Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Ultrasounds and bodily autonomy

So Pro-lifers in Oklahoma have succeeded in passing a bill requiring women seeking an abortion to get an ultrasound before that procedure, presumably because seeing the fetus beforehand would give some women doubts about aborting it. This is problematic on a number of levels, for obvious reasons- it smacks of paternalism to claim that we need an act of government to educate women on the true costs of abortion, and the gradual eroding of reproductive rights by restricting access to abortion and increasing the social stigma associated with that procedure continues apace. Yet the most troubling aspect of the discourse around this bill has been the disregard for the bodily autonomy of the women forced to undergo a non-consensual medical procedure in order to exercise their reproductive rights. I've heard the argument that, "well, an abortion is already an incredibly invasive procedure, so it doesn't seem like that much more invasive to get an ultrasound" with disturbing frequency.

I imagine that, were I in that situation (to the extent that a man can really put himself in the shoes of a pregnant woman), I probably wouldn't balk at an ultrasound when an abortion was around the corner. But it doesn't matter what I would or wouldn't balk at. Only one person gets to decide whether a medical procedure is too invasive or not- the person undergoing the procedure. There is not an objective sliding scale of more invasive and less invasive medical operations that we can base our laws on. We are certainly in no way justified in assuming consent to one procedure because of consent to a different one.

Starting to look familiar, yet? We're not justified in assuming consent to a "lesser" sexual act because of consent to a "more invasive" one, either. The argument of the pro-lifers looks uncomfortably similar slut shaming (big surprise, I know). Obviously consent to one sex act implies consent to all the other "lesser" ones; consent has already been given, regardless of the will of the person. The woman wearing revealing clothing, or who has had sex with multiple partners, dabbled in S&M, or practiced polyamory- she's public property, who willed away her ability to say "no," long ago.

The only world where such ideas can make sense is one where there is an objective sliding scale of lesser and more invasive acts. When collective wisdom and the testimony of experts can construct a guideline of reasonable and unreasonable things to consent to, authentic subjectivity can find no place. When we substitute our own scale of values for those of another, we've made it impossible for the testimony of our own desires to be taken seriously.

This isn't an arcane philosophical point, and its importance is felt by both men and women. The only way everyone can be safe in sexual relations- whatever our gender, orientation, and proclivities in the bedroom- is if our subjectivity is respected. A world in which my partner- or the social construction of my actions- can paper over my desires and construct consent where it is not willed is a world where I'm not safe sexually. No one is.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Only heterosexual white males are capable of objectivity

Thus saith the American Family Association:

A fundamental requirement of a judge is impartiality. He is to be as impartial as an umpire or a referee. His responsibility is to take rules written by others (including and above all the Constitution) and faithfully and neutrally apply them without bias or favoritism, and without changing the rules in the middle of the game to give the advantage to the team he happens to like best.

Tim Donaghy, an experienced NBA referee, was recently banned for life when it was revealed that he placed bets on games he himself officiated. He eventually plead guilty to federal conspiracy charges and is in prison as we speak. You just can't have a referee - or a judge - who has a built-in bias towards one team or the other.

A homosexual judge cannot help but give the home-field advantage to every legal team appearing before him who represents homosexual causes. It will be impossible for the visiting team, the team representing sexual normalcy and natural marriage, to get a fair shake in his courtroom.


Apparently a heterosexual who sits on the court doesn't have a unique viewpoint or a possibility of having his or her judgments clouded by his or her unique life experiences. It isn't worth worrying that he or she will have an insufficient appreciation of the struggles that sexual minorities (or minorities in general) face, yet homosexuals are obviously impeded in coming to an objective verdict.

Of course, the only people who are competent- whose judgments will not be impeded by their own unique history- are normal people. That's why we call them normal: they're the default. Putting anyone aside from a heterosexual, white, upper class male, who alone among the classes have the unique ability to distance themselves from their upbringing and enter into a realm of pure reason, is simply irresponsible.

It's the same song and dance we heard during the Sotomayor hearings. My letter to the editor of the New York Times on that issue summed it up as well as I can:

It is disingenuous to paint Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s commitment to bring a unique point of view to the court as evidence of racial bias, as leading Republican members of Congress have done.

