There’s been a lot of evangelical Christian commentary in response to the Supreme Court ruling last month that legalized marriage for gays and lesbians. Jimmy Carter says that Jesus would approve of gay marriage. Franklin Graham says that God might strike the White House with lightning for its rainbow makeover on the night of June 26.

6-8-2015-11-28-12-AMWhite conservative Protestant evangelicals have been the obligatory homophobes in the political controversy over same-sex marriage in America since its beginning. And for good reason. According to Pew Research polling since 2001, these evangelicals consistently lag behind the rest of the country when it comes to favoring gay unions. The National Association of Evangelicals released a statement on June 26 confirming that, despite the Supreme Court ruling, God defines marriage as a “covenant relationship between a man and a woman.” Yet, there is an increasing amount of evidence to suggest that evangelicals are, in fact, changing their minds when it comes to who should be able to legally marry. Sociologists Lydia Bean and Brandon Martinez analyze national survey data to argue that evangelicals are increasingly ambivalent about same-sex marriage. Evangelicals have become more supportive over the past decade, though they still have lower level of support than all other religious groups. A 2013 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute finds that Evangelical Millennials (18-33 year olds), in particular, seem to defy evangelical stereotypes with 43 percent of whom support same-sex marriage.

Now that same-sex marriage is legal throughout the nation, it seems inevitable that evangelicals will continue to increase their support for it. But what does this mean for conservative Protestant evangelicals, whose beliefs are structured around ideas about gender difference and heterosexuality? Will evangelical beliefs fundamentally change by allowing gays and lesbians into the sanctity of marriage? I believe no.

My evidence: pegging. Yes, pegging: the sex act referring to the anal penetration of a man by a woman, usually with some sort of strap-on device (thanks, Dan Savage). In my book, Christians Under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet (forthcoming 2016, University of California Press), I examine Christian sexuality websites—online stores, message boards, blogs, podcasts, and virtual Bible studies—that promote the idea that God wants for (straight) married couples to have great sex. For many users of these sites, this can include kinky sex. For some of these users, this includes gender-deviant sex like pegging. Their rationale goes like this: if a couple is straight, married, monogamous and—crucially important—devoted to God, any consensual sex in which they engage is permissible according to the rules of their faith. Godly sexuality, for evangelicals, is personal as much as it is objective. It gives believers a sense of control, autonomy, and choice amidst a belief system that is predicated on limits and boundaries to avoid sin.

I find that when engaging in sex that removes them from their role as active penetrator, Christian men must find other ways to construct their masculine identities. They draw on the sense that their relationships with their wives and with God are spiritually exceptional, and that these relationship, more than anything else, are what construct their identities as Godly men. I call this gender omniscience, which defines gender through a spouse and God’s unique ability to know the unknowable: a man’s “true” gender. This renders even non-normative sex quintessentially heterosexual and gender normal.

An optimistic reading of evangelicals’ sense of permissible sex might suggest that they are on a trajectory toward acceptance of multiple kinds of sexual expressions and identities. At what point does the technically heterosexual sex between a woman penetrating a man with a strap-on dildo lose its “straightness?” Or to put this another way, at what point does a gay man penetrated by his husband become a part of what evangelicals deem Godly sex? It is a blurry line. Evangelicals see gender as predetermined, natural and mutually exclusive between men and women, but malleable enough to accommodate a diverse array of actions and behaviors. They see heterosexuality as a clear line in the sand distinguishing right and wrong but make the boundaries of heterosexuality expansive enough so as to incorporate a diverse arranging of men’s and women’s bodies to engage in sex acts other than penile-vaginal intercourse.

Yet as I think about some Christian sexuality website users who guiltlessly engage in pegging, I become increasingly convinced that their logic actually reinforces and bolsters sexual boundaries, not diminishes them. Relying on the relationship between a believer, spouse, and a God who is presumed to condemn homosexuality, evangelicals make claims about who gets the Godly advantage of limitless sexuality, and who is stuck outside this charmed circle. If the prediction is correct that a majority of evangelicals, like the broader American public, will eventually support same-sex marriage, my research suggests that they may do this while still excluding gays, lesbians, and other queers from Godly sex.

Recently a video went viral depicting a woman named Toya Graham hitting, slapping and dragging her son from the streets of Baltimore with the goal of preventing him from participating in the civil unrest that began after the death of Freddy Gray. Mr. Gray was a young African American man who was dragged into police custody by six officers. News reports say that within an hour of his arrest he fell into a coma and was taken to the hospital where he died a week later. His name is now added to the list of countless African American boys and men who have died under questionable circumstances during interactions with law enforcement and private citizens. Gray’s death rightly sparked outrage, and in some instances convulsions of anger.

