About 4 years ago, I wrote a piece on abortion in which I asked a lot of questions and waffled even more. I hadn’t thought about it much since then until this week. I didn’t discuss personhood, pregnant persons (more on this below), etc.
A Dumb New Law in Alabama
May 15 ended a series of debates within the Alabama state congress over abortion. The Alabama House passed the measure 74-3 in April and the Alabama Senate passed it 25-6 on May 14. Governor Kay Ivey signed it into law May 15. There are no exemptions for rape or incest. It outlaws abortifacients. It condemns doctors who perform abortions to up to 99 years in prison, but doesn’t hold the woman criminally liable (which is interesting, for one would think the woman would at least get some kind of accessory or conspiracy to murder charge if the fetus is a person with rights). Not widely reported on, it also defines a woman as a female regardless of whether she has “reached the age of majority.” Also, while she can’t have an abortion, a woman can have one if her life is in danger from suicidal intent. Read the rest of the shitty bill here. (A friend of mine pointed out that this language is woman-centered, erasing trans men who are pregnant; hereafter, I will refer to people who are pregnant as “pregnant persons”).
This condemns pregnant persons to a particular ideological destiny, one that only gains traction from a theological backdrop. One lamb senator said, “When God creates the miracle of life inside a woman’s womb…it is not our place as human beings to extinguish that life.” He slept through class when they discussed the establishment clause.
That Sticky Issue of Personhood/Subjectivity
The spectrum of human life begins when distinct DNA originates from the fusion of 23 chromosomes from two donors. Thus begins the stages of human development. However, the human zygote is not yet a person. Personhood cannot possibly enter the discussion until a fetus has exited a uterus. Pregnant persons are already persons. They have experienced heartache, hope, happiness, hostility. They exist in social relations. Perhaps they have jobs unless, of course, they’re little girls who’ve been raped and are forced by this terrible law to bear their rapist’s child. Their destiny outweighs the decision making power of the fetus.
Fetuses do not have volition. I’m not arguing whether a fetus is a life. I actually agree with pro-birthers that the fetus is a life on the human spectrum. However, it’s like asking which life is more valuable in war, the general or the private. The general, with more experience, training, information, and networking is far more valuable since they make far-reaching decisions; privates follow orders. This analogy breaks down because both generals and privates are persons; fetuses simply aren’t.
What this comes down to is limiting the parameters, destiny, volition, autonomy, body-sovereignty, privacy of pregnant persons to childbearing. For trans men or those who are non-binary, it forces them into the gender binary they no longer live.
Pro-birthers Don’t Do Much with the After-birth
Pro-birth proponents traditionally don’t support much after-birth help, at least through the government. They typically want no help from the government to go to the mother or newborn, or notice that many children grow up without co-parents, or don’t acknowledge the brokenness of the foster system, or redo adoption pricing and policy. There’s only the thought of getting that baby delivered and then the good lord taking care of the rest. What irresponsibility and negligence. This is pure blindness to the poverty and pain in the world caused by policies like this.
Pro-birth, not Pro-life
It is this irresponsibility regarding life that irks me so much. Conservatives are all about death penalties, peace-time aggression, forever wars, depleting the welfare state/social democracy, denouncing marriage equality (though admittedly, this last one is more from older folks). They want families, not the government, caring for children. They want personal responsibility. I get that. But at what cost? According to what definition?
Conservatives define personal responsibility in this case as reducing pregnant persons to baby-making machines. This framing, though, actually takes responsibility away from the pregnant person and puts it in the hands of the government. This is the literal maintenance and perpetuation of patriarchy, via government. If you want patriarchal relationships in a religious context, go ahead. We have a constitutional right for that. But don’t force that on the goddamned secular republic.
Conservatives desire the fetus to have a chance to live. That’s not necessarily a bad thing to wish if it didn’t also involve requiring pregnant persons to make this chance a reality, to delay the lives of a person in order to actualize the merely potential person, to demand the physical/emotional turmoil of pregnancy, birth, and postpartum separation if they choose not to raise the child.
