Archive for June, 2008

Figleaf is asking how the heck people managed to have sex in the past in one-room abodes, and how they do it today.

So I’m starting to wonder how much of modern Western sexual progress has coincided with modern Western “bourgeoise” trends in housing.

Historically, many people just had no choice about where and when to do it. In premodern times, people’s sensibilities were quite frank, and sex was not nearly as private. The whole notion of “privacy,” for that matter, is quite modern. People did try to be somewhat secretive about their activities, which meant that sex would often be rather furtive and fast, but no one expected sex to be wholly hidden.

This changed with the advent of the bourgeoisie and the birth of modern notions of privacy. The more prosperous classes promoted an idea of sexual discretion, and they had enough space to conform to it. Parents and children slept in separate rooms, and the idea of shielding kids from their parents’ sex lives became prevalent enough that Freud could write of a child viewing the “primal scene” as a traumatic event.

But space remained at a premium for the poor, and their housing actually grew worse as industrialization advanced and poor people flocked to the cities in hope of work. The urban working class often suffered much worse crowding than rural people did. In 1918, half of the apartments in Berlin, Germany, had just one room. The situation was worse in some other European cities. Poor women commonly rented out (part of) a bed to unrelated tenants, which meant that the family’s young daughters might share a bed with a young, unmarried man. About a third of 5000 poor housewives surveyed in Berlin in the early 1930s had sublet arrangements with boarders.

I know a little about this issue from my research on the history of childbirth. As you might imagine, the lack of space and privacy also became an issue at the other end of the pipe, so to speak. A one-room apartment doesn’t allow for a hygienic home birth by modern standards. Nor does it facilitate the sort of privacy that doctors and midwives increasingly saw as morally necessary in childbirth. This was a big factor driving women’s choice to give birth in hospitals.

The key term here is “bourgeois,” both morally and materially. In the 1920s, middle-class housing reformers pushed for better apartments for the poor – not necessarily larger but chopped into fewer rooms – partly because they saw morality endangered by the lack of privacy. This seems to have been a much bigger deal for the middle-class do-gooders than for the working classes, which continued to embrace bawdier morals. (Poor people did want better housing, just not necessarily for the same reasons that reformers saw it as desirable.)

But it’s a nice little irony that the birth of privacy, which initially cast sex as something to hide from the world, actually created a space where sex could ultimately become less furtive. Sexual variety needs time and space to flourish, and those buttoned-down reformers inadvertently created just that.

The consequences of privacy for female pleasure are particularly profound, since “fast and furtive” just doesn’t cut it for most of us women, most of the time. In addition, young women had more sexual autonomy when they didn’t have to fend off the advances of a tenant; the reformers were right that such tenants could pose a threat to women’s bodily integrity. So even if the reformers were interested in protecting women’s purity, in the end they did much more to facilitate women’s sexual self-determination.

I’m still left wondering how people cope in Tokyo or Moscow, as figleaf asks. Many of them still live in conditions similar to early-twentieth-century crowding, with whole families in a single room, but they’re subject to modern ideas about privacy and sexual propriety. I’d be very curious to know how they manage the resulting clash.

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Photo by Flickr user ILoveButter, used under a Creative Commons license.

I’ve previously lamented the tendency for prostate cancer and breast cancer to be pitted against each other. It’s understandable – and completely appropriate – that prostate cancer sufferers would resent the miserly treatment of their disease when it comes to both research and treatment. Considering that one in five American men will get the disease and that current treatments typically leave men with an unacceptable side effect – permanent erectile dysfunction – it’s disgracefully underfunded.

The solution, though, is not for the two diseases to compete for the same scarce resources. We shouldn’t view this as a zero-sum game. Men afflicted by prostate cancer, and their partners who lives are also deeply affected, need to build a strong lobby. There are millions of prostate cancer survivors in the United States alone, yet the petition to increase government spending on it has not even gathered 10,000 signatures. (So go here and sign it!)

Another possible tactic is for the prostate and breast cancer lobbies to join hands. They’re natural allies. While I don’t want to deny the obvious differences between them, the similarities between these two cancers are also pretty striking. Both diseases were once too taboo to discuss (and to a great extent, that’s still true for prostate cancer). Both are extremely common diseases. Both strike mostly older people but also a very significant number of people in midlife. And both intrude cruelly on people’s sexuality, albeit in substantially different ways.