Many in the media have applauded the actions of Toya Graham who they describe as appropriately taking swift action to constrain her son’s participation in the public outcry—what some called a riot, and others a disorganized protest. Media and pundits seized on the video of Ms. Graham, announcing all could be resolved if we just “Send in the Moms”. However, this simple, dominant narrative is complicated by Ms. Graham’s stated reason for pulling her son from the streets of Baltimore: To prevent him from becoming “another Freddy Gray.” Let’s think about that statement. She feared that his public participation, his expression of justified discontent, could very well lead to his death at the hands of the police. While she may have seen her son participating in civil unrest that included instances of illegal conduct, throwing stones, etc., she believed that the likelihood of these instances being resolved professionally and without the use of deadly force with respect to African Americans, was unlikely. After the deaths of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddy Gray and many others, we would be hard pressed to deny the fact that African American parents have reasonable concerns about their sons’ safety during interactions with law enforcement, and indeed, in some instances, the broader society.

The media and pundits have played their trick of confounding the real issues of the day with a sensationalist theme: mothers taking a stand, demonstrating their strength and setting their children straight. Police officers killed yet another black male youth under questionable circumstances. Law enforcement and the media seem to view these young boys and men’s lives as disposable and lacking value. It is within this context that the Black Lives Matter movement has emerged with the purpose of reaffirming the value of African American lives. I am troubled by a media that praises the image of a young black man being beaten down, even by his mother, so that he accepts the untenable situation the Black Lives Matter movement seeks to address and refrains from expressing his version of discontent with the way society treats him. These young boys and girls and men and women have every right to be upset by the various systems that have failed them.

American society has a tendency to expect African Americans to be superhuman as they express their discontent. Indeed, the protests we are taught to remember from the 50s and 60s are of the courageous civil right leaders who were able to gain support by having their bodies bludgeoned in full view of American eyes and the world. These activists did not physically defend themselves because they knew any response would be used to justify the barbaric acts committed by their fellow white countrymen and women. These violent images also went viral and forced white Americans to confront the oppressive parts of their culture. As a benefactor of the civil rights movement, I know that one person or one version of activism did not achieve its accomplishments.

And we often forget about the other race riots that happened during the civil rights era. Those led by the white teens that went into the Woolworth Counter to torment and torture the nonviolent protesters simply seeking service. The race riots led by white adults who shouted racial epithets at the young Ruby Ridges who simply sought admission to an all white public school. We refuse to discuss the countless racially motivated killings used to terrorize the African American community. And, for the four little girls who died in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham Alabama. And, lastly we don’t discuss the immeasurable restraint the African American community has exhibited in the face of this racial terrorism, particularly after the recent shootings by white supremacist, Dylan Roof, who killed nine church members during bible study at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. There should not be a racial sliding scale of who gets to express their dissatisfaction with the state and how that dissatisfaction is received.

With the nearly daily stories of black male killings—our contemporary version of strange fruit—there is no wonder that mothers and parents are resorting to self-help measures to protect their children, and their sons in particular. In my own research examining African American middle and upper-middle-class mothers’ parenting approaches, ensuring the physical safety of their sons is a continuous and pervasive concern. Unfortunately, I believe Ms. Graham’s actions play an unfortunate part in reinforcing the idea that African Americans, and boys and men in particular, must behave differently in order for society to recognize their humanity. I disagree with the charge to “Send in the Moms” to tame the legitimate anger of their children about the continuous disgraceful and discriminatory treatment they confront from institutions and individuals within the broader American society. This broader society includes law enforcement officers, teachers, principals, shopkeepers and members of the general public- people that the average white child is taught to view as a source of support and protection. The mothers in my research who have far more resources than Ms. Graham are similarly worried about how their sons will be treated by this broader society. These mothers out of necessity teach their children to be fearful of and deferential to law enforcement officers who are meant to protect and serve us all but do so selectively. I understand Ms. Grahams’ fear for her son, her impetus to keep him out of harms way and her desire to prevent him from becoming “another Freddy Gray.” I am also afraid of the long-term consequences of preventing him and others like him from publicly expressing their discontent.

