Pull List of Justice: September 2013

pulllistofjusticeRegular readers of my stuff will know that I am a comic book fanatic and have argued many times that comics have historically been at the forefront of social progress, often addressing issues that television and other mediums have been unable or unwilling to. Yes, they can also be problematic, but I contend that finding the right book with the right author can lead to a wealth of fantastic characters representing all sorts of diverse types of people and ideas.

So welcome to the beginning of what will hopefully be a monthly feature in which I describe the wonderful things that are happening in the comics I read that send a positive message in the social justice arena. I should point out that I can only really write about the comics I actually read, so if you have a book that you think would be great that I don’t cover, mention it in the comments. Otherwise, all comics and characters are the property of their respective companies and are being reproduced in part here under Fair Use guidelines.

Now, let’s jump right in.

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Thus begins my latest piece for Queereka. I hope that this will become a regular thing and get more people reading some of the amazing and socially progressive comics out there.

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Sexy Halloween Costumes: A Good Middle Ground

Halloween is a hard time for a sex positive feminist. On one hand, I freely admit that I like sexy Halloween costumes. I’m a sexual creature and they are hot. On the other hand, I recognize that they are, by their nature, objectifying and since there’s a whole lot of pressure to participate and not nearly as many other options, it’s not quite as cut and dried as “well, women should wear what makes them feel good.” I agree with that sentiment, but Halloween and costume choosing doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and there are a number of factors to keep in mind.

Dan Savage discussed this on his podcast last week in the context of how Halloween is, or at least should/can be, the answer to every person who says, “Why isn’t there a straight pride parade?” Savage points out that the same sense of abandon and celebration of sexuality and life that pride parades serve can be served just as well in the existence of the sexy costume and the sexualization of Halloween for consenting straight adults. That women are the ones with skimpy versions of everything is a reflection of the cultural attitude that female flesh is attractive and male flesh is not necessarily, and while that is a terrible attitude, it is currently the reality of the world. We can work to undermine that perception, but complaining about costumes extracts an element from the celebrations, rather than attempting to add the element of the hotness of less dressed men and subtracting the perception that even exposed female bodies are public property.

While this is a good way of expounding on an ideal, it still left me conflicted about the current situation. Thankfully, Miriam has an excellent post that really puts this issue into perspective.

We still make a number of destructive assumptions–we, as a culture. One of those is that women exist primarily to be “on display,” and that anything else they do is secondary to that. Another is that female bodies are attractive and pleasant to look at (assuming they fit into the narrow criteria we prescribe), whereas male bodies are not. Why do we never see men “dressing slutty”? Why aren’t men expected to wear garments that restrict their movement, make it difficult for them to breathe, and require constant readjustments to make sure that nothing “indecent” is revealed? Because female bodies exist to be looked at, and male bodies exist to do things.

This is just one point among a whole lot of them that would leave me just quoting the whole damn article (go read it all, especially the enumerated bits at the beginning), but the basic premise is that there are a lot of cultural assumptions that go with Halloween costumes, mostly on the nature of male and female bodies and what they’re for.

We can be upset that a culture that skews the choices of women by teaching them from the time they’re little that they are there to be seen and appreciated, that their beauty and bodies are what gives them worth, makes these sorts of costume choices about pleasing others and not pleasing themselves. The problem isn’t that women are being ogled, it’s that many feel they have to and are shamed when they don’t.

What we need to be working toward is a society in which these sorts of assumptions don’t factor into our costuming decisions. It’s not a matter of blaming companies or the women wearing them, but rather attempting to build a culture in which blame is not really a factor.

Turns Out Sarah Silverman Isn’t Jewish

I know, it took me by surprise as well. But according to Rabbi Rosenblatt, a spiritual leader who has been heard of by exactly nobody, she totes is not Jewish because he doesn’t agree with her. It’s kind of like saying that Robert de Niro isn’t Italian because he thought Meet the Parents should have been made at all, let alone two sequels.

