16 is not 16 is not 16: age, maturity, and drawing lines

From May 2010

There’s been much talk this week about the adventures of Abby Sunderland, the Southern California 16 year-old whose attempt to sail solo around the world ended when her boat lost its mast in the Indian Ocean last Thursday. For several hours, there was fear — much of it hyped by the media — that Abby was “lost at sea”. The story is on its way to a happy ending, as Abby is now on a fishing boat headed for Madagascar, and, eventually, home to her family.

The debate, of course, is whether her parents ought to have allowed her to make this journey. (Her brother had undertaken a similar adventure a few years ago when he was just a little bit older than Abby.) That Abby had the technical skill to handle her boat is not in question; what befell her could easily have befallen an experienced sailor thrice her age. But lots of teenagers have the capacities of adults, but are still denied all the freedoms of adulthood. We all know 15 year-olds who know more about politics than their parents, but we don’t let 15 year-olds vote. We know, certainly, that plenty of 17 year-olds are capable of making responsible decisions about alcohol — and that plenty of 27 year-olds aren’t.

It’s not news that our lines of demarcation that separate children from adults are somewhat arbitrary. Whether we draw those lines at 16 (Austrians can vote at that age, which appalls many Americans; Americans can drive at that age, which appalls many Europeans) or 21 (a ridiculously late drinking age in the eyes of many around the world), any sensible person recognizes that some of those beneath the line are capable of handling the responsibilities that at least of some of those above that line are not.

Sensible people, however, recognize that society must draw lines somewhere. (This debate is as old as classical Athens, if not older.) We can’t test every young person to see if they are “ready” to vote, or to drink, or to have sex, in quite the same way that we issue driver’s licenses. And even with driver’s licenses, while turning 16 doesn’t automatically grant the right to have a license (the test must be passed), being under 16 automatically bars a young person from be licensed.

These lines are drawn based upon many things: history, tradition, collective assumptions about risk and maturity. These lines shift based on social trends and evolving beliefs about young people, rights, and responsibility. In the Vietnam era, a growing sense that it was unjust to send 18 year-olds off to die in wars while not permitting them to vote led to the passage of the 26th Amendment; a decade later, anxiety about other risks led to a Reagan-era mandate to raise the national drinking age from 18 to 21. These shifts don’t always make sense; they lead to the obvious silliness that a young soldier can operate a machine gun in combat but can’t buy a beer. That kind of arbitrariness grates. But the alternative to arbitrary line-drawing is far more grating: a kind of intellectual or maturational means testing that would be subject to abuse and overt politicization in a hearbeat. Continue reading

But he’s supposed to want it more! The crushing expectation of higher male desire

From March 2011

After so many years of blogging, teaching, mentoring, and writing, you find yourself getting the same questions over and over again. (Questions about the wisdom of age-disparate and long-distance relationships, for example, are evergreen.) But there are other topics that come up often as well, like incompatible sexual desire. (See here, for example.) And as is often the case, I get multiple queries on the same topic at the same time from different sources; call it kismet or synchronicity, the topic of what happens when a woman has a stronger libido than her male partner has come up four times this week.

Our myths about sex drive tell us that men are supposed to peak in horniness in their late teens, while women only reach their full libidinousness on the high side of thirty. A lot of us suspect that to the extent there’s any truth to this at all, it has a good deal less to do with biology, and more to do with the long and difficult road so many women have to travel to discover and accept their own sexuality. Slut-shaming and sexualization work together to make girls acutely conscious of others’ wants and expectations while shutting them off from their own desires. It’s hard to hear one’s own “still, small voice” of longing if you’ve been raised to be a people pleaser!

But of course, so many young women don’t fit this model, just as the guys they date often don’t fit the male stereotype of constant randiness. And for many young women, finding themselves in a sexual relationship where they are the higher desire partner can be deeply confusing. One FB email this week from a former student of mine:

Before I had sex, my fantasy was always that a beautiful man would want me so much that he would lose all control, overpowering me. Not a rape fantasy exactly, just the idea of driving some hot guy crazy with lust. I guess you’d say my arousal was tied into how aroused the guy was by me. That was my number one fantasy for years and years. But Tom (name changed, of course) doesn’t seem to want sex nearly as often as I do. I’d like it almost every day, and he’d like it a few times a week. We don’t get much time together as it is, and this is driving me nuts.

