Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Incompletion of Female Sexual Liberation

I was challenged to write a blog post about this, so I will make an attempt.

John Milbank, an Anglican theologist and a skeptic of secular reason, claims that
The problem here is that self-pleasure can become either explicitly or tacitly a goal in itself. When the romantics earlier spoke of the importance of marriage being “free,” that seems to me nearer the mark, as a goal. Human fulfillment lies more in the direction of faithful love and inserting oneself in the continuity of generations. Marriage and the family, for all their corruption and misuse, are at base democratic institutions. Fascism for me comes into the picture because I think (following Adorno, amongst others) that the gradual separation of sex from procreation is regarded naively if we do not realize that this is what the state wants. Covertly, it wants to secure “Malthusian” control over reproduction and to deal with the individual directly, rather than through the mediation of couples. Much of liberal feminism is actually, in practice, on the side of economic and political neoliberalism. It is too rarely noticed that sexual permissiveness has today become a kind of opiate that covertly reconciles people to the loss of other freedoms—both in relation to the state and to the workplace.
Milibank's offers a solution to this:
What we need is not a return to former legal coercion and social ostracism in the sexual field, but a change in ethos, which will promote both relational fidelity and the encouragement of human creativity and participation in the workplace and in civil life.
(Full article here)

First of all, let me laugh at the notion that marriage, according to the church, was ever supposed to be a democratic institution. Yes, perhaps if you believe in elitism and that men's intellect is superior, or if you believe that women should never have been granted suffrage. The woman, according to the Bible, is responsible for the original sin, she screwed up the entire world, if it weren't for her, there would still be a Paradise. It is because of the evolvement of a secular society women have been able to be regarded as equals in a marriage. Religion is not exactly known for its progressive views on female emancipation and equality.

This brings me to what I want to discuss, Milbank's blaming of sexual liberalisation and the feminist movement as the culprit in the loss of freedoms both in society and the workplace. Now, I am not entirely sure exactly what kinds of freedom he is referring to here. As far as I know, sexual liberalisation has empowered women, not restrained them, in that they are the (or are supposed to be) the ultimate decision-makers in regards to their own bodies and should be regarded on equal terms with men. Women have gone from being regarded as a commodity to being regarded as active agents in their own lives. What we can agree on however, Milbank and I, is that women are (still) suffering a restriction of freedom. I believe, to the contrary, that this is related to the incompletion of female sexual liberalisation.

There is no doubt that society has liberalised its view on sexual relations since the 1960s. Women are free to choose today, they are free to express themselves in a way that simply would not have been possible not too long ago. However, women are still to a large degree restricted in their sexuality. It has been discussed ad nauseam, I am aware, but let me reiterate: when a woman racks up her numbers, perhaps from being single for a very long time or just from enjoying sex, then she is a slut; when a man racks up the same numbers, or even higher ones, he is just a bachelor (or not) who adheres to his natural urges. Women are still presumed to not have the same sexual needs or demands as men, and are still judged for not choosing to be virginal, calm and focusing on the emotional bond rather than the sexual.

There is a double standard in society regarding women's sexual liberalisation. Women are expected to be ruthless, almost adopt masculine traits to reach the status in society that has formerly belonged only to men, but at the same time she is being punished for it. A woman who has casual sex is not simply itching a scratch, she is the emotionless bitch-hound from hell, a man is an asshole but only assumed to be one in a billion, incurable and as natural as the rain. Society still has this notion that it is on some level unnatural for women to be fully sexually liberalised. A woman who openly has a lot of casual relations will be punished in the opinion of society, a man will not to the same extent.

A return to the old ethos of sexual restriction will not change this. For it is a return, not a change. Women will once again be chained in their gender roles of subservience and obedience while men continue to go about their business as they have always done. It will not automatically lead to "the encouragement of human creativity and participation in the workplace and in civil life," because sexual liberalisation and these are not mutually exclusive. A person, whether male or female, can still be sexually liberated and fulfil their duties and responsibilities as citizens and employees.

