Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Because That Belt Doesn't Go With My Politics

Interesting discussion in the comments section over at Prettier Than Napoleon on the Modesty Movement.

From the comments, Amber Taylor writes very persuasively:

There is a difference between being against sexualizing young girls and exposed celebrity genitalia and being against adult women embracing their sexuality. Sessions Stepp is on record, I believe, as recommending that college-aged women remain chaste and bake cookies to hook men. Eden's entire schtick is that the central goal of women's lives should be marriage and that all sex that is not marital and potentially procreative is empty and psychologically damaging. They (and the UCLA woman, it sounds like) are the worst kind of anti-feminist concern trolls. You can advocate for chastity in a variety of ways that don't involve slut shaming, making women responsible for male conduct, or propounding psychological/biological theories that have no basis in reality. These folks are so attached to the chastity ideal that one member of the Princeton abstinence group criticized the campus women's center for providing rape kits because the center was "just focused on women who are having sex." We are way past the Ariel Levy "Female Chauvinist Pigs" cultural critique.

The "modesty" movement is not about increasing the number of choices available to women. It is about circumscribing them. The panel's agenda, judging by the composition, is much more retrogressive than you are giving them credit for. They are threats in the sense that their positions, if adopted, will lead to the rollback of various cultural changes that have been positive for women: the idea that we can embrace sex for pleasure, have ambitions aside from marriage and children, and have sex before marriage and not somehow taint ourselves for life or impede our ability to form lasting bonds.

That would be very persuasive if our choices were between bribing men to marry us with promises of future sex/present baked goods and being a herpes-infected single mother. Fortunately, there's this big middle ground between virgin and whore that the rest of us call real life.

The popular reasons for chastity/waiting for marriage don't seem all that problematic to me. You can argue for chastity without necessarily implying that the unchaste are impure and tainted or that sexuality is shameful or dirty. If you think sex is special and should be shared with only certain people, fine. If you think your religion requires abstinence, fine. Do it for yourself. The problem I have with most of these women is that they don't say "here's how I feel about these issues. If you have the same values, casual sex may not benefit your life." They universalize. (To her credit, Eden acknowledged this in her Salon interview. Sessions Stepp doesn't seem to get that the impressions of casual sex she got from a small, self-selected panel of privileged college girls may not hold true for women at large.)

I'm against most of the panelists for the same reason I'm against the Leon Kasses of the world: they aren't content to live their own beliefs, but seek to impose their limitations on the rest of us. It doesn't help that much of the reasoning for both is mushy and based on stuff like the wisdom of repugnance and the idea that women's role is to civilize men.

I agree with Amber. Again, while I'm not unsympathetic to Ariel Levy's argument in Female Chauvinist Pigs, I'm not at all supportive of these political arguments for modesty and chastity. If you yourself decide that's the right path for you, more power to you. But keep your sexual politics out of mine. Also, let's keep the issues clear: I may decry the objectification of women in media and rap videos (which carry their own attendant intersectionality issues about the further subjugation of women of color and is an entirely distinct issue from whether such women would be free to dress provocatively or sleep around of their own volition); I may be sympathetic to MacKinnon's argument that all pornography intrinsically hurts all women (except that I'm not); I may think that extreme versions sex-positive "post-feminism" are misguided and meaningless, but that doesn't mean I must necessarily endorse the Modesty Movement. Far from it.

I heartily endorse the liberalization of sexual attitudes. I'd campaign for greater access to free birth control and fewer restrictions on abortions. I think women should do whatever they want, as long as they are aware of the personal consequences. The personal is political, you say? Dude, graduate from college. Only people in the first blush of political awareness say that out loud. And don't you dare tell me to "educate myself." Don't make your life choices my politics. This goes both ways of the political spectrum.

My personal sexual morality falls somewhere squarely within the square, but either extreme would consider it pretty extraordinary. Whatever. My public politics are much broader than my personal morality, and so it should be. I may live my life however I see fit, but I don't demand that others live it the same way. I am as laissez-faire as they come with respect to the state regulation of sexual morality, contraception, abortion, and childcare. Short of abuse, incest, rape, bestiality (only because it harms animals), or reckless endangerment from an epidemiological standpoint, your sexuality is your own and not of my political or moral concern.

I'll link again to Katha Pollitt's book "Virginity Or Death" , and again to Ann Bartow's WTF response to how Caitlin Flanagan and Linda Hirschman dominate contemporary gender discourse. Just to offer you some feminist discourse that isn't profoundly irritating.


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