Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Oh, How Can You Say Such Awful Things?

I'm reading Gary C. Thomas's essay "'Was George Frederic Handel Gay?': On Closet Questions and Cultural Politics" in Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology (ed. Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, & Gary C. Thomas; 2nd edition, Routledge, 2006).  Thomas does a beautiful job showing how Handel's virtue has been defended fiercely by his biographers for the past three centuries, without any evidence to support a claim of heterosexuality.  Often they have simply made stuff up: Thomas quotes a late twentieth century biographer who confidently asserts that Handel wasn't homosexual because "in an eighteenth-century context the vagabond life of musicians made marriage a distinct hindrance" (170).  You mean like Haydn?  Or Mozart?  (Even if marriage was a hindrance to musicians, it doesn't seem to have deterred them from marrying.)  Oddly, Thomas counters this claim by pointing out that "gay men from Handel's time through Stonewall (but especially in the eighteenth century) married more often than not, and for a variety of reasons"; a really determined apologist would use that as evidence that Handel wasn't gay, or he would have married.  More germane, and Thomas spends a good deal more space showing this, is that the evidence we have (including from his contemporaries) is that Handel didn't have any erotic liaisons with women at all, unlike many of his artistic bachelor contemporaries.  That's not proof that he was gay either; but it argues against any confident assertion that he was heterosexual.

But I'm digressing; what got me started on this post was Thomas's partly rhetorical question on the same page: "Why in an enlightened age wouldn't the possibility of a gay Handel be greeted if not with enthusiasm, then with a 'modicum of dispassionate objectivity'?"  It's understandable why Handel's contemporaries would have reacted with horror to the suggestion that the great man was a Sodomite; but not in our supposedly "enlightened age," when we know that earthquakes aren't caused by buggery.  One of the virtues of the first edition of Queering the Pitch (1994) was that the more intemperate reactions to it cast doubt on the widespread fantasy that the world of classical music is a tolerant, accepting, even welcoming haven for homos.  If the suggestion that Handel (or Schubert, or whoever) may have liked men is so absurd, why not simply refute it with evidence and reason?  Why do so many highly educated and worldly people react instead with illogic and fantasy?

I can now segue to the main topic of this post, namely Todd Akin, the Republican candidate for the US Senate from Missouri who uttered these now-notorious words in an interview on a St. Louis TV station:
First of all, from what I understand from doctors, (pregnancy from rape) is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.
Akin's claim is ludicrous, of course, but people reacted to it almost as ludicrously.  This Kansas City Star article, for example, quotes an emergency-room doctor as saying, "To try to be able to say that anyone’s going to respond in a consistent pattern that’s going to limit their probability of becoming pregnant is ridiculous."  The doctor seems to be thinking in terms of medical procedures, like a morning-after pill or a medical abortion; what Akin evidently had in mind was an automatic physiological response of a woman's body to forced copulation.  I'm referring to the Star article because it explains where Akin probably got his belief:
But Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association — a nonprofit that describes itself as a pro-family organization — told The Star on Monday that “fair-minded people” know what Akin really meant by his statement. Wildmon speculated that Akin was differentiating between forcible rape and statutory rape, which can be consensual.

“What I read from some medical sources, when a woman is raped, her body shuts down in some respects that may prevent her from getting pregnant,” Wildmon said.

Wildmon referred to an article by physician John Willke, president of the Life Issues Institute — a nonprofit anti-abortion group — and former president of the National Right to Life Committee. In that article, titled “Rape Pregnancies are Rare” and published in April 1999, Willke wrote that one of the most important factors to consider is that a rape victim’s hormone production during such trauma may be “upset,” resulting in a possible pregnancy being compromised.

“There’s no greater emotional trauma that can be experienced by a woman than an assault rape,” the article reads. “This can radically upset her possibility of ovulation, fertilization, implantation and even nurturing of a pregnancy.”

Leading experts on reproductive health, however, dismissed this logic...

