Ways of Seeing: Ravaged or Ravishing?

By Robert Rees

We are bombarded with thousands if not tens of thousands of images every day. Occasionally, two images come into such sharp contrast that they can’t be ignored. Such was the case when I opened the New York Times on Sunday, May 2. On page ten  of that issue is a color photo of a 23 year old Congolese woman. The caption says her lips and right ear have been cut off by rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Her shorn head, the blackness of her face, the swollen pink oval around her mouth where her lips had once been (like the exaggerated lips of “Sambo” or minstrel characters once popular in American culture), and the sideway glance of her eyes as someone (perhaps her mother) touches her remaining ear with what seems tenderness. It is an image so heartbreaking as to make one weep.

                                                                             

In Ways of Seeing John Berger says, “The meaning of an image is changed according to what one sees immediately beside it or what comes immediately after it. Such authority as it retains is distributed over the whole context in which it appears.” Thus . . .

Immediately across the page from this photo is a full page Lord & Taylor ad of a beautiful white woman with long flowing dark hair, green eyes, perfect lips and two ears from which dangle long bejeweled earrings. She is arrayed in such opulence—necklace, pendant, bracelets, a giant opaline or turquoise ring, that the contrast with the Congolese woman is shocking. The juxtaposition of the two images is heightened by the fact that the Congolese woman wears a simple hand-crafted red and black blouse whereas the model wears what looks like an expensive hand-knitted ivory-colored chemise over a pink lace skirt. She holds in each hand a knitted handbag (“only $89”), each covered with roses and each holding a small dog, so laden that she seems barely able to hold them up. This cornucopia of luxury, this picture of desire would never be found in the Congo, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The ad’s caption—“We all have our creature comforts. . . Some of us more than others”—is so ironic as to be almost beyond irony. The motto compounds the irony: “Shop more. Guilt less.” 

Again, John Berger, “A woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste—indeed there is nothing she can do which does not contribute to her presence. . . . To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men.” 

The Congolese woman, like the Greek Princess Philomela whose husband Terus cut out her tongue so she could not reveal that he had raped her, has likewise likely been raped and brutally silenced. The severing of her left ear compounds the violation. She will be so disfigured that probably no man will ever touch her again and no compassionate god will turn her into a nightingale. 

The woman in the Lord and Taylor ad will be ravaged by the eyes of a million men who will yet never touch her skin except in their imaginations. And yet in her wildest imagination this white goddess could never see herself in the place of the black tongueless Congolese woman, nor the Congolese woman ever imagine herself in such a space as the woman in the ad inhabits. 

Both of these images are part of the world we live in, although we tend to keep them in separate compartments of our consciousness. The one is horribly real, the other an unreal arrangement by Madison Avenue designers. On another day when they are not juxtaposed, we might consider each separately, but when they are thrust before us in such stark relief, we can turn from neither–only ponder what they tell us about how some of us have more creature comforts than others and how we can remain “guilt less”—and that we are somehow complicit in both.

 Robert A. Rees teaches at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

Early Islam’s Feminist Air

The founders of three great religions, Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed (in order of appearance) were remarkably feminist in their leanings. In the month of Ramadan I would like to explore the feminist air of early Islam.

For centuries Muslim women enjoyed greater rights than most women in the world. The Koran gives women the right to work and to own property. Mohammed abolished female infanticide, slavery, and a widow’s obligation to marry her husband’s brother. Indeed, women were given the right to give their consent to marry.

Some things that look sexist today were a great step forward at the time. Women could become heir to one third of what a male inherited. (Since men’s role was to support women they were given extra help.) Muslim women were able to inherit much sooner than their Western sisters.

Islamic men are also allowed to marry up to four wives, and each wife must be treated equally. Doesn’t sound too heavenly to our ears, but this was progress from a time when men could marry as many women as they wanted.

Even the most problematic scripture in the Koran was an improvement. Chapter 4 verse 34 reads, “As for those women whose rebellion you justly fear, admonish them first; then leave their beds; then beat them.” This scripture actually gave women some protection against abuse in that men were cautioned against battering as the first response.  

