Silence Is Not Helping

. . . justice, or the lack of it, always involves bodies

Malachi is on leave. 

Robin:

Nude Shoot: Robin Gorsline, 10/3/2017The national conversation, indeed the raging national debate and finger-pointing, focused on sexual abuse, assault, and rape has many layers. None of this is about sex, not real sex, joy, passion, love, between or among consenting persons—it is about the use of sex to violate another/others.

And yet, as I will argue later in this piece, our social squeamishness about sexual honesty, our phobia about talking openly about sex, is a critical element in our national failure to deal with widespread, and so often hidden, abuse and assault. 

sexual violenceLet me examine two other aspects that also have touched me. Both involve gender roles as enforced by our culture. Both are about bodies—as I never tire of saying, justice, or the lack of it, always involves bodies. 

The first is the contrast between the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasy Ford and Judge, now Justice, Kavanaugh at the final hearing on his nomination to the Supreme Court. The second is an article by Monica Hesse of the Washington Post, “Dear Dads: Your daughters told me about their assaults. This is why they never told you.”  I discuss this below.

I need not spend much time on the first, it having been discussed in many places by many people. But what I do want to say is how clearly the two people reflected the expected, indeed demanded, gender role of women as calm, reasonable, self-effacing, gracious, cordial, concerned about the other person, gentle, etc., and men as strong, assertive, angry when necessary (and so often necessary). not giving any quarter, not caring about others, not even acknowledging others (especially women and children). 

Justice Kavanaugh raged; Dr. Ford smiled. Justice Kavanaugh sneered at Senators, especially women; Dr. Ford spoke deferentially and softly.

As many have noted, Justice Kavanaugh appeared to be coming from the place of righteous indignation, a visceral reaction to what he, and many others, perceived to be an assault on his place of honor and white male privilege as one who began with a silver spoon in his mouth and has carefully made sure it was never removed. How dare you question, undermine, my carefully constructed persona and and record! 

This leads me to another, and related, set of gender roles, namely those governing the relationships among fathers and daughters (and sons, too). Monica Hesse discusses how often daughters (and sons, too) do not tell their fathers about the sexual abuse, assault, and rape they endure. They don’t even talk about the catcalls and rude whistles and comments they endure on the street or the gender-based discrimination and lack of respect and advancement in the workplace. 

Monica Hesse

Some men are now asking their daughters, and maybe sons as well, if there is anything they should know, anything that their children did not tell them earlier, perhaps from shame, or fear of talking about sexual matters, or, as Hesse points out, because they fear their fathers cannot handle the pain they have endured (or are still enduring). Aside: this seems to me a deep tragedy in the current situation—it’s not just women like Dr. Ford and so many others who endured something earlier, but also the women, and men, who are currently enduring such horrors. What is the silencing and dismissals by so many authorities, e.g., President Trump, doing to them?

Hesse reviews communications she has received from many victims, and notices how many are now telling their fathers for the first time about rape and abuse, as well as how many are choosing not to tell. Those in the latter group still don’t think their fathers can handle the emotional upset, or they fear their fathers will rage like Justice Kavanaugh (but go much further by attacking their attacker and even killing him and ending up in jail), or they feel so much gratitude for all their father has done for them that they don’t want him to feel even a hint of ingratitude. One son says that he won’t tell because “manliness” is so important to his father. 

I am grateful to and proud of the children who are telling their fathers. It helps make their relationships more whole by being more honest. 

And I admit to being disappointed by those who are choosing not to tell. I can’t and won’t criticize them for an intensely personal decision. Still, I hope they will stay open to the possibility of self-revelation, and self-empowerment, at some point. 

I believe they will gain, their fathers (and mothers) will gain, and frankly, all of us will gain, too. 

The more honest we are with each other the better our society works. 

This leads me to raise an issue that regular readers of this blog may recognize from prior posts: namely the inability of our society to engage in honest conversation about sex, sexual expression, and sexuality. 

As I said above, sexualized abuse, mistreatment or rape are not forms of sex. They are methods of abuse and domination and violation/violence. 