______________________

Dow, DawnDawn M. Dow is an assistant professor in the sociology department of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. Professor Dow earned a Ph.D. in sociology from University of California, Berkeley, a J.D. from Columbia University, School of Law and a B.A. in sociology from Bryn Mawr College. Professor Dow’s research focuses on the intersection of gender, race, and class within the context of the family, the workplace and the law. She is currently writing a book that examines the theoretical and practical implications of the structural, cultural, and economic exclusion of African-American mothers from dominant ideologies and practices of motherhood. She is a frequent presenter at academic conferences including the American Sociological Association, Eastern Sociological Society and the Pacific Sociological Association. Professor Dow’s work has been published in Sociological Perspectives and is forthcoming in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Often, when we see improvements by all (be it in educational attainment, income, health, etc.), we overlook the fact that gender or racial gaps still persist or have even gotten worse. There has been much attention given, and rightfully so, to all of the progress that women, and black women in particular have made. But, what about where women stand in relation to men? Or where black women stand in relation to white women? If significant gaps still persist, can we be satisfied with the progress we’ve made? Or is there still work left to be done?

As a young black woman, sociologist, and researcher at an economic policy think tank, I am particularly sensitive to this and make a point to address these issues in my work at CEPR (Center for Economic and Policy Research). It’s part of the reason why I began my Young Black America series of reports that strive to answer the question, “What’s going on with young blacks today?” An important goal of the series is to explore the intersection of race and gender while tackling the issues facing young people today.

From "Young Black  America" part 1, Center for Economic and Policy Research
From “Young Black America” part 1, Center for Economic and Policy Research

The first report in the series found that there is positive news on both the gender and racial dimensions in regard to high school completion rates. After decades of mostly stagnant and depressing numbers, both women and men have seen marked improvements in high school completion rates since 2000. Furthermore, throughout the entire period I looked at (1975-2013), women overall have achieved higher completion rates than men.

But, what I found most interesting was what happens when you throw race into the mix. In 1975, 88.7 percent of white women between the ages of 20 and 24 had completed high school with either a high school diploma or a GED. During that same year, the rate for black women was only 76.9 percent, for a black-white gap of 11.9 percentage points. Since then, white women have maintained this sizable advantage, which averaged about 11 percentage points through 2000. In 2000, the completion rates for black and white women were 79.0 percent, and 90.6 percent, respectively.

Fortunately, since 2000 there has been a significant convergence in completion rates for black and white women. The completion rate of black women has increased 10.4 percentage points since the turn of the century, reaching 89.4 percent in 2013. During the same time, the completion rate of white women increased at a slower pace and stood at 94.5 percent in 2013. The result was a much smaller black-white completion gap of 5.1 percentage points – 57 percent less than the gap in 1975.

Closing achievement gaps should be an important part of any economic agenda. While a lot of attention is given to racial and gender achievement gaps separately, the double burden of being both a woman and a racial minority can present a unique problem for black women.

So, yes, we should take a moment or two to celebrate these accomplishments. The high school completion rates of young women are at their highest ever, and remain higher than the rates of men. Although black women still lag behind their white counterparts, this gap has been trending downward for more than a decade and hopefully will continue to do so.

But as we all know, in order to realize racial and gender economic equality, education is just one piece of the puzzle. Increases in high school completion rates are important because they widen the pool of potential college entrants and graduates – with a college degree becoming increasingly necessary in today’s economy. However, even a college degree doesn’t guarantee labor market success, as my former colleagues Janelle Jones and John Schmitt at CEPR have shown. We must not ignore issues of racial and gender discrimination, or other structural issues that are at the root of many of the economic problems we face in this country. Subsequent reports in my Young Black America series will address these and other issues facing young blacks.

Cherrie Bucknor is a research assistant at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. She is working on a year-long series of reports on Young Black America.@cherriebucknor

SomeMenA book should never be treated as a statement of some final Truth. Instead, a book is best put to use as moment of condensed insight that focuses and clarifies ongoing conversations. Still, when you are the author of a book, and engaging in such public conversations, you sometimes learn things in the give-and-take that you wish you had known while writing. This has been so in my recent talks with groups of feminist academics and antiviolence activists about Some men: Feminist allies and the movement to end violence against women, my recent book with Max Greenberg and Tal Peretz.

In my presentations, I outline a central story in Some Men: Inspired by the women’s movement, the field of men’s anti-violence work was constituted in the late-1970s primarily by white men (many of them Jewish), whose work with boys and men was limited by their white and middle class origins. As anti-violence work became increasingly institutionalized in the 1990s and beyond, women activists welcomed men’s growing participation, but the growing visibility of men in the field risked eclipsing feminism, and rendering women less visible. On the other hand, the field was expanding to include more men of color, in part due to a public focus on targeting anti-violence programming to “at-risk youth” (often code for boys of color). The young men of color bring to the field different experiences with race and social class, with man-on-man street violence, and with police and other institutional violence against men of color. As such, they introduce to gender-based violence prevention what we call “organic intersectionality,” an approach that helps to re-infuse social justice values into a field that has become increasingly flat in its politics.