Some Concluding Remarks
All in all, I don’t want to live in A Handmaid’s Tale. And neither do many. If these lawmakers want to curtail abortions, maybe they should wear some fucking condoms before they impregnate their mistresses. It is the privilege of those like Rep. Tim Murphy who could actually procure abortions after a law like Alabama’s. As Senator Linda Coleman-Madison said, “We want abortions to be safe, and we want them to be few, but it should be legal, because there will be abortions,” and “The people who have the wherewithal will fly out of state…Not everyone can afford to do that.” Illegal abortions jeopardize the life of pregnant persons; legal abortions do not. Once again, this is not about protecting babies but policing bodies. We need more sex ed and stiffer rape penalties, not jailing doctors and playing god with pregnant persons.
Joshua 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.
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.
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.
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 classificationof 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.
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.
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.
Here are the four takeaway questions quoted (except for the “And”) from the transcript:
What is the content of this product? As in, what am I looking at here?
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.
Who made this?…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
It’s amazing what a few days away from the office can do to clear your mind. I just got back from Wisconsin this Sunday after visiting family. Wow did a lot happen since I wrote last. SCOTUS delivered their big decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. There was much despair. And there was much rejoicing.
In Evangelicalism, conversations moved to what needs to happen in its community regarding the decision. Amidst this background, I came across two very interesting sets of questions from very different points of view. They arise from the same tradition and use the same text.
“3. How would you make a positive case from Scripture that sexual activity between two persons of the same sex is a blessing to be celebrated?”
“7. When Jesus spoke against porneia* what sins do you think he was forbidding?”
“11. As you think about the long history of the church and the near universal disapproval of same-sex sexual activity, what do you think you understand about the Bible that Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther failed to grasp?”
“12. What arguments would you use to explain to Christians in Africa, Asia, and South America that their understanding of homosexuality is biblically incorrect and your new understanding of homosexuality is not culturally conditioned?”
“3. How many meaningful relationships with lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) people do you have?”
“12. Do you believe that same-sex couples’ relationships can show the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?”
“17. Did you spend any time studying the Bible’s passages about slavery before you felt comfortable believing that slavery is wrong?”
“18. Does it cause you any concern that Christians throughout most of church history would have disagreed with you?”
Each set of questions demarcates communities. I won’t comment on the virtues and vices of either. I assume my readers are educated. I will reiterate something, though: one faith, one text, very different questions.
One of these has to do with the appropriation of texts. He asked what a text looked like outside the perspective of hegemony. In other words, if you are not part of a dominant class—whatever social marker that is—how does that affect how you envision a text or sayings? Both DeYoung and Vines are speaking from a place that may or may not be wrong. Which is in a more privileged position? Does privilege vary from situation to situation? If texts had as stable of meanings as we might like them to, there probably wouldn’t be as many interpretive traditions (=denominations, sects, religions) as we have today.
De Sondy’s comments had me thinking how much theology and legal reasoning try to make sense of native ambiguity in texts: ambiguity they recognize and wish to elide or naturalize into a preferred reading for their community. This ambiguity, however, is what I find so inviting and exciting about religious studies.
To illustrate interpretation outside hegemony, my friend and classmate, Samantha Nichols, wrote a post about the 4th of July. She included a speech by Frederick Douglass (delivered in 1852, before the Civil War) on the discourse surrounding the holiday:
I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.
What I am highlighting is that you cannot escape your life circumstance and how that colors your interaction with texts (among other things). Sometimes my circumstances prompt me to ask certain questions that people with other social markers ignore, and vice versa. Part of your life circumstances is the groups to which you belong and the groups you reject (for more on this, see my post on community).
I ask this to my reader: how do you arbitrate between two people who understand themselves as faithful to the same tradition, but have different life circumstances informing their interaction with the tradition? I conjecture that it’s probably whatever person’s views most closely align with your own. These debates, while ostensibly about who is most faithful to an original text, at least lend themselves to drawing battle lines: these sets of questions allow persons and communities to identify and align themselves with these two men to achieve certain aims.