Some Islamic feminists note that there are other definitions for the word “daraba,” than “to beat,” one of which is “to go away.” Something to think about.

With early feminist beginnings it is not surprising that one of the largest, most egalitarian and peaceful societies is West Sumatra, Indonesia.

Yet over time the religion has become increasingly patriarchal in most corners of the world.

In what is claimed “countering Westernization,” Islamic states have kept busy restricting women’s rights, sometimes going against the Koran, as when the Taliban took away women’s right to work, or when the right to consent to marriage is ignored.

As one Islamic feminist put it, “Islam needs to go back to its progressive 7th century roots if it is to move forward into the 21st century.”

Georgia Platts

Sources:

Asra Q. Nomani. “A Gender Jihad for Islam’s Future.” The Washington Post. November 6, 2005

Neil MacFarquhar. “Translation of Koran Verse Spurs Debate.” San Jose Mercury News. March 25, 2007. (Originally published in the New York Times.)

Glenn Beck Doublespeak: Reclaiming the Civil Rights Movement

Doublespeak: Any language that deliberately disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words.

Glenn Beck wants to “reclaim” the Civil Rights Movement: “We will take that movement because we were the people that did it in the first place!”

Miami Herald columnist, Leonard Pitts asks: whose “we”? Beck’s “we” sounds like people like Beck: affluent, middle-aged conservatives.

Funny, I thought that particular “we” were the backers of the “Southern strategy” that used racism to attract white votes. In the South this “we” largely turned Republican when Democratic President, Lyndon Johnson, signed the Civil Rights Act.

This is right out of Karl Rove’s playbook: Redefine an idea as it’s opposite. Rove turned “W” from National Guard deserter to Iraq/Afghan War Hero as easily as he swift boated war hero, John Kerry, into an unpatriotic fibber.

Orwellian talk is alive and well on the political right. It pops up when “Conservative Feminists”  resist adopting “a male model of careerism and public achievement as female goals, thereby denying women’s need for intimacy, family, and children.” If they had their way, we’d soon backtrack to a world before feminism.

Future Texas textbooks will question the Founding Fathers’ commitment to separation of church and state. They will diminish Thomas Jefferson and expand anti-feminist, Phyllis Schlafly.  Meanwhile, the slave trade will be renamed the “Atlantic triangular trade.” All thanks to a conservative school board.

Taking “we” back from Beck, Pitts names the Civil Rights Movements’ rightful owners: Rosa Parks refusing to sit at the back of the bus, Freedom Riders fighting – and sometimes losing their lives – for the right to vote, Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act, and Martin Luther King leading the movement.  

Meanwhile the political right will keep trying to take over our thoughts one word at a time.

Georgia Platts

Readers Discuss: Are Women Polygamous?

Below are comments on the question: Are women naturally, or culturally, monogamous? They’re edited for brevity and clarity. I’ve organized them and added my comments in italics.

Polygamous women

  • I seem to be different than the study, but then so are most males I know.
  • Divorced at age 33, I experienced a natural heightening of sexual interest and there were a number of men with whom I had sex during the next 7-8 years. I enjoyed it all tremendously and learned at lot about men and about myself. During that time, I met only one man I would have considered as a life partner. Now I realize that the relationship was great because the sex was great.
  • If women were paid equally and had equal opportunity in the job market, I think that monogamy would be weakened.  When I earned more my husband, and could survive financially on my own, my sexual behavior changed as well.

 Polygamous men

  • Sex is so pleasurable. Why limit yourself from pleasure so long as everyone knows the ground rules – that this is about pleasure and not about commitment or love.
  • Sex is magical. I would like to have sex with as many women as possible. But I always thought women experienced sex the same as I do.  It hadn’t occurred to me that they might not.

Research suggests that women, on average, don’t enjoy sex as much as men do. U.S. women enjoy sex less than women in some cultures, but more than women in others. I’ll explore why later.

Jealousy and not loving equally

Women who are interested in polygamous sex can discover difficulties:

  • As a lesbian I have a perspective that is completely woman oriented.  I personally have had more than one lover at a time and found it difficult since I was always trying to explain why I was leaving to visit someone else.  One always seems to love one more than the other. 

