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May 03, 2005


Amanda Marcotte

Might just be that since men determined the clit had to go in the first place, it puts men in an untenable position to assert by authority that it gets to stay now. Of course, as someone who is familiar with women's history, I know that's not the case and I'm actually glad that men find this to be horrifying like I do. But I can see their concern.


Relevant bit: I'm a feminist male, a grad student in philosophy who may end up teaching a class like this some day. My answer to the first question in your last paragraph is 'yes': I really do think feminism is about recognizing how blurry the female/male divide is. Realizing that those differences are culturally constructed doesn't eliminate them, but it does allow us to recognize Ourselves in the Other (to speak theoretically): a feminist man cannot completely understand the trauma of a clitorectomy, of course, but we can empathize with the loss of sexual feeling from our own point of view, without thereby appropriating it. As a my twelve-year-old step-sister put it in a very different context, I'm a guy who's comfortable thinking like a girl. Amanda has a good post that seems kind of relevant over at Pandagon.

Less relevant bit: I've been reading your blog for a few weeks via feministblogs.org. I've been trying to understand Christianity of all flavours as well as I can from my atheist point of view for a while, and your blog has given me some interesting things to think about from time to time. Keep up the thoughtful work!


a feminist man cannot completely understand the trauma of a clitorectomy, of course

Ok, but neither can a woman who's never had a clitorectomy, and even a woman who's had a clitorectomy can't necessarily understand what it would be like for another woman. I guess I think it's important for any historian to realize that no matter how much we share with the people we study, we don't have a direct line to their consciousness.

I don't think that most women are accustomed to talk about clitorises or masturbation with men, unless they're having sex with those men, and it's not terribly surprising to me that it makes some of your students uncomfortable. We're taught to think of those topics as dirty, and talking about dirty stuff with men is... really dirty. I don't even know if they have to get to the men-have-had-power-over-women's-bodies/ can-he-empathize-with-oppressed-women stage. And in that sense, I guess I think it's a good thing to do, even if it makes your students uncomfortable. It's not good for women to think there are parts of women's bodies or aspects of female sexuality which are off-limits or too filthy to be discussed in mixed company. And the only way to break the taboo is to talk about it.


Hugo, I don't think your ability to empathize is really at issue here. Amanda has a point - you're still embodying male special knowledge about women's bodies here, even if you're not trying to assert control, and that can be an uncomfortable reminder of the way things were.

I've found that I'm generally more comfortable in conversations where the authority figures are both male and female; it signals, I think, that I can let my guard down because the patriarchy has been defeated (or at least severely enfeebled). The more personally relevant the topic, the stronger the effect.

The other thing I think is going on is simple prudishness. Lots of people are uncomfortable talking about sex in mixed company, or the company of relative strangers or authority figures, and female desire is still thought of as one of the "dirtier" aspects of sex.

What effect do you think your students' discomfort actually has on their learning process? It's hard to get a feel for this from a few journal excerpts.


"a feminist man cannot completely understand the trauma of a clitorectomy, of course"

What? Of course we can. Hugo has taught us ALL "men" and "women" are Born the same.

Gender is just learned. If you haven't figured that out than just take a look under any feminists skirt.

I would argue a 9" clitoris qualifies as a penis any day of the week.


Hugo HOW DARE YOU, a man, presume to even talk about women's bodies. You are a man, and you are therefore biologically our oppressors. It's in your genes, you are programmed by NATURE to abuse, beat, and rape us. Now you want to be a pretender for Mama's praise? It doesn't work on me. I know that behind your pretense of "male feminism" (as IF) there is a reptile. Never Again.


What are you, as a man, trying to gain from this discussion? That you emphathize with women? That you understand what we go through everyday? Please. You're a man, and if it's not your problem you won't care about it or be inclined to fix it.


I hope some of the above commenters are being facetious. I really admire that you teach this class, and think that of women studies classes out there, one that focuses on body history would be more interesting than either theory or Great Women, because it is more personally relevant.

I can understand your students' wish that they had learned some of this stuff from a woman, but I think it is even more important to have man teaching it, to say that these injustices should make all people angry, not only women.

I've been reading your blog for a while now, and while I don't always agree with you, I always admire your strong moral compass and your writing style.


