On sexuality, feminism, and being a man, baby.

(Sorry for invoking the specter of Austin Powers with that title.)

I almost never discuss sex and gender issues on my blog. I think I have only twice in the five years I’ve been blogging:
The free market corrects (for errors in being trusting).
For the Bible tells me so.
Time for secret gay sex for straight men fading away.
Right to privacy…with your vibrator.
Contraception, abortion foe to head family-planning office – CNN.com
Why Gay Marriage is Wrong, Redux

Hmm, guess I’ve blogged more on the subject than I thought. But usually, based on a search of my blog, I mention in conjunction with Judeo-Christian (and Islamic) hatred of sex. Seems most every other non-Abrahamic religion in the world has a significantly more open and healthy attitude regarding human sexuality. The Abrahamic religions are nearly pathological when it comes treating human sexuality as wrong, dirty, evil, sinful, shameful, etc. ad nauseum. And since our western culture has been greatly influenced by and infected affected by the Abrahamic religions, our patriarchal society has taken on many of the same neurotic issues with sexuality. And even more so in the United States, which is the most Christian of all “civilized” western nations.

At risk of confusing causation with correlation, I think it can be said that there is a connection between the fact that the United States is the most “religious” western nation, and has the most instances of rape, child abuse, sexual harassment, teenage pregnancy, STI’s of any modern nation. And is also one of the most sexist western nations as well. We’ve finally entered the 20th century (yes, 20th) by supporting a woman presidential candidate, even though even counties in the Middle East and Africa have had woman presidents, prime ministers, heads of state for decades longer than we would even consider it possible in our own country.

I bring the subject up because it’s been on my mind more acutely since returning from the ICFA a couple weeks ago.
Last year’s ICFA also gave me something to think about. That conference had a theme of gender and sexuality, so obviously I heard a lot of interesting papers and panels on the subject. One fellow, who’s successful career in primarily in writing gay erotica, romance, and contemporary short fiction, mentioned a pyramid of power relations–an illustration of how people with greater social power are less able to identify with people “below” them, while those under the top live in multiple worlds.

Well, it’s like this: White, protestant, heterosexual men are at the top of the power pyramid. And being at the top, they can only really understand their own cultural experience. They may be able to recognize discrimination and lack of equality, but by and large they don’t live in any other world but their own privilege.
Below them are white, hetero- women, then Catholics and other non-protestant religions, people of color, gay/lesbian/bi, etc. Of course, this isn’t scientific and whatever “level” on the pyramid a group is is fluid. But at the bottom would hypothetically be an Hispanic (or maybe Arabic) atheist lesbian. But the point is, each person from a less privileged group has to live in their own world of their “group,” and the worlds above them. So, a woman lives in a world of being a woman, dealing with women’s issues and problems and bigotry, AND they have to live in the world of male dominated society. Gay people live in a world of LGBT issues and politics, concerns and discrimination, while also having to live in a world of heterocentrism and homophobia. Make sense? (This guy, whose name I forget, explained it much better. Probably why he’s a professional writer, and I’m a blogger.)

Anyway, that illustration really made sense to me. At least, I like to think it did–after all, I’m not that far from the top of the pyramid, being a white male in a hetero-marriage (despite being bi). In fact, that’s about as privileged as one can be. Even though polls show that atheists are more distrusted by more American’s than even Islamo-fascists, and a gay black woman has a better chance of being elected president than an atheist (I’m not being factitious, this is what the polling indicates), it’s not like people can look at me and detect my non-theism…well, religious tolerance and American hatred toward those who don’t believe is for another post. This is supposed to be about gender and sex. (Interesting, my Marxist professor who I admire, would totally agree with the pyramid metaphor. Marxism is all about power-issues, social and class distinction. Feminism sprang from Marxist criticism. But the liberal humanist prof. I have, who is ironically 25 years my Marxist prof.s junior, who believes that there is an empirical and universal “good the true and the beautiful” that transcends all times and cultures, rejects this idea of the pyramid of power relations and understanding.)

