largely a response to this splendid New York Times op-ed from Rabbi Dov Linzer: Lechery, Immodesty, and the Talmud.  He writes:

The Talmud, the foundation of Jewish law, acknowledges that men can be sexually aroused by women and is indeed concerned with sexual thoughts and activity outside of marriage. But it does not tell women that men’s sexual urges are their responsibility. Rather, both the Talmud and the later codes of Jewish law make that demand of men.

In my follow-up, I note that the New Testament, much like the Talmud, is misinterpreted by its most fundamentalist followers today.  Modesty doesn’t mean what we think.

 

Sexy Halloween Costumes Don’t Cause Rape

A Happy Halloween (and Reformation Day) to all. My holiday column is up a day earlier than usual: Sexy Halloween Costumes for Girls Don’t Cause Rape. A little excerpt:

…those of us who advocate for girls aren’t primarily concerned that girls are showing too much skin. Rather, the problem lies in the compulsory sexualization that is so much a part of today’s Halloween celebrations for teens. A lot of us are more upset by the absence of options than by the absence of fabric; we know that pressuring girls to act sexy is not the same thing as encouraging them to develop a healthy, vibrant sexuality that they themselves own. I don’t have a problem with “sexy bar wench” costumes; I have a problem when those sorts of costumes are the only ones young women are expected or encouraged to wear.

An Open Letter to a Sixteen Year-old Girl: “Your Body is Never the Problem”

Though I originally published this piece at Scarleteen, Healthy is the New Skinny reprints today my Letter to a Teenage Girl. Excerpt:

It’s important too to note that however much skin you are revealing, you are never responsible for another person’s inappropriate behavior. Save for the blind, we are all visual people. We notice each other. There is no right not to be seen. But there is a right not to be stared at with a penetrating gaze of the sort that makes you feel deeply uncomfortable. While it may seem that you get those leers more often when you’re showing more skin, you’ve probably noticed that you get those creepy stares at other times as well. And the key thing you need to know is that men can control their eyes — they really can — and women can control their judgment. Your body is not so powerful that it can drive others to distraction. (And yes, if we’re honest, sometimes we wish that our bodies were that powerful, particularly if it meant drawing the attention of someone to whom we are attracted!) If some men choose to be distracted by you, that is their choice, a decision for which they (not you) are solely responsible. No matter what anyone tells you, you need to remember that.

It is not inconsistent to want to be seen and not be stared at. You know the difference, I suspect, between an “appreciative look” (which can feel very validating) and the “penetrating stare” that leaves you feeling like crawling into a hole. While people are not required to give you the former, it’s not unreasonable to expect them to avoid giving you the latter. It’s also not unreasonable to want guys your age to be interested in you, and want the creepy old ones to leave you alone. Remember, it’s not hypocrisy or naïveté on your part to dress in a way that you hope will get you that positive attention you want without also bringing the negative attention you fear and loathe.

“Your body is not so powerful it can drive others to distraction”: a letter to a teenage girl about clothing, modesty, and Slutwalk

As the controversy over SlutWalk hits the mainstream media, provoking a larger conversation about sexuality, safety, privilege and rape, I wanted to revisit this “letter to a teen girl”.

Rachel Hills, who blogs at Musings of an Inappropriate Woman, recently posed this question from her 16 year-old self: how do I stop creepy old men from hitting on me? Rachel writes that she didn’t get a satisfactory answer when she was young, and she still doesn’t get good answers today.

As a feminist and a father, a professor and a former youth leader with years of experience working with teens, I thought I’d take a shot at answering Rachel’s query.

If I were writing to a 16 year-old named Rachel, I’d say:

Dear Rachel,

I wish that I could offer you specific fashion tips that would guarantee that creepy older guys wouldn’t hit on you. For that matter, I wish I could share with you how to dress in a manner that would assure that your peers wouldn’t frequently judge you, either to your face or behind your back. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how to ensure those things — because the sad truth is that no matter how you dress, no matter what you wear, you will be perceived by some men as a target for their unwanted advances.

You may have heard people say things like “girls who wear short skirts are asking for ‘it’”. By “it” they may mean anything from rape to crude comments and penetrating stares. But as you may already have noticed, girls aren’t immune from harassment when they’re wearing simple or “modest” garb either. I’ve had plenty of students who’ve been accosted while wearing sweatpants or long dresses. I’ve had Muslim students who chose to wear head coverings, and they’ve been harassed both religiously and sexually. The bottom line is that there’s nothing you can wear that will guarantee respect from others. And the reason is that the root of this problem isn’t skin or clothing, it’s our cultural contempt for women and girls.

Have you noticed the way this works yet? If a girl is thin, she’s accused of being “anorexic”; if her weight is higher than the cruelly restrictive ideal, she’s “fat” and “doesn’t take care of herself” or “has no self-control.” If she wears cute, trendy clothes she “only wants attention” and if she wears sweats and jeans, she “doesn’t make an effort.” If she’s perceived as sexually attractive, and — especially — if she shows her own sexual side, she’s likely to be called a “slut.” If her sexuality and her body are concealed, she’s a “prude.” As you’ve probably figured out, the cards are stacked against you. You cannot win, at least not if you define winning as dressing and behaving in a way likely to win approval (or at least decent respect) from everyone.

The advice I’m going to give may sound clichéd, but it’s important nonetheless: you should dress in a style that makes you comfortable. Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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