But I believe part of the problem we have with being honest about violations of bodies and the people who inhabit them is our squeamishness to talk about sex in the first place. It seems clear to me that this is definitely true when it comes to raising sons. 

I turn 72 on the date of publication of this post and as I read articles and books and testimonies about how we are teaching our children about sex and relationships things don’t feel all that different than when I was a pre-adolescent and teenager. In so many locales sex education focuses mainly on “just say no” and “wait until you’re married.” Actually, in my youth, we had only “wait, it’s a sin before marriage,” which did not stop many of my peers from being sexually active (and I imagine some being predatory and violent). 

I read of how some parents talk to their daughters about being safe, taking precautions; they may even tell sons something similar. And of course, how “no means no,” but even more how consent is more than simply allowing something to be done by one person (or more) to another (others). Consent is an active agreement by both (all) parties. Anything short of that is non-consensual, abusive, and violative behavior. It does not appear to me that that message is getting through to boys, or many grown men either. 

What is also so often missing is testimony about the power and beauty of sex and sexuality, how when engaged in with sensitivity and care for each other(s) it can enrich life, because sex is a powerful, and can be a liberating, force in our bodies and lives. 

I think that can begin by teaching the beauty and power of masturbation, the safest form of sex, not only in terms of avoiding pregnancy and STDs but also in terms of not harming any person (with one caveat: using images that encourage violence and violation as a form of stimulation do cause harm). 

Just think how different it could have been for Dr. Ford if Brett Kavanaugh (or whomever violated her) and other high school boys had either jerked off by themselves or engaged in a circle jerk.  

I am not sure we have gotten far beyond the days when Dr. Joycelyn Elders, U.S. Surgeon General, was forced to resign by President Clinton on December 10, 1994 for responding openly, and affirmatively, to an honest question about masturbation. 

all bodies deserve respectBodies are at risk in so many ways, of course not just sexually but also in terms of lack of food, healthcare, water, and exercise, not to mention war, police violence and crime—and at the most basic level of social interaction, simple respect by each of us for all the bodies with whom we come into contact as well as those we never know.

Our political climate as revealed in the past several weeks certainly is working against such respect, certainly as it involves our sexual beings. It is time to own our failings and work together to create change. 

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Malachi:

As we head toward the middle of February, the world paints itself in pinks and reds, expressions of affection, anatomically incorrect hearts and overpriced flowers, and a myriad of ways to say, “I love you,” carefully crafted by greeting card companies (and usually accompanied by an abundance of glitter). It’s Valentine’s Day, a strange and perplexing holiday in which we are, in general, encouraged to express love and affection for those in our lives- specifically romantic entanglements.

Certainly, those who are unpartnered are encouraged to celebrate the love of friends and family, and parents are encouraged to celebrate love for their children (usually assuming their children are prepubescent), and children are encouraged to send well-wishes to other students in their classes (even the bully that takes their lunch money), but the reality is, Valentine’s Day is a couple’s holiday, a time to celebrate That Special Someone in your life. I suppose I sound a bit pessimistic about the whole business; Valentine’s Day tends to strike me as a capitalist, consumer holiday intended to reinvigorate the market after the inevitable lull immediately following Christmas.

My somewhat cynical and skeptical perspective on Valentine’s Day may seem antithetical to the purpose of the holiday- after all, shouldn’t we take any and all opportunities to express our love and affection for the people we care about? I think a part of me rebels at the mandate- this is the day that we show how much we love one another- because a part of me believes, much like the Christmas spirit, that we should seek to live with that in our daily lives, and not once or twice a year.

Photo Credit

As a polyamorous person, I also struggle because there are few (if any) representations of the ways that I love. No one is my “everything,” nor do I have a “love of my life.” I have those that I love deeply, those that I hope to grow old with, those that I have known and loved now for over half of my life, those with whom I have deep, committed partnerships that do not include a sexual component, those for whom sex is the basis of our relationship (but that is a kind of love, too, for me). The point is, dividing my time and trying to find ways to express and share the multitudes of affection and love and care that I have in my life is an overwhelming task anyway, let alone trying to cram it all into one day.