OK, so that was last year, and I’m constantly thinking about that idea, of people in various disenfranchised groups having to live in multiple worlds while the white, straight, protestant male-dominated world carries on blithely unaware of the unique privilege it enjoys. This year at the ICFA, something else happened that made me take new notice of different awareness, made me rethink power issues. Actually, it wasn’t the conference itself but while sitting in a movie the day after the conference with some conference friends. (How many more times can I say “conference” in a single sentence? *grin*) A bunch of us, three guys and Ms. P. and Miss N. and I, went to see the recent Escape From new York/Mad Max/28 Days Later action flick, Doomsday. There was this scene where there’s a rally of the post-quasi-apocalyptic punk-barbarians have gathered to cheer their leader and eat one of the unfortunate protagonists. The leader comes out on a stage to rock music while two extremely scantily fetish-clad women pole-dance, (before a cadre of large, kilt wearing men can-can. The whole scene was somewhat Vaudevillian). My first impulse, having a Y-chromosome and being mostly straight, was to “appreciate” the hyper-sexualized display of women. Then it hit me like a truck: I wonder if this bothers P. and N.?! I glanced to my right, and Ms. P. seemed unaffected (but then, after they blew up the cute bunny 20 minutes earlier, I think she was pretty jaded by everything that followed. I mean, once the cute bunny gets all ‘sploded, there’s not much hope for decency thereafter). But the realization of what it might mean, to a woman, to see her gender indiscriminately sexualized as a sex object in surround-sound and 30-feet large, really bugged me for most of the rest of the film, and since.

This isn’t an entirely new thought. I was raised pretty liberal and socially conscious. My mom was single much of my childhood, and more-or-less single during her last marriage to a trucker who was gone 90% of the time. So I was raised without any ideas of male dominance and patriarchy in a household, during the 70s and 80s when male sensitivity to women’s issues was climbing. (The only male figure in my upbringing was my maternal grandfather, who I loved and adored, but was basically an example of stoic passivity. You work hard to support your family’s material needs, then you relax after 10+ hours a day of construction by working some more on house and property.) Anyway, I feel like I was lucky in that I didn’t have a father-figure example of an abusive father/husband. I saw my mom having to work to support her family and not be dominated by a man in her life. And, starting in 7th grade, most of my friends were girls. I just liked hanging around girls more, and not just because of sexual attraction, but because I found guys to generally be idiots and girls to be more thoughtful and complex. Around guys, it was always some overt and covert alpha-competition (still is). Constant machismo and saying and doing stupid stuff. (I’ve done my share of stupid things–and I have the scar on the back of my head to prove it.) Girls tended to be more interested in the music I liked, writing as I liked to do, discussing nuance as opposed to blatant obviousness. Girls were just simply more interesting, intellectually stimulating, complex, and fun to be around than guys. I don’t know if this helped contribute to a more awareness of sexual politics, but it did help instill in me more respect and understanding to feminist issues…I think.

That being said, I also disagree with some significant concepts of feminism. I’m reminded of one of my wife’s favorite quotes from the show “The West Wing” (gawd I miss that show. The cast and crew of that show should be in the actual West Wing!) in which assistant council, and Republican, Ainsley Hays, (one of the only Republicans, fictional or not, who actually has a lot of wise and intelligent points of view), dismisses the Equal Rights Amendment. She says the 14th Amendment of the Constitution covers her just fine, she doesn’t need special laws to prove to her that she’s equal with all other US citizens. And for the most part, I agree. Legally, the Constitution (finally, after being amended to include blacks as full “people” (talk about a shameful moment of our history),) applies to all people, just as our “inalienable rights” apply to all people. It’s not the purpose of the law to go into detail about who is as equal as who–just as it’s not justice to legislate that certain people should be given extra benefits in order to try to parity discriminatory behavior (read: affirmative action). Discrimination is and should be illegal, and be dealt with. But the answer is not state sanctioned reverse discrimination.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Discrimination exists, against women, against LGBT, against people of color, against religious belief (and non), regardless of the 14th Amendment or any other law enumerating equality. Making more laws isn’t going to change it, and in fact, make increase resentment. Just as, for example, using the other “liberal” sticking point I highly disagree with despite my progressive beliefs, increased gun control. The left love to think that if guns are outlawed, by writing on pieces of parchment that guns are “personae” non gratae, that gun crime will magically go down. Take a look at Britain. Between two laws passed within the last 15 years, all private ownership of firearms, pistol and rifle, is illegal. How’d that work out? London has a higher rate of gun violence than Manhattan, drastically climbing since the laws were enacted. The U.N. has declared that the U.K. has the worst blackmarket gun problem of any modern country. By writing a law into a big, impressive looking book, you do not change a culture. You can not change established problems of entrenched societal discrimination by outlawing it! You have to change the culture.