Proponents of a diverse bench believe that pursuit of the objective truth requires the input of many different kinds of people. We cannot allow the nation’s highest court to become blinded by a myopia brought about by racial, class and gender homogeneity. The upper-class white male is not a tabula rasa from which verdicts come untainted by circumstance of birth.

The court will be all the better for a panoply of viewpoints and backgrounds on the bench.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Using Tiger Woods as a club

From a recent New York Times piece justifying the media hysteria over Tiger Woods:

Monogamous marriage matters. As a 21-year veteran of the institution, I can attest to its imperfections. But compared with the alternatives, it looks pretty good as a means of rearing the next generation. It is more compatible with egalitarian, democratic values than polygamy is, and it has various advantages — including sheer economic efficiency — over single-parent child rearing.

Of course, he disregards the benefits that non-monogamy can have for creating and sustaining loving and stable families, should that be one's goal. If we had a culture where married people had more leeway to negotiate the sexual rules of their partnership, we'd probably see many more stable and happy marriages. A couple that's trying to stay together for their kids despite their difficulties might find their task considerably easier if they agree that they will drop their insistence on sexual exclusivity.

And if two parents are more economically stable than one, wouldn't three or four be more stable than two? Poly families seem poised to reap the benefits from extended kinship networks that the modern family has largely abandoned. A poly family more closely approximates "It takes a village to raise a child," than most of the nuclear family arrangements we have in modern America.

I'm not saying that polyamorous families are better than monogamous ones, or even attempting to denigrate the dedication of those who cleave closely to monogamous ideals. Dropping monogamy isn't the solution for everyone in a disintegrating marriage, and a triad isn't superior for child raising to a couple. Happy parents are likely to lead to a happy family, and I'm the last person to suggest that someone should attempt a framework for love and sex that goes against what feels most right to them. And I'm certainly not excusing Tiger Woods or adulterers in general, whose behavior, should they not get the okay of their spouse, is dishonest. It's just that any non-monogamous arrangement is held to a higher standard of social benefit than a corresponding monogamous arrangement.

Our chief problem is one of perception. Look again at the above quote- the only options Mr. Wright can conceive of are 1.) adultery, 2.) polygamy, or 3.) monogamy. In other words, we have Tiger Woods, fundamentalist offshoots from Mormonism (small disclaimer: lumping in Mormons with the fundamentalist polygamists is not cool), or Mr. Wright himself. He seems literally unable to contemplate a triad, a married couple agreeing to be sexually non-monogamous, or any of the panpoly of frameworks that characterize the sex-positive polyamorous community.

This is problematic because it colors almost every discussion of polyamory in our society. It's pretty clear when you talk to most people about it that they've got patriarchal polygamy in the back of their minds, and filter everything you say through that lens. To put it mildly, this isn't a constructive framework in which to view the subject. Comparing sex-positive polyamory to ancient polygamy is like comparing modern homosexuality to Athenian pederasty. Yeah, both involve same-sex attraction, but the cultural and ideological conditions are so radically different that concerns that apply to one are unlikely to apply to another. Only homophobes are concerned that homosexuality in our society will largely consist of older men having sex with younger boys of questionable ability to consent. Likewise, though the effects of sexism and patriarchy on current models of polyamory are of concern, only woefully misinformed people ought to worry that modern polyamory will even remotely resemble the chattel slavery that characterizes polygamy.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Including the majority

I messed up.

From the comments section of my previous post:

It isn't right and as a Christian, please know that there are many of us out here that are fighting against these stereotypes in much the same way as you are.

I'll never forget the time one of the nicest people I know, a good friend and, at the time, aspiring clergyman (he and his spouse are currently in seminary), took me aside and reassured me, on no uncertain terms, that his deeply held faith by no means implied a hatred for me because of my sexual orientation. At first I didn't know what to make of such a confession. It seemed odd; I mean, the rest of my friends didn't feel the need to make this clear, and it seemed to put a tad too much emphasis on my difference in my sexual orientation.

That was before I'd considered things from his point of view. As someone who both subscribes to staunchly progressive politics and morality and holds a deep faith, I can't imagine that he's happy with the invisibility of people like him. Contemporary political discourse, loving its dichotomies, must make conservative politics a prerequisite for faith.

