Friday, April 15, 2016

Sex And Sermons: Fundamentalists and Women's Sexuality

A delicious topic:  How fundamentalist religions cope with sexuality in general and with women's sexuality in particular?

The short answer is that all fundamentalist religions frown upon non-reproductive sex, including homosexuality.  They also wish to  take the ownership of a woman's sexuality away from her and assign it to her parents or her husband.  The deeper answer is that those religions want control of all fertility.  Those goals require that women should not be able to control their own reproduction. 

At this point in my writing I feel a strong pull towards discussing how getting more people-in-the-pews or on prayer mats keeps religions powerful and large, how that works against the whole idea of contraception or even non-reproductive sex,  and how it ultimately means that women must be assigned the role of producing babies for the common good but not the role of determining how many or at what intervals.

This time I won't go there.  Instead, I want to look at that fascinating storm of emotions which are revealed when, say, an Islamist preacher argues that the world will end if the sexes are allowed to intermingle at work or in the public sphere.  Why will the world end?  Because such intermingling will cause people to copulate like bunny rabbits, on the streets, in the stores and on the roofs!  Marriage will collapse!  Nobody knows what man sired what child!  Chaos ensues!

See what a frightening and powerful force sexuality is to such a preacher?  It's almost as if the only thing which stops him from participating in such orgies is that women are segregated from men and properly covered up.  One frail wall of fabric is all that keeps the flood of erotic tornadoes at bay.

And the maintenance of that wall of fabric is the duty of women.  Indeed, while all fundamentalist religions want to appropriate women's sexual agency, none of them wish to take any responsibility for the sexual attraction between heterosexual men and women.  That task they see as belonging to women alone.

Men are viewed as sexually liable to stray** and women are to stop that straying.  Hence the solution to the imaginary storm of random sex the fundamentalists so fear is to make women behave better, to make women the goalkeepers in the game of pre-marital sex (where heterosexual men are expected to try to get the puck in the net and heterosexual women are expected to try to avoid that outcome), to tell women to avoid places where rape and other sexual assault might happen (as John Kasich has just suggested), to tell women to cover up so that the weak men will not fall into sin (did she wear a mini-skirt?  was her hair showing?)

Thus, although the fundamentalists want to control all sexuality and rule out homosexuality altogether, much of their focus is on the control of female sexuality.   Customs such as female genital mutilation (FGM) are to make women less sexual, more faithful wives, less likely to take lovers***. Female masturbation is the most pleasant of roads to hell and dildoes the homes of Satan. 

And then there is the novel idea of sado-masochistic sex as a road to heaven for women, a form of religious female submission turned into the language of pronography [sic], this being one depiction of the kind of sexuality that is seen as acceptable among some believing women of fundamentalism.

When I put all this together (whether it belongs together or not), I get an explanation of women's sexuality inside various fundamentalist movements:

Women should not be active agents in sex, they should be active agents in stopping the kind of sex the fundamentalist fathers don't want them to experience, but otherwise their role should be passive and subject to the control of their kin. 

The incentives for women not to have "improper" sex consist of largely punishments.  The US anti-feminist right and the home-grown misogynists argue that sexually active unmarried women become soiled toilet paper, will never be able to have a happy marriage, will end up alone and weeping over their cats, whereas nothing much is written about the destiny of sexually active unmarried men, as long as their partners are female.  That's because men cannot become soiled toilet paper.

Other types of desired punishments abound.  Some pro-life activists seem to regard unplanned pregnancies as the proper punishment for "sluts" and the resulting children as an appropriate life sentence.  Those who don't want to subsidize "sluts" having sex in their health insurance policies when contraception is also covered never to howl out in despair about how other people's Viagra prescriptions amounts to exactly the same kind of subsidies.

The differences are driven by the deeply hidden assumption that it is women who are responsible for not having sex of the wrong type.  On the whole, very few restrictions in that field apply to heterosexual men's erotic life.

Finally,  consider this form of punishment for women who report a rape or a sexual assault at the Brigham Young University:

Students say Honor Code involvement means a victim who reports an assault faces possible punishment if she or he was breaking curfew, violating the dress code, using drugs or alcohol or engaging in consensual sexual contact — all banned by the code of conduct — before an attack.
In a statement, BYU said a student "will never be referred to the Honor Code Office for being a victim of sexual assault," and that its Honor Code proceedings are "independent and separate" from Title IX investigations.
But multiple BYU students investigated by the school's Honor Code Office disagree, saying they were scrutinized as a result of reporting a sex crime. In some cases described by past and current students, Honor Code investigations were launched even when the accused assailants were not BYU students — the alleged victim being the sole possible target.

This smells to me like a (much) milder version of the difficulties of proving rape under the sharia law****.  If a woman fails to make her case she can then be punished for adultery.  In both of these cases,  the specter of punishment for consensual sex serves to make women less likely to report rape or sexual assault.

*   From 2006, this story gives us the most explicit version of the belief:

In the religious address on adultery to about 500 worshippers in Sydney last month, Sheik Hilali said: "If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it ... whose fault is it, the cats or the uncovered meat?
"The uncovered meat is the problem."
The sheik then said: "If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred."
He said women were "weapons" used by "Satan" to control men.
"It is said in the state of zina (adultery), the responsibility falls 90 per cent of the time on the woman. Why? Because she possesses the weapon of enticement (igraa)."

** An extremely sexist assumption, by the way, amounting to assuming that men have no self-control at all or even need it.

***  FGM is a cultural practice but appropriated by religions:

No religion promotes or condones FGM. Still, more than half of girls and women in four out of 14 countries where data is available saw FGM as a religious requirement. And although FGM is often perceived as being connected to Islam, perhaps because it is practiced among many Muslim groups, not all Islamic groups practice FGM, and many non-Islamic groups do, including some Christians, Ethiopian Jews, and followers of certain traditional African religions.
It has been justified as follows:
Psychosexual reasons: FGM is carried out as a way to control women’s sexuality, which is sometimes said to be insatiable if parts of the genitalia, especially the clitoris, are not removed. It is thought to ensure virginity before marriage and fidelity afterward, and to increase male sexual pleasure.

**** For an extreme example, see Saudi Arabia's practice.