OK, back to sex (yeah!) Feminism borrows from Marxism the underlying belief that our behavior, our beliefs, our choices in life are affected (if not mandated) by the cultural ideology. And ideology is the means by which those in power control society. According to Marxism (and Feminism and Ethno…-ism, and even Eco…-ism (why do those actual words escape me at the moment?),) there is no such thing as “innate human nature,” that issues of racism, and sexism, as well as greed and exploitation, can be changed. Greed, for example, the best friend of the market libertarian, Objectivismist, global market capitalist, and statist, is said by these advocates (and their followers and most people who have been raised under their ideology) to be an inherent human trait. Unchangeable, therefore, it’s only natural to take advantage of those weaker and less advantaged than you. but anthropologic and historical evidence denies this. Greed is not a trait found in all human cultures nor in all stages of human development. Greed is a quality of ideology.

But there are some things which can’t be changed: biological imperatives, and by that I mean the most basic, life sustaining drives: hunger, thirst, shelter from elements, and sex drive–probably the most powerful of them all, dealt with in a moment. Now, how we fulfill these needs, how we display the desires derived from these basic needs, are controlled and manipulated by ideology. Why we find some things sexy is ideological, and manipulatable, and as diverse as from culture to culture. But the sex drive itself is fundamental to being a living creature.

Richard Dawkins, and other biologists and anthropologists, have made an interesting case for how unexpectedly powerful sex (vis-à-vis reproduction) is to an organism, as put forward in Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene. To over-simply the argument which takes books to adequately explain, it’s like this:
The gene, DNA, is basically an evolved version of the RNA, which is at its most efficient and natural form of the virus. The “purpose” of the gene is to replicate itself. It has evolved from viral RNA to the more complex DNA using countlessly variable bodies as a tool for its replication. From the smallest amoeba to the most complex human, all living things are fundamentally controlled by the genetic drive to replicate itself. Every change in a species, every step of evolution, every divergence in the entire live of evolution, every adaptive trait, have been to greater increase the opportunity for the gene to replicate in greater numbers. Why we eat and what we eat, drink, take shelter from, is all in service of the gene’s drive to survive and replicate. And this is why the sex drive is ultimately the most powerful drive to life. We’ll die, quickly, as individuals if we don’t eat or drink, but the species dies without reproduction. It’s why many animals sacrifice their own lives in the attempt to reproduce, from spawning salmon to praying mantis. Why we’re biologically engineered to sacrifice for our offspring. Why we (often males) will do the damned most stupid, self-detrimental things in the name of sexual gratification.

What’s my point. The point is, I’m unapologetic about my biological sexual drives. (Thank goodness I don’t have any truly aberrant non-consensual sexual desires such as pedophilia! Perhaps it’s that biological imperative to protect children, but that’s one sexual proclivity I will gladly re-think my stance on capital punishment for. One, two, three, 20 adults can do whatever the heck they want with other consenting adults. But harm a child…. ’nuff said)
I have a Y-chromosome and a brain that was saturated with testosterone in development, so I have a visually cued sex drive. Ergo, I, like most men, enjoy porn. What cues our interest may change thanks to cultural and psychological influences (mmm….colored stockings….) but the fact remains that as a human animal, I have biological triggers. (And so do women! I’m just not qualified to talk from a female point-of-view.) So, as I sat in that movie, I felt very significant conflict between the social awareness of my frontal cortex and the animal instinct: Mmm, hot girls exhibiting visual sexual cues…close proximity to a female friend who, the situation is making me aware, is having her gender used as an objectification for a crass play on male sexual responsiveness–turning the female from a unique individual to an object of sexual desire. The liminal cognitive dissonance made me brains hoit!