The problem here is not the liberalisation in itself, but rather the social ostracism, that Milibank argues we should not revert back to, that is still very much present in female sexual liberalisation. It is because of this double standard in female sexual liberalisation that women suffer from loss of freedom in the social life as well as the workplace. It is the judgement of what people get up to in private that still restricts women. Moreover, it is quite evident from Milibank's stance on gay marriage that it is not the sexual liberalisation per se that is the problem for him, it is the religious values that he has chosen to put into it. I quote: "As part of this, I think it is important both to support gay civil partnerships and yet to oppose the idea of “gay marriage.”"

The loss of freedoms are always going to be present as long as women's value is determined according to how well they adhere to prescribed traditional gender roles. What needs to be acknowledged are the contradictions between theory and practice in the discussion of sexual liberalisation, and the fact that it is still very much gendered. These losses are not anything that came as a consequence of the female sexual liberalisation, they have always been there. It is because the female sexual liberalisation is incomplete that they still exist.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Plea for Unity

I have touched upon this subject several times before, and it is a common theme in all my feminist rants, but today I feel the need to reiterate.

The struggle in society for gender equality is encompassing; its necessity perforates the entire society. It is a question about equality of opportunity between individuals, and the equality of status between any one individual. It is not a struggle for one sex to stand above another, but it is exactly as defined - to be regarded as equals.

Every now and again, I encounter someone who dismisses the gender debate as natural, as something biological. Because I do not always handle the discussion so gallantly, dismissing the arguments as "bullshit," as one of my friends had to experience today, I feel the need to express it in the written word. It leaves less room for heated emotion and interruptions, both of which I am guilty to. It is a topic I hold very dearly, and something I am very passionate about, so it is hard for me to debate it in an emotionless, rational manner.

What I wish to point out is that it is not a competition between male and female or masculine and feminine, it is a plea for unity against inequality in the world, for the right to be an individual and to be regarded as one. As I pointed out to another friend, I do not believe that feminism is the sole solution to equality in the world, but I believe it is a solution, and so I will pursue it to the best of my ability. Equality between the sexes in the eyes of society is a step towards equality in other areas. It will not come automatically and the processes for other forms of equality cannot be pursued independently. It is all interconnected in this great struggle of the individual's worth, of civil rights and of equal opportunity.

Both women and men are affected by gender roles. No one can escape from them; it is a common barrier that we all have to face every day, all day. We are assigned personality traits or generalised into huge groups with people who are nothing like us. They may come from a different socio-economic background, culture or simply have other values than us, but they are individuals precisely as we are. Yet we are presumed to be one and the same.

There is no point in denying that women have been structurally disadvantaged. Any history book will tell you so, sometimes the inequality will be justified by the authors, but it is there - the confinement, the assumption of stupidity, and the assumption of incapability. But, being disadvantaged is not exclusive to the female gender. Because we are women, we do not hold a patent on being disgruntled with society or feeling discriminated. Men are as well. They suffer legally and socially from their lack of parental rights. Women also seem to have the exclusive right to show emotions in public, and for a man to do so leads to emasculation, a less worthy man in the eyes of society. I believe this is wrong.

I am aware that there are biological differences, ones that cannot be ignored, and should not be. I just do not believe that some of these biological qualities should be deemed 'better' than others, nor do I think it justifies treating individual human beings significantly different. I also resent the assumption that because one belongs to a certain gender, we should be attributed this trait. We are what we are, sometimes because of our gender, sometimes despite of it. To generalise too broadly is doing any individual a big injustice. To say that all women are emotional, weak and nurturing is just as incorrect to say that all British people loves tasteless food; or that all Swedes are blonde. We are a combination of culture and biology, and those two are both divided into infinite subgroups with infinite possibilities.

