Archive for December, 2009

About a week ago, my university sent out a holiday YouTube greeting to its employees (and presumably to students, too). I’m sure the folks in marketing meant well, but it’s an absolute trainwreck of a message that exemplifies much of what’s wrong higher education in our neck of the woods, and I’m sure at other schools as well.

The clip celebrates “Bobcat pride,” which seems to be mainly based on our football team. You do see one picture of a student paired with a line about innovation. There’s a reference to the library, which, contrary to the clip, was not shuttered this week but populated with grad students, professors, and the library staff, all gearing up for winter quarter. Otherwise the clip says almost nothing about education. We could just as well be a fast-food chain, “going for great,” as our president likes to say. Nor is there any mention of the hard-working staff and faculty who make this place work. Apparently we run on pure Bobcat pride.

Oh, and we didn’t actually have a real coat of snow this week, either. But the pictures are pretty anyway.

As for the football team? They did have a winning season but just lost 21–17 to Marshall University in the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl. Even without the loss, it’s hard not to picture pizza sauce and cheese splattered everywhere.

To be clear, I’m not picking on the university’s marketing people (well, maybe just a little for that line anthropomorphizing the chimes). This message directly reflects the priorities of our president and trustees. Academic units are being told to expect cuts as deep as 10 percent in the year ahead, while athletics are allowed to run a $15 million deficit, subsidized by the rest of the university. At this rate, “Bobcat pride” is poised to outlast our academic mission.

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I think the adage about dogs goes for sleeping tigers as well: one should let them lie.

But what if the tiger doesn’t stay in his bed?

Tonight my husband heard light footfalls on the stairs. He observed this stripy person perambulate as far as the landing …

… and then turn around, ascend the stairs, and return to his bed, where he lay clearly asleep with his eyes wide open.

Just what we needed: a Tiger who sleepwalks!

I know that sleepwalking is correlated with night terrors. The Tiger has had a few of those, as well as several wakings where his eyes were open but he couldn’t hold a conversation and he wasn’t quite there. Like any modern parent, I googled sleepwalking and quickly learned that it’s more common when kids are overtired. Goodness knows he was a cranky little cub today, and over dinner he kept flopping over. So yeah, he’s overtired.

I’m hoping this will be a one-time trick. If not, we’ll have to consider re-installing a baby gate at the top of the stairs. That feels like a quantum leap backward, but I don’t see any better alternatives. Even though the Tiger navigated the stairs expertly in his sleep, we can’t trust he’ll do it safely again.

I know kids generally grow out of it, but any been-there-done-that stories and advice will be gratefully appreciated!

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Okay, so technically I made this yesterday. And to be honest, there’s not really a recipe. The only trick to it is that you need to have 1) planted your own chard earlier in the year, and 2) nursed it through the first several hard freezes. Mine survived only thanks to the ministrations of my friend (and occasional commenter) Hydraargyrum, who covered it with a tarp while I was in California. I’ve since substituted Remay (a light agricultural row-cover fabric) for the tarp. It lets some sunlight through while trapping just enough heat. This is not a happy chard existence. It’s sort of a veal-pen for veggies. But hey, it’s already in a vegetative state.

It’s still pretty, isn’t it?

Anyway, I harvested enough yesterday to make chard greens with fried eggs and English muffins for dinner. I normally like to cook up the stems, too, but having survived several nights of 15 degrees Fahrenheit, the stems collapsed into mush. So I trimmed off as much stem as possible and cooked the greens in a non-stick pan with a splash of added water. Once they were wilted but still held a bit of shape, I added two tablespoons of butter and a dash of salt and pepper.

Here you can see the sprinkling of snow the leaves picked up as I harvested them. I’m a snow cynic, but golly, the snow sparkled like tiny diamonds.

And here’s the view from my back porch (the garden is behind the peachy garage) right after I cut the chard.

Be forewarned that there’s no way most kids will eat chard that’s this intense. My Bear, who’s pretty adventurous for a kid, wouldn’t even try it. That’s where the English muffins bridged the calorie gap.

To be honest, I prefer my chard younger and milder, but I still thought it absolutely RAWKED to be able to havest anything from my garden on the 28th of December. That’s a new record, beating the previous mark of arugula for Christmas Eve 2005. It would be really cool if my chard survives until I’ve started my first flat of seeds for next year’s garden.