*porneia is a Greek word. While this could simply be regarded as a rhetorical move to dismiss the opinions of people who do not know the language in which the New Testament was written, the fact that the New Testament was written in a language other than English seems to invite attention to what is happening in the original language. However, you could also just as easily say that the vast majority of people do not live out their religion by any reference to exegetical and theological tools like Greek—I think it worthwhile to mention that you would need to decide how much that religion is defined by official/institutional means and how much of it is defined on the ground by living, breathing believers.
I apologize for not getting this out on Wednesday. I also realize that these “Link Wednesdays” are turning into substantial posts in themselves. Let me know if you prefer substantial posts for Wednesdays or ones with links and very minimal annotation at ilostmyprayerhanky At gmail.
What is the purpose of marriage? Is it to produce children? Is it to enable people to connect emotionally over a lifetime? Does it have more than one purpose?
At stake in the Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges is whether or not states are required to give marriage licenses to same-sex couples and to recognize marriage licenses issued by other states. The summary of the oral arguments and amicus briefs for and against are here, here, here, and here.
This post will look in detail at the religious freight brought to bear in the amicus brief submitted by The Coalition of Black Pastors and Christian Leaders, aka The Coalition of African-American Pastors. Amicus Curiae are documents submitted by persons strongly interested in a case but not actually involved in it. I am interested in this case, because Black Protestants make up the next biggest opponent of same-sex marriage behind White evangelical Protestants. Since I am somewhat familiar with evangelical religious reasoning against same-sex marriage, I was curious to see if there was overlap with Black church leaders’ legal reasoning.
Here are their three major arguments that will be covered in turn (page numbers from the document will be cited parenthetically):
The caseLoving v. Virginia does not create marital inclusivity as far as the plaintiffs wish
Unelected courts should not decide on morality; that should be left to legislation and the People
The Sixth Circuit Court did not have to employ strict definitions in considering the states’ marriage laws (iii)
Before going into the argument, the pastors and Christian leaders provide a glimpse into their identity and aims in this quote:
For Amici, the Bible expresses sound, ethically-grounded doctrine upon which individuals beneficially rely regarding family matters. Amici bear the responsibility to oppose unsound, morally-relative doctrines and to oppose practices that are harmful to the following of God’s time-proven teachings. Amici, therefore, hold a vested interest in a State’s right to correctly define marriage (1; bold mine).
The plaintiffs in Obergefell v. Hodges argued that denying marriage licenses violated the Equal Protection Clause, using Loving v. Virginia as precedent. The Amici do not see this as valid for a few reasons.
Their big one involves the first alternative use of Loving in Baehr v. Lewin (1993). Baehr held that sexual orientation was a “suspect class” like race was in Loving. Suspect class is “a class of individuals that have been historically subject to discrimination” so that their involvement in a discrimination case is subject to “strict scrutiny.” To survive this level of judicial scrutiny, a State has to have had a compelling reason to limit fundamental rights and narrowly defined the law so as not to engage in discrimination. Examples of suspect classes subject to strict scrutiny include race and religion. One of the questions at stake is whether marriage is a fundamental right.
The Amici argue that the Supreme Court in Loving never contemplated or addressed same-sex marriage (7). This argument gets at origins. In this line of thinking, the closer reasons (practices, beliefs, etc.) are to some group’s original intentions, the more authority it carries. What’s interesting about this originalist interpretation is that the Founders never envisioned African-American voters, but here we are. Time brings out new questions, and, many times, new answers.
They go on to say that “Loving emphasized the importance of marriage to all Americans, in the true sense of the word” (8, bold mine). Words do not have true senses. They have definitions based on how people accept them. If I say someone is gay, you aren’t going to think I’m meaning it in the “true sense” of happy. Why is marriage cordoned off from this ability to change meaning over time? Is it because so many personal investments revolve around how its definition?