On more than one occasion, African American women have asked questions that challenged the assumptions underlying my genealogy of the field of gender-based violence prevention. Following one talk, an anti-violence worker asked me if my historical outline included African American women who may have felt excluded from the feminist movement, and who defined themselves as Womanists? At another talk, a scholar asked me, “I wonder, how do you define ‘the field’? Women of color have been engaged with anti-violence activism since well before the 1970s.” She mentioned Jim Crow era anti-lynching activism, for instance, as resistance to race/gender-based violence. My mind immediately jumped to mid-Twentieth Century resistance against the forced sterilization of poor and incarcerated women in the U.S. and Puerto Rico as a form of resistance against state violence against the bodies of (primarily) women of color.

This same critic sharpened her point with a reference to a slide in my presentation: “You showed a slide that expressed your concern that men’s movement into anti-violence work might result in ‘feminism without women’. My concern is that your definition of ‘the field’ risks positing an ‘intersectionality without women of color’.”

I believe that my co-authors’ and my efforts to deploy an intersectional analysis in Some Men was successful—possibly even insightful—but only, I see now, within the parameters of how we defined “the field.” When we take into account this womanist critique, we can see how our very definition of “the field” had an unintended consequence. Of course, we duly noted the academic roots of intersectionality, citing foundational works of scholars like bell hooks and Maxine Baca Zinn. We quoted Patricia Hill Collins referring to violence as “a saturated site of intersectionality.” But our definition of “the field” also worked to elide activist work over decades (centuries?) by women of color as the front edge of resistance to interpersonal and institutional gender/race/class-based violence.

Our narrow definition of “the field”—likely grounded in our experiences as three white male feminist academics—is not unusual in feminist scholarship. Sociologist Benita Roth argues in her book Separate Roads to Feminism that the common story about second wave feminism—that white feminism emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, with women of color joining in the 1980s and adding race and class to feminism—is wrong. Roth shows that multiple feminist movements arose “roughly simultaneously,” including Black and Chicana feminisms that, even if not integrated organizationally with mostly-white feminist groups, were in critical dialogue with them. As Roth observes of conventional scholarship on the feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, “…looking for feminists of color in white feminist organizations, not finding them, and then explaining their absence makes feminists of color invisible: Not only were they not in white feminist organizations; there is no sense in these explanations that they could have possibly been organizing on their own.” (p. 8).

Defining the parameters of a “field” is an issue in every academic book. However, one must also take pains to think about the implications of those decisions. In the case of Some Men, it would not have changed our book much to have included a short, critical-reflexive discussion of how we were defining “the field” of men’s work to stop sexual assault and domestic violence, and then pointing to what might be left out of this picture and how it might distort the historical story we were telling. The fact that we did not do this is ironic, especially given a central message we learned from many of our interview subjects—Being a man who is a feminist ally means, at base, listening to women. But the devil is often in the details; the question of which women to listen to can never be answered finally, with some set formula. Instead, it requires an ongoing process of reflexivity that includes interrogating the ways that one’s own privileged standpoint, however “progressive” or “intersectional” its intent, will retain some blind spots if it is not in continual dialogue with differently situated people.

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Messner2013bMichael A. Messner is professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California, and author (with Max Greenberg and Tal Peretz) of Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women (Oxford University Press, 2015).

amrita_singh2Amrita Singh ’15 is a film studies major and an Athena Scholar. She serves as president of Columbia University Film Productions (CUFP), a Barnard Student Admissions Representative, an IMATS Media Technologist, and she’s also involved with the Athena Digital Design Agency. Additionally, she is an intern with Big Beach Films. She’s never been to Paris, but has always admired French cinema–in particular, Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups– and the city’s art scene both past and present. As an Indian immigrant and francophile, she is eager to better understand multiculturalism within a global context and as it relates to the particular history of Paris, France, and also looks forward to participating in the symposium during Barnard’s historic 125th anniversary.

With Hillary Clinton’s recent announcement regarding her candidacy of presidency and the conversations surrounding the current state of female leadership during a period of revived interest in women’s issues in popular culture as manifested in hashtag campaigns and impassioned speeches by celebrities, I find that the movement pushing for gender equality would greatly benefit in the inclusion of the voices of women that often go unheard. For instance, while the more recent HeforShe campaign importantly advocates that women’s rights affect us all and invites boys and men to the conversation, I wonder what more we could gain in focusing on diversity instead. While it’s incredibly important to highlight that gender equality is not strictly a women’s issue but one that affects us all, when we celebrate men as feminists to gain more traction in advancing the women’s movement what voices do we unintentionally drown out? In a patriarchal society where women still remain largely underrepresented in positions of authority, with their presence in top management positions remaining below 9 percent according to a report by the American Center for Progress despite reflecting the majority of the population, its important to bring these experiences to the forefront of the movement to effectively work towards correcting imbalances of power that permeate nearly all industry sectors. Furthermore when considering how women of color fare far worse in claiming leadership opportunities, the question of solidarity takes on a new form entirely.