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So there’s another possible case of a blogger creating a false persona on the web – and this time, not just gender but sex is in play. At Carnal Nation, Monica Shores alleges that Alexa Di Carlo, who chronicles her career as a paid escort at the Real Princess Diaries, is not a sex worker. According to some of the allegations, she may not even be a woman. Quite a few sex workers are outraged at this apparent fakery (for instance Tasty Trixie, Jenny DeMilo, a dancer named Kat, and lots of others, I’m sure – be forewarned that their sites are generally not safe for work, as is Real Princess Diaries). They have at least two main grievances that seem pretty righteous to me: If Alexa is indeed a fake, she is creating fake expectations, too, that at their worst could put sex workers at greater risk. And Alexa uses oodles of erotic photos that aren’t of her, without any attribution.

Now, having never sold any service sexier than food, I’m totally unqualified to judge whether Alexa is credible as a sex worker. However, I’m totally fascinated by how people can play with and fake identities on the Web, and so I started rummaging around in her archives when I first heard about this story (via figleaf) a few days before Christmas.

The first thing I read was a post titled “The History of Sexuality,” since that’s my own turf. Guess what? Alexa also claims to be a graduate student in human sexuality studies at San Francisco State University, aspiring to an academic career. Now that’s an area where I’ve got a clue.

And guess what else? I’m dead sure her academic credentials are fake. I have no interest in outing anyone – I expect people to honor pseudonymity and anonymity – so even if I knew who the “real” real princess was (which I don’t), I wouldn’t be inclined to reveal her name. But as an academic, I feel pretty strongly disinclined to tolerate fraud in my corner of the world.

When I went back after Christmas to look for that “History of Sexuality” post, it had disappeared from her archives. Since then, her whole blog has gone dark, including a very long post in which she defended her authenticity. She has also deleted her MySpace profile (though it – like her blog posts – is still in Google’s cache) and protected her tweets on Twitter.

The very fact that her “History of Sexuality” post disappeared early is suggestive because it contained a lot of detail that can be mapped onto real world correlates. For instance, SFSU really did offer a grad-level History of Sexuality course in fall 2009, which was taught by Prof. Amy Sueyoshi, and its syllabus (freely available online) really did include an assignment matching Alexa’s description of it:

For one of my classes this semester I have to develop my own syllabus for a History of Sexuality class for undergraduate college level students.  This has to include a description of the topics and suggested readings (along with justification for those readings) for each.

With that in mind, I’d like your input.  Read through this proposed two-semester outline and see if there’s anything else you think should be covered in a History of Sexuality course.  I don’t mind you delving a bit into each topic, but don’t get into minutiae about specific thoughts or points of specific discussion within each.  Other than that, though, feel free to make any comments you wish about this.

(This and subsequent quotations are from the cached version, so I can’t provide a permanent link, but you can access my pdf of the cached version of History of Sexuality for verification. For as long as it lasts, Google’s cached version is here. Just in case the site ever goes back online, the original URL for the “History of Sexuality” post is here.)

She then includes this list of textbooks:

  • Sexualities in History
  • The Mythology of Sex
  • Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices
  • Passion and Power Sexuality in History
  • Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others
  • Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work
  • The Ethical Slut

One of her commenters proposed an obvious addition:

I can’t imagine a course titled History of Sexuality that doesn’t list in its readings The History of Sexuality: An Introduction by Michel Foucault. Of course, this isn’t a history in the traditional sense, but an examination of the construction of Sexuality as a concept, the categorization of sexual behavior, and the proliferation of sexual discourse (primarily as a control/power structure). Having a course with that title will immediately set up expectations for reading Foucault.

Okay, so Foucault is a tough read, and you wouldn’t necessarily want to assign it in an undergrad class unless it was aimed at especially advanced students. But that’s not how Alexa responded:

And you’ve explained why it would not be a central reading assignment in the course itself. Certainly, it’d be discussed, but, as you say, it’s not a historical text in and of itself.

Oops. Anyone who’s actually read Foucault’s History of Sexuality would never dismiss it on these grounds. No, it’s not a traditional history, but it’s conceptually crucial to understanding the history of sexuality. For instance, it was Foucault who first argued that homosexuality is a socially constructed and thoroughly modern category (though other historians have since fleshed out this insight).