And yet, the fact that words do not have eternal, true senses does not mean that definitions are merely idiosyncratic either. While words can be defined however a group wants to define them that does not mean words change meaning overnight. It takes time and people agreeing with definitions. If I say tomorrow that “marriage” means that someone likes chocolate, good luck with that catching on, particularly considering my readership numbers.
These rhetorical strategies of “origins” and “classification” go back to what I have covered on practice and community. The use of origins is a great strategy, because it gives your case a sense of establishment, authority (based on heroes at the beginning of a discourse), and longevity. Sometimes, it is also used to ignore all the intervening steps (history) between the proposed origin and the present (See Monica Miller’s post on labels). However, it also serves the religious element in Lincoln’s system of religious discourse in attempting to make historically contingent facts beyond dispute: religion is at least “temporal, contextual, situated, interested, human, and material dimensions of those discourses, practices, and institutions that characteristically represent themselves as eternal, transcendent, spiritual, and divine.” In other words, this move to origins is meant to stop argumentation, because origins are where authority rests. If God isn’t the authority in this case, it is the immutable and inerrant Founders, treated much the same way as inerrant Scripture.
The Amici also move beyond legal reasoning to employ the “true definition” of marriage, again, using classification. Classification in political (one can easily argue that religion involves this same discourse since it too manages relationships between parties) discourse is never neutral or apolitical. So when they employ Robert Reilly to give the true definition of marriage–the context where the “procreative and unitive purposes of sex” (14-15, no. 13) occur–debate is curtailed, because by definition, same-sex couples cannot be married since they cannot procreate with each other, and therefore, do not meet both of the required elements. I’m not going to try to insult your intelligence too much, but following that definition, here are some heterosexual acts and statuses that should bar a person from marriage:
women with hysterectomies
men with vasectomies
couples who do not wish to have children
couples who engage in any sex act that does not finish inside a vagina
divorce, because this eliminates the possibility of future children
This list is not exhaustive, but it shows that the State is not merely interested in defining marriage by the bare fact of procreation. What does it reveal about the “true definition” of marriage? I suggest that it at least shows that interests beyond the State’s are at play, and I would argue that they are religious ones. The definition is not beyond dispute but reflects the interests of the pastors. You can be the judge of how much or little specific religious discourse should play a part in judicial discourse. The aim of this blog is to uncover the strategies at play among religious and sex discourses. I have around five pages of single-spaced notes on the brief if you care to discuss this further. There is much I left out that I could have covered and that someone might say I overlooked. If so, comment or email me. Otherwise, I await the Court’s decision which might come out today.
Regarding last week’s post on discourse, I feel I was too dependent on Bruce Lincoln’s theory of religion. While I will continue to use his outline, I am going to expand it with my own stuff. This is part two of four.
Here is a review of the outline. Religion is at least, though not necessarily reducible to:
What is practice in religion? Lincoln defines practice as rituals and ethics which designate a proper world order/person as defined by religious discourse.
I see practice as the primary identifier of religion, for it is what people outside the religion (discourse, community, institution) primarily encounter. You do not see beliefs or institutions unless you look at their texts, which are the result of the practice of writing and encoding ideologies with otherworldly authority. However, you can see clothing or grooming. You can also see texts or architecture if you are aware of it. You can hear certain music (or not hear it in its absence) or rhythmic recitations. You can taste different cuisines or items associated with a ritual. You can smell smells associated with a space, and you can feel the touch of objects or other persons.
You could argue with me about what should be primary in religion. Beliefs, or discourse in my presentation, is usually what is asserted as primary, if Protestantism is taken as normative for religion. However, even when it comes to discourse—in the construction, maintenance, replication, polemics, irenics, apologetics, destruction, or reformation of it—I see the activity of practice employed in it. Why? The act of discourse defines who is in a group and who is outside a group, a practice that is always more mobile than discursive text (though I do not limit discourse to text alone).