I've actually just been thinking about similar topics myself. I'm about half-way through "Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafisi (which I recommend highly). She was an English Literature professor in Tehran from 1979 to 1996, and the book is her memoirs of being a woman in Iran. So much of her thoughts and experiences are tied to her body--how she experiences her body, how others see it, how others react, and how the state tries to control it. In a traditional society, like Iran, women's bodies are seen as having tremendous power--so much so that men must be protected from them, lest they have uncontrollable lustful thoughts. At the same time, women are powerless over their own bodies. Nafisi was expelled as a professor from the University of Tehran because of her refusal to wear a veil. She describes meeting former students who, ten years before, wore khaki pants and long sleeved t-shirts, and are now drowning in a full chador. She describes how their bodies have been taken away.

Even in American society, I think women have a very different relationship to their bodies than men do. Our bodies are admired, but not respected. Our insistence of power over our own bodies, especially when it comes to sex and birth control, seems to scare the living daylights out of a good portion of the population. The greatest fear I have of an unwanted pregnancy (and the reason I would have an abortion) is not the effect it would have on my education and career, not the pain of pregnancy and childbirth, not the unwanted responsibilities of parenthood. The thing that inspires absolute terror in my very gut is the prospect of losing control over my body, of being told that my bodily integrity is not important. If abortion is outlawed, I must give up control of what happens to my body to something I did not choose, and do not want.

I'm not sure that (American) men have this same constant low-level fear that their right to their own body may be taken away at any moment, whether through rape, "decency" laws like those in Iran, unwanted pregnancy, or harassment. Perhaps they do; but I think the way our society fears and admires female bodies without respecting them colors the way we all relate to our own bodies.


Thanks, folks. For what its worth, I find that both published articles and internet materials use "clitoridectomy" and "clitorectomy" interchangeably. This includes medical journals. Is there a difference of which I am unaware, or are they just two similar words for the same process?


I have a male women's studies professor, and he is very knowlegeable and a very competent teacher. I still don't always feel comfortable in the class. I think I may feel doubly so if he was a "body" teacher.

I suppose this come from the "only man can restore value in the study of your sexuality". If it's just women, there is no more value than children telling stories.
When some men started with women and women's body, they came from a men's perspective. Women are just smaller men, right? Reading Frued's view on women's sex makes me want to go into the past and strangle him, because just because he sees it this way, doesn't make it so, and the women who stood up and said, "no, that's not right" were considered less valued the the dear doctor.

It just is one of those, "I am the man in power, because I say it, it makes it so". Even though that's not entirely accurate.

Creeping Jenny

Though I've never taken a women's studies class, I can definitely empathize with your student. For those of us who have dealt at one time or another with unwanted, intrusive male sexual attention, it can be difficult to feel comfortable discussing such personal matters with men we don't know intimately. (I don't mean intimately-sexually, just intimately-trustingly.) Add the fact that you're older, and in a position of power, and I can see how it might make some of your students really uncomfortable.

At the same time, I admire your guts for trying to open up a sincere conversation with students who are coming from a different place than you. It sounds like the majority of your students are enjoying and learning from the conversation. And even the ones who feel uncomfortable may end up getting something positive out of the situation -- it doesn't sound like Carmela was scarred for life. Not everything uncomfortable is bad.

I don't suppose it's possible to find a female colleague from another department (e.g., biology or history) with an interest and expertise in your topic to co-teach that one lecture. Or maybe you could set aside a time in class for students to discuss their reactions to the material with minimal professor interference. Or you could have them read up on their own, and do presentations, in order to make them feel more in control of the class.


I agree with Creeping Jenny about co-teaching the lecture--maybe with someone who's actually experienced genital mutilation? (Although I'm not sure where you'd find those people--perhaps the intersex people can help you out there.)

Or you could get a female scholar to lecture on how families attempted to control male masturbation in the nineteenth century, but that isn't the same--unless you can find a widespread movement to severely mutilate the penis (and I'm not talking foreskin removal here).


When we limit the teaching of women's studies to women, we send the message that this subject is not, somehow, worth the time and attention of male academics.

Just as, when we (we?) limited the teaching of medicine to men, we sent the message that this subject was not, somehow, worth the time and attention of female academics.

Or, you know, not.