I hear variations on that quite often (though rarely several times in one week.) And of course, my former student is hurt and confused. She knows enough to know how much of her own sexuality was shaped by cultural messages about uncontrollable male desire. She’s done a great job of leaving behind the message that “good girls don’t really want sex”. But while she’s given herself permission to want and to have, she’s still got the old tape playing that says that in heterosexual relationships, particularly among young people, the man should always be hornier than the woman. Continue reading

Sin Boldly: The Trap of the Emotional Affair

This post originally appeared in 2009.

A friend of mine with whom I’ve had many conversations about feminism and older men/younger women relationships wrote me a note last week about a close acquaintance of hers, a young woman of 21 who is having an “emotional affair” with a man of 44.

I’ve blogged enough lately about age-disparate relationships, and I intend to do much more writing on the subject. Today, I’m interested in writing about this strange and troubling beast called the emotional affair, a phenomenon enormously abetted by modern technology.

I’m not treading on new ground when I remark that when it comes to love and sex, humans are generally very good at deceiving themselves. We are particularly good, as a rule, at justifying certain kinds of betrayals because they don’t meet our own contorted and legalistic definitions of what constitutes genuine infidelity. The paradigmatic example, of course, is that of Bill Clinton. A great many of us believed, and still believe, that our 42nd president was absolutely sincere when he denied an adulterous relationship with Monica Lewinsky; he had constructed for himself a moral calculus in which only intercourse constituted authentic infidelity. In 1998, as the nation watched the Clintons’ all-too-public agony, a great many folks were challenged to think about their own little webs of deceit and justification. If the politicians we elect are mirrors for our best and worst aspects of ourselves, then President Clinton — a man of extraordinary gifts and extraordinarily banal frailties — reminded us of our own capacity for duplicity.

Most people have no trouble labelling oral sex with an intern behind your wife’s back as adultery. Bill Clinton is easy to admire, and easy to ridicule. But lesser men than he — and a great many women too — have shown a similar capacity for self-deception. And we are particularly prone to this sort of self-deception when it comes to affairs that don’t have a physically sexual component. For those of us who define fidelity in terms of what actions we don’t undertake with other people, it’s all too easy to slide into an emotional affair.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll define an emotional affair as a non-physically sexual relationship characterized by mutually intense psychological intimacy, accompanied by words or gestures that traditionally are reserved for one’s romantic partner. That’s a vague definition, of course; emotional affairs are notoriously difficult to define. (One thinks of the perhaps apocryphal Potter Stewart remark about knowing obscenity when he saw it.) The slipperiness of the line between “good friend” and emotional “lover” allows those involved in these affairs a great deal of plausible deniability, both to themselves and to those around them. “We’re just friends”; “It’s totally innocent”; “You’re reading too much into this” are the sorts of things that can be said with genuine sincerity in response to suspicious queries from others. Continue reading

“Penetrate” v. “Engulf”: a note on power, sex, and words

From November 2009

Years ago, I wrote a brief post about feminism and language, but it didn’t go into very much detail. Here’s a new version, with a bit more detail.

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.

My classmates were having, as I came to discover, a classic intra-feminist argument: to what extent is the sexual domination of women by men part and parcel of our biology, and to what extent is it a construction maintained by language that deliberately disempowers women? The consensus seems to weigh more heavily to the latter position, particularly within the contemporary (so-called “Third Wave”) feminism which was very much still in its incubation when I was discovering Women’s Studies in the Reagan years.

In every women’s studies class I’ve taught here at PCC, and in many guest lectures about feminism I’ve given elsewhere, I use the “penetrate” versus “engulf” image to illustrate a basic point about the way in which our language constructs and maintains male aggression and female passivity. Even those who haven’t had heterosexual intercourse can, with only a small degree of imagination required, see how “envelop” might be just as accurate as “enter”. “A woman’s vagina engulfs a man’s penis during intercourse” captures reality as well as “A man’s penis penetrates a woman’s vagina.” Of course, most het folks who have intercourse are well aware that power is fluid; each partner can temporarily assert a more active role (frequently by being on top) — as a result, the language used to describe what’s actually happening could shift. Continue reading

“Find out what it means to me”: r-e-s-p-e-c-t, Rodney Atkins, Aretha Franklin, and sexual justice

A revised version of this post appeared in 2007.

In the various workshops I’ve put on for young men (and not so-young-men), I’ve talked a lot about the real meaning of one of my favorite words, “respect.” (And if you’re thinking of the Aretha Franklin song now, hold on, I’ll get to it.)