 Meeting social expectations: Women

  • Here is my confession – two or three times I allowed myself to be picked up at a party or a bar. I am still so ashamed of those incidents. Remembering them makes me feel so dirty! I thought it was expected.  You know – times were changing.  Everybody did it. I now believe I let myself be used by men who were only after a little fun and had no serious intentions.
  • I let myself be used by men who were only looking for fun… then I felt ashamed! Many women were brainwashed into believing they would enjoy it as much as men only to realize they were no more than a toilet bowl or conquest.  I am sorry to disappoint but sex ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Many may hide the shame and humiliation they feel by saying they liked it.

Women are punished for sex
Some women feel pressured to have sex, but they are also punished when they have it, labeled “sluts”:

  • The stigma attached to women likely keeps the number (of lovers they report) low
  • (At least men) seem to have each others’ backs. Women don’t. They’re often quick to stab each other in the back.

Meeting social expectations: Men

  • Men might be lying too since the cultural expectation for them seems to be quantity rather than quality.
  • Men also have cultural expectations to live up to: amass notches on their belts.

 Agreed. Women claim 5 lovers and men claim 12. Women must be underestimating and men exaggerating. The real number for both is likely in between: 8 or 9.

A man’s view:

  • I wanted to have threesomes for the longest time. Then I realized it was largely about feeling left out of something I thought everyone else was doing.

There’s also plenty of research on how men feel pressured to notch up “conquests” in order to be valued by other men.

Shallow, one-dimensional vs deep, connected relationship

  • Women prefer depth, romance, quality in a relationship. They know that the closer one is in spirituality, emotions, the better the sex. Women need that depth to be fulfilled.
  • A purely physical relationship requires little work. You don’t have to concern yourself with messy thoughts or feelings beyond the immediate moment. It’s shallow and one dimensional. Real relationship takes depth: looking at someone’s worth beyond pretty eyes, nice butt, and teeth.
  • I have heard some women say they enjoy casual sex – but in 62 years I have heard far more say they haven’t enjoyed any sex let alone casual – meaningless sex. It’s intimacy we want!  But I am still waiting for the rush of women who can honestly tell us about all the hot meaningless sex we have been missing! I’m all ears?

Men desiring depth, connection too:

A woman’s perspective

  • I met both kinds of guys when I was dating. I met guys who seemed downright anxious to connect on a deeper level and guys who would lie in a NY minute if they thought it would get them into my pants faster.

A man’s perspective

  • Our sexuality and the expression of it before and during (and after) marriage is, I am convinced, one of the more complicated aspects of what it means to be human. One could argue that God created men and women different sexually (in all the ways!) because to come together in meaningful intimacy (erotic or sexual) requires the development and expression of our deepest and highest virtues—sacrifice, humility, and kindness (even long-suffering at times!), and especially love. It is among the most meaningful and challenging dances we do.

And, don’t forget the men in men’s studies.  Both Michael Kimmel and John Stoltenberg recommend men do sex from a place of love and commitment, and they say that is where the come from, themselves.

SOURCES:  Comments from:
Blogs: BroadBlogs and FreeMeNow
Facebook
Various lists responded either to the list, or to me via email
Student discussions

Are Women Culturally Monogamous?

We know that women aren’t destined to be monogamous by nature, but how does culture affect our psyches? And how does it shape us for good or ill?

Polygamist inclinations vary from person to person, but today’s Western women are much more monogamous than our Tahitian or American Indian sisters were before European contact. We are also more monogamous in our inclinations than men. 

In surveys, men say they would prefer to have 14 partners over a lifetime. Over that same lifetime, women prefer to have only one or two.

A friend suggested that women were lying because they feared seeing themselves as sluts. Yet women admit to five real-life partners. (Here they are certainly underestimating. The real number is likely 9, given men’s estimate of 12.) But if they’re so worried, why not say they’ve had only 1 or 2 partners?

I was surprised by the low number of “one or two” as the preference, but I doubt women feel the need to go that low just to feel socially acceptable.