I am not using my religious upbringing as representative of all religion, but merely to demonstrate a point. It seemed sometimes that signing onto a belief was as important, if not more important, than enacting a practice connected with that belief. This ended up being a practice in itself. One of the practices closely identified with my group was the practice of glossolalia, or speaking in languages you hadn’t sat down to learn. While the group pushed the practice, it definitely mattered if you even considered it a possibility. Southern Baptists, who did not condone the practice, were seen as other to us because they did not even consider glossolalia a possibility. It didn’t matter that we had many in our group who did not themselves “speak in tongues” as glossolalia was referred to; it mattered that we took the practice of believing Acts 2 in a way that Southern Baptists didn’t.
Certain practices seem to have religious connotations associated with them: ingesting a limited amount of food and beverage in a communal setting (Eucharist/communion), stretching limbs in a communal setting (raising hands in worship or some settings of Hatha Yoga), dressing up (wearing a hijab, niqab, skull necklace, funerary ashes), or feeling an object in a stylized manner (prayer wheel in Tibetan Buddhism or rosary).
Lincoln goes on further to say that no practice is inherently religious in itself until defined by the discourse. I described some practices in a purely material way. If I said I was making you a cake, would you consider it religious? Consider the following. Cake-bakers mix flour, sugar, and oil together, bake this set of ingredients, and then design it. When religious discourse is added to it, some Christian bakers decided not to bake and design cakes for same-sex weddings, because they associate their practice of baking with their religious discourse.
This example brings up some important questions. Who defines practice: religious specialists or ordinary religionists? When is a practice religious and when is it idiosyncratic? Is religious practice and idiosyncrasy mutually exclusive? Is religion primarily personal or social? I’m not asking what should be, but but how practice functions in a particular time and place.
How are ethics colored by religion? Ethics here would describe interpersonal or public actions toward one’s own group and outside of one’s group (as defined by the discourse) based on discourse. This discourse can be reasonable or not, but what matters is that a group finds the discourse reasonable enough from which to authorize practice. So making cookies for your neighbor could be a way of consoling him when he’s sick (and you simply performing a practice for a friend) or a way of demonstrating care motivated by proselytizing (a religious motive). It could involve speaking with (or not speaking with) members considered outside your community and doing so in a specific way (conversationally, in a rebuking way, avoidance, etc.).
Recently in Springfield, MO, there was an issue on the ballot (“Question 1”) of whether or not to include the LGBT community in the City’s non-discrimination ordinance regarding housing, employment, and public accommodation. Depending on how you approached this, it could be merely a political and civil rights issue or a religious (or religious freedom) issue (and religious discourse occurred on the “Yes” AND “No” sides of the issue). Who got to define whether it was political/civil rights or religious?
Regarding Question 1, I lamented to Russell McCutcheon that it didn’t seem that persuasive/reasoned discussion was possible when people held fundamentally different views. It seemed to me that groups lobbed talking points at each other without hearing others’ points. He gave me the following: “They’re trying to play fair — it’s just that their mutually beneficial definitions of ‘fair’ either compete or even contradict one another. They’re not all playing the same game but each is trying to portray theirs as the only game in town…”
Even when practices are similar within a community-e.g., providing public discourse on why you should vote a certain way–they are carved out from general use to serve to the interests of your own group. This seems true to me, regardless of how libertarian you want to be.
Next Saturday I will go over “community.” You might be able to tell this from reading so far, but all of the features Lincoln lists-discourse, practice, community, and institution-are integrally related. It helps to separate them to discuss them, but they generally don’t operate apart from one another, unless a religion is extinct.
ThinkPhilosophy is a philosophy website run by “Dr. A” (Rita Alfonso), who taught philosophy and gender studies at Grinnell College and U.C. Berkeley before retiring. She is now an independent scholar and professional photographer.
Alfonso’s first few podcasts seem aimed at making a general audience clearer thinkers through reading and writing practices. Her blog is a text-accompaniment to her podcast. (Also neat: if you subscribe to her site, you can get Feminism: A Very Short Introduction as a free download. Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction series gives a quick survey of a topic by experts in the field. They run ~100-150pp and ~$10).
