September 26, 2014

Feminist Friday: Five conversations that require us to flip to the script

Recently, I've been reading From Eve to Evolution: Science, Darwin, and Women's Rights in Gilded Age America, which looks at how women and other sources utilized arguments based on Darwinian evolution from the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries.

It's a truly interesting look at the topic in social instead of scientific terms. The central theme of the work is one that I am really taking to heart.

You see, early women's rights activists had one significant problem that underpinned the larger societal view of women: Eve. Eve's curse informed the public view of women, and they were judged in light of the events of the Garden of Eden. This was unquestionable.

Until Darwin came along.

Now the women's rights movement had several arguments they could choose from.

One was that Eve hadn't existed, because the Genesis creation was just another myth. People like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Helen Hamilton Gardener, who were both agnostic, were quick to adopt this new view that so easily dismantled what they saw as a fundamental flaw in the societal view of women.

Another was to point out that nowhere else in the animal kingdom does one sex have such rights over the other. This natural argument was made possible by Darwin's theory putting humankind and animals on the same playing field. We were all descended from the same single-celled organisms, so looking to the animal kingdom for a source of reformist arguments was now logical. Before, when man was special and beast was created separately, these arguments would have been laughed away. Now, they had merit.

The interest in evolution also increased a general interest in science, which challenged other aspects. Brain debates. Birth control debates. Sex differences debates. All of these came about in part because of the shift in arguments brought about by Darwinian evolution.

Today, feminism is mired in a wide variety of fights for women's rights in the United States, and we are gradually seeing a regression, in my opinion, in many of the areas that previously we'd held as victories. Indeed, some of these arguments don't look unlike the ones our foremothers fought at the turn of the last century.

I think that once again, it's time to start shifting our arguments.

One thing the gilded age reformers did well was to emphasize that women are people first, women second--just as men are. Perhaps a similar tactic could work today.

Here are some of the arguments that I think need to change. Some of them I provide my own commentary on, but others I look at the commentary of other thoughtful writers.

Here we go!

1. Women like sex too.

Wait, this is an argument that needs to change? How's that, Kayla Sue?

Well, I am certainly glad that you asked, anonymous imaginary voice in my head. You see, arguments like this, while they seem like they are pointing out our similarities, are also accentuating differences. You can say, "Women like sex too," as often as you like, and what your opponents hear is, "A lot of people think women don't like sex."

The focus on sexuality in our society is overwhelmingly on male sexuality. It's what we see in movies, pictures, novels. Statements like "women like sex too" are inherently arguing from a negative position--they are arguing from the opposite of an accepted statement.

The shift in this conversation should be to emphasize that people like sex--period. Anything else suggests sexual dichotomy in a way that can be harmful to our cause.  Addressing the commonality there also means that we can draw attention to the larger problem of the emphasis on male sexuality.

The most effective way, in my opinion at least, is to emphasize the research that suggests that there aren't any differences in the way men and women reply to sexual stimuli. In fact, some of this research even shows women to be more sexual, something that has an evolutionary explanation. With our relatively short fertility window, females that copulated more often were more likely to get pregnant. Polyamorous copulation would allow us to make sure that we weren't with an infertile male. There's research to show that our brains respond the same to pornography, there's research to show that we are more likely to become bored in a relationship (despite the argument from the conservative movement that says that women are emotional creatures who form deep attachments--the research simply doesn't bear that out).

But wait!, some of you are saying. There was that one research, that one that showed that women aren't as satisfied by casual sex as males. Surely that shows males to be more sexual.

I want you to lean very close to your computer. Excellent. Now bop your head against it. Just gently...not too hard. That's me softly smacking you. I don't usually resort to even mild violence, but this time I had to.

Of course women aren't as fulfilled by casual sex. Male and female bodies are different, and currently, nearly every single representation we see of sexuality focuses on MALE sexuality. There's so much misinformation, and such a lack of information, that it only makes sense that casual partners don't leave women as satisfied. I'd hardly expect them to. Sex is a learned skill, not an innate one. We may be able to sort out what goes where on our own, but any couple fumbling in the backseat of a car at the local lover's lane could tell you that it simply isn't as easy as we think is.

So it's not a sexual difference, as in "women like casual sex less". It's a societal one, as in, "male sexuality is default in our society".

2. Porn is inherently anti-woman.

This is admittedly often a fringe though. Much of the argument today focuses on how porn is specifically derogatory, not on how it is hypothetically or generally. And we have upstart feminist pornographers working to make changes from within the industry.

Currently, porn defaults, like most of society does, to addressing male sexuality. And this is a big problem. It's not common to see a partnership, two people collaborating for a pleasurable experience--it's much more common to see woman, helpless and degraded, to serve a male sexuality. I should know--I've watched a lot of it (and enjoyed it).

