Monday, April 7, 2014

Complimentarity (& sex, sex, and more sex)

The term "complementarity" is exactly the same age as Edythe Kirchmaier, Facebook's oldest user and California's oldest licensed driver: 106 years old. It was originally a neologism used in physics in 1908. So my own confession, the Roman Catholic Church, among others, borrowed this term from twentieth century physics. No such thing is ever mentioned in the Bible, or even by most of the church philosophers.

In physics, the term was refitted during the 1920s to apply to quantum mechanics, describing the paradoxical relation between wave and particle. Niels Bohr wrote,

This crucial point...implies the impossibility of any sharp separation between the behaviour of atomic objects and the interaction with the measuring instruments which serve to define the conditions under which the phenomena appear.... Consequently, evidence obtained under different experimental conditions cannot be comprehended within a single picture, but must be regarded as complementary in the sense that only the totality of the phenomena exhausts the possible information about the objects.
The church did not follow this subtle transition, unfortunately, but had instead already used the term to disguise power as post-Enlightenment "nature," a popular practice among Catholics and Protestants during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which led the latter into the moral swamp of eugenics. A good part of the "nature" thing was the desire to naturalize the division of power between men and women.

The Eve-is-to-blame-for-the-Fall thing wasn't working any more.

This "complementarity" talk has surfaced again in the dispute over definitions of marriage, that is, the dispute over whether either state or church ought to recognize nuclear pair-marriages between two biological males or two biological females. In the latest issue of the Anglican Church Times, the Reverend Doctor Andrew Davison, of Cambridge University, provides us with an astute theological reflection on the topic that begins to move the discussion past the liberal-conservative shouting match by criticizing the premises of each.

Gender complementarity is both fact and ideology.

It is relatively uncontroversial to point out that human beings are mammals, generally divided into males and females; and that in the process of sexual reproduction, the contributions of male and female are both necessary and different. They are complementary. This is true of all sexual reproduction, even with hermaphroditic species like earthworms who have both male and female organs, because the male organs must be joined with the female organs even when all individuals have both.

On the other hand, since anthropology has opened our eyes to realities that have de-naturalized our own cultures and subverted our ethnocentrism, we know that gender complementarity declarations like "men are from Mars and women from Venus," or "men are instrumental while women are expressive" are false universalizations of culturally-constructed and culturally-specific phenomena that are trained and enforced within a gender regime. They are ideological; that is, they are ideas that simultaneously conceal and reproduce certain relations of power.

It is somewhat controversial, since essentialism-hunting became a popular academic sport, to say that biology does factor into certain kinds of gender complementarity; but this controversy is mainly Western and metropolitan, where people have been technologically separated from their bodies.

Anyone who has spent time in actual peasant societies, for example, is quite aware of the importance of breast-feeding infants. Men, by and large, do not lactate. In these vernacular societies, where much of what is consumed is produced at or near home, heterosex leads to births, and births lead to nursing. That is actually how it's been for humans for most of history.

Women travel around and work with infants attached to them, which does then articulate with certain divisions of labor. Men generally do those kinds of tasks that are most encumbered by infants, and women do those tasks that can be done with nursing infants strapped-in. Over time, this division of labor becomes encoded in tradition, and from that (and this is true of all known vernacular societies), men and women acquire distinct differences in tools, practices, clothing, language, etc. This is vernacular gender; and it is definitely complementary. But it does not necessarily translate into differences in social esteem or power gradients.

Matrilineal, matrifocal, and matrilocal cultures have differences between the tools, practices, clothing, and language of men and women just as consistently as patrilineal, patrifocal,and patrilocal societies do. The constant is that they are vernacular; that is, they are local, informal, voluntary, and not dominated by monetary exchange, technologies of dependency, or the state. That these societies were gendered, albeit in very distinct ways, and in ways that implied no necessary connection between difference and hierarchy, is a factual claim. That no known society so far has been un-gendered is also a factual claim.

To claim that these different gender divisions are predestined by DNA is a totally ideological claim.

(There is a liberal objection waiting in the wings that there is no such thing as "separate but equal," which will cite Brown v. Board of Education; but this is a specific modern example in a situation where the claim "separate but equal" was ideological cover for existing relations of power. Furthermore, it assumes something called "equality," which is itself a modern ideological political fiction.)

So the first thing we have to do to get to the bottom of this gender complementarity is to separate facts from ideology. Using my own admittedly unique and limited description of "ideology" -- a set of ideas that simultaneously conceal and reproduce power -- I will apply this definition to the church's claims about complementarity.

