The term secularization is typically used to describe the process by which something becomes increasingly distant from, irrelevant to, or uninfluenced by religion. But what about religions themselves? Can religions undergo secularization?
Sociologist Jeremy Thomas tested this proposition, looking at changes in how authors writing for the popular magazine Christianity Today frame their opposition to the use of pornography between 1956 and 2010 (article, summary). He compared three anti-pornography frames:
religious (e.g., against the bible, a sin),
harm to others (e.g., performers), and
harm to self (e.g., porn addiction, marital troubles).
Thomas found that the last frame — harm to self — had increasing come to dominate the discussion at Christianity Today. This figure shows the proportion of paragraphs that make each argument. The last frame clearly dominates.
Thomas calls this “outsourcing moral authority”: religious leaders are relying on other authorities to back up their points of view. This suggests that even religion is undergoing secularization.
I’ve written extensively — not here, but professionally — on the ways in which Americans talk about the female genital cutting practices (FGCs) that are common in parts of Africa. I’ve focused on the frames for the practice (common ones include women’s oppression, child abuse, a violation of bodily integrity, and cultural depravity), who has had the most power to shape American perceptions (e.g., journalists, activists, or scientists), and the implications of this discourse for thinking about and building gender egalitarian, multicultural democracies.
Ultimately, whatever opinion one wants to hold about the wide range of practices we typically refer to as “female genital mutilation,” it is very clear that the negative opinions of most Westerners are heavily based on misinformation and have been strongly shaped by racism, ethnocentrism, and a disgust or pity for an imagined Africa. That doesn’t mean that Americans or Europeans aren’t allowed to oppose (some of) the practices (some of the time), but it does mean that we need to think carefully about how and why we do so.
One of the most powerful voices challenging Western thinking about FGCs is Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, a Sierra Leonan-American anthropologist who chose, at 21 years old, to undergo the genital cutting practice typical for girls in her ethnic group, Kono.
She has written about this experience and how it relates to the academic literature on genital cutting. She has also joined other scholars — both African and Western — in arguing against the zero tolerance position on FGCs and in favor of a more fair and nuanced understanding of why people choose these procedures for themselves or their children and the positive and negative consequences of doing so. To that end, she is the co-founder of African Women are Free to Choose and SiA Magazine, dedicated to “empowering circumcised women and girls in Africa and worldwide.”
You can hear Ahmadu discuss her perspective in this program:
Many people reading this may object to the idea of re-thinking zero tolerance approaches to FGCs. I understand this reaction, but I urge such readers to do so anyway. If we care enough about African women to be concerned about the state of their genitals, we must also be willing to pay attention to their hearts and their minds. Even, or especially, if they say things we don’t like.
At the New Statesman, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter skewer the common media hand-wringing over women who get drunk in public. Above and beyond the victim-blaming “don’t make yourself so rape-able” message, Cosslett and Baxter point out that the tsk-tsking is deeply laden with the idea that women should behave like “ladies.” This, of course, is an old-fashioned notion suggesting that women are or should be the moral superiors of men (invented during the Victorian era).
Using a Daily Mail article as an example, they criticize the typical language and imagery that accompanies these stories:
Platell’s piece manages to feature almost every aspect of drunken female behaviour that tabloids simultaneously loathe and desire. Yes, this article has the whole shebang: long lens photos of young women with their fishnets torn up to the bum at a fancy dress party in freshers’ week; phrases like “barely leaving anything to the imagination” and “neo-feminists behaving like men” and creepily voyeuristic descriptions of “pretty young girls lying comatose on the pavement.”
From another point of view, Cosslett and Baxter argue, this looks like “a pretty cracking night out,” stumbles and all.
They point out, smartly, that many of these stories frame women’s interest in alcohol as an effort to hang with the boys. The message, they explain, is that “‘young ladies’ are being warped by the hard-drinking university culture… going along with men’s behaviour because they’re weak-willed and they think it will make them look cool.”
