NaBloPoMo Day 11: Just a video and article recommendation today. There’ll be a guest post on this blog tomorrow and a post by me at another blog, so I figure I get a free space to work with!
Colorlines shared this lovely video about a young gay Latino man and his family not only coming to fully embrace him and his sexuality, but also to provide support for LGBT youth and their families. The video touches on some interesting issues around ethnicity, masculinity, and sexuality, and religion as well. I particularly loved what the dad had to say about rethinking his approach to masculinity when he realized how damaging his assumptions had been to his son and their relationship. The Colorlines article about the Family Acceptance Project that this video came out of is also really worth reading – it’s a project focusing on how families of LGBT youth of color respond to their coming out. This video is the first of several resources they’re hoping to develop for different communities that tell stories of families of color who have accepted their LGBT children.
I came across this video by Jamilah Lemieux, aka Sister Toldja, on how cultural assumptions about race and gender shape the way we respond on a societal level to teen pregnancy. My comments are directly below; click to jump to the transcript.
There’sa lot to be unpacked in this clip, but it particularly brought to mind a similar and consistent racial double standard in how white conservative Christian culture generally frames the relationship between gender and sexuality. “Real” femininity is often defined in a way that almost inherently excludes women of color – and indeed, all women fall outside an extremely narrow and privileged ideal of what “true womanhood” is.
One example of this is the ideas the abstinence movement puts forward about what women “naturally” want when it comes to sex and relationships. Abstinence advocates argue for a binary, complementarian understanding of gender, sexuality, and intimacy. Men, they argue, want sex (with women) and women want relationships (with men). Women don’t really want sex – certainly not compared to how much men want sex – and are thus more capable of resisting sexual temptation than men. See, for instance, one church’s guide to a popular complementarian book on sex and relationships which claims that “sexual purity [is] easier for women than for men.” [source: Study guide to Doing Things Right in Matters of the Heart by John Ensor]
Women have sex outside of marriage, the story goes, not because we want to, but because we are either pressured into it, or tricked into believing that sex will bring what all women really want – emotional intimacy, commitment, and security, all provided by a man. None of these things, of course, can really exist outside the commitment (read: contract) of heterosexual marriage, because a man who’s already getting sex has no reason to provide a woman with any of that stuff. Or, to cite a charming quote from the aforementioned complementarian relationship manual: “If it’s harder to drag men to the altar today than it used to be one reason is that they don’t have to stop there on the way to the bedroom.”
Marriage, under this model, is basically an institution divinely designed as an exchange of commodities between husband and wife, to allow them to both get what they really want out of each other. The husband gives relational love and commitment to the wife in exchange for her giving him sex. It’s all very romantic.
The story continues that true women need to be protected from men’s voracious sexual appetites until marriage, so we’re not roped into sex we don’t really want without getting anything for it in return. True, godly men therefore have to exert herculean levels of self-control to shelter women from male sexual desire – to keep us from being “defrauded” and having our purity sullied: “If a chaste man is protecting women, what is an unchaste man doing?” Incidentally – if the idea that men have to work really hard not to have sex with women sounds like it borders on rape apologism to you, you’re not wrong. The very next sentence in the guide: “Does it make any difference if the woman is willing?” Implied answer: no.
Yet somehow women are still far more to blame if premarital sex does occur, because, after all, men can barely control their sexual passions to begin with. The burden is more on women to exercise sexual self-control because they are “naturally” more capable of such self-control: “How is a woman’s sexual self-control a powerful force in society? What happens to a society when its women do not exercise sexual self-control?” [Study guide]
This is the dynamic that produces the gendered double standard that Lemieux describes. Teen girls and unmarried women are overwhelmingly the focus of moral panic and concern trolling about out of wedlock pregnancy in the abstinence movement (as in mainstream culture) – not boys or men – because the idea is that as the ones more capable of sexual self-control, women shoulder more of the responsibility for (it’s assumed) agreeing to the sexual contact that led to pregnancy. Because it is believed that boys and men almost can’t help but act on their sexual desires (for women), male heterosexuality is unquestioned and unchallenged; we erase men from the picture of teen pregnancy even though they are equal participants in sex.
The focus is instead placed on women as the ones who could have prevented sex from taking place – who should have acted as gatekeepers. Because real women don’t want sex, any evidence of female sexual desire or activity must be challenged and punished. So it produces a situation where the same action on heterosexual desire is completely understandable and gets a pass for the male partner, but is condemned, interrogated, worried over, and punished for the female partner.
