Belief Matters as Much as Action

Do beliefs matter that much?

I have had some trouble in the past few years seeing beliefs affecting action. For example, does belief in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity affect daily life that much?

Building off of this, I entertained that beliefs don’t matter so much as one’s actions. This is a very America idea. Maybe even Marxist.

But then I read something interesting this week for class on the American Revolution and on ideas concerning women at the time.

According to Amanda Porterfield, it was common to see women as naturally the intellectual inferiors of men.

Aaron Burr (vice president to Thomas Jefferson) took a different approach. He gave his daughter Theodosia the opportunity to learn. Broadly. By age 10, she read French and Latin. At 12 she took up Greek. By 18, she had obtained Italian in addition to competence in the piano, dance, geography, and history.

Theodosia proved what Burr already assumed: women aren’t dumb.¹

Source: University of Chicago Press
Source: University of Chicago Press

This got me to thinking what beliefs can accomplish in the world. In this case, a belief had inhibited the vast potential of women. If people saw women as naturally the intellectual inferiors of men, why attempt to change that? It was natural, right?

The beliefs that matter most—in the sense that they have the most impact due to their presumption—are those we attribute to some natural, unchangeable, “real,” stable essence. What goes unquestioned? What is off limits to probe?

Beliefs matter. When left unquestioned and unprovoked, they foster a stupor that can be potentially dangerous.

Consider the relatively recent movement #blacklivesmatter. There has been a conservative backlash to it called #alllivesmatter. What gets lost on #alllivesmatter is that it superficially focuses on the phrase #blacklivesmatter without taking time to attend to the movement’s interests.

#blacklivesmatter already assumes that all lives matter: their point is black lives haven’t mattered historically (while technically it could be #blacklivesmattertoo, that gets too long to be catchy). In this case, black bodies have taken the brunt of the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, and increased surveillance.

What’s the point of connecting #blacklivesmatter to women’s education in the late 1700s? Both are responses to naturalized beliefs that inhibit groups.

Women’s education was a response to women’s inferiority. #blacklivesmatter is a response to latent (and sometimes extremely overt) white supremacy that just wants black people to shut up, throw away their identity, stop complaining, and be like white people.

#alllivesmatter promotes inaction to change the killing of black lives by ignoring the actions already happening against black lives.

Beliefs matter. Probe them.


¹Amanda Porterfield, Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 42-44.

The United States Wasn’t Founded as a Christian Nation

Hatch- DemocratizationThe United States was not founded as a Christian nation either politically or demographically.

The Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment makes this clear on the political side, but what about the people? Weren’t the people of the United States mostly, if not all, Christians?

Nathan Hatch in his work The Democratization of American Christianity highlights that the Christianization of America didn’t really occur until after the Revolution. We have the Second Great Awakening to thank for that.

Furthermore, while the United States was primarily Protestant for quite a while, no group really commanded a national hegemony. In other words, this Christianization was not a unified group of Christians; it was a plurality.

In the 19th century, the Methodists and Baptists commanded a majority of religionists, but they (especially the Baptists) did not have a centralized structure until a decade or two before the Civil War. In fact, according to scholars like Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, this very centralization and move away from massive evangelistic campaigns led to decline in the Methodist Church. They see this same phenomenon in churches that don’t evangelize, particularly liberal ones.

Hatch’s work also showed how the religious market in the States allowed by the Establishment Clause prevented one group from ever imposing its will on the country because there was too much competition. The freedom to exercise any religion allowed for explosive growth but not one established Church.

What would a Christian nation look like anyway? Is that dependent on sheer numbers or numbers of devoted followers? If the latter, how would you even quantify that?

On the sheer numbers side, church attendance has been steadily decreasing in nearly every church for around a decade. Denominations like the Assemblies of God have seen increased attendance, but this is primarily due to immigration.

What’s the point of saying the U.S. wasn’t founded as a Christian nation? I think it’s important to remember, because this phrase tends to be thrown around as a rhetorical device, particularly when a group sees its idea of Christianity being thwarted in the public arena. It can also be used to maintain the boundaries of a group that feels its ideals are in danger, not necessarily from outside forces.

Josh Duggar and Possibly Impossible Expectations

duggarJoshua Duggar released a statement saying that he had been unfaithful to his wife, Anna. This is the second sexual item that has come to public light. In the statement, he admitted to using pornography for years and being “unfaithful” to his wife, though a later statement omitted references to pornography. He also never admitted to using Ashley Madison, a site guaranteed to fix adulterous unions.

His Ashley Madison profile included his interests and turn-ons. His interests included experimentation with sex toys and “naughty girls,” and his turn-ons included spontaneity, professional, independent, confident women.

The CNN article that mentions this also included a biographical bit that the Duggars don’t believe in birth control and “follow strict courtship rules.”

Is it just me, or how much do his interests and turn-ons reflect his upbringing? It may seem obvious, but they seem to be the exact opposite. While his upbringing was structured and holy, he wanted a “spontaneous,” “naughty girl.” While his upbringing lauded the submissive wife, he seeks an “independent, confident woman.”