That’s why I find programs focused on cultivating a group of diverse girls and young women who see themselves as leaders prove incredibly valuable. Given my quiet personality, I certainly didn’t see myself as a leader until I entered Barnard College, a liberal arts college for women based in New York City. As a student pursuing directing and opportunities in filmmaking, a male-dominated industry that notably lacks diversity with a mere 7% of female directors last year according to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, I found the space of a women’s college incredibly empowering in demonstrating that leadership takes on many forms and is an ongoing process. I never understood what the big deal was in being a leader, especially since I honestly felt most comfortable on the sidelines. Without having to compromise who I am, in claiming leadership, my voice felt validated. Thus, while many people still question the relevance of women’s colleges today, as an institution, Barnard was founded to challenge systems of inequality and even figures prominently today in the discussion of women’s rights and in addressing pertinent ideas of gender identity. This year marks Barnard’s 7th year in hosting the global symposia series, with Barnard student fellows both interacting with the larger New York community and traveling to Rio, Mumbai and Paris to engage in issues of women and leadership. In exploring feminism within different cultural contexts, the program relies on the diversity of experiences to better understand how identity impacts one’s individual encounter with systems of inequality. By celebrating the importance of including a multiplicity voices, both in theory with inspired discussions relating to relevant social issues, and in practice by way of the vast backgrounds of the leaders participating in the program, the symposium refocuses the conversation on feminism by tackling issues of representation directly. From leading artists including Panmela Castro who engages with activism through her vivid graffiti on the streets of Brazil to Helene Gayle, CEO of CARE USA, an organization fighting poverty, the symposium in New York City draws from the rich experiences of a diverse group of leaders to present a number of perspectives on explicit challenges that women face at a global level.

16618620978_a3a412d9b7_oI had the opportunity to collaborate with high school students abroad in the Paris Young Women’s Leadership Workshop and amplify their voices by encouraging them to embrace their identity as a platform for their leadership. Given the different cultural settings a part of each city explored through the Symposium, the exchange between Barnard students and participating high school students provides invaluable learning opportunities on both ends. Using these interactive workshops to inspire participants in developing social action projects empower these young women to see themselves as leaders who can actually take the steps to bring about this change in their respective communities. In cultivating a global network of individuals who embody what it means to be a leader in this day and age, the Barnard Global Symposium connects women of different ages, backgrounds and beliefs across the globe to take part in the discourse of women and leadership as agents of change, impossible to ignore. As Global Symposium Panelist, Ndili Nwunelli said, “As young people we are told we are leaders of tomorrow. Why tomorrow? We can be leaders of today and tomorrow.”

KelsyBurke.SpringHeadshotKelsy Burke is an assistant professor of sociology at St. Norbert College. Her first book is Christians Under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet (forthcoming, University of California Press). 

The #DuggarScandal is rising once again to the top of media headlines as Jim Bob, the father of Josh who molested his sisters and other underage girls, explained away the incidents of sexual abuse in an interview with Fox News. “They didn’t even know he had done it,” he said about Josh “touching” his daughters after they were asleep.

CJ Pascoe and Sara Diefendorf explained earlier this week in another Girl w/ Pen post the rationale used by religious conservatives like the Duggars to make sense of sexual scandals. For these Christians, sexual sin is an expected and, as Jim Bob’s interview reveals, forgivable offense. Importantly, and outrageously, the sin of sexual abuse may be equivalent to the sin of consensual sex before marriage, pornography use, or masturbation. And while the liberal pundits may cry GOTCHA! in exposing the hypocrisy of fundamentalist families like the Duggars, their beliefs rely on a logic that does not see sexual sin as hypocritical, but rather as inevitable. All of us are sinners.

The long, long list of conservative Christian leaders caught in a sexual scandal is nearly all men (here is a story that details some recent examples). Not surprising, the critical-thinking feminist may observe, given that conservative Christian traditions believe in men’s headship and women’s submission. As one blogger described, the Quiverful movement of which the Duggars belong demands that women “never exercise a moment of sexual agency in her entire life.” Conservative Christian men may be hypocrites, but conservative Christian women are the victims or at least the dupes.

