Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Christian Mind

I meant to include this in the earlier post on "sexualized" children, but it slipped my mind.

The term "rape culture," used repeatedly by the Hathor Legacy blogger, is misleading if it suggests that there is a "rape culture" distinct from the culture as a whole. As Joanna Russ wrote in 1985 (Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts, The Crossing Press, page 92):
I’ve always thought that patriarchal male sexuality must be a rather difficult business. To over-simplify: A partner’s hostility or boredom is ordinarily a real turn-off – and yet this is exactly the situation under patriarchy, where so many women are not interested, not excited, not participants, and not happy. Yet men must penetrate and ejaculate if there are to be any babies – and so the problem for patriarchy (whether you think of this as a one-time invention or a constant process) is to construct a male sexuality that can function in the face of a woman’s non-cooperation or outright fear and hostility.
Most women, whether they think of themselves as feminists or not, recognize this; it's part of the folklore. But it's so extreme, it's like saying that all men are rapists, isn't it? Well, no, it isn't. It's to say that our official culture structures sexual expression this way, even though not all men or women conform to the role they are supposed to play. I suspect it's because most people do not live up to official erotic and gender values that human life is at all bearable -- to the extent that it is bearable.

If you doubt that this is the case, let me present a revealing passage from a highly respectable male writer who calls for a return to traditional Christian values, Harry Blamires. Blamires is, according to Wikipedia, an Anglican theologian, literary critic, novelist, and a protege of C. S. Lewis. He's the author of a mainstream academic work on James Joyce's Ulysses. In his book The Post-Christian Mind: Exposing Its Destructive Agenda (Ann Arbor MI: Servant Publications, 1999), Blamires complained that "the need for living harmoniously in society along with people of other faiths has encouraged a pluralism that saps confidence in the imperatives of the Christian revelation" (14):
Current secularist humanism -- a mishmash of relativistic notions negating traditional values and absolutes -- infects the intellectual air we breathe. There is a campaign to undermine all human acknowledgement of the transcendent, to whittle away all human respect for objective restraints on the individualistic self. The hold of this campaign on the media is such that the masses are being brainwashed as they read the press, listen to the radio or watch TV [9].
And so on. Most of the book is just this overheated. Someday I may quote and discuss more of it. But for now I want to single out one fascinating bit -- fascinating in the same sense as a car wreck: you can't look at it and you can't look away.
... The size of Victorian families indicates an uninhibited level of sexual activity. [As does the number of children sired by Victorian papas and sons on the maidservants.] It could be argued that the Victorians were much more conscious of the power of sex than we are. That could be why women were distanced from men by complex etiquettes of contact in social life. There was a time when female employees in certain respectable institutions were required to lower their eyes when conversing with male colleagues. The ethos between this distancing must surely have been based on a recognition of the compulsive force of the sexual appetite. On those grounds the Victorians would never have been so rash as to put both sexes together in comparable stations, say, on a warship. We, who have seen what doing so had led to, may perhaps concede their prudence. The Victorians seem to have believed in the need to tame sexuality and domesticate it. We find in Victorian literature the image of the virginal young woman who seems chastely remote from contact with the earthiness of procreation. She is someone in whose presence animal appetite is chilled into awe. This image, the angel in the house [!? – the angel in the house was the mother, not a virgin], was surely not the product of male minds castrated by dwelling in the world of top hats that had to be decorously lifted at the sight of a skirt. It was the product of male minds alert to the bubbling cauldron of sexuality that seethed beneath the surface of interchange between the sexes [152-153].
Let me try to tease out some of the remarkable assumptions embedded in this incoherent rant. The most obvious, I suppose, is that for Blamires "the sexual appetite" is exclusively male, and it is always a hairsbreadth away from aggression. A woman who meets a man's eyes -- in "certain respectable institutions," at least, and I wonder which ones he has in mind -- instead of lowering them modestly, risks setting off his hair-trigger lust. The Victorians were not the only ones who believed in the need to tame sexuality and domesticate it; so did the pagan Greeks. The early Christians agreed, but they mostly seem to have thought that the best way to tame male sexuality was total abstinence, with marriage a licit outlet for those who couldn't cut the mustard. But the Victorians seem also to have had little hope of taming the brute beast in the human male, and settled for supplying many outlets, commercial and amateur ("bad girls" of one type or another), for a man's "bubbling cauldron", so that the chaste respectable virgin may be spared his rutting violence if her icy remoteness fails to chill his animal appetite into awe.

Now, a culture based on assumptions like these will be a rape culture. Rape will be the norm, because women's own wishes and desires are not taken into account, or even noticed. The culture will represent men as ravening beasts whose lust is barely kept in check and can be set off by nothing more provocative than making eye contact. On the other hand, the lowered eyes of modesty are wonderfully stimulating: a modest woman knows she's enflaming a man, she's just being coy to entice him; she really Wants It, as all women do. If a man assaults a woman, it's because he lost the war within himself to tame his sexuality; but it also must have been something she did, probably deliberately, so she must have Wanted It. If too many men are losing control, then women should be confined to their homes after dark; any who go out after curfew will know that whatever happens to them is their own fault, so they must Want It too. A fortiori, if you dress up your daughter like a harlot you can hardly pretend to be surprised if some poor man decides she's signaling her sexual availability and takes her up on her offer, even she's only six years old. But even if you lock her in a barrel until she's eighteen and feed her though the bunghole, even if you cover her from head to foot in the name of "modesty," her mere femaleness makes her what the Catholics call an occasion of sin. There will be men trying to break the barrel open to take her, there will be men who will go nuts and attack her because her chador didn't conceal her enough, her sensual body language shines through like X-rays. That's just how men are.

It's worthwhile to compare Blamires's take on male sexuality with Michael Ruse's. Being a post- or at least non-Christian, Ruse lamented that women don't go into heat, because "then even if we had the same moral principles -- treat others fairly, etc. -- it would simply not make sense to condemn someone for fucking the female if he got the chance." Like Blamires, though, Ruse took for granted that men are always on a hair-trigger, ready to be set off at the mere sight of a pretty girl passing by; about women's desires he had nothing to say, apparently being ignorant of their existence and not interested in finding out.

Blamires, remember, is not a Larry Flynt or a Hugh Hefner; he's a reactionary Christian of impeccably respectable credentials. The crazy things he says do come close to normative Victorian (and pre-Victorian, as you can see by reading Shakespeare or Jane Austen; or post-Victorian, if you read Norman Mailer or John Gray) attitudes to male sexuality. Women aren't people in his Christian mind, they're symbols -- either virgins or whores. It's revealing that what he considers the Christian alternative to pervasive secular relativism looks like a scenario out of Victorian pornography.