And as I begin to think about non-monogamy, I immediately think of kink, and the ways that affection is something expressed in BDSM. Without consent and thorough discussion, of course, much of what we do in kink and BDSM would be considered abusive…and as I am mulling over Valentines day, I cannot help but think of intimate partner violence and non-consensual interactions within couples. I think of the couples going out to dinner and a movie, those who are meeting someone for a first date, and wonder how many people will have sex that night because they feel they “owe” it to their partner to do so? How many people will be coerced, manipulated, or forced into sexual situations because someone else has their heart set on getting laid on the lover’s holiday?

Perhaps this is a dark and pessimistic way to think about Valentine’s Day, but it’s a difficult thing to stomach when we celebrate a day dedicated to couples and partnerships but consistently silence those who speak out about intimate partner violence. The rise of #MeToo has certainly shown the dangers and fears that women experience- not just single women who are dating, but women who are married or in long-term relationships (and this doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of assault and abuse men experience, and the added weight of toxic masculinity making it that much harder to break the silence there).

These things also bring me to thoughts of sending my daughter to school on Valentine’s Day: will she get one of those small, store-bought valentine’s from someone in her class, asking her to be their girlfriend? At 9 years old, she’s struggling to understand what that even means. Will she have to give out valentines to her classmates- from the boy she has a crush on to the kid that makes fun of her and picks on her? I appreciate and respect the idea that no one be excluded and everyone gets a valentine, but I also struggle with the idea of teaching children to offer mandatory affection to those who consistently cross their boundaries.

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But I also think about my own partners, the people that I love deeply and dearly. I think about bringing home flowers for one, because he likes getting flowers, and flowers for the other, because people rarely bring him flowers. I think about the texts I’ll send that day- one to a similarly-cynical lover that will express affection while recognizing that the whole thing is ridiculous; one to a sweetheart who appreciates small recognitions and gestures more than they are able to articulate; one to someone who takes immense pleasure in the moments of care and affection, whatever the purpose or reason behind them. I think about how we all work together to make it work.

I don’t particularly care for Valentine’s Day, not because I dislike the sentiment, but because it feels flat, one-dimensional, and only accessible to that part of the population who has managed to find someone they resonate with. I love the idea of expressing love, care, and affection in consensual, non-coercive ways… but I don’t think that is well-encompassed in Valentine’s Day.

Show love. Express care, express gratitude, tell the people that you love them that you do, often and frequently. But do it every day… and not one the one day of the year where roses are overpriced and Hallmark has found every possible iteration of “I love you” in glittery, cursive script. Celebrate on Valentine’s Day with the ones you love… and the days before, and the days after, until love is the permeating presence in your life.

 Robin:

Nude Shoot: Robin Gorsline, 10/3/2017Happy Valentine’s Day! Be My Valentine!

It rolls off the lips and the pen pretty easily. And often feels good.

But what if it doesn’t?

I remember some years of singlehood when there was as much pain as joy on this day. I am sure I am not the only one.

There is also the question of determining just who is my Valentine?  My husband, surely, but are there others, or is this really only about mates?

When they were little and I was divorced from their mother, I sent Valentine’s to my three daughters. Then a friend pointed out that as they reached puberty it might be a little creepy. I stopped sending them. Now I send to my three- and six-year-old granddaughters.  I assume I will stop at the appropriate moment.

The traditional, overwhelming heterosexism of this social custom makes me wonder if I would have sent Valentines to my sons or will send them to any grandsons that may yet bless our lives?

But there are more customs, or history, of this day which make it more problematic than I used to understand. Like most major celebrations, some of the details can create conflicting emotions. Christmas—because the date which the church chose was intended to supersede the Roman holiday of Saturnalia—comes to mind.

Valentine’s Day seems to have had a far more checkered past. According to National Public Radio,

From Feb. 13 to 15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain.