A recent Sex is Fun podcast, don’t recall which one but it was recent, discussed the issue of sexual objectification. And the consensus between the one male co-host and the two (or three, depending on which episode it was) female co-hosts, is that yes, we are all sexual objects. Male and female. We can (and should!) socialize our behavior as much as we like, we can sublimate our desires to “proper” cultural awareness (and often should!), we must recognize the inherent social equality of all people, and all sex/gender and orientations! But we shouldn’t try to dismiss the fact that when it comes to sexual desire, we do objectify the object of that desire. Women do it as well, all orientations do it. The danger comes when we can’t separate the sexual objectification from our social interactions and general cultural politics. I like looking at porn. (Hmm, I guess I’ve made that clear), but I am conscious enough to be able to separate the object of sexual desire seen on film or the page, from my awareness that women (and some men, rowr!) are not en toto “objects” for exploitation. I love and respect my wife, I still prefer the company of women over men for the same reasons as always, and even though I’m an Obama supporter, regarding Hilary Clinton’s candidacy I say “’bout damn time!,” and it makes me livid when I read about sexism and male preferential treatment in schools causing girls to become disinterested in math and science–when we desperately need the more holistic-thinking female mind in the sciences now more than ever! I think the worst thing that can be done to a young woman is convince her that she needs to look to others (particularly a boyfriend/husband) for approval and self-esteem, as that way leads to abuse, both self- and otherwise.

Perhaps this screed will be seen as a rationalization, and apology, for being a male horndog. I think people who understand how complex human sexuality is will understand what I’m trying to say. Accepting the instinctual power of sex, and even the objectification of sexual stimuli, is not excuse for exploiting a person–including sex workers! Prostitution should be legal (and as regulated as any industry), and porn and adult entertainment should be accepted as a (even necessary) cultural product without stigma. (I’m reminded of the Ed Meese congressional investigation on pornography during the Reagan days. His purpose was to show how exploitative the porn industry is, and in many ways it is and should be changed! But one of the pieces of “evidence” of how damaging porn is, was a survey of female porn stars, where 40% of those surveyed said they wouldn’t do porn if not for the money. Meese bandied this about as proof of how exploitative the industry is. But let’s think about this: That means 60% of female porn stars said they’d do porn regardless of the money. Interview as many fast food workers as you wish, what do you think the percentage of nametag wearing patty pushers would say they’d do fast food regardless of the money? (Which is much more miserable pay than porn pays!).)

If we, as a culture, accepted sex for what it is, and what it could be as healthy and enjoyable and without shame and guilt, there wouldn’t be dark and dangerous avenues that exploit and abuse. We could encourage the co-existence of sex as recreation with sexual/gender equality, instead of treating sex like a disease which I believe helps turn the most powerful living imperative into the subject of political and social control, power, domination. We deny sexuality, gay or straight or bi, and it becomes a weapon of control by some, and a source of dark perverted non-consensual deviation by others.

As a final note: I started watching the anime film “Ghost in the Shell” on the Sci-Fi channel the other day. In the opening credits, there is a montage of images as the main character’s cyborg body is being created. They blurred out her breasts and even rear using a very annoying, obvious splotch of blur. I remember seeing the original film years ago, and I remember seeing this animated nudity as thinking “That’s attractive,” and that’s it. It wasn’t a sexualized scene, just once that artistically celebrated the female form. But the blurring ironically turned what was just a little nudity into something scandalous, tantalizing, desirably out of reach. How many (I assume it’s kids who they’re “protecting”) would have watched this blurred version and suddenly their minds focus on what’s being hidden and now think of nudity as something taboo that has to be won!
Oh, but they didn’t censor the extremely bloody explosion of a character’s head with flying brain and spine fragments. That’s OK to show.
It really makes me wonder if our culture has any hope of growing up!