Younger women’s preferences may be higher. During the first year of college many willingly experiment with sex – and freely admit to it. But they quickly tire of random sexual contacts. Most drop out of the casual sex scene by sophomore year.

Men, on the other hand, don’t tire of the casual hook up, and want to continue even after college.

When it comes to open marriage or swinging, men are usually more enthusiastic, and more often initiate the idea.

So women seem less interested in casual sex than men. Quite likely because they are more repressed.

I feel that women are more repressed than is healthy. But I’m not sure that some level of repression is all bad.

When I read women’s studies literature, women are often advised to have sex more the way men do: have fun without guilt.

Yet men’s studies, which comes from a feminist perspective, often advises men to have sex more the way women do it. Don’t follow the 4 F’s: Find ‘em, Feel ‘em, F- ‘em, and Forget ‘em. Do not use women as a means of gaining a notch on your belt. Have sex in a context of love and care.

What do you think? How would you describe women’s ways and men’s ways of having sex? What are the positives and negatives of each approach? Is one way better than the other? Is there an optimal in-between? Do men and women tend to have different views on this issue?

I’m interested in exploring the matter. I’d like to year your thoughts, too.

Georgia Platts

Sources:
Brizendine, Louann. The Male Brain. Crown Publishing Group. 2010
Kimmel, Michael. Guyland. Harper. 2008

Why Are We More Offended By Racism Than Sexism?

As a culture we are more offended by racism than sexism – which is not to say that we’re more sexist than racist. 

But sexist jokes are more easily traded. Nearly anyone at a U.S. University knows the punch line to, “What’s the difference between a slut and a bitch?” (I’ll answer that in a later blog.) I attended a university in which jokes about women students prevailed. Typical “coed joke”: “What’s the difference between a coed and the trash? The trash gets taken out once a week.”

When Don Imus called Rutger’s women’s basketball team “nappy headed hos,” we were offended by the racism. But the sexism was mostly overlooked.

In fact, sitcoms rarely have mixed-race casts, possibly because they fear a racist joke cropping up, or a comment coming across as such. Meanwhile, I’ve watched a couple of seemingly feminist shows that used the word “bitch” (and not in a good way) in nearly every episode: Ugly Betty and Life Unexpected. Some TV shows’ raison d’etre seems to be spewing sexism. Family Guy and The Man Show come to mind.

Gangsta’ rap is full of sexism, but few complain. If a genre of music talked about people of color the way that women are labeled in rap we would be outraged. 

During the last presidential election mainstream media took way more shots at Hillary than Barack, as with Tucker Carlson’s well known crack, “When she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs.”

There’s a reason for the difference in offense.

Basically, women put up with sexism more than ethnic groups put up with racism. But why?

First, ethnic groups are aware of times and places when whites haven’t ruled, from present-day Japan to pre-imperial Africa. People of color know that things can be, and have been, different. U.S. racism is glaring by comparison.  

On the other hand, most women are unaware of cultures that have existed with gender equality.  Knowing nothing else, the inequity they face can seem natural and normal to them. 

Many women attend churches that teach that men should be in charge. These women don’t want to go against God. I’m not aware of any ethnic minority churches that preach God wants whites to rule.

Men are women’s lovers, husbands, sons, fathers, and brothers. They love them and want to keep relationship with them. They don’t want to offend them. 

Meanwhile, our culture does much to make sexism seem sexy, from Eminem, Rihanna, and Megan Fox sexing up domestic violence to a Rolling Stones billboard depicting a woman sprawled on the floor, mouthing, “I’m black and blue and loving it,” to Justin Timberlake slapping Janet Jackson around and ripping her blouse in a so-called “wardrobe malfunction.” Yeah, right.

All of this leaves ethnic minorities unified in their offense against inequality, while attitudes among women are more mixed.  I’ve heard women say that they don’t want to be equal to men, but I’ve never heard an ethnic minority say they don’t want to be equal to whites. 

So racism is more difficult to spew, as it meets greater indignation.

As women become more aware of sexism, and come to understand that their silence sounds like acceptance, things will more quickly change.