This is entirely absurd. Institutionally and individually, Christians are not uniformly opposed to sexual freedom. The ACLU down here in New Mexico uses a local church as a staging ground for our student lobby day, which focuses almost exclusively on advocating for domestic partnership legislation. Moreover, 76% of America is Christian. Average out support for gay rights at somewhere around half the population, with substantial majorities in favor of anti discrimination legislation and a sizable minority in favor of marriage, and, even assuming every single non-Christian is on our side, half the support of gay rights comes from Christians.

You'd never know that from contemporary portrayals of American Christianity. I know well how frustrating feeling invisible can be, and if my friends wish to make their experiences known, more power to them.

The unfortunate truth is that progressive activists can be just as guilty as mainstream outlets of perpetuating this myth. Often subconsciously, we treat anyone identifying as Christian as opposed to our cause, and bring religious identification into the discussion where it does not belong. We consider it a relevant difference, an important point to make when excoriating opposing viewpoints, and therefore treat as "other" many people who are just as passionately devoted to sexual freedom as we are. That's what I did when I referred to First Things as a "conservative Christian magazine."

The bottom line is this: my friends and family should not have to justify their faith. Their religion should not make them "other" in sex-positive spaces, just as my sexuality should not make me "other" in mainstream contexts.

So, I messed up. I put my Christian readers on the defensive, and marginalized their contributions to the movement. For that I apologize.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Apollo Program

It's not good enough anymore.

I remember playing a game called Civilization II back when I was a kid. Per the title, it was one of the empire building games where you explored territory, founded cities, negotiated with other civilizations, and discovered new technologies. You'd venture out into the all-encompassing blackness and gradually reveal more of the map, getting a lay of the land and the surrounding civilizations. You'd find new fertile areas to settle and new defensive positions to fortify for when your neighbors got uppity. Eventually you'd have explored your continent, gotten a pretty good idea of where the borders lay, and settled into a comfortable existence. Once you'd discovered the right seafaring technologies, you might strike out into the darkness once again, discovering new civilizations on a new continent and trading maps and technologies. But it was always difficult to motivate yourself to explore once you'd discovered all the trading partners. Blackness on the edges of the map still loomed, but you had more pressing priorities. This trireme is clearly needed to reinforce the fleet at Salamis; I need my cruiser sticking around Thermopylae to discourage those Chinese bombers from getting antsy (of course, I always played the Greeks). I can't invest in a fleet now, not when I'm so close to discovering gunpowder; maybe in twenty turns.

Then you'd make it to the modern era, and the space race began. With military domination unachieved, this was your only path to victory; first one to Alpha Centauri wins. Of course, to get there you first needed to get to the moon, so you'd start working on the Apollo Program. Since you'd put all those satellites into space, you'd finally, after all this time, have every square on the map revealed. There was an island you had no clue about, just six squares from your coastal capital city, a superb place for a fishing village. There was a source of incense or oil in the arctic wastes where you never thought to look. Or even a new civilization, who you might have learned from.

Gradually expanding the center's horizons isn't good enough anymore. They certainly won't dispatch their own triremes to find us, and the curious islanders that wash up on their shores every once in awhile are either unheeded or reviled. That's not entirely fair; sometimes enough of them make an effort to brave the straits in their rickety boats, and if they're close enough to the center's locus of power, they just might make it and have their existence realized and their humanity acknowledged. Maybe their island will remain a curious colony of the empire; most likely, that's how it starts, with begrudging acceptance gradually giving way to full citizenship. Perhaps one day, even their marriages will be accorded the full dignity they deserve.

But the center rarely makes the leap that there might be other islands, just a stone's throw away from their new territory. Those islanders might have a better chance of being noticed now that they're closer to a locus of power, but the process repeats itself. Each new revelation has to be fought for painstakingly, as if the previous struggles never happened.

Until the Apollo Program.

I want to talk about my father for a moment.