The_Lupercalian_Festival_in_Rome by Circle_of_Adam_Elsheimer_
The Lupercalian Festival in Rome (ca. 1578–1610), drawing by the circle of Adam Elsheimer, showing the Luperci dressed as dogs and goats, with Cupid and personifications of fertility

The Roman romantics “were drunk. They were naked,” says Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Young women would actually line up for the men to hit them, Lenski says. They believed this would make them fertile.

The brutal fete included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be, um, coupled up for the duration of the festival — or longer, if the match was right.

In addition to the date, Ancient Rome may also be responsible for the name. Emperor Claudius II executed two men — both named Valentine — on Feb. 14 of different years in the 3rd century A.D. Their martyrdom was honored by the Catholic Church with the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day.

Still what’s history got to do with it? Maybe more.

Greeting Card Association logoThis holiday has become a wonderful midwinter jolt to commercial activity. Prior to the development of improved printing techniques in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, most people made handmade Valentine greetings.

Now, the Greeting Card Association claims more than one billion cards are exchanged (150 million in the United States). While the number startled me when I first encountered it, it reminded that the holiday is popular in places outside the U.S.! This compares to 2.6 billion cards exchanged at Christmas. Still, when you add in chocolate and flowers and other gifts of endearment, Valentine’s Day is a commercial high point.

February also is Black History Month. I used to hear complaints from Black people that, of course, it is the shortest month of the year! I don’t know if they were being ironic or angry, or most likely both. It seems clear to me that the first half of Black History Month often gets subsumed by preparations for and celebrations of Valentine’s Day.

Frederick_Douglass_c1860s
Frederick Douglass ca 1860

I do know that Black History Month grew up organically in the African American community, instigated largely by the late and renowned historian, Carter G. Woodson. He was inspired by how in the 1890s local and state Black communities had begun having celebrations of Black History Week, built around the adjacent birthdays of two heroes, Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14).  Great man that Lincoln was, it is Douglass whose birth and life deserve far more attention than they receive.  An interesting note: Douglass, born a slave in Maryland without a birth record, decided as an adult that his birthday, known to be in February, should be on February 14—because he remembered that his mother kept calling him her “little Valentine.”

Tonight, my husband and I are planning to go out for a Valentine’s Day dinner, something we have not done in some years. I intend to offer a toast to Douglass at dinner, and I intend in the days leading up to and including February 14 to make small efforts on Facebook and elsewhere to raise awareness of Douglass.  His love for himself and his people furnish an excellent example of love in action.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick DouglassAs a queer theologian, I am unsettled by Valentine’s Day. Honoring the martyrdom of the first St. Valentine’s by the Roman Catholic Church is understandable, indeed commendable. But presumably it was their love of God and Jesus that got them killed. Now we use the day to honor people with cards and gifts. Where is the day to honor those who sacrifice for love?

It all feels too much like what we do with the birth of Jesus—make it a feast for ourselves rather than understanding and honoring the demands and possibilities of love that knows and accepts no boundaries.

Would Valentine’s Day not be better spent engaging in “love projects”—organizing and undertaking actions to create change in the lives of others? How about something as simple as going to a soup kitchen or homeless shelter or women’s shelter to offer help? What about spending the day with a shut-in who would be glad for some attention or maybe a trip to the store or a movie?

Is not love more than a feeling, more than a way we feel about one person or even a few special people? Is it not more than cards, flowers, and candy? Is it not a way of life to be shared with all, for all, through all?

I have decided to stick with love MLKI have come to believe that love is an orientation toward life, it is how God calls us to live each moment of our lives. The central question becomes not so much who do I love but how do I love—how do I love myself and the world, enough to risk it all, like Frederick Douglass, to create change? He was not martyred, but he gave unstintingly of himself to the cause of his people to rise above the vileness of slavery and Jim Crow, to create in their own eyes, if not in the eyes of most others, the beloveds of God they were and are.

For me, today is Frederick Douglass Day at least as much as Valentine’s Day.

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

How do you feel about Valentine’s Day? Do you have only positive memories or are they mixed? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

Mark Your Calendar! March 14, right here, the next installment of Sex, Bodies, Spirit.