Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Rise up, Sotah: Contraception, Religion, and Slut-Shaming

Cross-posted to State of Formation.

I have a truly shocking announcement: I am a woman, and I enjoy sex.

Apparently, admitting to this makes me a slut.

I am not, of course, unusual. For many of us, sex is fun. For many of us—cis-women[1] who sleep with cis-men, thereby risking pregnancy, included[2]—sex is a thing that brings joy to life and contributes to its being worth living. One of the great things about the technological age is that we have a range of medicines and devices that make it possible to have a fulfilling sex life while significantly reducing the risk of an unplanned pregnancy. By all measurable standards of human flourishing, this is awesome. And yet, society has a problem with us saying this out loud.

According to “Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog,” slut-shaming is “the idea of shaming and/or attacking a woman or a girl for being sexual, having one or more sexual partners, acknowledging sexual feelings, and/or acting on sexual feelings. Furthermore, it’s “about the implication that if a woman has sex that traditional society disapproves of, she should feel guilty and inferior” (Alon Levy, Slut Shaming).”

If it please the court, I’d like to present (only the latest) exhibit A:
"What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic] who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex -- what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex."
As we are likely all well aware by this point, Rush Limbaugh directed the above screed at Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke, who testified before a congressional committee in support of the Obama administration’s contraception coverage mandate. Never mind that Limbaugh’s statement betrays a gross misunderstanding of how hormonal birth control actually works. (For those who are curious, you have to take it every day, regardless of how much sex you are or are not having.)

Never mind that much of Fluke’s testimony was directed towards the use of hormonal birth control for non-contraceptive purposes, or that it never mentioned her own sex life, or even whether she personally uses hormonal birth control, once. It was enough that a woman unapologetically acknowledged that birth control was a real need in women’s lives.

However, much as Limbaugh might prefer to think otherwise, this article is not about him. Rather, his comments were an especially egregious representation of a larger cultural trend—a trend, unfortunately, which has significant roots in religious traditions.  One of the stranger and more disturbing episodes in the Hebrew Bible describes a test as to whether a woman suspected of adultery is guilty:
"After he has made the woman stand before the Lord, the priest shall bare the woman’s head and place upon her hands the meal offering of remembrance, which is a meal offering of jealousy. And in the priest’s hands shall be the water of bitterness that induces the spell…Once he has made her drink the water—if she has defiled herself by breaking faith with her husband, the spell-inducing water shall enter into her to bring on bitterness, so that her belly shall distend and her thigh shall sag; and the woman shall become a curse upon her people. (Numbers 5:16-27, JPS)"
The point here is that unrestrained female sexuality represents a threat to the social structure: in this case, a material threat, since it made establishing a child’s paternity difficult. The best way that structure could restrain it was to place not just legal sanctions but social stigma on the suspected adulteress, or sotah. The ritual was meant to physically mark her; her body itself became a kind of scarlet letter that told everyone who saw her: this is a slut.

The ritual sounds arcane and anachronistic, but don’t we take women’s bodies and how they appear as physical markers of their supposed sexual virtue? Tight or low-cut clothing, or even physical features women may not have any control over—large breasts or buttocks, for instance—we assume that these markers aren’t for the women themselves, but for us, to signal their sexual status.

Similarly, the admission that a woman uses birth control, and especially the acknowledgement by a woman that yes, sex is an important part of her life, isn’t assumed to be about her own needs and desires, but about broadcasting her sexual availability to the rest of us. And that is assumed to be shameful.

Why is this a problem? For one thing, a culture that shames an open conversation about women’s sexuality is a culture that is going to make it more difficult for women to get the reproductive healthcare that they need—especially women with limited resources, or women who might be in urgent or dangerous situations.

For another, the assumption that women’s sexual choices aren’t for them but for our collective benefit leads to a horrifying degree of victim-blaming in cases of rape and sexual assault. Slate’s Emily Bazelon notes that this even manifests itself in rape law:
"Rape law also still treats certain kinds of sexual conduct as unacceptable for women, by exempting it from the rule that places a woman’s sexual history outside the bounds of evidence that can be admitted at a rape trial…In many cases, it’s deviance that’s deemed to make a woman’s history distinctive, allowing the court to give the jury the chance to conclude that a particular’s woman’s claim of rape is less legitimate."
This has to stop. And because religious traditions have helped build this structure, religious voices have a moral responsibility to be a part of what stops it. Can we step up? In subsequent posts I’ll explore resources within my own tradition that I think can be useful for doing so. But I hope dearly I won’t be spitting into the wind.

Do our traditions contain the resources to build a truly feminist, inclusive, sex-positive sexual ethic? I hope so. I think so, and I want to believe so, but I am honestly not sure. Are there texts and rituals within our traditions that contain theological and philosophical grounds upon which such an ethic can be based? Yes, there are. Do our traditions furnish us with methods of interpretation and practice that can help us emphasize those parts and confront and repair destructive ones? Absolutely. Is there the human will—the intellectual bravery and moral conviction—to use those methods? I cannot answer that question. I can be one part of the answer, but the rest is up to everyone else.

Original artwork, "Scarlet Letters," by author.

[1] A cisgender person is someone whose gender identity, as understood within their culture, matches their phenotype and sex chromosomes. Contrast with a transgender person, whose gender identity in some way does not match their phenotype and/or sex chromosomes. A transsexual person is someone who has undergone some degree of medical gender reassignment—hormone therapy, gender reassignment surgery, etc.—to bring their physically expressed sex characteristics in line with their gender identity. Not all transgender people are transsexual. For a fuller treatment of Trans 101, see the Sylvia Rivera Law Project’s helpful rundown. [2] It is absolutely not my intention to erase transpeople who have not yet undergone gender reassignment surgery or have chosen not to and who might therefore also run the risk of impregnating someone or of becoming pregnant; rather, this post is about a social phenomenon that overwhelmingly applies to people who can become pregnant and are perceived as female. Transphobia—in general, and with specific regard to sexuality and to religion—is a huge issue of its own, and something I hope to address in future articles with the depth and attention it deserves.

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