I do not believe that there is a condescending bone in my father's body. Only his refusal to discount my experiences and to treat my perspective as worthwhile salved the pain of navigating as a child in a hostile world that continually treated me as incompetent to define myself and my desires. When the long-promised respect for my humanity failed to materialize as I neared adulthood, when I was inundated with messages claiming that I knew not my own sexuality, that I was experimenting, confused, haphazardly reaching at a masculine self-actualization, his steady support was invaluable to convincing me to trust my own competence. When I began exploring a variant gender expression, his nonchalance that his son was shopping in the women's section of Target gave me the courage to become comfortable in my own skin.

I don't want to lionize my dad, or turn him into something that he's not. Lord knows there were difficulties- the awkward silence when I first commented on the guys that I found attractive or the advice that was overly preoccupied with preserving privilege than being comfortable in my own skin. Despite all that, he trusted my judgment, and once the advice was given, treated my decisions with respect.

He never asked me to justify myself.

This is because my father believes that there is no such thing as human debris. His staunch refusal to ever discount a person's point of view, to believe them irredeemably corrupted and incompetent, his dogged insistence on finding humanity in every person, is an inspiration to me.

To the extent that the sex positive movement will be successful, is the extent to which we succeed in creating more people like my father.

That's our Apollo Program.

Constructing a righteous sex-positivity

"There is no should between consenting adults."

I'm seeing this meme spread more and more in the sex positive blogosphere, and believe me, I get the impetus behind it. It's incredibly empowering to cast off the social taboos that once bound you. It's a defiant affirmation that rape is the only sexual crime*- that all immoral sex acts must boil down to a disrespect for the autonomy of another individual. It's an affirmation of one's identity, a refusal to allow the message that say we are sick or perverted to deny us our happiness. Really, I get it.

Nevertheless, I have to disagree. There are shoulds between consenting adults. We should aim for enthusiastic consent rather than begrudging acceptance. We should aim to respect our partners and not treat them as means to an end. We should aim in all instances to practice the virtue of love in our sex life, which is not to say that we must feel a romantic attachment for a sex act to be positive or moral. Rather, the morality borne of empathy with our fellow humans ought to be our guide in sex as well as the rest of life. As Jens Bjornboe put it:

People speak of 'sexual morality,' but that is a misleading expression. There is no special morality for sex. No matter what you do with yourself, whether you go to bed with girls or with boys, and no matter what it occurs to you to do with them or with yourself, no moral rule applies to that sphere of activity other than the principles that govern every aspect of life: honesty, courage, common humanity, consideration.
This ethic eschews a facile checklist approach to morality and concerns itself instead with their underlying principles. Rather than blindly following a list of dos and don'ts, we must thoughtfully construct satisfying principles and figure out how to better live them.

No greater example of this poor sexual morality is found than in this comment from a conservative Christian online magazine:

There are so many of us who simply don't like living in a world where absolutely anything can be condoned. Man must have laws and rules and those who seek to destroy boundaries should think twice.
Let me first say that I'm disinclined to sacrifice my only hope for happiness in this world so that people like Maria may have the mental security that someone, somewhere, has been prevented from practicing a fulfilling life.

Part of this is a problem of perception, and part of it is a problem of articulation. Certainly, sex positive activists have been trying to convince the rest of the world that we have not abandoned all of our moral principles in favor of libertine anarchy, with greater or less results.

Yet I think we could be doing better at articulating a righteous sex positivity-not simply as an overturning of conventional mores in favor of sexual freedom, but as a framework in which to lead a morally satisfying life. We should be articulating why our outlook on the world is the one most consonant with the classical virtues, why Christ's outreach to the marginalized reflects on our sexual minorities, and why our opponents fall short of the only morally defensible principles.

Here's to the work of a lifetime.

*Which is to say that, pedophilia, bestiality, et al are immoral because of their affinity to rape, as the victims are incapable of consent.

On Using Words as Shields

I recently posted on my facebook wall that I had come very close to using the word "heteronormative" in the previous night's Pride and Prejudice seminar, when my tutors (first-among-equals facilitators of discussion that take the place of professors at St. John's) began to laud marriage as a proxy for adulthood and responsibility. One of my friends rejoined that heteronormative was not quite the right word, and something like monogamy-centric might be a better one.

