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January 17, 2006

Comments

zuzu

I'm not sure, still, how this ties into feminism vs. Christianity. Could you explain further?

Hugo

Well, zuzu, the compatibility with Christianity ought to be fairly obvious; with feminism, the case I'm making is that feminism asks that women be seen as fully human, not merely body parts. I'm arguing, perhaps unsuccessfully and ineffectively, that one conclusion of seeing other people as fully human is an awakened sense of enduring responsibility for their emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being.

Vacula

Hugo: "We must take responsibility for how our actions are perceived as well as how our words are heard."

Is it inconsistent to hold yourself responsible for another person's responses to you in a relationship when you wouldn't hold yourself responsible for strangers' responses to your actions? How far can you take this?

Thomas

Hugo, there are any number of people in my life that I relate to in specific ways for specific purposes, but I reject the notion that I am seeing or treating them as less than fully human in doing so.

I practice law, and in the course of my practice I deal with clients and other lawyers. I undertake to delegate to and to teach my associates, and I serve my clients' interests in the litigation. I don't see them as less than full people, but I also do not become responsible to them beyond the bounds of our relationship. I don't undertake to cry when they are sad and to worry about their worries as I do my wife. I do not have an enduring responsibility for their emotional, physical and spiritual well-being.

I have close friends, some of whom I have known since middle school. I see them as complete people and not as tools to my ends. To an extent, I share their dreams, I congratulate their successes and mourn their sorrows. I do what I can for their emotional, physical and spiritual well-being. But there are things I don't know about their life, and areas I do not interfere in. They are not under an obligation to make their lives an open book to me, nor me to them, as I do with my wife.

I have relatives that I have known and loved my whole life, and I know a great deal about them, and I have always cared for their emotional, physical and spiritual well-being. Surely, I see them and treat them as full human beings. But their complete humanity includes aspects beyond my knowledge and things I cannot take responsibility for. I am neither privy to nor responsible for my sister's sexual fulfillment. That's between her and her husband, as far as I know.

There are many people in my life that I see as complete human beings, but I don't see the complete human being. It's not my place to see or touch all of them. I do what I ought to do with and for them within the confines of our relationship. This notion that whether we treat people as a whole person is a continuum that maps onto the completeness with which we take responsibility for their well-being is, to my mind, just completely wrongheaded.

Now, Hugo, I get that you're saying that sex is different; that sexual intimacy is a way of relating to someone that is not ultimately severable from taking on the full array of the person's emotional, physical and spiritual needs. What I'm saying is that I respect your belief in this regard; but it is a blief one cannot arrive at without theology. No secular feminist reasoning will draw one to your conclusion.

djw

I think you make your strongest point w/r/t the unpredictability of other's responses, which might be, and often are, quite different than the (perfectly open, sincere) honest intentions to not have those responses.

Still, when I read this:

I am convinced that whether we acknowledge it or not, our sexual activity transforms us and affects us on the most profound of levels.

I can't help but see a false consciousness argument. Maybe this doesn't trouble you, but to me such arguments lack both analytic rigor and basic respect. I'm willing to go along with you to the extent that nsa sexual relationships are potentially dangerous with respect to the impact we have on others( although people who like it for themselves have at times done an impressive job of minimizing that danger). There's not much point in swapping anecdotes endlessly here; I'm happy to acknowledge they often fail if you'll acknowledge they sometimes succeed on their own terms. False Consciousness arguments might work for Marxists and theologians, but feminist analysis has, gratifyingly, moved beyond this approach.

Hugo

Let me be clear, folks, that I'm not denying that my theology and my feminism mutually inform each other. I've never met a feminist who wasn't informed by some other intellectual or spiritual stream (Marxism, Wicca, Enlightenment rationalism, Judaism, etc.) -- one of the important tasks at hand is to search for ways to reconcile apparent contradictions between our various commitments, and to argue that points of common ground do in fact exist.

I do acknowledge that I'm constructing a very specific kind of Christian feminist ideal, one that won't appeal to everyone (certainly not to all Christians or all feminists.) And yes, I'm arguing from anecdote and an assumption about the nature of human identity -- one of the reasons I abandoned my parents' field of philosophy early on!

Hugo

Oh and Thomas, you're right -- I do see sex as imposing special obligations that are quite different from the sort you cite in your very thoughtful comment.

Thomas

Hugo, you are of course expressing a specifically Christian feminist point of view -- would we expect otherwise? Some things you say draw agreement mostly from Christians, and some things you say draw agreement mostly from feminists, and sometimes you say things that very different parts of your readership agree with. That's not what I'm trying to point out here.

What I'm saying is that the theory of sexual conduct you've laid out, while it may be make your Christianity and your feminism consonant, would you allow that a feminist whose feminism is not informed by a faith-based worldview is not going to arrive at the same conclusion?