I was going to write about this when it originally happened and go on a feminist rant about how Sarah Silverman’s body is not property of the Jewish faith and how idiotic it is to measure the success of a woman strictly by her procreative ability (unless, of course, you’re natural selection, at which point go right ahead), but I just couldn’t get the words to flow.

Fortunately, Miriam over at Brute Reason did a far better job than I could have. Go read her piece, and I would like to expand on some of the things she talked about.

First, one of Rosenblatt’s complaints is that Silverman talks about sex or, in his words, “making public that which is private, making crude that which is intimate, making sensual that which is spiritual.”

Miriam hits it right on the head:

Oh, that ludicrous idea that sex is something to be kept Sacred and Secret and Intimate or else it stops being awesome. I saw this myth trotted out during theNorthwestern fucksaw controversy of 2011, and here it is again. I’ll address it in detail some other time, but for now, let me just say this: it’s false.

The thing is, anything can be sacred, secret, or intimate. These are concepts that we apply to other things, but they tend to be personal. That “sex” is often considered all of these things is entirely arbitrary, the result of cultures that realize that controlling sexuality makes it easier to control people. I may as well say that billiards is private, intimate, and spiritual, requiring that one only play with a partner that they have made a lasting commitment to.

This isn’t to diminish the value of sex, which is one of my favorite things in the world, but let’s be honest here: it’s a really enjoyable activity that can bring you close to another person…but there are a lot of those. We grow intimacy through the act of sharing bits and pieces of our humanity, not just because we’ve penetrated or been penetrated by another human being.

The other thing that stood out to me was a brief discussion of how Rosenblatt doesn’t seem to get that Silverman just doesn’t place the same value on marriage and children that he does.

And I totally get that it can be very difficult to imagine that something you hold very, very dear isn’t really important to someone else, especially when it comes to life choices. Personally, I don’t really understand people who want to spend their lives doing stuff with money on computers rather than being therapists, but I’m sure that it’s not because of some terrible flaw in their character.

As an atheist, I get this a lot, too. People, especially evangelicals (though not all of them), assume that I must be miserable or unfulfilled because I don’t have a relationship with god (their god, specifically), and just coming to their church will somehow fill me with such love and awe that I will realize how much I had been missing out on. More often than not, this fills me with boredom, incredulity, and occasionally disgust. But still I get people insisting that no, this time it’s different, because they can’t imagine a life without church (their church) and prayer and everything else that comes with the mechanics of their faith.

There is nothing wrong with me because I don’t find comfort in things that make absolutely no sense to me. There is nothing wrong with Silverman because she doesn’t want to have children and possibly pass her depression (and propensity for fart jokes) on to them.

This “open letter” really is an exercise in projection for Rabbi Rosenblatt. He genuinely doesn’t seem to get that the things he values may not be universally valued. And that actually makes me a little sad, since it seems to indicate a deficiency of empathy, at least in regards to children.

A Brief Thesis on Sex and Shame as Political Leverage

Dr. Darrel Ray writes a guest post for JT in which he discusses how religious leaders have used shame as a means of guiding the political process. Dr. Ray is much smarter than I am (it’s a low bar, in all fairness) and has written about this thesis extensively in a couple of his books, but this is a good quick overview of the idea.

Essentially, Dr. Ray suggests that by making sex and those things associated with it actions for which one should be ashamed, it later allows leaders to set a standard by which forgiveness might be given. The problem is that these are entirely arbitrary violations in the first place, so the system is a sham. For example, if I am your spiritual leader and tell you that His Saucy Mass frowns upon and condemns those who do not read my blog daily and introduce it to at least five people per week, after a while that becomes ingrained in you. However, there’s an escape clause: you can demonstrate your devotion by voting for the person I want you to, it only takes a few minutes, and you don’t have to feel guilty about not promoting my blog like you heathens damn well should be doing. This last bit is important because, as the adage goes, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission,” and living by arbitrary rules all the time is really, really hard.

Since most believers end up breaking the laws they have set down before them at least a few times, then all it takes is somebody to come in and offer you an opportunity to publicly repent all past sins, but do so in a private way that can be easily hidden, like voting for somebody or buying somebody’s book or eating hate chicken while misunderstanding what “free speech” means.