I wonder how much of these recent sexual revelations are a man trying to forge an identity that he was never afforded based on his very public upbringing. Did he get to experiment with things?

And I don’t necessarily mean sexual experimentation. The show “19 Kids and Counting” seemed to portray a highly structured, strongly religious household. I don’t find such households to be a bad thing in themselves. I didn’t get the impression, however, that there was much room for him to flourish as an individual. I do have a problem when the appearance of family values is valued over actual family values. I don’t think the cameras of the show, the expectations of the family’s ideology (Quiverfull), or the constant togetherness allowed this young man room to fail and face consequences.

How was Duggar’s use of pornography supposed to play out in a marriage with a wife raised in a similar household as he? Let’s just say porn actresses and young Quiverfull maidens are not the same thing. Pornography doesn’t capture the reality of the smells, the negotiations, the sounds, the occasional laughter, the accidental farts, the burp kisses, the spontaneous and unshowered times, the times when you don’t look your Sunday best or haven’t read the script, the years of commitment some couples have shared, the fears, stresses, anger, and other emotions waiting outside the bedroom, or the fact that couples don’t have a production company making them look unrealistically amazing. Sure, porn is titillating, but it sets you up for failure if you think it reflects reality at all.

This is not to say that fundamentalist Christians don’t engage in oral sex, “naughtiness,” use of sex toys, or other acts than the missionary position, but if Tim and Beverly LaHaye’s fundamentalist sex manual (The Act of Marriage) is any indication, there isn’t much room for these types of behaviors even in the marriage bed.

I came across a troubling bit of information on Vyckie Garrison’s blog at Patheos on Josh Duggar.  She noted that there was pressure from matriarch Duggar to always be available for your man, because his wife alone can give him the physical love he needs. This makes sense in a marital relationship that has chosen to be monogamous and consolidate all sexual release in that relationship. I can speak the following as a man: I sometimes want sex more than my wife.

The dangerous thing with this line of reasoning is that it carries a latent assumption that if a man cheats, his wife was not available enough to him.

If I cheat, does that mean my wife just wasn’t available enough for me? That would occlude my own agency. It treats me as if I had no control of hiding emails/texts, taking time out of my life to stoke an illicit fire, my feet taking me to a vehicle, pressing the gas, thinking about what I’m going to do with my tryst on the way to see her/him, ringing the doorbell, making sure no one is following me, doing sexy small talk, disrobing, finally doing the deed, then going back home and pretending I am an upstanding citizen. Maybe it’s just me, but that sounds like a lot more activity on my part than if my wife didn’t want to have sex as often as me.

It’s just sad that the quest for this young man to find himself came at the expense of his wife, his children, his family, his organizational alliances, and future prospects. It didn’t have to.

I don’t think this would have happened had the young Duggar had a little more freedom growing up, experimented in his twenties, married a little later in life. Who’s to say? The way one is raised doesn’t determine outcomes. But there are trends.

Here’s a sad tale. Religion seems to have little influence on marital faithfulness. According to a survey by Ashley Madison on New York Daily News, over 2/3 of its users identified as Evangelical, Catholic, or Protestant, while only 2% identified as agnostic, 1.4% as atheist, and 1.4% as Jewish. I don’t know what to make of this other than that family values don’t seem to be very valuable these days. Family values can’t possibly happen if they don’t face the realities of relationships.

Gender: Who Has It?

20150809_211514What do you think of when you think of gender?

If you’re me, it’s something you don’t have but others do. That probably reflects my privilege as a man.

Whatever social marker it is–gender, race, class, ethnicity, age, etc.–I usually think of it as something others (Others?) have.

Let me expand on that a bit. It’s not that I don’t think I have a gender. It’s that when I think of “gender issues” I’m not usually thinking about myself, because I don’t have a glass ceiling to break through. Worries about rape are not on my mind when I walk down a street at night. Anorexia and bulimia are not problems I deal with (if you’ve seen me in person, you can tell pretty quickly I don’t have these problems). Do these affect some men? Maybe. They just don’t affect me, and I presume they don’t affect a lot of men.

This somewhat reflects the field of gender studies. When I started reading Ursula King’s edited work, Religion and Gender, she indicated that many times gender studies=women’s studies.

Now this isn’t the case across the board. There is a subfield in gender studies called men’s studies or men and masculinities, so there’s an exception to this rule.

And maybe this is just me and something I will need to look at, but when you think of a category like gender, race, class, etc., do you think about it in reference to yourself or others?

Perhaps it is also true that I don’t get out much. Chalk it up to being a father of two young children, working, and being a student.

I have started asking some close family and friends what they think of when they hear the topic of gender. When I was waiting for church to start this morning, I wrote the following in my journal:

All I know of the past (before my conscious memory) is mediated. What would I think of gender were I alive in the 1950s? If I try to image this, all of my imagination of the 1950s is already constrained by what various patriarchs and feminists have informed me about it: it was utopia or a nightmare.

My “knowledge” of the 50s comes from books, movies, shows, clips. This is not to say that if I interviewed someone who lived during that time period would be any less colored by their perspective. However, I wonder what I would catch in the conversation unedited.