She has a point. Heteronormative isn't the right word to use there, not quite. It nettled me that she was mostly right, since it's been a dissatisfaction with the little writing I've done here. I feel like I've finally been set free and given a set of tools to describe what was constraining me before; on the other hand, using the words "heterocentric," and "hegemonic masculinity," as a catch-all talisman for warding off everything I dislike about modern culture is imprecise, leads to wooly thinking, and is aesthetically unpleasing.

It's all the more frustrating because there is an obvious connection between all these -isms. Transphobia, homophobia, sexism, and dislike of gender variant people obviously have some unity to them. The above may be more artfully described as marriage-centric than heterocentric, but obviously extolling marriage as the sole path to respectability negatively impacts social groups that have for the most part been denied access to that institution. What I was really trying to express is that both have an insufficient regard for the diversity of what makes for a happy life, and focus too much on conventional methods of attaining that life. "Conventional," and "normative" have worked to describe that vague feeling in certain circumstances, but they're ultimately unsatisfying. What I really want is a language I can deploy analytically to sharpen my thoughts and make myself clearer to my readers.

Unfortunately, such a language may be logically impossible. If I lack access to such language right now and must seek out the works of academia to construct a satisfying vocabulary, there's no way most of my readers will have access to such a vocabulary. In being able to articulate myself I risk becoming so dense that no layperson would ever be able to decipher me.

So, um, help?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon: the queerest manifestation of heteronormativity

First thing's first: despite some harsh words later on in this post, I completely adored How to Train Your Dragon. Continuing the upward trajectory that Kung Fu Panda started, Dreamworks has finally produced a movie worthy of their longtime rivals at Pixar. Gone, for the most part, are the uninspired character designs that remind one more of the worst of Saturday morning cartoons rather than Disney, replaced by characters dripping with charisma and personality. Though a few of the dragon designs miss the mark, the main character really steals the show; while initially seeming mundane, Toothless eventually exhibits more charm in an unvocal character than we've seen since Wall-E and Eve. It's a bit predictable, as most children's movies are, and the jokes, while rarely failing to produce a laugh, can sometimes feel a bit pedestrian and formulaic. Still, the chance to see the dragons caper around on-screen, and the exhilaration of the flying scenes, which put even Miyazaki to shame, are worth the price of admission. It's been a long time since a movie has so brightened my day and let me go about the rest of my business with a sense of wonder; I haven't really felt it since Spirited Away. I very seriously considered sticking around in the theater afterward to catch a second showing. Don't miss it.

The film is, on the whole, spectacular about gender and sexuality issues, making the few missteps all the more nettling. Most of the queers in the audience will probably be able to empathize a lot with Hiccup, our oddly named protagonist. He has serious problems conforming to his society's expectations of masculinity, as his slight build and bookish demeanor make him unsuited to killing dragons, the only source of respect in his Viking society. Like most of us, he vacillates between envy and emulation of his more manly and respected companions and acceptance of himself ("y'know, there are a lot of great Viking warriors, but not many great Viking smiths or farmers,"). Eventually his less aggressive nature wins both his own respect and the admiration of society; while every other Viking would have killed the dragon when he had the chance, Hiccup's refusal to kill it, and eventual befriending of it, are key to resolving the costly war. He achieves self-actualization in his gender variant behavior, and his lack of aggression and intelligent use of tools are acknowledged as admirable traits in their own right by his peers. And, of course, Hiccup's relationship with his dragon, though not even remotely sexual, bears more than a superficial similarity to other taboo loves.

The way in which Hiccup's newly won respect is expressed is somewhat problematic, specifically the poorly executed romance subplot shoehorned in at the last moment. It's a testament to the film that I can't even wholly condemn the rewarding romance; Astrid, the object of Hiccup's affections, is far from a wilting damsel. In fact, she's Hiccup's rival in their dragon-slaying classes, and is generally portrayed as the best of the class, though frequently upstaged by our protagonist and his superior understanding of the creatures won from interacting with one of them.

Yet it is just that: a reward. Astrid and Hiccup's relationship exists only to symbolize Hiccup's newly won status. The admiration of society is symbolized by the adoration of a girl. It falls into the same trap all too many low-status males do, of viewing relationships (and sexuality) as a way to prove their worth. In other words, it exhibits a transaction model of sex.

Still, if that's the only complaint I have against the movie, compared to the mountain of hegemonic masculinity most of Hollywood's efforts are mired in, it's doing something right.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tonight's Pride and Prejudice discussion was frustrating.