But it does mean that it is immensely counter-productive to "ghettoize" (I use that term carefully) an academic discipline by suggesting that only some folks can teach it.

To see the truth of this proposition, you have only to look at the fields of law, classics, physics, chemistry, and the like - how they languished in obscurity, derided by all, for century upon century, marginalized & ghettoized, until at last women were admitted into those fields to redeem them.

For god's sake, think about what you're saying. You may be well aware - I can't tell - of the fact that the only reason you speak of a ghetto rather than of an elite is that in this culture, something only women do is despised while something only men do is respected. But when you fail to make this explicit for your students, you come across as blindly sexist, which I'm sure is the last thing you want to do.

This does not mean that a male teacher confers a legitimacy his female colleagues do not -- though some students may perceive it that way.

But yes. Yes it does, for the reasons implied above. And every time you speak of a female 'ghetto' rather than of a female 'elite', without thinking, without explaining, you drive home the point that you perceive it that way as well.


Cija, there's a colossal difference between erecting institutional barriers to keep women out (something the academy did for centuries) and an assumption that women are better positioned to teach women's history than men are.

The use of the term ghettoizing is not mine, not originally, of course; I'm borrowing it from Daphne Patai. Given her rep in the broader feminist world, however, that may definitely damn me!

Mr. Bad

Fist of all, some of the comments I've read in opposition to a man teaching material about women's bodies are among the most sexist, female chauvanistic sentiments and remarks I've ever encountered. Shame on you! It's just like saying that women shouldn't be teaching topics related to male anatomy, male sexuality, masculinity, etc. - there's no difference whatsoever. So unless you would be just as vigorously opposed to women teaching those subjects I would like to congratulate you: You are now officially a sexist chauvanist.

Hugo, I think that you should have no trepidation at all about teaching this subject based on your male gender. What I have a lot more problems with is an English major teaching human health topics, which are comprised of disciplines like physiology, endocrinology, anatomy, and other medical topics. My PhD is in health sciences, so the situation is akin to me teaching a literature class.

I think that people should stick to teaching in their area of expertise, which is why I have trouble with you teaching women's studies in general. I personally think you should be teaching in your area of expertise, which I believe is a type of obscure Germanic-based literature isn't it?


Not quite, Mr. Bad.  Here's my academic history, I have sufficient background in what I'm teaching in order to teach it.  At the community colleges, we are all generalists -- teaching vast swathes of history.  No one can be an expert on everything in all of Western Civ.  I know more about the early Christians than about the Zoroastrians; I know more about the history of women's bodies than I do about the history of the trade union movement.  That kind of variation in one's depth of knowledge is to be found among all historians.


Mr. Bad,

The only negative comments I've read about Hugo teaching that class have to do with the *comfort level* of students who have difficult discussing personal topics with a man with whom they do not have a close relationship. This wouldn't be found just in classes on the topic of women's bodies. It is VERY difficult for many people to discuss difficult topics, such as the body, emotions, etc, with anyone with whom they do not have a close relationship, and especially with someone of a different gender.

That's not to say that Hugo shouldn't teach the class. But he should be (and obviously is) aware that it is going to be a very difficult challenge for a certain percentage of his students. Like it or not, some subcultures in our country DO NOT discuss intimate matters with people of the opposite gender. That's going to cause uneasiness for some.

That uneasiness doesn't equate to chauvinism. It equates to coming from a different background, with different standards of etiquette and behavior. Your equating it to chauvinism strikes me as being very close to my MIL's comments when we took the children up north for a graduation celebration and she got upset that the children ASKED if it was alright for them to have a 3rd soft drink. I was teaching them manners as defined by the area where I was raised and where we lived. She is from a different part of the country and a different subculture, so she didn't understand.

I also run into this with folks from up north being insulted when children use "Yes, Ma'am," "No, Ma'am," "Yes, Sir," and "No, Sir." In the South, these are necessary mannerisms. Up North, folks find it insulting. Different cultures.


That uneasiness doesn't equate to chauvinism. It equates to coming from a different background, with different standards of etiquette and behavior.

A lot of men and quite a few women are "uneasy" about male and female roles in other areas besides women's studies. Employment issues, gender roles, parenting roles. Some men are uncomfortable working with women in certain jobs for example.. Some women are uncomfortable in similar ways and wish to exclude men at times.