In print and in video, a lot of editing goes on. Granted, if you’ve had some practice answering a question, there has been editing done there, too.

What am I saying? I have a lot of work to do. Much of my research (maybe I’ll just call them “thoughts” instead of research since I haven’t really tested them against other peoples’ thoughts) on gender comes from inside my head.

However, if I want to pursue knowledge about gender, I will have to incorporate more than just my thoughts. It will require questioning others about their experiences. It will require probing their answers, being aware of my responses, making those responses known to them to gauge how they react, probing how others think about the data I gather, and continuing this cycle over long periods of time.

Here is what I think of when I think of gender: it is an amalgam of one’s sex organs, hormones, appearance, social interactions, experiences, sexual orientation, and how each of these interact with each other over time.

With this in mind, there will be many  masculinities, femininities, or just general gendered expressions. To put it another way, gender looks different for a black lesbian, a poor Chinese man, or a young trans woman. Each social marker will affect how gender appears.

The Beginning of Something Scary and Exciting

I will begin training for my graduate assistantship in ten days. This is beginning is both exciting and terrifying. Exciting because it’s like an internship/apprenticeship for what I want to do in a career. Terrifying because I wonder if I’m up to the challenge of what will be drawn from me.

Maybe it’s just me, but I have sometimes run from things that require a lot of me. I think it maybe derives from a fear of not living up to someone’s (including my own) expectations. Don’t know why that fear is there; it just is.

However, I think I’m much more excited than scared. Here are some things I will get to experience this year:

  • Lecturing: my first lecture ever will be on Pentecostalism in theclass “Religion in America” on September 10. I probably won’t sleep that night out of anticipation. It reminds me of Captain Picard in S3E26 of Star Trek: TNG when he tours his ship before facing the Borg. I don’t expect to face the danger of assimilation in that lecture, but I am venturing into the unknown.
  • Grading: students will turn in weekly journal assignments of theirreadings. I don’t think it will be more than a pass/fail type thing, but I look forward to seeing how people process (or don’t care about) a subject I enjoy. This reminds me of the OWLs in Harry Potter. I wonder what teacher I would be like. Probably Mad Eye Moody mixed with Hagrid.
  • Reviewing: before exams, I will get to help students prepare for them.
  • Meetings: if students have questions outside of class, I get to meet them during office hours (hours which I set up!).
  • Research: I get to help Martha Finch in her research interests. I look forward to learning the ins and outs of getting journal articles and book chapters ready for publishing.
  • Correspondence: I get to send out books for review for the journal Religion.
  • Miscellanea: This will range from meetings, to running copies, to anything I don’t expect yet. I’m afraid, but maybe not fearful enough.

I look forward to sharing what I learn this year. It’s going to be an adventure.

Free Association on Difference

index“You must read literature, for there you find how people live.” That’s not a real quote, but Robert Turnbull said something similar in my “Theological French” class six years ago. I don’t know why they slapped “theological” on it since it was really a whirlwind course in French grammar, but alas…

Seminary was an interesting time for me. I had started considering that maybe I didn’t want to pursue theology. But still, when he said those words, I had an internal reaction. Theology was reality. All I needed to do to be right with God and people was to read theology. This would order my life and life would be grand.

This isn’t to say that I hadn’t enjoyed novels. I had read The Da Vinci Code while in seminary and absolutely enjoyed it. I don’t know how many would call that literature, but then again, what is literature? Is it merely a piece that literary critics have declared part of “the” canon? Is it a piece that has something of timeless, enduring value? Is literature a book people say you should read but never have themselves?

As I was performing a meticulous, mindless task at work, I began listening to Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

What have I been missing all this time? Sure, gritty shows like Mad Men, House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, or The Wire have a similar “realness” to them, but their writers, directors, or producers are somewhat invisible to me. Furthermore, I cannot see and hear the internal workings of the characters. These shows also seem to match a lot of my experience in the following way: white protagonists.

What would happen if I continued to read non-fiction about my research interests, but augmented it with literature, pop- and classic? What sort of things would I come across that I might otherwise miss? As the narrator in Invisible Man speaks of his youth, I wonder how much that voice reflected a generation.

How much did young African-Americans in the 1930s and 40s wish to be successful, but only in a way that didn’t upset white supremacy? How many constantly feared that they had upset whites? How many had tried to be “good blacks” as defined by their white lords? As I listen, I wonder how different a person I would be if I were raised in a different body, time, family, and social setting. The big value that shines through early in the novel is to speak to whites in a humble way or else incur their wrath. Is that assumption still present in the minds of African-American minds today?

Perhaps it’s my Millennial sense of entitlement, my narcissism, my white privilege, or healthy sense of self, but I don’t generally put on airs with people. But to approach an entire class of people as if they don’t use toilets, as if they were gods? It doesn’t compute.