In an earlier post, where Alexa listed her recommended books on sexuality, she did include Foucault – but in a way that only undermines her academic credibility:

The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction, Michel FoucaultFoucault is difficult to read, so I am only recommending the first of his three books on sexuality.  If you can get through this and want to continue reading, feel free to buy the other two.  His philosophy is constructed around the assertion that regulation of sexuality is the work of power elites who are seeking to garner and protect their position of social dominance.

(A cached version of this post, “Recommended Reading,” is here. My pdf of Recommended Reading is here. The original URL is here.)

Again, no! If a student submitted this précis to me as part of an annotated bibliography, or if she described Foucault’s thesis in this way, I’d have to assume she hadn’t read him. At a minimum, I’d question whether she understood him. The whole point of Foucault’s History of Sexuality is to describe power as decentralized and local in its workings. He does not conceptualize power as exercised in a top-down fashion. Instead, we’re all implicated in the workings of power/knowledge, which are not simply “the work of power elites.” I first read this book the summer before graduate school, and I understood that much. So should anyone who’s already logged a year as a grad student in sexuality – if she’s actually read the book.

But she does at least indicate here that she knows Foucault is difficult. How does she know this? And one thing weighed against my supposition that she hadn’t done the reading: she also picked up on the term “regulation,” which is pretty central to Foucault.

Well, I’m unfortuantely familiar with what students may do when they haven’t done the reading but are desperate to keep up appearances. The worst response? Plagiarize from someone who has read it. I say “worst” because it’s not only unethical, it’s stupid. Professors know how to use the Google, too, you know.

And that’s precisely what Alexa did here. She plagiarized. Here’s Alexa:

His philosophy is constructed around the assertion that regulation of sexuality is the work of power elites who are seeking to garner and protect their position of social dominance.

And here’s its original source, in a New York Times article from June 23, 2001, by Peter Steinfels on books that religious leaders have criticized as harmful:

Ellen Charry, another professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, chose ”The History of Sexuality” by Michel Foucault.

”The effect of this book is to endorse the notion that the regulation of sexuality is the work of power elites who are seeking to garner and protect their position of social dominance,” Professor Charry wrote.

By the way, with all due respect to Professor Charry, I still think it’s a crappy precis for the reasons I described above. Professor Charry doesn’t like Foucault’s embrace of kink, which may explain why she’s not inclined to tease out any of the nuances of his argument.

Now, only after I’d combed through Alexa’s post without any inside information from people at SFSU did I learn through Tasty Trixie’s comment section that one of the other SFSU grad students has a blog, The Sexademic. It’s a smart and interesting blog. Its author, Jessi, confirms both that Foucault is a standard part of the curriculum, and that Alexa is not a student there:

She claimed in her posts to be studying in my graduate program (Sexuality Studies at SF State) and seems to have lifted information from the department profile of a fellow male graduate student.

For the record: there is no way this person is affiliated with my department. She knows a fair amount about sexuality studies but she constructed a syllabus of the History of Sexuality without including writings from Michel Foucault [Thanks Zoey for the cache link to Alexa’s syllabus post]. History of Sexuality: An Introduction is one of the first sexual theory texts first year students read. No-one would leave Michel Foucault out of a basic sexuality reading list. This is tantamount to discussing the history of social labor movements without reading Karl Marx. Fail lady, fail.

I don’t know who this person is and the only thing I care about is that she is falsely claiming intellectual territory in Sexuality Studies at my university. Back off. Go fake yourself a life somewhere else.

(Read the rest here.)

The Marx comparison is spot on (and wonderfully phrased!). The sexuality studies grad program at SFSU is pretty small, and having been in a similarly sized program, I know how hard it would be to hide a secret this big. Jessi’s own identity is borne out by its website, as is the male student’s. Elsewhere, Jessi makes a persuasive case that her fellow student is essentially being libeled (see the comments in Trixie’s post) with details that again ring very true to an academic reader (“He would rather talk about Judith Butler and structural violence than write about deep-throating.)

Jessi’s post not only provides further confirmation of Alexa’s fakery; it also shows how a fake persona can have real world consequences. Alexa’s charade put a completely innocent male grad student under suspicion. She has also used countless erotic photos on her blog without any attribution – which is one of the things that rightly infuriates other sex workers, because she’s stealing their work. I guess a little academic plagiarism hardly registers when you’re routinely swiping people’s erotic photos to promote yourself.

