Live the Questions

Words of Torah, funny anecdotes about my students, rants about education policy, and observations on politics, progressive Judaism, activism, and culture will all make appearances on this blog. Each post will end with a question for the reader; please respond if you feel moved.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Use a condom, fight the patriarchy

This week in the New York Times Magazine, an article by Russell Shorto called "Contra-Contraception" details the growing anti-contraception movement in this country. While I was frightened by the article's implications for women's reproductive health, the teen birth rate, and our rights of reproductive choice, I was even more stunned by the clear subtext of this and other Religious Right movements. Under the rubric of "family values" (what a terrible thing that we have let the Religious Right define "family values" as basically only involving sexual morality instead of being about creating justice in our communities) they're reinstating the patriarchy. Check out this choice quotation from the article:

... she [Leslee Unruh, leader of the abstinence-only movement] sponsors "Purity Balls," which fathers attend with their teenage daughters. "We think the relationship between fathers and their daughters is the key," she told me. At the purity ball, a father gives a "purity ring" to his daughter — a symbol of the promise she makes to maintain her virginity for her future husband. Then, during her marriage ceremony, the daughter gives the ring to her new husband. Abstinence Clearinghouse's Web site advertises the purity ball as an event "which celebrates your 'little girl' and her gift of sexual purity."
Sound familiar? Dad controls his daughter's worth, measured by her virginity, until she gets married, and then transfers it to her husband. Women count as human beings only because their viriginity creates value in the "market" and because they are associated with a man. Women's autonomy and ability to make choices about their own sexual expression dissappear. Scary, right? There are apparently no "Purity Balls" for young men where their mothers give them rings.

No matter what the Religious Right may tell us, "Family Values" are NOT about sexual morality-- they are about returning to a time when men controlled women, when women's identities were reduced to their market value as childbearers and sexual objects and were subsumed into either their husband's identity or their father's.

I also noticed this subtext in another NYT Magazine article by Shorto from June 19, 2005, "What's Their Real Problem with Gay Marraige? It's the Gay Part." It was clear from that article that one of the major reasons gay marraige is threatening to the Religious Right is that it threatens their vision of what marraige is all about-- traditional gender roles being enacted in a relationship with an unequal power dynamic. If there are two men or two women in a relationship, who dominates who? Who controls the domestic sphere and who the public sphere? Who "wears the pants"? It messes up their whole idea of what marraige means.

Check out this excerpt from that article:

. . . the structure, with its architectural signals of tradition and power, was built in 1996 for its tenant: the Family Research Council, the conservative public policy center. . . . Beneath a large wall-mounted plaque emblazoned with the group's slogan -- Defending Family, Faith and Freedom -- and flanking a rather ferocious-looking American eagle statue are two large, museum-quality glass cases. The one on the left contains a complete groom's outfit -- tux, tie, fluffy shirt -- and the one on the right holds a bridal gown and all the trimmings, right down to the dried bouquet. Color snapshots of happy wedding parties festoon both display cases, and the back wall of the bridal unit features verses from the book of Genesis, King James version:
And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. . . . And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;
And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.

Protecting civil rights for Gays and Lesbians is extremely important, as is protecting women's reproductive freedoms. However, the part of this trend that is really wigging me out is the insidious return to traditional gender roles and the oppression of women in the most systematic, deep-seated, and personal contexts. Lest we forget that we've won our rights recently. . .

Does this scare anyone else?


  • At 3:20 PM, Blogger ALG said…

    It scares me. Aside from all the patriarchal stuff, fathers celebrating their little girls' sexual purity is just downright creepy. It reminds me of incest for some reason.

    And think of what it might have meant if the Family Research Council had taken a different verse from Genesis, namely:

    Genesis 1:27: And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.

    Some (feminist) biblical scholars explain that Genesis Chapter 1 describes the world as it was meant to be, and that Genesis Chapter 2-4 describe what happens when things go wrong.

  • At 1:03 PM, Anonymous a se said…

    That interpretation of Genesis has been common in Jewish scholarship for a while, with or without feminism.

  • At 9:59 PM, Anonymous Annie said…

    I don't think we're experiencing a return of traditional gender roles; I think a lull, when their advocacy was politically incorrect, is ending, in part because of a "post-feminist" attitude I see among a lot of my peers. It's the idea that we (female teenages) want to use our career options as women to become housewives, because obviously all sexism is done with by now, and going into hard science, or competitive business, is just our mothers' generation limiting us to roles we don't want to break obsolete gender patterns. This denial of current sexism sends a signal that people trying to reverse feminist advances are allowed to be overt.

    Last fall one of the teachers at my school was disturbed by an incident of female acceptance of male sexual aggression, and she had mass meetings with all the girls in the school. It was silly because she denied having an agenda but clearly was asking us to say we see ourselves as sex objects, basically; she didn't change her understanding and students just lost respect for the way she treated them. What this showed me even more than a gap in attitudes (I see myself as somewhere inbetween) is our inability to communiate on it.

  • At 10:31 PM, Anonymous General Anna said…

    I definitely agree that sometimes baby boomer women (the ones who were on the front lines of the feminist revolution) don't always communicate well with generations X, Y, and whatever teenagers are now. Young women opting for raising families and managing households over high-profile careers has been in the news often recently; I'm not sure whether this is post-feminist or just women exercising their own rights to decide for themselves what they want. What scares me is the possibility that these choices will be taken away from us.

  • At 12:12 AM, Anonymous Chris said…

    Yes, I am very scared. I suggest reading the wonderful book "How the Prochoice Movement Saved America." it shows what the Right is really up scares me more than you know.

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