Accordingly, much of the policy the abstinence movement advocates disproportionately seeks to punish girls and women for being sexually active – opposing HPV vaccines for girls, opposing access to condoms, birth control, abortion, and other family planning information and services, opposing social programs that help young and/or single mothers to provide for their families, that provide their children with vital educational and after school services, that allow them to manage their fertility and plan their family size as they see fit. Underlying all of this is the mindset that women need to face consequences for choosing to be sexually active – and a mindset that refuses the acknowledge the reality that many women, including many teen girls, are coerced, assaulted, or raped and that these all factor into teen pregnancy and other issues conservatives claim to be so concerned about.
In sum, the abstinence movement claims that women are naturally chaste in comparison to men, who really have to work long and hard at chastity. But as I’ll discuss in the next post, the same conservative Christian culture that pushes abstinence also frequently stereotypes of women of color – especially black women – as habitually promiscuous, hypersexual, and generally unable or unwilling to exert any sort of self-control in how we express our sexuality. When you juxtapose this idea that women of color are naturally unchaste with the notion that “true women” are naturally chaste, the clear message this sends is that women of color are not really women.
My name is Jamilah Lemieux, and I’m a freelance writer.
Tell us about your article.
My article is called “Becky’s [got a] baby.”
I’ve found that the…increase in media attention around teen pregnancy has, there’s been a change in narrative, and it’s gone from…the poor minority girl who has somehow failed society and failed her family to… the unlucky, unfortunate young white woman who’s worthy of our sympathy. And I don’t think it’s fair. I think that any young woman who’s in that position deserves the same level of sympathy and support. And you know, it’s really interesting that when the face of teen pregnancy was a Black or Hispanic young mother [clip of a black infant and a young black woman] …it was this thing for shame, and darkness, and now that it’s, you know, we’re seeing more white women in the media who are doing it, it’s something to be not celebrated, but examined more carefully.
What roles do race & gender play when discussing teen pregnancy in the media?
The media is a lot easier on young white women who find themselves pregnant as teens compared to black girls, or hispanic girls, or women from any other ethnic group. As far as gender goes, young men are largely left out of the conversation, which doesn’t make sense, because you can’t have a teen pregnancy without a boy or a young man who’s also participated. So we’re blaming the girls, or now we’re being a little bit more sympathetic, but we’re not examining the reasons that both genders have chosen to either be sexually irresponsible, or are simply misinformed, and don’t understand what they could have done to protect themselves or to prevent a pregnancy. We’re not talking about the possibility that, you know, a lot of young women are coerced by boyfriends, you know, some of whom are older than they are, not to wear condoms or to engage in sex before they’re ready. So there’s a lot of factors at hand that lead to young women getting pregnant, and unfortunately we’re only talking about a certain segment of the population now. We’re leaving out the brown girls and the boys.
How is the growing popularity via the media affecting society at large?
I think that now that the face…of the teenage mother has become white, thanks to MTV’s 16 and pregnant and Teen Mom, it has become more acceptable [clips of white infants, white teens and teen parents]. I’m not necessarily convinced that it’s…encouraging young women to get pregnant, but there have been stories of young girls who allegedly have timed their pregnancies to try to get a spot on one of those shows. I think it’s good to alleviate the stigma of shame surrounding teen motherhood, and if we have to through a white face to have that done, then there is some beenfit to it, but I just think that the conversation that we need to have about why young women across socioeconomic lines, across racial lines, and young men, are engaging in high risk sexual behavior. That conversation needs to be had.
What do you want people to take from your piece?
I hope people will understand or… be reminded that we’re not post-racial at all. Some of the things that may seem like progress, such as…ending the stigma or lessing the stigma surrounding teen mothers is also a reminder that we still have leaps and bounds when it comes to managing race in this country. Because again, if the…young women and girls on the teen mothers show were black or hispanic or asian, they wouldn’t be on the cover of people magazine [images of white teen parents in People magazine; images of Bristol Palin]. We wouldn’t be looking at them to be reality celebrities and we wouldn’t have the same level of sympathy towards them. Maybe I would or you would, but you know, people that follow those shows religiously either wouldn’t, or they’d be watching to say, “Well, look at what these black girls are doing,” and “They’re tearing down the moral fiber of this country,” and it probably somehow would become reason to discuss why Barack Obama shouldn’t be president. So I just hope that people understand that this new wave of discussion about teen pregnancy is revealing a lot more than we think, and that it’s not just about teen sexuality.