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(Newsweek's Michele Goldberg, on Democracy Now yesterday, also cited Willke.)  This is what I'd consider the proper response to someone like Akin: Oh, really?  Which doctors?  Can you point me to a source?  What do most doctors say about this?  The struggle for women's reproductive autonomy has been going on for quite some time now, much like the struggle for racial equality or the struggle for the equality of sexual minorities.  Yet every time some bigoted fool says something absurd, the typical liberal response is to freak out (Oh, how can you say such awful things?) and vilify the person rather than his or her words, despite the liberal claim that liberals and especially liberal Democrats are sane rational people while conservative Republicans are irrational wackjobs.  Which isn't to say that Akin shouldn't be vilified, but so should many Democrats.  People who haven't learn to think or debate rationally are not people I trust with a movement for social justice.

The focus has been on Akin's fantasy about the wonderful, no doubt God-given, powers of the female body to protect itself against invasion.  (While he was at it, he should have mentioned the tiny but sharp little teeth that come out of the vagina to chomp up the membrum virile of a dirty rapist, praise Jesus!  That would be a fantasy too, but why stick with half-measures when you're talking about a serious issue?  The more serious, the more important it is to make stuff up.  It's okay, because it's in a good cause.)  I can't help wondering, though: if a woman's body blocks pregnancy after a rape, isn't that like natural abortion?  Should a woman be allowed to punish a zygote, or even a sperm cell, just because she was raped?  That is, I hope you noticed, Akin's rationale for disallowing a medical abortion in cases of rape: punish the rapist, not the "baby" -- once the sperm is in the vagina, it's a potential baby.

It isn't actually irrational to believe that women's bodies could reject unwanted sperm.  Such things happen in nature.  Among zebra finches, females do not conceive after forced copulations, and females of some other species have been observed ejecting sperm after copulation; see Marlene Zuk, Sexual Selections [California. 2002], 84-85.  Women aren't birds, unfortunately, and if Todd Akin wants to build social policy on the assumption that they are, he needs better evidence than one speculative paper by one anti-choice doctor.

Fussing about the definition of rape, as many of Akin's liberal critics have been doing, is really beside the point.  Some have looked past it, pointing out that his fantasy about women's power is an attempt to justify his denial of an exception for abortion in the case of rape, which is the current Republican Party stance on abortion.  The issue is not the definition of rape, but that women's right to make decisions about their own bodies has been whittled away that far.  Roe v. Wade asserted a woman's freedom to decide whether to have an abortion without qualification in the first trimester of pregnancy, whether she has been raped or not.  But focusing on the definition of rape allowed President Obama, for example, to pontificate:
Rape is rape. And the idea that we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we’re talking about doesn’t make sense to the American people and certainly doesn’t make sense to me. So, what I think these comments do underscore is why we shouldn’t have a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making healthcare decisions on behalf of women.
Obama's own record, however, is dodgier than these tough words would suggest.  As this blogger points out, the Affordable Care Act (conforming with the Hyde Amendment) forbids the use of federal funds for abortion, "except in cases of rape or incest, or when the life of the woman would be endangered," as well as other amendments which "prohibit discrimination" (!) against health care providers whose religious "conscience" forbids them to provide abortion services.  Sounds like male politicians making healthcare decisions on behalf of women to me.

It's worth looking at Akin's "apology," too.  Does he apologize for his determined, longstanding opposition to women's reproductive freedom?  Of course not:
I’ve really made a couple of serious mistakes here that were just wrong, and I need to apologize for those. First, I might say that I’ve always been committed to pro-life, and it was because I didn’t want to harm the most vulnerable. But likewise, I care deeply, you know, for the victims of people who have been raped, and they’re equally vulnerable. And a rape is equally tragic. And I made that statement in error. Let me be clear: rape is never legitimate. It’s an evil act that’s committed by violent predators. I used the wrong words in the wrong way. What I said was ill-conceived, and it was wrong. And for that, I apologize.
It's a typical politician's apology.  Which is why rape survivor and author of the Vagina Monologues Eve Ensler missed the point in her HuffPost response to Akin.  Ensler invited Akin to imagine a violent, stinking stranger breaking into his house in the night and forcing him to submit to his vile appetites -- but stranger rape, preferably by unwashed derelicts of color, is the paradigm of rape that the Religious Right accepts.  (At least in theory: in practice, the victim had better be a white blonde virgin, whose flimsy feminine garments are rent by the brute's grubby paws, and even then they'll never quite believe she didn't ask for it.)  The Republican National Committee didn't cut off their funding of Akin, nor did Romney denounce him and call for him to withdraw from the race, because they've suddenly become pro-choice.  (As usual, the Onion got it right.)