Where do you draw the line between sexism and "coming from a different background, with different standards of etiquette and behavior"?


The difference between sexism and "coming from different backgrounds" is in how the unease is dealt with. Do we deal with the unease by barring those with whom we are uneasy from that particular situation? Or do we adjust, learn to deal with a different way of doing things? If we notice that our presence in a certain situation is making someone uneasy, do we force ourselves upon them in that situation, or do we bow out and ease their discomfort.

There are appropriate times for each of the above choices. But there are also times when barring others from a particular situation or forcing ourselves upon others in another situation equates to sexism. As we learn to be sensitive to which choice of action is best, we grow to a point where we can work with people, even in situations where previously we would have been angered and declaring "foul!"

It's similar to appropriate and inappropriate vocabulary. There are certain terms that most of us avoid and that we do not accept in most cases, but with the elderly, those terms tend to be overlooked, because our elderly grew up in a different time, with a different standard, so we allow a bit more grace and leniency toward them.

Mr. Bad

Caitriona said "Like it or not, some subcultures in our country DO NOT discuss intimate matters with people of the opposite gender. That's going to cause uneasiness for some."

I agree, but in another thread when we were debating men's uneasiness with discussing personal medical issues (i.e., issues related intimately with our bodies) with women staff members in medical offices you essentially dismissed my concerns, basically telling me that men should just "get used to it." However, now you seem to be saying that female college students shouldn't have to discuss general women's health issues with a male professor. Seems like at the very least you're applying a double standard, and further, treating the college women as if they're somehow weak and not able to handle such things. But then, judging from some of the responses to this thread, perhaps the latter really is the case? I don't know.


No, I did not say, "Just get over it." I said that if you don't like the situation the way it is now, stop complaining and do something to fix it. Encourage young men to go into front office administration, etc. HUGE difference between that and saying, "Just get over it."

Mr. Bad

Sorry Caitriona, I confused "stop complaining" with "get over it." My bad. So, will you tell the women's studies students to "stop complaining" too?

The two situations are quite comparable, yet the standards you're holding men and women to are very different. Why is that?


Mr. Bad,

There's a difference, IMO, between saying, "This makes me uncomfortable," and saying, "This isn't fair! " People, men and women alike, should be able to be honest about how they are feeling. But they shouldn't allow those feelings to turn into whines and complaints instead of action.

Sometimes the things that make us uncomfortable indicate areas where we ourselves need to grow. Sometimes they indicate areas where we need to work for a relationship, community, or societal change. It matters not if one is male or female, if a situation is uncomfortable, it needs to be looked at, analyzed, and worked on, whether that work is internal, external, or both. (BTW, this is exactly what my husband and I are working to teach the children in our house - 4 boys and 1 girl.)

You keep skipping the sections of my posts where I say that one should WORK to fix the situation that causes one to feel uncomfortable. Why is that?

Mr. Bad

Caitriona said "There's a difference, IMO, between saying, "This makes me uncomfortable," and saying, "This isn't fair! " People, men and women alike, should be able to be honest about how they are feeling. But they shouldn't allow those feelings to turn into whines and complaints instead of action." and agree with this as far as it goes, so I'll ask you directly: Would you tell the women up above who are complaining about having a man teaching them about the history of women's bodies to stop complaining and do something about it. So far the only plan of action they seem to have is to replace the man (i.e., Hugo) with a woman, which is a sexist solution. And which BTW is exactly what I suggested in the other thread, to replace the female front office workers with men (so I admit my solution was sexist too).

I hear you when you say that "...one should WORK to fix the situation...", but I'm wondering which "one" you would have doing the work to fix the situation? I personally feel that compromise would be good in both situations, where the person feeling "uncomfortable" works on dealing with it and the person who is in the position of making others uncomfortable works on being more sensitive. However, it seems that when dealing with feminists, when the women are uncomfortable they are given a pass and the man is required to take the responsibility for adjusting to the situation (even if it means losing his job, etc.). On the other hand, when the roles are reversed and men are the ones who are "uncomfortable," women are again given a pass and the men are told to "stop complaining and do something about it." Sounds like a double standard to me.

Is this more of that "male privilege" I keep hearing about?

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