The plagiarism really seals the deal, but other aspects of Alexa’s proposed syllabus raised my eyebrows, too. Her statement, “I don’t mind you delving a bit into each topic, but don’t get into minutiae about specific thoughts or points of specific discussion within each,” might have just been an attempt to keep comments focused on the big picture. But given that she’s faked at least some of her academic background, it more likely indicates a fear of being caught out.

Her reading list is a curious mix, too. She has three academic titles (Ruth Karras’ Sexuality in Medieval Europe, plus two essay collections, Passion And Power: Sexuality in History and Sexualities in History. The Mythology of Sex is an illustrated history – basically a coffee-table book. The two encyclopedias are completely unsuitable as textbooks, both because they consist of many short entries (duh!) and because the one on prostitution is super-expensive: $164 at Amazon, $225 list price. Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices is affordable but it’s not academic. These are books that might well be in the collection of someone who’s fascinated with sexuality and sex work, but they’re not the kinds of works that an instructor would steer a student toward, and certainly a second-year grad student ought to recognize their unsuitability.

Then there’s the incredibly broad scope of the course itself. In the first week, she proposes covering:

Ancient and Early Cultures
Sex from the beginning of recorded time through ancient civilizations, including Mesopotamia, Babylonia, the Roman Empire, Greece, and Egypt.  Discussion of gods and goddesses of sex and related subjects.  Discussion of Aztecs & polygamy, Mayan and Incan civilizations and incestuous practices.

(This and the following comments all come from the History of Sexuality post again.)

Another commenter, Charlie, notes that this kind of breadth is pedagogically self-defeating, even in a survey class:

It’s not quite clear to me from your description of the assignment- is this supposed to be an examination of all of human sexual history? Can it be a course on some slice or portion of the topic? I don’t think it’s reasonable to try to cover this much material in this much detail. The amount of information that you propose to include, even in a two semester course, is more than most people can absorb, process, or integrate, at least in my experience. While others have said similar things in the comments, I would add that when you’re asking students to explore sexual philosophies that are different from their own, you need to create the room for resistance, debate and exploration. This syllabus is so large and dense that I would expect there to be insufficient time for that. I think you’d do better to narrow the range and have more depth, in order to create room for people to challenge their ideas about what sex is and engage with ways of thinking about sex that are different from what they know.

Although it’s evident that Charlie has a lot more experience with teaching than Alexa does, her response brushes off his very reasonable concern that the course is overly broad:

I think it depends on how in-depth the subject matter is covered. It is, obviously, not intended to be a comprehensive treatment of the totality of human sexual history.

I think the first semester is easily doable, without constraints.

If you’re a graduate student really looking to refine a class assignment, you might want to seriously weigh advice from someone who’s been there, rather than dismissing it.

After I’d already formed this impression, I found that “Charlie” appears to be Dr. Charlie Glickman, who writes at the Good Vibrations blog and works as a sex educator. In a post titled “Who Is Alexa di Carlo?” he says that he took her at face value and provided help on the syllabus assignment, including some email exchanges. But based on her alleged theft of images from a camgirl, he now very much doubts that Alexa is who she says she is. He strikes me as smart, credible, and generous with his time. He also knows Jessi through Good Vibrations, which gives her a few bonus credibility points, too.

So why would someone pretend to be a sex worker? Well, the consensus seems to be that one might do it for the attention or in hopes of a book deal down the road. Certainly Alexa doesn’t seem to have earned any money directly through the blog (I saw no ads). She claimed to have attacted all of her clients through the blog, but that motivation collapses if she wasn’t really a sex worker.

Even more puzzling: Why, oh why, would anyone pretend to be a grad student? Sure, it might give your wanna-be “educational” posts a little more cachet. But for most of us, graduate school is a time of penury. I’m perfectly aware that some grad students choose sex work. I’d say it beats living out of your vehicles – and a recent vehicle-dweller just moved into the rental three doors down from me. Let’s face it – academic credentials don’t give you much of a boost in the blogosphere, especially if your claim to fame is that you host unprotected gang bangs for fun in your spare time. Academic credentials are also tough to fake.