Georgia  Platts

An earlier version was originally posted on July 28, 2010 by broadblogs

Are Women Naturally Monogamous?

Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary biology, was skeptical of evolutionary psychology, which sees women as monogamous and men as polygamous, due to genetics. Let’s take a closer look.

Children have the best shot at surviving if their mothers mate with only one man, who sticks around to provide support and resources. Thus, women prefer men who are older and richer. Moms put a lot into their kids because they have a small number of eggs compared with the millions of sperm that men produce. So says evolutionary psychology.

On the other hand, men will have more children (and reproduce their genes) if they are promiscuous, because of their large sperm count.

This premise seems to contradict the prior point that children are more likely to survive if their fathers are around to support them. Maybe more survive than don’t. Or perhaps it’s a survival of the fittest worldview: Babies who can survive without resources improve the gene pool?

The bigger dilemma: How do men manage to enjoy many partners when women are monogamous?

Men also value beauty above all else because attractiveness indicates health and an ability to reproduce. Oddly, supermodels are the most sought-out, yet they’re often so thin that they no longer menstruate. And I hadn’t known that so-called unattractive women were infertile. But never mind.

Returning to Darwin’s concern – and it doesn’t take a genius like him to make this observation – while evolutionary psychology had fit nicely with British middle-class behavior, where women sought resources and men sought beauty, Darwin pointed out that the theory did not fit with the British upper class. There, men were more concerned with wealth than good looks.

Other cultures don’t fit the theory so well, either.

Gauguin’s infatuation with Tahiti likely came in part from the women’s desire for many sex partners (prior to European influence).

Meanwhile, Europeans who were among the first to arrive in the Americas were shocked by similar behavior among the native women.

In these Tahitian and Native American societies, the entire community cared for children, and property passed through women, so men’s resources weren’t an issue. These women weren’t called sluts, either.

Once Europeans transformed these cultures, things quickly turned around. 

It appears that social structures and culture trump biology in explaining women’s monogamy.

There is more to discuss, but I’ll leave that for later.

For now I must ask: Are evolutionary psychologists unfamiliar with this information, or do they simply ignore it because the theory so well justifies a status quo in which women are told to stay monogamous, but understand men’s need for many partners.

After all, it’s in men’s genes – or was that jeans?

Georgia Platts

Source:
Lips, Hilary M. Sex and Gender, 4th Edition. Mayfield. 2001

Will Education Shrink a Woman’s Uterus?

Classes start this week for many students. In honor, I’ll raise this question: Does education shrink a woman’s uterus?

At one point this was a real worry. In 1873 Edward Clark of Harvard voiced his concern. In 1889 the renowned scientist R.R. Coleman cautioned university women, “You are on the brink of destruction… Beware!! Science pronounces that the woman who studies is lost.”

Scientists fretted because the more education a woman gained the fewer children she bore. They hadn’t imagined the most obvious cause: That educated women simply put off marriage and childbearing.

Who knows how many women were discouraged from education from such silly concerns.

Worries about weak minds were accompanied by worries about weak bodies: Some 19th Century doctors explained that corsets were needed because women’s bodies were too frail to adequately hold themselves up.

Uneven bars were invented for women gymnasts, who were thought to need rest between each move.

Moral of the story:

Don’t make judgments, scientific or otherwise, that assume biology lies behind social patterns and stereotypes.

Think we don’t do this today?

I’ve already written about Hugh Hefner’s assumption that women are naturally sex objects. http://broadblogs.com/2010/08/10/playboy-doesn%e2%80%99t-objectify-women/

Notions that women lack ability in science or math are still bandied about, while evolutionary psychology is accepted by most.

Yet each of these notions is based on stereotypes and social patterns that vary by culture. They are not biologically based.

Details to come!

Georgia Platts

Sources:

Goodman, Ellen, “Anxiety Reigns As Women Pull Ahead On Campus.” San Jose Mercury News. September 3, 2002

Smith, Barbara Clark and Kathy Piess. Men and Women: A History of Costume, Gender, and Power. Smithsonian Institution. 1989

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