To be sure, the girls abused by Josh Duggar are victims of sexual assault. They did not choose it or deserve it. But let’s think for a moment, feminist readership, about the implication of the attitude that conservative Christian women have no agency or an ability to make choices on their own terms. (To be precise, the blog quoted above surmises that the Quiverful movement itself bars women’s agency, but even this isn’t an entirely fair assessment.) When feminist commentary on conservative religion deals almost exclusively with women’s victimization, we are left to believe that religious women indeed don’t have any agency. Is a feminist dismissal of conservative religious women actually endorsing the attitude of Jim Bob that these women don’t know any better?

What would happen if we acknowledged that women may make choices and feel empowered by them even if those choices seem to defy feminist logic? What would happen if we reimagined the plot lines in the typical feminist narrative of conservative Christianity? Instead of women as dupes or victims for believing in a patriarchal religion, how might these religions serve a purpose in these women’s lives?

Many scholarly accounts of conservative religious women suggest that they find some aspect of their religion to be empowering, all while believing they should submit to men. One of my favorite examples of this is a study of evangelical women who are married to “ex-gay” men (men who admit to, though do not necessarily act upon, same-sex attraction). Through interviews with these women, sociologist Michelle Wolkomir finds that they at first blame themselves for their inability to sexually entice their husbands. Yet Wolkomir finds that women overcome this guilt as they realize that their husbands are engaging in sin. This means that their wives are no longer obligated to submit to their husbands, but rather only to submit to God.

Evangelical women married to ex-gay men are certainly a small group, but the lesson here is far reaching: In patriarchal religions, God is the ultimate patriarch. Especially for religions in the Protestant tradition, women believe they connect directly with the final authority, the one who is In Charge. Converting to Christianity has the power to help women feel more, not less, in control of their lives: to have the strength to speak up to a cruel co-worker or to be optimistic about a recent divorce. Conservative Christianity may not change women’s life’s circumstances, but it can help women change their perception of those circumstances.

A common feminist mantra on the choices of other women, in the words of Amy Poehler in her book, Yes Please, is “Good for you, but not for me.” Yet feminists commenting on stories like the Josh Duggar scandal are quick to point to Christianity’s flaws, never its virtues for some of its followers. Women who are complicit in religions that appear to many feminists as anti-feminist seem to cross a line that has no defense. But why can’t feminists take up the attitude, “Good for you, but not for me.”? Of course there are obvious answers to this question: because these religions perpetuate ideas about gender and sexuality that harm us, especially women and queers. Gender-based violence, though, is a social problem that is not limited to fundamentalist Christianity. And don’t we live in a world where nearly all dominant ideas about gender and sexuality harm us? How can we defend Miley Cyrus and Kim Kardashian and nail art and not at least acknowledge that for some women, conservative religions are “good for you, but not for me.”? We may learn from these women that we all must make our own choices in a world that tries to limit them.

We imagine most are now aware that the Duggar family of 19 Kids and Counting fame has come under criticism for their handling of their eldest son, Josh’s, behavior. According to police reports, Josh Duggar engaged in nonconsensual sexual contact with several younger female children, at least some of whom were his sisters. You can see the details here, here and here.

The Duggars have a record of anti-gay, anti-birth control, anti-choice and anti-trans stances. Michelle Duggar even recorded robo-calls for a discriminatory statute aimed at denying equal rights to trans citizens of her state. These public stances, along with their encouragement of sexual abstinence until marriage and a prohibition on cross-sex touching until engagement, seem incongruent with their public “forgiveness” of Josh for his sexual transgressions. Jessa Duggar’s father-in-law stated, to much condemnation:

Many times it is simply lack of opportunity or fear of consequences that keep us from falling into grievous sin even though our fallen hearts would love to indulge the flesh. We should not be shocked that this occurred in the Duggar’s home, we should rather be thankful to God if we have been spared such, and pray that he would keep us and our children from falling.

This seemingly quick forgiveness and “there but for the grace of god go I” attitude toward sexual sins appear incompatible with the family’s harsh stance regarding other sexual or gendered behavior they regard as sinful.

luker coverIn response to the Duggar’s handling of Josh’s behavior, critics suggested all or some of the following: the family is a sex cult, hypocrisy is endemic to religious zealotry, and abstinence and strict sex practices are forms of sexual deviance just like child molestation. We would like to add to these analyses and provide a slightly different read by suggesting that the Duggars are not outliers—but perhaps illustrate best the argument that Kristin Luker made in her book When Sex Goes to School about sexual conservative and sexual liberals.