How many voices are absent in my life? Not only do I not have a very diverse group of friends at work or church, but also at school. They’re primarily straight white Protestants. I don’t have anything against straight white Protestants. I am one. But I along with my group are not the only people in my city, state, and country. If I cannot find different voices in my experience, is it at least desirable to hear alternative voices in literature? This is elementary, but I probably have a lot of unconscious opinions that I never become aware of because I don’t have Difference showing me how much my assumptions don’t reflect everyone else’s reality.

If you have any good novels that deal with the following topics, send them my way: gender, sexuality, race, class, age, rites of passage.

A Book or Two I’m Pumped about for This Fall Semester

John Schmalzbauer
John Schmalzbauer
Vadim Putzu
Vadim Putzu

This fall I will be taking North American Religions with John Schmalzbauer and Jewish Mysticism with Vadim Putzu. Schmalzbauer is the Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies with research interests in religion and American culture, evangelicalism, Ozarks religion, popular culture and religion, and campus ministry/religion in higher education. Putzu came to Missouri State last year. He is ABD from Hebrew Union College with research interests in Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah, Jewish philosophy, Jewish history, and science fiction and religion.

Here are some of the required readings I’m really pumped about…and you should be, too…if you were me. As they come up this fall, I will be including my thoughts on them here on the blog.

1. The Democratization of American Christianity

Hatch- DemocratizationThis book is on reading lists everywhere for religion in America. Nathan Hatch wrote it twenty-four years ago, and it still calls for careful reading if you want to specialize in religion in America (which I do).

It discusses the rise of new Christian movements in the early United States that gained rapid influence because of their populism: the Christian movement, Baptists, Methodists, Black churches, and Mormonism.

Chapters include topics on democratic revolution in the late-eighteenth century, a crisis of authority in pop culture, the spread of sectarianism, and preaching, print, and music.

2. American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism

Sutton- American ApocalypseHaving grown up in Pentecostalism/Evangelicalism, it’s interesting to read about the movements in the scholarly literature. People sometimes miss things when they are living and breathing something and not outside observers, or just aren’t historians.

Historians, such as Matthew Avery Sutton in this work, help frame how current movements/institutions came about, what they reacted against, how they gained popularity, and what struggles they had (within and without). Chapters include topics such as millennialism, fundamentalism, Christian nationalism, the culture wars, the Religious Right, and American exceptionalism.

3. Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life

Ammerman- Sacred Stories, Spiritual TribesThis is a new book by Nancy Tatom Ammerman on the relatively young specialty in religious studies called “lived religion.” Lived religion doesn’t focus so much on doctrines or institutions so much as practices of everyday religionists in everyday life. For example, when is baking a cake more than baking a cake or selling flowers more than mere commerce for some people?

Chapters cover topics of the relationship of spirituality and religion (are they the same or different?), religion at home, religion in the public square, religion at work, and religion and health.

4. Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation (American Beginnings, 1500-1900)

Porterfield- Conceived in DoubtAmanda Porterfield in Conceived in Doubt discusses the rampant mistrust in old institutions (including religion) at the dawn of the nineteenth century. She argues that the optimism concerning religious independence (read=no state church) had waned by the early 1800s and that Evangelical ministers spread the message that biblical authority was the solution to a new American identity.

I’m intrigued by this book because I really don’t know where she’s going with it yet. By “religious skepticism,” does she mean agnosticism? Cynicism? Free-thought? Stay tuned to find out.

5. Religious America, Secular Europe?: A Theme and Variations

BERGER PBK(216x138)filmsI’ve always been fascinated by the differences between Europe and the United States. They’re each part of “the West,” and yet they differ significantly when it comes to religion.

Peter Berger and others cover topics relating Europe and the United States like issues regarding constitutionalism, the Enlightenments (the book description only mentions it as if it were one thing, not taking into account the vast differences between British, French, and American secularisms [see link under #3 on my post “Link Wednesday 6“]), law systems, education, gender, class, and generation.

6. Changing Faith: The Dynamics and Consequences of Americans’ Shifting Religious Identities

Sherkat- Changing FaithDarren Sherkat covers shifting religious identity in the United States. I’m still not sure if the “change in faith” covers a demographic shift, conversion, or includes both. Pluralism has been an interest of mine for a little while now, particularly as it relates to how different religions relate to political discourse, and I think this work will give me a lot of empirical data to chew on.

7. Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South

Wilson- Dixie DharmaMy interest in this book is framed by an introduction to material culture and history of religion I encountered in courses last year with Martha Finch and Jack Llewellyn. One insight that stuck with me is that while religion influences other societal structures, it is just as much influenced by those societal structures. This is why one religious tradition looks so different between different times and places, notwithstanding ethnic, racial, gender, class, and other differences.

Jeff Wilson’s Dixie Dharma covers how region influences religious expression. How does Buddhism in the Northeast and west coast differ from that in Wilson’s coverage on a temple in Virginia? How does it differ from Indian and East Asian expression?

8. Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them

Orsi- BetweenRobert Orsi discusses Italian-American Catholic experiences with saints in this book, but also theoretical issues in studying religious communities. One of those issues includes the difficulty of insider/outsider perspective: does the religionist or the scholar drive the research? I’m interested to see what he has to say, because he and Russell McCutcheon have had scholarly sparring matches over theory. It will be neat to play them against each other.