I came across Alfonso’s site when looking up gender studies blogs. Her first podcast that I heard was her explanation of three prominent feminist theorists: Simone de Beauvoir (existentialism/Marxism), Luce Irigaray (psychoanalysis), and Judith Butler (post-structuralism/queer theory). De Beauvoir pretty much kicked off Second-Wave Feminism with her The Second Sex. One of her most famous lines is “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” In other words, sex is not identical with gender, but gender has a cultural history. According to Alfonso, Irigaray takes de Beauvoir in an egalitarian direction while Butler takes her in a radical direction.
The audio runs ~38 minutes.
What do you make of de Beauvoir’s quote? Are women reducible to wombs or to what is called “feminine”? Is femininity something that is stable in a person or something that must be constantly maintained? How much is femininity a performance or projected image and how much of it is innate to a woman? Is woman simply the Other of man? How does liberal feminism differ from radical feminism?
How does Irigaray critique de Beauvoir’s “othering” (abbr- where you set up an opposite of yourself or your group to say “I’m not that” and use it as identity reinforcement) of women? Is Irigaray saying de Beauvoir sees women as simply non-actualized men in need of full (male) agency? How different does Irigaray find women and men as subjects?
Butler argues that if we take de Beauvoir’s sex/gender distinction seriously, we have no guarantee that a sex results in a given gender; if you always exists in a culturally expressed gender, do you ever exist solely as your sex? In other words, are bodies and biological sex ever interpreted free of cultural bias? In Alfonso’s questioning, does gender occur as naturally as a falling rock demonstrates gravity (every time)? Alfonso interrogates sex as a natural category: should it not result in a particular gender expression? Is the nature/nurture distinction itself a cultural product?
Albert Mohler is extremely influential in the Southern Baptist Convention and president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His output is prolific. He has an almost daily podcast called “The Briefing” where he analyzes current events from an evangelical perspective.
I started listening to him because I wanted to gauge where real evangelical leaders are coming from and rather than being filtered through various outlets like Salon or other media which focus more on sensational figures (thinking Pat Robertson here) rather than on what broader evangelicals accept.
If you are unaware, sometimes religious leaders play with a supposed (from an outside perspective) or real party line (again, this is why I think essentialism is unhelpful). While holding to a traditional view of marriage, Mohler also claimed that the church was guilty of homophobia and aggression (rather than redemption) against homosexuals.
The podcast I listened to on Monday was dated. He analyzed Sen. Marco Rubio’s statement on attending a same-sex wedding. Rubio would attend one if he loved the people, even though he doesn’t support same-sex marriage. Mohler argued that based on the phrasing from the Book of Common Prayer (“If any of you can show just cause why they may not lawfully be married…”) one’s attendance of a wedding is silent consent to the marriage, and that therefore, Rubio’s statement doesn’t make sense.
The segment on Rubio is the first ~7 min of ~18 min.
What do you make of this? Does Mohler’s assessment work for you? Can one not attend a same-sex wedding, love the people involved, and still disagree with what they are doing? Does attendance or presence equal consent? Does Rubio’s statement conflate loving people regardless of their sin and what people affirm? If a mother-in-law doesn’t like the spouse her child has chosen, and she still attends the wedding, is she affirming their marriage or her child? How does Mohler employ the term “category”? What does Mohler mean by love? Does he define it?
Yesterday was a mixed bag on my Facebook feed. There didn’t seem to be much middle ground surrounding Caitlyn Jenner’s reveal on the cover of Vanity Fair. This post was a negative assessment of her coming out. When I tried to find out about the author, she didn’t have an “About” section. Scrolling through her posts, I gathered that she is a mother seeking to explain a Christian worldview in light of cultural (generally sinful) trends. What caught my attention in her post was the following quote: “I never want to shy away from speaking something that needs to be said even if I know it is not something people want to hear.”