Because men invent things, and then women jump on board because they feel like they have to — that’s the way of the world, isn’t it? It’s not like those of the female variety enjoy a pint, after all, or even — God forbid — enjoy the sensation of drunkenness once in a blue moon. It’s not as though our decision whether or not to drink has anything to do with us or our own lives… modern female binge drinking is still all about the men.
This is not to defend drinking per se, or binge drinking or public drunkeness, but to point out the gendered coverage of the phenomenon, which still portrays women’s drinking as somehow less natural, more worrisome, and more dangerous than men’s.
Francesca Cancian, who writes on love, calls this the feminization of love. It makes love seem like its for women and girls only. This is a problem for at least two reasons. First, because men are supposed to avoid girly things in our culture, they are pressured to pretend like they’re not into love and love-related things. That’s why men are offered the alternative Steak and a Blow Job Day.
Second, it makes other ways of expressing love less visible. Maybe he shows love by always changing the oil in the car or making sure the computer is updated with anti-virus software. These can be mis-recognized as not about love because they aren’t the proper socially constructed symbols. So, if he doesn’t also show up with flowers or candy once in a while, maybe she doesn’t feel loved.
The flip side of this is the masculinization of sex. The rather new idea that what men are really interested in is sex and that this is secondary or, even, obligatory for women.
The feminization of love and masculinization of sex manifests itself in a myriad of ways across our culture, causing all sorts of problems. In the case of Valentine’s Day, it makes it seem as if the (assumed heterosexual) holiday is for women but, if he does it right, he’ll get sex as a reward. How romantic.
[I]t can’t be denied that the female ideal in America is nonaggressive and nonthreatening, to the point of caricature. Take for example the film personality of the much-idolized Marilyn Monroe: docile, accommodating, brainless, defenseless, totally uncentered, incapable of taking up for herself or knowing what she wants or needs. A sexual encounter with such a woman in real life would border on rape – the idea of “consenting adults” wouldn’t even apply. The term “perversion” seems more appropriate for this kind of yearning than for homosexuality or bestiality, since it isn’t directed toward a complete being. The Marilyn Monroe image was the ideal sex object for the sexually crippled and anxious male: a bland erotic pudding that would never upset his delicate stomach.
It’s important to realize that this Playboy ideal is a sign of low, rather than high, sexual energy. It suggests that the sexual flame is so faint and wavering that a whole person would overwhelm and extinguish it. Only a vapid, compliant ninny-fantasy can keep it alive. It’s designed for men who don’t really like sex but need it for tension-release – men whose libido is wrapped up in achievement or dreams of glory.
Slater wrote this passage in 1970, hence the reference to Marilyn Monroe. I would have to think hard about whether I think it still applies broadly, but I think it’s fair to say that the “bland erotic pudding” is still part of the repertoire of essentially every female celebrity who is successful in part because of her appearance. I did a search for some of the most high-profile female actresses and singers today, looking specifically for images that might fit Slater’s description. I invite your thoughts.
Let’s watch and see what issues this K-Y lube campaign raises:
You see, it’s funny because the “warming” lube is so effective, the chubby old slob is irresistible to his more put-together wife. Here’s another:
While I think mature men like me can take the hit on our egos, there is another angle to consider here. In an AdWeek post on “Hunkvertising,” my social media friend David Gianatasio interviewed Lisa Wade, about what the trendy treatment of men as sex objects in advertising actually says about women.
Many ad experts and social critics see the whole thing as a harmless turning of the tables following decades of bikini-clad babes in beer commercials. Double entendres abound when dissecting the trend, the overriding feeling being that it can’t be taken all that seriously because, after all, we are just talking about guys here. “We’re all in on the gender-reversal joke,” explains Lisa Wade, associate professor of sociology at Occidental College. “It’s funny to us to think of women being lustful.”
When the lust is treated even more ironically, as with these men who are not exactly Isaiah Mustafa, both the woman’s lust and the man’s sexual desirability are the gag.
As Dr. Wade added in her post about the post she was interviewed for, “the joke affirms the gender order because the humor depends on us knowing that we don’t really objectify men this way and we don’t really believe that women are the way we imagine men to be.”