9. The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism

Matt- Essential KabbalahI really don’t know what Kabbalah is about other than that it’s a (the?) mystical tradition of Judaism and some celebrities have dabbled in it. It will be fun to have an entire semester to find out what it is. I had a similar experience going into my Tantra seminar last semester. All I knew of it was its American iteration where people lauded it as a way to have powerful, extended orgasms. There was a touch more to it than that.


Hopefully you’ve enjoyed my Reading Rainbowesque flyby of some of my readings this fall. I wanted to include another treat for you if you’ve made it this far. Yesterday, I began following Suzanna Krivulskaya (@suzzzanna) on Twitter. She has an amazing resource page on her blog covering gender and nineteenth-century/general history of America. The vast majority of the resources are free.

“The” Ethics of Abortion: Why This Debate Will Never End

As I admitted in my last post, I haven’t given abortion much thought because I lack a uterus. The sting video on Planned Parenthood gave me pause. What do I think about abortion? Was this video damning or not? Why?

 

My friend Samantha posted what I think is a good post from a pro-choice stance, defending Planned Parenthood from a legal perspective. Ostensibly, they were being paid for the transfer costs of aborted fetal tissue, which is legal. Samantha summed up that pro-life and pro-choice advocates are both trying to save lives, but are focusing on different means. They are “ships passing in the night.”

I’ll plainly state that I have been pro-life my entire adult life, though I have more questions now than before such as:

  • what is the fate of the child and mother if the mother is an addict?
  • what if the child is headed for a life of poverty and all that poverty entails?
  • if a mother wants to put her child up for adoption, what is the ratio of babies born to parents wanting to adopt? is the cost of adoption prohibitive?
  • what are the supports for mothers once their children are born? If she was already poor, will communities and welfare be available to her?

Regardless of how nuanced I get, I am still uncomfortable with abortion. That discomfort proceeds from an affirmation of life. I don’t know where life begins, but I don’t see enough difference between a fetus and a newborn to say, “Yes, it’s ok to terminate the life on this side of the line, but not on that side.”

When’s a Fetus no Longer a Fetus?

What’s the difference between a fetus from a newborn? A minute? less? I’m not talking about labor; I’m talking about those last few moments of pregnancy where one moment object A is inside the uterus (fetus) and the next moment it isn’t (newborn). It is a very quick transition from being something we can legally terminate to being someone we can’t legally terminate. Why do we define that change of state so absolutely? In other words, why is life defined in very specific chunks rather than along a continuum?

Concerning that transition, consider sexual intercourse: I wonder if the beginning of life and the beginnings of one’s sexual life are similar.

What is the moment that a virgin is no longer a virgin? Think of two virgins about to cease being virgins. Do they cross that threshold at the first sexually charged look? The first caress? The first disrobing? The first fondling? The first suckle? The first genital stimulation? The first penetration? The first orgasm? Is sex one discrete thing or a continuum of behavior?

If penetration is the key definer of sex, and the key that evaporates virginity, does that include penetration of things besides a vagina? If a homosexual man only has sex with men his entire life and then dies, has he died a virgin according to that definition? Or did he cross that threshold the first time he had sex with a man?

I ask again, how different is a fetus from a newborn?

The Social Freight (Politics) of Binaries

What am I saying in these comparisons? I’m saying that we as a society take a slight difference between two things and then treat the distinguished things in radically different ways. I am wondering if this makes sense. The binary in this case is “not life/life.” Inside a uterus, a child is legally not life since it can be terminated without repercussion.

American society has deemed abortion legal institutionally by defining a clean break between those two states. The only reason a fetus isn’t just called a baby is because the distinction has to make sense for the law to make sense. The difference in state of the baby is purely by fiat.

Granted, I have not waded into this very complex issue. When I started researching for this post I googled “abortion debate” and came to a debate site. It listed roughly thirty facets to the issue. I come at it from one angle and realize it is an angle, not “the” ethic for this debate. Were there something we could all appeal to in equal measure, there wouldn’t be a debate.

The debate will never end because people ally themselves with the continuum model or the discrete model. Someone could highlight a grey area for me, and I would concede if convinced, but I see little space for calling something both a continuum (pro-life) and a discrete shift in essence (pro-choice). As Roger Olson highlighted, nuance is drowned out by the seemingly unavoidable extremes in this debate.

I also think the debate will never end, because it is now entrenched as an identity marker. I don’t know how many pro-life or pro-choice advocates sit down and say, “Wow, the other side makes some great points. I should really reconsider my position in light of what they have just said.” Instead, people usually hear a label, assume the worst of their adversary, have their checklists of orthodoxy and heresy, hurl talking points at their adversaries, utterly ignore the talking points of their adversaries, and go their separate ways thoroughly entrenched.

