Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Renunciation, Sex, & Power

(written during Lent, 2013)

One of the glaring contradictions within peace advocacy and activism – and one that makes my own sweeping thesis that war is formative of masculinity constructed as domination problematic – is that so many men who are emblematic of peacemaking, or opposition to war, have displayed in word and deed their own inattention to and apparent denial of the power that men hold over women in the arena of sexual relations.

It seems that Gandhi, even and especially after taking his vows of chastity, slept naked with and bathed with a number of young women, as a kind of “testing” of his will – one that would occasionally result in “involuntary discharges.” Some were even the wives of his male disciples, who he had directed not to have sex with their wives as part of their pursuit of higher knowledge.

Dr. Martin Luther King, the great Christian leader of the non-violent struggle against legal apartheid in the American south, did not preach the “formal” chastity of Gandhi as spiritual quest; he stepped out on his wife – that is, he committed adultery with women he encountered while he was on the road. He even told Ebony magazine that a man’s infidelity was indicative of some fault in his wife – he gave “nagging” as one example.

Karl Barth – while not explicitly a pacifist – is counted among the theologians whose work largely supports Christian non-violence; and he appears to have been involved in a 35-year affair with his secretary. His most direct claim about gender and power was that women are “ontologically subordinate” to men. Especially, one must conclude, a man’s secretary – who in this case was never credited with her substantial contribution to his own work – and, of course, his wife.

John Howard Yoder, whose Christology is canonical for many Christian pacifists, sexually assaulted or abused dozens of women during his tenure as a professor at Goshen Biblical Seminary and Mennonite Biblical Seminary, which he justified as non-sexual because the incidents did not involve penile-vaginal intercourse. In some ways, his wheedling of several victims involved a rationale similar to Gandhi’s – that he was taking relations between men and women to some higher plane.

There is a tendency among people who admire these figures for some of the things they did – and they were important things – to write this off as instances of human fallibility.

And I am saying “write them off,” because I believe this is an intentional form of dismissal. The fact that these are all men and the fact that these are cases involving sex makes them similar, it makes them more specific than merely “fallibility,” and it suggests that something important about these similarities is being missed, or evaded.

We know that all forms of domination are not directly violent. We know about hegemony, for example, as Gramsci describes it. We know the economic domination can be exercised structurally, without direct violence, for example, when we submit to employers on unpleasant jobs out of fear of want. These forms of domination are structural. They are built into the existing self-organization of particular societies in particular ways, imbricated in networks of existing kinds of social relations.

What is curious about this pattern of men who oppose the kind of domination that is associated with war, and often as not the kind of structural domination that is associated with work (economic exploitation in workplaces), is that these same men seem so reluctant to recognize the ways in which women in male-dominated society are left with fewer reasonable choices in the face of structural male power.  Another failure or recognition is that women are placed in a kind of milieu of scarcity by patriarchal power that leads them to see other women as antagonists – as competition, for men as sexual partners or husbands, yes, but also for the approval of men who are in control of workplaces, governments, even social movements.  Men are not in the right position to judge when and how women make their accommodations, but we oughtn't be free to ignore the power that creates this circumstance.

This failure of recognition underwrites men’s ability to rationalize the ways in which they can take advantage of their own structural power as men, vis-à-vis women. Male power has been so continuous and all-inclusive that it is self-naturalizing. It appears ontological, even when it is clearly cultural. For me, as a male, that is a very comfortable and comforting ontology.

One of the things Catherine MacKinnon wrote, in her critique of the same problem with male Marxists who participated in the social upheavals of the 60s and 70s, actually sums the issue up very well.
Sexuality is to feminism what work is to marxism: that which is most one’s own, yet most taken away.
Note that she did not say that people oughtn’t work or engage in sex. She said that power in either relation alienates the person from her work or her sexuality. I refer here to the phenomenon of disembodiment (again) that results from a body that can be alienated, the body as a material possession.

We seldom talk about alienation, because the term has taken on a more therapeutic than social meaning in modern discourse – alienation is a medical symptom of some inability to adjust, not as a state of being within social relations characterized as domination.

I ran across a radio program a few years ago that is actually very illuminating, especially for men. It was aired in 1999. This edition was called "Lockup." It was about prison. The third act was called, "Who's your Daddy?" It was a reading from ex-con Stephen Donaldson's pamphlet telling new convicts how to survive in prison by protective sexual pairing. The description of this segment was:
"Who's Your Daddy? A reading of a pamphlet written by ex-con Stephen Donaldson for heterosexual men who are about to enter prison, about how to 'hook up' with a stronger man -- a 'daddy' or 'jocker' -- who'll provide protection in return for sex. He explains the rules and mores that govern this part of American prison culture. There's no graphic language and there are no graphic images in this story, but it does acknowledge the existence of sexual acts. Read by Larry DiStasi."
It was a matter-of-fact, step-by-step instruction booklet on how to shop for a strong man, and how to manage the relationship with him. Go to Act Three, which is about 32 minutes in. It only takes six minutes.
Link to Program

There was a very vigorous discussion of this piece at Metafilter. I also recommend this.