Alexa di Carlo is a plagiarist. I’m be willing to bet my own credibility that she’s not a grad student in human sexuality studies at SFSU, either. As for her motives, your guess is as good as mine. Theories are welcome in comments!

And by the way, if anyone has a problem with my pseudonymity in this context, please drop me a comment. I’m pseudonymous so that my blogging doesn’t show up first when someone Googles me, not because I’m afraid to stand behind my writing. In this case, I realize I’ve made serious allegations and I don’t want them to be undermined by any suspicion about my own bona fides.

Added 12/29/09, 12:20 p.m.: Since this post is getting a bunch of hits from people who obviously aren’t my regular readers, here’s a short run-down on my academic credentials: I hold a Ph.D. in history from Cornell with women’s studies as a minor field, wrote a dissertation on the history of pregnancy and childbirth in early 20th-century Germany, and now teach women’s and gender studies at a public university in southeast Ohio. My graduate work, teaching, and research have all dealt with the history of sexuality.

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… wait ’til you see the new TSA regulations!

Now, I’ll admit that when I learned that the latest terrorist attempt occurred on Northwest’s Amsterdam-Detroit flight, I was a little spooked. Since that’s a flight I’ve taken several times in the past, even a highly inept terrorist seemed pretty real to me.

But, oh, these new regulations make the response to the shoe bomber look like pure genius (and mind you, even my ten-year-old already sees the stupidity of x-raying everyone’s shoes). I’m all in favor of measures that might actually save lives – like, say, stopping suspected jihadists from boarding airplanes? Or denying them a visa? Or keeping syringes out of carryon luggage (except for people with a documented medical need)?

Instead, here’s what the TSA is doing, according to the New York Times (via Jill at Feministe):

The government was vague about the steps it was taking, saying that it wanted the security experience to be “unpredictable” and that passengers would not find the same measures at every airport — a prospect that may upset airlines and travelers alike.

But several airlines released detailed information about the restrictions, saying that passengers on international flights coming to the United States will apparently have to remain in their seats for the last hour of a flight without any personal items on their laps. It was not clear how often the rule would affect domestic flights.

Overseas passengers will be restricted to only one carry-on item, and domestic passengers will probably face longer security lines.

Yipes! I fly to and from Europe just about every year, always with two kids in tow. They’re getting older and more civilized now, but the prospect of having nothing on our laps except the fucking Sky Mall catalog is still excruciating. No books? No DVD player? No handheld toys? Not even coloring materials?

I guess I will have to entertain my kids with my delightful personality! They will be thrilled!

But my sprouts are at least school-aged. I really feel for the parents of toddlers and preschoolers. Keeping a tot strapped in for takeoff and landing is enough of a struggle. There have already been a few instances of flight attendants ejecting toddlers and their parents before departure when the kids were behaving like kids instead of little Hummel figurines.

Then there’s the bathroom problem. This obviously affects kids (who will have to hope for soft-hearted flight attendants) but it’s a big problem for many adults, too. On short flights – 90 minutes or less – people likely won’t have access to the bathroom at all. Add in the time spent boarding and waiting to take off, and you can easily reach two or three hours without a chance to use the facilities.

As the daughter of a Crohn’s patient, I know there are some people who often can’t wait for more than a few minutes without risking a godawful mess. People with bladder urgency problems or stress incontinence can’t wait, either. Such problems are distressingly common among women (though men aren’t spared, either). A 2008 study by Ingrid Nygaard et al. found the 15.7% of adult, non-institutionalized women suffered from moderate-t0-severe incontinence and 9.0% from fecal incontinence. And y’know, these conditions disproportionately affect mothers: the same survey found that women with three or more deliveries were 2.5 times more likely to report such issues than women who’d never had a baby.

Maybe we’ll eventually all be expected to don adult diapers for the duration of the flight. Hey, astronauts do it! Just think of it as an adventure in low-altitude space travel!

And the gain for the new policy is … what, exactly? Potential terrorists may have to plan their explosions for shortly after takeoff, thus forgoing the no-longer-free cocktails? That’ll be a real deterrent, considering that the mini-bottles of alcohol were never a huge hit among the jihadist crowd anyway.