I often start by writing the word “respect” on a flip chart or chalkboard, and then ask the folks I’m working with to play the word association game with me. Everyone gets to throw out the first thing that comes into their head when they hear or see the word. As you might expect, I get a lot of different definitions. Some people do think of chivalry; almost always, someone will say that “opening the door for a woman” is the first thing that he thinks of when he hear the word. Others will offer a negative definition, suggesting that “respect” is more about what you don’t do than what you do: “It’s like watching your language around a girl”; “It’s about not grabbing her just ’cause you want to”; (I remember that definition vividly from one high school group), “It’s treating her as a girl and not like a guy.” I write as many of the definitions and word associations on the board as I can. <

I then tell them the meaning of the word. Spectare means “to look”; re means “again.” So respect is “to look again.” I then ask the audience what they think “to look again” might mean when it comes to how we treat each other. (Usually, some wiseacre will say something like “That means when you see a girl who’s lookin’ fine, you look at her twice!” Everyone laughs indulgently.) But most of them start to get it: “looking again” means looking beyond a superficial exterior. Another way of thinking about “respect” is to suggest that it’s moving beyond “looking at” to “seeing”. To be looked at is to be perceived as an object; to be seen is to be recognized as a unique and valuable human being. Most young people can instantly think of times when they’ve felt the difference between “being looked at” and being truly “seen.”

Respect isn’t chivalry, if what we mean by chivalry is a fairly rigid, antiquated code of prescribed ways of treating men and women differently. Indeed, respect and chivalry can be in considerable opposition. If a code of chivalry conditions me to treat a woman in a certain way merely because she’s a woman, then by definition I’m not respecting her — because I’m not seeing her as a person, only as a female. Think of the epic battles that happen over the issue of holding doors open. I can think of countless men who’ve complained that, to put it vulgarly, they’ve been “bitched out” by women for whom they held open a door or performed some other act of traditional “courtesy.” Respect, however, is deliberately refraining from imposing your own particular views on how the sexes ought to relate onto others. Respect is paying enough attention to those around you that you begin to see as unique human beings; respect is adapting your own behavior to the different needs of different people. Chivalry is a “two-size fits all” approach.

Everyone knows the Aretha Franklin R-E-S-P-E-C-T song. One of the best lines in it is the refrain “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.” It’s not a throw-away lyric! Find out what it means to me. That “to me” is vital, and it’s right on. Respect may mean one thing to Aretha, and another thing to Joanne, still another to Maria, still another to Jill, still another to Ralph or Harry or Ted. Respect involves making a unique connection with one other human being; it is inherently incompatible with any rigid code of gender-based conduct. Holding a door open for someone who doesn’t want the door held isn’t respect.

Aretha’s magnificent song has a very different definition of respect than one that did very well on country radio a couple of years ago: “Cleaning my Gun”, by Rodney Atkins. A song about a protective father, it includes these wince-inducing lines:

Well now that I’m a father
I’m scared to death one day my daughter’s gonna find
That teenage boy I used to be
Who seems to have just one thing on his mind
She’s growing up so fast it won’t be long
‘fore I’ll have to put the fear of god
Into some kid at the door

Come on in boy, sit on down
And tell me ’bout yourself
So you like my daughter, do you now
Yeah we think she’s something else
She’s her daddy’s girl, her momma’s world
She deserves respect, thats what she’ll get
Ain’t it son, ya’ll run on and have some fun
I’ll see you when you get back
Probably be up all night
Still cleaning this gun

It’s an old and ugly trope: Daddy uses the threat of violence to guard his daughter’s sexual innocence. “Respect”, in the Atkins song, offers no possibility for agency on the daughter’s part. Rather, “respect” is defined as “keep your hands off my little girl”. The beau is invited to find out what “respect” means to Dad, and it doesn’t matter one bit what it means to his daughter. And the end result will be the same: keeping your hands off your date just because you’re scared of her papa’s gun is no more a sign of respect than pawing at her in self-centered lust. In either scenario, there’s a complete failure to look again, to see what the woman involved might actually want.

Many feminists are rightly suspicious of the language of “respect” because they hear the word the way the likes of Rodney Atkins use it. But the word is a useful one, particularly when we reclaim its original meaning. When we use it the way Aretha used it, with its exuberant insistence that we “find out” the unique desires of the people with whom we interact, it’s a positive concept indeed. In the struggle against rape, harassment, and sexualized violence, clarifying the authentic meaning of “respect” is vital. And once properly understood, it’s something we can insist upon.