But it doesn't have to be this way. Like I mentioned above, we do have feminist pornographers. We have a shift happening, and it just needs to be encouraged.

3. Abortion should be legal, safe, and rare, or abortion is a private matter.

I agree on both of these points. Let me say that upfront. But I think the conversation has to change because this language is so *cold*.

I couldn't say it any better than this piece on RH Reality Check:

The other side talks about murdering teeny, weeny babies and then mind-melds images of ultrasounds and Gerber babies with faded photos of later abortions. And we come back by talking about privacy?? Is that like the right to commit murder in the privacy of your own home or doctor’s office? Even apart from the dubious moral equivalence, let’s be real: In the age of Facebook and Twitter, is there a female under 25 in who gives a rat’s patooey about privacy, let alone thinks of it as a core value?

In order to win the battle in the courts, we have to start in the court of public opinion first.

The piece goes on to explain what won the battle to begin with, and it wasn't just legal arguments;

Legal codes and cultural sensibilities are never independent of each other. Abortion rights were secured legally because of a culture shift that was aided by anguished stories and statements by compassion-driven Christian theologians during the 1960s and 1970s. The brutal deaths of American women every year, at a peak of thousands in the 1930s, was, beyond question or doubt, a profound immorality that many Americans were desperate to stop. Protestant leaders across the theological spectrum took a moral stand in support of legal abortion. In contrast to the Vatican, they had long agreed that thoughtful decision making about whether to bring a child into the world serves compassion and well-being—the very heart of humanity’s shared moral core. 

Now we argue from the default position that abortion is not moral. This is what our rhetoric says--because we don't say differently.

We focus on it being a right, a health decision, etc etc. But at the end of the day, we say very little about it being Good™, whereas this is the emphasis of the anti-choice position. We allow them to take the moral, emotional high ground. For some reason, we assume that it isn't ours.

But it is.

I won't reproduce them all here, but take a moment and check out the link above. Valerie Tarico does an amazing job of re-injecting our movement with its moral standing.

The simple fact is, empowering women to make the best choices for themselves, and their families, is an absolutely, 100% solid moral existence.

4. But women use birth control for medical reasons too!

I did a long post explaining my thoughts on this in detail a few months ago. It's not that I think this is a bad argument. It's that I think that it misses out on a crucial point.

Pregnancy is a medical condition. Preventing pregnancy, then, is a medical reason for taking birth control.

But, some might argue, pregnancy is caused by lifestyle factors! So are diabetes and heart disease in some cases, and yet we would never deny people the right to those medications because they live lifestyles we don't agree with. Someone could drive too fast on the highway and cause an auto accident, but I couldn't deny them healthcare because I disagreed with how they were living.

To apply that logic to women's health doesn't even make sense.

5. Sexual health is about health.

On the surface, this is completely accurate.

It's the sentiment that fuels a wide variety of our society's sexual health efforts, from HIV research to preventing teen pregnancy to dealing with sexual violence.

But it's simply not enough.

Sexual health is about sexual health, and that necessitates changing the conversation.

Pauline Oosterhoff writes in the Guardian:

The World Association for Sexual Health and the World Health Organisation’s definition of sexual health is: 
“Sexual health is a state of physical, emotional, mental and social wellbeing in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.” 
Clearly, sexual health is about much more than HIV, sexually transmitted infections, maternal mortality and other health problems that can count on broad public support. For that matter, these uncontested issues can only be solved by addressing some of the thorny and controversial aspects of sexual health. Take sex education for teenagers. Unmarried teenagers are often excluded from receiving information and sexual health services because, according to unrealistic and prudish social norms, they are not supposed to be sexually active.

We tend to take the health part of sexual health to heart, but it's truly part of an overall conversation about sexuality. Sex is a part of sexual health, and it's a part that needs to be talked about.

That means changing the conversation to talk about how we create meaningful sexual relationships--even if they aren't necessarily emotional ones. It means talking about what healthy relationships look like. It means addressing misconceptions about male/female sexuality. It is comprehensive sex education and access to contraception.

It's empowering people--and women especially--to make the best decisions for themselves, and then trusting them to make those decisions.

Changing conversations means progress.

These are not the only meaningful ways to shake up these conversations, and they aren't meant to be. They aren't an in-depth analysis of the situations above, and they also aren't meant to be that.

What they are meant to be is a starting point, a place to begin thinking--for me, mostly, but also for you dear readers--about how we can change the arguments that we are using.

Like our foremothers before us, we are facing a time where our rhetoric is falling on deaf ears. People have hardened their hearts to it. The amount of progress we have made gives us the illusion of triumph, and so many people are willing to cling to it.

This necessitates a change in the way that we are talking about these core issues.

We need a Darwin.

What--or who--will it be?

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