Then again, there are some folks who already apparently think sharing a plane with kids is nearly as bad as traveling with a terrorist. After the recent incident where Southwest ejected a mother and child before take off, the amount of vitriol vented at parents and children at Broadsheet – a feminist blog! – was just stunning:

Throw Them from the Plane (at Altitude)

Sorry, I’m childless which apparently makes me already at risk for being an asshole, but having flown recently in a plane with a six year old kid who apparently was autistic and screamed the whole way? Fuck’em. If they can’t shut up, I don’t want them on the plane. That’s what driving was invented for.

(More examples of this constituency are here. This comment was unfortunately not atypical, although it gets bonus cruelty points for its ableism.)

Maybe we don’t have to worry about such people becoming terrorists, but the new policy sounds like a great way to achieve a new spike in air rage among child-haters.

As for those situations where driving isn’t practical, such as the trans-Atlantic routes, I guess families are supposed to travel by rowboat, so as not to disturb anyone? At least the kids would be too busy paddling to be bored.

Update, 12/28/09, 5:45 p.m.: I wrote this before I read that Ivana Trump got booted from a plane for acting even worse than some rather unruly kids. According to the HuffPost:

Police say Ivana Trump has been escorted off a plane in Florida after she became belligerent when children were running and screaming in the aisles.

Authorities say the first ex-wife of billionaire Donald Trump cursed at the children Saturday, and when flight attendants on the New York-bound plane tried to calm her, she became even more aggravated.

Now, obviously the kids shouldn’t have been running and screaming, either, but the kids, at least, still have a decent chance of becoming civilized.

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If I were still in Germany, yesterday would have still be Christmas – they celebrate a second Christmas Day, without even renaming it “Boxing Day” – and so I’m going to declare Christmas still in season. Or maybe I mean, it’s still open season on Christmas? Really, I just want an excuse to write down a few thoughts about the Christmas Eve service I attended before New Year’s festivities begin.

The first Bible reading at the service was the story of the Fall of Man from Genesis. While it’s a rather gloomy place to begin, it’s also entirely logical. If Jesus had to come and redeem the world, there’s gotta be some reason why we needed redeeming in the first place.

1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ “

4 “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. …

17 To Adam he [God] said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.

18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.

19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

Genesis 3:1-8, 17-19, New International Version

Oddly, the selection read from the pulpit left out Genesis 3:16, the part where Eve and all mothers are cursed forevermore: “To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

I appreciate that this edit may have intended to play down the misogyny, but let’s face it: the story tells of Eve screwing up. She was the weak link. It’s her role that allowed church fathers such as St. Augustine to insist that original sin was sexual. Indeed, Augustine believed that it was transmitted from one generation to the next via semen! Another church father, Clement of Alexandria, advanced what we today might call a more sex-positive interpretation. Clement held that Adam and Eve’s sin was disobedience, and thus wasn’t sexual at all.

While I’m all for inclusive language in Christian churches, there’s something dishonest in trying to minimize the misogyny of Genesis 3, given the history of its interpretation. The Judeo-Christian story of the Fall of Man – why isn’t is called the Fall of Humanity, dang it?! – is remarkably harsh on women compared to the other origin stories that I’m familiar with.

Like Genesis in the Bible, the Qur’an also links humanity’s fall from grace to Adam and Eve eating from a forbidden tree. However, the Qur’an does not single Eve out for any particular blame. On the contrary, it’s Adam who’s approached by Satan (not a serpent) in the Garden and led to disobey Allah:

But Satan whispered evil to him: he said, “O Adam! shall I lead thee to the Tree of Eternity and to a kingdom that never decays?”

In the result, they both ate of the tree, and so their nakedness appeared to them: they began to sew together, for their covering, leaves from the Garden: thus did Adam disobey his Lord, and allow himself to be seduced.

Surah 20:120-121

Here, too, their nakedness becomes an issue, but it’s Adam who disobeyed. It’s Adam who was seduced by Satan. I’m not claiming that the Qur’an is perfectly enlightened on gender issues, but on the events in the Garden, it doesn’t share the misogyny of Genesis.

The Gnostics who lived in the first couple of centuries after Christ’s death took yet a different perspective. Some of them considered themselves Christians, while others rejected the label. (In the end, that distinction didn’t matter much, as they were all relentlessly persecuted as heretics.) For Gnostics, the original sin of humanity had nothing to do with either sex or disobedience. It was a willful rejection of knowledge in favor of ignorance. I really like this interpretation. Especially after Bush II, it’s easy to see how much evil can be wreaked when a leader and his people choose ignorance.