It's not easy to mount a defense of Lydia, as I halfheartedly attempted tonight. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story or have forgotten, much of the drama in the middle act of the novel revolves around Lydia's elopement with Wickham, an amiable-seeming character eventually revealed as a scoundrel . Without the permission or even notice of her father, this is a scandal, and one that places the Bennett family in considerable danger. It's strongly implied that Wickham had no intention of marrying Lydia, and meant to take his pleasure and leave her honorless with little hope of finding a husband. This puts the entire Bennett family, who has the unenviable task of marrying off five daughters, in peril; it shames the entire family and makes it unlikely that any of her sisters would be able to find a husband to support them.

This is by no means frivolous, and the outrage of her family is not simply a retrograde expression of barbaric sexual mores. While the modern ethic would discount such concerns, Lydia's actions have placed the future happiness and prosperity of her sisters in jeopardy. When your means of supporting yourself is tied only to who you marry, you'd best ensure that you can make a good match. To that extent, an analogous (and suitably privileged) situation might be one where a modern-day Lydia gambled away her sisters' college funds.

And to be sure, much as I would like to lionize Lydia as an imperious defender of her right to dispose her body as she sees fit, or as practicing a stoic defiance in refusing to allow the social consequences of her actions to destroy her happiness, she is, in the end, simply a naive girl. She is not the socially transgressive version of Charlotte, who walks into a dreary marriage with her eyes open, and a plan for finding her happiness even inside her unfortunate circumstances. She simply had little sense, and her family nearly paid dearly for it (disaster is somewhat averted when the couple is found and Wickham is cajoled to marry Lydia by promising to pay off his gambling debts).

Even so, much of the discussion tonight revolved around excoriating Lydia not simply for her foolishness but for her selfishness. Putting her family in that much peril was unconscionable, said most of the table, and given the above, it's hard to say that they're entirely wrong.

Yet I couldn't help but feel attacked every time one of my classmates launched another salvo at the girl, because despite (and perhaps because of) her faults, I saw a lot of myself in Lydia. I'm profoundly uncomfortable in asserting that she has a responsibility to consider respectability or even the prospects of her sisters in choosing her relationships. The bottom line is that, not so very long ago, and not so very far away from my birthplace in St. Louis or from my college campus here in Santa Fe, I would have been expected to forgo every prospect of happiness in marriage, or in any case had my options intolerably limited, on account of propriety and the reputation of my family. Though I have for the most part been spared this dilemma by changing attitudes toward homosexuality, I would fervently like to believe that I would be acting exactly as I am now, whether I were born forty or four hundred or a thousand years ago, or a few thousand miles to the south.

Despite rehearsing this speech in my head for several minutes, I never did give it, and perhaps for good reasons. Putting a modern- or an idiosyncratic- lens to an ancient author is rarely productive. I had to set aside my skepticism about the supernatural to get anything out of Aquinas, and likewise, if I'm to get anything out of Austen, I might have jettison cherished beliefs about sexual freedom.

Even so, I have to wonder if there's not some privilege operating underneath tonight's discussion. Not all my hesitation was attributable to intellectual modesty- there's an unfortunate tendency to discourage bringing up the ways in which privilege can influence thought. St. John's College doesn't tend to think much of the critique that almost all of our works were written by dead white men, and as such are somewhat blinkered, or in any case present only a narrow point of view. They prefer to view thinkers as cogitating in isolation, and that good thought transcends circumstances. To be fair, the college is consistent about this, being skeptical about the role of autobiographical information and historical context in proper exegesis.

In any case, because most of my classmates occupy a normative sexuality, they can't really put themselves in Lydia's position. They don't feel quite as strongly what's at stake when they assert that her sexual decisions ought to be subordinate to the well being of her family. For them, such an assertion is an entertaining thought experiment, a trying on of how things seemed a few centuries ago- or more charitably, it's an exercise of intellectual rigor that sets aside their own opinions in favor of meeting the author on his or her own terms. Either way, I have to wonder if a few of the women in our class weren't, as I was tonight, choking back the bile when us boys blithely treated Aristotle's misogyny as an intellectual parlor game.