Now comes a small but significant scientific breakthrough that shows there’s even an affinity on the biological level, as well:

A faulty gene closely associated with breast cancer is also responsible for a particularly dangerous form of prostate cancer, research has confirmed.

A University of Toronto team found prostate cancer patients carrying the BRCA2 gene lived on average for four years after diagnosis.

The average survival time for a man with prostate cancer is 12 years. …

The latest study – based on 301 patients – examined two closely related faulty genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, both of which greatly increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer, and are linked to ovarian cancer.

Both genes cut average survival times in men with prostate cancer who carried them – for men carrying BRCA1 the average survival time was eight years after diagnosis.

BRCA2 has already been linked to deadly prostate cancer, with an Icelandic study recording an average survival time among prostate cancer patients carrying the gene of just 2.1 years. …

Lead researcher Dr Steven Narod said: “We know that carrying a faulty BRCA2 gene increases a man’s risk of getting prostate cancer, and our study shows that it also affects how long he will survive a diagnosis of the disease.”

(Source: BBC News)

I don’t know why this would be so; I’m not an expert, and it seems like even the real experts don’t understand the mechanisms. It’s intriguing that the BRCA2 mutation is the nastier of the two in prostate cancer, while BRCA1 is worse when it comes to breast cancer.

But on the policy level, there might be some real synergies in funding further research into these mutations. One of the fascinating trends in cancer research is that we’re beginning to recognize how many different flavors a “single” disease such as breast cancer can have, depending on whether it’s estrogen-sensitive, HER-positive, etc. At the same time, scientists are finding cross-linkages between apparently disparate forms of cancer, as this BRCA study shows.

So instead of fighting over an ostensibly limited pie, I’d love to see the boys and girls together and lobby jointly to “build the pie higher,” to quote one of the best Bushisms ever.

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From I Can Has Cheezburger?

The Columbus Dispatch reports that Rod Parsley’s world-domination enterprise, aka his “church,” has established an anti-abortion counseling center in Columbus, located conveniently just across from a Planned Parenthood clinic.

Parsley’s center looks like a doctor’s office, though there is just one medical professional employed there, a registered nurse. Other nurses and doctors will volunteer their services there, [director Debbie] Stacy said. …

It will offer free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds to encourage women to give birth, Stacy said. It also will make referrals for other medical services, but not for abortions.

(Source: Columbus Dispatch)

This is nothing new, of course. Such “crisis pregnancy centers” exist all over the United States. But the Dispatch report offered this one truly telling detail:

Inside, women will find a portable ultrasound machine and pamphlets about sexually transmitted infections, RU-486, sometimes called the “abortion pill,” and how to say no to unwanted sex. The reading material all focuses on abstinence. The center does not distribute information about birth control.
(my emphasis)

And this too, is nothing new. It’s just one more piece of proof that for doctrinaire opponents of reproductive justice, the point is not saving “unborn lives.” It’s making sure that if you do indulge in sex, you’ll be penalized for it – with a baby.

I’m sure the resulting babies will be thrilled to know that they were their mom’s punishment for bonking without a license.

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So I’ve already explained why I welcome men taking my women’s and gender studies classes, and why I’m glad they’re no longer a teensy minority. But my more interesting contribution to the NWSA panel on men in the WS classroom came not from me, but from the guys themselves.

I’ll readily admit that this was probably the most unscientific survey ever. I asked a number of my former male students for their views on the opportunities and difficulties for men in women’s studies. I emailed a bunch of guys who did well in my classes because I wanted bright, thoughtful, informed opinions. They did well partly because they seemed to enjoy the class, and they enjoyed the class partly because they did well in it. So, in other words, I totally cherry-picked my sample.

The guys’ comments covered three main themes: experience, marginalization, and gender. Though they addressed the classroom situation, I think their responses are valuable to anyone interested in men’s relation to feminism (and not just in academia).