Here’s an excerpt:

The real crime, according to religionists, is not being ashamed of being homosexual, having an abortion, masturbating, practicing safe sex or premarital sex. These are a direct affront to those who believe these behaviors are shameful. Thus the religious rage against unashamed sexuality. The proof is in how Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart, Sen. David Vitter, Newt Gingrich, (and I predict, Dinesh S’Souza) have all come back. Once they show proper shame, they are allowed back into religious leadership roles. That is why liberals cannot be forgiven for just sexting (think Anthony Weiner), while a conservative religionist can engage in all kinds of sins, and still get forgiven by the community.

I find this particularly interesting because he mentions homosexuality in there as an aspect of sexual shame. You’d be surprised how often I hear “why are there no straight pride parades?” and “‘Pride’ isn’t something just queers feel”, and it makes me want to yell back that that’s because “pride” is the opposite of “shame,” and straight people have never been told they should feel ashamed of their heterosexuality. Just a thought on that.

Go read the whole thing.

See? Kissing is Science!

Just a little bit of science from Dr. B on WWJTD, talking about research related to why we go about tasting one another. This is some interesting stuff, discussing how kissing is a human way of gauging suitably based on chemical signals, which largely replaces scent-based systems many other animals use.

No, this knowledge doesn’t make kissing any less interesting to me. It makes me want to test and see if I’m more aware of the chemical exchange now.

Normalizing Nudity

I read an interesting article over at Umlud’s Place about a WWII-era ad that today would unquestionably be considered pretty damn homoerotic. Seriously, look at this.

Head over to Umlud’s to get the full copy. What’s interesting about it is that it and the whole campaign was based on actual stories from members of the military.

The thing is, I have absolutely no problem believing that a bunch of Army doctors would strip down and go frolicking together with nothing but a length of flimsy rope netting between them and a bunch of hungry crocodiles. And I also could even believe that they could do this without a hint of embarrassment or even any feelings beyond a desire for a quality towel to dry off with when they got out.

And the thing is, consumers at the time would have been in the same boat. Imagine if this ad came out today. One Million Moms would freak out and accuse the company of trying to normalize “homosexual behavior” and call for a boycott that will get less attention than even this little blog. Preachers around the country would claim that god was lifting his hand of protection from a country that abides sinful rags. Late night talk shows would make jokes about gay towels touching soldiers’ asses. Somebody would discuss Satan’s Linens. Republican politicians would claim they only ever dry off with Martha Stewart products.

At one point this sort of ad was normal because we hadn’t made nudity or same sex, non-sexual play taboo. However, the defenders of morality have made us afraid of our own bodies and interactions to the point that we are less progressive on this point than our grandparents.

The problem is not and has never been that we are desensitized to nudity. If anything, we are more sensitive than we used to be. The more people try to clamp down on this sort of expression, the worse perceptions of it will be. The solution is instead to return a sense of normality to human interactions and loosen the stigma we place on nudity and same sex play.

On Modesty and Sex

Recently, the atheist community has been in a bit of a tizzy about sexual harassment, conferences, and how we approach this problem, if at all. A lot of voices say that what is required as a very small beginning are comprehensive sexual harassment policies, and thankfully a lot of conferences agree with that sentiment.

Others seem to be arguing that the existence of a policy necessarily prohibits legitimate engagement, making people afraid to flirt because they may accidentally offend somebody and be kicked out of whatever convention they’re attending. Strawman arguments have been constructed, the word “Feminazi” has been thrown around unironically, and hordes of trolls have come to take their flesh.

Much of these discussions have focused around our attitudes toward sex and what is or isn’t acceptable in the realm of flirting/trying to get some. The thing is, I think this has as much to do with how we think about sex as it does to do with how we approach it. And by how we approach it, I mean how we think about it.

Let me explain.

To begin at the basics, there is still a major, though waning, belief in this country and much of the rest of the world that certain standards must be met regarding something we like to call “modesty”. Let’s look at an example:

Have you realized she’s not really wearing actual pants?