“Sin Boldly”: the trap of the emotional affair

From February 2009. I thought I’d have two Potter Stewart references in as many days.

A friend of mine with whom I’ve had many conversations about feminism and older men/younger women relationships wrote me a note last week about a close acquaintance of hers, a young woman of 21 who is having an “emotional affair” with a man of 44.

I’ve blogged enough lately about age-disparate relationships, and I intend to do much more writing on the subject. Today, I’m interested in writing about this strange and troubling beast called the emotional affair, a phenomenon enormously abetted by modern technology.

I’m not treading on new ground when I remark that when it comes to love and sex, humans are generally very good at deceiving themselves. We are particularly good, as a rule, at justifying certain kinds of betrayals because they don’t meet our own contorted and legalistic definitions of what constitutes genuine infidelity. The paradigmatic example, of course, is that of Bill Clinton. A great many of us believed, and still believe, that our 42nd president was absolutely sincere when he denied an adulterous relationship with Monica Lewinsky; he had constructed for himself a moral calculus in which only intercourse constituted authentic infidelity. In 1998, as the nation watched the Clintons’ all-too-public agony, a great many folks were challenged to think about their own little webs of deceit and justification. If the politicians we elect are mirrors for our best and worst aspects of ourselves, then President Clinton — a man of extraordinary gifts and extraordinarily banal frailties — reminded us of our own capacity for duplicity.

Most people have no trouble labelling oral sex with an intern behind your wife’s back as adultery. Bill Clinton is easy to admire, and easy to ridicule. But lesser men than he — and a great many women too — have shown a similar capacity for self-deception. And we are particularly prone to this sort of self-deception when it comes to affairs that don’t have a physically sexual component. For those of us who define fidelity in terms of what actions we don’t undertake with other people, it’s all too easy to slide into an emotional affair.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll define an emotional affair as a non-physically sexual relationship characterized by mutually intense psychological intimacy, accompanied by words or gestures that traditionally are reserved for one’s romantic partner. That’s a vague definition, of course; emotional affairs are notoriously difficult to define. (One thinks of the perhaps apocryphal Potter Stewart remark about knowing obscenity when he saw it.) The slipperiness of the line between “good friend” and emotional “lover” allows those involved in these affairs a great deal of plausible deniability, both to themselves and to those around them. “We’re just friends”; “It’s totally innocent”; “You’re reading too much into this” are the sorts of things that can be said with genuine sincerity in response to suspicious queries from others. Continue reading

16 hours a week: boys, girls, video games, time and obligation

From August 2009.

Amanda at Pandagon linked last week to this summary of a study from the journal Sex Roles, reporting that college-aged women spent considerably less time playing video games than their male counterparts. No surprise there, but the key explanation for the discrepancy is chilling:

Our findings suggest that one reason women play fewer games than men is because they are required to fulfill more obligatory activities, leaving them less available leisure time, said Jillian Winn of MSU’s Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media, and one of the co-authors of the study.

To be precise, the study found that college-aged women did sixteen hours “more work” per week (chores, jobs, and so forth). As Amanda pointed out, that finding dwarfs the discussion of video games; it points to further evidence of what Courtney Martin talks about in her marvelous Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters and what on this blog is called “The Martha Complex”. Young women today are increasingly likely to be over-worked, anxious, and beset by fears of failure; a growing percentage of their brothers are hooked on pot, porn, and Playstation, prioritizing “chilling out” over virtually any other waking activity. And an extraordinary number of these lads have women in their lives — mothers, sisters, girlfriends — cleaning up after them (a traditional sex role) and providing for them financially (something of an innovation.)

This time discrepancy is rooted in many things, it seems. Of course, some of it is rooted in the contemporary cultural ideal that, as Courtney Martin says, tells girls that they “can be anything” but implies that in order to do so, that they must somehow “do everything.” Over-caffeinated, over-achieving, and over-scheduled, a great many women are beset by anxiety. But it would be wrong to suggest that the problem is primarily in women’s heads. The time gap that forces so many college-aged, childless women to work a “second shift” is indeed frequently a result of direct pressure from parents and the community.