And here, the men aren’t either. It’s good for a laugh, but over the long term is it good for men and women?
Tom Megginson is a Creative Director at Acart Communications, a Canadian Social Issues Marketing agency. He is a specialist in social marketing, cause marketing, and corporate social responsibility. You can follow Tom at workthatmatters.blogspot.com.
Heterosexuality in the U.S. is gendered: women are expected to attract, men are supposed to be attracted. Men want, women want to be wanted. Metaphorically, this is a predator/prey type relationship. Women are subject to the hunt whether they like it or not, so men’s attention can be pleasing, annoying, or frightening. It all depends.
Accordingly, women know what it feels like to be prey. Not all men make us feel this way, of course, but some certainly do. The leering guy on the street, the heavy hitter in the bar, the frotteurist on the subway, the molesting uncle, the aggressive fraternity brother, etc. It doesn’t matter if we’re interested in men or not, interested in that guy or not, there are men that — with their eyes, mouths, hands, and more — apparently can’t help but get their “sexual energy slime” all over us.
So what’s homophobia? Sometimes I think it’s the moment that men feel what it’s like to be prey. See, women are used to it. It’s a familiar feeling we have to modulate all the time. We’re used to constantly judging whether it means danger or not. But when it happens to men for the first time, I bet it’s shocking as all hell. It’s like they’ve been treated like a human being their whole life and then, POW, they’re a piece of ass and nothing more. It must feel just crazy bad.
Of course, all that’s happened is that they’ve been demoted in the food chain. No longer the predator, they’re the prey. The dynamic between two men is the same as the one between men and women, except now they know what it feels like to be slimed.
We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in. Enjoy!
Over at his blog, The Ethical Adman, Tom Megginson asks us to consider the “power symbolism of fellatio.” His post was prompted by this sign for an Android store (next door to an Apple store) in China:
Get it? Apple is fellating Android, so Apple is inferior. <sarcasm> Obvious right? </sarcasm>
The variations on the insult “you suck” — “suck it,” “suck my balls,” “suck my dick,” “cocksucker,” and Tom’s colorful addition, “this sucks donkey balls!” — are so commonplace that it’s easy to forget where it comes from. Like the sign implies, and the more elaborate insults make clear, “you suck” works as an insult by positioning the male or female receiver in a position in which they are sexually servicing a man.
This cultural association of power and sex is pervasive throughout our insult vocabulary. “Fuck you” is an excellent example, as is “fuck off,” “motherfucker,” and “go fuck yourself.” Sexualized body parts used as insults are part of this too: “cunt,” “pussy,” “dick,” and “prick.” “Scumbag” is a word that originally meant condom and suggests that sperm is somehow contaminating; sexual partners who receive or are covered with sperm can be seen as exposed to a disgusting or filthy substance. Even “douchbag” may fall into this category (think about it).
People get pretty creative (or not) with this stuff. Here’s one of my very favorite pieces of hate mail (in response to this post):
Just a tipoff, to let you filthy feminazi CUNTS know that we are exposing you, you fucking pieces of shit… see [name and organization redacted], a leading men’s rights magazine site, and boy does it expose you and your fucking feminazi cunt blog for what you are…. nothing but awful screaming feminazi harpy cunts who need to suck a dick and calm down… you evil twats…
Aside from this tipoff, all I will say to such feminazi CUNTS like you is, suck my fucking dick you awful feminazi cunts. FUCK I HATE YOU, AND EVERYTHING YOU STAND FOR!!!!! DOWN WITH FEMINAZI COCKSUCKING CUNTS WHO I HOPE GET BREAST CANCER.
So it’s interesting, right, to notice how often attempts to hurt other people come in the language of sexuality. This reveals why sex can be scary, especially for women who are so often positioned as the one who “gets fucked.” And this, of course, is what rape is all-too-often about. It’s also part of how we demean and marginalize gay and bisexual men. In the language of sex/power, they’ve voluntarily made themselves into lesser human beings, making homophobes feel justified in denigrating or assaulting them.
For my part, I try to avoid all of this language and I encourage you to do so too.