There are a number of things about this picture I have a problem with. The first is that I oppose slut-shaming as a rule. It’s not the place of anybody to judge another person’s sexual choices nor to accuse them of something negative because of it. I avoid using the word in general, but if you feel that you must, using it in an accusatory way like this is so far out of the ballpark as to be in another sport entirely.

Secondly, the “hollywood take note” message. This just baffles me since there are two approaches to this. The first is to point out that Zooey Deschanel is a creature of Hollywood. She’s an actress! This photo shoot was likely paid for by a movie studio trying to promote her so when they make a film with her in it, people will want to see it. The other is that this seems to think there’s still a monolithic “Hollywood” run under the studio system. It really doesn’t work that way any more.

But the thing that gets me most of all is the presumption that “half naked” is somehow a bad thing. This whole picture is trying very hard to convey the idea that a woman can be hot without showing off her body, implying that that is the ideal, that women who do show off their bodies are somehow less attractive or less of good people as a result. They’re “sluts” whereas Deschanel is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and therefore fits into the creator’s expectations of behavior while still serving the important function of turning him on.

This is an important distinction that is made largely due to our understanding of “modesty” and the assumptions that come with it. It’s considered a virtue, which I’ve always found odd because we’re drawn to those who don’t display it more often than not. It’s generally something imposed on women, though men are expected to maintain modesty often through the assignation of gender roles in terms of clothing and behavior, which is to say it is socially acceptable for a man to be without a shirt, more so than it is socially acceptable for a man to wear a blouse, because the first is considered normal while the second is associated with deviant behavior and generally assumed to be for sexual gratification of some sort. It’s one of the reasons why the Rocky Horror Picture Show is such a cult classic: it plays on tropes regarding how men and women behave and modesty in order to subvert those tropes. I’ve always been struck, for example, by the scene where Brad, dressed in nothing but his underwear and a robe, takes off his glasses while yelling at Frank. Here he is trying to be the “hero” he’s ascribed as in the opening credits while dressed in a way that makes him remarkably vulnerable.

Me dressed up for the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I’m trying to pout, but it’s not working. Person taking the photo didn’t get my fabulous heels, but trust me, they looked amazing.

It’s that last assumption that’s the problem: the idea that everything that is somehow erotic or even exciting is linked directly and inextricably to sex. That by the nature of lust, it’s no different than actually having sex, and there’s a perception that this is immediately and astoundingly bad.

For example, let us take the Duggers. A Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull family, they have very strict ideas of the nature of men and women, the way that gender roles should be assigned, and an idea of how we should approach sex and sexuality. Mostly, they avoid it at all costs.

You won’t find the Duggars at the beach, either – and it’s not because they don’t like getting sand between their toes. No, the family avoids public beaches and pools to keep the Duggar men from catching an unwanted glimpse of women who, um, don’t feel spiritually called to hide their assets. “[I]t’s just too hard for the guys to try to keep their eyes averted in those situations,” says Michelle.

The issue that I have with this is twofold. The first is that they are basically denying their children the ability to learn what human bodies look like and have a vast pool of images to draw from when evaluating others. It’s beneficial to be exposed to numerous body types as it makes constructing an unrealistic “ideal” less likely. The other issue, though, is that it presumes that men are basically slavering sex maniacs incapable of even seeing flesh without immediately wanting it and doing anything in their power to attain it. For the Duggers even the act of trying to attain isn’t necessary: just wanting is enough to send somebody into a spin of shame and perceived sinfulness.

Moreover, taken to an extreme, this can create a “holier than thou” sense in the person attempting to be modest. Amanda at Friendly Atheist discusses her experiences growing up in a family that prized modesty over positive body image or independence.

Take an adolescent or a teenager, preferably with already-skewed body image issues, at a time when they are physically transitioning from childhood to adulthood, and heap on the shame and guilt. Tell them how sinful their body parts are. Tell the girls that they need to reserve the “gifts” God gave them for the man that He selects to be their husband. Failure to do so means giving away “a piece of themselves” to random, stumbling men. Then, tell them how easy it is to cause men to stumble, to force them to be hyper-vigilant in their Quest to Be Non-Offensive to Everyone.

