Losing it at GMP, and Why You Shouldn’t Sleep with Your Prof at Jezebel

Two new pieces up today.

The first is part of the Our Sexual Vocabulary series at GMP: Why “Losing It” is Sometimes the Best Term for First Sex. Excerpt:

I’m not troubled by the language of losing, as long as we understand that some losses are to be welcomed as well as grieved. When we lose a fear of heights by learning to skydive, we overcome an obstacle. That’s a positive loss. When we lose our fear of speaking up, and become assertive in social situations, we have lost something we needed to lose. Loss can be redemptive and a marker of spiritual, physical, and psychological growth. Rather than trying to avoid using the language of loss to describe first sexual experiences, we can broaden our understanding of what it means to lose.

And at Jezebel, my Genderal Interest column: The Real Reason You Shouldn’t Fuck Your Professor. (Hint: I didn’t pick the title, and I don’t read the comments.)

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

Radicals in the bedroom: a response to Julian

Julian, who blogs at Radical Profeminist, commenting beneath this post that concluded a series of responses to Factcheckme (FCM), asked this:

I’d prefer to know from the male-men contributors here what you do that is sex and oppressive: and what values get expressed when you do what you do that you call “sex”, because in my experience, men talk a good line about everything, and then when I speak with the women in their lives, I find out a whole other reality–one that becomes entirely apparent, yet is unowned by the men who proclaim themselves sensitive to this or that matter. So the oppressive behaviors hide behind the platitudes and proclamations.

We’d been discussing heterosexual intercourse, you’ll recall, and its feminist implications. The split between those of us who are classic liberal feminists (convinced that individual agency can be exercised even in the face of huge social pressures) and those who are radical feminists (who are far more suspicious of such claims) was on display for all to see. There was the usual name-calling, which went both ways and was uniformly unhelpful. There was the usual misunderstanding of what the name-calling meant, which compounded the unhelpfulness. And despite that, there were some very good comments. Perhaps it’s male privilege, perhaps it’s the nearly indissoluble bond of tenure, or perhaps it’s just that I’ve been having these discussions for 25 years, but I appreciated all the heat, even if it shed only a little light.

As the name of his blog implies, Julian embraces a line of inquiry and an intellectual tradition several steps to the left of my own. I don’t need to agree with his radical analysis to find much that is useful and provocative in his writing. I am not a radical, but as a liberal am made better and more thoughtful by engaging with interlocutors whose views are sharply opposed to mine. Radicals like Julian, Factcheckme, Andrea Dworkin, Robert Jensen, and Andrea Smith are great “cover-pullers”, rousing from slumber those of us who sometimes like to hide from the reality of the oppression all around us. That doesn’t mean that their criticisms are always right, or that their solutions are wise. It does mean that their perspective is useful and deserves to be taken seriously.

I’ve said it many times: part of living out a commitment to justice is consistency between one’s private behavior and one’s public pronouncements. That doesn’t mean that we share every intimate detail of our lives in order to prove that we aren’t hypocrites (we’re all hypocrites to one extent or another). It does mean that we work towards wholeness, where what we say and do and think matches up more often than not.

For feminist men in sexual relationships with women, this commitment to integrating justice and egalitarianism into one’s private life is especially important. We’ve got to make sure we’re not hiding behind “platitudes and proclamations”; Julian is quite right that “talking a good line” and living it out are, sadly, often two very different things. I’ve been candid about my own massive failings in this regard in the past, most obviously about my pattern of sleeping with students enrolled in my classes early on in my teaching career. Of course, at the time I was engaged in this unethical and decidedly un-feminist behavior, I wasn’t also opining that teachers shouldn’t sleep with their students. I wasn’t an out-and-out liar, but I was still abusing my position.

I also have been open about my use of pornography in my younger years, a use that probably met the standard for “addiction.” (I am beyond grateful that the worst of that addiction was prior to the coming of the Internet, which I’m confident would have made recovery harder.) Staying away from pornography and not sleeping (or flirting with) anyone other than my wife are obviously important commitments to me and to those who place their trust in me.

But virtue, including feminist virtue, is as much about what one does as one doesn’t. And Julian is right to suggest that heterosexual feminist men in particular integrate their principles into their sexual lives with their partners. Regarding heterosexual intercourse (PIV), that means more than assuming a degree of responsibility for contraception. Willingness to wear a condom is certainly commendable, but that’s not quite enough. Given that penis-in-vagina intercourse poses a host of risks to women that it doesn’t to men (ranging from pregnancy to a greater chance of contracting STIs to the genuine physical trauma of childbirth), feminist men need to be particularly careful that they aren’t prioritizing intercourse over all other possible sexual activities. Continue reading

Reprint: Fat, Slut, Selfish

This first appeared in June 2007.