If the church is saying it takes a man and woman to make a child, then I'd be foolish to argue with that idea of complementarity. But if the church is saying that modern, voluntary, pair-marriage (a relatively recent phenomenon unknown to any of the authors of the Bible) must be "generative" in the sense of biological reproduction, then the church is caught in a bit of a trap in cases where heterosex couples, for whatever reasons, cannot engender a child, and the church is also confronted with its own support for heterosex couples who adopt children who were engendered apart from that marriage.

With these exceptions, we can argue that two men or two women who adopt, or one woman is paired with another woman (single, annulled, divorced, etc.) who has a biological child, are generatively-speaking no different than the heterosex couple who adopts or marries in. In the latter cases, the church has no objections; therefore the claim that preserving the generative function of modern, voluntary pair-marriage is exposed as a cover for an objection to same-sex pairs.

The church does object to same-sex erotic relations, based on a few decontextualized passages in the Bible, though the same church(es) certainly don't condone stoning disobedient children, even though selective, literal readings of the Bible can be used to support stoning disobedient children.

My own church has even, in the past, objected to sexual contact without the possibility of procreation -- that is, sex cannot be pursued for pleasure alone -- even though the same church has given its official blessing to the "rhythm method," a technique of sexual timing designed to do precisely that -- to allow (presumably pleasurable) sex with a minimized chance of conception.

This is not the full extent of the contradiction, however, because my own confession clings as well to complementarianism to exclude women from the priesthood (along with a non sequitur and historical prevarication called "apostolic succession").

This crude male power play was initially a reflection of a highly patriarchal surrounding culture, justified by literal appeals to the Genesis story to "prove" that women required male "headship" to control their chaotic natures (a notion that predated Christianity and was incorporated into it from the surrounding culture). For a short time, Christianity was actually very gender subversive of the surrounding culture; but within a hundred years, the church "fathers" had begun to consciously reassert male authority to "fit in" with imperial culture. Shortly after the Constantinian conversion, the church accepted political power -- in the empire, this was the province of males -- and simultaneously began participating in warfare, anathema to early Christians. Warfare is a male enterprise that teaches men the efficacy of violence; and it reproduces men who reproduce war. This secures the association between masculinity and violence. It also consolidates male power over women.  The point is, given the absolute nature of male power -- at least among the elites (little is known of vernacular cultures then) -- there was no need to appeal to complementarianism (which didn't exist in any case).

Male power was secured and justified. This has been the only constant in all these shifting premises prior to and including complementarianism.


Gendered power does not exist apart from all the other complexities of any society. It is woven into the fabric of a society in such a way that disruption of gender order creates disruptions in every facet of society... rather like pulling one broken thread from a sweater, whereupon everything else begins to unravel around it. Even calling it "gendered power" tends to reproduce a kind of fragmented, modern misunderstanding, the antidote to which is to admit up front that we are looking at this aspect of power apart from others for the purpose of closer analysis.

Just as disruptions in gender orders generate disruptions beyond gender in the whole fabric of society, which can threaten the stability upon which power relies, disruptions in other aspects of social organization can inadvertently create disruptions of the gender order. In either or both cases, these shifts and disruptions lead to epistemic crises -- crises about what constitutes "knowledge," which is also a species of power. Crises about what constitutes knowledge (I need only cite Copernicus as an example) lead to a kind of mass psychic vertigo, which accompanies a period of uncertainty, mistrust, and structural dissolution. Eventually, societies reset... that is, they self-organize again around new norms and achieve periods of relative stability until the next epistemic crisis. Because gender is so basic to the human experience, and because it serves as both the material basis for power and provides the conceptual coordinates for power (gendered and otherwise), gender orders are always subject to be disrupted in periods of great change.

This happened several times within Christendom, but probably most frequently and unexpectedly in the period generally between 1400-1900, when urbanization, the Reformation, and the beginnings of what we now call "capitalism" took root in the West under the auspices of the newly emergent nation-state.  This was also a period in which a progressive and intentional destruction of vernacular culture was undertaken as part of the development of modernity.

Without a sweeping historical review, the point I am sneaking up on is twofold: it wasn't until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that we saw the emergence of modern marriage, simultaneously called sacrament and a licensed contract signed before the state, and the invention of something called "homosexuality."

Obviously, I am not talking about same-sex liaisons. That has been going on for as long as anyone knows. I am talking about a noun that -- along with its complement, "heterosexuality" -- has alternatively been used to pathologize same-sex erotic contact and to describe something called a "sexual identity."

Though these two uses of the term are associated with opposite sides in a public debate, they share a largely unexamined assumption. Both take for granted that there is something called "sexuality," which is an attribute, almost a possession really, of "individuals." This notion, which embodies both the proprietary individual and the disaggregation of sex from any actual social context, which are themselves ideas -- and ideological constructs -- of Promethean modernity. Sexuality, in other words, is an abstraction. It is a thing-ified notion that we can apply to each individual like a part, like the tires on a car.