Experience is a central category for women’s studies. It’s the foundation for both the academic field and feminist activism. But experience is a vexed category for my male students. They believe they can’t enter into women’s lived experience, so they may feel shut out of the discussion or alienated from the course material. Some men react to personal essays on the syllabus as being less scientific than other academic material, and thus less convincing or authoritative. Many men are less comfortable than women when it comes to “body talk,” and this has broad ramifications for their classroom situation. One student in a mid-level class on “gendered bodies” with only about 20 percent men wrote:

I just felt awkward commenting on certain issues knowing that 75% of the class were women. Sometimes I would feel embarrassed, and others I felt like I might offend someone. For example, I just didn’t feel comfortable commenting on male sexual insecurity knowing that most of the people listening are of the opposite sex. However, I know there’s not really much you can do about that until more guys sign up for the class.

But encountering strange experiences can have a huge upside as well. Open-minded individuals can learn a lot from new and unfamiliar perspectives (and I assume that the women in my classes learn equally from the men). Best of all, exchanging experiences can spark empathy, which – as Patricia Hill Collins and others have argued – is the necessary basis for building alliances:

I felt this was a very useful class for learning future skills for how to be a better husband and parent and just a more considerate person to others. … It just makes guys think a little about what others feel, and it helped me, in particular, understand why women sometimes act the way they do in certain situations. (Here, I’m thinking about our discussions about walking on campus at night and related topics.) So…it is very useful, and I think that it makes guys into better people to learn how the girls feel about things.

A discussion format, my students agreed, is essential to this process. I don’t lecture more than I absolutely have to, but even so, these guys reminded me that there are times when the instructor just needs to make room for the students’ dialogue:

I do not see any problems with men being in women studies courses, instead just the opposite. This is good for both women and men in the classroom because they offer each other the opposite sex’s opinions and thoughts where they wouldn’t receive anywhere else outside the classroom to gain a better understanding of each other.

One wrinkle in this, of course, is that the desire for discussion can collide with men’s sense of marginalization. If the men feel too alienated, it can shut down discussion even if they’re not hiding behind a trenchcoat or baseball cap. Typically, men enter the classroom on the first day feeling nervous that the women will pounce on them. I suspect it’s the men of good will who fret most about this:

I think the main problem for men is just a worry that it’s going to be the stereotype that people try to put on it … that all of the women will gang up on the guys, and they will be in a hostile environment where they don’t feel like they can learn. I obviously can’t speak for all Women’s Studies classes, but it was clearly not the case in our class. I guess I was very careful about what I said, though, because I did not want to put myself in a situation where I was saying something that would unintentionally be seen as insulting to the majority of the class.

But a sense of marginalization can also be a valuable experience if someone has rarely been in that position; it too can create empathy. It can help relatively privileged individuals get a taste of what their world would be like, were they much less privileged. This is something I think I need to spend more time addressing explicitly in class.

So dealing with marginalization as tricking. Male students see the instructor’s stance as decisive in whether they will speak freely. But when does this go too far? I get compliments on not being a feminazi. But on the flip side, I think it’s also possible to be too conciliatory, watering down the material and failing to challenge my students.

Two keys to striking a balance seem to be respect and humor. At least, these are themes the guys mentioned repeatedly. One commented:

Both of you [me and a colleague of mine] were very inviting and non-judgmental, and I felt comfortable participating in most of the discussions. Also, neither of you were afraid to crack a joke, and laughter definitely helps alleviate some of the tension that comes with many of those topics. All in all, both of you made me feel like a valued part of the class rather than someone to be criticized.

Pardon me if I’m seemingly tooting my horn by quoting this; I’m sure I also have former students who’d beg to differ. But the point is that when the classroom dynamics work well, both respect and humor have to be part of the mix.

Finally, male students appreciate a broad focus on gender and not just on women. I’m convinced this is good for everyone. You can’t hope to understand femininity as a social construct unless you devote roughly equal time to masculinity. This is something I’m already committed to, but it’s good to be reminded:

It really seems like there are three types of guys that take Women’s Studies. The first type is a guy that thinks maybe he’ll learn something new and understand people better after it, the second is a guy that thinks the class will be funny and controversial and wants to see if there are any crazy women to make fun of, and the third is someone who just fit it into their schedule. So … I guess you can’t do much about that second group, and the first group just needs to find a couple worthwhile things to make them think the class is worth it. The third group seems like the one that should be a focus. If somehow you can figure out a way to make them feel the class was worthwhile, then more guys will recommend it to others and it will grow. How do you do that? It’s tough to tell. I feel Women’s Studies is on the right path, though. For a class that was probably started by focusing on the female struggle, there really is a strong focus on men’s problem, such as gender, stereotypes and parenting.