The Countess

I don't see how sex outside the context of "commitment" fails both feminism and Christianity. I can see how it might fail Christianity, because of some Christian's focus on fidelity and marriage, but how does it fail feminism?

Also, Hugo, what do you mean by "commitment"? An engagement ring? Marriage? Two people who are committed to each other but have not for one reason or another made that commitment official?

I don't see commitment as being a ladder. That implies that some commitments are more lasting than others. I see commitment as being more like the facets on a diamond. All are given equal consideration and all are considered important.

Hugo: "We all know countless stories of people who end up falling in love with the person who was just supposed to be a fling, just as we know many stories of folks who fail to live up to their promises to love and support each other for life. "

I think the key here is in something you said earlier: "I've come to believe that the most important commitment we can make to our partners is the commitment to accompany them through all of the myriad short-term and long-term emotional, physical, and spiritual consequences of our sexual relationship." The key to success relationships, regardless of their level of commitment, is communication. Plenty of people fall in love with a person who was initially a fling, as you said. How does the other person react to that feeling? People in that situation need to communicate their needs and their respect and courtesy of the other person to each other. If they don't express their needs and their respect and courtesy for the other person properly, there could be trouble.

Keri

I'm pretty uncomfortable with the idea that someone else's attraction (or "love," or desire for a committed relationship, or whatever you want to call it) creates any obligation on the part of the object of the attraction-- it seems the same logic that's used to condemn women for daring to wear short skirts or other "sexy" clothing without making themselves sexually available to anyone and everyone. The "your mouth says no, but your body says yes" stuff is especially creepy from that perspective. Everyone is entitled to feel attraction, to fall in love; that doesn't mean they're entitled to have their feelings returned. (I'd also echo Vacula's concern about how far this can be taken. Here's an example: a woman has a casual-sex relationship with a man, but over time he claims to have fallen in love with her, and his attention begins to make her very uncomfortable. Is she at fault? Is she obligated to indulge his feelings?)

Honestly, I see no difference between someone who falls in love with a casual sex partner and someone who falls in love with, for instance, a close friend. I understand that the argument for the difference is based on the premise that sex in itself constitutes a "promise" regardless of one's intentions, but I don't quite buy that (and agree with Thomas that there's no real secular or feminist argument for it). I think it's reasonable, barring any really extreme manipulation, to expect adults to take responsibility for their own emotional reactions-- particularly when those emotional reactions contradict a mutually-agreed-upon platonic or casual-sex relationship. The only responsibility I'm comfortable assigning to the object of affection is the responsibility not to take advantage of their friend/partner's feelings, and the responsibility to be honest about whether or not those feelings are returned.

I think one of the reasons this bugs me is that from a feminist perspective, I find all this focus on "love" as an overwhelming force for which one can never be expected to take personal responsibility and which has all manner of earth-shaking consequences a bit questionable. Doesn't feminism teach us that romantic relationships really aren't the be-all and end-all of life, that they don't necessarily define our worth as people, that relationships should be about more than just emotional fireworks, and so on? I'm not saying unrequited love can't be painful and unpleasant, but I'm not sure it's totally healthy (or totally feminist) to characterize it as akin to a trauma that has "consequences" one needs to be "helped through."

Hugo

Keri, your third paragraph is a remarkably challenging one, and ample evidence of how great the gulf may be on this issue between different strands of feminist thinking. You're right that feminism does warn against defining oneself always in relationship to a lover; authentic Christianity recognizes, similarly, that modern culture(and a lot of well-intentioned Christians) make too much of an idol of marriage and romance.

I'm gonna ruminate on that one for a bit.

Emily H.

"Enduring responsibility for their emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being" of anyone, sexual partner or no, is a standard that I'm not exactly comfortable holding myself, or anyone else, to.

There are those breakups that end, despite the best efforts of everyone involved, in bitterness and near-suicidal depression. To take responsibility for someone's emotional well-being when they are not just depressed but mean is... self-martyrization, and usually stupid and ineffective self-martyrization at that. I just can't believe that it's healthy for anyone else to hold themselves responsible for me in that way, or vice versa.

zuzu

I guess where I'm having a lot of trouble with this is in the whole patriarchy thing. Christianity is a patriarchal religion, and Christianity places high value on women's virtue and virginity -- a much higher value than it places on men's. This is reinforced by the patriarchal culture.

As a woman, I have been told since childhood that my value was bound up in my purity, that I should "save" myself for marriage, that okay, if you're going to have sex you should only do it if you're rilly, rilly in love, that women need to be emotionally attached to have good sex, that men don't need to feel an attachment, and on and on.

It would seem that the Christian view reinforces the above, while the feminist view questions it and rejects it as products of the patriarchy.

djw

Emily, Hugo can speak for himself of course but I think, with respect to the unfortunate scenario you outline, that Hugo's use of the term 'responsibility' is a bit broader and less literal than you think.