I'm looking around for mine right now, but I can't seem to locate it. My lunch is here next to a computer, but no sexuality. I'm wearing a flannel shirt and some corduroy trousers, a ball cap from Timber Charlie's Restaurant in Newberry, Michigan, and two socks with holes in the heels... but alas, I can't seem to put my finger on my sexuality. Okay, that might be a bad pun. But you can hopefully see what I mean, even though this critical departure from a modern assumption might be a little disconcerting.

The term appears only in 1789, meaning "capability of sexual feeling," and it doesn't acquire the meaning of "sexual identity" until 1980. I am being slightly and intentionally disingenuous, of course, because in the context of the Christian debate over "same-sex marriage," we hear a political objection to "a bunch of old men trying to police my sexuality." And I am quite aware of what this means, which is a legitimate objection, in my view, to authoritarian patriarchal gender policing... even if the language points at something else that is problematic.

At any rate, once "sexuality" was introduced, it kind of lay around for use by puffed-up nineteenth century doctors, until several developments created disruptions in the Atlantic gender order, whereupon psychoanalysis took the next step in emancipating the "individual" from any social context by inventing new intraspychic origin myths.

Liberalism had become firmly rooted in Atlantic culture and thought, with its talk of "freedom" and "equality" and "rights," and women who were privileged enough to have access to these ideas began to ask embarrassing questions about "rights" and "women," even when they only counted economically comfortable white women.

This, of course, generated a male backlash, and the lines between public (men's fraternal domain) and private (men's domain of domestic authority) were re-inscribed with a vengeance. This line was reinforced by intrapsychic psychology (Thank you, Dr. Freud!), which began medically pathologizing women who didn't behave as they were expected.

It was during this period that women who acted out were diagnosed with hysteria (meaning "from the womb"), and new, medicalized definitions for sexual normativity were cooked up by the experts. One of those pathologies was "homo---sexuality." Sexuality that was inappropriately directed from within the Cartesian nightmare of the unconscious.

Prior to this invention, certain men and women were known to engage in same-sex practices in specific contexts. Bobby Joe was known to engage in a bit of buggery, or Mary Sue was known to diddle about with Janie, but no one thought of this as either a syndrome or an identity. When it was pathologized, it was first called "sexual inversion," then more commonly "homosexuality."

Among some men -- schooled in martial of "frontier" masculinity myths -- a fear grew at the turn of the 19th-20th century, that urbanization and Victorian gentility were emasculating Atlantic men (future President Theodore Roosevelt was obsessed with this fear), at the same time when that urbanization was creating unisex consumer spaces and unisex factory floors. This industrial homogenization was killing off the last of the vernacular gender norms -- which were materially complementary -- and it left men ever more to define themselves not as men contra boys (a formative distinction) but as men contra women.  With industrial deskilling and generalized dependency on money from wage work, men began to define themselves as being Not Like Women. When women were explicitly defined as a negative in the conception of being a man, women themselves were further devalued... more even, they became the objects of active hostility. This is true today. Go into a bar and call a man "a pussy," and see what happens.

It is little wonder that the emerging "science" of psychoanalysis and the self-important male profession of medicine would begin to pathologize men who were Like Women, that is, receptive in sex. Even today in prisons, male jockers who "pitch" are not seen as "homosexual," like the male "sissies" who "catch."

Likewise, women who were not attracted to or subservient to men were pathologized.

This is at the root of the idea of complementarity in the debate over "same-sex marriage." "Homosexuality" is a threat to the gender order within which male power resides. That being so, there is no reason that certain kinds of gender complementarity cannot exist apart from hierarchy. But getting back to specifics, and away from liberal abstractionism, anyone who is married (I am) knows damn well that there is complementarity in every marriage... actually, in every relationship, period. This fact is not the same as the ideological agenda that lurks behind the term's use by theologians and church apologists who use this as a sly defense of male prerogative and power.


Before I get to marriage, I have to make note that Western homophobia, as a kind of normative male attribute, really made its widespread appearance during the Great Depression. I won't go into the complex history of that development, which began with a "crisis of masculinity" after the mass slaughter of World War I; but it is a development I recently confirmed through research when preparing a book on gender, war, and church.  Really true... that brand of "I hate fags!" masculinity is relatively recent; and it corresponds to a period when differences between male and female practices were diminishing as we all became a consumer society.