The Buddhist origin story as told in the Agganna Sutta identifies greed and craving as the source of human suffering. The story is actually not technically one of origins but of a cycle in which the world passes into formlessless, then re-evolves:

There comes a time … when, sooner or later, after the lapse of a long, long period, this world passed away. And when this happens, beings have mostly been reborn in the World of Radiance; and there they dwell, made of mind, feeding on rapture, self-luminous, traversing the air, continuing in glory; and thus they remain for a long, long period of time. There comes also a time … when sooner or later this world begins to re-evolve. When this happens, beings who had deceased from the World of Radiance, usually come to life as humans. And they become made of mind, feeding on rapture, selfluminous, traversing the air, continuing in glory, and remain thus for a long, long period of time.

Aganna-Sutta (pdf alert!)

And those humans would remain pure mind and light, were it not for their apparently inevitable fall into suffering:

[S]ome being of greedy disposition, said: Lo now! What will this be? And tasted the savoury earth with his finger. He thus, tasting, became suffused with the savour, and craving entered into him. And other beings, following his example, tasted the savoury earth with their finger. They thus, tasting became suffused with the savour, and craving entered into them. Then those beings began to feast on the savoury earth, breaking off lumps of it with their hands. And from the doing thereof the self-luminance of those beings faded away.

Note that craving ushers humans back into a state of suffering and sets them on the path to other sins that will incur further suffering. One of the later sins is, indeed, lust, but it can’t appear until quite late in the game, once humans have differentiated into male and female:

And in measure as they, thus feeding, went on existing, so did the bodies of those beings become even more solid, and the divergence in their comeliness more pronounced. In the female appeared the distinctive features of the female, in the male those of the male. Then truly did woman contemplate man too closely, and man, woman. In them contemplating over much the one the other, passion arose and burning entered their body. They in consequence thereof followed their lusts.

Make no mistake, lust is identified as a sin. But the Agganna-Sutta doesn’t blame the woman any more than the man.

Does this mean that the Christian tradition must stay forever mired in Augustinian notions of women and sex as the source of original sin? Well, no. Womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas (whose views on the Incarnation I’ve previously discussed) reconceives original sin as racism, sexism, and heterosexism. Catholic feminist theologian Christine Gudorf takes a similar tack:

Original sin, sometimes called social sin, or the sin of the world, is socialized into us as we learn our world, as we learn to speak a language, to interact with different persons and groups, to accept a specific role in society. Born into a society permeated with racism, sexism, poverty, and violence, we learn varying degrees of complacency toward, and come to accept these realities:; that acceptance, once socialized into us, forms the groundwork for our committing overt acts of sin. In sexuality, too, original sin is present in our world. Patriarchy, misogyny, the related evils of homophobia and heterosexism, and alienation from and disdain for the body and sexuality are forms which original sin takes in the sexual context.

Christine Gudorf, Body, Sex, and Pleasure: Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics, p. 17

And this is the conception of sin that I chose to keep in mind as I sat through the rest of the Christmas Eve service. Which was just heartbreakingly beautiful. I have to say, the Presbyterians know how to do it right in this town. They included all the best joyful carols: O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Joy to the World. The choir was beefed up by a few out-of-towners and even a visiting opera singer (as my friend who sings in it happily admitted), and they were so good, they managed to make even Away in the Manger touching, not cloying. We sang Silent Night by candlelight. I’m not a practicing Christian these days, but I still tear up at the music, when it’s done right; it’s some of the best evidence I know that there’s something divine at work in our lives, at least potentially.

As for redemption – our world needs more of it. I felt that the service, which ended with a prayer for peace and an end to imperialism, was on the right track regarding original sin, after all.


This post was informed by the following books (though any errors are, of course, my own):

Amina Wadud, Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective

Kelly Brown Douglas, Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective

Christine Gudorf, Body, Sex, and Pleasure: Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics

Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity

Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels

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Merry Christmas …

… from the Frog Queen and her froglets!

They should actually be tadpoles, now that I think about it.

Here’s wishing you a happy holiday, if it’s one you celebrate.

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