I got into a verbal tussle with the blogger Vast Left on Facebook yesterday, because he blamed Akin's view on the Bible, and invited his commenters to cite cases from the Bible where rape resulted in pregnancy.  His own example was that of Lot and his daughters.  Faithful Bible readers will recall that after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which also resulted in Lot's wife looking back and being turned into a pillar of salt, Lot's daughters got him drunk on successive nights and copulated with him in turn.  They both became pregnant as a result.  I pointed out that if anyone was raped in this story, it was Lot; Akin's fantasy wouldn't apply to him.  Vast Left didn't seem bothered by the distinction, but of course we're going after Republicans here, and Christians to boot, so all's fair.  More cases were mentioned, such as slaves being used sexually (which, as I've pointed out, doesn't seem to bother gay Christians as long as master and slave are both male), of concubinage and the like.  I pointed out that in the Hebrew Bible, brides were routinely purchased, so it would seem that all Biblical women were raped (except possibly Ruth).  The concept of "consent," so important in liberal discourse on sex, is a legal fiction: in America in the recent past, white women could not consent to copulate with non-white males, wives could not withhold consent to copulate with their husbands ("I do" amounting to consent while the marriage continued), and of course no one of either sex could consent to be penetrated anally.  Legal consent, enshrined in the cliche "consenting adults," is very different from commonsense notions of consent, which have their own problems.

Vast Left offered a nice platitude: Sexual attitudes in the past sucked, and so do some today, but consent is important.  And religion is okay as long as believers extract whatever good they can from it.  Who gets to decide that what is extracted is good? I asked.  Atheists haven't done better than theists where ethics and morality are concerned, as far as I can tell, particularly on questions of sex and gender.

Wherever Akin and Willke got their fantasy about the abortifacient powers of the womb, they didn't get it from the Bible.  Indeed, Willke is a doctor, and they were both appealing to the authority of science, not religion.  Where consent is concerned, atheists -- especially male ones -- have not distinguished themselves.  Remember the proudly atheist and pro-science philosopher Michael Ruse, who confused sex with a woman and defecating on a Persian rug: his rationalist exploration of rape delved into whether he should clear a potential copulation with another male, and the woman's opinion didn't enter into it at all.  (He did lament that human females don't go into heat, because then rape somehow wouldn't be an issue, but again, he was addressing other men's judgment of his behavior, not the woman's wishes.)  "Scientific" discussions of rape have been no better, such as Thornhill and Palmer's recommendation that teenagers be required to take classes on rape prevention before being issued a driver's license: boys would learn the evolutionary issues involved, while girls would be taught not to dress "provocatively" -- any Taliban mullah would surely agree.  Or the whole "evolutionary psychology" approach: rape is awful, terrible, horrible, and maybe someday we'll find a way to alter the genome so men won't do it, without losing their manliness.  Meanwhile, according to the evolutionary psychologists, women will just have to learn not to blame Nature if her sons are sexist; it's nobody's fault.

This is one reason I don't blame religion for bad things in human society (or give religion credit for the good things).  People use religion to ratify what they already want or believe, which is why when many people reject religion, they tend to keep the teachings they like.  Sex and gender are topics that seem especially tenacious.  But again, all this is a distraction from the crucial issue of women's right to make decisions over their own bodies.

That was all I had in mind to say, but just now another friend posted a meme on Facebook to the effect that if men could get pregnant, we wouldn't be having this conversation.  It's a familiar gag; one version went, "If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament."  The point is a good one, but I don't think I agree.  Patriarchy regulates men's sexual behavior pretty strictly too: consider the story of Onan (Genesis 38), struck dead by Yahweh for spilling his semen on the ground instead of siring a child on his widowed sister-in-law.  Masturbation, called onanism, was ginned up into a major source of hysteria by the medical profession, more than it ever had been by religion.  Men are supposed to respect each other's property rights over women, though of course they constantly cheat.  And male homosexuality, conflated with the regulation of styles of manhood, is a major arena of anxiety and discipline; men who fail to conform pay a heavy price.  Which brings me full circle to the question at the beginning of this post, and good night.

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