The lower the expectations for male behavior, the higher the expectations for female success and self-control. This is not only obvious and axiomatic, it has real-life repercussions in the lives of a great many young women. Many of my students come from immigrant families in which there are strict household divisions of labor; women cook and clean, men take out trash and fix cars. Given that cooking, cleaning, and laundry are daily and time-consuming activities compared to mowing lawns or emptying garbage cans, many of my female students take the same academic loads as their brothers while doing twice as much work at home. In many families, a young man is encouraged to do his homework so that he can then go out with his friends and play video games; his sister is told to help with the chores, and when everything else is done, she can then turn to her own homework. Continue reading

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Liberated from History: In Praise of Los Angeles, and Club Football

This post first appeared in January 2007.

I don’t always write about sexuality and masculinity. My doctoral dissertation, among other things, looked at what it meant to live on a border, the Anglo-Scottish frontier, in the late middle ages. And like my brother, a scholar of Britishness, I’m fascinated by nationalism and identity.

I’m also in love with my adopted hometown of L.A., and was reminded yet again of why last night as I watched the USA-Mexico Gold Cup final at the Rose Bowl. The fans were overwhelmingly for Mexico; the fans were overwhelmingly U.S. residents. This displeased Howard, the unfortunate American keeper.

A week ago Sunday, my buddy Leo and I ran up the El Prieto trail and the Brown Mountain fire road. Though we’re usually part of a larger group, we were alone that day. Leo was recovering from a marathon, and I was feeling well-rested, so I was actually able to keep up with him for a change. (In his late 50s, Leo still regularly runs marathons just above the three hour mark and has finished his share of 50 and 100-mile races).

We talked about books, history, ideas. When I run with some friends, we talk about love and marriage and family; when I run with others, I argue politics or theology. A few friends, like Leo, are interested in all of these topics and more. In an early morning chill, we began by reflecting together on the burden of the past.

Leo was born just after the Second World War into a Polish refugee family. He was raised in West Germany. Much like my late father, a dozen years his senior, Leo has that sense that many war refugees have — a sense of never quite belonging, a sense that perhaps at any moment, he might have to pack his bags and leave again. My father, born in Vienna, raised in rural Berkshire, spent nearly fifty years of his life in California without ever truly feeling at home here. He didn’t feel fully at home in Austria or England either. Leo and my Dad knew each other, and were fond of each other. When I got married a year and a half ago, they spoke German together at our wedding.

But we didn’t just talk about my Dad or about Leo’s similar sense of not quite belonging. We talked about the San Gabriel Mountains we both love so much. As we neared the Brown Mountain summit, I said to Leo “Isn’t it interesting to think we are the only members of our family ever to be here? None of our ancestors ever stood where we are standing right now.”

“Yes”, Leo replied, “it’s liberating.”

And I’ve been thinking about that for nine days now. I’m a historian by trade, of course; I have devoted my scholarly and professional life to the study of the past. I’m a dual national, holding a UK passport, and am a regular visitor to the land that gave my father’s family shelter and the land my brother calls home. I love to visit what some folks call “old places”, filled with a rich sense of history. When I tramp through the hills of Devon, or run through the streets of Vienna, I feel as if I am surrounded by ghosts. Not evil spirits, mind — just an extraordinary cloud of witnesses of all who have lived and died in these places. And when I am in those places where my ancestors lived, I feel the weight of their fears and their hopes and their expectations all around me. It’s not always unpleasant, but it’s always there.

Even when I go home to Northern California, I feel surrounded by a sense of family history. On my mother’s side, my family came to the Bay Area for the Gold Rush more than a century and a half ago. We’ve had a country place in the hills northeast of San Jose since Rutherford Hayes was president; by the standards of this state, that’s some ancient history. My maternal great-grandfathers both went to Berkeley, and when I was a student at Cal nine decades later, I felt them all around me. Now, don’t get me wrong, sometimes it is a wonderful feeling to feel so connected to a place. But at other times, it is exhausting in ways I find difficult to describe.