I guess this is my plea to you for unity against this common problem of gender roles and a call to fight for every individual's worth; for the right to be unique. To evaluate whether this division is needed in contemporary society at all. Simply because I can't see why I should be less deserving of, or less worth than you. Nor why you should be any less worth or deserving than me.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Classroom Gender Dynamics

In Sweden, there is currently a debate raging about girls' role in the classroom. This debate has been revived through a movie come out this year (which is, in its turn, based upon a book that came out in 2006). The movie, the name of which is "Tusen gånger starkare" (translated into "A thousand times stronger"), explores the dynamics of girls and boys in the classroom in a middle school class. While I haven't seen this movie myself, having emigrated to Scotland and all, this debate has been going strong in my native country and for a news junkie like myself hard to avoid. Women's role and gender roles are always in the back of my mind, but this debate has brought this certain aspect into the front of my mind.

Having, then, had my only class of the week this semester, I walked home reflecting upon the dynamics of our class. The class I am taking is called citizenship and democracy and explores the political philosophy and practice of both: the philosophy being more in the democracy department with authors such as John Stuart Mill; the practice consisting of an internship where we will experience and analyse active citizenship first hand. This mainly philosophical class is a bit heavy on the male side, with the females making up approximately 1/3 of the class, perhaps a bit more.

As a part of our class, we are required to participate and also get assessed on it. 10% of our grade is oral participation, or as out lectures so neatly puts it, active citizenship. It is therefore in everyone's interests to speak up sometimes. However, even though we did not have this grade in oral participation, at this stage in our university degree, it is to our benefit if we do participate in class discussions as this is the simplest way of assessing our knowledge. Not only do we get peer reviewed but we also have the benefit of the very knowledgeable lecturer to comment on our considerations. Having to write an essay, holding a presentation and sitting an exam, all of a part of the assessed course work, it is very beneficial for all of us to find out as quickly as possible to which extent our assumptions are correct.

Interestingly, despite having the lecturer actively assessing our participation, I have always found that, unless women are over-represented in numbers in a class, the males are the ones that speak up the most. Today, I was the only female out of at least six students who said anything. The rest were all male. Where were the females?

According to logic, if six students speak, at least two of those would be female in a class with our numbers. This could possibly be the exception of an equal classroom dynamic, but looking back to most of my other classes, males are predominant. They speak the most, make the most arguments and execute those with the most confidence. This, according to personal experience, is the rule, not the exception.

Granted, there are males that do not take up as much space as their fellow male friends and who sit quietly and unnoticed next to the wall. I would, however, think it very interesting to see some kind of statistics on how many of those males there are on those females. I am going to be so bold as to assume that the females would be greatly over-represented in the category of quiet, unnoticed students.

It makes sense to me, if you think about it. We live in a society were men have traditionally held the power, and arguably still do so. They are instilled with the confidence from birth that they can do things, their arguments are valid, when they speak they will be heard, not just listened to - what they say matters. This is a confidence that women have not had the time or the opportunity to accumulate. There is a saying that goes something in the way of "If a woman is further than three feet from the kitchen, she has escaped." It sums up the limitations historically put on women and a mentality that still lives on in our society. I would not argue that people agree with this saying, but I am arguing that the sole fact that people find it funny is implying something about women, something that is not based on thin air but rather centuries of oppression.

Of course, it is partly women's responsibility to make sure that they, too, get the amount of time and space that they should be allocated (we do after all make up half of the population and should demand to be allocated that share as well). However, not being born with that inherent confidence that seems to be a part of male nature, it is hard to demand that space when you perhaps feel you do not have the right to. Additionally, if the teacher and the rest of the room (including the women) may not be willing to give you this space, however subconsciously that may be, it is even harder to take it. After all, how many of us enjoy walking into a room to talk about something that people do not want to listen to on the basis that you are presumed to lack the knowledge of, or simply be too stupid to talk about?

This is not a revolutionary question, or one that hasn't been posed before. Nonetheless, it is still very much relevant and worth pondering for a while.