Agreed, that WS instructors and feminists in general shouldn’t just be preaching to the choir. And yet, I’m actually really interested in that first group, too: the guys that start off open-minded. I think they bring the most to the classroom, and they stand to gain the most from the course.

I have a feeling that all the men who generously responded to my informal little survey fell into that first group from day one, and I’m grateful for their feedback, advice, criticism, and appreciation. (So thanks, guys!) They are proof positive that the opportunities opened by including men in the classroom far outweigh the greater complexity in guiding classroom dynamics. For them, taking a course women’s studies is rapidly becoming a totally “normal” thing to do. And so I’ll let one of the guys have the final word (but I happen to agree with him completely):

Women[‘s] studies is just like another school subject such as history or math and broadening anyone’s knowledge in this area is a good thing.

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From I Can Has Cheezburger?

I don’t think I’m an exceptionally vain person, but I’m also not immune to wanting to look younger than I actually am. Every once in a while I catch a glimpse of time leaving its tracks on my face. This happened most memorably a couple years ago when I was rushing between classes and was ambushed by the view in a bathroom mirror. Looking sidelong, I thought: oh my goodness, it’s my grandma!

Now, matters could be worse. Yes, it’s true that my dad’s mother got rather jowly late in life, not quite Nixon-esque but still quite noticable, and I see the contours of that future in my own chin. Yes, her eyelids sagged by the time she was in her eighties, and instead of getting them fixed, she held them in place with tape. (Why she never pursued surgery remains a mystery.)

But Grandma also remained vibrant and attractive well into her middle years. She adored being the queen bee of Republican politics in North Dakota. Virtually the only woman on the scene, she basked in the admiration of all those men. Incipient jowls apparently didn’t deter them. And conversely, she appreciated an attractive man well into her nineties, pretty much up to the point when she lost her marbles.

So yes, things could be a whole lot worse. And yet, when I read this passage in a Stephen McCauley novel a few days ago, I thought, whoa, he got it exactly right:

I was barely awake when the doorbell rang at eleven the next morning. I glanced in my bureau mirror on my way to the stairs, amazed at how increasingly unkind sleep was as I got older, as if someone came in every night to practice origami on my face while I slept.
(Stephen McCauley, The Man of the House, 140.)

McCauley is recounting the very particular woes of a gay man around 40 who’s single but would prefer to be paired. But even if you’re not hunting for a mate, that morning tracery can be merciless. My one really noticeable wrinkle is a line near my jaw where I know my chin gets squished against the pillow. I suppose I could sleep on my back, but then I’d never sleep, and that wouldn’t exactly enhance my looks, either.

This isn’t just vanity. It’s also not merely a slavish response to the beauty ideal, as a unidimensional feminist analysis might suggest. It’s partly a fear of mortality. It’s also anxiety – as McCauley’s anti-hero displays – that no one will want to have sex with you beyond a certain point of decrepitude.

Most interestingly, it’s a sense of alienation from oneself, as philosopher Diana Tietjens Meyers has argued. In her book Gender in the Mirror, Meyers says when we look at our aging selves in the mirror, we no longer see our familiar, long-known selves. Our face appears as “not-self.” It’s no longer the image that is invested with and in our relationships. In this interpretation, the desire to look younger, be it through surgery, cosmetics, or merely the approving eyes of another, is an effort to recover what we perceive as our true selves.

Meyers presents this as a gendered phenomenon. It’s true that women’s social worth is still bound up with our appearance more than men’s. I think Meyers may also be right that women’s aging faces become a sort of proxy for everyone’s horror of mortality. This was likely one strike against Hillary Clinton during the primary campaign.

But that loss of the familiar self is not necessarily gendered. The face with origami folds – and the resulting sense of unfamiliarity – can be male just as easily as female.