What makes me a Los Angeleno in my mindset is my fascination with self-reinvention. I love that I am surrounded by hundreds of thousands, even millions of people, who call somewhere else their truest home — but have nonetheless come here, to this basin with its beaches and valleys and hills — in order to start something new. They’ve come here to escape the burdens and obligations of the past, the sort that linger in the old places even after the old people have gone. They’ve come here to escape the “things are the way they are” mindset. They’ve come here to replace the fatalism and superstition of the old places with a relentless optimism about their own potential and the possibility of global transformation. They’ve come here to get away from the ghosts of Holocausts and World Wars and rigid class distinctions. They’ve come here to run on mountain trails upon which their ancestors never set foot. Continue reading

“Divided you fall”: how the myth of male weakness turns women against one another

From March 2010

Jonah Goldberg has a piece this morning with the whoppingly patronizing title “Where Feminists Get it Right.” (Don’t get excited, folks. Hell remains unfrozen.) Jonah concludes his piece, which largely focuses on the now-familiar yet ever-depressing litany of abuses against women in the less-developed world, with this gem:

Women civilize men. As a general rule, men will only be as civilized as female expectations and demands will allow. “Liberate” men from those expectations, and “Lord of the Flies” logic kicks in. Liberate women from this barbarism, and male decency will soon follow.

Give Jonah credit. He’s not blaming women directly for their failure to civilize men. Rather, he’s blaming certain cultures that fail to give women sufficient authority with which to do their civilizing. But that doesn’t change the basic problem in his argument, based as it is on pseudo-science, Victorian sentimentality about women’s “nature”, and a William Golding novel about pre-pubescent boys.

As I sigh at Goldberg’s piece, I think about an email I got from my friend Emily. She recounts a Facebook exchange she had with a female friend of hers, a fellow Christian. Em’s friend posted on her status update that she was “really disappointed w/the female human species.” When Em inquired why, and whether her friend was also disappointed in men, she got this response:

It appears as if men are weaker when it comes to sex, money, power. With that I am realizing that it is the women that should be held at a higher standard because we need to set the tone for our weak counterparts. If women looked at themselves as holy temples and didn’t allow anything less than excellence this may force men to step up their integrity and priorities…

We could go through the gospels, pointing out over and over again the places where Jesus demands that men show self-restraint comparable to that demanded by women. But I’m not just interested in responding to a fellow Christian. Rather, what concerns me here is one of the most troubling aspects of the myth of male weakness: it creates an atmosphere in which both men and women feel justified in policing other women’s behavior.

If men cannot control themselves, and women can, then it is (as Emily’s friend suggests) women’s task to set the limits for men which men cannot set for themselves. All bad male behavior, it quickly follows, is invariably a woman’s fault. We’re all familiar with the loathsome notion that a cheating husband or boyfriend deserves less ire than the woman with whom he cheated. (The “he couldn’t help it, but she ought to have known better because she’s a woman” theory). The end result is a culture of mistrust and hostility among women.

A great many of the young women I work with claim to have trouble liking other women. Call it the “most of my good friends are guys” phenomenon, which is sufficiently common as to merit a word other than “phenomenon”. Many young women — even in feminist spaces — will list the countless ways in which they have felt judged, policed, or betrayed by other women. Many will say things like “I expect men to let me down. But when a woman hurts you, it’s worse because she doesn’t have an excuse.”

The point that feminists try and make in these discussions is that the myth of male weakness is at the very root of this internalized misogyny. The logic is inescapable. The less self-control women believe men have, the less they hold men responsible. The less they hold men responsible, the more responsibility they ascribe to themselves and to other women. The less they believe in men’s capacity to self-regulate, the more hostile they are trained to become to any woman who seems unwilling to engage in the rituals of female self-policing. At its most extreme, every mini-skirt becomes not only a threat to the fragile order women have established for mutual protection, it is perceived as an act of both betrayal and hostility towards one’s sisters. The hisses of “slut”, “whore”, and “bitch” soon follow. Continue reading

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Pleasure, Procreation, and Erotic Justice

A slightly different version of this post originally appeared in June 2010.

Jonalyn Grace Fincher offers a long and nuanced (though unquestionably pro-life) Christian perspective on abortion and body sovereignty in this post entitled “Listening to Both Sides.” She links to and quotes from the post I wrote one week after Heloise’s birth: Pregnant women, personhood, and paternal reflections. She had some nice things to say about my piece, but took issue with the central thrust of my argument, which revolved around women’s right not to be forced to endure pain.

I wrote: Giving birth, whether by ceserean section or vaginally, hurts. The recovery hurts. That point is being driven home to me daily as I watch my wife recover. She considers the pain well worth it, well worth it because this baby was longed for and wanted. But we both shudder, more than ever now, at the thought of compelling a woman to go through this process against her will.

Jonalyn responds by noting that the real pain isn’t just in pregnancy and childbirth.