One comment: "memo to myself: don't go to prison"

Another comment: "Disturbing article. I'm not into constantly losing fights only to get raped at the end. And no way would I catch for someone. I would either become a jocker, or stay in solitary. Unbelievable -- what a different world."

More: "Oh. My. God. It's one thing to joke about 'Federal Pound-Me-In-The-Ass Prison,' but this article's matter-of-fact presentation exposes the horror. Can't prison authorities do something about this? Like maybe investigate and prosecute all rapes?"

And this: "Wow. The section at the end on Adaptation was really interesting. It must be completely world-altering to start out a jail-sentence straight and then slowly have your identity punk'd. Reading stuff like this reminds me of the kind of horrific practices that happened in previous centuries of human history and in animal tribes. Not much has changed, in some ways."

Finally: (This one caused some to get angry) "Ah yes, there's nothing to get red-blooded men fired up about rape than a good ol' drop-the-soap-story. By the way, it happens to a woman about once every 2 minutes, according to the DOJ."

When I heard this on the, I said to myself, "This is it. This is how difference is constructed as hierarchy... which is what women's oppression is, a system of oppressive social power... and when there is no "difference," difference is constructed (you get to be the "wife," the punk) to construct hierarchy. This is where we can show men what it is like to be women... how rape as a constant reality (one more regulated than really prohibited) in the background serves to push all women into the perennial sexual-contract: protection in exchange for obedience."

I note in the metafilter discussion how the men try to find anything to make this different than what happens to women... women are not locked up by the state... rape doesn't generally happen "in the ass"... and on and on and on. The avoidance is visceral, desperate. I can't be a "catcher"! We have to stop PRISON rape... oh yeah, and all other rape, too. [as an afterthought]

This is a perfect metaphor for women's condition, and for the so-called instant of "consent," because it is not metaphorical... it is real, and it is happening to men, and that makes it an urgent issue all of a sudden.

How do we now parlay that outrage into an understanding that this is what feminism is about... the same urgency to end the system of sexual subjugation of all women. I'm not talking about simply equal pay, but about the subjugation of women as women by men as men. That is why rape and battering and the renting of Indian women's wombs as surrogate mothers and international sex-trafficking and the explosion of misogynistic internet pornography are important issues. They don't happen to women because women are the same as men. They happen to women because they are women.

And if we want to get to the root of homophobia, then we have to understand that the behavioral expectations that underwrite it are based fundamentally on women's subordination. The policing of what Adrienne Rich called "compulsory heterosexuality" is the enforcement of a sexual binary that is defined by domination and subordination.

What does it tell us that men's most terrified reaction to the idea of prison is the fear that women experience all the time? What does it tell us that the worst punishment is to be made like a woman?  "I would either become a jocker, or stay in solitary."

This is particularly poignant to me, because some loved ones recently lost a young man (also a loved one to me) to suicide because he was about to be returned to prison – where he was abused, and where solitary confinement was his only protection.

I am not saying that all women’s choices are as urgent as facing rape (though men can never know how this possibility haunts the thoughts of women, except perhaps when men face prison); but that power and comparative powerlessness (the lack of desirable choices) makes the world of women and the world of men different. Very different. Blaming women for making accommodating choices is a refusal to recognize this crucial difference.

The refusal of Christian men – especially Christian men committed to non-violence, to opposing domination – to recognize this difference, and to act accordingly, is a spectacular form of hypocrisy.

The question might arise, what can men do? And I don’t have any comprehensive answer to that. But I know a few things men ought to quit doing. The first is to quit assuming that women think about sex the way we do; and to never, ever, ever, ever make even the slightest sexual overture to any woman – including our wives – without a clear indication that it is welcome. More abstinence would not hurt most of us. We cannot and should not consider sex to be an entitlement. It is not. Full stop.  And we are responsible for what we do, men.

Women will figure out what they need to do, as they have been for quite some time, without the direction coming from us.

There is no way to anticipate every encounter between men and women or to construct pat answers for how to respond in a way that is consistent with our faith. What we can do – as men – is recognize the structural power we have inherited, and in every way possible, to renounce it. This might be our daily struggle. Something to think about during Lent.


  1. I found this article an excellent expression of my own long-held ideas on this subject. Very enlightening. I really appreciate your sharing this with the public.