I’ve been teaching women’s history here at Pasadena City College for more than a dozen years now, and throughout that time, have made journals a critical part of the course. It’s a lot of reading for me, but I remain convinced that my own teachers were right when they told me that putting my words down on paper is the single best way to figure out what it really is I think, feel, and believe.

Over these twelve years or so of teaching gender studies, of meeting with countless students in office hours, of listening, of reading student journals and reflecting on what I find there, I’ve noticed some fairly clear patterns. And the pattern that’s in my head this morning is the ubiquitousness of self-doubt and self-criticism that I see in so many of my female students (and youth group kids).

As my students will confirm, I’m fond of insisting that there are “three key points” to be made about virtually anything. (Too much Trinitarian Christianity; too much of the “three-column system” in Kabbalah; too much Hegel… or three divorces. Take your pick.) And if I were to try and sum up all of the negative self-talk I encounter from my students in just three words, it would be easy:

Fat, Slut, Selfish.

Let me be very clear that I’m not claiming that most women regularly beat themselves up with all three of these. For most of my students and youth group kids, one or two of these three words is particularly haunting. The fear of fat is much commented upon, and in looking back over the last twelve years of journals, the best that I can say is that that crushing anxiety about the body has, at least, not gotten significantly worse. Of course, it couldn’t get much worse. (I do notice more of my male students admitting to body dysmorphia and a desire to lose weight or change their shape.)

If the label “fat” still has tremendous power to wound, there are signs that at least among some young women, “slut” is losing at least a little of its force. From what I can tell (and to generalize enormously), we’ve done a marginally better job of helping young women claim ownership of their sexuality. Compared to what I was seeing, hearing, and reading in the mid-1990s, I see slightly more acceptance among young women (and their male peers) of the notion that women have the right to be sexual subjects rather than objects. Of course, as many feminists worry, when it comes to “sex talk” it’s often difficult to distinguish between false bravado and a genuine embrace of erotic agency. One role of feminist mentors (and youth group leaders) is to provide a safe environment where students can get honest about sexuality. It’s in these safe environments that those who are merely “talking big” about their comfort with their sexuality can begin to acknowledge that some of that apparent confidence is a facade; it’s also in these environments that those who are anxious or confused about their own sexuality can begin to unburden themselves. Continue reading

An apology to my progressive evangelical friends

Reader Dan Whitmarsh gently points out the errors of painting with too broad a brush. In this post, yesterday, some of my words were chosen poorly. I gave the impression that all those who believe in abstinence before marriage are committed to an anti-feminist agenda. What I ought to have said is that the organized purity movement — with its rings and balls and pundits and bad comparisons of the sexually active to used chewing gum — is fundamentally reactionary and anti-feminist. But not everyone who believes in pre-marital chastity endorses the tactics, the rhetoric, and the broader cultural goals of the purity myth peddlers.

I left the Mennonite Church USA and the blogging team at Christians for Biblical Equality because my views on sex outside of marriage were at odds with the agreed principles of these two organizations. (I described my — amicable on all sides — departure from those outfits here.) I’ve known a great many folks whose commitment to radical gender egalitarianism and to economic justice is profound and real — but whose persistent sense that Scripture confines genital sexual activity to heterosexual marriage alone is also profound and real. These are not the sort of folks who marched in favor of Proposition 8, mind you, nor are they the sort who would be caught dead comparing a teen who has pre-marital sex to a rose whose petals have been plucked. They generally know that pelvic morality is never a “salvation issue”, as we say around the shop. But — often with reluctance and ambivalence — they will not go where the Bible, tradition, and their own sense of God will not permit them to go. I think they are fundamentally wrong in their hermeneutic (they feel the same way about me), but that doesn’t mean I lump them in the same basket with the noxious “True Love Waits” crowd.

To my friends on the evangelical left whose commitment to social justice and full inclusion for women is real, but whose commitment to marriage as the only licit venue for sex is also real, I apologize for having implied that you were indistinguishable from the “rascals on the right.” I may still believe you’re short of the mark, but you’re a lot closer than those whom Jessica Valenti so rightly excoriates.

Exposing the abstinence agenda: a review of “The Purity Myth”

I got my copy of Jessica Valenti’s newest book, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women last week. If the editor-in-chief of Feministing continues to crank out books at this pace, I’m going to suspect that she harbors a secret Calvinist work ethic. Four books in two years is a remarkable achievement.