Thomas

Hugo, I'm sympathetic to your project of finding a Christian theology of sex that is not patriarchal. I don't suggest that it can't be done.

If you want to say this : "As a feminist I believe that all sexual intimacy ought to be open, honest, respectful of one's partner(s) and even more, must take one's partner as a whole person; and as a Christian I believe that even more is required, so that even such an interaction falls short of the mark unless it is in the context of a lifelong commitment to intimacy and shared lives," then more power to you.

If you're saying, "Both my Christianity and my pro-feminist views compel the conclusion that even an open, honest, intimate and personal sexual interaction between two people who respect each other is short of the mark unless it is in the context of a lifelong commitment to intimacy and shared lives," then I want to see how you get there via feminism without Christian theology.

Hugo

Gosh, Thomas, I'll take your second paragraph. Mind you, I'm not suggesting that that my notion of sexual ethics and commitment is the only possible one that a good pro-feminist could arrive at!

Emily, what djw said. "Taking responsibility" for another is not the same as turning them into a helpless, fragile child. I'm asking folks to make the best and highest effort to protect each other emotionally and spiritually in a mutual way; I'm not holding them accountable for each other's addictions, mental health issues, and so forth.

Zuzu, I share with you a distaste for sexual double standards and the fetishizing of female virginity that is all too common in conservative Christian circles. I'm not a "purity" advocate! I'm a "mindfulness" advocate, asking both men and women to treat each other with a radical caring that is alien to the culture.

Thomas

Hugo, I feel like I keep asking you the same question. How do you arrive at that conclusion as a feminist without resort to faith? I know you say yours is not the only conclusion a feminist can reach (obviously true). But I'm saying that I can't work out how your conclusion is one that any feminist is going to come to without adding a theological notion about the role of sexual intimacy. If a feminist would not come to the same conclusion absent a theological notion of the role of sexual intimacy, then I think it's fair to say that your theology is a but-for cause of your view. The reason I'm persistent on this point is that I suspect, and I want to clarify, that your view is one that pro-feminist Christians may adopt, but not one that can be exported to secular feminists.

Hugo

Thomas, because I think that this view of responsibility doesn't hinge on a Christian belief about the human person. A willingness to reject a view of other human beings as disposable, to use some inflammatory rhetoric, is not necessarily Christian (and that is not a closet reference to abortion, folks!) Is it chapter and verse of early, first wave, feminist writing you're looking for here to support my case?

Heather

One of the reasons I hesitate to identify myself as a feminist is that feminism does try to "teach us that romantic relationships really aren't the be-all and end-all of life, that they don't necessarily define our worth as people, that relationships should be about more than just emotional fireworks, and so on." To the extent that we women are considered repressed or in some way under the patriarchal spell if we DON'T have casual, unfeeling sex. "Romantic relationships aren't the be-all and end-all" most often seems to really mean "Relationships should be secondary to everything else" and I don't think that's healthy for individuals or societies. So, it's refreshing to hear someone say, "um, maybe we should think a little bit about the other person's feelings before we use them for our own personal gratification."

sparklegirl

Thomas, I'm a non-Christian feminist who has similar views to Hugo's (as I described in response to Hugo's recent post here).

I wouldn't expect all secular feminists to share this view, and like Hugo I respect that many do indeed come to different conclusions through their feminism, but I'm proof that it is possible to come to such a view without theology. I think a secular belief in human worth and responsibility can be enough to reach that view, even though it is not the only view that someone with those with secular values might reach.

sparklegirl

And just in case you're wondering, Hugo isn't paying me to pop in and agree with him. ;-)

Keri

To the extent that we women are considered repressed or in some way under the patriarchal spell if we DON'T have casual, unfeeling sex.

Seeing as I'm a feminist who has never had and has no desire to have casual sex, I find this statement odd. No one's ever told me I was "repressed" or "under the patriarchal spell." Where do you find these sentiments in accepted feminist thought? (And no, "someone who called herself a feminist said it to me once" doesn't classify something as part of accepted feminist thought.) It's true that many feminists believe it is crucial to fight back against social repression of female sexuality by unapologetically supporting a woman's right to have sex outside of a love relationship or commitment; however, that's not the same as arguing that it's the right choice for everyone, because it's pretty obviously not.

"Romantic relationships aren't the be-all and end-all" most often seems to really mean "Relationships should be secondary to everything else"...

In this case, it didn't. I'm not saying relationships are unimportant. I'm in one, and it's very important to me. It's just that women get so many cultural messages that finding a relationship should be their top (if not only) priority, that once they're in a relationship their identity should be defined primarily by that relationship, and that if the relationship goes bad or ends they should be shattered and traumatized. Holding up commitment as the standard everyone should aspire to doesn't do much to counter those messages, and may well reinforce them. Similarly, portraying the development of unreturned affections as an "emotional transformation" that one cannot be expected to "work through" without support and hand-holding from the object of the affection isn't going to help anyone develop realistic priorities, or realize that their life really doesn't have to come to a halt just because they like someone who doesn't like them back.