Men came more and more to define themselves against women (and "homosexuals") specifically around sexual practice; and "sexuality" was more and more understood by men to be characterized by domination and submission, by aggression and hostility. The degradation and humiliation of women was eroticized. Violent homophobia and the kinds of viscerally eroticized hatred of women one can see in most easily available internet pornography are not separate phenomena, but very much part of the same sexualization of gender (as power), as other markers of gender (read here: male supremacy) have been progressively obscured by the intensifying commodification of our lives.

Many Christians will object that their own brands of anti-"homosexuality" and female-subjugationism are not as violent or as degrading as that of gay-bashers and porn hucksters; and it is true that they draw the line on their own actions well before the graphic representations above. I have to be fair. But in my own experience, I have never met anyone who is an overt apologist for male supremacy who is not also opposed to same-sex unions.

But they are on the same psychic terrain... dominant male atop submissive female as an enforceable norm.  They are on shaky ground, however, when it comes to their biblical justifications, because the sexual norms -- even those respectable ones accepted within most churches -- are not even comparable to the sexual norms at the time of the writing of the Bible, especially the New Testament; and marriage then and now are equally incomparable. The social contexts surrounding sex and marriage are hardly comparable -- except insofar as men having power over women.

Marriages were male-dominant, often polygamous, arranged, politico-economically motivated, and men had a nearly absolute right to divorce wives -- who could then be forced into penury or prostitution. Families lives near to one another, in clanlike structures. There was no nation-state, nor were their marriage licenses. There was no marriage contract. This in hardly any way resembles modern, nuclear, voluntary pair-marriage, which in half of all cases ends in legalized divorce, in a society where men and women are, at least in some respects, have legally "equal" standing before the law.

Marriage today, whether we like it or not, is a legally recognized, contractual relation, that carries with it certain obligations and social benefits. It is also a covenental relation, seen by many in the church as constitutive of a small church in the home (I have no objection to this at all); and it is -- for people who are in the church or not -- a kind of public recognition of their life partnership, to which certain prohibitions and obligations are attached. Marriage is a state of proclamation - I and Thou are each and yet together as One.

Marriage is important.

On the one hand, with regard to the state, churches who oppose same-sex marriage and feel entitled to impose their beliefs on the society at large have no business squealing about religious freedom when the state tells them what to do or what not to do. This is a classic have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too situation. The fact is, same-sex marriage is here, and it is only a matter of time before it is accepted legally throughout most of the industrialized world. In fact, it is generational, as the issue is in many of our churches. Attrition is steadily clearing the field.

Same-sex marriage is not a threat to heterosex marriage. This idea is laughable in its sheer illogic. Explain to me how the same-sex couple down the street who is recognized by the IRS as a couple is a threat to my wife and I, and I'll eat your hat. What same-sex marriage threatens, that is, undermines, is a gender order that is above all characterized by male domination.

Perhaps more importantly, the church, who is supposed to be evangelizing about the teachings of Jesus -- which are love, love, and love some more, even unto death on a cross -- is subverting the teachings and example of Christ, when they stand by a rulebook about who can bump what with whom, give their blessing to heterosex marriages that are horrorshows of sadomascohism, abusive, and desperately unhappy, yet withhold that blessing for a same-sex pair who might be caring, self-sacrificing, and peaceful. But, in effect, that is exactly what many churches now do using the rulebook model.

Displacing the spirit of an institution with ossified rules was exactly what Jesus rebuked his critics for with regard to the Sabbath. He told them, the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. If he'd have been preaching in Arkansas today, he'd have said, "Your tail is wagging your dog." Love God. Love your neighbor. You don't need a rulebook for that.


I have been in a bad heterosex marriage and a good one. I have seen horrible same-sex relationships and some beautiful and caring ones. How did we get tangled up in the mechanical particulars instead of love and care? My answer can only be, power.

That doesn't mean I'm ready to cop to all the liberal chatter about "sexuality," either. It doesn't seem helpful to me to reject biological determinism on the one hand and embrace it on the other. I don't know any homosexuals or heterosexuals or ambisexuals.  I get it, okay, when these "identities" are political solidarities. But we are not reducible to politics either. I know people, with names, histories, families, memories, anxieties, troubles, joys, jobs, hobbies, heights and weights, kids, homes, etc. etc. etc. Every one of them so much more than a term in some alphabet-soup of taxonomical reduction. That's the way I believe God loves each of us, in the particular.

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

1 John 4:20


  1. From the (very, very) mainstream....

    Maureen Dowd: Pope acting with malice toward nuns

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    I've also noticed that for all the hoopla awhile back about being offended by his comments, the Sardinian Mafia hasn't whacked him yet.

    Fire away....

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  2. Very insightful and thought provoking, thank you Stan.


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