In some ways, recognizing myself as my grandma was a moment of pure alienation and unfamiliarity. I literally saw someone other than myself in the mirror. But if I have to morph into someone else, I could do worse. When Grandma died, she was just a few days short of 103. So if I get her jowls, I’ll hope to inherit her robustness, too. Certainly I got my ornery streak partly from her. But I promise: If my eyelids start to sag, I will get them fixed.

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I wasn’t going to post this because I thought it’s redundant. I believed everyone I know had already heard about the misogynist slur Senator McCain spewed – years ago – not against a female political opponent but against his own wife. In public. After Cindy McCain’s wealth financed his budding political career.

How wrong I was. Although such blogtopic luminaries as The Political Cat have reported on this story, not a single one of my colleagues had heard about it. Nor had my mate.

And so I am going to breach the usual standard of Kittywampus decorum (low as that standard may be) and post a really rude (but searingly funny) video on what McCain thinks of his wife. Or at least how he speaks of her. (Did I mention this was in public? In front of reporters?)

First he called her a trollop for wearing too much makeup. And then he called her … well, watch the video:

Yeah, it rhymes with “punt,” Which is what McCain would’ve done here with his political career, if he weren’t a conservative and thus above moral reproach, by definition, no matter what he actually does.

I’m all for reclaiming and defanging nasty words. Somehow, I don’t think that was McCain’s intent. This story needs to reach every woman who’s even flirted with voting for McCain.

And y’know, it’s not just the misogyny that troubles me. It’s the lack of self-control. It’s the inability to edit one’s public ejaculations. What if the next woman he graces with a similar epithet is not Cindy McCain but, say, Angela Merkel?

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Now that I’m done conferencing (though still on the road), you can expect a few posts on my mental fallout from the National Women’s Studies Association annual meeting. The presentations I enjoyed at the Berks were stronger, on the whole, but the NWSA still got me thinking.

My own panel at the NWSA addressed the question of men in the classroom. I was part of this discussion because my university has relatively robust enrollments of men in our women’s and gender studies classes, thanks to a business school requirement that funnels lots of male undergrads in our direction.

Let me just say I really like having men in the classroom. I think it adds a dimension to the discussion that wouldn’t otherwise be present. I recognize that there’s a trade-off: in an all-female space, women will talk more freely about certain issues than with men present. But all it takes is one male to completely change the dynamic – without, however, much immediate gain.

So here’s the paradox: If a classroom is going to be mixed-gender, you’re much better off teaching a bunch of men, not just a token or two.

In my own student days, WS classes tended to be all-female, and any man who ventured to join us was probably on a quest to understand his own non-normative sexuality. He was likely gay or bi or questioning. By the time I taught my first WS in 2002, this was starting to change. I had two male students, both evidently heterosexual, neither quite sure why he was there. One was bright but hid behind his baseball cap, too shy to speak. The other wore a trenchcoat and expressed a certain sympathy for the Columbine shooters.

By now my colleagues and I commonly have 30 to 40 percent men in our courses. This is terrific in that men no longer feel like they’re mere tokens; they’re much more likely to speak up. It’s a great opportunity to broaden the discussion, in my view, and to widen people’s horizons. By this I don’t mean that I get to indoctrinate the guys; try that, and you’ve lost them on day one. The same is just as true for the women, by the way. But I do believe that good ideas will tend to win people over at the end of the day.

Above 35 to 40 percent, the men can actually start to dominate the conversation, so this can be a mixed blessing, as one of my fellow panelists observed. At his university, however, the WS classes are bristling with football players! I have to admit I’m grateful that I don’t get classes where a full third of the students play on the same team, sit in the same corner, and disrupt the conversation. Yikes! I’m glad I’m not dealing with big blocs of jocks. But another presenter who spoke about this sees it as an opportunity to reach the macho guys and maybe help reduce sexual violence, and so she deals with the discipline issues by working with the coaches.

So the emerging women’s studies classroom is a far cry from the all-female environments that early feminists nurtured and Mary Daly famously decreed. Myself, I’ll gladly deal with the difficulty of balancing male and female participation in exchange for change to discuss not just women but men – and thus gender as a relational system.

Not least, when men reach a certain critical mass, they challenge each other, they take the class more seriously, and they turn in better work. A few years ago, I still saw some serious slackerdom among the men; now, they’re performing just as well as the gals. And that makes my job a whole lot more fun.

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