In investigating American adults’ views on sex education, Luker documents two camps that emerged after the sexual revolution of the 1960s: the sexual liberals and sexual conservatives. These liberal and conservative positions do not map neatly on to political perspectives, but are rather divided by their views of sex. Luker found that conservatives believe that sex is inherently sacred and meant for marriage. To keep sex within the confines of marriage, conservatives focus on rules and boundaries to control individuals’ out of control sexual natures. The assumption is that people are fallible and without these regulations they will fail. Sexual conservatives are very focused on the danger in “letting pleasure loose”. In the Duggar’s world, this letting loose could be something like holding hands before marriage. Liberals, however, view marriage as just one of many acceptable options for sexual activity. Sexual liberals focus on making good decisions. They believe that humans can make good decisions when they have the information they need to make that decision. In terms of sex, this means knowing about sex, its pleasures and its dangers.

In this sexual conservative perspective, there’s little to distinguish different forms of sexual “fallenness.” For instance, Sarah’s research among evangelical Christian men who were, like the Duggars, invested in sexual abstinence until marriage, indicates that masturbation, lust, pornography, and same-sex desire, are all sins that, to borrow Luker’s language, if “let loose”, can disrupt the goal of abstinence until marriage, thus also disrupting the notion that sexual pleasure is exclusive to heterosexual marriage. When the men in Sarah’s research were tempted by, or engaged in such sinful behavior, they were not met with scorn, hatred, or abandonment, but with understanding and recognition of the struggle they were enduring.

From this perspective, when a distant family member talks about Josh’s fallibility and indicates that without the proper social controls any of us could be in his position, this statement is congruent with the perspective of sexual conservatives. From the sexual conservative camp, the quick forgiveness of his actions is not incongruent or hypocritical when juxtaposed with the Duggar’s views on gay marriage or trans rights, but completely consistent as they are all examples of sexual fallenness. In other words, repentant pornographers, ex-gays, and apologetic adulterers are totally fine. Josh repented. The Duggars and their supporters are not being hypocritical, they are being consistent with views of sexual conservatives.

It is important to see the Duggars not necessarily as a “cult” or as sexual outliers, but as a very provocative example of the logic of sexual conservatism and all that entails. This episode represents a line of thought that is more common than it seems when we pathologize the Duggar’s behavior rather than investigating it.

Recently I’ve been researching the life of my childhood friend, Miss Georgiana Fulton. It’s been a welcome distraction from news filled with stories of urban protests against police violence and continued assaults on women’s reproductive rights. Battles once considered fought and won are again bitterly contentious. The 1967 Kerner Report on the despair inducing conditions prevalent in many cities reads as if written weeks, rather than decades, ago.   State and national legislators propose—and pass—all manner of legislation that eats away at women’s freedom to make decisions about our own bodies.

Miss Fulton’s life spanned nearly a century. She was born in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1869 and died near Mystic, Connecticut in 1967. Research on her life underlines the significant progress women have made in the past century and a half. It also reveals continuing gender bias throughout our society. Miss Fulton was an artist—a painter and illustrator. Looking at her life highlights challenges women confront in the world of visual arts, reminds us that no profession, no institution is free from gender related segregation and hierarchy.

From time to time here at Second Look I’ve mentioned Miss Fulton, the example of she set of an independent woman, the lessons in the struggle for women’s suffrage she insisted I learn and not forget:

“Don’t you ever let anyone say women were given the vote, child. Women fought for that right!”

“Not everyone will agree with you when you speak your mind, girl. Remember that. Be prepared; keep your facts straight.”

“If you want to do something and you’ve thought it through, do it, child. But be ready for all the consequences, you hear me? Sometimes things don’t end up the way you plan.”

All good advice for anyone of any age—but especially good for a girl growing up in small-town Connecticut during the 1950s. The social rules were clear: be polite, smile, help others—and wear a hat to church. When, at age twelve, I decided not to join the Congregational Church my family attended because I wasn’t sure what I believed, most people were puzzled. Everyone else my age was going to stand up on Sunday morning and become a church member. And after all, hadn’t I been the angel in the Christmas pageants every year? Miss Fulton nodded when I told her. “Well, girl, you’ll ruffle a few feathers, I suspect, but it’s fine to do that now and then. Good practice.”

Practice for what I wasn’t quite sure. My parents were as puzzled as everyone else but agreed—it was my choice to make.   I can’t recall if I ever did decide to join the church. What I do remember is that with Miss Fulton’s help I had questioned something I’d been wondering about. The only significant consequence was the chance to say out loud thoughts I’d been keeping in my head and my diary. It was good practice for all sorts of future situations, even if I had to relearn the lesson more than once. Speaking up for what you believe isn’t always as easy as it can seem.

Miss Fulton left Shreveport to attend Wesleyan Female Institute in Virginia, graduated at sixteen, went on to study art, train as a teacher and received a graduate certificate from the Women’s Art School at Cooper Union in 1899. She sailed for Paris in the summer of 1900.