I wish this were a happier post or one more provocative for discussion, but I’m under no illusions that this will be a popular post. Abortion isn’t exactly a boring topic or one for polite company. It isn’t an issue that calls tolerance forth from its interlocutors. However, I will admit I am weird: I invite feedback positive and negative. If I have left anything out, maligned someone, misrepresented people—whatever your opinion—comment, or, if you don’t feel like having a comment war but only a discussion, my email is ilostmyprayerhanky At gmail dot com. As my friend Samantha got at in her post, I want discussion to occur that treats conversation partners as people, not battlefields to lob bombs at.

The Politics of Sex

Anne Fausto-Sterling
Anne Fausto-Sterling

At the time that Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn Jenner, I was reading a set of articles by Anne Fausto-Sterling: “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough” (1993) and “The Five Sexes, Revisited” (2000). It was a wonderful coincidence, because I think they relate, but I will get to that in a moment. The articles covered the concept of intersex individuals. I will first explain my title.

What Do I Mean by “Politics?”

Politics usually conjures a picture of concrete governments. Think presidents, congresspersons, judges, etc. I mean something much broader. When you see “political” or “the politics” of something in this post, I mean how people generally conceptualize and negotiate their group and people outside their group according to their own interests. This can intersect with politics as typically defined, but my use of it is not exhausted by that use. In my usage, how parents settle fights between their children, how parents navigate conflict in front of their children, how a female employee chooses to respond in a sexist work environment, how friends negotiate a mutual love interest: all of these situations and more include the political. Politics involves the negotiation of some scarce resource (e.g., land, prestige, the definition of marriage, medical insurance, employment, leadership positions, the choice to have children, leisure, etc.) between at least two parties. Something is at stake.

Russell McCutcheon
Russell McCutcheon

This understanding extends to how people use language. Definitions do not mean something in themselves; they are the artifact of someone delimiting a phenomenon, concept, etc. Follow me for a moment. What is a “vegetable?” Does it really matter if a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable? What is at stake if a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable? Russell McCutcheon uses these questions to demonstrate the stakes involved in something as trivial as what we call a tomato: it made it to the Supreme Court. Nix v. Hedden (1893) involved a tax on imported vegetables but not on fruit. Scientifically, tomatoes are fruit, but a port authority (Hedden) had exacted the tax from the Nixes, calling the tomatoes vegetables. I won’t get into the case, but suffice it to say that the classification of tomatoes becomes significant when money (or other scarce resources) is at stake. Now that I have discussed the stakes of definitions, let us move on to the concept of intersex.

The Definition of Intersex

Biological sex as a category (not act) is most often broken down into primary and secondary characteristics. Primary sex characteristics are gonads (ovaries and testicles), sex organs (vaginas, cervixes, uteri, penises, and scrotums), and chromosomes (XX, XY). Secondary sex characteristics (generally the visible ones) are those primarily used in social interaction to categorize people: breasts, body shape, facial/body hair, vocal pitch, and hormones. So far, nothing is yet “political.”

In intersex persons, there is some overlap in what is normally male or female. When Fausto-Sterling discussed intersex persons in her first article, note the very terms she uses to develop her essay: “true hermaphrodites,” “male pseudohermaphrodites,” and “female pseudohermaphrodites.” While I will get to what she means, note the scarce resource of dignity caught up in the prefix “pseudo-.“ If anyone called you a “pseudo-parent” or a “pseudo-human,” or a “pseudo-nice-person,” or a “pseudo-wife,” etc., do you think the name-caller and the other person are going to be bosom chums? Fausto-Sterling in her later article admitted she was being provocative; today I would just term it inflammatory. But I digress. She noted that the then Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) had advocated for in further classifying intersex persons: Type I, Type II, etc.

What did Fausto-Sterling mean by these terms and how did they relate to intersex? Intersex covers the three subgroups she termed. “True hermaphrodites” have at least one working ovary and teste; “female pseudohermaphrodites” have at least one ovary and some shared primary sex characteristics (e.g., an enlarged clitoris, fused perineum, facial hair, etc.) but no testes; “male pseudohermaphrodites” have at least one teste and some shared sex characteristics (e.g., a vagina, breasts, etc.) but no ovaries. For a list of technical terms, see the FAQ page on ISNA’s site for the various permutations (http://www.isna.org/faq/conditions).

Why Talk about Something So Intimate and Personal (i.e., politics)?

I have asked myself this question since reading Michel Foucault’s book The History of Sexuality, Volume 1. He argued that discourse about sex had increased since the seventeenth century and had along the way morphed into what is called “power-knowledge” (similar to how I defined politics: s/he who defines the terms determines where the debate/discussion goes). The literal religious phenomenon of confession socially transformed into “confessing” to doctors, teachers, parents, and psychiatrists. Confession developed into a way for authorities/experts to extract confessions from children, patents, etc. This intellectual nugget challenges me to think about why I study things and the possible effects of that study. It will at least result in publication on this blog, and potentially in academic publishing in the future. But what is at stake in talking about people I don’t even know?

I think my intentions lie in aiding peoples’ full inclusion in society, people who don’t normally fit societal expectations. This probably comes from experiences in my childhood where I was bullied, didn’t often fit in, and not accepting the dogma that “life isn’t fair.” Life isn’t fair, but that doesn’t mean I sit back and leave life to its own devices. To do so forfeits agency and the potential for change.