During pregnancy I slept long and well. I easily coordinated elaborate outfits with accessories and make-up. I worked out or spend hours reading and writing without leaking milk. Then I had a baby.

It’s not merely the pregnancy that women must count as a cost, it’s the life after the birth.

I believe more women would refuse an abortion if they could serve nine months and be done with it. It’s not the pain of the nine months; it is the idea of a life to be responsible for, to be guilty about, to wonder as to the painful, happy, fruitful or fruitless future of your offspring.

That’s right, I think. It’s certainly not an argument against the legal right to choose an abortion. My point was not that abortion should be legal solely so that women can avoid the discomfort of continuing a pregnancy, nor that it should be legal only so that a woman can avoid the pain of birthing. Indeed, I support abortion rights for precisely the reasons Jonalyn mentions: “the idea of a life to be responsible for, to be guilty about”, and so forth. Whatever moral arguments can be brought to bear on the issue, I believe the state has a clear interest in not compelling women to take up those particular burdens against their will. And while a birth parent can surrender a newborn for adoption, it is simply an unconscionable overask to insist that every pregnant woman unready for motherhood choose adoption.

Jonalyn’s views on sex are deeply traditional; like so much conservative Christian writing on sexuality these days, they resonate with the vocabulary of John Paul II’s odious “theology of the body”, with the insistence that sex be focused on sacrifice and radical openness to new life. Jonalyn writes:

My concern is that pro-choice advocates remain intent upon driving a wedge between procreation and sex. I don’t think this is appropriately human, nor that God created our bodies and souls to permanently cleave sex away from procreation.

For many religious traditionalists (a group of which Jonalyn appears to be a member, albeit a winsome and reflective one) sex that isn’t procreative, or sex with the use of contraception, is a rejection of self-evident natural law, a rejection of both the design and the Designer. I come from an alternative Christian tradition, one that honors what Marvin Ellison calls “erotic justice”, something I wrote about at length in this post. I wrote:

Our sexual desires are indeed powerful. They can easily be misdirected or warped. But they can, by God’s common grace, be used as an instrument for justice. More than that, our bodies can be used to worship the aspects of the divine we find in each other. In the old Anglican marriage ceremony, a husband and wife would pledge their lives to each other, saying with my body I thee worship. We are called to worship only that which is of God; blessedly, God is found in each of us. When we have sex that is grounded in justice, grounded in enthusiastic and mutual desire, we are engaged in an act of worship. Not every act of sex in marriage is an act of worship, as most married folks can attest. And sex outside of heterosexual marriage, can be deeply worshipful.

The purpose of lovemaking is not to make babies. Pregnancy is simply an ancillary and occasional consequence of one particular kind of sex. Folks who say that procreation and sex can never be separated are like those who say that the primary function of the tongue is to prevent us from choking on our food. It is true that one function of the tongue is to protect large chunks of dinner from being lodged in our throats. But our tongues are there to taste, and we taste both to discern what is rancid and to delight in what is pleasurable. Our tongues are also necessary for speech. And sexually, tongues can bring delight to others. The tongue has many uses, many purposes, all important, all wonderful. We cannot discern a single purpose behind the Designer’s design. It is hubris — poltiicised and pleasure-hating hubris — to suggest that we can.

I know how we made Heloise. I’m fairly certain I remember the specific night she was conceived. After years together as lovers, after still more years of all kinds of sex with all kinds of other people, my wife and I were ready and open to the possibility of conceiving a child. What we had worked assiduously to prevent was now something that we ardently sought. This wasn’t a contradiction, or a sign of hypocrisy. We were at a new season in our lives, emotionally and spiritually and financially equipped to be parents. Was the sex we had when we were trying to conceive different than the sex we had had when we weren’t? Of course it was. But we weren’t magically transformed into better people because after so many years of being sexually active humans, we were finally having intercourse to procreate.

Pleasure still mattered. The opportunity to worship the divine in each other still mattered. The fact that I wasn’t wearing a condom (always, for umpteen reasons, my favorite form of contraception) didn’t mean that I loved my wife anymore than the times I’d been inside her with one on. Sex made the daughter whom I love with all my heart. But as wonderful as she is, as wonderful as all the little darling babes of the world are, they are not the only reason, should not be the only reason, need not have anything to do with the reason why we bring our hands and mouths and genitals together with those of others.

As a husband, a father,a teacher, and a Christian, I know this as I know few other things.

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