So, it's refreshing to hear someone say, "um, maybe we should think a little bit about the other person's feelings before we use them for our own personal gratification."

Did I give the impression that I was arguing with that statement? I'm not. Of course I don't think people should act selfishly or deliberately hurt others; that's why I said people should be responsible for not taking advantage of someone's feelings and for being honest if the feelings are not returned. For instance, I think it's wrong to pressure a partner into continuing a casual-sex relationship when one knows that s/he wants more, or to give the partner false hope about the possibility of a committed romantic relationship in order to continue using him/her for sexual gratification. That's what I'd call treating someone as disposable, having no regard for their feelings, using them for personal gratification.

However, I just don't think you can argue that having casual sex with someone in a mutually-agreed-upon no-strings-attached situation is disrespectful because of the possibility that they might develop deeper feelings at some point. Frankly, that possibility exists in many other situations as well. Should a heterosexual man refrain from being friends with a heterosexual woman (or vice versa) because at some point she (or he) might "fall in love"? Should they refuse to work together? At some point, we need to acknowledge that though we should try to minimize the damage we do to others in the course of our lives as much as possible, we're probably going to end up inadvertently hurting people from time to time; it's unfortunate, and we shouldn't be cold or unsympathetic about it, but we can't let ourselves become immobilized by guilt and responsibility either.

Hugo

Sparklegirl, your check is in the mail.

Lynn Gazis-Sax

I'm in a similar position to Hugo in terms of having both Christianity and feminism inform my sexual ethics, and I tend also to frame my view of sexual ideal in terms of being committed to be there for all the consequences of the sexual relationship, so, though I'm obviously not Hugo, I'll offer my own take at some of the questions being raised to him.

Thomas: I think, whether I take your first or your second paragraph, I'd want to nuance my response.

If you want to say this : "As a feminist I believe that all sexual intimacy ought to be open, honest, respectful of one's partner(s) and even more, must take one's partner as a whole person; and as a Christian I believe that even more is required, so that even such an interaction falls short of the mark unless it is in the context of a lifelong commitment to intimacy and shared lives," then more power to you.

Part of me leans toward picking this choice, because I don't believe feminism, in itself, says anything about what sex means or what place it has in your life. If I take a long view of feminism (first wave, second wave, third wave, maybe even remote pre-first wave predecessors), it's swung back and forth in its views of sex, marriage, etc., and with good reason - both chastity and "sexual liberation" can be done in ways that are uneven and burden women more than men. So, when I take a relatively sexually conservative stance (relative to other feminists, that is - relative to other Christians I'm sexually liberal), I'm neither taking a position which is inherently implied by my feminism nor one which is inherently in tension with it. What feminism does require in sexual ethics is an equal standard, and one which respects women as full people rather than either being paternalistically protective of women or expecting women to cater to men's sense of entitlement.

If you're saying, "Both my Christianity and my pro-feminist views compel the conclusion that even an open, honest, intimate and personal sexual interaction between two people who respect each other is short of the mark unless it is in the context of a lifelong commitment to intimacy and shared lives," then I want to see how you get there via feminism without Christian theology.

On the other hand, this makes it sounds as if, should I pick the first paragraph, I'm acknowledging that my valuing of commitment with sex is purely theological, and I'm not sure I'm prepared to make that statement. In Anglicanism there's a concept of looking to different sources called Hooker's three-legged stool; the three legs are tradition, Bible, and reason. This then gets expanded by, I think, Wesley, into a quadrilateral - tradition, Bible, reason, and experience. One reason issues of sexual ethics get so heated among Christians is that the different parts of this quadrilateral can point in very different directions. So, for example, in the case of homosexuality tradition points strongly one way, but everything I know from reason and experience points another way.

Connecting sex and commitment is different; in that case it's more that I see the different legs pointing more or less in the same direction, but to different degrees. Reason and experience do seem to show less committed relationships as more problematic in various ways, just not as sharply, or with as much black and white difference, as what I might get if I look more at what Christian tradition would say.

Arwen

I also want to chime in that, in my early 20s, I arrived at commitment as the best model for me, as a feminist solution to sexuality. Without Christian theology as a motivator.

I have a different viewpoint universally now for other (feminist) reasons - but I understand where Hugo's coming from and practise monogamy in my own life. I don't hear Hugo making choices for other people so much as honouring his own feelings and exploring his reasoning, which to me is exactly right: not a patriarchal thing to do.

In an odd paradox, should I become single, I'd be more likely to have an affair with someone like Hugo than with the person who wonders how feminists get laid. *LOL*!

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