Thoughts on XhibitP?
I think the biggest thing when using art as social activism is to inspire conversation…and that conversation leads to action. So someone may watch this and totally disagree with me, or with someone else that they’ve seen interviewed, and someone may have some sort of paradigm shift, or someone may just be convinced that everything is ok and we’re just wasting our time here. But ultimately, movements like this can be…the catalyst to inspire people to action. So I hope that anyone that’s checking out XhibitP for the first time becomes a longtime supporter.
[outro of Lemieux talking and laughing]
Jump back to the top of the post.
Trigger warning for suicide, physical and emotional abuse, heterosexism, cissexism.
In the past couple days CNN’s Anderson Cooper has been reporting on the case of Kirk Murphy, who at the age of 5 was subjected to gender “therapy” intended to make him less effeminate and prevent him from becoming gay later in life. The graduate student who oversaw Kirk’s case was none other than George Rekers, the so-called expert on ex-gay therapy who was caught last year returning from vacation with a gay male escort.
Despite Rekers’ citing of Kirk in several publications as a successful example of eliminating gender variance in a child and preventing him from becoming gay as an adult,* Kirk did in fact identify as a gay man in adulthood. Sadly, he committed suicide at 38, which his family attributes to the “therapy” he received as a child, along with the fact that he never fully embraced his sexuality or had a committed relationship with another man.
CNN’s coverage is worth checking out (see video clips below), as is Box Turtle Bulletin’s excellent and comprehensive investigation into the professional and family contexts in which Kirk’s treatment and its aftermath unfolded.
This is a fascinating (and depressing) clip from Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly 4, a presentation on the messages the ad industry sends about women and the literally impossible standard of female beauty it upholds. The examples she shares all depict women who appear to be white, with a couple exceptions, and they’re a good illustration of how misogyny and racism intersect when it comes to pop culture and body image.
Entertainment, fashion, and advertising are dominated by images of women who are not only impossibly proportioned, through the magic of Photoshop, but also almost invariably white. The few exceptions are almost all lighter-skinned women of color. This is a double burden for women of color. Whiteness is as impossible for us to achieve as is the distorted and unrealistic model body women of all races are held up to.
Mainstream feminism has done much to unpack the ways in which our cultural standards of female beauty are unattainable, and more fundamentally, why women shouldn’t have to aspire to such standards in the first place. Unfortunately, race is often a missing piece in mainstream feminist discourse about these issues. There’s often not as much recognition of the fact that the advertising industry, through the underrepresentation of women of color and the racialization of the few women of color it does depict, sends the message that ideal female beauty is first and foremost white. Feminism has a long way to go before the idea that women of color shouldn’t have to aspire to whiteness is as well-established and well-defended as the idea that women shouldn’t have to aspire to having Barbie-like bodies.
As Kilbourne points out in her previous video in this series, reducing women to bodies and even body parts is fundamentally a dehumanization of women, presenting women as things or objects. Such objectification is, in her words, “almost always the first step towards justifying violence” against the people objectified, and is a powerful contributing factor to the epidemic levels of misogynist violence and abuse in our society. Here again women of color bear a more severe burden than white women; the underrepresentation of women of color marginalizes and erases our existence, which is inherently dehumanizing. In addition, as Kilbourne notes, depictions of women of color as animalistic – literally as animals, in animal prints, in “wild” settings – are widespread and send the message that women of color are “not fully human.” And once again, this is an issue that “mainstream” feminism, dominated by white voices, has yet to recognize or take as seriously as womanist and WOC feminist movements have done.
I laughed when I read the above phrase, the title of a kind of absurd TIME article by Meredith Melnick on masculinity and male gender identity. It so perfectly captures the contradiction at the heart of patriarchal claims about masculinity. According to complementarians, masculinity is all about being strong, aggressive, independent, attracted to women (and only women), leading and protecting the “weak” (because proper men can’t possibly be weak and anyone who isn’t a man is by definition weak), rational, etc. All of these characteristics are supposed to be inclinations that come “naturally” to men – recall Mark Driscoll’s statement that “Men want to be men.”