In the decades before the First World War, Paris was the destination of choice for American art students. But studying in Paris was more difficult for young women than for their male colleagues. Women weren’t admitted to some schools and were often charged higher fees for the classes they could take. Living expenses were also higher. Women encountered issues of propriety and safety few men ever considered. The Art Student in Paris published in 1887 noted that “while there are twenty cheap restaurants that men can go to, there is but one for women.”

The most blatant of these societal barriers fell years ago, but concerns about safety are as pressing for young women today as they were in 1900. The latest statistics on violence against women indicate that 1 woman out of 5 will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime. Comments about how foolish a woman is to walk down such and such street alone or to dress in such and such a manner are still commonplace. And what about the art profession?  Today more than fifty percent of students graduating from art school are women, but women head only a quarter of major art museums, those with budgets of over fifteen million dollars. Women are under represented in solo gallery exhibits and in museum collections. We are far from the equality Miss Fulton hoped for when she told me, “Well, there’s no real equality yet, child, not in art, not anywhere. But the day will come,” Then she added, ”But it will take energy, lots of energy.”

Reflecting on Miss Fulton’s life, immersing myself in census data and old newspapers, talking with archivists at institutions where she may have studied is fun. But in the end my explorations bring me back to the challenges still in front of us. Stereotypical views linger, gender violence is rampant, and while feminists have worked to pass the Equal Rights Amendment for almost a century, the ERA is not yet the law of the land.

We’ve struggled and pushed ahead. We’ve seen important progress. But women and men are still working and waiting for Miss Fulton’s ‘real equality’.

 

 

Experimenting here a bit, so GWP readers and writers, bear with me! For a piece I’m writing, I’m collecting all the metaphors scholars and advocates use to talk about the “straightjacket” that gender identity can be. Like, well, “straightjacket.” And “box.” What else are people using these days? Please share, in comments, on my FB page, or tweet me @girlmeetsvoice –Gender box GO!

Now that the one day of celebrating motherhood is behind us, many women will go back to silently doing the unrecognized, steady work that keeps the wheels turning forward that make a family work.  With this in mind, it was a pleasure to attend last week’s screening, “Breaking the Silence: A Celebration of Healing Through Our Mothers’ Narratives” — a series of short films made by teenage girls between the ages of 14 and 18 who live in the Eastern Coachella Valley in California, a rural desert community which is 99% Latino, with a high rate of poverty and a low rate of education.

It was powerful to witness the sense of release many of the adult women expressed on film by having the chance to tell their stories, and having them recognized as important, as well as the obvious desire to connect with a daughter, often across cultural and generational boundaries, and to convey how each woman’s opportunities, choices, and constrictions formed who she was at her daughter’s age.  In some of the films the mothers reveal wrenching stories of abuse, hidden first marriages, and the difficulties of escape during emigration.  The revelations of the past are like long-held ghosts released and highlight a hard-won resilience.

The project is facilitated by Global Girl Media, an organization helmed by filmmaker and visionary Amie Williams and doing amazing cross-cultural work in the US and overseas, with the aim of expanding into even more countries.  By giving girls the tools to take charge of media production, GGM aspires to promote girls’ voices by giving them access to technology and cultivating leadership.  This project seems thoroughly in the spirit of their mission to recognize the voice of “the invisible majority, particularly young women,” who would otherwise pass “silently under the radar.”

After the screening there was an excellent panel which reiterated the need to encourage women to believe they matter — such a familiar refrain, yet so poignantly evergreen. Lian Cheun, the Executive Director of Khmer Girls in Action, based in Long Beach, CA spoke impressively of working with girls whose families might still be suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, the challenges of assimilation, and how to unearth family stories when there is a cultural onus against speaking out. She revealed how she began to connect with her own mother through cues or clues such as deciphering a grunt, or interpreting the food served, or vegetables chosen to grow in a garden. Cheun also spoke about her organization’s calculated decision to admit boys into their programming to further recognize and affirm the experiences of girls and women as part of their mission to fight for “race, class and gender justice.”

The other panelists, Monique W. Morris, co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, among other impressive achievements, and Sara Haskie-Mendoza, who runs the program, Xinachtli Rites of Passage for the Los Angeles Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance, spoke meaningfully about the need for intergenerational healing, particularly in the communities they serve.

The program ended with the projection of questions to ask any mother about her past, her wishes, her left-behind dreams.  No matter the cultural background or hidden history, it became clear that silences or gaps transmit from generation to generation and, unless mended, become sewn into the fabric of a family.  Don’t wait a full year to recognize a mother’s legacy — as the program emphasized — now is the time to begin to heal.