Intersex persons are living, breathing examples of persons who lie outside sex/gender norms of heteronormativity. In that sense, they are abnormal. It is easy to stop when we hear the word abnormal and then move on with life by ignoring those who are abnormal according to a definition or castigating them until they fit normalcy. That is the politics of words. If people aren’t normal or are deviant, then I don’t have to hear their concerns.

But norms are norms only insofar as they are agreed upon. What is at stake in including or excluding intersex persons from normalcy?

By virtue of being born, the very bodies of intersex persons question the foundations of what it means to be a sexual being. Constructs of heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality are built upon a two-sex model: people are born either male or female. From this postulate, persons have sex with the “opposite” sex or the “same” sex or “both.”

The problem is intersex persons do not have an “opposite” sex to make heteronormativity work. They can literally have sex with men and with women and not be heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual; each of these terms assumes a strict two-sex model: the “opposite,” “same,” or “both” sexes.

What is at stake then? What is the politics of sex? Let’s say Obergefell v. Hodges hadn’t happened. Let’s go all the way back to the early 1990s when same-sex marriage hadn’t even entered litigation. The definitions of sex, gender, marriage, ethics, medicine, psychology, and more is at stake. Normalcy (as conceived in the West) itself is at stake. The All-American Boy and Disney Princess are at stake.

Can the All-American Boy, the Disney Princess, and the intersex child coexist?

Where is the model the intersex gets to model his life after?

PRONOUNS! What language can the intersex come up with that doesn’t exclude them but also doesn’t target them for abuse?

Do we try to get them to either “play house” or “cops and robbers,” or both or introduce a new space of activities? What about sex/gender-neutral activities?

Exclusivity helps define an identity but where does exclusivity become a detriment to society and to persons? Is there a point where inclusivity goes too far? Why?

Past Attitudes and Procedures Concerning People Who Are Intersex

I include the questions above because of how intersex persons have been treated in the past. Two physicians in the late 1960s, Christopher J. Dewhurst and Ronald R. Gordon, asserted that parents of intersex persons and the intersex persons themselves would be doomed to a life of misery. This attitude fueled procedures to alter the organs and hormones of these persons. This is where the politics of sex relates transgender persons and intersex persons: “sex changes” or sex-reassignment surgery. What some decry in transgender persons—the taking of hormones and the manipulation of genitals* to alter birth sex—was and is prescribed by doctors so that intersex persons fit a two-sex model of humanity. Literally, they sometimes have parts of their identities cut off at the root.

Up to 1:58 people are born intersex according to Fausto-Sterling’s research. This number is slightly higher than the rate for autism, which is 1:68 (CDC 2014). To put that in perspective then, of the 159,498 people living in Springfield, Missouri, 2,749 were born intersex. Why don’t we hear about them? Why don’t they have public services like those in Springfield can have (e.g., Development Center of the Ozarks, ARC of the Ozarks, Abilities First, etc.)?

While genital and hormonal manipulation was probably done out of humanitarian concern, it nonetheless took choice away from parents, and definitely from the child. It was forced sex-reassignment surgery according to “what nature intended” (the words of John Money from Johns Hopkins University in the 1950s).

To get a picture of Dewhurst and Gordon’s (mentioned above) sensitivity, consider the following quote from their work, The Intersexual Disorders:

“One can only attempt to imagine the anguish of the parents. That a newborn should have a deformity … [affecting] so fundamental an issue as the very sex of the child … is a tragic event which immediately conjures up visions of a hopeless psychological misfit doomed to live always as a sexual freak in loneliness and frustration.” (quoted in “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough”)

In a limited sense, Dewhurst and Gordon are empathizing with parents who wished for “normal” children. On my read, they dropped the ball (threw it into the stands?) on doing no harm. These doctors who were meant to heal were the first people these children met after exiting their mothers. The crying babes didn’t hear the words “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl” but “It’s a hopeless psychological misfit” or “It’s a sexual freak.”

To lay all the blame at the feet of doctors, though, would be unfair. We also don’t hear much about intersex persons, because most people don’t run about with exposed genitals. It’s pretty customary to wear clothes in public. So even if a family and their doctor chose not to go the route of genital and hormonal manipulation, there is still a lot of things people don’t have to know about you if you don’t want them to. Many choose not to participate in the wonderful locker room comparative ritual involved with penis and breast sizes. And that’s ok.

I wrote this post to provoke how we deal with the sometimes heavy burden of normalcy. Hopefully it is food for thought. Normalcy can be a blanket that warms you if you lie beneath its fabric or a means of suffocation for those not completely covered by it.


*Below is a surgical video (clitoroplasty), so if you are opposed to seeing it yourself, or do not wish your child(ren) to see it, do not click on it; I will describe it. Urologists at the University of Belgrade, Serbia perform a clitoroplasty on a 20 year old intersex person. The person’s genitalia include an enlarged clitoris (after its hidden anatomy had been uncovered, it appeared around the size of a fully mature penis, approximately 4-5 inches), a vagina, and testicles (only one is visible to the left of the clitoris, though both are there). The patient transitions fully to female. The urologists removed all erectile tissue that had been present beneath the clitoris in what I could only assume was very painful (when erect, the tissue was S-shaped).

