Not only was that a long title, this is going to be a long and meandering post. I'm posting it now and I may amend it.
To whom does my body belong? What limits must I place on its desires and my actions?
I was asking myself that question on this afternoon's run. You see, I've been working out a lot these past few weeks, doing several "two-a-days" (cycle in the morning, run in the afternoon) and upping my weekly mileage. I've been hitting the weights four to five days a week as well. I haven't been teaching the college's winter intersession, and thus have been off since mid-December. It has been a welcome respite from my normal schedule of 19 classes a year. It has also given me the opportunity to give my mind a rest, and think more than usual about my body.
When I say "think about my body", I don't mean narcissistic self-regard. I mean reflecting seriously on the relationship between matter and spirit. In particular, I've been thinking about how critical the link is between justice and self-discipline. Let me explain.
Born into a healthy white male body, I've had precious little experience in my 37 years of having external constraints put on my body. My maleness insulated me against menstruation, the fear of unwanted pregnancy, and our culture's intense sexualization of young women's bodies. (When I was younger, my worries about what was appropriate to wear to a formal occasion concerned matching my tie to my shirt; my female friends worried about being too sexy, or not sexy enough. My burden, to put it mildly, was lighter). Today, I can teach classes in a button-down shirt, tie, and khakis -- or in my old Lucky jeans with a Kenneth Cole t-shirt. (I have an unbecoming fondness for labels, and for synthetic fabrics, but I do try to buy "sweatshop-free") I can do all this with the confidence that my body will not become an issue in the classroom -- my masculinity assures me a credibility that cannot be compromised by my fashion choices. My gravitas as a teacher is unaffected by whether I am trim or chubby, toned or flabby. My sisters who teach cannot say the same; I've heard countless stories from my female colleagues of having their bodies or their clothing critiqued in classroom evaluations. (This is at an urban community college - I suspect it might be different elsewhere, though I cannot know that for certain.)
Darn it, I'm already wandering off my topic.
When my fiancee and I marry and have children (God willing), it is her body that will bear the burden of nurturing that life. I intend to be supportive in every imaginable way -- but my flesh will not be directly affected by our decision to procreate. Hers will. I'll be able to run an exuberant 10K the day after my child is born, if I so choose (I suspect I'll prefer to be with my family). Even if she were so inclined, it would be some time before my wife would be able to do the same! And, as the years pass, I fear no biological clock -- I will be able to father children (heavens forfend) into my eighth decade of life. No woman -- as of yet -- can say that.
Ultimately, I believe a man's body is fully his and his alone in a way that a woman's generally isn't. I don't bemoan that fact, nor do I celebrate it. Rather, I'm increasingly focused on the notion that as a result of this unmerited privilege, men have a special obligation to do justice with their bodies. What on earth does that mean? First and foremost, it means "do no harm." Unrestrained male appetite for food, sex, and alcohol, wreaks tremendous devastation on both a small and a global level. Am I saying that women don't abuse all three of these things? Of course not. But I think it can be safely argued that when speaking of sex and alcohol, male uncontrolled desire has done far more harm.
When we overeat, we don't merely harm our own bodies -- we rob our children and we rob our planet. In the industrialized world, men die earlier than women, frequently due to factors related to diet. Overeating shortens our life span, robbing our children and our grandchildren of time that might be spent with us. (The link between calorie restriction and longevity is increasingly well-documented.) When we restrain our appetite for food, we also conserve precious resources. This is particularly true if we work to eliminate packaged food (which tends to end up in landfills) and meat (most of which is raised on factory farms that are not only inhumane, but a woeful misuse of land.) Thus, what I put in my mouth is an ethical issue. For my family, the wider human community and for animal life itself, I have an obligation to be a good steward of my flesh in order to be of maximum service with minimal harm. Obviously, I'm not trying to prescribe one particular diet - just to make the case that our food choices need to be seen as moral decisions. If I have to blot out another's suffering in order to enjoy my meal, I've made a poor choice.
The same is true of our sexuality. I've offered the beginnings of a case for a pro-life, pro-feminist approach to sexual ethics. Though it wouldn't end all abortion, getting each man to be willing to raise the children that his ejaculate helps to conceive would be a great step towards eliminating the practice. (If he isn't ready to be a father under any circumstances, then abstinence is an excellent alternative.) Male sexual self-restraint is critical to resolving another justice issue: the growing global sex trade. Though both young men and young women are exploited in prostitution and pornography, the overwhelming majority of the "exploiters" are men. I know it's important to distinguish between the exploitation of minors and the legal activities of adult sex workers, but I am convinced that the entire industry -- from strip clubs to child prostitution -- harms the fabric of our culture. Though I am not averse to addressing the "supply" side of the issue, I believe all truly effective moral reform focuses on the "demand" side -- and the demand for the services of the global sex industry is almost exclusively male.
When I buy porn or go to a strip club (things I don't do, by the way), I reward an exploitative and destructive industry. I send a message that male sexual desire is uncontrollable, or at least, impossible to confine to a monogamous relationship. Pleasuring my body comes not merely at my own financial expense, but at the expense of others' respect for me and others' respect for themselves.
I love my body, and not merely because it is "in shape" these days. I love it because I have arms to hug with and a tongue to taste with and legs to power up a mountain with and hands to reach out with. But I also recognize that my body is, to borrow a phrase from Stephen Carter, a "bundle of desires", some good, some not so good. When I indulge myself in the latter, be it with a steak or a visit to a strip club, my choices are harming other living things. My right to pleasure stops when it extends to another's exploitation, another's degradation, another's life, or even my own health.
Good food does not have to come at the expense of an animal's life or the shortening of our own. Sexual pleasure can be found in the context of a safe, loving, committed, monogamous relationship. Self-restraint is not the same as asceticism. Rather, it is the recognition that the most basic kind of justice we can aspire to is to do justice with our own bodies. And for almost all of us, especially those of us who live in male flesh, doing justice will mean a deep and profound commitment to self-restraint.
Whew. I've just edited this for the third time and I'm popping it out there. Anyone make it through the whole thing?
I think this post is a sign I need to get back in the classroom.