What prompts someone to speak to an issue to the point of saying that their words “needs to be said”? I can think of some possibilities: everyone is doing it, your position hasn’t been heard, your position has been maligned, your position has been misunderstood, you like to hear yourself talk, imminent danger, etc. I think in this case she sees a societal danger, but you tell me what you think.
How is Emily Suzanne using gender? Does she buy a distinction between sex and gender, or are these two items even distinct? How is she characterizing arguments in favor of Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out? What sources of authority does she use? How and why does she use them? What does she mean by “common sense” when coupled with a Christian worldview? How does Caitlyn coming out as a woman constitute being “lost, sinful, and desperately in need of Jesus” in itself? According to her definition of a hero, has Caitlyn not sacrificed and risked? When Emily Suzanne uses “we,” who is included and who is excluded?
I plan on using Jenner’s case as a launch pad to talk about the biology and politics of sex in an upcoming post, possibly before Saturday. Again, in Saturday’s post I am going to discuss how I relate religion and gender in my studies.
In my post “Working Thoughts on Gender and Sexuality,” I used the words “natural” and “naturally” to describe something I don’t subscribe to. When I was explaining my thoughts included there to a friend at work, he got me thinking how I’m using those words.
Natural can refer to socially constructed things, because no one exists outside of social relations. In that sense, all that humans do is natural. Even the prisoner in solitary confinement has food brought to him or her; social relations do not have to include words. They simply infer what one does not do oneself. So I may cook my own food, but Walmart workers stocked shelves, from materials transported by truck and train, from materials worked on a farm, from seed and antibiotics administered by farmers, bought from corporations, produced from still more materials, etc. While all that involves many steps, it is natural in the sense of humans produce and consume socially.
I do not mean natural in that way, however. What I am reacting against is “essentialism.” This word (essentially, ha!) carries the idea that if an object or concept is called by something, then it must contain all elements of the definition, or else not be that. Take the word “human” or anything having to do with humanity. One-size-fits-all definitions tend to leave out a lot of human phenomena. If humans are featherless bipeds, do persons who are quadriplegic qualify as humans? If humans are meaning-making animals, are people in comas or vegetative states nonhuman? If women are defined functionally by having the ability to bear children, do women who cannot bear children (or just don’t) not qualify as women?
To the person who says we need definitions in place to have a conversation, I will agree. But I think definitions need to be working definitions to deal with living data. If my definition does not capture all that is human, I need to interrogate the usefulness of my definition. Definitions necessarily leave something out, but how much do they leave out (or how far are they inclusive?) before they cease to be useful? I also think definitions need to be brought into discussion rather than just thrown around as if they have innate meaning. African-Americans and white Americans many times mean completely different things with the phrase “Black Lives Matter” until they discuss their situatedness.
Speaking of situatedness, I am aiming in my writing for more concreteness. My same friend asked me what percentage of people are born gay. I don’t think we’re born anything because we haven’t expressed anything yet when we’re born. I think there are predispositions for things at birth—presence of genetic markers for given traits, a certain ratio of sex hormones—but again, these do not determine outcomes. Babies don’t think other babies are hot or want to date people with a different or similar pair of genitals; they want to eat, if even that. Their self-expression is limited to eating, sleeping, pooping, and peeing. I attribute gender and sexuality to personhood, and babies, while starting their journey of personhood, simply don’t have much yet.
My initial bias does not include much interaction with genetic research on gender, I will admit. What I was trying to say is that possessing certain criteria (I provided three—hormones, sex organs, and chromosomes) does not determine existence. So maybe “non-determinism” regarding gender and sexuality is what I was talking about and not “unnaturalness,” or more concretely, “You’re not born with sexual express.” As I will admit throughout my blog, I offer ideas in process. Because of this stance, I invite questions, disputes, clarifications, negations. All I ask is that we bring a stance of at least understanding the other on their own terms before disagreeing with them on our terms. If I fail to do that, call me out. I don’t know it all. I just kind of claim to know where I’m coming from, though that isn’t always the case either.