At the same time, complementarians constantly obsess over whether men are behaving in a sufficiently “manly” fashion; no detail of appearance of behavior is too trivial for them to assign a proper gender to it (true story: I once heard a pastor say that canaries are not an appropriate pet for a real man). Any departure from conventional masculine gender expression is an “assault” on masculinity, and a disqualification from it. They’re constantly wringing their hands over the inadequacies of modern men, supposedly emasculated by feminism. Driscoll’s derisive claim that “Sixty percent of Christians are chicks, and the forty percent that are dudes are still sort of chicks” perfectly captures both complementarian anxieties about emasculation and complementarian contempt for women and “inadequate” men.
How resilient can such masculinity really be if it’s so easily disrupted? How confident can these men be in their “natural” masculinity if they’re so easily emasculated? How rational is a masculinity that perceives pink nail polish as a threat to its integrity?
This kind of masculinity is the complete opposite of “natural.” It’s a carefully orchestrated performance, a facade that must be constantly maintained (“gender role” is an apt phrase for it, come to think of it). The moment the act of manliness is dropped – or simply fails to be convincing – one ceases to be a “real” man. This explains complementarians’ ever-present anxiety over male gender expression and sexuality, and their constant need to vigorously demonstrate their “manliness” in these respects.
To wit, Mark Driscoll’s latest bizarre, exhibitionist assertion of his heterosexuality:
Mark Driscoll isn’t satisfied with condemning actual gay sex; he must also distance himself from anything that could be remotely construed as implying it, even harmless, meaningless Facebook memes. Mark Driscoll, despite being a 40 year old grown ass man, seems to think “poking” is a serious synonym for sex. And Mark Driscoll really needs you to know that he would never think the idea of “poking” another dude is anything other than gross. This and other public comments by Driscoll betray a terror of being perceived as anything other than 100% straight, a need to be ever vigilant against any and all associations with anything even kinda sorta maybe queer-ish. Even poking other men on Facebook. That’s mature, manly leadership for you.
Of course, this anxiety over gender and sexuality is hardly unique to complementarianism. This is another lie of patriarchal Christianity, i.e., the claim that its definition of real masculinity is “countercultural.” Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s merely one manifestation of the constant societal pressure that men and people perceived as male are under to “act like a man”:
Manhood is a social status, something a guy earned historically, through brutal tests of physical endurance or other risky demonstrations of toughness that mark the transition from boyhood to manhood. But while that masculinity is hard-won, it can be easily lost.
Once earned, men have to continue proving their worth through manly action. In modern society, that may no longer mean, say, killing the meatiest wooly mammoth, but there are equivalent displays of masculinity: earning a decent living or protecting one’s family. One misstep — losing a job, for instance, or letting someone down — and that gender identity slips away. (from the article linked above; Melnick makes some seriously problematic assumptions about gender identity and expression, but on this point she’s spot on).
Patriarchal fantasies like Driscoll’s Ultimate Fighting Jesus are merely less subtle, more overtly violent and misogynistic expressions of pervasive cultural associations of masculinity with aggression and dominance. Likewise, the perpetual vigilance with which complementarians police masculinity and indeed all gender identities mirrors broader cultural anxieties over and limitations on sexuality and gender expression. The phrase “no homo” is a secular example of this:
The sad and awful irony is that all this angst over acting real makes it remarkably difficult for men and people perceived as male to actually be real, i.e., authentic and true to themselves in their gender expression (and sexual expression as well, not only by making heterosexuality compulsory, but also by insisting that specific gender roles be observed in sexual encounters between men and women).
Far from encouraging realness in masculinity or any other gender identity, our society actually punishes people for being real. Even men who buy into the act are harmed by the severe limitations it places on their emotional expression and behavior, the impossible standards of godlike dominance and control it imposes on them, and the damage it wreaks on personal relationships. Such masculinity is by nature fragile and constantly under threat.
This video of Alice Walker reading Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech is fantastic (ht Elizabeth Esther). And also a bit sad, when you think about how much this speech still applies today – how much the same misogyny still poisons the church, how much white evangelical notions of femininity simultaneously construct white women as creatures to be coddled and infantilized by men in the name of “protection” and marginalize women of color by exploiting their labor, demonizing their sexuality, and devaluing their families and reproductive freedom. It’s sad how little has changed.
Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.