The Obama Administration offers hope that the long national embarrassment known as the abstinence-only movement is soon to be finished. Early signs are that funding for more comprehensive sex education will eventually come through, and that government support for the “purity movement” — a hallmark of the Bush years — is at long last coming to an end (though not rapidly enough for many of us.) Jessica’s timely, accessible book looks at the damage wrought by the “purity myth” and at the noxious agenda which hides behind the cry that “True Love Waits.” Her book went to press too early to include the most recent findings on the failures of the abstinence movement, which is a pity; all the best research indicates that a focus on “purity” has been an unmitigated disaster, leading to a spike rather than in a decline in unplanned pregnancies among American teenagers.

In The Purity Myth, Valenti employs the same accessible, conversational style — punctuated by hilarious asides and personal anecdotes — that characterized her first book, Full Frontal Feminism. As several hundred of my students have told me since I first started assigning FFF a year and a half ago, that style works to engage them and to challenge them in a way that a more formally-written text would not. This is not to suggest that my students are incapable of wrestling with books written in academic prose — but when it comes to a subject as personal as contemporary sexual ethics, a breezy conversational tone lends considerable legitimacy to the argument being made. And that tone and that legitimacy are on full display once again in this wonderful book.

The Purity Myth has many strengths, but perhaps the central theme of the text is the thorough and devastating debunking of the notion that a woman’s worth is in any way connected to the amount of sexual experience she has had. For teen girls, bombarded as they are by the twin lies of the abstinence movement and the crass, pornified “Girls Gone Wild” media culture, there’s a desperate need for sound, sensible, compassionate messages that emphasize the simple message that a woman’s sexuality belongs, in the end, to her and to her alone. It is not the property of a father or a future husband (Valenti’s take on “purity balls”, where Dads “date” their daughters and pledge to safeguard their purity, is chilling — particularly for me as a first-time papa to a baby girl). It is not the property of the culture, it is not the property of predatory boys, it is hers. Continue reading

One mistake will not “ruin your life”: thoughts on “onesies” and the myth of female frailty

I’m on a fairly steep learning curve as a first-time father. Having changed fewer than five diapers in my life before a fortnight ago, I’m an increasingly efficient middle-of-the-night cleaner and re-coverer of baby behinds. I consider myself nearly an expert on working with teenagers, but this infant business is new stuff to me. Our beautiful daughter is teaching me a great many things.

Last week, I was changing her “onesie”, and was quite tentative about it, not wanting to bend or pull her little arms too briskly. My mother-in-law, who has been immensely helpful, came to my aid: “She won’t break, Hugo”, she said; “babies are less fragile than you think.” It was a reassuring thing to hear, though I’m still a bit frightened to pull too fiercely on any part of my daughter’s frame.

But my mother-in-law’s words reminded me of an essential feminist point: women don’t break as easily as we imagine. On Friday, I posted a rebuke to the sorry Zoe Lewis op-ed in the London Times which suggested that feminism led women astray with promises of independence, fulfillment, and satisfying relationships all at once. Part of the discourse anti-feminists like Lewis push isn’t just about feminism, however; they also peddle the notion that the bewombed are particularly easy to break. At 36, less than halfway through an normal lifespan for a woman in the Western world, Lewis is convinced that feminism has “ruined her life.” She’s wrong about feminism, of course, but she’s also wrong about something more fundamental: that women are easily ruined “for life” by either their own poor choices or their early capitulation to certain cultural messages.

In a post about how my students responded to Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism (a piece that played a small part in one of the many internecine wars to which the feminist blogosphere is lamentably prone), I noted that some of the most enthusiastic responses I received were to the author’s brief but memorable defense of making mistakes. Jessica wrote:

I’ve had more than a couple of embarrassing moments in my life and sexual history — but isn’t that what makes us who we are? Do we really have to be on point and thinking politics all the time? Sometimes doing silly, disempowering, sexually vapid things when you’re young is just part of getting to the good stuff.

I’ve had several excellent class discussions about this section of FFF since.

Thinking about Jessica Valenti’s book and about changing my daughter’s onesies reminds me of an essential truth: we tell a great lie to young women when we issue dire warnings to them about sex, men and other choices if we accompany our warning with the phrase “you might ruin your life.” I often ask the young women whom I teach and with whom I work how often they’ve heard “Don’t do x, or you’ll ruin your life.” Most raise their hands. Far fewer of the young men to whom I pose the same question respond affirmatively. Even now, with almost a decade of the 21st century under our belts, our culture still clings to destructive myths of female fragility. Girls born as recently as the Clinton Administration are taught that adolescence and young adulthood consists of a series of pitfalls to be avoided, and that one false step could mean a lifetime of heartbreak and regret. Do the wrong thing, this discourse suggests, and you’ll end up (for the literary minded) like Dickens’ Miss Havisham (possibly with the same fiery demise.) Continue reading

The danger of wanting to be first: a reply to bmmg39, updated with lyrics

Below this January 14 post on experience and numbers, bmmg39 writes:

…my view is that, often, people with little or no experience in a certain thing — it CAN be sex but it could also mean romantic love, or kissing, or slow-dancing, or whatever — often seek others with the same low level or non-level of experience. Someone who’s never “soul-kissed” someone else might not feel comfortable with someone who’s done that with a hundred people already. That doesn’t mean the first person thinks that there’s something wrong with the second; it means that the first person would like to be remembered fondly as someone else’s first experience in that department — with all the wonderful awkwardness and nervousness that is said to come with it.