I am happy for the patient because her parents and pediatricians gave her the option to choose this herself. Surgeries that are so intimate and invasive deserve different ethical consideration than they have received in the past. This is not an ear piercing of an infant. While its morality is also up for debate, it involves more than male circumcision. This affects the sex of a person; that decision should be left up to the person whose manipulation it affects, not another, including the parents.

Clitoroplasty in intersex repair using disassembly technique


This previous Wednesday I did not want to cover the recent news with Planned Parenthood, because I hadn’t read much on it. Frankly, I hadn’t thought much about Planned Parenthood or abortion in general because I hadn’t ever considered getting pregnant. It’s interesting what will make you sit down and think about something. Next Wednesday’s post will cover my emerging thoughts on abortion.

Link Wednesday 6: Mucho Feminism…and Some Sexuality, Too

This Link Wednesday, admittedly doesn’t have a lot of feminism, but it does comprise the majority of the links. Here we go.

1. “An Update on the Gay Debate: evolving ideas, untidy stories, and hopes for the church

Julie Rodgers
Julie Rodgers
Reza Aslan
Reza Aslan
Julie Rodgers was a “Ministry Associate for Spiritual Care” at Wheaton College until she resigned yesterday. She is a celibate gay Christian whose shift in view on same-sex marriage seems to have been the reason for her resignation. If you are not used to reading gay Christian perspectives, check out her blog. Another gay Christian voice to check out is Matt Vines at The Reformation Project.

In other religio-sexual news, Reza Aslan encouraged his fellow American Muslims to fight for marginalized groups like the LGBT community in a public letter after the SCOTUS decision. In case you weren’t aware, 42% of American Muslims support same-sex marriage (21+21). Maybe you weren’t surprised by the figure. I was. It helps to look at data.

2. “Media Literacy 101

Here are the four takeaway questions quoted (except for the “And”) from the transcript:

  1. What is the content of this product? As in, what am I looking at here?
  2. Is it really selling what it’s advertising? Like, if you have a woman in a bikini in your commercial, it better be for swim wear and not for, ya know, hamburgers.
  3. Who made this?…
  4. Why do they want me to consume it? That is, which demographics benefit from me internalizing this message and which demographics are hindered by it?

My wife and I discussed this while we walked by Victoria’s Secret in the mall. She wondered why the store would have an image of a woman with no top, covering only her nipple (probably through Photoshop or a nude suit) when what it was selling was a bracelet. I speculated that marketing experts project that it will have a significant impact on the tastes of women’s significant others to push to buy that product so that their women can exude the image shown: free-spirited, virile, trophy, etc. But then I thought about it today, and realized that women (or men if they want the bracelet) don’t need other agents encouraging them to exude free-spirited, virile, trophy images; they have agency of their own.

3. “Is secularism still Christian?

This article talks about the origins of Western secularism. I modify it because not all secularisms are the same. Turkish secularism, for example, looks different from American secularism because of the different histories of the peoples. Even in the West, secularism in the United States differs from that in the United Kingdom which differs from that in France. For more elaboration on the various secularisms, see the interview with Tariq Modood at The Religious Studies Project.

4. “How the Justice System Hurts Survivors Through the ‘Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline‘” and “How ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Misrepresents Women’s Federal Prison (And Why It Matters)

Orange Is the New Black
Orange Is the New Black
These two articles discuss how women entering prisons are primarily non-violent drug offenders. The feministing article highlights that the major contribution to drug use/penalization occurs among sex-abuse victims. The everydayfeminism article highlights that while men’s prisons still have far more prisoners population-wise, women’s prisons are growing at double the rate of men’s: growth in prisons in general are fueled by the failed War on Drugs.

5. “An Explanation for Why It’s Not Just Men Who Pressure Women Into Feminine Norms

Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham
Celia Edell applies Foucault’s reading of Bentham to explain that patriarchal norms for femininity come from many directions (men, other women), including from the self. Gender expression is a show for everyone and no one. This was an article that gave me a check regarding my thoughts on the Victoria’s Secret ad.

6. “The Coming Gay Rights Letdown” (The Daily Beast)

While happenings in one place aren’t guaranteed to replicate in another, a Canadian LGBT activist warned American LGBT activists that marriage equality brings apathy among the public. It reminds me of the unfortunately failed Equal Rights Amendment. Women in the United States gained suffrage in 1920, gained lots of momentum in the 1960s and 1970s through second-wave feminism, but the culture at large seems not to have given that Amendment as much weight as they.

7. I’m going to wait on #PlannedParenthood. The story is still developing. Color me cautious (I guess you can color me cowardly if you want; I just think big stories need more development).


Because of Caitlyn Jenner in the news last month, I thought it worthwhile to cover a less well known group. Intersex persons are the little known group in the longer LGBTQIA acronym. Political recognition of them at times overlap with transgender persons, hence the upcoming post, “The Politics of Intersex.”