The danger and harm this causes to boys and girls cannot be understated. In promoting this “modesty” doctrine, especially from a religious perspective, it puts a whole lot of pressure on boys to deny perfectly natural thoughts and even more pressure on girls to be responsible for the natural thoughts of boys. It starts to police the imaginations of kids who are already confused enough without having to then be worried that their passing fancies will anger the sky tyrant. It serves as a means of control, or yoking a very powerful impulse and essentially holding it hostage in order to promote the behavior those in power most want.

Ironically, it doesn’t actually curb sexual feelings, just changes the standard by which we gauge sexiness. Let’s take a look at this picture, h/t to Libby Anne:

You can’t even see their ankles!

We see here two women in niqabs walking. Nothing is showing but their eyes and the backs of their heels, the latter of which is the only part that the men in the picture can see since they’ve already past. And those men are leering at them. Leering at shapeless, modest women dressed head to instep in heavy black fabric in the desert. The purpose of the niqab is to prevent this, since men are basically able to do nothing besides think of and try to have sex. What could possibly have gone wrong?

Well, as Libby Anne points out in the article linked to above, all modesty requirements do is move the bar on what is considered modest and therefore what is considered salacious.

Modesty is socially constructed. Because it’s socially constructed, every time you make the norm more modest, you are simply moving the bar – not eliminating sexual feelings, thoughts, and attractions. Simply put, because (heterosexual) men (and women) are wired to be sexually attracted to those of the opposite sex, making the norm more modest will not end that attraction. It simply changes what is titillating.

This also creates a situation in which we automatically conflate sexual thoughts with sex. I know, you think that of course sexual thoughts are about sex, but hear me out.

What makes a Renaissance nude not porn? Is it that it’s old? Or that it’s painted and therefore not a perfect representation of the human body? Why have we made one an element of culture and one a subject of scorn?

It’s because we have constructed a mythology around both art and porn, ascribed to them meanings beyond what they are. The act of posing nude for a picture is not inherently pornographic nor artistic, but it is an act of self-control when it is unforced (non-consensual photo taking is never acceptable). The Nude Photo Revolutionary Calendar, for example, has a number of pictures of women naked. Specifically, it’s designed to confront Muslim theocracies that make actions like being the subject of nude photography that is distributed a capital offense. In this case the act of being naked is not linked to sex, it’s linked to revolution and making a statement.

Moreover, even being sexually excited is not the same thing is having sex. You’re allowed to be aroused, you’re allowed to have thoughts, and you can enjoy them without ever having to intend to have sex with the person you’re thinking about. The human brain is a complex instrument, one that we don’t even know how to work most of the time, let alone control. Imposing artificial limits on its processes seems so remarkably pointless to me.

This is all not to say that modesty is bad or that people are required to dress down. However, the imposition of a certain standard of dress and behavior on people is not an effective way to police people’s thoughts and actions. Moreover, we shouldn’t be trying to police people’s thoughts, nor their consensual actions. The only profit we can gain from such policing is to obtain control over others so we might lead them on a path that is favorable to us and our desires rather than their own. That’s not something I want to do.

Rather than fixating on the clothing choices of others, we should be encouraging people to find what works for them. The standard by which we can measure our own clothing choices should be whether they make us feel good and comfortable with ourselves, whether they promote a positive image of our bodies and increase our sense of confidence. That may mean bikinis or racing one-pieces. That may mean severe suits or casual slacks.  It may mean covering up most of the time and “appropriateness vacations” every once in a while. That’s your decision, not mine, and I shouldn’t try to make it for you by holding my esteem and positive response to you as ransom so that you behave in a way that makes me happy and comfortable.

Modesty is a socially constructed idea designed to impart control over people to others. Don’t let people tell you what you can and cannot wear or how you can and cannot act. The objective should always be to put control back into the hands of the person, whether it be the power to choose behavior and style or the responsibility for their thoughts and deeds. Anything short of that is an attempt to circumvent the other person for your own comfort.