The bold emphasis is mine. What bmmg writes sounds innocent and sweet enough. But the problem is clear: when one of our chief longings is “to be remembered fondly”, to be “someone else’s first”, we’re placing our own desires ahead of our partner’s. We’re using sex as a way of leaving a mark on another person’s body or heart, hoping — as humans tend to hope — that we won’t be forgotten. There’s no question that most of us would like to leave an impression on other people; perhaps it’s the historian in me, but there are few worse fears I have, to be honest, than that I will be completely forgotten! But bmmg makes the mistake of assuming that “first” equals “most memorable.” Ask around. Legions of people, particularly women, would rather forget their first experience of heterosexual intercourse. There’s not infrequently a world of difference between, say, the first partner with whom you had intercourse and the first partner with whom you truly felt close and safe.

When my wife and I were planning our wedding, she was hardly unaware that this was to be my fourth marriage — and her first. (Indeed, I have been the first husband to four different women.) A friend of ours did ask her, on one occasion, if it bothered her that she was doing something for the first time that I had done several times before. My fiancee, sensible as ever, said, “No, because this is the first time he’s doing it with me.” She was focused, bless her, on the marriage we were building together. She didn’t deny the reality of what had come before, but she rightly saw no reason to believe that prior experience on my part would diminish the unique intensity of what we were creating as a team. She knew better than to see me as a three-time loser and a has-been. So when we talked about rings and dresses and bands and caterers, she was aware — on some level — that I had had all those conversations before. But she was also clear that passion is not automatically killed by repetition; she knew enough to know that past behavior isn’t always the best indicator of future action. Above all, she believed that most of the time, the axiom of “post hoc ergo propter hoc” holds true: my ability to be a great husband in my fourth marriage was in no small degree a consequence of all the mistakes I had made in the previous three. Some folks hit a home run on their first at bat. Others… need to be sent down to the minors a time or three.

When a good relationship grows and endures, it does so in its own memorable ways. There is very little, from a purely physically sexual standpoint, that my wife and I could possibly do together that we haven’t each separately done with other people in the past. But that has damn all to do with the memories we create together and the marks we leave on each other. For heaven’s sakes, when I kiss my wife, I’m not comparing her tongue to that of umpteen other women; I’m fairly certain that she isn’t comparing my touch to that of her previous lovers! The tapes of what was are stored away. Why on earth would it matter that I’m not the first to make the woman I love call on the name of God in a moment of pleasure? It would only matter if I allowed my ego to trump my love, if the need to be the first was more important than the need to be the now. Continue reading

The art of losing, not always a disaster: on the language of virginity

Apologies to Elizabeth Bishop.

My student Hilary blogs, and on Sunday she linked to this interesting Jessica Zaylia piece on The Hymenization of Virginity. Treading on somewhat familiar ground, Zaylia offers all the right critiques of the language of “losing”. What is being lost, anyway?

What Zaylia doesn’t do is propose a counter-language. What else should we encourage folks to say? Those of us who are rightly eager to make the case that penis-in-vagina intercourse is only one form of sexual expression among many may want to downplay what our culture tells us ought to be the earth-shattering significance of a single act. As awkward as it may sound, asking someone how old they were when they first had intercourse — assuming that it’s an appropriate question in the particular context — is vastly preferable to “when did you lose it” or worse, “To whom did you lose it?”

Zaylia’s meditation on “loss” is incomplete. She rights:

Pairing the two word “losing” with “virginity” accomplishes two goals. First, we only lose what we consider valuable (e.g. “I lost the race,” “I lost my notebook,” or “I am lost.”). We also lose things we presume we ought to have kept (e.g. “I lost my temper,” or “I lost your phone number.”) Coupling “losing” with “virginity” implies that virginity is something of value that we ought to have kept.

True enough. But there’s a third sense of “losing” Zaylia misses. People on diets speak of “losing weight”, after all — and they almost never express regret about the “pounds they gave up.” When we talk of “losing fat” or “losing inches”, we talk about it with hope and optimism beforehand and pride afterwards. And of course, for many of us, “losing virgniity” was a loss eagerly anticipated!
Continue reading